*Franz Joseph Glacier, Wanaka, Queenstown*
09.10.2011 - 13.10.2011 14 °C
My bus rolls into Franz Joseph Glacier on a rainy evening. The town, a small collection of hostels and restaurants, serves as a stop along the West Coast and a base for visitors to the glacier. At the hostel I wind up chatting with a cool girl from Germany, and we watch the rugby together. This rugby thing is growing on me. It’s loads of fun to watch and I find myself squirming/shouting along with the action on screen. Not that I understand the half of it, but no matter. Meanwhile, my Israeli friend from Motueka walks in from the rain bearing hot pizza and joins us on the sofa for the rugby. Given that there are only a few ways to get around NZ’s South Island, people often end up following the same route, so there tend to be reunions along the way as you hit the major nodes of the network. A neat little phenomenon.
Next morning. One can experience the glacier via hiking, heli-hikes (whereby you helicopter up to a point on the glacier and walk around on it with crampons and pickaxes and such), and scenic flights. My own two feet seem by far the most budget-friendly option, and a perfectly good one at that, so I hike with the German girl and four French guys to a lookout point near the glacier. NZ tramping continues to be fabulous. This hike has some steep challenging parts, more swing bridges, and the view is awesome.
In the evening the French guys make crepes – yum! Meanwhile I have moved to the hostel across the street (lured by free internet), and my roommate is from Spain. So my day has been a lovely language soup of French, German and Spanish.
The next day the Frenchies are driving down to Wanaka, which is the direction I want to go (toward Queenstown), and they agree to take me. They have rented a camper van with two seats in front and a sleeping area in back, so it is three of us lounging/rolling around in back on the 5 hour drive down to Wanaka. It looks kind of like this:
Wanaka is a small city/town with a nice offering of tramping and ‘adrenaline activities.’ Set on gently sloping hills around a lake with mountains in the background, it looks - as does much of NZ - like a postcard:
At the hostel I re-reencounter the Israeli guy, who feels like an old friend by now. We take a quiet walk along the lake and grab food at a kebab stand as the sun sets. I am craving quiet now, by the way. Although I am meeting great people, human interaction is beginning to feel taxing. As a matter of fact, I am noticing a pattern. This seems to happen after a few consecutive nights in staying in hostels. I have started to think of it as “Hostel Burnout.” Its chief symptom is that no matter how pleasant other people’s company may be, I basically want to be alone. So the next day, instead of sticking around Wanaka to hike with friends (lousy hiking weather anyway), I book a bus to Queenstown where I don’t know anyone yet.
Queenstown has a cool vibe. Restaurants, pubs, all night hamburger joints, and countless businesses catering to the adrenaline junkies that gravitate here (no pun intended) for bungee jumping, paragliding extreme mountain biking, river sledging, skydiving etc. Which reminds me. About all that adrenaline stuff... A couple months back, I managed to slip a disk in my neck. Wasn’t my first stupid injury, but this time there was… Nerve Pain. That plus some absurdly intense muscle spasms obviated sleep for weeks, and it put the fear of God in me. Eventually things seemed to be moving in the right direction, I had clearance to travel, and I asked my PT about bungee jumping. He made a pained face and groaned (much like when I asked about tumbling the week before). He finally said it would probably be okay, like the odds were in my favor should I care to chance it. Strolling down Shotover Street now, I recall this pronouncement, consider the sumptuous adrenaline menu, then juxtapose it with… Nerve Pain. I decide that God willing I will have the opportunity to bungee jump/skydive/et al when I am not three months post slipped disk, and for now, hiking it is.
The main tramp near Queenstown is up to Ben Lomond Peak, a mountain overlooking the city and surrounds. It starts with a steep ascent to the upper cable car terminal called Skyline Complex, which is also a starting point for loge tracks, ziplining adventures, mountain biking and probably more. Nearing Skyline Complex I hear some strange noises that I realize are mountain bikes braking. Frequently and sharply. They sound almost musical, like blasts on a clarinet. Then the hiking path intersects with a mountain biking trail known as “Vertigo” whose grade is so steep that I would scarcely attempt it on foot, let alone a bike. I’ve done my share of hazardous things, but gain a new level of respect for these ‘Queenstown adrenaline junkies’ who are clearly much crazier than I.
What can I say. Another fabulous NZ hike. Ben Lomond Peak, reached after a couple hours of challenging uphill, rewards you with killer views from up in the clouds. It is above the bush line, above the snow line, and – a special treat – above the sand fly line, so you can hang out without being pestered. At the summit I meet a couple guys from overseas who are living and working in Queenstown. We pass around some cookies and binoculars as we chat. I also inquire about a sofa to crash on, just in theory (why not save a couple buck on a hostel?). They explain that they live in a house with 15 people and the landlord doesn’t technically allow it… but hey, it’d probably work, so let them know if/when I need it.
Back at the hostel, I make dinner for the second night in a row courtesy the Asian Mart, where I have taken a liking to shopping. Last night was udon soup with fresh tofu and bok choy, tonight coconut curry. It is a pleasantly quiet evening. Some hostels are more social than others, and people tend to hang out, make dinner together and plan activities together. Here it's more like everyone does his/her own thing, which is exactly what I wanted. Still. I am craving even more pure isolation, like tramping and camping. Queenstown is fairly far south, so most of the Great Walks nearby are still limited by wintry weather conditions, i.e., the DOC updates say things like, “extreme risk of avalanche.” The Kepler Track, just outside Te Anau, is partly passable and sounds beautiful, so I book a bus for the next day.
Side note: Apart from the ride with the French guys, which is different because we already knew each other by then, I have not hitchhiked since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I can posit two reasons. (1) I am now traversing routes fully covered my prepaid Flexipass, and (2) That ‘Driftwood’ episode felt like hitting the hitchhiking jackpot. Anything after would be anticlimactic, and really, I just don’t want to press my luck because if it comes in any kind of finite quantity, I have surely maxed out.