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December 28, 2005 Christchurch, New Zealand
It has taken four days, but at last we are in New Zealand. We are held up briefly at customs when a trained dog sniffs out an orange in Jay's daypack. Signs had warned us to declare any fruit or vegetables and we thought we'd eaten all our USA produce. The customs officer is severe and tells us that if the orange had been in an adult's daypack we would have been fined $200. That's an expensive piece of fruit.
We collect our battered bike boxes and duffel and wait outside in the warm, summer day. It feels like June in northern New York and that's exactly what December in the temperate southern hemisphere is. I feel a wonderful sense of the topsy-turvy nature of being on the opposite side of the earth.
"Here we are!" It's Chris McGill and Mark Scambury, New Zealand friends we first met fourteen years ago. Later, we shared northern Christmases with them at our house when they lived in the United States for three years. They pull up in an old Subaru, towing a small trailer. Jay runs over to give the first hugs.
It only takes a moment to load our gear and we're off through the edge of Christchurch to Chris and Mark's home in Horotane Valley, a narrow north-facing valley known historically for its stone fruit orchards-plums and cherries and apricots. I still feel as though I'm in a dream, with the sound of lawn mowers and birds and flowers blooming in Chris's beautiful gardens. After a lunch of bread and cheese (the NZ sharp cheddar is called "tasty cheese" and the extra sharp "very tasty cheese"), Jay collapses on the lawn for a nap and the rest of us catch up with our lives. I help weed a garden and later we hike up behind the house, up dry, steep slopes where sheep and cattle graze. We open and close several gates and end up on a rocky summit called Castle Rock. Below us we can see the Pacific Ocean and the large area of activity around Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island.
December 29, 2005 Christchurch to the West Coast
The Christmas holidays in New Zealand are summer holidays and many Kiwis like to go "tramping", or hiking, during these long warm days. It doesn't take long to find a mountain in New Zealand and DOC (Dept. of Conservation) maintains a vast network of trails and huts for overnight travelers.
Chris and Mark want to try a five-day trip on the West Coast, a six-hour drive from Christchurch over a spectacular mountain range. By noon we've packed our gear and we pile into the Subaru and head out.
By the time we get to our trailhead it is 7pm, but we still have hours of daylight so no one is worried. We start at the mouth of the Fox River and moments after we leave the "car park" I feel like I am in a movie, Juraissic Park perhaps, and dinosaurs will soon thunder out of the pre-historic foliage. The landmass of New Zealand separated from the rest of the world early enough that much of the flora evolved independently of other continents. The cabbage trees and giant fern trees shock me the most. They seem to belong to a past era in time. Even the beech trees surprise me-they all have tiny little leaves. The Rimu tree has scaly fingers of leaves that droop downward and the Rata grows in a convoluted shape that makes the silhouette look like a head of broccoli. Chris is a botanist and I constantly ask her questions.
The trail, called the Inland Track, follows an old road first created by gold miners in the 1860s. At 8:30pm we drop our packs at a wide campsite next to the river and decide we still have daylight enough to hike up to the cave fifteen minutes up a side trail. The cave is worth the effort, a long crack in the limestone bedrock with stalactites and odd bulbous formations.
Dinner, our "tea" as the kiwis call it, is light-cups of tea and crackers and fruitcake. At 10pm, darkness ends our day.
December 30, 2005 Inland Track
The ads for hiking in New Zealand fail to mention one thing-much of the trail will be underwater. The West Coast of New Zealand is a temperate rainforest with at least three meters of rainfall a year, that's over nine feet. And even on a dry day, many trails follow river valleys and where the edges of the valley are steep, the trail simply goes through the water.
After a breakfast of muesli (granola) we cross the Fox River, walk for twenty minutes then cross it again. We cross it several more times before we reach the Ballroom, a dramatic curved overhang of cliff. The river is swift and cool, though not icy. Jay, the shortest member of our group, gets wet to mid-thigh. After awhile I stop thinking about how wet my feet are and enjoy each crossing.
By the end of the day, I think I've become an amphibean. We walk on dry land for a kilometer then splash up a creek for another. When we reach narrow Fossil Creek we are in the water constantly. All around us is dense native bush (forest) and now it seems that I'm playing a bit part in The Lord of the Rings, which was filmed in New Zealand and has that other-worldly atmosphere in the scenes that were filmed in the bush. It seems impossible to believe that five days ago I was cross-country skiing in northern New York State.
The last hour of the day is on dry land, though the trail is often muddy. We break out into a wide valley where the trees were once cleared for a farm. My sneakers are almost dry when we plunge into Bullock Creek, our last crossing of the day. Our campsite is in a copse of trees overlooking the dry riverbed. A few hundred yards down from our river crossing Bullock Creek goes underground, sucked down into the hollow limestone bedrock. It definitely increases the magic of our trip to see a wide river rush over a bed of gravel then disappear into the earth.
December 31, 2005 Inland Track to Blackball
It rains during the night and in the morning I hear the sound of running water. Our dry riverbed is now a deep flowing river. Who said Earth Science is boring?
After a leisurely breakfast, we put on our packs and head toward Cave Creek. After walking for an hour we come upon the place where the "captured" Bullock Creek churns out of the earth, now as part of Cave Creek.
This limestone, or karst, topography has more surprises. A sign warns us to stay on the trail or we may fall in sink holes or grikes, sunken channels in the ground. We carefully peer off the trail into deep black holes where a human could disappear, much like the crevasses on a glacier. The difference is these are covered in a soft layer of moss and ferns, not ice.
We have seen very few people on this trip, but as we near our exit point at Punakaiki, a tourist destination with a hotel and "motor camp" (campground) we pass many people hiking in for a short walk. They have a clean scent of soap and I wonder what they smell on us as we pass by. The trail is still magnificent and rich with green. We see a few birds--the Bush Robin and the Weka, a flightless bird that reminds me a bit of a grouse. There are no native mammals in New Zealand except for two species of bat but many mammals have been introduced, usually wrecking havoc on the native species. Rabbits and hares are everywhere in farmland country and an asian possum, introduced as a fur-bearing species, eats the eggs of native birds.
At the trailhead, Mark retrieves his mountain bike and heads out on the 12 kilometers of road back to the car. The rest of us, bring our packs down to the beach and play in the waves. When Mark returns we all pile in the the car and drive south along the coast to Greymouth to a grocery store to restock our food supplies. Chris finds out the best fish and chips are to be had in nearby Cobden and soon we are back on the beach carrying an enormous hot and greasy packet of newspaper. The chips are crisp and salty and the fish fresh and flaky. We wipe our mouths on our sleeves and grin at each other.
Although we bought a bottle of champagne in Greymouth, we are too tired to stay up until midnight and so at 11pm, we drink it out of plastic cups as we stand around a small campfire at the trailhead for the Croesus Track, a remote car park with plenty of flat space to set up tents. Jay and Chris head into the tents and Tom and Mark look at the stars, discussing the location of the Southern Cross. I look up at the vivid stars, no light pollution here, and find the constellation Orion, upside down. Happy New Year.
January 1, 2006 Croesus Track
We are in gold country again, Croesus being a wealthy king in some mythology that I can't remember. This track follows a steep river valley up to a high ridge, and the entire way was once a road during the gold boom of the 1860's. Now the trail is badly eroded, in this land of much rain.
Mark decides to try this trail on his mountain bike and has to hear us all laughing when he encounters the first cable bridge crossing. Somehow he manages to get his bike across on the bridge, two cables encased in wire mesh. We cross two more bridges before lunch. Jay doesn't understand why I look so serious when I'm crossing. I tell him I don't like to be dangling high over a raging river in a flimsy wire cage, though I know that doesn't bother him.
Our weather is cloudy, but somehow the storm holds off until we have reached the hut on the ridge, a four hour hike up. The hut sits on the ridge like a proud ship, large windows at the prow. Mark is already there, resting after his strenuous climb. The hut sleeps twenty and has a sink with running water from a rainwater tank, as well as ancient copies of Readers' Digest and a deck of cards. Jay is thrilled.
We have time to walk along the ridge before tea and we are joined in the hut by two young kiwi men. The smaller man, stocky, with a head of dark curly hair and a strong kiwi accent, is a dead ringer for Frodo. Jay agrees. Frodo (actually Dean) and his friend Brian dig into an enormous tea of fried steak, noodles, tomato sauce and several cans of beer. Our tea of pasta with a tiny can of anchovies and one little courgette (zucchini) seems small, but we supplement it with a chocolate bar and lollies, assorted candy from the bulk bins in the grocery store. The day is a complete success for Jay when Mark offers to teach him a new card game, a version of Hearts, and Dean and Brian join them.
January 2, 2006 Blackball to Christchurch
In the night, the hut shakes and shudders. A gale force wind surrounds us and with it, plenty of rain. We stay inside in the morning reading and drinking tea and looking out the windows. No one is in a hurry to leave and even a trip outside to the long drop (outhouse) is an adventure.
We finally pack up and leave before 11am when the rain has stopped and the wind has backed down. The trip back to the car is easy, though we are walking in water most of the way, and it's not because of crossing rivers. The woods glow in the dim light, especially the fern trees, my favorite New Zealand flora. I particularly admire the gigantic fiddleheads, the size of a fist or larger.
We meet Mark down in the Blackball Tavern, a cluttered place with lots of local history. Blackball began as a gold mining boom town then became a coal mining town after that. A big strike started in 1908 when leaders of the miners asked for an increase in the lunch break from 15 minutes to 30 minutes and management turned them down. The resulting strike and organization after that led to the formation of New Zealand's Labour Party. Now the town of Blackball is very small, mostly a tourist destination.
During our long drive back to the east coast and Christchurch we stop in Reefton to browse in a museum, pay for our night in the hut ($10 NZ each, about $7.50US) and get 50cent ice cream cones. We all choose Hokey Pokey, a New Zealand special flavor- vanilla ice cream with bits of toffee in it.
And one last adventure-on the mountain road over Lewis Pass two trees are down blocking the road. A scared-looking young woman tells us they almost hit her car. As other cars arrive we become a temporary work crew. Someone has a rope, someone on the other side has a cable and all of us can throw branches. The trees are New Zealand beech and very brittle, like our poplar trees. Beefy kiwi men work alongside an asian couple who don't speak English. In the midst of it all, it begins to pour rain. We all cheer when a path is cleared and the first car makes it through.
It's after 10pm when we arrive back at Chris and Mark's house. All of us agree it was a completely successful holiday.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475