(This is a partial re-write of a blog I posted from a lonely hotel room in Nelson, NZ on December 2nd. I hereby reserve the right to plagiarize myself. I rationalize it this way: AC/DC have been rewriting the same song for thirty-five years, and they are still completely awesome. Why can’t I also walk in familiar footsteps?)
I’m at a loss to explain why window-screen technology seems to have bypassed New Zealand. Fresh air helps me sleep better, so I left a couple of windows open overnight. By morning, every mosquito on the east coast had taken up residence inside my Kaikoura motel room. Thankfully these southern-hemisphere bugs were dopey and innocuous, unlike their bloodthirsty vampire cousins that plague our summer campgrounds back home.
Our last morning on the Rimu tour began with breakfast at the B&B next door. Just like the Okarito beach house, I noticed a number of weary faces around the table. Unlike Okarito, I was among those feeling a little worse for wear. After an inevitable toast and cereal breakfast, we were treated to a special display out back. While the tourists assembled along the banks of a small creek, the B&B owners started throwing handfuls of bread crumbs into the water. I thought they were feeding the local mallards, but then two or three very aggressive eels appeared out of nowhere, thrusting frantically at the floating crumbs. A couple of times, the eels propelled themselves right up onto the shore to chase after some tasty morsels! Watching the eels and ducks scrap over scraps, while the B&B owners’ pet pooch went bananas at the fracas, was quite an experience.
Another unique Kiwi experience was in store for the more adventurous among us. Kaikoura is home to myriad colonies of fur seals, and we were given the chance to go swimming with them. Open water and I don’t get along at the best of times. Crawling into a wetsuit and jumping into the ocean to swim with seals while nursing a two-alarm hangover held precious little appeal to me. I was thrilled that some of my friends gave it a go, but I elected to keep my feet on terra firma.
As they were loading the bus one last time with our luggage, I presented our guides with some hard-earned gratuities and the bottles of Canadian maple syrup I had been lugging around for three weeks. Lina and Nat seemed genuinely touched by my little gesture. Hugs ensued. Score one for international diplomacy.
We dropped off the seal-swimmers and headed for the shoreline via Fyffe Quay. Interpretive signs at the Point Kean beachhead described the life cycle of the kekeno. New Zealand fur seals were once harvested for their meat and skins. Today, they are a protected species whose population has recovered to about 100,000. Pretty much every rock in the harbour was overrun by these fascinating creatures. Some seals dove in and out of the kelp-strewn water with remarkable agility, while others dozed on the rocks after long periods of fish and squid hunting at sea.
Those of us that didn’t go seal swimming were invited to explore the peninsular walkway. Colin looked a little green around the gills, so I spent most of the morning walking and chatting with Sally. Despite our attempts to focus on the gorgeous scenery at our feet, the topic of conversation kept reverting to wistful thoughts. In just a few short hours, our tightly-knit crew would be splitting up and going our separate ways. A lot of bittersweet reminiscing ensued as we stared out at the Pacific Ocean.
My hangover turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When we caught up with the seal-swimmers just before lunch, we learned that the waters had been too rough for them to go swimming after all. Squeezing in and out of their very stylish wetsuits had been all for naught. I could tell that my friends were disappointed, but at the very least they got an interesting beach-level perspective on our furry flippered friends.
Our last bus ride into Christchurch was a memorable one. Many sights and sounds became permanently imprinted on my brain. The ladies did their best to play upbeat and buoyant songs on the stereo, but inside my heart was slowly breaking. Spend two weeks in a minibus with seventeen other travellers and you’re bound to get a crash course on group dynamics. Any random assemblage of people will likely have its share of socially awkward misfits – with me at the front of the line. But on the Rimu tour, I had been so very lucky. I had found some brilliant new friends in the most unlikely of places. Every signpost for Christchurch, counting down the kilometres to our destination, just reminded me that I might never see them again.
Things got hectic at the airport. We stepped off ‘Frank’ one last time, collected our gear, and said our last goodbyes to our wonderful guides. Tear-filled hugs were exchanged with Sally and Colin, who were staying on in Christchurch for a couple of days of rest before making the hellacious pan-Asian journey back to the UK. Inside the terminal, the rigmarole of air travel was a welcome distraction from the lump in my throat. I worked my way through the self-serve Air New Zealand check-in process while Cathy endured the queue at the Emirates counter. With boarding pass in hand I approached the conveyor belt, where my checked bag officially weighed in at a mere 250 grams under the limit. Three cheers for digital travel scales! With that said – it was a good thing they didn’t weigh my carry-on bag.
Cam and Bil were having a tougher go of things. I could see the stress on their faces as they packed and repacked their bags, trying to distribute their belongings and souvenirs while staying under the 23 kg limit. They evidently were also having issues getting their boarding passes to print. I thought it best to give them some space, so I made my way upstairs to wait for them on the departures level. My flight was the first to leave, so I quietly hoped against hope that I would see them again.
Cathy and I sat in the bar nearest the escalator so that we could watch for our slightly frazzled friends. For the next 45 minutes, we sipped on drinks and compared notes from our trip. We both had a lot of the same favourite activities. The views of Aoraki from Braemar Station. The glorious speed-walk on the Kepler Track. Our weekend in Queenstown. The hill climb and bike ride at Wanaka. The beautiful and rugged west coast. And, of course, the great people we met on the way.
I have never been very good at saying goodbye. For some reason, I am usually swamped by my emotions. I waited until the very last second for Cam and Bil to appear on the escalator, but to no avail. I somehow kept it together while hugging Cathy goodbye one last time, and made the lonely walk across the atrium to my departure gate.
The flight to Nelson was a little turbulent, both literally and figuratively. The first few pangs of separation anxiety metastasized into full-on distress. Our puddle-jumper bounced over the Cantabrian plains while waves of emotions rolled over me. I focused on listening to some of the songs that had bonded to me over the course of the trip. Ben Folds Five, Shearwater, and The National implored me that everything was going to be okay. A patchwork quilt of brilliant green rectangles, rhombi, and circular arcs slipped past my window.
Before long the countryside gave way to mountain ranges and, eventually, the north coast. We slipped out over Cook Strait for our choppy final approach into Nelson. Once on the ground, I collected my checked bag from the ‘carousel’, which in Nelson is simply a little self-serve trailer parked by the door. The terminal was jammed with people stranded by the closure of Wellington airport due to high winds. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but those winds would have major repercussions for some of my friends.
For the first time in two weeks, I had to hire a taxi for the transfer to my hotel. After checking in I went for a 90-minute walk around town, expecting to find a bustling tourist destination. Instead I learned that in the late springtime, Nelson is a very sleepy town on a Sunday evening. It’s the sort of place where the shopkeepers roll up the sidewalks at 5 pm and call it a day. I eventually settled for a takeaway Subway sandwich and a six-pack of Speight’s dark beer, and retired to my hotel room to watch a replay of the All Blacks vs England rugby match. It seemed like a fitting Kiwi equivalent to a Canadian night in.
On the south island tour, I had grown accustomed to finding a breathtaking new vista around every corner. What I wasn’t prepared for were the personal relationships that I would make along the way. My introversion normally holds new people off at a distance, but five wonderful souls had somehow slipped through my defence mechanisms. The confines of our minibus and our common thirst for outdoor pursuits seemed to incubate the process. For a fortnight we had been in and out of each other’s pockets, but now in Nelson I found myself completely alone.
As darkness fell outside my hotel room window, I thought about my new compatriots. I exchanged an emotional series of texts with Sally and Colin back in Christchurch. My smartphone helped me keep an eye on the progress of Cathy’s flight to Sydney, and I hoped that Cam and Bil’s transoceanic flight to Los Angeles was going well. Sometimes the internet makes the planet feel like a much smaller place, but on this evening it felt like my friends were suddenly half a world away.
Song of the Day: “How Do You Say Goodbye?” by Engineers