Day 22 – The Toro and the Toreador

My animus was lost, I found, when I looked back in time
I can see the ‘where’ and ‘how’, but I don’t know the ‘why’
Or if it’s right to try

The best advice I ever had was leave what was behind
But did I see some value there, or am I going blind?
Is it all in my mind?

You’ve got a choice – it’s the toro or the toreador
Your brides are not all as weak as what you take them for
This mean arena is all the things it seems, and more
Well that final day will come – it comes to everyone

The last full day of the Rimu tour began with some seriously stiff legs, which were partially offset by a lingering hangover of accomplishment. Around 7 am I pretty much willed myself out of bed while every major muscle group south of the equator winced in protest. A nice warm shower and another delicious breakfast from Linda (augmented by four or five cups of strong tea) helped to right the ship. Our guide Glen arrived with a transport van at 9 am and loaded our gear as we checked out of the B&B.

The morning’s activity sounded relatively simple – at least on paper. We were scheduled to cycle from The Grove to the town of Picton, about a 20 km trip on paved roadways. Back home, I often go for 35 km to 50 km rides around town on my hybrid bike. 20 km would be a leisurely little cruise! Except – there is no such thing as a straight (or flat) road in New Zealand. I locked out the rear suspension on my trusty Cannondale and set off to the east on Queen Charlotte Drive. Before long, I found myself missing the comfortable riding position and the 60 psi tires of my Norco ZFR-1. This would be a decent challenge after all.

The road hugged the south side of the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. The first 10 to 15 km of our ride was mostly an uphill climb, with a few short downhill chutes thrown in for good measure. I periodically pulled over to take some photos and strip off another layer of soggy clothing. Milton and Shellie forged ahead, their Coloradan lungs a little better prepared for a cardiovascular workout than mine.

Cycling on Queen Charlotte Drive

Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday morning so there were only a few witnesses to my red-faced 2nd and 3rd gear grind. Any passers-by would have been disgusted by the torrents of sweat pouring off of me. Pools were even collecting in the air vents of my helmet. In my defense, pounding away uphill for 90 minutes on a mountain bike while locked inside a sunny humidor is not normally my idea of a good time! At least the scenery in places like Ngakuta Bay was worth the effort.

Ngakuta Bay, Marlborough Sound

The pay-off for our long climb to the apex was a glorious downhill spin into Picton. Glen met us with the van at the top of the hill, dutifully checking to ensure that we were on-time and problem-free. For the next few kilometres, I finally got to use 25th, 26th, and 27th gear. I managed to stay visible in Glen’s rear-view mirrors despite the road being a 50 km/h zone. Did I mention that I really love cycling downhill?

On the way into Picton, we pulled off the road to check out the lumber processing plant at Shakespeare Bay and watched the passing of a massive Interislander ferry. Activity picked up as we rolled into town, and I once again had to concentrate on staying to the left in city traffic. We three North Americans mercifully managed to navigate a couple of roundabouts and made it down to the waterfront without piling headlong into any vehicles.

We turned in our bikes at the tour company’s office then went for a walk around Picton. Glen treated us to lunch at a little café whose reputation rode on their many delicious varieties of home-made meat pies. Even though they didn’t have tourtière on the menu, my steak and mushroom pie hit the spot.

After some high-street window shopping, we piled into the van for a transfer to Blenheim. We had a couple of hours before our rendezvous with the hikers and kayakers, which gave us time to drop into a few local ‘establishments’. Our first stop was the Moa brewery, where we thirstily sampled a variety of lagers and ales. Milton was pretty keen on the pale ale, but I was a little turned off by the Kiwi practice of pumping their pale ales with citrus flavours. I really liked their more traditional Noir (dark ale), while the Moa five-hop winter ale reminded me of Granville Island’s winter ale back home, albeit with a little more spice.

Next up on our tipple tour was the cellar door at Cloudy Bay. Shellie was a big fan of this internationally renowned winemaker and wanted to visit the source. Once inside, we were treated to a tasting of half a dozen wines. Like many producers in the Marlborough region, Cloudy Bay’s signature wine is their sauvignon blanc. Even though I’m an avowed fan of red wines, their sauvignon blanc (and their Gewurtztraminer) were admittedly very nice. My favourite wine at Cloudy Bay was their 2010 Riesling – it was reasonably dry and I could imagine it pairing very well with a Christmas turkey dinner.

Marlborough Vineyard

With his charges getting a little chatty and giggly, teetotal Glen drove us the last few kilometres down the road to our rendezvous. As we pulled into Forrest Estates vineyard, we found our hiking compatriots lounging on the sunny front lawn. I was ecstatic to see that Cathy and Colin and Sally had survived their backcountry experience none the worse for wear. A few glasses of celebratory sauvignon later, the sea kayakers made a fashionably late entrance. We quickly rounded up some goblets for Bil and Cam; the whole crew was finally back together.

We spent a couple of hours at Forrest Estates, getting a crash course on vines, varietals, alluvial soils, weather, irrigation and the harvesting process. I grew up on a farm and thought I knew a bit about horticulture, but viticulturists have so many more factors to contend with. I came away from the tour with an appreciation for how difficult it is to make a decent bottle of wine; suddenly $25 seems like a bargain. At the cellar door, we sampled another seven or eight varietals while snacking on cheese and crackers. I thought their Riesling was a little too sweet, but was pleasantly surprised by the reasonably full body and fruit-forward flavour of their pinot noir.

Our increasingly well-marinated band of misfits stumbled aboard ‘Frank’ for the two-hour drive to Kaikoura. We rolled through the Marlborough countryside with mountain ranges on our right until the Pacific Ocean rushed up to greet us on our left. From time to time we would spot seals sunbathing on the rocky shore. I kept a hopeful eye on the ocean for signs of life, but didn’t spot any whales.

In Kaikoura our group was distributed between a cozy B&B and the motel next door. I dropped my bags in the end unit of the motel and marvelled at the décor. Apparently polished chrome and red pleather furniture weren’t exclusive to late 1960s Las Vegas. I briefly considered asking the motel’s management to comp the prime rib buffet and my Wayne Newton show tickets, but thought better of it.

The ramshackle Rimu gang assembled at the B&B for one last ensemble dinner. Our hosts served a local delicacy as an appetizer – green-lipped mussels – and we expanded our culinary horizons. Between bites of hoki with all the fixings, Cathy and I excitedly exchanged stories about our three-day excursions. It sounded like the Nelson Lakes backcountry was rugged and gorgeous, while I made a pretty strong case for the awesome Queen Charlotte Track. One thing we did agree on was that Marlborough pinot noir is not a great match for poached fish, but when in Rome…

A good song lyric is one in which the writer tells a personal story while leaving the listener enough ambiguity to interweave his or her own narrative. One of the ways I interpret “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo is that you can’t let yourself be defined by your past – each one of us has to choose our own destiny. Do we want to live ‘in the moment’ with hair-trigger emotions like the bull, or seize control and live another day like the bullfighter? Far too often in my life I have chosen the ‘safe’ option, and surely missed out on some great moments of spontaneity. For this reason, I had deliberately pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone on my trip to New Zealand. In three weeks on the road I had somehow found a way to walk the fine line between chaos and control – and had enjoyed a richer life experience because of it.

Dinner wound down around 8:30 pm, but the party was just getting started. Many of my buddies were making noise about sashaying down the road to the pub. It would be one last chance for our troupe to buy a well-deserved round or three for our hard-working guides. I knocked on Cathy’s door and implored her to join us, but to no avail. A quick decision ensued – be outgoing and join the party, or spend one last quiet evening of stories and Yahtzee with Cathy? Seizing the toro by the horns, I bounded into the Kaikoura twilight and treated my new friends to a good time. And the pub, to the best of my fuzzy recollection, was uproarious fun indeed.

But with the benefit of hindsight, this is one occasion that I wish I had gone with my natural instinct and chosen to be the toreador.

Song of the Day: “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo + the Pharmacists

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