Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — MidLeap

The eldest brother

One of New Zealand’s great natural sites is Aoraki:  Mt. Cook.  Seen by the Maori as the eldest brother in the capsized canoe that came from the mythical homeland, Hawaiki, the mountain is sacred, the tallest in New Zealand.

Mt. Cook was high on our list of things to see/places to sleep.  But only if the weather cooperated.  The Mt. Cook region gets 60 days of sun each year.  That’s 60 days where you can even see the sun at all.  And, because of the South Island’s crazy insane weather systems, it can be nearly impossible to predict what the weather will be doing on any one part of the island at any given time.

When we headed toward the mountain form Dunedin and the south, the weather was beautiful.  If the weather held, we would spend at least one night in a Department of Conservation campsite at the base of the mountain, one of the most popular camp sites in the country.

I drove and Krista scanned the guidebooks, deciding where we would stop to take pictures and evaluate the weather.  There was a viewpoint that would allow us a peek up at the mountain from the southern tip of Lake Pukaki.  If we could see the mountain, it was game on.

Pulling into the visitor center parking lot, we had our answer.

We’d seen the lake before the mountain.  It was eerie blue, the kind of blue that comes only from the super-fine silt of glaciers.  It looked like some kind of strange energy drink, electric and milky.  I kept looking at it in disbelief, marveling at the trick of the light that made the water look so dense.

We were on our way to the mountain.  If it looked great from a distance, we were going to see it up close, too.  Back in the van, we scooted along the road to its terminus.  New Zealand is an interesting place for a lot of reasons.  It’s beautifully set up for travelers.  The roads are good, but they take you to immensely remote and rugged places.  It’s kind of like a huge theme park for would-be explorers.

Mt. Cook, while a major destination, has a large and well-outfitted campground, an enormous Conservation information center dedicated to the history of Sir Edmond Hillary (the first guy to summit Everest was a kiwi) a big-sized hotel/lodge, a couple of hostels, and a few restaurants.  A handful of homes complete the village, presumably housing those who staff the hotel.

From the village we were treated to some excellent views of Mt. Cook and the surrounding mountains, complete with their spectacular hanging glaciers.

Per our usual routine, we checked in at the Department of Conservation info center to get a weather update and a suggested hike for the evening.  The weather report was good.  At least one day more of sun was expected, and we’d be able to get a great sunset view of Aoraki from Kea Point, a 30 minute hike from the campground.

So that’s where we headed.  The sand flies, which had been gloriously absent for the past week, were still granting us a reprieve at the campsite as we cooked dinner and set up for the evening.  The campsite even had fantastic flush-toilets and potable water.  Our bellies and canteens full, we checked our watches, did some calculations and headed toward Kea Point, hoping for a bit of time to sit and take in the mountain as the sun climbed its slopes.

Kea Point was perfectly situated to watch the sunset.  It sat just above a glacial lake, to the side of the mountain that blocked Aoraki from view at the campground.  From the viewing platform, we looked out across the lake at Mueller Glacier and up at Mt. Cook.

We looked at the hills and mountains all around us.  And then we realized that we were standing too still, for too long.  Sunset is precisely the time that the sand flies are the worst.

We tried to tough it out.  We could tell by the light on the mountain that we had maybe 20 minutes before the sun would set completely and we might see some color on the beautiful glaciers.

Twenty minutes was too long to wait.  We smacked each other and ran in circles trying to get the flies to dissipate, but it was no use.  We breathed in the mountains and the delicate light on the glaciers, and then we made a break for it.

We’d see more of the mountain tomorrow.

***

The plan for the day was two-fold.  First, head to the Tasman Glacier (New Zealand’s largest) for a view of Mt. Chudleigh and a gander at the icebergs.  Yes, the icebergs.

After a bit of a drive, it was a quick walk out to the glacier.  Though it was the largest, it was covered in shale and other rock, disguising the vast amount of ice beneath.  Only the floating chunks of ice, and glacial lake gave it away.

But the best view, in my mind, was the look back at the glacial valley.  The flat-bottomed expanse left behind by the retreating glacier, and kept alive by the constant melt.

We took some time to sit and soak in the mountains and the sky.  New Zealand is good for that.  When the sky is clear, it’s the color blue that I’ve seen very few places.  The sky, with white stretches that look like the spraycan function in Microsoft Paint, give name to the islands –  Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud.

The second part of our plan for the day was to find excellent views of the mountain.  This required a long hike out to the Hooker Glacier, on the other side of Mt. Cook.

The space around the village and glaciers already felt remote, but the hike on this afternoon felt removed.  It was almost as if we were arriving directly after the trail had been cut.  Directly after the area had first been seen by people.  It felt raw.

Immediately, scenes presented themselves to us and our cameras.  The kind of scenes that could be – that probably are – postcards.

We crossed swing bridges spanning milky rivers and climbed through the spear ferns waiting for the mountain to come into view.

The wind that was keeping the skies so clear whipped around us, funneled across the ice and down the valley.  The sun, working equally hard, beat down, warming us and giving the scene a vibrant, sometimes neon glow.

When the trail moved out from the hillside where it had been clinging, we saw what we were looking for.  And, with every step, Aoraki presented itself more and more fully.

Right up until we reached the huge lake at the head of the glacier.  I have no doubt we could have cut our hike in half, if we had been able to refrain from photographing the mountain every 3 seconds as the view changed.  As it was, we kept snapping shots and gaping at each other.

Our timing, this day like most others on our trip, was ideal.  We arrived at the base of the mountain as the few other people on the trail in front of us were leaving.  It was quiet, but for the nagging of the wind, stretching the last, stubborn clouds across the sky.

We picked a spot between two streams fed by waterfalls and sat to view the eldest brother.

Filled up by the ancient mountains, we noticed the shift in the wind’s tone.  Now more fierce than complaining, it told us it was time to leave.  And, as we did, we watched the clouds that had threatened for hours to obscure the mountain slide closer.  The mountain had been good to us.

Of the 60 days of sun the mountain would see that year, we had three of them. W e were grateful for our continuing good fortune.

Walking back to the campground, we were treated to more beautiful views, including the distant, fluorescent blue of Lake Pukaki.

And, though we felt like explorers moving through New Zealand’s wilderness, we found ourselves at the base of the Mt. Cook alpine memorial, reminded of those who truly delved into the unknown in order to find the mountain.

Grateful, we moved on, leaving the mountain to the clouds.

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February 1, 2011   1 Comment

Stony-faced beauty

One major reason for our detour to the Dunedin area was the boulders at Moeraki.  From the first time a tour guide mentioned them, my imagination was captured.  Some distant memory from a travel show played visions of amazingly spherical boulders 4 and 5 feet in diameter.

The boulders, which sit on a stretch of beach on New Zealand’s South Island, are made of mud and calcite, washed out of the shoreline where they’ve lain for millennia.

They’re the kind of thing that sounds cool in the abstract, but in person elicits a response along the lines of, “Woah!”

The boulders have a presence.  They’ve been on that beach for a long time.  In fact, they formed in the seabed when that part of New Zealand was underwater.  They’re old, and they give off a feeling of pure determination.  As the tides erode the shoreline, freeing them from the earth, the move, slowly, out to sea.

Each boulder takes its own course.  Some remain buried, their tops barely visible.

Others crumble on the edge of the water, turning slowly into sand.

And some complete the journey, visible only when the tide retreats, like great whales catching breath before a deep plunge.  Or Navy Seals on the verge of an incursion.

But the majority of the boulders lie in the middle of the beach, in groups, forming interesting shapes, waiting to be pulled forward by the ceaseless water.

The two of us wandered along the sand, touching the stones, climbing among them, marveling at their round skins and beautiful positions.

On this lonely stretch of beach they play out their existence.  And if you look closely, you can see that even these boulders in their stony determination, seem to take comfort from the closeness of each other.

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January 30, 2011   1 Comment

Golden tickets

We really did see a lot in New Zealand.  We saw mountains and waterfalls.  We saw goldtowns and giant rocks.  But one of the most memorable parts of our trip, honestly, was Cadbury World.  That’s right.  The people that make the cream eggs have a world in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Even though the sign outside told us we needed to call ahead for reservations, we walked in and gave it a go.  As luck would have it, there were two spots left on the tour leaving 5 minutes later.  Awesomeness!  We paid our $20, unsure if we’d really get that much out of the tour, but slightly giddy from all of the sparkliness and chocolate around us.

The first thing we did was walk through a series of displays – vignettes showing the history of chocolate.  When we entered, we took a couple of cacao beans from a basket and began nibbling.  Krista made a face and handed me hers.  I happily chomped away at the bitter beans, imagining them combined with cream and sugar and spices.

Before we’d seen much of the display we heard an announcement for the tour to gather.  The tour kicked off with a mandatory screening of a safety video/history lesson.  In addition to the video, we all received hairnets – super hot – and plastic bags containing one chocolate bar:  a “Chocolate Fish.”

Once we had our hairnets in place,

our tour guide, dressed in purple overalls, took our cameras, phones, hats and everything else that wasn’t attached to our bodies – except for the baggies.

“You will need these bags once we’re inside,” she told us.  This is a competition.  “Let’s see who can collect the most chocolate by the end of the tour.”

Excuse me, what?  Krista and I looked at each other with our mouths hanging open.  A competition?  For chocolate?

(For those of you who may not know, there are a few things held sacrosanct in the lesbian world.  Softball is up there.  Our pets, which we treat as children, rank as well.  But at the top are two things above all else.  Competition.  And chocolate.)

I honestly didn’t notice that the entire rest of the tour, probably 20 other people, was made up of families and children, until somewhere near the end of the tour.  Krista and I were the only interlopers in this family-friendly scenario.  And we had just been baited beyond belief by our tour guide.

She led us through the actual, working factory, stopping every so often to show us another video and tell us about what we were seeing.  “That palate there is one ton of chocolate heading to commercial customers.”  “Those pipes overhead are carrying chocolate.  Red is dark, blue is white, yellow is milk.”  “We keep our chocolate in liquid form in the factory.”  “You should never refrigerate chocolate.”

Then she would put her hands in her pockets full of little chocolate bars, and start quizzing us.  “What color pipe carries the dark chocolate?”  “What other industries use cocoa butter?” “Where does our sugar come from?”

I’m unsure if I physically blocked any children from receiving chocolate, but I do know that parents began participating in the little trivia sessions.  Parents, who will usually prod their children forward, whispering answers in their ears, began yelling out answers trying to beat Krista and me to the chocolate.  And I had planned to hold back.  I really had.  But the words of our tour guide rang in my ears, “it’s a competition…it’s a competition…it’s a competition…for chocolate.”

“Red! Cosmetics! Queensland!”

Some of the rooms had displays of different products.  Cadbury sells all over the world, and most of the products in New Zealand and Australia are things I’d never seen in America.  So I’d rush over to the products, studying the packaging, the flavors, and the colors.  Soon, I was beating the native kiwis to the answers before the questions were finished.

At a certain point, the tour guide clearly had enough of me.  Pretending that she couldn’t hear my voice, she’d ignore my answers, which were obviously first, favoring anybody else.  So, I had to resort to trickery.  Sometimes, I’d stand to her side, just out of her vision, so that she’d hand over the little bars of approval before she saw it was me.  Other times, Krista would tag-team, hearing my answer and bouncing it forward to collect the chocolate.

Eventually our guide resorted to “kids only” questions.  Which worked for Krista and me, but not so well for the dads, who were now totally worked up and in full competition mode.

Here’s another thing about lesbians:  we’re usually pretty good about rules.  We want to know them so we can decide what to do with them.  And I generally obey rules.  So I backed off.  But I knew all the answers.  Sometimes I’d whisper them to the kids so they could beat their parents, who were unable to control themselves now that they were competing, too.

And, as if the chocolate and trivia weren’t enough, the tour itself was really great.  We saw a lot of the process.  We saw white chocolate being squirted out into chips, and huge milk chocolate ingots being removed from molds.   We climbed into a pitch-black silo, and watched as a floodlight illuminated a 1-ton milk chocolate “waterfall” spilling out before us.  And, at the end of it all, we piled into a little, warm room to receive shot glasses of molten chocolate fresh out of the pipes.

And then, we counted.  “Who has the most?” our tour guide asked, scanning all of our bags.  “Oh, well, you.  You have a lot.” She said, pointing at my bag.  “And you,” she said pointing at Krista.  We grinned and clutched our prizes.  When she reached the kids, she dug her hands into the depths of her overalls and emerged with handfuls of shiny treats for all of them.  Like a grandmother making sure everyone had the same number of m&ms, she evened out the bags of chocolate and sent us on our way to take pictures in the old-fashioned Cadbury milk truck.

Back in our van, Krista and I dumped our bags onto the dash to evaluate our haul.  It was kind of like Halloween for adults.

We ended up with a lot of chocolate.  Which we immediately began bartering.  It was a beautiful thing.  She didn’t want the marshmallow, I didn’t want the gluten.  In the two-hour tour, we had collected enough chocolate to take us through the last week of our trip.  And we won.  It was hard to say which was better.

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January 28, 2011   2 Comments

B-list bliss

Aside from gorgeous mountains and amazing lakes, New Zealand has a number of other interesting attractions, lesser sites, and tourist traps that don’t bring most people to the country, but are not to be missed, in my estimation.

Arrowtown, for example, is one of the historic gold towns of the South Island’s goldfields.  Along with its cute, wooden, wild-west main street

the town has an area of preserved and reconstructed homes of Chinese workers.

The gold town history is still alive, so much so that you can buy or rent a pan from the Department of Conservation information center in town, and head to the river to try your luck.  I grew up in Idaho, in an old gold town, so I was excited to crouch down and start swirling the muck around the bottom of my little, plastic pan.  Until the sand flies found me.

Then we headed to the Cardrona Hotel, which we heard was a great place to grab a bite and enjoy the scene.

Sadly, it was closed when we got there, so we enjoyed the garden and made friends with some of the locals.

From there, it was back to Wanaka to reclaim our day of relaxation.

The first thing waiting for us in Wanaka, was pastry at the amazing Cheeky Monkey Café.  And pies.  New Zealand, being a former British colony, has adopted some of the great parts of British food culture (yes, there are some).  We ate fantastic “chips,” drank wonderful tea in the afternoon, and had pies – savory-filled pastry.  At least, Krista did.  Even though veggie options were often available, the pastry portion was nearly always glutenous.

But not at the Cheeky Monkey.

I ended up with some kind of fabulous vegetable pie on my plate, and finished up the meal with a “slice.”  We ran into slices all over.  Triangles of sweet yumminess.

Krista packed up some of her caramel version to take with her, but I threw back the whole lot of mine, chocolate and coconut and apricot and almond.  It was pretty much heaven.

As we stood to leave, I remembered the fleece.  Krista’s fleece sweatshirt.  Packing for the Routeburn Track in Queenstown, she realized that she’d left her favorite fleece in Wanaka, likely at the Cheeky Monkey.  I was quite sure it was still there.

Krista had asked at the hotel next door, where we’d used the internet, but had no luck.  Now she turned to our server, a tone of resignation in her voice.  “I’m sure it’s not back there, but would you look and see if anyone turned in a sweatshirt?  I think I left one here.  Thanks,” or something equally doleful.

“Oh, it’s grey, right?”  The waitress was walking into the back room.

We looked at each other and I started laughing.  She emerged a moment later with the prodigal fleece.

Krista pressed it to her face like a child greeting a favorite blanket.

“Thanks!”  We were all smiling now and Krista was pulling the fleece over her head.

The fleece reclaimed, we were off to Puzzling World, some kind of puzzle Mecca that included an immense, outdoor maze.

Both a little reluctant to admit we were interested, we floated the idea back and forth.

“I’d be up for it if you’re interested.”

“It looks kind of hokey, but I’m game.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Do you?”

Finally we admitted our interest and headed up the street to the strange building that housed New Zealand’s puzzling center.

It certainly was unique.  And fun.  When we entered the huge maze, we were told the average time spent inside was 45 minutes.  That’s a long time in a maze.

We raced around, taking time to survey the quadrants from the elevated bridges, and trying to make sense of blind corners and hidden turns.

We made it through in about 30 minutes, and felt like we’d conquered the final immunity challenge in SURVIVOR.

But the maze wasn’t the only thing Puzzling World had to offer.  Inside were rooms and rooms of illusions.

We played around in each of them, stared at statues, moved our heads a certain way, and sat down to play with all of the puzzles you could purchase in the gift-shop.  Puzzling World offered literally hours of entertainment.  We were happy.

Our next off-the-tour stop was the ghost town of St. Bathans.  We spent the night just outside of town, but before we settled in, we cruised up to the town itself, and the haunted Vulcan Hotel.

The hotel and the rest of the ghost town were interesting for sure.  We visited each of the little buildings, all managed by the family that runs the hotel.  Knickknacks and honesty jars lined the walls of some buildings.  Old bottles and cobwebs lined the windows of others.

But all of this came at the end of our visit .  When we pulled up into the little gravel lot across from the hotel, we were greeted by the town guide.

“Buddy,” as we called him, guided us into the lot from the street, and waited for us to get out of the van.  He led us over to a little info display and then, hearing that we were interested in a short hike, took us out to the trailhead.

We chuckled hard as Buddy led us the entire way.  He jogged ahead of us, running off the trail every so often to sniff a favorite rock or greet a bird.

The trail ran through the remains of a sluicing operation – a great lake made by the use of pressurized water to wash away gravel and mud, revealing gold.  Supposedly, when the light hits the water, the lake turns an unearthly blue.  It was an overcast day, so we didn’t see it, but the carved walls surrounding the lake, and the old pipes still sticking out of them were unearthly enough for us.

The next morning, we headed to our next destination, Dunedin, for a smattering of interesting activities.  We photographed the second most photographed building in the Southern hemisphere: the Dunedin train station.

We filled our cistern with water from the local brewery.

And visited the world’s steepest street.

The mountains and waterfalls of New Zealand are remarkable, truly.  But the unexpected, unplanned parts of any trip are usually my favorite, and New Zealand didn’t disappoint.

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January 26, 2011   1 Comment

Solace

One thing about New Zealand is that there aren’t a lot of people there.  During the day, we would see a handful of other campervans driving from one city to the next.  And there were even a couple of nights that we spent alone.  I mean, really alone.  The first was outside the city of Cardrona.

Unable to locate a suitable Conservation campsite, we searched the map for an alternative.  As we made our way along, we happened along the parking lot for the ski resort at Cardrona.  The gravel lot was the entrance to the closed-for-the-season alpine area.

We pulled the van off the road and found a quiet spot away from a couple of disturbingly flattened rabbit carcasses.

Krista went to explore the little gatehouse, while I stepped into the old cemetery adjoining the parking lot.

A handful of old headstones and obelisks stood in the gently tended graveyard.  I wandered among them watching the darkening sky.

Krista, on the other hand, made an exciting discovery:  power.  The little gatehouse had an outlet where we could charge our electronics.  And, inside a flap on the outer wall, was a key.  Apparently, our “success” with the stolen showers made us rather brazen.  We took the key, opened the little door and walked inside with an armful of electronics.

We left the cameras, ipods and computer plugged in while we made dinner, cleaned up and began our nightly cribbage tournament.  The wind kicked up a bit and the sky continued to put on a glorious show of light-on-cloud.  When the light began to fade, making the stark white gravestones shine in the dim, I climbed out of the van to retrieve our belongings from the gatehouse.  I had no intention of being out after dark.

Halfway to the house, my headlamp caught the head of one of the flattened rabbits.  Long dead, the opened mouth and white teeth took me off guard, and the fur was loosely held together, blowing in the breeze.  Startled, I jumped back as though I’d just run into a glass wall.

When my heart climbed back down from my throat, and I forced myself to chuckle, I continued on, sure to pass far enough away from the second rabbit so as not to repeat the ridiculous jumping scene that Krista was surely watching.  I climbed the fence and reclaimed the wires and machines that would help us document our trip.  Holding the keys tight, I stuck my hand inside the flap and found the hook where the keys belonged.  I heard a guilty jingling clunk, stood still while the sound registered, and then hoped that whoever returned in the fall to open the gatehouse, would return with their own set of keys.

***

Although we saw only a handful of cars that night, the next campsite was by far the most remote.  The Department of Conservation pamphlet had little descriptions next to a picture of each campsite.  St. Baathans caught my eye.  The picture itself was only of a gate and a sign.  This was the kind of site where we would close the gate behind us so the livestock didn’t get out.  Cool.  According to the description, it was in an old goldfields area, just up the road from the ghost town of St. Baathans.  The pamphlet also indicated that it was a popular picnic spot with locals.  Usually that would eliminate the site from our list, but we were so excited about the goldfields that we decided to give it a go.

The spur road that led to the town and campsite was empty.  We didn’t see another car the entire 10K.  We saw sheep, we saw horses, we saw cows, but we didn’t see people.  None.  The further we drove, the more alone we felt.  We cross-referenced the site in our guidebook and found that the St. Baathans area was known to be haunted.  Great.  Maybe we’d be excited to see picnicking families, after all.

Our road dead-ended at a sheep fence.  I hopped out to swing it wide, and Krista drove through so that I could close it.  We found ourselves in a field, a few acres in size.

It was empty.  There were no families, no campers.  We were, again, alone.  And this time we were in a place known to be haunted.

No matter.  We had our choice of camping spots.  We settled in under a tree, a short way from the bathroom and water faucet.  Still tired from our three-day trek, we took some time to relax.  our recent camp spots had been without river or lake, so we were in need of a washing-up.  And even the shower we’d appropriated had left me no time to shave my now prickly legs.

I filled a plastic tub up with cold water from the tap and set to shaving my legs, sitting in the door well of the van.  It was a beautiful view.  What looked like an old ramp for loading and unloading sheep was the only other thing in the field.  Rough and weathered, I fell immediately in love with it.

As I finished up my legs, I realized how warm it felt out.  It was probably due to having poured the frigid water over half of my body, but I was suddenly struck by the fact that we were alone in the middle of New Zealand.

“I’m going for a run!” I yelled at Krista who was lying in the van and giving me a bit of privacy.

“What?”

“Just around the field.  I’m going to be naked, so be warned.”  I was stripping off my remaining clothes.  (I swear this isn’t a normal thing for me.)

I did a lap around the field, the foot-high weeds smacking the tops of my feet as I ran.  Then I headed to the ramp.  Up, over and off the end of it I flew, laughing all the while.  There wasn’t even a sheep to see me as I jogged back to the van.

There was, however, a friend with a camera.  I wrestled the camera out of her hands, approved of a couple and deleted the rest.  (Bodies look funny when you’re running, just by the way.)

We spent the rest of the evening resting, cooking, eating, and, of course, playing games.  When we went to sleep, it was dark.  Really dark.  We slept hard.  And uneasily.  The place was beautiful, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to experience during the night.  The idea of slipping out to pee in that darkness was uninteresting.

When we woke, it was also uneasily.  We both had stories to share.  Krista had a series of disturbing, grisly dreams.  I, unable to wake from the dream I was having, called out to Krista in the dream, and she rolled over in the van, waking me up.  In our morning haze, we cuddled up next to each other, offering the kind of comfort that can only really come from the closeness of another person.

We didn’t linger.  Neither of us was eager to spend another night in St. Baathans.  The place was beautiful, but it was quiet, and lonely, and a little too dark.  On our way out of the gate, we poked a $20 bill into the donation box, settling up for the nights we’d forgotten to pay.  This was a free site, but maybe we’d delayed payment a bit too long.

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January 20, 2011   2 Comments