The Misty Mountains
The day began with a sunrise breakfast at Paddy’s, which included both sausage, size of a very large banana, the texture of rice pudding, and bacon, which looked like pieces of ham. The bacon was tasty but I couldn’t get past my texture issues with the sausage. I gave Paddy a big hug when I left, for he was surely an angel along my way.
Before I left, I sprinkled some of Michael’s ashes at the edge of the shore. I had a Ziploc bag of Mikey to sprinkle in special places that I knew he would have loved. I even put a plastic spoon in the bag!! I know that this is for me, not him, as all funerals and memorials are for the living. I think of him constantly still, especially when I see these places, and it brings me joy to have him and let him go at the same time. Today, Michael got sprinkled A LOT!! It was a magnificent day.
The area that I drove through today, which includes Kaka Point, is called the Catlins. Even in a country as pure as New Zealand, the islanders consider this a wilder, untouched area. The roads are narrow but good, and randomly went from macadam to gravel and back. Cannibal Bay was my first destination and was not too far from Kaka Point. I followed Paddy’s markings on the map but the roads weren’t named so I just went by instinct. There were no signs that pointed the bay out, so I did a lot of turning around. The compass that was given to me before I left definitely came in handy!! I went down a gravel road that became progressively more narrow and windy until there was room for only one car. Again with the mountains on one side and the drop off to fields of fluffy sheep below on the other. There were no other cars to compete with though, I was completely alone. As I started to descend, I came around a curve and the most beautiful cove came into view. I actually gasped, it took my breath away. I drove down to the bay and wandered along the shore. Paddy told me sea lions would probably be there but there was no living thing for the 20 minutes I wandered the rock pools. When I walked back to the car, a small, ancient, wrinkled man with twinkling blue eyes,was standing by the path.
“Yer up bright (broight) and early (airly),” he says to me.
“I was hoping to see some sea lions.”
And then he launched into a whole sea lion information session. “They come up more in the summah, and they beach (bache) on the far (fah) side by the rocks to block the leeward (layward) wind.” I struggled to grasp what he was saying.
We talked for a while about the habits of wildlife. I’m not 100% sure where he came from. There was one ramshackle house with about six equally ramshackle, small outbuildings about 500 feet from the shore. The last house I saw was 15 minutes back up the narrow gravel road. I guess he was the owner of all those sheep. What an amazing place to live but I couldn’t imagine being more isolated.
My day was filled with these excursions, finding the places Paddy thought were worthy of the side trips, never getting lost but never exactly sure where I was. Every vista so stunning I just shook my head. Jack’s Blowhole, a hard 20 minute walk up and down the windy cliffs, high above the ocean; Purakanai Falls, a beautiful walk through the temperate rain forest; Papatowai Bay, a surfer’s dream; Toetoes Bay and the Waipapa Lighthouse, Riverton and Colac Bay.
I sprinkled Mikey throughout the morning, he would have loved this day. I drove for hours along the scenic coast road, traveling west along the “bottom” of the island. By 1:00pm I had to start moving north to get to my stop for the night, Te Anau. That was when it really ramped up. I came around one bend and had to pull over. I was crying and laughing at the same time, because the beauty was so overwhelming I just knew he was there.
“Baby, LOOK at this! Look at what I’m seeing right now because it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet and you would have loved it.”
I was seeing Te Waewae Bay. My camera could never capture the vastness of the ocean, the miles long unspoiled, untouched beach with the mist rising off the crashing waves below, the snowcapped mountains that shone in the distance in front of me in a long unbroken arc of white. As someone I met on the trip said, “New Zealand needs to just take a breath and quit showing off.”
As I got closer to those mountains, I saw a sign that said, “Entering the realm of the Misty Mountains.” The thing that is different about these mountains is that there are so many of them and as you drive toward them, they completely surround you and seem to go on in every direction and around every curve. It’s the volume that is so overwhelming. Also, unlike the Rockies, the road doesn’t slowly rise up to meet the peaks, winding first through foothills and gentler slopes. These mountains rise up from flat ground at sea level, with steep, sheer sides, trees and ferns covering their feet.
Te Anau (Tay An now) is at the heart of these mountains, on the largest body of fresh water in Australasia. Lake Taupo, on the north island is bigger but not as deep. Lake Te Anau, 60 km long, gets as deep as 412 meters in places. The islands of New Zealand were formed by volcanoes, and the subduction of the Australasia plate under the Pacific plate, which is still happening. But it has also been shaped by glaciers, and the evidence of that is so clear here. This lake is a deep gouge cut in the rock as a glacier moved along during some ice age long ago. This small town sits on the edge of that lake, and the snowcapped mountains rise up on the other side, extending on for miles along the water's edge and continue on behind it to the ocean about 30 miles away. I am in the middle of the Fiordlands and tomorrow I go to see Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord.
For the next two nights, I am staying in a hostel in a tiny four bed (two bunk beds) mixed dormitory. This night I have it to myself. There is a large community room with a gas fireplace, little tables and a large kitchen. I am old enough to be the grandma of everyone I’ve seen so far but I don’t care, I’m used to teenagers and they are very friendly. This hostel world is a whole community, and it is easy to strike up conversations and make friends. Many of them are Australian but there are also French, German, American and Kiwi’s too. Except for me, they all appear to be serious “trampers”, which is what they call hiking here.
Of course, like everywhere I’ve been in New Zealand, it is freezing throughout the hostel except in front of the fireplace. New Zealanders have a thing for leaving windows wide open during the day as long as it isn’t raining, and they don’t close them. There is no central heating, just a variety of radiators, which heat the room up only incrementally because it is radiant heat. I went to use the bathroom and had to close the window. I think that if the toilet seat had been wet, my ass would have frozen to it. When I checked in, the clerk said I needed to turn on the heater in the room. There was a wall switch that said “Heater” but I couldn’t see a radiator or anything on the walls. There was a 2 x 4 rectangular white metal box on the ceiling above one of the bunks. It had no openings, just flat metal about two inches deep. I flicked the switch and waited for something to start glowing or blowing but nothing happened. Naturally, the window was wide open in the room, a fact I didn’t discover until much later when the curtain started moving.
When I came back from dinner, the room actually was a tiny bit warmer and the bed under the heater was nice and toasty so that’s the one I chose to sleep in. Under two wool blankets and a comforter. With my wool socks on. Getting in and out of a top bunk is not something I’ve done in quite a while, like maybe never. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have a roommate and leave it at that.