Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — January 2011

The Sound of Milford

The Divide, as it’s known, is the point where three major tracks come together.  Travelers who have been walking for days are dumped out at this shelter, a rest stop halfway between Queenstown and the Milford Sound to wait for their rides.  We had scheduled a bus pick-up to take us to the Sound and then back to our van in Queenstown, so that we wouldn’t have to doubleback in order to see one of New Zealand’s great natural attractions, Milford Sound.

The Milford Sound is on the Tasman Sea, and, as we learned on the bus ride, is misnamed.  It’s not a sound at all.  Sounds are v-shaped, underwater valleys created by flowing water.  Fiords, which the Milford is, are u-shaped and created by the movement of glaciers.  Whatever it was, it was a body of water surrounded by mountains rising directly out of the seabed, and we were excited to see it.

The bus that picked us up was full of clean, nice-smelling people who hadn’t been hiking in the same pants for three days.  We stowed our packs under the bus and climbed aboard, smiling at the honeymooning couples and families that were catching glimpses of us as we passed.

Like the trains in Peru, the bus had skylights running the length of the coach, allowing us views of the towering mountains and sheer cliffs around us.

Our driver rambled on about the history and geology, and we moved deeper into wild country.  The winding road we traveled was surrounded by steepness.  We learned that it is known as one of the most dangerous roads in New Zealand prone to long and unexpected closures due to landslides that happen throughout the wet season.

Every so often, the bus would stop, and we would hop out to look at the lilies, or to drink from a famous, clear stream, and eventually to wait for the traffic flowing out of an impossibly long one-way tunnel.

(Our driver informed us that there is an annual naked tunnel run.)

At the end of the road was the Sound itself.  Which was amazing.  Our boat tour took us out into the water to see the u-shaped glacial valleys and magnificent waterfalls falling from them.

The mountains really did come out of the sea, pushing up on either side of us.

We ate our picnic lunch inside the large cabin and dashed out to catch quick shots of seals basking in the sun.

And to feel the spray of Stirling Falls as the captain dipped the bow under its pounding curtains.

It was a beautiful clear day for us again.  After the incredible beauty of the Routeburn Tack, and the vast New Zealand wilderness, we were in overload.  The Sound was inconceivable – unlike anything we’d ever seen.  We knew that we would be unable to explain all that we’d seen and felt, and that even the memories wouldn’t do justice to it all.

We stepped back on the bus, headed for out little van, images flashing in our minds, and the Sound of Milford ringing in our ears.

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January 12, 2011   No Comments

En Route

Out night at Moke Lake was mostly peaceful.  We both woke and looked out at the middle of the night fireworks and then hunkered back down and went to sleep.  When morning came, we moved ourselves from the back of the van to the cab, and drove through the mist back into town.

We parked the van, found the public bathroom pods and located a Starbucks, as we hadn’t had time to make morning tea. The two hour bus ride to the trailhead took us from downtown Queenstown to the trailhead, with a stopover in a small village at the end of the lake, Glenorchy.

GY, as it’s know is teeny, and darling.  We had 30 minutes to walk around, snap pictures and grab any last minute items for the trip, including sunscreen, which our bus driver implored us to wear.  “It might feel good on your skin, but our sun will cause damage.  We’ve got a hole in the ozone down here.”  That explained the red, blotchy skin we’d noticed on some locals.

We took him seriously.  At least as long as we kept our clothes on.

The first day of the hike took us through beautiful forests and up into the mountains of the Mt. Aspiring National Forrest.  We hiked and chatted, wondering what our Department of Conservation “huts” would be like.

The trail offered birds’ eye views of the soft grasses of Routeburn Flats, as it wound toward our first night’s goal:  Routeburn Falls.

We could hear the falls from our lunch stop at the flats, an hour and a half hike away.  It took some determination to reach the bottom of the falls from the hut.

Determination, however, was something we had plenty of, after a long, hot day of hiking.

We monkeyed our way down to the waterfall’s pool, stripped down and clambered out into the frigid water.  The sun was perfect, shining down into the slot where we were and warming the rocks.  We cleaned, took ridiculous pictures under the spray (no, you cannot see) and stretched out on the rocks for another dose of warmth.  Then we fell asleep.

In the New Zealand sun.  I don’t spend a lot of time naked in the sun.  It was the next day when I realized that my entire chest was peeling.  All of it.

By then, we were on to our second hut, though “hut” is a bit misleading.  Lodge and bunkhouse is more apt.  We slept on mattresses in heated bunkrooms with flush toilets and indoor cooking stoves.  The private tour groups had more plus accommodations next door, but we felt like our quarters were pretty deluxe for a backpacking trip.

Each night at 7:30 we met in the common area to hand our tickets over to the resident ranger, and hear a bit about the area.  As the Routeburn Track covers two major national forests, we were treated to history and wildlife of both Mt. Aspiring wilderness, and Fiordland.

Day two was spent hiking along the border of these two amazing areas, through a part of New Zealand that was used in the Lord of the Rings movies.  At any moment, I half-expected to see the Rohirrim ride over the horizon.

We hiked up to the top of a pass, looked back at the beautiful falls and lakes behind us, and popped suddenly on to a ridge opposite a gorgeous mountain chain.

We walked for what seemed like the entire length of the chain, constantly looking over at the gorgeous mountains.  Then the trail turned a corner, taking us back up into another valley where, looking down we saw Lake MacKenzie, our goal for the night.

While descending from the open ridge into the forest, we scoped out a secluded spot for another bathing opportunity, and hoped that the returning sand flies wouldn’t cause us trouble.   The beautiful lake afforded many protected coves, and we were soon huffing and puffing in the icy waters.

We spent the evening playing cribbage with our newest friends, college students who were capping off a semester in Australia with a trip to New Zealand.  We played cards, talked about our travels, and ate Cadbury chocolate until yawns were all around the table, running a relay from one to the other.

Steam was rising from the lake when we left the hut the next morning.

We were below the tree line now, catching glimpses of the towering mountains through gaps in the trees.

We had a four and a half hour hike out to catch our bus to the Milford Sound at noon, so we’d hit the trail early.  The hills and valleys were still waking up as we made our way through the thick foliage.  Even the clouds seemed reluctant to climb up from their slumber.

We’d seen a lot in our three-days on the trail.  The weather had been perfect and New Zealand continued to show us its treasures.  We had one last parting gift as we neared the end of the trail.

Earland falls, at 174 m was an unexpected treat.  We walked past the base of it, the mist floating down on top of us.

When we reached the end of the trail, our friends were there, waiting for their bus to the Sound.

We all settled in with patted backs and congratulatory smiles for one last game of crib before we went our separate ways, tired, but ready for the next adventure.

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January 10, 2011   No Comments

Change in plans

The first time we entered the uber-cute town of Wanaka, it was like we were a victory party, returning from the sand fly wars.  Wanaka rests on the banks of one of New Zealand’s beautiful, slender lakes.  It has lovely, gluten-free cafes, the ranger station for the Mt. Aspiring National Forest, and a strange attraction called Puzzling World.

Our first goal was breakfast.  Preferring to minimize our welts, we eschewed the usual van-side breakfast to take our chances in Wanaka.  Recently gluten-free, I was exuberant to find myself standing in the Cheeky Monkey café in front of a gluten-free pastry section.

We both ordered pancakes, mine of the non-gluten variety, and plopped ourselves down on a picnic table outside.  The weather on the south island was unseasonably warm and lovely.  We decided to change into shorts and spend the day near the lake, soaking up the clear skies and recovering from the past whirlwind days of driving.

We had nothing scheduled for the next couple of days, until we needed to be in Queenstown to catch a shuttle to the trailhead for our three-day trek.  Wanaka was cute, delicious and mercifully fly-free.

With our pancakes comfortably in our stomachs, and sun on our cheeks, we decided to swing by the ranger station.  New Zealand weather is less predictable than a mid-term election, and we needed suggestions for bike riding and lake swimming.

The station was great.  We took a moment to check out the stuffed birds, and I covertly plugged in all of my electronics for charging (the van didn’t have its own power source).  Krista, who has a small obsession with weather, went to check the board and chat with the rangers.  Sometimes obsessions come in handy.

The warm spell was hanging on, but estimated to disappear in a couple of days – right about the time we’d be hitting the trail.  That meant wet, muddy hiking.  It also meant sand flies.  It didn’t take us much time to make the decision.  With the help of our new ranger friends, we had rearranged the reservations for our overnight stays in the Routeburn huts, and even booked a boat trip on the Milford Sound, with bus transportation both ways, and a picnic lunch to boot!  The rangers were a little jealous – at least that’s what they told us.

Our new confirmation numbers in hand, we took a couple of deep breaths, agreed to return to Wanaka for some R & R after the trek, and walked back to the car.  Our driving wasn’t over.  In order to hit the trail the next day, we’d have to check in at the Queenstown tour office tonight, go shopping, pack, and find a place to sleep.

Fortunately, the drive to Queenstown was a scenic one, past more of the strange glacial water,

rolling vineyards,

and into the lakeside town itself.

Queenstown is a tourist town.  It’s clean, and well appointed, and expensive.  After checking in at the tour office and the ranger station, we took some time strolling through the high-end outfitters.  Everywhere we looked there was Icebreaker wool.  I smirked, knowing I’d be at the US sample sale in a week.

Then we headed to the grocery store to stock up on the food we’d be packing in with us.  The Routeburn is a backpacking trail.  We would be packing in food, pots, clothing, and sleeping bags.  Our hut reservations granted us a place to sleep and stoves to use.  The rest we had to bring.

When I head to a new country, I wonder a bit about the food.  I like food.  A lot.  But I seem to keep eliminating things from my diet.  I don’t drink.  I don’t eat meat.  I try not to eat much sugar, and now I wasn’t eating gluten.  I really wondered what a country like New Zealand, known for its meat, would have to offer me.

It turns out, quite a lot.

The Queenstown grocery had an enormous gluten-free section.  Along with the usual pasta and rice options, there were tons of pastries, bars, and other delicious snacks.  I filled my basket, and a cheerful employee pointed out the more exciting things they had.  We left with great meals for each night, fixin’s for sandwiches, and snacks for along the trail.  Along with a couple of huge Cadbury chocolate bars.  (There’s no gluten in most Cadbury bars, it turns out.  Though there is rather a lot of sugar.  Sacrifices were made.)

Our food in tow, it was finally time to head to our campsite.  The only Conservation site was about 20 minutes away, on a lake, at the end of a farm road, through flocks of roaming sheep.

When we reached the end, we were surprised to find a number of vans and groups of tents.  This was clearly a popular site.  It was easy to see why.  It was beautiful and peaceful (except for the midnight fireworks), a lovely place to prepare for our next three days on the trail.

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January 9, 2011   No Comments

Don’t freak out

Sand flies.  Lots of them.  That’s what we found waiting for us on the south island’s West Coast.  We’d been excited to finally see the ocean for a bit, so we pulled over and hopped out at Bruce Bay, the first place the highway runs near the ocean.

It was beautiful.  I trotted toward the restroom (New Zealand is amazing about public restrooms), while Krista snapped a couple of pictures.

Honestly, I don’t remember if I made it.  The bugs were so thick and aggressive that, even with long pants and sleeves, I was being bit.  The both of us bolted for the van, and climbed inside, dusting the buzzing things off of our heads.

I felt Krista stop and I looked up.  She was staring at me.  “Try not to freak out.”

Here’s a free piece of advice:  if you are hoping that someone who is not currently freaking out won’t suddenly begin freaking out, alerting them that there is, in fact, a reason to freak out, will not help your cause.

I looked down toward our laps, and saw probably a hundred sand flies floating, flying and crawling around.

“How am I supposed to not freak out?!  How?!”  I was beginning to unravel.  I am one of those super-fortunate people that attracts biting insects to my lovely sweet blood.  I already had half a dozen welts beginning to form, and now I found myself sitting in a nest of nasties.

Krista began swatting.  Neither of us wanted to open the windows.  They were coated with the flies, too, inside and out.  So we drove.  She swatted and we cracked the windows to try to flush them away from us even inside the van.

“I don’t think we’ll be spending a lot of time on the West Coast,” came Krista’s flat voice.

Eager to reach a stopping point, we headed to the first camp site we had our eye on, Lake Paringa.  It was off the ocean, and up a bit, giving us hope that the fly situation might be a bit more manageable.  When we stepped out of the van, however, it was clear this wouldn’t be our refuge.  At least this time we were a little more prepared.  I managed to take a couple of pictures while running to the back of the van.

I threw up the back hatch and grabbed the hand-broom.  Then I brushed and scraped as many of the flies as possible off of the rear window, trying not to let them fall on me.

With Lake Paringa in our rear view mirrors, we cracked the windows again and pulled the map out of the glove box.  Haast Pass.  That was what was in front of us.  We were tired, but we were not interested in the flies.  Their bites were tiny, but turned quickly into itchy, puffy, red welts.  Not fun.

“Maybe if we get up higher, we won’t have as many.”  Krista was trying to find us a bit of comfort.  “We didn’t see any in Arthur’s Pass.  You up for a drive?”

We wanted to be in Wanaka the next day anyway, which meant driving the pass tonight or tomorrow.  The sooner we were through the bugs, the better, in my mind, so we set off for the pass.  There were several camp sites there.  We’d pick the one away from water and see what happened.

What happened is that we jumped out to make dinner just before sunset.  The flies were few and far between, except for those Krista knocked off the back window from our last stop.

Lulled into a false sense of security, we started cooking, and even pulled out some camp chairs to sit in.  Mistake.  Almost the second we sat down, the flies were on us.  Less interested in our food, than our skin, they tried to find chinks in our armor.

Dinner became a walking affair.  We paced and ate and quickly realized that this was not our refuge, either.  The tourists around us smiled curiously as we threw the stove in the back of the van and headed out again, still tired, and wondering how the others were managing to sit outside.

The drive into the pass was beautiful, marked by towering mountains, shining rivers, and rock-laden waterfalls.

When we reached the next campsite, dusk was falling.  We talked for maybe a minute about driving through to Wanaka, another hour and a half up the road.  But we were done for the day.  Glaciers and sand flies had worn us out.

This site was on a hill, above a river.

The views were spectacular and quiet, but the river meant flies.  We weren’t over the pass quite yet.  It was, however, time for evening tea and games.  I braved the flies to make our tea, pacing quickly, while Krista commandeered a dirty sock to rid the van of our guests.

When I climbed back in with our hot water, I was a little afraid.  “This is the killing sock,” she stated flatly.

“Okay.  Thanks for doing that.  I don’t really like killing things.”  One fly buzzed past my face.  “Ahhhhh! “  She reached over and squished it with her fingers.

“Thanks,” I said again.  These bastards were seriously challenging my feelings about killing living things.

We played a game or two of cribbage and drank our tea.  Then we prepared for bed, climbing under and over the bars that separated the cab from the sleeping area.  We discovered that we could do almost everything we needed in the van, without having to open the door – everything except for peeing, unless we wanted to use the sink.  Finally, we climbed under the covers, shaking the dead carcasses to the edges of the comforter, and turned off our headlamps, which had attracted swarms to the van windows.

“We’ll have breakfast in Wanaka tomorrow?” Krista asked, more confirming than questioning.

“Sounds good.  Be careful if you get up in the night to pee.  Nobody wants those bites.”

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January 8, 2011   1 Comment


When I decided to go to New Zealand, it was on short notice, with very little research.   I was filling in, so I hadn’t studied maps or routes.  I had, however, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, and seen all of the Lord of the Rings movies several times.  This gave me the impression that I would find amazing, tattooed warriors playing rugby with elves.  This wasn’t entirely true.

One thing I didn’t realize is how close the South Island of New Zealand is to Antarctica.  This geo-position became more and more clear as we drove further south.  Lush forests and tropical-looking plants remained, but now they gave way not only to mountains, but to glaciers.  Glaciers!

Yes, I’ve been to Glacier National Park.  I’ve walked out onto the snow and ice, next to lounging mountain goats.  But something about New Zealand is more.  Not the way Rome is more with its lights and bustle.  Not the way Texas is more with its big.  New Zealand is more in its ruggedness.  It feels like the wild west.  Like driving our little campervan around the country was an expedition.  As though we could, at any moment, discover a velociraptor in the undergrowth.

Our first stop for glacial admiration was the Franz Josef glacier.   We drove into the park, past signs that told us where the glacier was 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 25 years ago, and into a lot full of vans.  As usual, ours was the most interesting – save the ICEBREAKER van parked down the way!

I flashed a smug smile, counting how many layers of the merino sweaters I was wearing as we passed, entering a thick canopy of dense trees.

The alder enveloped us, tall, thin trunks reaching up, covered in the white lichen that indicates extremely pure air.  Stepping out a short while later, we found ourselves faced with a naked, scouring wind rushing across the glacier and down the valley.  And opposite us, the glacier.

The trail took us out across the glacial valley, over the rocks ground down and deposited by the retreating ice.  Waterfalls surrounded us, falling gracefully and freely from the steep valley walls, creating micro vistas of startling beauty.

As we approached the glacier took shape and color, transforming from black and white to shades of blue.

A rushing sound intensified, now less the sharp lines of the wind, and more the rock-shaped sounds of water moving hard, pushing up from the bottom of the glacial face.

The water was nearly unnoticeable until we got close.  It was the color of the rocks, its shape masked as it ran through the rubble, following a course that appeared haphazard, ready to change at a moment’s notice.  Posted signs gave testament that the glacier could, in fact, change itself and the river in a metamorphosis of rock and ice gushing forth into the valley.

Sufficiently awed, we turned back to the trail.

Though our next destination was the Fox glacier, we took a recommended detour to a nearby lake known for its amazing reflected views of the surrounding mountains.  Though the trail was littered with interesting flora, the lake itself was unyielding.  The clouds had come in, leaving no mountain views, and perhaps the only less-than-perfect weather day of the entire trip.

We acknowledged the excellent fern trees and made a run for the car as drops began to fall from the sky.

By the time we reached Fox Glacier, the rain had cleared, leaving a foggy residue clinging to the edges of the valley.

While our last lake experience had been a bit of a disappointment, Fox brought us a watery surprise.

Lakes, eerily blue, greeted us at the trailhead, our first experience of the glacial blue waters of New Zealand.

This glacier allowed us closer, more textured views.

The experience was cold and stark and strangely peaceful.  Which was good, because 20 minutes later we found ourselves running from swarms of sand flies on the West Coast.  Literally running.

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January 6, 2011   No Comments