31 October 2014

The Girl in Chacos

"The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step."

Day tramping on Stewart Island.
Kia Ora!

Well, I am back in good ol' Dunners... just in time for Halloween (for which I have a $3 tiger costume consisting of a plastic tiger ears headband, an elastic string tiger-striped bow tie, and a fluffy tiger tail)... and just 2.5 days before my tourism exam (for which the studying is not going to start until tomorrow). I have spent the afternoon unpacking, doing sorely-needed laundry, and combing through a couple hundred emails. Oh, and eating the ripest, sweetest, juiciest, most delicious kiwifruit I have ever eaten. Ever. 

Life is good. I got back in one piece - except for a dozen bug bites (damn sandflies - hardly bigger than a flea and yet leave you itching for days) and a couple of blisters. But all I can say is... the past ten days have been... SWEET AS. 

Since I was travelling by myself and decided to nix phone WiFi, I had a lot of time for reflection, prayer, and what is accurately described by this greeting card quote I found in Invercargill: 

The cuppa tea, glasses, and puzzled expression are also quite accurate.
I must have my mom's travel agent genes, because I organised and printed plenty of bus timetables, reservation notes, phone numbers, hostel addresses, etc. before I left on my trip, so while I wasn't entirely sure what to expect on my 10-day adventure (hooray spontaneity), I had information for all of the essentials. So with Chacos on my feet and a pack on my back, I left on the late afternoon bus to Invercargill on Sunday, 19 October.

Huge thank you to Ryan for letting me borrow his gear.
There's not much to do in Invercargill... It's a small town trying to be a city like Dunedin, but really Invers is just a laid-back farming community. Most backpackers, including myself, go there as a stop to/from Stewart Island, so I met some friendly people in the hostel and we played card games all night. The Canadian girl, Alex, was also going to Stewart Island the next day and we ended up staying in the same backpacker on the island (there are only two, so the odds of us staying in the same one were pretty high).

Map of the day tramps around Stewart Island - courtesy of the "DOC" (Department of Conservation).
Population? About 300-400. And most everyone owns a boat. 
Stewart Island is home to 20,000 or so Kiwi birds... They're shy, nocturnal birds, so unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to spot one - but I did get to hear them (so at least I know they exist). Kiwi birds make a 'Churrrr' sound.
Moccachino from the one cafĂ© on the island. 
Life sized Jenga! Hand made by the hostel manager.   
Note from the hostel owners.
Yes, the reception is literally a broom closet.
Oh, and let me just say that taking the ferry to Stewart Island might have been one of the best parts of my entire trip.... While others were getting motion sickness at the back of the boat, I was standing up at the front and was as excited as a kid's first trip to Disney Land - it's roller coaster time, baby! 

So I did some day walks around Stewart Island and I also got to see/hear some fantastic birds. Unfortunately, most of the birds were hard to photograph, with the exception of the kaka... 

These adorable forest-dwelling parrots would hang around Bunkers Backpackers and peer down from the roof. 
A stunning rainbow on the first day I arrived on the island.

I forgot what these birds are called...
Fuzzy plant!!!
A broken chain structure on Stewart Island. The connecting chain is in Invercargill. :) 
I also figured this is about the furthest south I will ever be in my life, unless I go to Antarctica... so I had to get a picture.
After three lovely days on Stewart Island making friends, watching movies, and tramping around in muddy Chacos, I headed over to Te Anau for the next stage of my adventure, where I enjoyed the surrounding lake and tramped up to Luxmore Hut for one of my nights there...and that was a climb.

The views were absolutely stunning, but it was a 6-7 hour tramp from the backpacker I was staying at the night before, most of which was uphill climbing. But, funny enough, I ran into some of my university friends on the track and hanging out with them made the climb that much better. They went on to do the entire 3-day, 2-night Kepler track (one of New Zealand's nine "Great Walks").

I did the entire tramp in my Chacos. I couldn't tell if people were impressed or just thought I was crazy. Maybe a little bit of both.

On the way back down the next day (I only did one night of the Kepler), I ran into the two guys I met in Invercargill the week before! I am reminded of what the first New Zealander I met told me (who I met as we were waiting for our flight to depart from the airport in San Francisco)... "New Zealand is a small country - you'll always run into people you know." And how right she was.

Sunset over Lake Te Anau.
My first NZ pie! Filled with veggies. Mmm!
While in Te Anau and on the Kepler I was thinking about the "tourism" of tramping in New Zealand. Backpackers like to set themselves apart as authentic travellers, or just outdoor enthusiasts, but at the end of the day these Great Walk trampers find themselves in a fully-serviced DOC hut (Department of Conservation), where there are toilets, bunk beds, and wood for a fire; they unload all their gear - their gas stoves and dehydrated dinners - and they lay out their clothes to dry; a hut ranger comes by to collect their 'tickets' to stay in the hut.... Thousands of these people tramp multi-day Great Walks every year. Is that not tourism? They may not be wearing floppy sun hats, sporting Hawaiian-print shirts, and carrying a camera around their necks while on a bus tour of New Zealand... but their tramping activities are bringing in money all the same.

Ironically, the next day I had to get on one of those touristy buses because it was the cheapest way to get to Milford Sound... and behold... 

.....the simultaneously horrifying and yet fascinating phenomenon of mass tourism. Hundreds of these buses travel State Highway 94 to Milford Sound every week during peak season (November - March), and primarily full of tourists from Japan, China, and other Eastern Asia countries. Like I said... fascinating. 

I must say I understand why Milford Sound is such a touristy spot - it's gorgeous! The drive to the fiord goes pass glacier-carved mountains. When it rains you can see hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the sides of these cliff faces. To get an idea of how MASSIVE these mountains are, look for the little camper van in the bottom righthand corner of this photo: 

Here are some photos of Milford Sound on the cloudy/rainy day I was there...

The mountain on the lefthand side (Mitre Peak) is about a mile high.
And here are some photos of Milford Sound on the sunny day I went SEA KAYAKING! Whoohoo!!! There were only six of us including myself and the kayak guide. Gorgeous day. I can't believe I have never tried kayaking before - LOVED IT. 

I am... SO SEXY. 
After Milford Sound I took a small shuttle bus to the start of the Routeburn Track... another of New Zealand's Great Walks. My shuttle driver was a local Kiwi - born and raised in the Fiordlands - and we talked about tourism, fishing sustainability, crazy foreign drivers, stoat and possum control, and the political and corporate 'snakes' of New Zealand. I love that I can have these funny, and yet serious, conversations with a local Kiwi, now that I've been here long enough and know some of the nuances of NZ culture.

Now the Routeburn.... This was the last stage of my adventure trip... The Routeburn is an easy-to-moderate Great Walk - it's about 32 km one-way and traverses the Southern Alps. I did it in 3-days and 2-nights. The track is well-maintained, but it's still pretty steep in parts, and the weather can get gnarly in the alpine sections of the track. People say they've done the Routeburn in shit weather - clouds, gale winds, snow, sleet, rain, hail, the works - and wish they could do it again to get the "pristine, stunning, breathtaking" views that everybody talks about on a clear, sunny day. 

But I am here to tell you that I walked the Routeburn in pretty crummy weather and I wouldn't change one minute of it. Yes, I endured the wind and snow and cold, wet boots... but there's nothing like a mountain covered in snow. And the worst weather was only on Day 2 - I still had clear views on Day 1. 

Oh, and one of the best parts about this trip? Meeting four attractive men from Australia who shepherded me into their group. We played cards in the huts at night and they walked with me for all of Day 2, even though I fell behind a few meters every now and then because my short legs just couldn't keep up with their long ones. 

Day 1, around noon - The view from Key Summit. 
Day 1, evening - The view from Lake MacKenzie Hut... 
Day 2, morning - The same view from Lake MacKenzie Hut...but this time with snow! Gonna be a cold day.
Day 2 - Walking with my Aussie boys. Or rather, slushing through snow. This was the one day I couldn't wear my Chacos.

I wish my pictures could capture the sheer height and depth of these mountains and valleys. I felt so small.
Day 3 - Finally descended into lower altitudes. And I got to cross my first real swinging bridge!! So much fun! 
Tell me... Why can't I keep a wild Kea parrot as a pet?? Just look at those eyes! 
I got to the Routeburn Shelter around 1 pm on Thursday, 30 October. An hour later I got on a shuttle bus to Queenstown, where I ate a delicious tofu burger with chips from Fergburger and then crashed at a quiet hostel outside of town. This morning I took the 7:45 am InterCity bus to Dunedin, and now I am here! 

It's getting late and I should be getting ready for my Halloween potluck, but I would like to close with a few thoughts/reflections I've had this week... 

1. The grass isn't always greener when travelling alone or with others. 

I loved travelling alone. It was empowering, it provided me time for reflection and journal writing, and it encouraged me to meet new people that I otherwise I wouldn't have engaged with (had I been travelling with friends or family). But it was also lonely at times, like when I would see something interesting but there was no one to share that moment with. At the same time, travelling with others has disadvantages, too... If I had been with someone else I wouldn't have been able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. 

So it goes both ways. 

2. It's okay to cry, seek more alone time, and have momentary freak out moments.

Like when I came out of the supermarket during a bus break and the bus wasn't waiting at the bus stop anymore, and for 2 or 3 minutes I thought I had lost my pack and everything in it. It was pouring rain. I was in Gore - the middle of nowhere, basically - and yes, I freaked out. (The bus came around the corner just a minute later, right on time for departure - the driver had just gone to run a quick errand). 

Or like when I was tramping in Stewart Island... It was towards the end of the day. I was tired and lonely, and when I thought of one of my good friends back home, I let myself cry for a minute. 

Or when I was in the first hut of the Routeburn Track. The hut ranger was nowhere to be found, we were cold and wet and couldn't get a fire started, and weather forecasts looked so grim that we thought we might not be able to continue tramping the next day. I was cold and scared - and yes, I freaked out then, too. But just for a few moments. (The hut ranger showed up eventually and we finally did get the fire started.)

3. Don't ever... ever...forget bug repellant. 

I didn't have bug repellant during my time in Stewart Island... definitely a mistake I came to regret every single night thereafter, when I literally wasn't able to fall asleep because I couldn't stop itching my feet, calves, and wrists. 


Well. That about wraps up this blog post..... now where did I put those tiger ears?

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