The West Coast
As I left Wanaka, heading to the West Coast, I picked up a hitchhiker just outside of town. She was tall and thin and had a huge backpack that must have weighed at least 50 lbs. We got all of her gear in the trunk and went along our way and no sooner had she introduced herself as Marketa, from the Czech Republic, when we saw another young backpacker. I had just enough room for one more so we stowed her gear away and off we went. They were both heading exactly where I was, Franz Josef Glacier. Marie from Paris about 22 I’d guess, was the second backpacker and she had even more gear than Marketa. She had been in New Zealand for eight months, working a variety of jobs. It was a great change to have some people to talk to in the car, and I learned lots of great tips for how to live and get about cheaply. Couchsurfing, Woof-ing (Workers On Organic Farms), sub-woofing (that’s when you just work for room and board, not necessarily on an organic farm. And yes, I did make up that term), Airbnb, hitchhiking, the differences between Hostels and Backpackers (none really in case you were wondering, Backpackers is another hostel chain). It was awesome, like grad school for traveling. Since they were both from Europe, I grilled them on the differences between NZ and Europe and got lots of great info for my next year abroad.
Just as I picked up Marie, it started drizzling rain. It didn’t stop raining for the next two days. It was really socked in and clouds covered much of the scenery. The route we took was supposed to be one of top three drives in NZ, which is really saying something, if you haven’t been able to tell by the pictures I’ve posted so far. We drove along Lake Hawea and over the Haast Pass. It took all day to make it to Franz Jo. We quickly found the YHA and Marketa and I checked in but we said goodbye to Marie who was staying at a Backpackers down the street.
Hostels have arrangements with all the tour services available throughout NZ, it’s like having a concierge. I really wanted to do a heli-hike on the Franz Josef glacier (or glassier as they pronounce it) but the weather was not cooperating and the helicopters were grounded for a couple of days. I chose to do a regular hike on the Fox Glacier, about 15 miles back up SH6. The hostess booked me for the 8:30am hike the next morning. I went off to a nearby restaurant for dinner while Marketa prepared something really cheap for herself in the hostel kitchen. I know that when I get to Europe, I’ll need to be much more frugal but for now, I see this as a regular vaca and will spend accordingly.
The only time I really feel lonely here is when I eat at restaurants. I feel much less lonely when I am actually alone. There is something about the whole “Just one for dinner?” from the hostess and being surrounded by couples and families talking and visiting. I don’t care for it. The problem is I like good food and I can’t cook good food so it’s a conundrum. I will have to figure something out or learn to cook. Maybe some of the other hostel kids can teach me some good, cheap yet delicious recipes. Or I can pay them to cook for me!! Win win!!
I made it to the Fox Glacier the next morning bright and early. I don’t think spending over three hours in the pouring rain on a super giant ice cube helped my chest cold any. There was no part of me that wasn’t cold and soaking wet by the time I got back to the hostel but it was so worth it. The blues of the ice, the fact that you are standing on something that shapes the earth in the same way glaciers have done for millions of years, understanding how giant boulders the size of VW’s get into the middle of a field or stream-it all makes sense when you see it in action, however slow that action may be. It gave the term “glacially slow” new meaning to me. We even saw a rockslide while we were up there. The guide, Passang, a Tibetan immigrant, said it happens constantly because of the freeze and thaw process which cracks the rocks. There is a little Mikey on the Fox Glacier, he would have loved that experience, although the hike up to it was pretty tough. He wouldn’t have liked that part.
Marketa and I were very compatible. She is a 35 year old high school teacher in the CR plus she is a very peaceful person and we have a lot in common. She wanted to travel up the West Coast, as did I, so after I finished my glacier tour, I picked her back up at the hostel and we continued north and west toward the coast. We talked about men and relationships, about education, the good and the bad. I asked her if she could help me visit a Czech school while I was there and she said she would set something up although the special education system there is “quite horrible” and she was embarrassed for me to see it. We talked about our past travels and where else we’d like to go. She traveled for a month to Egypt with no plans, just hitchhiking and figuring things out as she went. She had been hiking in India for two weeks with people she met over the Internet. So when my friends say I am brave or courageous, I look at Marketa and women like her, and think “No, THAT shit is brave.”
I asked her what she thought made both of us love traveling so much. I told her that some people had asked me, “Why don’t you just take a sabbatical in the US?” and she said people asked her the same about touring her own country. I liked her reply to them.
“You have your hobby, it is reading or fishing or gardening. My hobby, what I love to do is travel. If there were not people like me, explorers with curiousity, countries would not have been discovered and mountains would not be named. I will tour my country when I am too old to tour others.”
The weather had not improved at all, and as we drove along the Tasman Sea, it got worse. We really couldn’t see anything of the scenery unless we were right at sea level and then we could see the breakers but no further. The landscape was very much like the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California, only with no traffic, a two lane road, one lane bridges, not many houses, isolated and rugged. I imagine that the California coast was once like this, before it was discovered. I really wanted to see the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (poo-nah-ki (long i)-kee. It was almost dark by the time we got there but the 15 minute walk around the rocks was outstanding. The tide was high, waves crashing against the boulders, white spray gleaming against the gray of dusk and rain. You could only tell where the sun was setting by the pink and purple clouds covering it, all the rest a solid wall of gray. I was thinking we would stop for the night at Punakaiki but it was so small and we couldn’t find the YHA so we decided to drive up to Westport, another hour up the road. I was very glad we did keep going. The YHA at Westport was the best one yet, and it’s where I got my single room. It was in an old two story Victorian mansion and the feeling was very warm and homey. Marketa cooked me a meal of sautéed onion and cabbage in rice. Very simple but good and it probably cost about $3 to feed the both of us.
Today we drove from Westport to St. Arnaud, on Lake Rotoiti, and that is where we parted ways. Marketa is a serious hiker and her dream was to hike from mountain hut to mountain hut in the Southern Alps around Queenstown, but it is dead of winter here and she wasn’t prepared for hiking in the snow. These mountains in the Arnaud range are not quite as high and don’t get as much snow. There are hundreds of hiking trails throughout this area in the center of the northern part of the South Island. I drove her up to a parking lot that was as close as we could get to the trail she wanted to hike. It was supposed to take her 2 ½ hours to get to the Bushline hut high above the lake. I walked with her for about 45 minutes, climbing up a very steep zigzag trail the entire time. She had on a 50 lb backpack and kept having to stop to wait for me, who had….30 extra lbs of fat—no backpack, nada, just an old, outtashape broad. I finally said “Hey (wheeze wheeze) I think (wheeze wheeze) I’m gonna turn around here (huff huff) and go on back down.” That bitch wasn’t even breathing hard and the only sign she was working was her slightly pink cheeks. We hugged each other goodbye and said we would stay in touch. I walked down but kept looking back up to watch her progress. She was amazing and disappeared into the treeline not long after I let her go on without me.
When I got back down and into my room at the YHA here, I had a perfect view of the hill we had just climbed. I got out my binoculars and realized that I had nearly made it to the top of that particular hill. If I had kept walking for maybe ten more minutes, I would have made it. Lesson learned.