Several days after our generally successful foray to Wellington, we headed back to Lake Taupo, a destination we had always driven near, but never visited, to resolve a bit of unfinished business. In the shadow of Mount Doom sat carvings, inaccessible except by boat, several summer’s of work now condensed into a convenient guided tour. The carvings ranged from the traditional faces of Maori deities to a naked etching of the sculptor’s girlfriend at the time, whom I doubt would be super pleased with the amount of people taking pictures of her stone likeness.
I had spent study week on a road trip, now, I was determined to spend the whopping two week long finals period for a last bit of cavorting and merriment. For the New Zealanders, many of them retaining an admirable level of post semester motivation, there was plenty of time to study and ensure the preservation of their GPAs. For me, there was plenty of time to seal myself into my room and watch Netflix without that usual annoying obligation to socially interact with other people.
Wellington is a city trying very hard to be San Francisco. Between the art deco buildings and the cable car, it’s a wonder that they didn’t import a scale model of the Golden Gate Bridge. Las Vegas certainly doesn’t have the same qualms about monument theft.
What was notable, at least for me, about my arrival to Wellington was my newfound conservancy when it came to spending money. I believe I’ve mentioned before how I’ve been blithely burning through my money on trips and such with the mindset that, as a visitor to a country on the other side of the world, it would be a very, very long time before I returned, if at all. However, the cavalier attitude that I’ve taken towards currency had put me in a bind, and suddenly, the desire to see and do as much as possible was replaced with a vague, gnawing dread that everyone was out to get into the sweet, leather folds of my wallet.
Paid wifi? Yeah, right. City parking? Not likely. Vending machines? What utterly despicable leeches. No, I didn’t care how compelling they were, candy bars hanging seductively against their plastic housing, ladies of the night wrapped in crinkly cellophane.
Fortunately, Wellington offers a number of attractions that are mercifully free, allowing me the chance to hoard my money a little bit longer until I could pull an Ebeneezer Scrooge years in the future.
Economics aside, I really, sincerely, for real this time, recommend the Wellington museum for its sheer size and sheer lack of required payment. Much of the week had, given the cold and rain, been a slog through a multitude of museums and art galleries, all eager to give you your daily suppository of New Zealand knowledge.
That said, Wellington did something right, in the way it conveyed a subtle mood with its exhibits, through organization, music, and yes, the occasional Lord of the Rings prop, a staple of New Zealand attractions. I may have come dangerously close to learning in that museum, because when we left, I realized that the breeding habits of New Zealand birds had stuck in my mind. You think I’m joking. I’m not.
But, for every Wellington, saturated with culture and hipsters, there was a tourist attraction that was slightly under par, trumped up for the sake of the locals with little regard to whether it would be an actual desirable place to visit.
For instance, when we attempted to visit the coveted hill elevator of a sleepy coastal town, we found a deserted concrete tunnel, complete with a single downtrodden bench and an ancient elevator that may very well have been the understudy for the Tower of Terror.
Although there was an attendant to give us a ride and our guts remained mercifully knife-free, the opportunity to clank on up to a hilltop view of the town that could be accessed by road was pretty overrated.
Once we got even further away from Wellington, into New Zealand’s scenic swathes of farmland, towns didn’t even bother trying to distinguish themselves with a tourist trap, becoming simply, “that town with the one lane bridge” or similar. We had become well acquainted with the country’s rural areas, but hadn’t quite anticipated the desolation of some of these areas, often a few houses with a beaten up sign signaling a nearby school. These were the sleepy little country towns that seemed just remote enough to harbor some kind of dark, Lovecraftian secret.
But soon, the quality of the buildings and genetic diversity of the people improved, and then immediately took a dive as we arrived in Hamilton. But it was home, and we were exhausted. With only a few loose ends to wrap up, this was our last great expedition through the sheep infested ranges of New Zealand.
The curse of my generation, it is often said, is that we were born too late to explore the earth, but too early to explore the universe. Personally, I think this is pretty dumb, because we were born just in time to explore the places on earth that people on Trip Advisor have already meticulously mapped out and reviewed, which, generally speaking, leads to a lot less scurvy and imperialism.
I’ve been a little inactive blogging lately as a result of this trip; but now that I’ve returned and have sorted out the details of my eventual departure from New Zealand, I am happy to document my travels to the other windy city: Wellington.
It was an unusually sunny Friday morning when we departing from the university. Our hopes were high, our gas tank was full, and the trunk was filled with a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly supplies. The road trip had begun, and like the explorers of yore, we were off to find new places and then take Instagram photos with them.
Most of our trip gave us a good look at something that, oddly enough, we hadn’t seen a lot of during our trip: the beach. Pristine in the winter, New Zealand beaches lacked tourists to scour them clean of all of the best shells, so we really had to pick up the slack in that department. Slightly more confusing is when, upon hiking up nearby Mount Maunganui, we found that there were still seashells at the top of the mountain, so clearly, the seashell collectors of New Zealand need to get it together. The view was spectacular, but this country doesn’t earn points for that anymore. The university food is terrible, the liquor is expensive, and the view from the mountains would make Michelangelo cry joyful tears into his toga. Yawn. You’ve heard it all before. Much more interesting was an establishment in the town below called “The Pizza Library,” which raised all sorts of questions about the feasibility on flatbreads and card catalogs. Does the Pizza Library use the Dewey Decimal system? Is there a specific shelf for meat lover’s, or is it just lumped in with the rest of the nonvegan section? Can the stereotypes of sultry librarian and Italian pizza chef be combined?
Pizza archiving aside, we ended up eating at a place that specialized in “American Food,” which apparently consists of lots of macaroni and cheese and at least three different types of gourmet butter. Although I had spent some time puzzling over why mustard and butter needed to be combined in any capacity, it was nice to an American restaurant not sporting golden arches.
Later that evening, I began my love-hate relationship with hostel showers. Generally speaking, I hated them, and they loved to shift to cold water at unexpected moments, leading to goosebumps that could have cut diamonds. As is always the case with trying out new showers, I soon discovered that the shower back in the dorms at school had been my one true love all along.
One downside of traveling in the winter is the general emphasis on outdoor activities. So, deprived of our usual fare of mountaindiving, skyboarding, and sheep herding, we were forced to turn our gaze inward, to the museums of varying quality in each town we passed through. No New Zealand town seems to think itself without some kind of history, as I found out upon reading about how the explorer James Cook once stopped to get gas and buy a meat pie at one of the town’s truck stops.
That being said, there was enough weird art to be ironically enjoyed and enough nature to observe at a safe distance to keep up busy for a few days. However, the true prize had always been the city of Wellington, where at the very least, we could get a break from all of that annoying beautiful nature.
I’ve been told that an inevitable part of growing up is accepting that the world is a place that you can only survive in through hard work. I’ve also been told that Mayan prophecies were based around 2012 and a crystal skull, so really, no sense putting too much credence into what others tell you.
In regards to the first thing I’ve been told, the one mostly lacking in plotholes and Shia LaBeouf, I suppose that it’s mostly true, and that going to New Zealand has been a revival of sorts, with me growing up all over again. First, there was the arrival, a period of naïve confusion in which I was guided through everything and didn’t even know what jandals were. Then, there was the wild youth, in which I went and did everything that I could, not even considering the consequences, mostly just happy to be alive. And finally, I’ve aged to the point where I’m back in college again, trying to balance my time and reconcile the fact that everybody else is busy because they’re trying to do the same thing.
Last weekend, I spent my Saturday night curled up with my laptop. I had taken to my bed, because these days, it’s too cold to work anywhere else. Next to me was a pile of notes and a bag of peanuts, several cans of energy drink located somewhere behind me. Rhythmically and sensually, my fingers raced across the keys, each click and clack a step closer to composing what was certainly going to be the best essay about the American Civil War of all time. Breathing heavily as I cited my sources, I dragged the cursor up to the save button, gently now, not too rough. That was it. It was over. I was free to lie back, catch my breath, and bask in the afterglow of an APA style paper with properly formatted footnotes and three body paragraphs of beauty.
My evening thus freed, I stood up from my bed, stretched my legs, and immediately got back into bed again. The heater had turned off, turning my room frigid once again. Those barrel fires always seemed popular in less scrupulous area of the city. I considered bringing them back into style, starting in my room.
But, as they say, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, forever limited to conversation topics such as quarterly earnings and water coolers, whatever those are. So, in the spirit of proving to the world that we were still fun individuals, able to jive with the latest trends, we went to trivia night. Our team of Americans, almost entirely motivated by the promise of free food, was vastly unprepared for the slew of questions relating to New Zealand. After two questions about rugby and one about cricket, we accepted that maybe, just maybe, the people next to us using Google were going to beat us.
Little excursions like this were what kept me sane when the promise of a weekend day trip, a holdover from my New Zealand youth, was far away. I’ve picked up a few hobbies to help pass the time, most notably guitar, my on again, off again love dating back to my elementary school days. Going to the gym has also been helpful, though I do have to brave the stab-fest that is the path to College Hall.
Let me explain that. The trail up to College Hall, decked out in autumn reds and yellows during the day, is pitch black at night, many of the streetlights having long since gone out. We were told that we should only walk on lit paths, lest something bad happen to us. Evidently, we’re never supposed to leave College Hall.
This is a story about home. Actually, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I suppose that, when one really examines the content of this story, one sees that it is about remembering home when away from home, when in the home of kiwis and sheep, with some particularly homely weather. Got it?
New Zealand does not have a rainy season. Anything that you have been told about the country receiving copious amounts of rain in the autumn months is a blatant lie, and the person that has told you these lies has already been tracked down and taken in for mandatory reeducation. If you are in New Zealand in the autumn and see droplets of water descending from the sky, as if dropped by some unseen being beyond the clouds, do not be alarmed, for it is not rain. If it were rain, it would stop after a reasonable amount of time, and not continue for days. No, what you are seeing is not rain. It is something incomprehensible, unleashed for some unknown purpose, perhaps the cleaning of rooftops or the enjoyment of ducks.
Regardless of the origins of these frequently and lengthy cascades of water, many students over at the University of Waikato have taken to staying inside and relaxing as of late. And when one stays inside and relaxes, one visits social media sites. And when one visits social media sites, one sees an inevitable slew of vacation and graduation pictures (Congrats, Class of 2015!). Between the fall of rain that was not rain outside and the shiny, happy pictures posted on Facebook walls, one does not feel particularly motivated to finish out classes.
Occasionally, when I walk outside, and the grounds crew is manning the massive lawnmowers that sweep through the athletic fields, I’ll catch a whiff of that wonderful combination of cut grass and gasoline. Suddenly, I’ll be back at a park in my hometown, where the scent is almost lost amidst other scents, of burgers and waffle cones and maybe a hint of wood smoke. Somewhere close by, there is a band playing, a blur of people gathered right below the stage dancing in a big happy throng. But the band is background noise, an accompaniment to a good conversation among friends, reclined on lawn chairs and blankets, trapped in the throes of summer like the Lotus Eaters, with no need or means of escape. The sun, though already low in the sky, has dipped further in the last eternity, though I could tell no passage of time. Out came the fireflies to take its place, wheeling tantalizingly out of reach. One comes to rest on my finger, and I’m walking to class again, the ground is covered in leaves, and clouds are already blocking out the sun for the fifth day in a row.
But occasionally, on good days, the clouds will part and I’ll do something interesting.
I woke up at four one morning to catch a bus to Auckland. The transportation center where I stood for the better part of an hour was across the street from the Peaches and Cream adult shop, a name that I have been saying with less and less irony these days.
I had come to the city to meet a friend, also travelling abroad, and on his way home from Australia. We had hoped to make our way out to one of the many islands off of Auckland’s coast, but the attendants at the wharf informed us that the trip was closed due to weather.
So we chose a different island and set off. Waiheke is primarily known for its wine and beachside houses, neither things that either of us were capable of affording, but we tried to make the best of the horrors of being trapped on a sunny island for the day. Planning a budget expedition was fairly easy, replacing wine with cider and cheese with fries. Part of me would love to return some day and sip wine by the ocean, but until then, I’ll just have to content myself by yelling impotently at the grapevines and stepping all over their nice beach.
But even without the eighty degree weather and enterprising lawnmowers, it felt like I had stepped back into the lull of summer again.
I woke up with my shoes on, hoodie hanging limply over my face. My feet were hanging off of the edge of my bed, but this wasn’t anything new. The University had, of course, spared every expense when it came to beds and their size. Pushing my hood out of my face, I started to kick off my shoes before noticing the wedge of orange sunlight that had made its way past my curtains, coming to rest accusingly on a pile of unfolded laundry. I didn’t need to find a clock to know that I was running out of time. The sun set earlier every day, but dinner was likely almost over.
The dining hall was deserted. Only a few pockets of resistance kept the staff from having a bit of peace and quiet. Still, they were more than happy to ladle me a steaming plate of what they assured me was beef stroganoff.
I didn’t see anybody that I knew, but that was okay. More time to take stock of what needed to happen.
As usual, weekend plans of the past, present, and future came first. The nearby tourist trap of Rotorua had seen plenty of American incursions lately, with our group zorbing on two occasions. As entertaining as it is to discover exciting new ways to get injured inside a soft plastic ball, we had moved on to other attractions in the town.
Hoping to see the sorts of sights that cannot be found in America, we journeyed to see a Redwood forest and a geyser. The geyser, however, erupts once every half hour, so it’s really completely different. Located in Te Puia geothermal park, a haze hangs over the area, bringing with it that charming “Rotorua smell” of sulfur and camera-toting tourists. So, in the spirit of promoting travel, I devised a quick review of the park to all of you globetrotters out there*.
Downsides: Jumping in the mud pools and asking an attendant for a therapeutic massage is frowned upon.
Upsides: Every rock is a heated seat.
The park also includes a Maori carving school; and the fruits of the craftsmen’s labor can be see scattered around the park’s trails. If you’re in Te Puia and feel like you’re being watched, it’s probably one of these statues. If you hear footsteps, run. If you suddenly experience a feeling of existential dread followed by bouts of extended weeping, you should probably get professional help. Really, I can’t help you there. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of these installations is, so I can only guess that they comes alive at opportune moments to abduct visitors that vandalize or double park.
Meanwhile, in the future, over my steaming pile of grey goo, I considered the redwood forest. Several days in the past, we had hiked through this primordial collection of trees. The forest was lofty and sparse, lacking a lot of the ground level vegetation common elsewhere. The shade of the trees had likely accounted for that, only allowing several lucky sunbeams to drift along the forest floor.
Downsides: Not enough branches to make a treetop village of adorable bear-people.
Upsides: Easy to figure out what kinds of trees you’re seeing, assuming you know the definitions of “red” and “wood.”
Unfortunately, the beef stroganoff had not outlasted the time it took for me to mentally catch up with myself. My time was spent planning for the weekend, in which I could come alive and forget about the whole nasty “learning experience” business. Sleeping became my hobby. It wasn’t particularly destructive to my experiences, at least up until that point. Fall, or “Autumn” as the New Zealanders insisted on calling it, had arrived in full force, bringing rain that led to skipped classes and afternoons spent with a robe and a book.
Upon waking up, I’d go through the motions that I described; taking stock of how clothed I was, figuring out how much of the day I’d missed, and looking out the window, where the trees were starting to surrender their leaves, clinging to the few that meant a lot to them. Sometimes, I’d see College Hall’s resident cat hanging around under the dining hall awning, looking a bit disgruntled about the rain and his inability to open the automatic doors. In more ways than one, my stay in New Zealand was winding down.
Maybe the Routeburn track, pass sealed with snow, would be inaccessible to us, but we were young and filled with hormones and misplaced energy, and we needed a challenge. After the initial disappointment with the track’s closure had worn off, complete with an afternoon of forlornly looking at the ground and a chorus of “aw, shucks,” we chose a worthy adversary: Mount Roy, a strapping young thing with sheep on its slopes and a stylish fringe of snow at the top.
So, intrepid adventurers that we were, we trekked downtown to rent a car to bring us there. Our eventual mode of transportation was a magnificent beast dubbed “El Cheapo” by the rental company. We had seen other iterations of this teal stallion rolling around town, but nevertheless, we were taken in by its litheness, occasionally functioning radio, and an adorable horn that sounded like a squeaky toy. Its license plate even said, “EWW.” Nevertheless, it transported us to the foot of Mount Roy without incident, a tiny, yappy terrier in the shadow of the various Saint Bernards of the parking lot.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, we were unprepared even for this hike and ran out of water. I’m willing to admit that this may have been partially my fault.
Skilled survivalists that we were, we melted snow for water while continuing to subsist on the tried and true diet of peanut butter and jelly. This mountain was slightly less brutal than the last, with massive spiders and leeches traded for sheep dung and an old couple that embarrassed us by hiking really fast.
Still, we made it to the summit, scoffing at the smaller mountains around us and blanching at the much larger ones off in the distance, their peaks undoubtedly resounding with peals of laughter we could not hear. We were surrounded by a cradle of stone and ice, clouds drifting past us, or even below us. El Cheapo was a single greenish pixel far below, but it was a car, a man-made thing, not allowed to revel in this vastness that only exists at the top of the world.
The walk down was far more pleasant, the clouds clearing away to reveal the sunny, grassy trail beneath our feet. With sweaty clothing and broken hiking boots, we headed back to Queenstown. It was no alpine backpacking trail, but hey, it made for some good pictures.
We returned to Hamilton to find a school given new life. Returning students swapped hugs, stories, and, in some cases, spit. The break had left me drained, and two weeks of cheap fast food had made me resolve to improve my dietary habits. My room still had a shelf full of junk food, which made me sick just looking at it. I knew that I needed to get rid of all of that food if I was going to start down the path to a better lifestyle.
Naturally, I did this by eating all of it over the course of two days. Suck it, Dr. Oz.
I may have spent the last few weeks in a financial and occasionally literal free fall, but immediately after our return, LVC celebrated Dutchmen Day, a chance to forget about classes and enjoy inflatables, food, and… well, mostly just those things. Not to be deterred, we expatriates made our own Dutchmen Day. Gas station candy bars were our good food. And in place of inflatables, we went zorbing. For the uninitiated, zorbing is the practice of hurtling down a hill in a large beach ball filled with water. Naturally, the most entertaining variant on the “human pinball” formula is a track where an entire group can experience the ride simultaneously, in the same ball. In a confined space, this led to an afternoon of gurgled swearing, tangled limbs, and apologies for the unexpected and uncomfortable physical closeness.
The weather outside was frightful, but the fire was less delightful and more calming. After all, what did we have to worry about? We had pockets full of fudge, a television full of movies, and backpacks full of food. The hostel’s couches were pleasantly spongy, and I sank into one immediately after returning from our walk around Queenstown. Soon after, Anchorman was playing on the television, and we had settled down to enjoy this college kid’s classic. My phone buzzed serenely with notifications, the hostel’s free wifi breathing life into a machine that had been dormant for days before. Perhaps we hadn’t experienced the highlights of our visit, but after more than a week of cavorting through Cairns, exploring the daylights out of any nature unfortunate enough to cross our path, it was pleasant to have a moment to sit and appreciate the little joys of life.
Granted, “sit and appreciate the little joys of life” was only blocked for about an hour on our itinerary, and shortly, we returned to our task of panicking about our hiking trip (already in progress).
I rounded up my two traveling companions, bringing them to my room and drawing their attention to the orderly array of food on the floor, bags of noodles and boxes of energy bars lined up in rows that would make a drill instructor blush. These were our rations for the hike, I explained. We would be splitting the food between the three of us, to even the load. I cast my eyes over the gear of the other two LVC students. One had a green hiking backpack, small, but respectable. The other had a school backpack, with what may have been a beaten up homework assignment peeking out of the top.
It was going to be a long night.
I rummaged through my bag, tossing aside dirty clothing to reveal the occasional useful item for surviving in the icy mountains. Were my companions well equipped for the hike? (they weren’t)
Rain poncho? Blank stares.
Cooking utensils? Blank stares.
A sleeping bag? I might as well have been waving a gold plated hiking stick at them.
At least they packed water bottles.
We took a trip to town to buy emergency ponchos and matches and called it a night. At this point, I was secretly wondering how much food I could carry in the event that one of them caught hypothermia and had to be left behind.
The next day, we found out that the snow that would have certainly caused discomfort at best and hospitalization at worse had prevented the trip entirely. Our trip had been canceled, leaving us adrift with a small stash of food. We were so down about the whole ordeal that we decided to jump into a canyon*.
It wasn’t just about the thrill of jumping for me. We had chosen the Nevis Bungy jump, which, according to any number of helpful brochures, was the highest in New Zealand, with 8.5 seconds of free fall. And personally, I really wanted to find out what I would think about in that vital 8.5 seconds. Would my life flash before my eyes? Would I have an epiphany, revealing some great truth about me? What, other than a stray bird, could possibly pass through my head during that fall?
Not a lot, as it turns out. It was less about thinking and more about feeling. The wind was the first thing that I felt, howling as I passed through it at a speed normally reserved for falling rocks. I also felt some kind of fear, not for my life, but for my GoPro, clenched as tightly in my hand as possible. The further I fell, the more my cognitive function returned to me, previously suspended to allow me to make the jump in the first place. I wondered how cold the stream water was and how close I would come to it.
Yeah, it was expensive, but I paid for an experience that I may never get another chance to have. And that’s what my trip is all about, really. The big things and the small things, coming together to make one huge amorphous thing that you can’t quite identify, but you’re glad to have in your life.
This concludes the Spring (actually Autumn) break post-a-thon. I’ll update again as soon as I find something neat to do.
Sleep on the floor of the Melbourne Airport. Wake up. Check in. Dash through security. Sigh in frustration as you encounter even more security. Don’t get distracted by the duty free liquor. No, I don’t care how good that two for one deal is. Realize you still have four Australian dollars to spend. Realize that candy is far too expensive for that. Find a vending machine. Pay $3.50 for a bottle of apple juice. Pocket the fifty cent piece. Impress your friends with the fact that you’ve managed to transport a coin the approximate size of a manhole cover. This is how you properly return to New Zealand.
Getting to my proper destination, however, was a different story, resulting in a far different trip to Queenstown than I had anticipated.
New Zealand is big on these silly rules referred to as “bioquarantine laws” by those sorts of people that want to sound threatening, particularly those with trivial things like Ph.D’s and biology degrees. Anyway, it was this manner of folks that impeded my progress in the Auckland airport, hunt up on the tent that I had been dragging around Australia, useless since our camping trip.
Getting my luggage was bad. Getting my luggage through customs, trying to make sure that no folks in hazmat suits were called in over my hair conditioner, was worse. So, by the time my gear was given back to me with the bashful admission that sometimes, a tent really is just a tent, my flight to Queenstown had departed.
A popular recent trend amongst wayfarers, globetrotters, and other miscellaneous world travelers is to post a picture from a campsite, in this case, the first thing that the photographer sees upon waking up in the morning. The following was, more or less, my first view of the day for a portion of the week.
Queenstown was, despite the cold, the lack of beach, and the mountains, an odd sort of parallel to Cairns. Both were certainly towns that catered to tourists, though in different ways. Cairns is very much similar to the beach towns of the eastern U.S, despite not actually having a beach. Walk down any street in the town, and you will likely pass an infinitely repeating sequence of souvenir shop, cafe, and liquor store, like Cairns was built to house a reboot of the Truman Show. Seeing the same few knickknacks and t-shirts is always proof that you’ve stumbled someplace that is slightly too eager to take your sweet, precious tourism money.
There’s a lake down in Queenstown, but relaxing by the water is probably low on the list of priorities for visitors. Take the normal tourism town shop lineup and add camping store to the mix, and you’ve captured the fundamental difference between Queenstown and Cairns. It’s the kind of place that appeals to adventurers, not the kind with swords and battleaxes but the kind with cumbersome backpacks and, dare I say it, dorky pants.
Nevertheless, Queenstown has a sort of charm that Cairns lacks. Going to Queenstown is, as one of my group members put it, like stepping into a little Christmas town. All of the elements are there. Snowy mountains provide a picturesque backdrop. The outside of the town is all quaint lodges and cottages. Further towards the center of town, candy stores churn out confection after confection, tempting the passerby to purchase more fudge than they know what to do with. Elves, their faces cherry red from the cold, trundle down the streets.
We wouldn’t be in Queenstown for long. The Routeburn Track was calling our names, beckoning us to venture into the frozen mountains, surviving only with our wits and a jar of extra crunchy peanut butter. On the other hand, Mother Nature writes her own itinerary, and she’s a big fan of tagging along with you and then not paying for gas or food.
Things that the LVC students are no longer allowed to do in Australia