In August of 1997, I was done working for a morally bankrupt company (Trilogy) and planned to start Reactivity with John and Brian in January of the next year.
So I took two months off, and with my girlfriend at the time (who later graduated to ex-wife), we cycled for two months around New Zealand.
Wow, this is a really positive sounding start to a blog.
On October 28th, 2016, I returned to New Zealand for the first time – and had to relearn its magic all over again. With a great friend in tow (Nick, hereon referred to as NVB), the South Island of New Zealand once again submerged me in a dream I didn’t want to leave.
I often have major packing failures. As the plane descended, the JetStar (can’t believe I agreed to fly JetStar) pilot announced that it was 7 degrees C outside. At this point, I’m wearing a t-shirt, and realizing the one thing I did not pack was a jacket (this after reminding NVB that “it’s going to be cold, Singapore boy. Dress appropriately.”) Dropping $$$ at Kathmandu with 5 minutes left to spare before the store closed changed that (and helped me realize that Kathmandu has an h – who knew?) and I was outfitted for the trek.
I’ve packed Patrick White’s Tree of Man for this trip. It’s a beast to carry, and the first few pages are dense. This book might be more painful than the hike.
I haven’t hitchhiked since I was in my 20s, and I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in a long, LONG time (maybe also in my 20s). As Nick and I left Queenstown, we passed a hitchhiker, and I mentioned that if there’s a place to pick one up, between Q-town and Te Anau is probably the safest place on earth. Around the next corner, we picked up a 20-something French girl with a Russian name who managed to talk almost non-stop for the next 3 hours, which helped the drive go faster. I am always a bit mystified by people who just travel – she had been on the road for a couple of years, stopping, working, traveling, stopping, working, traveling. I think I need to at least pretend there’s a higher purpose in life, or be very explicit that I have no illusions and I’ve just given up.
The highlight of the conversation was NVB asking her to tell us which nationalities were the best and which were the worst. Apparently Turkish people are stellar!
Day 1 – Ascent into Luxmore!
We hit the trail after Noon, expecting it would be a late arriving into the Luxmore hut. Each day was about a 15-16k hike, with a little more than half of this day being ascending into the mountains. It has been a while since I carried a pack, but my legs felt great, and I like to move at a quick pace, the cool air helping keep the pace high. We made it into camp earlier than I expected. The huts of NZ tracks are seriously posh – mattresses! And gas stoves! And running water you can drink! While you are staying inside a bunk room with up to 20 other people, the huts make it a lot easier than tent camping.
The views from the hut are breathtaking – partially because the air was cold, but mostly because you don’t have to see another human being for ever looking 360 degrees from the hut. Just mountains, lakes, green. My mind wanders forward to a time when I can travel for months, to not see another human for days, or maybe even weeks.
Peter the Ranger gave us a safety talk with a few hijinks like pulling a dead stoat out of his pocket and pretending it bit him. Peter’s humor delivery doesn’t change tone for punch lines, and his white out-of-control beard masks any facial expressions.
NVB did incredibly well today, and he’s possibly the best travel companion I’ve ever had. Talkative, quiet at the right times, easy-going, and clear about what he wants. This trip was a good choice.
Day 2 – The best of days, the worst of days
The first half of this day was the best section of the entire trip.
The second half was the worst.
We left Luxmore hut to check out the limestone caves just a few minutes from the hut. Inside the cave, my headlamp wasn’t helping at all. Too dark, too slippery, too dangerous. Then I realized we were still wearing sunglasses. Taking those off helped.
The path climbed further, close to the peak of Mt. Luxmore, where we dropped packs and scrambled up to the summit. I decided to run to the top, which was a bad idea. I’d need that energy for later.
At our lunch stop we met a Dutch chick who was crushing a couple of Canucks – she was hardly breathing while they struggled to get up the last few feet to the “lunch table” outside an emergency shelter. The PB&honey sandwiches were golden.
We walked along ridges that dropped off sharply on either side, feeling like we were skirting the spine of the world. I couldn’t imagine a better day.
And then the trail began to descend.
Within two hours, we had run out of food and water. NVB had broken his right kneecap, and I was losing a lot of blood. I fought off the dizziness and the desire to just lie down and sleep. We could hear the stoats around us, smelling death. Our compass and the terrain contradicted the map at every step, and we knew we were lost. We had no shelter, and the rain was turning into sleet. We were frozen one moment, and burning the next. The trail was jagged, and another misstep could end us. I knew everything depended on the next 15 minutes, and I didn’t think both of us could make it. It was then that I knew, I would have to kill NVB and eat him to survive. I’d start with the shoulder.
No, no, no. It wasn’t that bad. But the trail dropped sharply, and descending has always hurt me – the impact of the pack proved I haven’t kept in the shape I need to be, and my feet and ITBs were taking a beating. It went on forever, and I could tell NVB was hurting. The next three hours seemed like six.
By the time we reached the Iris Burn hut, NVB was near delirious, and was sick with a virus.
That night the Ranger (Robbie) explained to the hut that we could either pack our trash our or he could kill us in our sleep. Or maybe not come pack to the park, I forget which. But this Ranger should be made Warden, it’s more fitting. Rose, the other ranger smiled mutely. I’m betting she’s the one that will choke us out if Robbie says the word.
That night, the kiwi birds mating calls echoed on the lake. Get a room.
Day 3 – Turning the corner
We started the day with a walk to a nearby waterfall – a spectacular waterfall in every other country in the world, but simply par for the course for the South Island. Amazing.
Most people headed all the way out on day 3 – covering over 30K. I know in my heart I could have done it, but it would have been brutal (and we would have had to start a lot earlier). So our pace was fine with me.
The train followed a beautiful forecast rolling path along river, crossing wooden and metal bridges.
A couple hundred Stoat and rat traps flourish through the entire route, though all are empty. I knocked on each one to see if anyone was home. Since the traps have not been as effective as hoped , a “1080 campaign” (dropping poison pellets from the sky) to rid the wilderness of non-native predators brought over by the POMs – species which have extinguished 50+ species of flightless birds and are threatening more.
Along the path, NVB and told stories of relationships, of hitting bottom, in redemption. NVB’s cold worsened. At this point I didn’t realize how bad it is. NVB is a tough SOB. He kept moving, step after step, without complaint.
Near the end, a derelict boat along the shore of Lake Manupouri welcomed us in advance of the hut.
I jumped in the lake for a swim to clean up, and made it five strokes before I realized the water was so cold I could barely inhale.
Day 4 – Exit
Our final day had minimal rolling and was mostly flat. My ITB was bad from the start, but it was only one day left!
As we entered a clear, a wooden platform extended to a broad, expansive field. I felt I was at the podium, addressing a vast crowd rallied in the meadow. I pictured my armies of stouts, 100s of 1000s strong, ready to dine on the fowl of the land. “Stoats! Today is our day! Today we take revenge on our oppressors! They have trapped our brothers by the hundreds! They have rained poison from the sky upon us! Join me, and today we have our revenge. Tonight, we dine in hell! Or maybe around a nice fire.”
NVB and I were wondering if the US Presidential election was today (it was a week later). Seems like we should have known that. “First Tuesday” sounds right, but we’re not sure. World Series? (Nick is a big fan of The Tribe).
The path was beautiful – and as a bonus, there were 2 rats in traps!!
Hours later, I’d had enough walking. And we were done.
Milford and beyond
On the drive up to Milford from Te Anau, I started to feel a scratch in my throat. I thought positive thoughts, hoping I wouldn’t get ill.
On the drive up to Milford, I passed the bus shelter where we had stored our bikes. It looked exactly as I remembered and pictured it. in 1998, we had to hide our bikes behind the shelter since it was snowing and our hands couldn’t hold on to the brakes anymore. Memories keep coming back.
I got rid of all the photos from my 1998 New Zealand trip long ago – in fact probably burned some at some point in a misguided attempt at catharsis. But despite two-decade-old memories that foretold betrayal and loss, New Zealand is a special place that can’t be tarnished.
New Zealand, I will be back!