Some things just aren’t meant to be. This is a collection of travel stories that almost were, but ended up being memorable all the same.
Look through any list of things to see in New Zealand, and one thing almost invariably comes up: Milford Sound.
Rudyard Kipling described it as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Waterfalls cascade from mountains in all directions, spilling into the fjord below. Snow-capped peaks rise up in the distance. On a clear day, there may be no better view in all of New Zealand.
Alas, this was no clear day.
We had booked a cruise through the fjord and had spent the past day driving a good four-and-a-half hours to get there. We awoke to a fog thicker than soup and every bit as murky. The rain didn’t fall so much as it shot sideways, mocking you for thinking you’d be safe with an umbrella. With no recourse but to go through with our plan, we set off for the ferry terminal.
There’s a postcard view of the fjord that greets you as you arrive in Milford — that is, on any day other than the one which we arrived on. The fog still hadn’t let up during our hour-long morning drive, and it hung over the water with a quiet stubbornness. It wasn’t going anywhere, dammit.
We pulled up our raincoat hoods and prepared to board.
Days earlier, we had debated which ferry service to book. Most were in the $45 range, but one offered a cooked breakfast for an extra $10. That may have been the best money we’ve spent on the whole trip.
With little in the way of scenery to distract us from the buffet table, we devoted ourselves to eating breakfast with a boxer-like focus. If Ali and Frazier lasted 15 rounds, Warren and I came damn close. Hash browns, fruit salad, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausages… nothing escaped our forks and knives.
Every now and then, we’d take a break between rounds to pop outside onto the deck and soak in the sights — while simultaneously getting soaked. We spotted penguins, seals, and many a waterfall.
Warren summed it up as “the most scenic breakfast we’ve ever had.”
Spend a night in a two-person cabin, and you really get to know someone.
Warren and I had plans to camp the night before Milford Sound, only to be greeted by a relentless torrent of rain. Instead, we rented a tiny cabin that would have been much more romantic had it not been the two of us. Nicknamed “Pop’s Hut,” it wasn’t much more than a bunk bed, a coal-fired stove, and a kitchen table, but it was the coziest thing we had laid eyes on.
We spent the evening trading stories and reminiscing on old times — the kind of night that does away with any travel fatigue from spending nearly every waking moment together.
Spend a night in a car, and you really get to know someone.
It started off like any ordinary day — that is to say, with the requisite egg and toast breakfasts and groggy wake-ups. The plan was to spend the morning hiking in Wanaka before driving to the West Coast for the evening. We had our sights set on camping in Lake Paringa, just a short drive from the Fox Glacier.
The hike itself was ordinary, too — that is to say, without anything particularly unusual, but still rather beautiful. We climbed Mt. Iron and were rewarded with sweeping views of Wanaka, the surrounding lakes, and the mountains behind them.
Even the drive started ordinarily enough — that is to say, with much of the usual banter, disagreement over what music to listen to, and occasional photo breaks. We made it to Haast Pass in good time, and for once, it looked like everything was in our favour.
Then the rain came.
It arrived in sheets and progressed to a downpour so relentless, even the highest windshield wiper setting struggled to keep pace. Suddenly, the thought of camping didn’t seem so appealing. Still, we pushed on, determined to stick to the plan.
We pulled into the D.O.C. campground, and still, the rain wouldn’t let up. Puddles had started to form in the many potholes dotting the dirt road. The parking lot threatened to become a pond. We opted to pull into a spot and wait it out. If the rain relented, we’d spring into action and set up a tent. As you already know, that didn’t happen.
Instead, we pulled our borrowed sleeping bags out of the trunk and got cozy in the sedan. We started with the windows closed, but after agreeing that some fresh air would be a good idea, we decided to crack them all open. That’s when the sandflies showed up.
If you’ve experienced black flies before, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what we were in store for. We closed the windows as quickly as we had opened them, but it was too late — the damage was done. The next half hour devolved into a never-ending sequence of bites, slaps, and scratches. They may have won the battle, but in the end, we won the war.
Aside from breaks to brush teeth and do other things best done outside of a car, we spent at least 15 hours in there. (If you saw Warren in the time-lapse from our cabin, you can probably guess what it was like for him to be cooped up for so long.)
More tales from the road:
1. Queenstown bills itself as the Adventure Capital of the World, so it was only right that we sought out some form of excitement there. Skydiving and bungee jumping were out of the question (or at least, out of our budget), so we had to be a little creative in our thrill-seeking. Finally, we came across a little rope swing over a stream that fit the bill. We each went across the first time, no problem. When we returned for round two the following day, I tweaked my upper back so badly, I was in agony for days. The moral of the story? I’m probably not cut out for adventure sports.
2. 50% of my grocery bill lately has been Tim Tams. Having tried almost all of the flavours by now (except for the unnecessarily experimental ones), I can say with confidence that chewy caramel is the best. They’ve even become a form of currency between Warren and me — we’ll routinely try and extract Tim Tams from one another for different perceived favours. (I thought sharing my umbrella with him was worth at least two Tim Tams, but he found the idea laughable.)
3. If you think gas is expensive in Canada, be thankful: we’ve been filling up for $2.00 a litre in New Zealand. My wallet’s shed more than a few tears (and pounds) in the last two weeks.
Things I’ve seen:
This may very well have been the strangest experience I’ve had while driving. Warren and I were en route to the Peel Forest when we passed a car with flashing lights and a sign reading “Herd to Follow.” As quickly as we could make out the sign, a herd of cows came around the bend, blocking the entire road — I kid you not, there had to have been at least 60 of them. I had no option but to pull over as much as possible and sit still while row after row of cows passed by on either side, hoping to God that none of them felt the sudden urge to jump onto our rental car.
2. Milford Sound.
I hesitate to put Milford Sound on the list, because we didn’t really see it. Still, the few things we could make out through the sheets of rain and blanket of fog were pretty nice.
3. Franz Josef Glacier.
Our first glimpse at the glacier came on a (you guessed it) relentlessly rainy day. We went anyway and got soaked, figuring it was better to see it than not at all. The next day — coincidentally, our last morning in Franz Josef Township — we finally had a glimpse of sunshine, so we decided to take one last crack at the glacier. It was well worth it.
What I’ve been listening to:
Mumford & Sons – Babel
Alt-J – Live At Red Rocks
J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive
(Header photo by Warren Jones)