Day 26 – Tomorrow Starts Today

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

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.

Te Papa Base Isolator

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.

ANZ Boeing 777

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.

Craven Hermit's Road Gear

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

Day 25 – Caffeinated Consciousness

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.

Interislander Ferry

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.

Smooth SailingThe 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.

Departing the Marlborough Sounds

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

Day 24 – Adventures in Solitude

(Another partial rewrite of a blog I originally posted from Deck 8 of the Cook Strait ferry on December 4th. If you’re feeling a little short-changed by recycled content, consider how much you’re paying for the privilege!)

Many of the people that take the Rimu tour hop straight onto a plane Sunday night for the long trip home. When I planned my grand New Zealand adventure, I knew that I didn’t want it to end with a full, crashing stop at the airport. I built in a few extra days at the end to facilitate a few solo experiences, with a plan to check out some cool spots that weren’t on the formal tour itineraries. Abel Tasman National Park was one such place.

I obviously love to hike, but I have always been curious about sailing. I live in a land-locked province with a variety of overgrown sloughs masquerading as ‘lakes’, meaning good sailing opportunities are rare. Meanwhile, in New Zealand sailing is pretty much the only serious rival to rugby as the national sport. I found a tour company in Nelson that offers combination sailing & walking tours of Abel Tasman National Park and indulged two of my passions in one fun-filled day.

The owner of the tour company, Jane-Maree, picked me up at my hotel at 8 am and drove me to her sailing centre near the park. The 75-minute drive from Nelson to Abel Tasman winds along the coast through sheep country, apple orchards and fields of hops. North of Motueka, the flatlands give way to mountain country. We picked up a few more tourists at the campgrounds near Marahau before doubling back to the secluded village of Kaiteriteri.

It was a gorgeous morning for sailing – sunny and warm with just enough of a breeze to make things interesting without intimidating a landlubber like me. A half-dozen of us met our skipper Tim on the beach and climbed aboard a 10-metre Turissimo class sport-sailing catamaran. I found a nice spot to sit near the bow and, before long, we set off from Kaiteriteri under motor power. I was a little surprised that we weren’t sailing right away, but Tim explained that he could get us closer to the shoreline scenery with the predictability of a propeller.

Catamaran on Kaiteriteri Beach

We curled around Kaka Island and turned north, dipping in and out of bay after beautiful bay. Tim steered us into Towers Bay and skirted past a most unusual rock formation. Split Apple Rock looks exactly like it sounds – it’s a glacial erratic that likely split during an ancient freeze/thaw cycle.

Split Apple Rock - Kaiteriteri, NZ

A nice sea breeze greeted us as we rounded the point, so it was time to go sailing. The skipper unfurled the main and genoa sails and began tacking back and forth across Sandy Bay. I watched carefully as he worked the ropes and rudders, expertly keeping the sails full. Despite the headwind, we were able to make about 9 knots. It was neat to watch the twin hulls slip through the water, feeling the cool wind and ocean spray on my face.

Sailing at Abel Tasman NP

We zipped past a flotilla of sea kayaks near Fisherman Island, and we exchanged some friendly waves. Tim let me take the helm near Adele Island, and for a few exciting minutes I steered our catamaran through a series of turns. The skipper reassumed the helm and we made a dash out to open water. As our yacht came around to the west for a big loop around Te Pukatea, we picked up a bit of a tailwind and accelerated to 15 knots. There wasn’t quite enough wind to run up the gennaker sail, but with my butt planted only inches above the water the sensation of speed was still exhilarating.

After a two-hour excursion, the skipper retracted the sails and took us into Torrent Bay. Since it was close to high tide, we were treated to a tour of the multi-coloured lagoon. When our journey was complete, Tim backed the catamaran into Anchorage beach and let us off. I found a nice quiet spot in the shade and enjoyed my lunch while all manner of scantily-clad tourists frolicked on the beach. I combed the sands for a few new seashells to add to my collection before swapping my sandals for hiking shoes.

Anchorage is a relatively easy 12 km walk from the pick-up point at Marahau, and I had about four hours available. I decided to add on a 5 km out-and-back trip to a place called Cleopatra’s Pool to enjoy a full afternoon’s walk. The scenery on the Abel Tasman Track is sublime – the coastline is an endless ribbon of golden beaches, azure seas, and lush green forests. I particularly liked this view of Pitt Head and Anchorage from the highline trail.

The Anchorage, NZ

The walk back to Marahau was just as scenic. It’s not a particularly challenging trail, but on this day it felt deceptively long. For the first few kilometres, I kept hoping that I would meet up with my new hiking buddies just around the next bend. I longed for my friends’ effortless smiles, their mischievous glances, their playful banter. It took awhile, but eventually my subconscious mind adjusted to my newly reinstated solitude. A lookout point high above Stilwell Bay provided an ideal spot to sit and exchange some text messages with my friends across various oceans. While telecommunications truly are wonderful, I would have given anything to have had an actual flesh & blood person at my side to share the view.

After a well-earned pint of lager at the trailhead bar, I met up with Jane-Maree for the drive back to Nelson. The night before had been a little restless; it was all I could do to stay awake. Jane-Maree and I exchanged stories about our respective countries to pass the time, and I learned a little more about ‘the top of the south’ of New Zealand. She dropped me off at my hotel around 6:30 pm, and after a quick shower I ambled out for a night on the town. Fortunately, Monday nights are a little livelier than Sundays in Nelson and I came upon a cool little brew pub with an excellent selection of Kiwi ales on tap. They also flame-grilled a pretty mean burger platter that filled the hole in my stomach, if not the chasm in my soul.

Song of the Day: “Adventures in Solitude” by the New Pornographers

Day 20 – Little by Little

It was a misty Thursday morning, and I woke up refreshed but a little pensive.  After packing my bags, I still had about ninety minutes of free time before breakfast.  It was our last day on the rugged west coast, so I walked down the road towards town to do some exploring.  The constantly evolving gravel banks of the Punakaiki River made for a brief but excellent cross-country hike.  I watched from a respectful distance while a colourful pair of paradise ducks (Tadoma variegata) led their brood of seven chicks on a sunrise tour of the riverbank.

I hopped a fence and skirted across an empty lot to access the Tasman Sea.  Good-sized swells were rolling over the beach.  I walked along the shifting sands, thinking about the day ahead.  We were scheduled to cross the north part of the island and would be breaking into three groups after lunch.  Cathy, Sally and Colin were going on a two-day backcountry hiking tour in the mountains.  Cam and Bil were set to embark on a cool sea kayaking adventure in Mahau Sound.  I was looking forward to two days of breathtaking mountain biking along Marlborough Sound with Milton and Shellie, but was starting to feel the first pangs of separation anxiety.  Little by little, my soul grew more forlorn as wave after wave lapped at my ankles.  I suppose it’s only natural to ponder one’s existence and the mysteries of life in such surroundings.

The beach to the south of Punakaiki provided an interesting perspective on the rocky Tasman coast.  The previous day, we had walked above the Pancake Rocks and marveled at the odd formations and the power of the sea.  The relentless cycle of wave action was just as interesting when viewed through the early-morning fog from sea level.

Punakaiki Coastline

On my way back up the road to the motel, I came upon a small grove of Pōhutukawa trees.  The trees were decorated by dozens of brush-like, blood red flowers with yellow tips.  It was late November, and these so-called “New Zealand Christmas trees” were well on their way to maximum early-summer bloom.

Pohutukawa Flowers

After breakfast, we loaded our gear onto the bus and set off for our next destination.  The highway hugged the coastline for the first hour or so.  We passed a herd of cattle grazing in a pasture, seemingly oblivious to the gorgeous ocean view maybe two hundred metres behind them.  This made me chuckle, since our cows back home had a panoramic view of nothing but the flat and featureless Red River Valley horizon.  Just before Westport we turned east and headed inland.  Considering the twisty coastal highway and the winding traverse of Buller Gorge, I was quite happy to not be hung over.  Others weren’t so lucky.

Around noon, we stopped for lunch at St. Arnaud on the northern edge of Nelson Lakes National Park.  Our tour guides had their hands full – not only did they have to pull off a lunch for 18 people inside an unserviced picnic shelter, but they also had to work out the final logistics for our crew’s three side trips.  I went for a short walk down by Lake Rotoiti with my buddies, but I could sense that we were all a little apprehensive about being split up.  Back at the bus, I helped Cathy adjust the straps on her cool new backpack and gave her some tips on how to load it for comfortable backcountry travel.  Sally and Colin had chosen to rent backpacks from our tour company, and before long they too were able to make the proper adjustments.  I didn’t envy them having to carry 10 to 15 kilograms of gear and food up the trail, but I knew they were set for a great experience.

After lunch, a shuttle arrived to pick up the bikers and kayakers.  With a lump in my throat, we bid the hikers good luck and began a two-hour drive east to the Marlborough area.  The Southern Alps soon morphed into rolling foothills and forests.  In turn, the forests gave way to alluvial plains, with fruit groves and vineyards irrigated by the Wairau River.

We were treated to our first views of the famous Marlborough Sound region east of Havelock.  The northeast tip of New Zealand’s south island is home to dozens of picturesque sounds and bays, where the sea has inundated the gradually subsiding land mass.  We marveled at the tranquil beauty of the Mahakipawa arm of Mahau Sound as we gradually made our way east.  It was 3 pm by the time we reached our bike and kayak tour operator’s headquarters near Anakiwa.  After a long travel day, most of us were keen to get outdoors and get moving.  With misty eyes, I waved goodbye to Bil and Cam and the other sea kayakers who were headed north to a different arm of the sound.  We wouldn’t see each other again until Saturday afternoon in Blenheim.

Our merry trio of cyclists got changed into our riding gear at the bike shop.  We were introduced to Glen, our trail guide and expert bike mechanic.  Glen worked quickly to set us up with excellent full-suspension Cannondale RZ120 mountain bikes.  After a few quick adjustments, we were ready to go for a test ride.  Glen pointed the way and I led our pack of riders down a relatively easy trail to the town of Anakiwa.  Once I got my rear suspension locked out and my seat post height set correctly, it became a very comfortable ride.  I loved the way that the Shimano derailleurs smoothly shifted gears, and the disc brakes provided excellent and predictable stopping power despite the rain showers.

Milton and Shellie and I were still suffering from varying degrees of the “Ann-Slam”.  Our hacking and wheezing was so bad that Glen probably thought we had all just stumbled out of an emphysema clinic.  Nevertheless, we were eager to do some technical riding.  Glen led us up the first portion of the Queen Charlotte Track as an appetizer for the following day’s big ride.

Queen Charlotte Track Trailhead

The Queen Charlotte Track is 71 glorious kilometres of continuous singletrack.  Parts of the track are relatively easy to ride, but there are also many long and challenging hills to climb.  The presence of hikers on the trail, not to mention two-way bike traffic around blind corners, also makes for an interesting ride.  Since we were pressed for time, we rode for about half an hour on the track to Bottle Bay.  We returned by the same route to the bike shop then Glen led our ‘bike gang’ to our B&B in the nearby hamlet known as The Grove.

We checked into our accommodations, and I was grateful for a hot shower after a long day on the road and our 20 km ride.  We met our hosts Steve and Linda for dinner at 7 pm.  Steve enlightened us with stories about the earthquake reconstruction efforts in Christchurch and elsewhere, while Linda put the finishing touches on a monstrous chicken dinner and a scrumptious Pavlova cake.  I found myself occasionally glancing out the windows at the rain showers, silently hoping that my friends had safely made it up the mountainside to their backcountry hut.

After dinner, we checked out the glow worms in a little alcove behind the B&B.  I spent some quiet time writing in my journal and catching up on emails before turning in early.  The next day promised to be an epic ride.

Song of the Day: “Little by Little” by Oasis

Day 19 – Take A Walk

Time to split out my back door
Sunrise dancing on my wall
Heading down off beaten tracks
Try to get that feeling back

I could take a walk again
up a mountain to a stream
Standing on the open rock
Looking out over the sea

Okarito may be the most relaxing place on earth, but I was still anxious to get moving when I shook off my slumbers at 6 am. With the sunrise dancing on my wall, I split out the back door of Gonfishin’ for a nice walk on the beach. The shoreline was predictably deserted, aside from a handful of black-backed gulls and their human interloper. The early-morning swells were smaller than the previous day but still fascinating to watch. With the Finn brothers reverberating in my mind, I scoured the beach for interesting new pebbles to add to my collection.

Our group convened for breakfast around 7:15 am, and I noticed a few pairs of blood-shot eyes and a couple of notable absentees. Evidently some of my new friends had a LOT of fun at the previous night’s party and were paying full price for it. We were all aboard ‘Frank’ by 8:30 am, which according to our lead tour guide was her first ever on-time group departure from Okarito. We were sad to bid adieu to such a lovely locale, but simultaneously glad to be rid of all the bloody sandflies.

We drove up the coast to a town called Hokitika for a few hours of shopping and sightseeing. Hokitika was the epicenter of New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, but today’s agribusiness-based economy is far more pastoral. The town has also become an enclave for some of New Zealand’s most talented artists – the main street is lined with shops that proudly promote their wares. Within a stone’s throw of town centre you will find shops overflowing with nature photography or metal sculpture or all manner of possum-fur clothing. But the star attraction in Hokitika is undoubtedly jade jewelry.

West coast jade, or pounamu, is highly revered among the Maori people and has become an important Kiwi icon. At several workshops in town, you can watch artisans carve raw greenstone into beautiful works of art. We dropped into quite a few pounamu shops, but I was particularly inspired by a visit to a small enterprise down by the beach. The proprietor patiently explained the Maori symbolism sculpted into the multitude of gemstones on display, and walked me through her shop. Since she was a member of the local iwi, she had access to one of the highly coveted local greenstone quarries. While she ran the retail business up front, her brother and cousin carved her merchandise in the back of the shop. I was especially taken with a pendant carved in a quasi-traditional Manaia shape. It featured the stylized head of a bird, the body of a man, and a dolphin-finned koru for a tail. The Manaia symbolizes a spiritual guardian that protects travellers in the air, on the land, and on the sea. It seemed like an appropriate talisman considering that several bus rides, a notoriously rough ferry crossing, and a trans-oceanic flight separated me from my distant home. Later outside, while Cathy and Sally gave my new travelling companion their seal of approval, I was thrilled by the jade’s milky translucence in the midday sun.

After lunching at a local café, we travelled north along the spectacular coastal highway to Paparoa National Park. There were two activities on our itinerary, and our guides suggested we check out the Pancake Rocks while the tide was high. Located near the village of Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks are odd-looking sedimentary limestone outcroppings that are constantly under attack by the crashing ocean surf. A series of paved walkways among the rocks reveals the relentless power of the Tasman Sea. Evidence of severe undercutting and erosion surrounded us, while saltwater jetted out of blowholes between the rocks.

Pancake Rocks

The 30-minute loop through Pancake Rocks wasn’t particularly strenuous, so our clan of avid hikers crossed the road and set off on the Punakaiki – Pororari Loop. The trail follows the south bank of the Pororari River for a few kilometres, climbs over a 200-metre ridge, and returns to Punakaiki via the south end of the Inland Pack track. I walked the first half of the 11 km loop trail with Colin and Sally, marveling at the verdant forest and lush undergrowth.

Inland Pack Koru

Realizing that this would be my last official hike of the Rimu tour, I lollygagged at the summit simply to immerse myself in the sounds of the rainforest. The bellbirds and tuis serenaded me for a few minutes, but then I heard a creature approaching through the woods. Before I could guess at what it might be, a black feral goat galloped out of the ferns, saw me, turned right and bolted down the trail. In stark contrast to my Rocky Mountain hikes back home, this solitary goat would be the only wild ungulate I would encounter on my entire Kiwi adventure. New Zealand truly lives up to its reputation as “the land without teeth”.

A moment or two later, Bil and Cam and Cathy caught up with me and we finished our last true hike together. We stopped for some photos at the swinging bridge over the Punakaiki River, and walked up the highway to our motel at Razorback Point. After getting checked into our various accommodations, we enjoyed a simple bowl of pre-dinner nacho chips with a million dollar view. From our picnic table, we watched the waves crash into Pancake Rocks about a kilometre away.

Dinner this evening was a delightful feast of fish and chips down at the local tavern. The six of us forty-something ‘youngsters’ sat together, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel like a fifth wheel at a dinner table. Plus I finally got a chance to buy my new friends a round of drinks – long-overdue reciprocity for all the beers that Colin had been ‘forcing’ me to drink with him for the past week and a half. A few pints of Speight’s later, our little crew were definitely the liveliest table in the joint. The battered hoki was excellent, and the proprietors even scavenged a bottle of malt vinegar for my English friends and I to enjoy on our chips. With bellies stuffed, it was back to the bus for the short journey up the hill. Somehow our tour guide read my mind, and graciously let a couple of us work off some excess carbohydrates with a fifteen-minute sunset saunter on Punakaiki Beach.

Punakaiki Sunset

Back at the motel, with the endless sound of the surf just beyond my open windows, I slept like a hibernating bear. It was another perfect ending to yet another day in paradise.

Song of the Day: “Take a Walk” by Split Enz