The Deep, Deep South

It wasn’t long after I returned home from a trip to India that I dragged the brick-heavy Lonely Planet guide out to the yard. In a meadow of my own country, I shot that worthless sack of wet facts with a shotgun like a dog past its prime. The book proved to be little more than a burden on my trip. It antagonized the locals and left me in the same tourist traps as every other poor sucker, town after town.

Before the big jump to New Zealand, I sought the tried and true method of word-of-mouth advice. It was difficult to find people who’d been to this great country for longer than a two week tour through Lord of the Rings sets, but a few weeks before my departure, the tips began to pour in.

Sitting on the plane to Auckland, I could recall every bit of information I’d heard:

“It’s a wonderful landscape”
“The landscape is beautiful”
“Amazing scenery!”

But.
.         .That.
.                      ..Was.

…………………………..It.

A pattern emerged and it worried me. It didn’t help that my internet search results were in a similar vein: bungee jumping, zorb rides, trout fishing, biking, Franz Josef. Apart from the news about James Cameron’s Avatar being filmed on location, there seemed to be few activities involving other human beings.

It’s not that people spoke poorly about Kiwis: how could anyone hate on the race responsible for pavolova? It’s just that when anyone talked about New Zealand, a beautiful portrait was created: a landscape free of humans. When I arrived, I naturally assumed the population was kept in various rugby stadiums that dotted the country side.

The first place I called home was Wanganui and the landscape certainly was stunning, but not in the way I had imagined. The sky was florescent blue and the hills were the greenest green I’d ever seen. I repeated this wonder to others and it got to the point where they demanded I either learn another rhyme or find something else at which to marvel.

Rotorua hot pool, pic 1 of 100.

Roto-Vegas at its finest.

After a few weeks, however, this view did get old. I visited Rotorua and saw boiling mud. On TV, a contest offered the winner a meadow. Boiling mud?!? A meadow?!?! I thought perhaps the size of the country also regulated the size of its expectations. I became convinced someone at Lonely Planet was very good at photoshopping pristine lakes and mountains into pictures of sheep and fields.

Of course, I hadn’t yet been to the south island.

Taking the ferry over was like passing through some magical gate into a world of fairies and elves. I became accustomed to the splendor of Timaru’s mountains and bay, but I wasn’t prepared for the scenery pounded into my head during a tiki tour farther south and toward the setting sun.

You might expect that with a heap of nature pics, the grandeur of the images would speak for themselves. But when I return home and perform the obligatory ritual of showing off the photo slide show, there will have to be a lot of explaining.

For example, the day my partner and I visited Milford Sound, big snow flakes began to fall in the morning. On the bus ride, we stumbled out several times to snap photos on snow covered fields surrounded by mountains. Milford was bright and blue by the time we arrived. On the way back we stopped for a quick walk through a neon-bright fern forest. And when we returned, that same snow-covered field had disappeared, replaced with miles of golden waves.

It’s going to be difficult making such a drastic change in weather and surroundings seem plausible to the folks back home. I’ll have to explain that, yes, all the pictures were taken on the same day; Yes, that mountain is being reflected off the water; No, we didn’t use photoshop; No, the sheep do not like it when you do that; Yeah, the cows do.

If one day of a scenic blitz kreig wasn’t enough, we suffered sight exhaustion for seven.

As the waves smashed against the shore in Oamaru, we sat squinting at dusk to watch the penguins. I’d feel cheated if the scheme wasn’t so impressive. We paid $40 dollars to shiver in the cold and be told there was No talking No standing No laughing No Yelling, No Scratching No “OOOOHs” No “AAAAHs” No pictures.

Dunedin seemed like a cool place. The peninsula was beautiful and the town’s centre streets seemed ideal for a good ole fashioned student riot.

It was odd to pass through towns set up specifically for tourists and even stranger to pass towns designed to specifically cater to those travelers who’ve run out of petrol and granola bars midway to Milford.

Of all the places, Queenstown, was by for the most boring. We didn’t need a map to get there. The closer we got, the less my wallet weighed and we just followed that clue like a divining rod. Queenstown is a place for those with money and time. We had neither. We did walk through the streets of ski shops and bars but I spent most of my time trying to spot Sam Neil.

The trip was both a blessing and a curse. If you didn’t like the town or countryside, you only had to close your eyes for 10 minutes before everything changed. It was if nature was channel surfing, and much like TV, after the 72nd go around, I could feel a headache coming on.

The sheer size and grandeur of the environment just past our diesel engine brought about a crushing sense of insignificance. There’s nothing like staring up at a wall of snow-capped time while the wind threatens to knock your little mobile home off a cliff to really put the fear of Mother Nature into your fast-food fed bellies. I felt like a dog put in a very large pen.

The U.S. might have the mountains and lakes and such – hell, we have a song describing it all – but to see it requires patience and plenty of plane tickets. The New Zealand landscape has taken all my country has to offer and packed it in tighter than Pita Sharples in a rugby jersey.

Not only that, the countryside seems to be mocking my Land of the Free: “oh, you have Niagra Falls? Well stack that up a couple more times then come talk to us. Purple mountains, eh? Please…wait to sunset and see ours turn rose coloured.
The change in weather in five minutes in Wanganui

After this trip, I feel defeated and deflated in many ways. The landscape ruined my sense of size and space. But despite the issues of self esteem that will have to be addressed upon my return, the folklore and talk from peers back home proved right on. I look forward to showing my folks the pictures of me on the West Coast, surrounded by foliage taken straight out of <Jurassic Park>. It’ll probably require a bit of explaining.

“That? Well, Mom, I think that’s when we were tramping near Franz Josef. Yeah, that’s Sam Neil, he’s a great guy. No, OF COURSE I didn’t photoshop him in!”

Timaru Herald, July 9, 2008

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