Tales of a wandering lesbian

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   Comments Off on Glaciers!