Paragliding Peacocks and One Spring Chicken

“A few weeks ago I opened up an envelope that I’ve had for years.  It was from my father and inside I found a collection of coins from all over the world.  Now, he’s been dead for a long time, but anyways, I came across a krugerrand from South Africa.  As it turns out, that coin was worth a lot of money.  So what did I do with it?  I sold it… to pay for all the fun!”

As if to prove her durability, Liz pressed her shaking finger against the window of the bus and proclaimed, “last week I hiked to the top of that mountain.”  She had a bit of a stutter; her active mind wasn’t quite keeping up with her mouth these days.  Liz finally obtained her overdue retirement and decided to celebrate (the way most elderly folks do) by climbing up hills and jumping off of them.

“I’ve lived in Queenstown all my life and I’ve never done a bunjy.  So, last week, I jumped off a bridge.  Then I did one of those… oh what are they called again?  Oh yes, paragliding.  I went paragliding.”

“You did all of this in one week?” I asked, amazed.

“Oh yes, I did it all real fast before I could think about it too much… and before the money ran out!”

In her retirement, Liz had embraced the changed face of her hometown.  As a kid, Queenstown was a peaceful village on the side of a lake with a small community of summer homes.  There was no major highway around the Crown Range and certainly no airport.  Three major booms later, the city has grown in size and height and with the development of major ski fields, is a year-round four-seasons resort.  In fact, Queenstown has blossomed into New Zealand’s # 1 tourist destination.

This is no surprise.  Queenstown is gobsmackingly beautiful.  Set on the shores of the S shaped Lake Wakatipu in the heart of the Southern Alps, the compact city is a slice of urbanity etched into a rugged landscape.

The small city is bordered by the world’s southernmost wine region, which specializes in high-end (and overpriced) Pinot Noirs.  Back in town, Queenstown’s cobblestone malls have all the shops and fine dining to make any highbrow fashionista happy.  You can grab ice cream on the lake, dinner on a boat, and a nightcap out a rocks glass made of ice.

If it all sounds a bit serene and fanciful, I should add that Queenstown is the birthplace of commercial bunjy jumping.  It is the “adventure tourism capital of the world,” with all machismo to rev up your inner adrenaline junky.  In Queenstown you can throw yourself off a bridge and then whip yourself around on a turbo-powered jet boat underneath it.  You can go for a day of skiing and paraglide down the mountain back home.  In Queenstown you can jump, run, sweat, swim, ski and bleed more than you ever thought possible.  And when you’re done with it all, there are over 300 bars to ease your palpitating heart and reminisce about your daredevil of a day.

Imagine gawking at the wonders of Mother Nature while someone screams for mercy in your ear… this is Queenstown.

Much of the town’s tourism is derived from Australian’s who catch direct flights into the small airport from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.  They flock to the city on school holidays to take the family up the mountains for their first look at snow and come back in the summer for trekking and boating.  Groups of college boys come to see who can jump out of more planes, shag the most girls in the hostel, do the sickest trick on their snowboard, and live to tell about it.  Many of these guys will end up in the Lakes District Hospital, but this is a small price to pay for their newly awarded status.

I have lived and worked in Queenstown for the past two and a half months looking down the valley at the city lights from the ski fields above town.  In the application process for my job, I was asked to fill out a personality test where, in the end, you were ranked either an owl, dove, eagle, or peacock.  As it turns out, everyone who got the job was a peacock.

Queenstown is full of peacocks clad in neon ski suites radiating around every alleyway competing for attention. There is no shortage of festivity in Queenstown and there are always willing revelers.  Every week there is a festival, competition, race, or reason for the peacocks to celebrate and display their loud feathers for all to see.

I can’t help but wish that I lived in Queenstown with Liz back when she was a kid – back before all of the peacocks arrived and the noisy Australians had a seamless journey into the country – back before every corner had a five-story hotel and every bridge had a bungy chord.  I wonder what it must have been like to enjoy this peaceful corner of the earth before we turned it into a playground – before we traded in the serene for the extreme.

I asked Liz what she thought about the way Queenstown has changed over the years – if she minded what it has become today.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said and paused for a bit.  “You think of it as a bad thing, but a lot of us made good money off of this town’s success.  That’s just the way it goes.  Things change and you can’t stop it.”

The bus pulled over at the edge of town and as Liz got up to leave she looked back and said, “You know, I ride this bus every week and there’s always some young energetic boy sitting next to me.  I always talk his ear off and he always smiles back at me.  At my age, that’s all that matters.”

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: