Tales of a wandering lesbian

Category — New Zealand

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

Arrested development

We arrived at the campervan sometime around 9PM, disheveled, and happy.  Our bus from the Milford Sound had stopped for fish and chips (or in my case, chips and chips) on the way back to Queenstown, leaving our stomachs full, if complaining about the grease.  We climbed off the bus a few blocks from our parking spot, and shouldered our packs instead of asking for a ride.  At this point, a few blocks was nothing, and our bodies functioned more normally with heavy packs than without.

The little van was there, its fancy paint job clear, even in the fading light.  As we approached it I began to smile.  We unlocked the doors and slid them open.  The funky smell, part motor oil, part fabric softener, met our nostrils.  What had been strange a week before now was beginning to smell like home.

Bags heaved on top of the bed, we climbed in the cab and headed to our old Moke Lake camping spot.  Even with the weekend crowd at the lake, we found a quietish spot and nestled in, both of us feeling secure in our little van.  Even when the midnight fireworks started again…

When we awoke the next day, the van smelled less homey, and more like our dirty bodies, dirty laundry, and fried food.  We drove into town, in search of three things:  food, laundry, and a shower.

The icy river-baths had been nice, but they didn’t provide the kind of scrubbing opportunity that a shower does.  We were sure that Queenstown, being a tourist town, would have showers that we could purchase.  We were wrong.  The girl at the tour office looked at us strangely when we asked.

“Hmm.  I’m sure there must be somewhere you could get a shower.  You know, you could go to the youth hostel at the end of the block.  There’s a separate entrance to the dorms, and nobody at the front desk would see you.”

Steal a shower?  Great.  I’m not a big fan of stealing anything.  The idea of sneaking into a hostel and stealing a shower made me nervous.  If we got caught, we’d be naked and in trouble.  It wasn’t the relaxing image I had in mind.

After asking around, it seemed this was our only real option if we didn’t want to pay for a hotel room.  So we packed up our day packs and headed to the hostel, trying our best to look like we belonged there.  The girl was right.  There was a separate entrance.  Nobody even saw us head up the stairs to the dorms.

The facility was more like a hotel than a hostel.  Each room had its own bathroom, accessible from the hallway, so we were able to walk directly into a bathroom.  The first one looked unoccupied.  I headed across the hallway to see if I could find another.  The door was open, so I stepped inside and waved to Krista before closing the door.

I stripped down as quickly as I could, and pulled out my soap and razor.  It had been far too long since I’d used either.  Then I stepped into the shower.  “Shit!”  I’d chosen a bathroom that clearly had an occupant.  I looked around:  shampoo – soap – conditioner.  Damn!

There was nothing for it.  I wasn’t going to try to find another bathroom at this point.  I turned on the shower and got to work.  It was probably 5 minutes before I emerged from the bathroom fully dressed and mostly clean.  My legs were still prickly, but sunburned chest was clean, and my hair was out of a hat for the first time in a week.  I placed a few coins on the sink and leapt into the hallway.

There was no sign of Krista.  The door where I’d left her was open, so I made my way back downstairs and outside, trying to remain as calm as possible, mentally locating my passport in case I was arrested for trespassing.

Krista wasn’t outside.  The van was parked a couple of blocks away, so I headed that way, sure that she had hurried out to wait for me there.  Only she hadn’t.

I opened up the van, toweled my sopping hair, and reached for my hair gel.  Looking up the sidewalk, I saw a familiar sweatshirt.  Paula, one of our new friends from the Routeburn Track, was walking toward the van.  We chatted, and I did my hair, all the while looking back down the street toward the hostel.  Could it be that Krista had been discovered in somebody else’s shower?  What if she’d been thrown out or arrested?

I’m not a worst case scenario person, but this was starting to worry me.  Paula and I talked for about ten minutes before I excused myself to go find Krista, promising that we could connect later.  Back in front of the hostel entrance, I tried to look up the stairs.  There was still no sign of Krista, but I wasn’t about to head back in.  So I took up a post half a block away to wait.  The next five minutes seemed like an eternity.  I studied an interesting, artsy man in a shawl and beret until Krista came bouncing out of the doorway.

“How was your shower?” she smiled.

“It was about 3 minutes long.  I totally thought you were arrested.”

“No, I was shaving and enjoying my shower.”

Apparently, I’m a little paranoid.  After I had closed my door, she’d jumped into the bathroom next to mine, not the one across the hall we’d looked into.  Like mine, it had shampoo and soap on the shower floor, but unlike me she hadn’t worried about it.  She’d calmly scoured her skin and relaxed while I was frantically throwing my clothes back on.  Clearly, I had no future in shower-stealing.

Queenstown had a couple of things left to offer us.  We still had a pile of dirty clothes and a couple of empty bellies.  Fortunately, the town had a Laundromat and several restaurants, so we were able to pay for what we needed.  And I didn’t have to wonder if we’d get arrested.  It was a win-win, really.

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January 13, 2011   No Comments

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