One great thing about national capital cities is all that collective tax revenue usually funds some wonderful public works. Wellington is no exception. My flight didn’t leave until later in the afternoon, so I seized the opportunity to spend several hours across the street from my hotel at one of the country’s best museums.
Te Papa Tongarewa attempts to tell the unified story of New Zealand. The ‘Awesome Forces’ exhibit on Level 2 offers hands-on explanations of plate tectonics and the geological forces that threaten to rearrange this country on a moment’s notice. ‘Mountains to Sea’ showcases the diversity of Kiwi flora and fauna, from microscopic organisms to the mighty royal albatross. After four weeks of listening to bellbirds chirp like futuristic cellphones from above the thick cover of foliage, I finally got to see what these little olive-coloured tweeters look like. The ‘Blood, Earth, Fire’ exhibit on Level 3 shows how natural life on these isolated Pacific islands changed with the arrival of humans over the past millennium. Seeing the stories of how a mostly-forested land was progressively cultivated by waves of immigration reminded me of my New World prairie home. Most of the fourth level celebrates Māori culture and traditions, with its central exhibit a breathtakingly beautiful hand-carved meeting hall called a marae. ‘Golden Days’ and ‘Slice of Heaven’ paint pictures of 20th century daily life in strikingly different ways. The uppermost floors feature collections of New Zealand art, from traditional sculpture and paintings to contemporary comments on cultural integration and popular culture. It’s all quite fascinating.
I could have spent all day at Te Papa, and in a way I wished I’d visited the museum at the beginning of my journey. Instead, I had three flights to catch and my time in Aotearoa was quickly running out. I had just enough time to view one last exhibit on my way out the door. Wellington sits on or near half a dozen active fault lines. In order to protect the priceless cultural artifacts inside, Te Papa was constructed on mechanically compacted ground and a foundation of 152 rubber and lead base isolators. Follow a flight of stairs below grade near the main entrance, and you can see where a few of these base isolators were installed. They are meant to reduce the amplitude of shaking during an earthquake by up to 75%. It’s always inspiring to see how my engineering cousins around the world have found innovative ways to counteract the relentless forces of nature.
After a quick lunch, I made my way to the airport. My first trip was a 45-minute hop from Wellington to Auckland. Calling this a ‘flight’ is a tad disingenuous; I have been on roller coasters that were less harrowing. Our Boeing 737 literally galloped down the runway into 80 km/h wind gusts, nearly leaping off the tarmac with each gust. After four big bounces, the pilot finally had us in the air. We climbed over downtown and Wellington harbour, corkscrewing our way through the roiling surface winds until we emerged above the cloud deck. It occurred to me that the crazy kids in Queenstown probably would have paid $200 for this vomit-comet thrill ride. The descent into Auckland wasn’t exactly silken smooth either, but at least some colour had returned to my knuckles.
The short and blustery walk between the domestic and international terminals was a welcome respite. I had three hours to clear customs and board my next flight, and the duty-free shops beckoned to me. Amid all the usual tourist ephemera, I found some neat stuff for my friends and family back home. I bought some very warm and soft possum merino gloves and socks for my brother and his wife, a nice Rimu wooden picture frame for my desk, and a big bag of Whittaker’s milk chocolates with Hokey Pokey honeycomb bits for my faithful team of engineers back at the office. Five dollars short of my duty-free allowance, I hauled my overstuffed carry-on bag to my gate.
Yet another Boeing 777, and yet another 13-hour transoceanic long-haul flight was in order. I found my window seat in row 55 and was pleasantly surprised that the dreaded ‘middle seat’ of our triptych was once again empty. With the sun setting over Manukau Harbour, we taxied out to the far end of the airport and prepared for takeoff. That now-familiar lump returned to my throat as we slowly accelerated along Runway 23L. Sixty seconds later, our wheels left the ground and I was officially on my way home.
The first part of the flight went great. There was just enough daylight to make out the coastlines of Northland and the Bay of Islands region, one of the few places that I hadn’t managed to visit. Moments later, there was nothing left to see except the featureless sea. Dinner was served at 31,000 feet, somewhere around Tonga. Dessert was an unexpected surprise – a cup of delicious Hokey Pokey ice cream! Somewhere I knew that our tour guides Lina and Nat must have been smiling and nodding at my good fortune.
Not yet tired, I settled into my seat and explored the in-flight entertainment system. I laughed out loud a few times at the hilarious antics of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis during the movie “The Candidate”. Next up was a sampling of TV specials featuring Lina’s favourite Kiwi comedy legend, the late Billy T. James. I listened to some new albums – the self-titled release by Aussie band The Temper Trap and Cheeky For A Reason by Scottish outfit The View. I eventually fired up my iPod’s late night playlist and prepared to drift off to sleep – the very best way to kill time on an airplane.
I was counting sheep by the time we crossed the equator and the International Date Line, somewhere between Samoa and Hawaii. I gained back the day that I lost on my way to Auckland almost four weeks earlier. Travelling across the Pacific Ocean does strange things to our perception of time. As far as clocks on the ground were concerned, our plane was scheduled to land in Vancouver eight hours before leaving Auckland.
I had been asleep for maybe 90 minutes when we encountered some pretty significant turbulence over Hawaii. The pilots tried to find smoother air at a few different altitudes, but with limited results. Every time I was ready to go back to sleep, our massive flexi-metallic bird would get knocked around again. As we pitched and yawed in the darkness, I avoided becoming disorientated by watching Venus and Saturn in the eastern sky. Varying degrees of turbulence stayed with us for the next few hours.
Unable to sleep, I listened to music and thought about my favourite experiences on my journey. Walking on volcanoes in Auckland was an early highlight. The very different mountain bike experiences at Lake Hawea, the Queen Charlotte Track, and especially Rotorua were a blast. Watching progressive shades of pink illuminate the western face of Aoraki at sunset from the sublime tranquility of Braemar Station was unforgettable, and was matched only by hiking in Sir Edmund Hillary’s alpine footsteps the very next day. I enjoyed every quiet moment I spent alone on the west coast beaches and at Abel Tasman National Park, staring at the endless sea. The brisk hike on the Kepler Track, the steep hike on the Routeburn Track, and our last group hike on the Inland Pack Track all created indelible memories. Kayaking in Milford Sound, and then again in Okarito Lagoon, was much more fun than this hydrophobe ever envisioned. The heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier was an awesome experience. And I will never forget the non-stop sense of adventure and camaraderie that I felt during my weekend in Queenstown with my brilliant new friends.
The turbulence abated by the time we skirted the west coast of North America. Thanks to a 100 km/h tailwind, we made it into Vancouver a little earlier than expected. Running the gauntlet through Canadian customs and immigration was uneventful, and I found myself with several hours to kill before one more short flight over the Rockies. Snowstorms on the Canadian prairies turned my 2.5 hour layover into an excruciating 4.5 hour wait. I passed the time by swapping out my smartphone’s SIM card, exchanging some excited emails and texts with my friends, and having a light lunch. I had been awake for most of the previous 24 hours, but the clocks on the wall said it was early afternoon. Meanwhile, my biological clock was confusedly pining for breakfast. Those ninety fitful minutes of sleep were not helping matters.
It was a struggle to keep my eyes open while the snow-capped mountains of British Columbia slipped in and out of view beneath my third and final flight of the day. The icy blast of winter as I stepped out of the terminal in Edmonton gave me a much needed adrenaline boost. My buddy Grant graciously braved the icy highways to pick me up at the airport, so I rewarded him by springing for dinner at a restaurant near my home. I quite likely talked his ears off with over-excited, road-weary, punch-drunk tales from the southern hemisphere, but he didn’t seem to mind.
I turned the key and entered my humble abode around 8 pm, some 32 hours after waking up in Wellington. I set down my trusty travel bags at the entrance and found a spot on my sofa, grateful that my 13,000 km travel day was finally over. Despite some turbulence, I had made all my connections and arrived home safe & sound. It was, without question, the best trip of my life.
Around midnight, I crawled upstairs and fell into my bed with a thump. And I dreamed of New Zealand.
Song of the Day: “Tomorrow Starts Today” by Mobile