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

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Day 21 – Knights of Cydonia

By daybreak in The Grove, most of the overnight rain showers had subsided. Our B&B hosts offered to serve us a nice cooked breakfast, so we happily obliged. Linda stuffed us full of pancakes and syrup, tea and coffee, and fresh fruit. It was wonderful to have some carbohydrates in our bellies as we commenced our grand mountain biking adventure.

At 9:00 am we collected our two-wheeled steeds from the garage and disembarked for Anakiwa. Our epic breakfast took awhile to digest, so progress was a little lethargic until we reached the Queen Charlotte Track trailhead. By that point Milton, Shellie, our guide Glen and I were warmed up and ready to rock.

British music group Muse has pretty much cornered the market on up-tempo, slightly bonkers, progressive modern rock music. Their stock in trade is a tougher, more energetic take on the brilliant theatrics and noisy experimentalism of forebears like Queen and Radiohead. One of the tricks I have learned to harness on intense backcountry hikes is to imagine music with a strong beat playing in my head. I quickly adapted this trick to mountain biking, and summoned Muse songs like “Hysteria”, “Resistance” and especially the science fiction infused lunacy of “Knights of Cydonia” to play on endless repeat in my brain.

The first hour or so on the Queen Charlotte track consisted of a long and steady uphill climb over variable terrain. The track is reasonably wide, and provides enough room for cyclists to navigate around oncoming foot or bicycle traffic. This did prove to be a little more challenging around some of the blind corners and narrow wooden bridges. Complicating matters further was the local custom of bearing left to oncoming traffic while our subconscious North American sensibilities were imploring us to bear to the right. We managed to avoid any head-on collisions, but with one group grinding uphill while others rolled freely and merrily in the opposite direction the potential for trouble was always there. Fortunately, it was a cool and moist early-season Friday morning and there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the track.

Queen Charlotte Track

After a climb of about 225 metres over 7 km, we reached the summit between Anakiwa and Waterfall Bay. We stepped off our bikes for a short break while Glen made tea. Despite the overcast conditions, our hard-earned elevation had rewarded us with impressive views across Queen Charlotte Sound.

Queen Charlotte Sound

The rapid and mostly downhill descent towards Waterfall Bay was a hoot. The same kinds of roots and wet stones that had made the trip uphill more challenging were now our allies. I thoroughly enjoyed bounding over obstacles and zipping through fast corners as my Cannondale’s front suspension absorbed most of the shocks. I brazenly bombed down the track, periodically stopping to take photos and wait for the others. It was cool to see the exhilarated smiles on my traveling companions’ faces as they rolled up to meet me.

We exited the track near Waterfall Bay and followed a series of gravel roads down to the tip of Mistletoe Bay. This area had a boat dock, a campground, and a few cabins for rent. It seemed to be particularly popular with day-trippers exploring the Sounds. We dug our lunches out of our backpacks and settled down on the beach to stretch our legs and dine alfresco. Glen pointed out a mānuka tree in full bloom next to the beach, and we learned a little about the genesis of the mānuka honey products that grace the shelves in various New Zealand shops.

Manuka Tree Blooms

After lunch, we geared down and cycled our way back up the hill to the Queen Charlotte Track. We elected to return to town by the same route that got us to Mistletoe Bay, and this decision paid off handsomely. It turned out that the track rode better east to west. The climb to the summit was steeper but still quite manageable. There were certain spots where I had to pound away on my pedals to gather enough speed to climb over stones and hills, but that was all part of the fun.

We stopped long enough at the summit for some more photos, and I took the opportunity to unlock my rear suspension. I soon wished I had done so earlier. The ride down to Anakiwa was absolutely riotous. I attacked the trail and flew around corners, exuberant as an accelerating blur of ferns and beech forest rushed by on either side of me. Some parts of the track were so amusing that I dismounted, spun my trusty steed around, doubled back a few hundred metres, and rode them again. Rock chips were flying off my tires and gouging my shins, but in the moment I couldn’t have cared less.

Biking the Queen Charlotte Track

Our troupe reassembled at the Queen Charlotte trailhead and excitedly compared notes on our rides. Milton and Shellie were experienced mountain bikers from Colorado, and even they thought the trail was world-class. We carried on through Anakiwa and rode all the way to the Grove. My legs were trashed after a 40 km day on the trail, but the music in my head propelled me up the final hill to our B&B.

We agreed to meet for dinner at 7 pm, which gave me plenty of time to shower, chillax on the patio, and snarf down a few pre-dinner cocktails. I brought a lovely bottle of Marlborough “victory merlot” to dinner, which went very well with Linda’s beef schnitzel.

Later on, feeling the warm glow of physical accomplishment (and good red wine) I waltzed up to the hot tub to soak my aching limbs and reflect on the day’s experiences. I hoped that Cathy, Sally and Colin were safe and sound in their backcountry cabin after another glorious day in the great outdoors. And with any luck Cam and Bil were relaxing at their waterfront lodge, sharing a similar sense of glory from their kayak adventure as I got from my invigorating day on the trail.

Song of the Day: “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse

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