Christchurch Revisited

Forget everything I ever said about Christchurch.

I did a bit of trash-talking about the city in the past, likening it to Auckland’s shoddy, bratty, little sister.  To be fair, my last foray with the South Island’s big city had me seeking out touristy, tacky places recommended by a pink-haired, Eminem-loving hostel worker.  This time around, I had the guidance of Andy and Holly who both had normal colored hair and liked dance music.  Andy was a friend of a friend that I ran around with at a wedding in the uber-posh Casino San Juan in Puerto Rico.  We had never met, though we went to the same university and have a sprinkling of friends in common.  He graduated a few years my prior, but a mutual Facebook message from the friend found Felipe and I at his house a few months later.  With a week in the city under his guidance I can now say I am a bon-a-fied ChCh fan.

Andy, after checking with the misses, invited us over to dinner for our first meal in town.  We chatted about our home state of Virginia, about our new Kiwi vocabularies and the art of adding “eh?” to the end of sentences.  Later, we went into more important subjects like missing Ketchup, what channel you can find South Park on, and where to find a good burrito on this side of the world.  Andy and Holly had lived in New Zealand for three years.  I had only been here five months, but it was nice to sit down and reminisce about the little things that make us quintessentially American.

Not to be left out, Andy and Holly were friends with a small Chileno community in Christchurch and promised to arrange a get together for Felipe a few nights later (making some slight adjustments to our growing the itinerary).

Andy and Holly knew all of Chrischurch’s dirty secrets.

Ten minutes into our first glass of wine together, I knew we were in for a crazy week.  The couple took it upon themselves to ensure that our time in the city was eventful and set us up with a schedule from the start.  First up, the next evening Felipe and I would meet them for Happy Hour at Dux de Lux, the multi-bar megapolis on the edge of the Art Center.

Most of our day was spent in that vicinity wondering through the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu and gawking at Kiwi artist Christine Webster’s shocking photography in the premier exhibit.  The gallery’s other showcase exhibit “Observation/ Action/ Reflection,” by Kiwi Andrew Drummond, was meticulously technical and scientific (with little action observed to reflect on) so we ditched our guided gallery tour and went across the road to the Christchurch Farmers Market.

The crowning jewel of the Kiwi culinary experience – the item you are guaranteed to find in every town at any establishment that sells food, is the pie. Naturally, we found the pie stall at the market and ordered ourselves lunch.  Personal, puffy, savory pies can be chic or cheap in New Zealand. This curried green oyster pie from the gourmet pie vendor far surpassed the gas station mince and cheese typical of my late night cravings.  Oysters in a pie… you can’t get much more Kiwi than that.

The vibrant market had not only up-market food vendors, but also arts, crafts, wine and beer, and a string of quirky musicians.   The market was on the edge of the Art Center, a collection of forty specialty shops, fine art galleries, film, dance and theater venues, bars and restaurants all housed in stone buildings of the Gothic Revival style.  On the outer edge of the Centre was Dux de Lux where we met Andy, Holly, and a slew of their friends from the local swinger’s club for Happy Hour.

I had always imagined swingers to be an attractive group of busty woman and fit men, you know, the way the appear in avant-garde movies.  Not so.  The swingers at Dux could have easily passed for a West Virginia motorcycle gang, yet looks can be deceiving.  The Christchurch swingers were a lot friendlier than they appeared, but I guess being overly friendly was in their nature.

We got to talking with Steve, a burly, longhaired, middle-aged American clad in a tight, black leather jacket that busted at the seams over his expanding belly.  His partner was at home, but she had told him he didn’t need to be back until ten the next morning.  He stuck around long after the others left and we learned of his new forays into S&M and his day job as a counselor for violent sexual criminals.  Some people have a funny way of balancing work and play.

After using the “one drink at each bar” routine to explore the city’s nightlife with Andy and Holly, we awoke later than lunchtime and rested until after-dinner when we went to see the Free Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus.  It was part of the two-week Platform Arts Festival sponsored by the University of Canterbury.  Like most theater I have seen in New Zealand, I was overly excited by the flashy marketing and completely disappointed by the production.

The following day, Felipe and I met up with some friends from Franz Josef, explored the Christchurch Cathedral, watched a Māori Haka dance in Cathedral Square, and ambled about in North Hagley Park.  On the edge of the park we entered the Canterbury Museum and went up to the third floor to check out the Antarctica exhibit.  Kiwi’s are really into Antarctica.  They are the smallest country to have a base there (Scott Base, near the American’s McMurdo) and have historically served as a point of departure for this last Earthly frontier.  The exhibit at the Canterbury Museum plainly displayed their enthusiasm and Kiwi pride.

After a failed trip to the only Borders Bookstore in the South Island (whose books and CDs cost twice that of their American counterparts), we met up with Andy and Holly back in the city at their Chilena friend Connie’s for a game of Cacho.  The rules for Cacho rest somewhere in the happy junction of Yaghtzee and Poker.  There are dice, a cup, and betting.  Beyond that, the goal of this popular South American dice game was a bit murky.  My team’s strategy was to stay unnoticed and it seemed to work.

Christchurch is the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island.  It is the second largest in the country, but perhaps I should clarify what is meant by a large city in New Zealand.  At 372,600 people, Christchurch is roughly the size of Omaha Nebraska.  Situated along the eastern coast about halfway down the South Island, Christchurch is at the edge of the Pac Man-shaped Banks Peninsula.

After almost a week in Christchurch, Felipe and I could not stop gushing about how much we loved the place.  I seriously contemplated ditching my job in Queenstown to move to the big city.  Playing devils advocate, I argued that Christchurch lacked the natural beauty found elsewhere on the South Island but, taking offense to my comment, Andy butted in and demanded we go to the Banks Peninsula.  Thus, we added the last item to our itinerary, modified the rest of our trip, and drove off from Christchurch the following morning into the center of Pacman’s mouth.

The Banks Peninsula was formed by violent eruptions of three volcanoes and their craters nurse the harbors of the peninsula’s major towns Lyttleton and Akaroa.  The Banks Peninsula is historically the sight of an old Māori settlement of the Ngai-Tahu tribe although it’s main town, Akaroa clings strongly to its French-colonial identity.  Akaroa, with its Rues, French Flags, and themed shops glared of a fabricated authenticity and reappropriated quaintness.

The head-spinning roads leading to Akaroa must have had superb views – the outstanding nature Andy had spoke of – but, all we saw was the same gray cloud we had seen for weeks.  Closer to the water, the limited view offered a murky brown mud that melted into blue/green pastels on the horizon.

Christchurch was a ray of sunshine.  The clouds parted for us just when we were ready to venture inside to the museums and shows.  As we drove back to the country, Mother Nature regained her fervor and the floodgates reopened.  The following day, with all roads to the south flooded and closed, we drove the only direction possible – west.

Everyone told us it wasn’t worth it – that the rain was so bad we would see nothing but the ten meters in front of our car.  As the Otago Daily Times splashed pictures of desperate, drowning sheep on its front page, we headed west through the clouds into the mountains.  My months in New Zealand were becoming a never-ending battle with nature.  I, the underdog, was losing sorely.  In twenty-four hours, I would be snowed in at an unheated hut below New Zealand’s highest mountain.  My sunny days in the city of Christchurch became a distant memory as the world around me turned a blinding white….

Abel Tasman

Planning for a multi-day hike was a bit like planning a week on Weight-Watchers.  Food was carefully portioned for each day allotting for carbohydrates and protein intake as well as expiration dates and number of days an item could be safely eaten without refrigeration.  Bread and cheese would be eaten the first days, and the lighter instant meals would be saved for days four and five.  We would have one bag of dry cereal for breakfasts and two bags of nuts for snacks.  A 70% dark chocolate candy bar and bag of yellow M&Ms would be portioned over 4 nights for dessert.  Tea, coffee and water would be our only beverage.  All of this would be prepared with two forks, two spoons, one knife, one pot, one pan, two cans of gas, one portable stovetop, cleaning supplies, and a single cup French-press (for people like me who find coffee necessary in order to move in the morning).  For five days, I would carry my food and my kitchen on my back – Weight Watchers with a touch of good old fashioned Anorexia.

Felipe and I planed for a five-day trek through Abel Tasman National Park on the northwest tip of the South Island.  Able Tasman, New Zealand’s smallest National Park, is the textbook vision of summer.  The rocky coast gnarls its way between endless secluded arcs of golden sand gently tapped by the turquoise water of Tasman Bay.  The weather forecast for this sun-soaked coast was for rain five out of the five days.  Although it was ominously familiar (see The Flood), we hoped against hope that Mother Nature would show us some mercy and she did… for a time.  With all of our food and clothes crammed tight into overflowing backpacks, we set out from the Marahau car park onto the Able Tasman Coast Track clean, dry and optimistic… all things we would lack four days later.

We followed a boardwalk through the estuary to Tinline Bay, entering the park in an excited frenzy.  Rounding the corner to Coquille Bay, we got our first glimpse at Abel Tasman’s famed beaches that draw over two hundred and fifty trampers each day in the dead of summer.  In the middle of May (late Autumn), the number drops below fifty and most are on day trips, ferried to Anchorage Bay by water taxi to wind there way back to Marahau.

All creeks and rivers were bridged and the path remained quite level, so I assumed this trek would be a breeze.  Yet, after just two hours, my bag dug a notch into my protruding collarbone and lay heavy on my sweaty back.  Ski poll clad grandmas, and rugby moms in track suites, freed of the ball-and-chain of a backpack, began shuffling past.

Night one was spent in Anchorage Hut playing cards in Spanish by candlelight with Alberto and Maria of Spain.  The hard rain of the night, followed by surprising early-morning rays, had my face in a permanent cockeyed squint when I woke the following morning.  With some time to spare before our low-tide crossing of Torrent Bay, we scrounged for sunglasses and meandered around the Anchorage area, taking various sidetracks to pinpoint the peculiarities of each beach.  Our walk under the glare of the morning sun left us hot and sweaty, and the cold, late-autumn ocean was luring us in.  Intending to answer its call on an impulse, we thoughtlessly ran into the shocking, milky green water.  Instantly, my skin went into distress mode, and a group of tourists cruised by, pointing at the bodies in the water.  It was certainly freezing, but it felt good to be in the water and not just it’s passive observer.

At about two hours before low tide, or around one o’clock in the afternoon, we crossed the lazy water of the estuary through Torrent Bay.  Barefoot, we sunk our toes in the squishy pluff while all around us curious birds tiptoed after their prey like detectives on a hunch.  On the far side of the bay, lay a small hamlet of modest summer homes accessible by boat and connected in part by a sandy “road.”  At the far end of the road we found a park and a picnic table with the perfect amount of precariousness to rest the weight of our packs.

The ways that forests can change in New Zealand from prickle to palm to pine in a matter of minutes will continue to confound me.  Heading up the steep hill from Torrent Bay, we climbed from fern-filled coastal shrub into a thick forest of Christmas trees.  Soon, two gaping valleys curved our path, with the larger linked by a forty-seven meter suspension bridge that swayed like a swing over Falls River.

We reentered the coast through the sprawling Bark’s Bay and stopped for potable water and a quick rest at its massive, empty campsite.  Continuing onward, we waded through the bay on the low tide route, which, in hindsight, was a poor choice at high tide.  The final pass through the salty-brown water left us with wet undies and chafed legs.

Heading inland from Bark’s Bay up into the stands of Manuka, we felt far away from any body of water.  An hour later, we wound or way into Tonga Quarry, the site of an old quarrying operation responsible the limestone of the looming staircase at Christ Church Cathedral in Nelson.  This peaceful, private beach facing Tonga Island was meant to be our stop for the night.  Unfortunately, an early morning tidal crossing forced us thirty minutes further to the large, swampy Onetakutu Bay Campsite.

The aging, weathered Doite tent was set just before an early sunset and we scrambled around with our headlamp and flashlight to prepare dinner.  As we munched on our skimpy sandwiches, a squad of vigilant sand flies feasted on us.  For sure, they had the better meal.  After dinner, we lay out looking at the starry dome of the southern hemisphere. I was lost in the sky until brought back down to earth with the realization that a possum was sniffing my face.  The night before we had contended with small rats at Anchorage Hut.  They were cute. I was okay with them. This evenings possums, with their greedy eyes and daredevil tactics, were a different story.  Later on, the possums staged a battle royal and between the cold heavy rain that came at two and the all-night possum wars, I did not sleep well.

When it’s raining and you’re in a damp tent, waking up is never the preferred option.  However, neither is waiting for a clearing and waking up six hours after low tide (aka high tide).  We started the day late with a touch of sunshine… but yet another dose of wet undies.

We stopped at Awaroa Hut to prepare a lunch of instant mashed potatoes, which wouldn’t have been so disappointing had we not spent the previous two hours in search of a signposted café at a boutique lodge that had long ago closed.  We ate the mushy white mess (no butter or milk), and peered through the window as a couple sloshed along the low tide path through Awaroa Inlet.  This was to be our afternoon activity, but the clouds soon turned ash grey.  A hard rain rattled the wooden roof as we sat in Awaroa Hut contemplating the largest tidal crossing of the trip.  We could cross the inlet and be stuck on the other side all night in a tent in the storm, but that seemed unnecessarily cruel.  We agreed to stay in the hut and make up the 5.5 km to Totaranui Campground the following morning.

An old fire heater warmed up the dark hut as we sat under the candlelight savoring our third night’s portion of M&Ms one by one.  Our food supply had dwindled, and we were struggling to put together items for the following days lunch (“do you think a can of tuna would go good with couscous?”).  We read through the Hut’s guestbook, and below the guestbook, a collection of materials, “rescued from old Hatfield House” had been put in a binder and left for perusal.  Skimming through the rescued pages, we spent a good hour laughing about ladies toiletries in the 1950’s.

By morning, the sleepy inlet on the other side of the window had transformed into an impassable lake.  Three nights of hard rain and continued storms had flooded our path.  We knew by staying on the far side of the pass that this week’s screwy low tide would have us either waiting until afternoon or crossing by boat.  A middle-aged British couple had arranged for a water taxi to come at 11:00 to ferry them across.  It became clear that the water taxi we would all need to catch would not be taking us across the park but away from it.

We waddled away from the Hut to catch the boat at 10:30 down the previous day’s path, which was now a variable river.   Felipe, with the damp tent in one hand and his soaked shoes in the other, was repeating a word in Spanish to describe our tempestuous relationship with the weather Gods.  Later, I looked up the word and translated it to English: capricious.  Yet again, we had been trumped by nature’s sudden unpredictability.

The water taxi would stop operating after our trip due to high seas.  In fact, a prim Frenchman spent the whole trip vomiting off the side of the boat.  The journey back was rough, but the high seas and the excitement of our “rescue” made it hard to be upset by yet another defeat. We were able to skirt past the seal colony on Tonga Island and scoop into bays only accessible by water as we jerked our way through the surf towards the park entrance at Marahau.  At each passing bay, we recounted our trek from a new vantage point and at one hour by boat, felt we had accomplished a respectable journey.

$2.00 bought us showers on shore where my toes and fingers went numb to the touch of hot water after a morning barefoot in the late-autumn storm. We washed off four days of mud, grit, and sweat and stepped back out into the pouring rain, clean but damp.


It’s been two weeks since we left Abel Tasman, and unseasonably stormy skies have circled us around the country.  All the while, the rain-drenched West Coast we called home has experienced unimaginable swaths of sunshine.  I can’t explain it.  I don’t want to try.  My south island adventure has turned into pictures borrowed from pamphlets and experiences recounted from a guidebook… I am a second-hand tourist.  With the clouds fencing in the sun, I drive on through the fog as the traveler gives way to the dreamer.

The Flood

Somehow I never saw it coming.  The next morning when the headline in the Southland Times read, “Southland on the Verge of Havoc, Rivers Overflowing, Rain Falling, and THERE’S MORE COMING!” I could not help but laugh at my blindsided excitement.  Naively, I thought I would be hiking the, “finest walk in the world” in two short hours as I slid my car within 10 km of Te Anau, the starting point for the Milford Track.  A young, pimply road-worker in a bright yellow poncho had the awkward job of ruining my day.  My questions found their way into his radio to some unknown other whose translated response came with a nervous grin.  All roads to Te Anau were closed, and the power lines were down.  Felipe and I did not know it at the time, but as we turned the car around in disbelief, 120 trampers were cuing for an airlift off the impassable Milford Track.

We searched for a signal as we stalled the stuffy Nissan in the cracker-barrel town of Mossburn.  I stared through a handprint clearing in the fogged-up window at amused townsfolk in rocking chairs at the town’s only café as I rang the Department of Conservation.  After the fourth try, the hasty woman who answered informed us that the track was not only closed, but also greatly damaged.  It would not reopen until next season.  If we wanted to hike the Milford Track, it wasn’t happening for the next 5 months.

The subheadings of the Southland Times on May 26th read, “200 mm of rain in 48 hours!  At least 15 roads closed!  Civil defenses on standby to evacuate!”  TVNZ aired footage of rescued hikers jumping out of helicopters on the evening news.

I suppose part of me knew that this was no ordinary shower.  Sure, It was raining hard, but it always rained on the West Coast as the Southern Alps trapped moisture off the Tasman Sea.  I must have known that the scene around me was not normal.  Mud-brown rivers rose to meet the countryside’s one-lane bridges.  Groups of sheep stood stranded on tiny islands, befuddled by their sudden predicament while fields turned to rivers around them.

Meanwhile, I drove my low riding Nissan Sunny onward, following the splotchy blur of a larger car, perfecting the art of the hydroplane.  My car was acting as both motor vehicle and hovercraft, displaying bolder moves than I thought possible.  If only I had one of those tacky duck-boats that usher tourists from land to sea in Seattle and Boston.

In the end, it would not have mattered.  Getting to Te Anau would not get me on a destroyed track.

We had spent the previous night in Queenstown after a scary drive down the winding West Coast corridor of Highway 6.  Crossing the Haast Pass, the deep green hills were blanketed in cellophane falls cascading onto the narrow road from unforeseen heights.  Everywhere we looked another waterfall, bigger, stronger, and taller than the last.  The storm eased as we drove past the Southern Lakes but resurged as we approached Queenstown (days later Queenstown was on flood alert as Lake Wakatipu poured out into the city’s streets).

The next morning we took our final showers, waterproofed our belongings, and prepared for an adventure of a lifetime in the Fiordlands.

It was not to be.

Hearing that the rain was easing in the south and with little other option, we headed down to the southern tip of New Zealand.  The rain continued it’s spectacular showcase as we drove through sheep country on a washed-out country road from Mossburn to Tautapere, the “Sausage Capital of NZ.”  I was hungry for some sausage and the cartoon sausage signs got me excited for a quick-lunch, but keeping in the spirit of the day, the sausage shops were closed.  We drove on towards the end of the road in the southwestern corner of the South Island.  In a rugged and forgotten countryside, we stopped at a remote beach in Te Waewae Bay, whose dilapidated swing set stood a testament to happier times.  Damp and dazed, wondering down the abandoned beach, the disappointment dug deep.  Weeks of planning and preparation for the longest hike of my life had all been in vain.  Felipe and I wandered down the sad beach in silence.  We barely spoke the whole day.  Our words would hardly have been heard through the sporadic, violent rain as we drove along the southern coast past endless fields of green grass patterned with puffs of white on the way to Invercargill.

The sardonic writer of Lonely Planet NZ had some choice words for Invercargill and the surrounding region.  “Flat and suburban with endlessly treeless streets, Invercargill certainly isn’t going to blow your senses.”  About the museum he wrote that it, “might be having a slight identity crisis,” and the shopping scene he remarked, “certainly won’t give shoppers a buzz.”  In regards to neighboring Gore he started with, “Poor old Gore…” and the section on Bluff to the south began, “Unimpressive little Bluff…”  The area’s own marketing spoke to the same end.  As if to justify its triviality, flyers for the region read, “Welcome to the real New Zealand,” in hopes that by commodifying the region as such, tourists may feel they have been offered a glimpse of New Zealand “off the beaten path,” without the glossy finish.  If you want to see larger-than-average Kiwis shopping at the nation’s Walmart equivalents than this inside glimpse at real Kiwi life is for you.  Otherwise, Invercargill is a cold, tired, southern outpost best used as a means for refueling, grabbing groceries, and leaving before the early winter sunset casts it’s eerie spell.

We wanted badly to leave the second we got to Invercargill, cursing the sweet lady in Mossburn who had raved about the place.  The name itself was so unappealing that I couldn’t figure out why we had thought it a good idea to come in the first place.  All the same, we needed to regroup and plan our next move, so we spent the night at the Kackling Kea, a lackluster hostel on a generic, treeless street.  That night, we saw the #1 movie in the nation, Boy by Taika Waititi, about a young Maori growing up in the sunny town of Waihau Bay on the eastern coast of the North Island as we dreamed about being anywhere but Inver(fucken’)cargill.

The initial plan for the following day was to get the hell out of Invercargill, but the town confounded us with its curiosities and we would not leave until after three o’clock.  Invercargill’s Southland Museum and Art Gallery is housed in, “the Largest Pyramid in the Southern Hemisphere,” an appropriately tacky and audacious site sitting behind a bronze Greek goddess on the edge of Queen’s Park.  The exhibitions by Judi Jenkins and David Shennan were impressive, but the extensive display of lace artwork and the local sports hall-of-fame left me happy for the free entry.

Deeper into Queen’s Park, we stumbled across a llama and behind a crisscross of fences a menagerie of odd mammals emerged, pleading to be taken out of Invercargill.  A nearby aviary housed exotic birds from New Zealand and Australia and after chatting with a nervous Australian Parrot, we headed to a Japanese Garden to eat our sandwiches.  The odd park also contained an 18-hole golf course and a large plastic castle, notorious for trapping local kids in its tight corners.

As we pulled out of Invercargill, this substitute vacation through, “the real New Zealand” had me laughing in a sinister, head-shaking depression.  Whitewashed suburbia and caged animals paled in comparison with the wonders that awaited us in the mystical Fiordlands.  Yet, things were bound to look up as we left Invercargill heading east to the Catlins, the true gem of the Scenic Southern Route…

… To Be Continued

But, for now, a happy preview for what came next in the Catlins: