Anticipation inspired me to jump out of bed at 6:00 am on a Monday morning for the first time in… forever! This was the day that the two-week ‘Rimu’ tour of New Zealand’s south island would begin. A new island, a new group of travellers, and a new set of experiences awaited me.
I wanted to give the resilient shop owners near the Christchurch CBD some business, so I popped into a local café for a very nice French toast breakfast. 3000 calories later, there were a couple of hours to spare for another walkabout near the reconstruction zone. Cathedral Square still seemed to be cordoned off, but I found some viewpoints of the Avon River that reminded me of punting in Cambridge, UK. While there was a bit of construction activity in the red zone, there were many abandoned buildings that looked frozen in time. Tellingly, the marquee on the boarded-up Isaac Theatre Royal still advertised a production of Spamalot. It was disappointing to see so few people and machinery in motion on a workday – a sobering first-hand lesson in what can happen to a city when stricken by a major disaster.
I checked out of my hotel and hiked up Papanui Road with my 70 pounds of luggage to the Rimu tour pickup point. By the time I arrived, there was a large congregation of people and suitcases. I was pleasantly surprised to find the same four travellers that I met on the Kauri tour, but there must have been fifteen or twenty new faces as well. My north island pal Betsy told me that there were two groups of people at the meeting point – Rimu Southbound and Rimu Northbound. In a stroke of good fortune, our north island guide pulled up in a big green bus and started getting us organized. Lina and her new assistant guide Natalie called for ten of us to load our gear into the Rimu Southbound bus. Having a familiar guide made the process a lot less stressful – I immediately knew we were in good hands for the next two weeks. It was like slipping on a nicely broken-in pair of hiking boots.
Our new bus, named ‘Frank’, was larger than the north island van. But by the time ten travellers and two guides got on board with all our gear, it already seemed kind of full. Soon after departure, Lina announced that we were about to pick up six more people at the airport. A quick scan of the bus and some basic mathematics informed me that all but two of the seats would be filled with people. Evidently we would either need to cram our daypacks into the trailer, or a few of the new people were going to get ultra-scenic seating on the roof of the bus!
We collected our last six flight-weary tourists at Christchurch airport, and embarked on our great adventure. Most of the first day was spent travelling west across the Canterbury plains towards the Southern Alps. It turned out that the first hour west of town would be the only halfway straight and flat highway we would see for the next fortnight. Our windows were illuminated by a verdant blur of vegetable fields, cattle and sheep ranches, and deer farms.
The long bus ride gave us ample opportunity to get to know each other. There were people from many walks of life, but the common denominator still seemed to be outdoors enthusiasts from North America. Almost everyone seemed fun and personable, but I was particularly happy to have the company of some people my own age. The first person that caught my attention was an enthusiastic west coast lady named Cathy. Bil and Cameron, a couple from the US southeast, likewise seemed up for adventure (despite being a little groggy from their red-eye flight). Colin and Sally, having travelled all the way from England, were a welcome exception to the North American brigade. I had a sense that this trip was going to be all kinds of fun if I could break out of my introverted shell for a while.
We stopped for a picnic lunch and a short walk at Peel Forest. The first things I noticed on the woodland trail were the ferns – they were different than their north island cousins. We also walked among some truly massive kahikatea and tōtara trees that reminded me (for their size, if not their foliage) of Stanley Park in Vancouver. One of the trees had a circumference of 9 metres and was likely a thousand years old. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
After lunch, we continued west through high-country plains and foothills to Lake Tekapo. On a nearly cloudless afternoon, we gratefully stepped off the bus for a one-hour walk along the lakeshore to town. The azure blue lake was magnificently framed by pink and lavender lupins in the foreground and the snow-capped Southern Alps in the distance. It was our first hint that the Rimu tour was going to take us to some truly spectacular places.
Our guides advised us that we were ‘going bush’ for the next two nights, so we should take the opportunity to stock up on supplies (aka: alcohol) while in town. Unlike the north island tour, I wasn’t the only person to walk out of the shop with an armful of libations. Milton and Shellie, a couple from Colorado, went so far as to ask Natalie about the dinner menu for the next two nights in order to buy the appropriate wines. I liked these people immediately!
The drive from Lake Tekapo to the shearer’s quarters at Braemar Station certainly felt like we were fleeing civilization. The hard-top highway gave way to gravel for the last hour of the journey. We crossed several dusty fence lines and ungulate gates, dodging the occasional logging truck or wayward cow. We finally rolled into our destination around dinnertime.
Braemar Station is a 40,000 acre sheep and cattle ranch on the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki. It is about as far out of the way as one can get in New Zealand, which suited this farm boy just fine. The sprawling ranch house, formerly the exclusive domain of traveling sheep shearers, has been modernized with a few creature comforts. The station owners now make the quarters available for hire by select groups between shearing seasons.
With the sun still blazing in the western sky, the scenery immediately stopped us in our tracks. Lake Pukaki was just as blue as Tekapo, but it felt like we had 180 degrees of snowy alpine peaks all to ourselves. It was the only place on earth that I’ve ever known to rival the majestic beauty of the Canadian Rockies. I think everyone completely forgot about our semi-private shared accommodations after seeing the breathtaking vista outside. I wouldn’t have traded my simple bunk by the window for any hotel room in the country.
Dinner was a lovely Kiwi-style steak barbeque, compete with Pavlova cake for dessert. As the sun set, with the beers and wines flowing freely, I built a campfire outside for us to enjoy. Most people were understandably worn out from all the travel and retired early, but a few eager souls put on jackets and joined me by the fire. Colin and Sally seemed particularly thrilled to get outside and socialize. I also liked these people immediately!
Before long, the fire burned down and the sky lit up with stars. With no city streetlights for hundreds of kilometres, it gets truly dark at Braemar. Colin and Danny and I had a blast watching planets and satellites and shooting stars traverse the Milky Way. I looked up the transit time for the International Space Station in my SkyView app, and we excitedly watched its bright white reflection race across the sky from west to east. It was the perfect ending to the first day of our tour.
Song of the Day: “We End Up Together” by the New Pornographers