Weekend adventure stories, told in pictures
#1—IFSA Adventure Weekend: Punakaiki via Arthur’s Pass
#2—climbing with UC3 in Hanging Rock, South Canterbury
The humble, stoic beauty of the landscape is overwhelming and powerfully mind-opening. I am content.
I’m keeping this weekend a little more low-key and trying to cram in some much-needed studying—term ends in less than two weeks, and I have an oral te reo Maori test coming up way, way too soon (I’m not sure I remember where the classroom is…). I’m still finding some wicked afternoon study breaks, whether it’s hooping and slacking in the sun outside Ilam or chilling at a BBQ (read: Kiwi dayfratting) while surrounded by people dressed like Noah’s Ark animals (thanks, ENSOC). Oh, and some cozy nights in…and 200 pages deep into Lord of The Rings…and maybe I’m going climbing tomorrow.
Okay, I’m not really studying.
I wanted to make sure I wrote this post when I wasn’t feeling homesick, so that it would be as candid as possible. Now, I figured, is a good time—as I start to realize how little time I have left in Christchurch, I’m coming to love the place more and more, and whatever little pinings I have for home have mostly been replaced by the little Kiwi voice in my head that’s screaming its head off at the prospect of leaving. I will shamelessly admit that I, someone who prides herself on her extreme stoicism, have had at least one bout of crying like a blithering idiot at the mere idea of flying back home, and I’m sure there’s more of that to come. But leaving NZ won’t be all bad. Why, you ask? Well, I have a couple of reasons.
Things I Totally Miss About America
1. Summer (and autumn). I’m way less grumpy now that actual spring seems to have arrived, but honestly, coming straight from a hot Tennessee summer to a freezing Chch winter was brutal. I’m definitely one of those people whose moods are affected by the weather, and knowing that I was putting up with freezing rain and 100% cloud cover as my friends at home basked in 40 degree heat was awful. Even now, while I’ve been appreciating the warm sun beaming down on New Zealand through that nice hole in the o-zone layer we’ve got here, a part of me still wishes I was in the middle of an Appalachian autumn. Fortunately, since I’ll be back in November, I’ll be able to catch the tail end of all of that (and catch a little bit of sun in the Southwest US) before I get to embark on winter #3 in a 12-month span. Can’t win ‘em all.
2. Open canoes. I’ve complained about this on this blog before. Not to mention to literally everyone I know who is willing to listen. Being forced to wear a silly skirt while I paddle, compounded with the colder temperatures I mentioned in #1, has made whitewater a little less appealing than usual while I’ve been here. I still want to go try out the Hurunui before I leave, but I don’t really have the same enthusiasm about paddling that I have when JtS is around. On the bright side…getting on some east TN whitewater this spring is going to be a sweet, sweet feeling.
3. Decent coffeeshops. I had high hopes for coffee in Christchurch. And to be fair, it isn’t the coffee that’s bad, per se—New Zealand is big on espresso drinks and most baristas do them really well, so lattes, cappuccinos, etc. are pretty delicious. The real problem is that if you want any of these tasty concoctions after 3pm you’re pretty well screwed, as it’s half impossible to find a cafe that stays open at night, let alone a good one. And you definitely aren’t going to find any specialty house drinks like a JJ’s James Brown, ‘cause ordering a cuppa here is like choosing options on a standardized test. I like coffee, but in my opinion, it’s best in the evening, mixed with some bizarre combination of spices and flavors and sipped over a conversation with a friend or a paper you’ve put off ‘til the last minute. Espresso in the morning is just a caffeine addiction, but joe by night is a simple pleasure.
4. Nashville. I owe Music City a really big apology. For two years of life at Vanderbilt I complained about how much I hated living in a city, how little there is to like about Nashville, how I wished I would have gone to school in Portland or Asheville or some other quirky town with a quick escape route to the mountains. I had no idea how much I took for granted about this place until I saw it through the window of an airplane, so to speak. The list of bands I’ve gotten to see in just two years of undergrad is longer and more impressive than what some people can show for their entire lives. The culture here is explosive and magical and the programming for the city is mean—things I’ve finally learned to appreciate after living in a basically dead city for the past two months. And Vanderbilt…well, it could have its own blog post devoted to all the little things I miss about it, but I’ll leave that one alone. Most importantly, when the time inevitably comes that I do want to leave and get into the wilderness, it’s less than a three hour drive to world-class climbing, just a little further to paddle. So, Nashville, I’m really sorry about all those things I said. Promise you’ll take me back?
5. American football. I wish I could claim to be a sophisticated sports audience member, someone who is totally satisfied by watching soccer or lacrosse or some other globally respectable sport. Nope. Can’t do it. And sorry, Kiwis, but rugby just isn’t doing it for me (and while we’re on the subject, don’t you guys know you’ll get down the field faster if you throw the ball forward for a change?). I need the pigskin-throwing, ass-slapping, totally barbaric phenomenon that is football to keep me happy with the world of sports—sorry I’m not sorry. I don’t care if the players wear too many pads or if they only really run in 20-second intervals or if a sixty-minute game ends up taking three hours; I will watch every second of it and be happy. It doesn’t help that I’m missing what I still believe is going to be an excellent Commodore season, despite that gnarly game against Northwestern. Anchor down, y’all.
6. Being able to say “y’all” without getting made fun of for it.
7. My friends. I would almost expatriate myself permanently and settle down in this country, no questions asked. The land is beyond beautiful, the people are friendly, and their attitudes toward life are refreshing—it’s like if everyone in America simultaneously decided to calm down, and stopped worrying about micromanaging their over-busy lives or doing things they don’t want to do to meet people’s irrelevant expectations or competing with one another in a big hectic rat race they’re bound to lose. The political climate is stable and sensible. The only thing that ever makes me think twice is all the love I have for people at home. Being away from the people I care about most has really made me appreciate how much they mean to me and how lucky I am to have such close friendships—as being here has reminded me that it takes a lot of time, effort, and luck to develop relationships of that caliber. It isn’t that I haven’t met a lot of phenomenal people here, but the bonds I have with people back in the States—with my real family, my WilSkills family, and the other big friendships I’ve built in Nashville and in my hometown—are serious and important to me. Maybe there will come a time when I’m ready to pick up and leave home, and maybe even head back down here for a much, much longer stay. But for now, as much as I love it in En Zed, there’s a lot at home I’m not ready to abandon. And I know that when I finally head back home and feel sick to my stomach about leaving this amazing country, I’ll be thinking about and relying on these people to get me through it.
The current springtime weather—a nice alternating combination of snow and freezing rain—has pushed me inside for the afternoon with some plunger coffee and a blanket to keep me warm. Seems like as good a time as any to reflect on my last two months of sweet, sweet expatriation and present to you, fine reader…
The Things I Don’t Miss About America
1. Election season. I like to think of myself as an informed citizen of my country. I probably don’t read the news as much as I should, but I hold pretty well-researched opinions about the issues I care most about, and I 100% plan on sending a ballot back home in a few weeks. Sure, I live in Tennessee, which means that in the end, my decision to re-elect Barack Obama is about as effective as placing a write-in vote for Bill Nye (and not nearly as cool), but I’m finally old enough to strut my civic responsibility and, dammit, I’m going to vote. I’m also not one of those people who gripes about their Facebook feed getting “bogged down” with political stuff. I would rather browse through productive dialogue than ambiguous statuses about your boyfriend or your pet or your gross slimy baby that just had its first poo.
All that being said, I hate election season in the States. Bill Clinton aside (thanks, Bubba), every politician in this election delivers their messages as though they’re speaking to a crowd of in-bred first-graders, and I’m really not down with that. Also, I don’t even watch television, and just hearing about Candidate X’s newest mudslinging commercial against Opponent Y makes me want to throw spiny anteaters at your grandparents. The sad thing is that people totally take the bait, and before you know it, what could be a chance for some progressive political discussion embarks on a dark downward spiral toward asking candidates for their birth certificates and trying to decide what kind of rape is “legitimate.” The whole process is a headache and I’m not at all sad about being a thirteen-hour flight away from that flimsy candidate sign with the ugly font that you just planted in your front yard.
Aside: Kiwis talk to me about American politics somewhat often, and even though a lot of them don’t quite Barack n’ Roll, almost all of them joke about how anyone could ever dream of actually voting for Romney and his frat star veep. One of my friends here is a member of the most right-wing party in NZ and he told me he’d STILL vote Obama. Just sayin’.
2. Foods that aren’t the right colo[u]r. In the magical utopia that is New Zealand, eggs have brown shells and cheddar cheese is white. Know why? ‘Cause that’s how God/Allah/Mother Earth/the FSM made ‘em. It’s really strange and pretty screwed up that in America we actually take extra steps to make food more unnatural.
Related: high fructose corn syrup is not really a thing here. Maybe that’s because having thousands of square miles of corn fields isn’t really a thing here, either, but nonetheless, it’s pretty sweet that even the ketchup here contains real sugar:
Yeah, see that? You can pronounce everything in the ingredients list. For ketchup.
3. Biking through the city with an unshakable feeling of impending doom. Nashville, take note: Christchurch has these awesome things called “bike lanes.” They actually extend throughout most major roads and they don’t just abruptly stop at random intersections. Even where there aren’t bike lanes, the roads are wider, so a car can easily pass you without you ever breaking into a cold sweat and wondering whether the cars parked on the side of the road are going to play cyclist-style Whac-a-Mole with their drivers’ side doors.
I realize that this isn’t so much a problem for those of you out West, but in Music City where most of my cyclist friends have been hit by cars…I still get pretty nervous. Chch drivers are by no means phenomenal, but I feel a hell of a lot more comfortable on wheels here than I do at home, and on sunny days there’s nothing nicer than an afternoon bike ride to get wherever I need to go.
4. Reserved parking (and other displays of inflated self-worth). Kiwis are seriously huge on egalitarianism, which I think is pretty cool. I actually saw a sign in a parking lot once—one of the most bluntly put ones I’ve seen here—that merely told drivers that “there are no reserved spaces here to nurture your sense of self-importance.” Just the other day I read an article in the local news urging cyclists not to run red lights; the journalist conceded that there’s really nothing unsafe about biking through a three-way intersection if you’ve looked both ways, but simply made the claim that it’s “annoying” when everyone doesn’t have a fair go. This is a big change from home, where people really took that whole “you are a unique snowflake” message from kindergarten to heart, but seemingly never let the “we’re all in this together” thing sink in.
5. Unbased skepticism about scientific facts. I’ve yet to speak to a Kiwi who thinks climate change is a myth promoted by the liberal media or that we need to teach creationism in high school biology classes or that being gay could ever be a “choice” in any sense of the word. Seriously, America, get it together. I am a philosophy major who took a GPA hit from EES 101 (y’know, Rocks for Jocks), and if I can wrap my head around the basic concept that Mother Nature is not keen on all the greenhouse gases we’re producing, you can too. I promise. Neil Tyson puts it best:
6. Stress. I experience roughly none of it. You’d think life in a new country would be stressful in its own right, but honestly, the most difficult part of my life right now is trying to decide whether I want to go paddling or climbing for the weekend. My academic stress is at absolute zero because school here is incredibly easy compared to my Vanderbilt workload, which typically involves 5-15 papers a month and at least one all-nighter a week (which may or may not be due to my own bad study habits, but I’ll leave that one alone). In an average week, I go climbing more often than I go to class, and I currently have straight A’s nonetheless. I’m using the rest of my free time to learn hula hooping, explore the city and the island, sample the books, music, and film I’ve always wanted to try, and write quasi-witty blog posts like this one. Even if something is nagging at me like homesickness or weighty decisions, all I have to do is catch a glimpse of the mountains and the bright blue sky and it becomes easy to remember that I really, seriously don’t have anything to worry about.
Stay tuned for the obviously necessary complementary post about the things I do miss about the Stars and Stripes.
Top five reasons to skip my busiest day of uni to spend a Wednesday at Castle Hill:
5. Sheffield Pie Shop. ‘Nuff said. I have a stamp card now.
4. Sending my first V2! Plus a couple of other things.
3. Watching your BAMF friends send ultra-cool problems, whether there are holds on them or not.
2. There’s nothing quite like a good late-afternoon trip through a limestone birth canal…right? (actually no, this totally sucked, I bailed soon after this shot was taken)
1. It’s Castle Hill.
After a couple days spent quietly recovering from the Queenstown paddling debacle, I found myself on the road again with Claire, Alyshia, and Daniel to the Abel Tasman Coast Track, six hours north of Christchurch near the tip of the South Island. I’ve gotta say…until the night before, I honestly didn’t expect us to get much further than Ilam. We’d been talking about doing Abel Tasman for awhile, but after a couple members of our party bailed and we started frantically trying to plan a trip with a price tag that looked a little too steep for all of us, our plans were looking pretty bleak. But after some time spent tweaking costs here and there and adding a fourth member, Daniel, to our estrogen-heavy party, we finally pounded down some logistics and headed out for four of the best days of my life.
Wednesday we packed the least expensive rental car we could find—an old Nissan Sunny literally named El Cheapo—and drove along the coast to Nelson, stopping along the way in Kaikoura and Picton. This was my first time driving in New Zealand—note which side of the road we’re on! I was pretty horrified about getting behind the wheel here but it really wasn’t much of a challenge. Honestly, the hardest part was getting the thing through a roundabout, and I was bound to come across one of those in the States eventually anyway. There’s also the constant temptation to flick the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal…as if I’m not obviously American enough anyway.
We got into Nelson after dark and found the only hostel still taking guests, Bridge Street Backpackers. It was only $20 a person and had great mood lighting…if paranoia about your impending murder-by-chainsaw counts as a mood. At least they used energy-efficient bulbs, I guess.
We woke up early Thursday and finished the drive to Abel Tasman, getting us sorted and at the trailhead by around 11AM. Our first day was a breezy 12K that took us to our first campsite along the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen: coarse golden sand and nothing but sunshine. We set up our humble camp offshore, then took a side hike to the Watering Cove, which was a little more secluded but just as amazing. A short rock hop up to a lookout point gave me a gorgeous view of one of the many islands off the coast and I lingered at the spot I’d found for a little while, trying to take in the jaw-dropping beauty all around. We made it back to camp before sunset and spent the evening cooking up some rice and beans, with s’mores for dessert, thanks to the fire Dan built. Unfortunately, marshmallows in NZ are kind of gross—they’re sort of juicy when melted and have a weird fruity aftertaste. Oh well…life could be a lot worse.
the “before” photo, thursday morning
a typical view from the trail
a view from the anchorage bay camp
the watering cove—still my favorite spot in abel tasman
obligatory campfire and marshmallow roasting
Day 2 was more cruisy tramping: another 12K that meandered away from the coast and through the rainforest. Today’s side hike took us to Cleopatra’s Pool, a sweet watering hole that was way too cold for a swim but perfect for a creekside scramble. We found a cozy spot in the sun and spent a good chunk of the late morning there before getting back on the trail, working our way to Bark Bay after passing through what seemed like people’s backyards (complete with tire swings?). The wood was pretty wet here, though I somehow conjured up a fire after a lot of frustration on Dan’s and my parts, Dan ultimately resorting to chopping firewood to reinstate his manliness. Once our fire was finally kicking, a Dutch fisherman (affectionately referred to as “Bro” by our group) stopped by and asked for a “piece of fire” to help him cook his fish…he proceeded to collapse our fire, and we spent awhile frantically rebuilding it, all the while watching his new fire glow big and bright from across the campground.
Cleopatra’s Pool…not quite as big as the Midnight Hole, but just as cold
rocking the Vandy norts, upstream of the pool
on the way to Bark Bay
casual trailside road swing
one of the more labor-intensive fires of my life
We expected more of the same on Day 3—what we got instead was a bit more of a challenge. We started out the morning with a steep as hike through the forest to a high tide track, which was identified in our track profile with…well, pretty much a vertical line. After that, we continued through 15K to get to our tiny camp at Waiharakeke Bay…but not before making the (in?)famous Awaroa Bay crossing, which we could only complete within an hour and a half of low tide. My group wasn’t especially keen on this part of the trek, since it meant hiking barefoot (er, Chaco-clad, for me) across thousands of tiny, reportedly sharp and painful shells. I loved this part of the trip, personally…I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so eerily, but peacefully, quiet. To know you’re essentially walking across the ocean floor is so surreal. Once we got to Waiharakeke (WHY-ha-ruh-KEY-key…it took me until around this time to nail the pronunciation) we pitched camp once again and spent the evening wolfing down ramen and playing card games until we were coaxed into our tents by a cold drizzle.
trailside view—overcast, but just as beautiful
Awaroa—what silence looks like
boots off, pants up, game face on
the view from Waiharakeke
…and then came Day 4. Recall that most of my Kiwi adventures have some quasi-disastrous caveat attached, and I’d hate to break tradition. So, the original plan: hike a breezy, flat 2.5K out, meet our water taxi at Totaranui, get back to the trailhead at Marahau. 45 minutes tops. What actually happened: hike a kilometer, then find this, which is conveniently not listed on the map…or the track profile…or the trail description.
See how the trail…you know, turns into the ocean? Yeah. This is a shot from the ebb. The flow, not photographed for obvious reasons, hovered between knee and chest level. And that peninsula popping out a few hundred meters down? That’s the rest of the trail. Challenge accepted. After scrambling down the rock face we took some deep breaths and headed across the coastline, holding hands and bracing as the bigger waves came in and drenched us all in brackish water. With the wet sand sinking along with the undertow underneath our feet, we made haste. We barely had time to celebrate making it across alive before making it to our next challenge—the next section of the, uh, “trail” was a landslide. A sign earlier on had mentioned that the trail was under repair…but, ha, come on, DOC.
Only the last kilometer or so lived up to our expectations of a quick, easy morning. But we impressively still made it to our water taxi at Totaranui right on time, 10:45 on the dot, and caught a ride back to the start of the trail, passing by the distance we’d covered in nearly four days in a little under an hour.
We still had a 30 minute hike back to our car…a nice victory lap after a hectic completion of the trail. A rainbow waited at the end to celebrate with us.
the “after” photo
All in all, ocean crossing included, I’m tempted to chalk this up to my favorite backpacking trip I’ve ever taken. The company was great and the trail was beyond spectacular. Not even the numerous blisters (thanks to my mutinous hiking boots…sadly, maybe it’s finally time to retire these babies) and sandfly bites (thanks to New Zealand…I guess nowhere’s perfect) could stop me from smiling the whole four days on the trail. The landscape was so diverse—we regularly went from walking along the sandy beach to hiking through dense forests in a matter of minutes, and the mountains were always silently standing in the distance at the other side of the bay. To the Smokies: I love you, but as far as backpacking is concerned, I think you’ve been one-upped.
So ends my spring break, and now I’m back to five more weeks of class and weekend mini-adventures before a month of near-zero obligation. My next big stop: the West Coast, through Arthur’s Pass to Punakaiki. Stay tuned!
At one point during a 3am, 20°F steep road hike to the Linville Gorge campground with a new camp stove to replace our broken one we’d carried up with all the rest of our supplies only hours earlier, my old boss from Outdoor Rec, Jamie Dial, joked that “it isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong.” In the spirit of that sentiment, I present you all a story of a week-long Kiwi whitewater kayaking trip…
THE HOLLYFORD HOEDOWN**
Cast of characters:
and, me—AKA “America”
With minor appearances by:
The farmer whose land we tried to camp on
The woman whose driveway we blocked
Concerned Shotover raft guides
**It was later determined that, since we didn’t actually even go to Hollyford, “The Shotover Shitshow” may be a more appropriate name for this trip. Take your pick.
Day 1. Most people prepare for a trip by packing and getting a good bit of rest the night beforehand. I, however, chose to prepare for this excursion by staying up until 3am finishing one last midterm paper, then taking another hour or so to work my way around the online submission system for the paper while frantically throwing things in a backpack. This meant that I forgot my camera, among other less important things such as food…so, the photos in this blog post are all courtesy of other folks on the trip. Bugger.
After an hour spent packing up the two PeopleMover vans we rented and stacking a trailer with twelve kayaks, we’re on the road to Queenstown. The drive wasn’t shabby—we took a pretty scenic route and stopped a few times, once at the Mt. Cook visitor center.
We rolled into the Queenstown area late that afternoon and scouted out a couple of the rivers we’d be paddling. We went to look at Citroen, a monstrous-looking grade IV rapid, before checking out Roaring Meg, which, from roadside, seemed uneventful…right?
We headed to the house we rented in Arrowtown after choosing these two runs for the next day. After dinner we took our first trip into downtown Queenstown where I followed the Kiwis onto a pub crawl. This seemed like a really cool idea at the time but it was actually pretty lame, and most of my fun came out of watching the Kiwis heckle the chicks leading the crawl and dump piles of the bar’s peanuts on our table (they eventually kicked us out, or we just left…not sure which). On our way home we had my first encounter with Kiwi police, who are infinitely nicer than American police! Despite ten of us being crammed inside this van and Tim anxiously asking “is this a routine stop??”, they quickly let us go after confirming that our driver was sober, and we made our way back to Arrowtown uneventfully.
Day 2. We wake up ready to get on Roaring Meg. To be honest, I’m a little nervous as I’m carrying my boat down a steep, rocky trail into the gorge, but the Kiwis tell me that according to their river info book, this run is “cruisy grade III.” Sweet! I paddle grade III. I can practically canoe the Pigeon and FB9 with my eyes shut; I’ve even run a grade IV before! Sure, I’ll be in a kayak instead of a canoe, but a boat is a boat, right?
…wrong. Comically wrong. On so many accounts. First of all, a boat is not a boat, which I learned once I peeled out of my first eddy wobbling, fighting to stay right side up. Second, even reading the river was different, because unlike the whitewater I paddle at home, this run was laden with huge boiling currents and swirlies—which isn’t helping me figure out how to control my kayak, to say the least.
The most important thing I was wrong about, though, was forgetting about the Kiwis’ overwhelming modesty…or, as I prefer to call it, nonsensical sandbagging. Julien, an American-turned-Kiwi, explained it to me like this: “If a Kiwi climbs Mt. Cook, he’ll tell his friends he went for ‘a bit of a hike.’” (Reference the Mt. Cook photo above.) The idea being, rather than boasting and exaggerating one’s successes USA-style, Kiwis prefer to understate their victories so that, when people find out what they actually did they’re way more impressed. That’s charming and all, but what it meant for me was that the “cruisy grade III” we were about to paddle was not “cruisy” at all and was absolutely nothing like the Pigeon or FB9 or anything remotely within my ability range. It was more like paddling the Ocoee or the Tellico…for my first kayaking run since the Nantahala. Oh, and it’s the middle of winter, and the water is a crisp robin’s egg blue, just 2 degrees above freezing. And I can’t roll. So begins my descent of Roaring Meg, which ends in two swims, one portage-turned-chaos, one rapid descended cataraft-style, one extended stay inside a hole, one grapefruit-sized bruise, and a case of hypothermia.
I made my way down the first two-thirds the river basically all right, totally gawking at the rapids I was trying to get my boat down but banking on my paddling skills to get me through the big water. Then things got interesting. First came the run’s signature rapid, Man Eater, a “class III” river-wide hydraulic which I quickly chose to portage. The only complication: the rocks on the bank are covered in didymo, an invasive algae that looks like cat poo and has the texture of motor oil. After one misstep, I accidentally chuck my kayak into the river, and the next thing I see is my boat, empty, pointed vertical in the meat of the hole as the Kiwis cheer and whistle. (I tried convincing them that this is how Americans portage rapids, but to no avail.)
With Tim’s help and a kilometer’s hike across the oily poo rocks, I finally get my boat back and get back on the water. The Kiwis seemed to think all the hard rapids were the ones at the beginning, so I start to relax. Mistake. I barely miss the eddy before the next rapid, which I ended up descending while clinging to the side of Simon’s kayak, all the while having a nice upstream view of a rapid that makes anything on the Pigeon look like flatwater.
I saved the best for last, though, as I boat-scouted the last rapid and saw a wave train gently rounding a corner. Finally, something easy!, I thought. Again…so wrong. Immediately upon turning the corner I plopped straight down into the biggest hole I’ve ever seen from a boat, and…well, when Heidegger wrote about Being-toward-death, I imagine this was roughly what he had in mind. (Hey, I said it was a philosopher’s blog.) My boat felt hopelessly stuck and was only keeping me closer to the surface, so I impulsively chose to pull the deck and ball up. I’m calling this a good choice, because a minute later, by the time my body pounded against the rocks at the bottom of the river and I popped up downstream, my boat was still a good way behind me.
By the time I get my boat back one last time, I’m freezing cold and a little dizzy, joking with the Kiwis about what the f#@% I’m doing as they finally admit that this river was way harder than they expected and not at all ideal for my first run. Needless to say I was giddy when we approached the takeout, and for some reason, whether it be the hypothermia-induced delusion or just the sheer absurdity of the situation, I laughed the whole time I layered on warm, dry clothes.
Day 3. Today we drive out to Dog Leg for another day of paddling. While Roaring Meg was listed as grade III in the river info guides, Dog Leg was listed as III+…so, given the experience I had Tuesday, I’m planning on not paddling at all. But Emma had paddled Dog Leg before and seemed pretty positive that I wouldn’t die on the run, and after all, I did come on this trip for whitewater…so, I figured, why not? This ended up being my favorite run of the trip. It was still a little challenging, but in an exhilarating way, not an I-might-actually-die way (I’m still not totally sure how this run was “harder” than yesterday’s). The hike into the gorge was winding and pretty long and a little bit of a drag while carrying a kayak, but it was so worth it; once we were in the river, all I could see was beautiful towering rock walls on each side and the snow-capped Southern Alps in the background. The water was icy blue but crystal clear, and you could see all the way to the deep bottom. Bliss.
The Dog Leg’s big challenge, creatively named Dog Leg Rapid, waited for us at the end, and I never would have even thought about trying to run it had I not scrambled down much harder the day before. But I cruised through the majority of the waves, botching it up at the very end but in much less dramatic fashion than usual. I’ll chalk that up to a success.
After Dog Leg, Tim and Simon decided they’d try out Nevis Rapid, a long, gnarly grade V a few km down from the Dog Leg takeout. On the drive there, though, we realize we’ve lost the D-shackle for the trailer, so we park on the side of the road to look for it; Tim sits on a fence post and starts playing guitar. Only a few minutes later do we realize we’re not only blocking an old lady’s driveway but essentially singing campfire songs in the middle of it. She’s not pleased, and we head on to Nevis, sans D-shackle.
We’re all pretty excited to watch them give it a go, and some of us got great seats while others headed down to the banks with throw ropes ready. Simon went first and effectively made any carnage I caused the day before look totally, absolutely insignificant. After he made one bad move at the top of the rapid (which extends a couple hundred meters before the edge of the above photo), he pulled his deck after several failed rolls and swam the whole damn thing. Just watching it made me wanna puke. To everyone’s surprise, he made it out a little bruised but totally all right. Talk about lucky.
After the gang rescued Simon’s boat (and Simon), we decided it was way too late to go to Hollyford or Mavora, and instead we’d find a campsite and head to the Shotover River the next day. Commence more shenanigans with Queenstown locals. We first tried to camp at the Citroen overlook; this plan was foiled after the farmer who owns said overlook met us head-on in the trail and was not at all impressed when Tim, wearing a neon pink paddling hoodie, nervously asked him “is this Citroen rapid?” and explained that “we were just trying to go scout it” (at this point it’s pitch black outside). After being sternly asked to leave, we headed back to the Dog Leg takeout and set up camp there. Here I learned lots of lessons about why I should never, ever make bets with Kiwis about my gooning abilities, because I will always, always lose.
Day 4. I wake up looking like this:
Seems like as good a time as any to pick up a new D-shackle and head to the Shotover, then. Again, here’s another river none of us know anything about, including exactly how to get there. We know, however, that the drive is supposed to be “quite long.” In actuality…well, have you ever seen one of those treacherous roads in the movies that consists of a tiny dirt lane, and then a huge cliff? This was one of those.
Some scouting was required.
After about an hour’s drive to the put-in for the lower Shotty, we decide we still want to make it to the upper section, which is supposed to be solid II+. The drive, however, quickly escalates to grade V. We’re forced to…er, portage.
The funniest thing about this whole situation is that when we finally make it to the upper Shotover put-in around 3pm and get on the water, we come to realize that the whole run is actually about 1 kilometer of grade I+ paddling. The pristine, narrow canyon totally makes up for it, but at this point I’m seriously doubting the reliability of New Zealand’s river information base.
At the end of the evening, after an extensive decision-making session in the cold canyon, some of us head back to Queenstown to stay in a hostel while others camp at the put-in; we all plan to meet back here in the morning and run the lower Shotover. So, back up the cliffside and back to Queenstown we go.
Our second visit to Queenstown was way better. We stayed at BASE hostel, which had a really cool atmosphere and—even better—hot showers. We spent the night on the town until late—it still feels really weird to be able to get into clubs! I’ve never been super keen on going out, but some of the places in Queenstown were pretty righteous, including a cowboy bar that played lots of Bon Jovi and had a mechanical bull (!). Our night ended at Fergburger, where I decided I could put my abstinence from red meat on hold and sample New Zealand’s most famous burgers that everyone on the trip had been raving about since day 1. Not bad, but I have to say…American burgers are better. Sorry guys!
Day 5. Four hours later we’re awake again and packing up to head back to the Shotover. The amount of time I’ve spent in near-freezing water is now getting to me, and a raft guide I talked to at a bar in Queeny told us that the hard part of the lower Shotty was more like “IV+ with questionable portage” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised if I drowned.” This sounded sketchy (even coming out of a drunk river guide), so I decided I didn’t have anything to prove here and chose to sit out of paddling today. I would later realize that this was an awesome decision.
One more hour drive into the Shotover gorge with a van full of hungover Kiwis and we’re finally back to the put-in. I pack my boat back in the van and truck out with Simon, as Tim tells us, “if we aren’t out of the gorge by 6, something’s wrong.”
I spent most of the day on the beach getting devoured by sandflies, which are evil degenerate mosquito-like insects that hate Americans. However, the day is beautiful, and so is my view: a rocky beach full of schist and slate (see that? I did learn something in geology!) with tall bushy hills in the periphery. The crew put on at 11:30, so we expect them no later than perhaps 3. As the clock nears 3:30, we’re getting concerned. By 4, a group of commercial rafters pops out of the last rapid, and a guide flags us down to tell us that our group of kayakers was last seen spread out over a kilometer, launching an emergency attempt to hike out of the gorge. We shouldn’t expect them until after dark, he said, and when we confusedly told him they didn’t have any radio communication, he shook his head.
5:30pm, still none of our crew to be found. We’re starting to plan how we’ll go into town and get a search and rescue phone number, when finally Tim’s neon green helmet pops up in the distance. As it turns out, the group was able to get down the river without finishing the hike out. The bad news, though: everyone who had been drinking river water throughout the whole trip was falling sick. By 6:30pm the group finally portaged the last stretch of grade IV and a lot of puking Kiwis were making their way to the vans. On the bright side, I guess, the Kiwis were laughably flippant about the whole situation. I guess we’re of different schools of thought when it comes to outdoor adventures.
It’s well past dark by the time we’re loaded up for the six hours back to Christchurch, and the drive would have been uncomfortable enough without four Kiwis in my van vomiting every half hour or so. To beat that, one of the vans ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, so we had to shuttle a canister over 50k back to them. When we finally pulled into the UC carpark just a few minutes shy of 3am, I was a very happy camper.
Hopefully my accounts of every misadventure we faced don’t make it sound like I didn’t enjoy myself. In fact, I had a bloody awesome time on this trip, and I learned a lot. A couple lessons stand out in particular:
On kayaking (v. canoeing). Here in New Zealand, choosing a boat isn’t really an issue: you kayak or you kayak. Being lovingly faithful to my OC-1, Jonathan the Swift (JtS for short), I never would have gone on a kayaking trip if whitewater canoeing had been a viable option. However, I legitimately enjoyed being in a kayak, even if I never was totally convinced that a decked craft is in any way “better.” In fact, I found out there are several things I like much more about kayaks than canoes. For one, big water stuff like Dog Leg Rapid or the stuff I made it down on Roaring Meg is probably way more enjoyable in a kayak than in a canoe. Even though the boat felt a lot more likely to capsize, I never had to worry about bailing water or choosing a dry line, since I could plow through whatever I wanted and not get drenched. Plus, given that half your body is actually inside the boat and dry tops are pretty warm, cold-weather paddling was accessible to me, when I probably wouldn’t be keen to paddle in the same temperatures with JtS. These reasons still weren’t enough for the kayakers to win me over, and by the end of every run I was still pining for a single blade—despite all the drawbacks, I legitimately think OC-1 is just way more fun. That being said, I don’t think I’ll be completely faithful in the future, and I can totally imagine myself coming home and heading back out to Clear Creek or the Pigeon in a kayak for a go or two. Canoe or kayak, it turns out I don’t have to be so militant—whitewater is whitewater, and versatility is a virtue.
On adventure trips. As someone who leads trips through WilSkills and Outdoor Rec at home, I usually have a pretty sharp eye on other people’s instructing techniques and trip dynamics, always looking for things I like and don’t like and using that information to help build my own personal teaching style. On this trip I picked up a lot of ideas for teaching beginners paddling skills—things the UCCC did that I really liked. I also noticed a lot of factors that contributed to the overall trip dynamic, some of which I thought were good and others I wasn’t so into. With the WilSkills instructor trip packing out back home around the time I got in from this trip, I found myself thinking a lot about some of the little things we do at home that I think make a big difference for how our trips run. It all depends what you’re looking for out of a trip, but as far as building a community with intention in the wilderness, I started to remember how much I value and appreciate what WilSkills and ORC do right and get some ideas about how I, as a trip leader, can make those things even better.
On the end of a trip. One of the nicest things, I think, about coming home from a stay in the wilderness is that feeling you get when you come back—when the whole trip feels like a dream and you’re forced to realize that you’re back in your own tramping ground now, where you’re “supposed” to be. When you come back from a trip-within-a-trip, like this, you don’t get that feeling. Coming back into Christchurch felt almost as foreign as pulling into Queenstown. It’s not that it’s a bad feeling, per se, but I spent a lot of time the next morning—maybe a little too much—cranking some Fleet Foxes and Old Crow and daydreaming about the Smokies.
On sandflies. They’re miserable. According to Maori legend, the gods created sandflies to make sure the people didn’t laze around and kept busy at work. But as I sit here with very painful, very swollen ankles and feet, I’m starting to question the gods’ logic. Of all that happened on this trip…who would have thought my biggest downfall would be the bugs??
Irony (n.): incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs; a reversal of expectations.
Today, in my Intro to New Zealand Politics class, I took a midterm in which I wrote three short essays. I had to remove my backpack and outermost layer of clothing before entering the room. I was told I needed to request an escort should I need to go to the bathroom, and upon finishing my test I had to present my photo ID to one of the two proctors, lest my answers be nullified.
Two years ago, in my Intro to US Politics class, I took a midterm in which I wrote three short essays. My professor showed up with a stack of papers and his dog. He left the room after revealing the questions, and he came back an hour later to collect our tests and his dog.
Vanderbilt, it’s true: I really do miss you. (Now how about you give me that housing assignment back??)
Climbing wasn’t the only thing I did this weekend—honestly, it’s a wonder I woke up in time to make it to Castle Hill on Saturday, let alone muster the strength to get up a couple boulders.
Thursday night Bethany and Anna, two of the IFSA-Butler kids studying in Otago, took a bus up to Chch for the weekend. After Thursday’s bouldering festival I met up with them and the usual IFSA bubble at David’s place, and we started making some plans to go to the Port Hills the next day. (I really can’t complain about this whole three-day weekend thing.)
I’d been to Victoria Park once before but as I was alone, I decided to stick mostly to the more populated roadside trails and save wandering for when I had a couple of travel companions. But with eight of us and a full afternoon to spare, we decided to trek up to the top of the hills, following a trail that passes along a playground up past a couple overlooks to a rocky crest at the end.
We took our time on the easy hike (and spent more than a little time at the playground), so we didn’t make it back to campus until early that evening, leaving a couple of us scrambling to grab some dinner and clean up before we headed downtown to go see Katchafire, a Maori reggae band performing in New Zealand for the first time in a couple years. Taylor snagged tickets for us a couple weeks ago, and by the day of the show, the gig was sold out—I’d never heard of the band before, but hey, I guess they’re a big deal.
The bus dropped us off at the front door of the venue (how convenient for the ride back, I thought) and after a cold wait in line we got to the stage, in an intimate-but-spacious room really similar to the Exit/In in Nashville. I honestly didn’t know the opening band from the headliner but I had a blast—the crowd was a ton of fun, and by the end of the show when all the musicians lined up on stage to cover “Three Little Birds,” a big group of us were linking arms and belting it out like we were at a Wailers reunion.
Great night so far. The show ended well after 1AM and as we left the venue to head back to the bus stop, Taylor lets it drop that the buses don’t run this late, even on a Friday night. Oops. Oh well, it’s not like we’re over an hour’s walk from campus or anything…oh, wait.
So commences the second hike of the day. Once we were about a kilometer into the trek, Taylor manages to wave down a taxi—except there are six of us and four seats. Here, Taylor does what he recently deemed to be “literally the douchiest move ever” and bails on Tony and I to catch a ride in a Prius. So, the two of us keep walking…and walking…and walking. A visual aid may be appropriate:
Yup. Fortunately Tony made for great company—he’s a Kentucky native who also studied abroad at UC while doing his undergraduate work in philosophy and is now back in Chch to get his Ph.D. We chatted a lot about what it is we like so much about New Zealand, what motivated each of us to come here in the first place and why he came back for a second stay. A lot of what I love about where I am right now is really hard to put into words to people who haven’t been, and it was really refreshing to be able to have a conversation where shared experience replaced a need to explain things in full.
I finally got back to my flat a few minutes shy of 3AM, cold and tired but happy with the evening and strangely grateful for the late-night stroll through the city. Five hours later, my alarm went off, and I hurled my phone into the floor and let out several expletives before making some strong coffee and getting ready to visit one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Sometimes the best experiences come with a little struggle.
I’ve reassured my climbing friends time and time again that this day would never come, but here it is at last—this week I, Dylan Thomas, experienced heaps of Type One Fun while bouldering.
Rewind to freshman year, the first time I ever climbed anything taller than the ladder to the slide at the playground (and to be honest, even that was pretty edgy for me back in the day). I had decided climbing would be a cool sport to get into, and I knew some friends going on a weekend bouldering trip through WilSkills, so I hopped on board. I figured since bouldering problems are so short, they must be much easier and therefore a great place to start. Dumb. Not only is bouldering a lot more intense than climbing routes, your only protection is a pad that you place on the ground below your climb—and if you aren’t used to your feet resting on jibs a couple of meters from the ground, that pad can start to look really small underneath you. I’ll spare you the details of the trip, but suffice it to say that my first time bouldering left a lot to be desired, and since then I’ve totally shied away from doing any more of it outside, keeping my climbing mostly on ropes save for a handful of reluctant bouldering sessions with friends at Climb Nashville.
Until this week, that is, when I had one of those hard-hitting “do you have any idea what you’re missing?!” moments that came in the form of a climbing movie. Wednesday a bunch of climbing club folks were watching films and somebody decided to put on a reel of Sharma bouldering at Castle Hill. I spent the next hour or so pretty much glued to the projector trying not to drool all over my Spagalimi’s pizza—because, holy wow, this place looks absolutely beautiful. I obliviously ask a Kiwi sitting next to me if it’s anywhere close, to which he laughs and says “yeah, it’s an hour away, cool ae?” Um, yeah, SUPER cool. Somehow within the next few minutes I found myself with weekend plans to go to Castle Hill and a spot competing in the next day’s bouldering festival. Sweet as.
…wait a minute. I don’t boulder. What the hell am I doing? That’s what I’m thinking the next night as I take a seat in the ultra-crowded climbing room in the rec center, watching as people draw out their scorecards while a couple of the guys set some last-minute problems for the night. Yep, all evidence leads to the fact that I am, in fact, now in a bouldering comp. I decide there’s a good chance I will make a fool out of myself, so, of course, I proceed.
However, as I start getting on harder problems I start noticing what a great climate the festival has. I stayed on some climbs I’d ordinarily walk away from because the other climbers were ultra-supportive, and I spent a lot of the night just working through sequences with other people trying to do the same climbs. Turns out, I actually really dig bouldering—with the right people, it pushes you and makes what you’re working on a little more social and fun, too. I barely knew two hours had gone by when the climbing was called to a close and we had to add up our scores. I did a lot better than I thought I would, and when everything was tallied up I found out I placed third among the ladies. Whoa, what? Sweet action…not bad for my first comp, ae?
Fast forward to Saturday (Friday was sweet in its own right, but in the interest of keeping on-topic, I’ll save that for a later post) and I’m on the road to Castle Hill with Francis, Amanda, Tom, and Philip. We stop on the way at the “famous” Sheffield Pie Shop, which the rest of the group has been raving about since we got in the car. I had never had a meat pie before—my diet is pretty much vegetarian and to be honest, I’ve always thought the idea of meat in pie sounds appalling. Wrong again. Holy cannoli, Batman, Sheffield pies are SO good. And it turns out there are veggie and fruit varieties, too…I believe I have some sampling to do.
We spend the next hour or so in the car, stomachs full of pie, and spectacular mountain views all around. My day is already through-the-roof awesome and we aren’t even at Castle Hill yet. Once we made it there, though…
Yeah. Let’s just say that New Zealand has been toying with my heart for a little while now, but this pretty much sealed the deal and I want to stay here forever.
We spent the morning playing around on some of the nearest problems, including some beautiful slabs and aretes, plus my favorite of the day, a deep crack up a feature-slim boulder. Read: fist jams. Mm, fist jams.
By the way, Kiwis make for really fun climbing partners.
The climbing here is just amazing, and there are enough boulders to keep you busy for life, let alone all day. Unfortunately, though, bad circumstances caused us to cut our trip short. Amanda took a bad fall onto the edge of the boulder mat while attempting the Fickle Finger of Fate (that tall protrusion Francis is crushing in the above photo) and did some really serious damage to her ankle—likely a break, we all thought. Quickly and with the help of a ski patrol guy who was conveniently in the area at the right time, we made our way out of the basin and to a medical center, Amanda with a pretty impressive splint made from branches, t-shirts, and medical tape.
Just a quick aside here, especially for my outdoorsy friends: the whole situation made me realize how important it is to carry first aid when heading outside. We were really lucky to have tape and for the carpark to be so close; I can only imagine how shitty this situation would have been at the bottom of the Amphitheater in Linville, for example. Having wilderness first aid knowledge can only get you so far if you don’t have adequate supplies to carry out the tasks necessary in a bad situation, and as somebody who usually just chucks a knife in my pack before heading out for a daytrip, I would have been woefully unprepared for this had we been relying on what I brought out for the day. Accidents are real, and in the future I’m definitely going to be sure to take more basic first aid supplies out, even on short daytrips to easy access areas. Food for thought.
We spent the next few hours with Amanda at a med center in Christchurch where the doctors did some x-rays and found out that, fortunately, she hadn’t broken any bones. Right now they figure she’s suffered some pretty serious ligament damage and chipped a small piece of her anklebone, so they put her in a plaster cast and prescribed some pain medication. I was pretty dumbfounded when she told me that the whole experience—the doctor visit, x-rays, a cast, and a healthy amount of nitrous oxide—cost her less than $50, thanks to New Zealand’s rockin’ healthcare system. Kiwis, it turns out, are equally boggled by the idea that I’d have to pay upwards of a thousand dollars for the exact same services. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they have the right idea, and it’s refreshing to know that even as a US citizen with a student visa I’d receive the same kind of medical care for nearly as cheap as a Kiwi would. I’ll avoid stepping onto a soapbox, but there’s something incredibly wrong with the fact that basic healthcare is more affordable for me as a study abroad student in the South Pacific than as a citizen of my home country, and I don’t think it’s the New Zealanders who are screwing up.
All that aside, though, this week I found a new love for a part of climbing I’d never cared much for. More than that, though, I noticed a subtle but massive change in my overall attitude toward my stay in New Zealand, more generally. All this time I’ve sort of thought of my semester here as a chance to experiment with my lifestyle and discover more about myself and what I’m looking for in my life—as though Christchurch is a sort of base camp, or a training ground where I can learn lessons to export back home with me and use in my “real life.” Now, though, it’s starting to sink in that this—living in Chch—is more than just a weird limbo; it literally is my “real life.” Maybe that’s obvious and perhaps I’m poorly articulating it, but it’s a slight change in perspective that makes all the difference. And it also might mean that I don’t really want to come home so soon after all.