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 23 – How Do You Say Goodbye?

(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.

Kaikoura Fur Seals

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.

Kaikoura Coast

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.

Aerial View - Canterbury Plains of New Zealand

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

Day 22 – The Toro and the Toreador

My animus was lost, I found, when I looked back in time
I can see the ‘where’ and ‘how’, but I don’t know the ‘why’
Or if it’s right to try

The best advice I ever had was leave what was behind
But did I see some value there, or am I going blind?
Is it all in my mind?

You’ve got a choice – it’s the toro or the toreador
Your brides are not all as weak as what you take them for
This mean arena is all the things it seems, and more
Well that final day will come – it comes to everyone

The last full day of the Rimu tour began with some seriously stiff legs, which were partially offset by a lingering hangover of accomplishment. Around 7 am I pretty much willed myself out of bed while every major muscle group south of the equator winced in protest. A nice warm shower and another delicious breakfast from Linda (augmented by four or five cups of strong tea) helped to right the ship. Our guide Glen arrived with a transport van at 9 am and loaded our gear as we checked out of the B&B.

The morning’s activity sounded relatively simple – at least on paper. We were scheduled to cycle from The Grove to the town of Picton, about a 20 km trip on paved roadways. Back home, I often go for 35 km to 50 km rides around town on my hybrid bike. 20 km would be a leisurely little cruise! Except – there is no such thing as a straight (or flat) road in New Zealand. I locked out the rear suspension on my trusty Cannondale and set off to the east on Queen Charlotte Drive. Before long, I found myself missing the comfortable riding position and the 60 psi tires of my Norco ZFR-1. This would be a decent challenge after all.

The road hugged the south side of the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. The first 10 to 15 km of our ride was mostly an uphill climb, with a few short downhill chutes thrown in for good measure. I periodically pulled over to take some photos and strip off another layer of soggy clothing. Milton and Shellie forged ahead, their Coloradan lungs a little better prepared for a cardiovascular workout than mine.

Cycling on Queen Charlotte Drive

Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday morning so there were only a few witnesses to my red-faced 2nd and 3rd gear grind. Any passers-by would have been disgusted by the torrents of sweat pouring off of me. Pools were even collecting in the air vents of my helmet. In my defense, pounding away uphill for 90 minutes on a mountain bike while locked inside a sunny humidor is not normally my idea of a good time! At least the scenery in places like Ngakuta Bay was worth the effort.

Ngakuta Bay, Marlborough Sound

The pay-off for our long climb to the apex was a glorious downhill spin into Picton. Glen met us with the van at the top of the hill, dutifully checking to ensure that we were on-time and problem-free. For the next few kilometres, I finally got to use 25th, 26th, and 27th gear. I managed to stay visible in Glen’s rear-view mirrors despite the road being a 50 km/h zone. Did I mention that I really love cycling downhill?

On the way into Picton, we pulled off the road to check out the lumber processing plant at Shakespeare Bay and watched the passing of a massive Interislander ferry. Activity picked up as we rolled into town, and I once again had to concentrate on staying to the left in city traffic. We three North Americans mercifully managed to navigate a couple of roundabouts and made it down to the waterfront without piling headlong into any vehicles.

We turned in our bikes at the tour company’s office then went for a walk around Picton. Glen treated us to lunch at a little café whose reputation rode on their many delicious varieties of home-made meat pies. Even though they didn’t have tourtière on the menu, my steak and mushroom pie hit the spot.

After some high-street window shopping, we piled into the van for a transfer to Blenheim. We had a couple of hours before our rendezvous with the hikers and kayakers, which gave us time to drop into a few local ‘establishments’. Our first stop was the Moa brewery, where we thirstily sampled a variety of lagers and ales. Milton was pretty keen on the pale ale, but I was a little turned off by the Kiwi practice of pumping their pale ales with citrus flavours. I really liked their more traditional Noir (dark ale), while the Moa five-hop winter ale reminded me of Granville Island’s winter ale back home, albeit with a little more spice.

Next up on our tipple tour was the cellar door at Cloudy Bay. Shellie was a big fan of this internationally renowned winemaker and wanted to visit the source. Once inside, we were treated to a tasting of half a dozen wines. Like many producers in the Marlborough region, Cloudy Bay’s signature wine is their sauvignon blanc. Even though I’m an avowed fan of red wines, their sauvignon blanc (and their Gewurtztraminer) were admittedly very nice. My favourite wine at Cloudy Bay was their 2010 Riesling – it was reasonably dry and I could imagine it pairing very well with a Christmas turkey dinner.

Marlborough Vineyard

With his charges getting a little chatty and giggly, teetotal Glen drove us the last few kilometres down the road to our rendezvous. As we pulled into Forrest Estates vineyard, we found our hiking compatriots lounging on the sunny front lawn. I was ecstatic to see that Cathy and Colin and Sally had survived their backcountry experience none the worse for wear. A few glasses of celebratory sauvignon later, the sea kayakers made a fashionably late entrance. We quickly rounded up some goblets for Bil and Cam; the whole crew was finally back together.

We spent a couple of hours at Forrest Estates, getting a crash course on vines, varietals, alluvial soils, weather, irrigation and the harvesting process. I grew up on a farm and thought I knew a bit about horticulture, but viticulturists have so many more factors to contend with. I came away from the tour with an appreciation for how difficult it is to make a decent bottle of wine; suddenly $25 seems like a bargain. At the cellar door, we sampled another seven or eight varietals while snacking on cheese and crackers. I thought their Riesling was a little too sweet, but was pleasantly surprised by the reasonably full body and fruit-forward flavour of their pinot noir.

Our increasingly well-marinated band of misfits stumbled aboard ‘Frank’ for the two-hour drive to Kaikoura. We rolled through the Marlborough countryside with mountain ranges on our right until the Pacific Ocean rushed up to greet us on our left. From time to time we would spot seals sunbathing on the rocky shore. I kept a hopeful eye on the ocean for signs of life, but didn’t spot any whales.

In Kaikoura our group was distributed between a cozy B&B and the motel next door. I dropped my bags in the end unit of the motel and marvelled at the décor. Apparently polished chrome and red pleather furniture weren’t exclusive to late 1960s Las Vegas. I briefly considered asking the motel’s management to comp the prime rib buffet and my Wayne Newton show tickets, but thought better of it.

The ramshackle Rimu gang assembled at the B&B for one last ensemble dinner. Our hosts served a local delicacy as an appetizer – green-lipped mussels – and we expanded our culinary horizons. Between bites of hoki with all the fixings, Cathy and I excitedly exchanged stories about our three-day excursions. It sounded like the Nelson Lakes backcountry was rugged and gorgeous, while I made a pretty strong case for the awesome Queen Charlotte Track. One thing we did agree on was that Marlborough pinot noir is not a great match for poached fish, but when in Rome…

A good song lyric is one in which the writer tells a personal story while leaving the listener enough ambiguity to interweave his or her own narrative. One of the ways I interpret “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo is that you can’t let yourself be defined by your past – each one of us has to choose our own destiny. Do we want to live ‘in the moment’ with hair-trigger emotions like the bull, or seize control and live another day like the bullfighter? Far too often in my life I have chosen the ‘safe’ option, and surely missed out on some great moments of spontaneity. For this reason, I had deliberately pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone on my trip to New Zealand. In three weeks on the road I had somehow found a way to walk the fine line between chaos and control – and had enjoyed a richer life experience because of it.

Dinner wound down around 8:30 pm, but the party was just getting started. Many of my buddies were making noise about sashaying down the road to the pub. It would be one last chance for our troupe to buy a well-deserved round or three for our hard-working guides. I knocked on Cathy’s door and implored her to join us, but to no avail. A quick decision ensued – be outgoing and join the party, or spend one last quiet evening of stories and Yahtzee with Cathy? Seizing the toro by the horns, I bounded into the Kaikoura twilight and treated my new friends to a good time. And the pub, to the best of my fuzzy recollection, was uproarious fun indeed.

But with the benefit of hindsight, this is one occasion that I wish I had gone with my natural instinct and chosen to be the toreador.

Song of the Day: “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo + the Pharmacists