My last full day in the land known as Aotearoa began on the south island but ended on the north. One last early-morning bus ride transported this weary traveler from Nelson to Picton. The road fit the Kiwi archetype – narrow, winding, scenic, and pretty much deserted. Our inter-city coach transited a few rugged mountain passes before following the Wairau Valley east to Blenheim. It was one of the few times that I retraced my own path on my month-long adventure. Passing the same winery that I had toured with my friends just three days earlier brought back a lot of memories. I sat silently on the coach with my ever-present headphones in my ears, watching the vineyards roll by. Not long after a quick stop in Blenheim, we disembarked near the Picton ferry terminal.
This Canadian prairie boy had never been on a real ferry before, so I thought it would be a cool way to travel between islands. The Cook Strait crossing is known as one of the most scenic ferry trips in the world. A less-publicized fact, which I did not realize when I made my booking months before, is that this particular route is notoriously awful in rough seas. The winds on the Strait had been so severe on Sunday that Wellington airport had to be closed. I had visions of spending my afternoon curled over a guard rail, puking up my spleen. Once my bags were checked in at the terminal, I spent the next two hours walking around town in trepidation.
Picton is a great place for souvenir shopping. I found some great presents for my friends back home, including a hand-carved wooden knick-knack for my gracious house-sitter, a playing card storage box made from recycled Rimu wood, and another paua-shell Christmas ornament for someone special at the office. Lunchtime found me back at the same café with the great meat pies from a few days earlier. This time I opted for a chicken pot pie, and chased it with a substantial dose of Gravol to ward off seasickness.
At 1 pm I was back at the ferry terminal, getting ready to go aboard. I was still concerned about rough seas, but on this day Lady Luck looked down upon me and smiled. The open-water winds had abated, and the sailing was predicted to be relatively smooth. I was pleasantly surprised to see this sign just before crossing the threshold onto MV Kaitaki.
The plan was to find a comfortable spot at a table next to a window and watch the Marlborough Sounds drift by. And sure enough, I found a nice place on the eighth deck to sit and listen to music and catch up on some journal entries. The first half hour of our sailing went according to plan, but then the Gravol caught up to me. Dimenhydrinate works wonders for suppressing seasickness, but it’s not without one significant side effect. It didn’t just make me drowsy – it made me full-on, three-days-without-sleep comatose. Before long I was well on my way to setting some kind of head-bob world record. My somewhat comical journal entry consisted mainly of random chicken scratches and a puddle of drool. This clearly would not do. I dragged my somnambulant ass over to the restaurant and bought two bottles of Coke Zero to restore my caffeinated consciousness.
As we were leaving the Sounds, I made my way upstairs to the open-air top deck to bid the south island goodbye. It was one last chance to reflect on the land that had enraptured me for sixteen days, and will surely stay with me for the rest of my life. With a lump in my throat, I vowed to return to this enchanting isle some day.
Three hours after disembarking from Picton, we churned into Wellington harbour. I gathered my bags from the terminal carousel and set off for my accommodations downtown. My map indicated that the ferry terminal was only a 4 km hike from my hotel, so I elected to walk. One of my guide books suggested that the walk is ‘dangerous’ and ‘not recommended’, and I did have a 23 kilogram bag in tow, but it was daylight hours and I wanted to work up an appetite. I realize now that the danger doesn’t derive from walking among unsavoury characters down by the docks – the real problem is the weather. I experienced 50 km/h wind gusts from every conceivable direction as I forged my way southwest. There’s no mystery how this city got the nickname ‘Windy Wellington’.
After checking in, I set off for a quick walking tour of downtown Wellington’s sights. It immediately felt like I was back in a big city, with traffic and crowds and all manner of multicultural shops and entertainment options. I saw the theatre where Sir Peter Jackson’s latest epic, The Hobbit, held its world premiere the week before. I met a cosmopolitan array of people while touring the historical plaques on and around Courtenay Place. And I am 99% sure that I passed Bret McKenzie of ‘Flight of the Conchords’ fame in the street. Pretty cool.
The proprietor of a local wine shop recommended some Stoke Bomber Kiwi pale ales and a very nice bottle of Trinity Hill Syrah to celebrate my last night down under. He also pointed the way down the street to an Italian restaurant that made great takeaway pizzas. It took almost a month, but I had finally found a New Zealand restaurant that knew how to make a proper Neapolitan style pizza. My dinner featured authentic Italian deli meats, basil leaves, and detectable amounts of actual mozzarella cheese! Despite the blustery rain showers outside my hotel room window, it was a memorable last supper on my epic journey.
Song of the Day: “Caffeinated Consciousness” by TV on the Radio