Saturday, February 13, 2010

Southern Adventures Part I

It’s been a while. I haven’t written because I’ve been really traveling. This past month has profoundly changed me. It would take too long to do a recap of the entire thing, so I’ll try my best to sum up.
Jan and I left Napier on January 17th. We decided to spend one night somewhere along the way to Wellington, then 2 nights in Wellington before our ferry. Three hours into our road trip I realized I was just about to share a tent for a whole month with someone I liked, but didn’t really know all that well. What if we didn’t get along? And why was I just thinking about this possibility now? A month is a long time to spend with someone, even if you love that person. I’d like to say, retrospectively, that I just had a good feeling about Jan. I didn’t bother to think about the fact that we might not get along because deep in my heart I knew we’d become extremely good friends. In truth though, as I’ve learned on this trip (Jan would be the first to point out), I often don’t think about things until it’s too late to do anything to change them. That being said, I wouldn’t change anything about this past month.
We decided to do this trip extremely low budget. Actually, it was kind of decided for us by dwindling bank accounts and job uncertainty. We stocked up on Fantastik 2 minute noodles, which are far from fantastic. I think I’ve always eaten pretty well. In college, I always just thought people who ate ramen noodles all the time were lazy and didn’t realize you could eat well pretty cheaply. I still kind of feel this way, but I also stand corrected. Noodles are cheap. You can’t eat any cheaper. (Mom—you’re probably ready to jump in with all the vegetables you have growing in the yard, but think about this in terms of living out of your car). We also decided/it was decided for us that we would camp the majority of the time, and that we couldn’t afford to pay campgrounds every night, so we would sleep as much as possible in the wild.
For twenty-three years, I’ve always had the feeling that I’m being watched, that as soon as I do something wrong, someone will see me and I will be in trouble. I’ve been senselessly scared of getting in trouble forever. Here’s what I learned:
People don’t give a damn about you. Even if they see you doing something “wrong” they will, 95% of the time, pretend not to.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to pitch a tent in Wellington, but when we’d been there for New Years, Jan had met a French girl who lived somewhere just above the city. He’d written down her email address wrong so hadn’t been able to get in touch with her to see if we could stay there. He also didn’t remember exactly where she lived, but recalled walking up stairs to get to her apartment. This is when I knew I would love traveling with Jan. We spent the afternoon hiking up different sets of stairs in the city. Jan would look around at the top, “No…this doesn’t look quite right…” Eventually, we found the right set and the right apartment complex. The thing about apartment complexes is each unit looks the same. “Well…I’ll recognize it if I can see the inside.” We spent the next hour or so peering into windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the illusive French girl or her belongings. We finally found an unlocked hallway and a posse of Chinese students. They knew of no French girl, but directed us to the office. Jan asked the director if he knew the whereabouts of the French girl. “Oh, you just missed her. She started traveling yesterday.”
So back to no plan. As we walked back down to the city, we bumped into the Swedish couple we knew from Toad Hall. They took us back to their hostel and got us a good deal. Later, we met up with Troels (who is now living in Wellington) and took advantage of the internet/showers/kitchen/beautiful weather.
During the last ten minutes of the ferry ride to the South we decided to look in our guide book and decide where we wanted to go. We started our South Island adventure hiking on the Queen Charlotte track, which goes along mountains through the sounds, on the way to Nelson. A girl Jan had been seeing in Napier was going to meet us in Nelson in a few days, so we were just taking our time to get there. It rained the whole hike and when we found a campground it was fifteen dollars per person so we decided to blaze our own trail into the woods (in the mountains) until we found a flat enough place to pitch our tent. We found a place, more because it was getting dark and we couldn’t stand to be wet any longer. We ate some raw noodles and had nothing else to do but go to sleep. But it was 8:30 at night and we weren’t tired. Jan and his girlfriend broke up last May after four years, but since he’s been here, they’ve gotten really close again. We’re kind of in similar situations. We ended up talking for a few hours before falling asleep. It’s refreshing to have a completely new person to talk to—you don’t know the same people, you don’t have the same histories. Nothing is known. And better, nothing is off limits. Our tent was on a ramp, which coincidentally enough is the Flemish word for “catastrophe.” We woke up periodically in the night tangled at the bottom of the tent.
Our first night in Nelson we set up our tent in some dunes by the beach. It was a Friday night and we went to a bar to have light to read our books, charge our phones, brush our teeth, etc. We hadn’t showered for a few days and were looking pretty skuzzy compared to the other clientele, dolled up for a night on the town. 2 full batteries later, we drove back to our tent. Jan sleeps late. The first few days I was frustrated, having nothing to do for a few hours, feeling like we should be moving, making progress, getting somewhere. I felt bad for always sleeping so much later than Lindsey in the past. But after a little while, I loosened up. We didn’t have an itinerary. There was no place we needed to be. As long as I had my book, and some breakfast, I had nothing but time. Especially when we were camping by the sea. I’d wake up, have a swim, and take some time to enjoy the world.
(This will be a lot longer than I thought. I’m going into more detail than I anticipated).
The second night in Nelson, Saori arrived and the three of us stayed in a hostel. Jan and Saori stayed in the tent and paid the difference for me to stay in a room. (I’m actually writing this from the same hostel now). The hostel was so nice we ended up staying for three nights—free swimming pool and hot tub, free internet, free Jacuzzi, free breakfast and the nicest bunks I’ve seen for 17 a night. While here, I found a book in the shelves called Isabel and the Sea which affected me so much that I thought my whole life had been pointing me in the direction of finding this book. That’s why I was in Nelson, the South, New Zealand. I won’t go into the book right now, but I’ve decided at some point in my life to make a several month long sea-voyage. Maybe when I have more than 400 dollars.
After Nelson, Jan and I headed in the direction of Christchurch. We camped on a riverbed along the way and discovered sand flies. In the half hour it took to set up the tent and collect wood for the fire we had hundreds of bites. You swat the air and it feels like you’re hitting something semi-solid. So I lied, if I could change something about the past month, I’d erase the sand flies and all of the scabs I have as a result of their attacks.
This was our ritual though. Every night, we’d find a place to camp, spend some time collecting wood, and make a fire. We’d boil water, cook our noodles, and talk. 2 minute noodles turned into a several hour ordeal. Dinner was a nice tradition. At some point, I stopped knowing the time. I liked it that way. You wake up, eat when you’re hungry, and set up for dinner when you think it will be dark soon. Time doesn’t matter—only daylight.
In Christchurch we met up with a girl from Toad Hall, an American, Katie. She had driven me to the hospital during my eye ordeal. We went on a pub crawl, which was twenty dollars but included snacks which we made our meal. Christchurch is where I had the best meal of my life. One night, we slept in a crater of a mountain overlooking the Pacific. In the morning, we drove down to the beach and I swam while Jan collected mussels from the rocks. Later, we bought some vegetables and white wine and after spending the day in the city, headed out to a beach suburb, washing our mussels in ponds along the way. We brought our sheet and sleeping bags to the beach (the weather was iffy so we had it basically to ourselves) and made a fire. We cut up vegetables, trying not to get them too sandy. We really had a makeshift kitchen on the shore. And, no sandflies on the beach. We smoked some of the mussels, and steamed the rest with the vegetables, oil, and wine. I don’t even think I really like mussels. I hadn’t really eaten them before, except for an occasional one when my dad orders them. But the setting and the wine and the circumstances for this meal made everything taste wonderful. The night was so nice we didn’t even pitch the tent, just slept in our sleeping bags on the sheet by the fire. I woke up in the morning when concerned walker roused us, worrying that we were dead. I woke up and took a walk on the beach. Jan went back to sleep.
The next night we were on the same beach, but a different spot. We left the pub crawl at 3 in the morning and could not find our way back. (Don’t worry—wasn’t drinking and driving. But kiwi signs are terrible. They point you in the right direction but then when you come to a fork in the road, the signage stops. Finding your way involves a lot of guessing. We thought it was kind of funny that we were lost when we didn’t have a home. So eventually we just picked a beach and found a tree by the dunes and grabbed our sleeping bags). In the morning I sat on the beach and had such a powerful urge to go swimming that I didn’t even bother to get my bathing suit from the car. I just stripped down to my underwear and dove in. I’ve never felt so compelled to do anything. I HAD to get into the water. I have never felt quite so free or empowered. I splashed around and swam to where the waves were breaking and all I could think was “I did this. I put myself here.” I felt like I was a part of the sea and the sky. I really felt like I was an integral part of the world. I am part of the world. It’s such an obvious thing, but not something you’re always consciously aware of. It’s like having legs. You always know they’re there, but only rarely do you stop and think about where they’ve taken you and how amazing that actually is.
At Mount Cook we met a couple of Dutch girls at the tent next to us, and must have been following similar paths. We saw them every day for several days—Dunedin, and this random town at the southern tip that let you camp at the community center for free. They asked us if we wanted to do a hike with them near Milford Sound. We didn’t have anything else to do, so we agreed. We would each park our car at one end and then do the walk together and drive back to the start. It would involve a lot of repetitive driving, but was a way to avoid the extremely expensive shuttle service.
The girls were slightly more plan-oriented than us and booked huts along the path in advance. We tried at the visitors center, but they were full for the next couple weeks. Jan asked, I hadn’t even thought to, if we were allowed to freedom camp along the trail. She looked around and then quietly told us the secret—technically we were allowed to camp 500 meters away from the trail, but given that the path was in incredibly steep mountains, this would be impossible. We accepted the challenge. We ended up climbing a giant mossy boulder in a lake that had just enough space to pitch a tent. Sort of. The Dutch girls, at times, thought we were idiots. We stopped for food in Queenstown to bring with us on the trail, and while Jan was finishing the shopping I went to the bathroom. When we started driving, he remarked, “The noodles were really expensive there.” I took this to mean, “Too bad we’re out of noodles and had to get some there, because they were expensive.” What he meant was, “Good thing we have plenty of noodles to bring with us, because they were really expensive there.” We had to really ration our food for the three day hike. Here are things that are not open to interpretation when going on a serious hike:
1.This hike is only recommended for those who are extremely fit.
This does not also mean: Or for those who think they could be extremely fit, if they really put their minds to it.
2.Make sure you bring good hiking boots.
Does not also mean: Or the running shoes you bought last year that are a size too small, but were the cheapest ones in the store and the only ones you could afford at the time.
3.Bring PLENTY of water.
Does not mean: A sports-drink sized water bottle should be fine. Chances are you’ll find springs/streams/rivers along the way. And the water is probably safe to drink. The animals don’t seem to get sick, anyway.

We had one instance where we actually were idiots. There was a spot where we camped a few times, a really nice spot on a lake on the way to Milford Sound. (We were here several times due to the hike and backtracking). It was about 12 km north of Te Anu and while waiting to do the hike, we decided to explore Milford Sound for a few days. In the morning, we got ready to go, with a bit less than a quarter tank of gas in the car. We thought about going back to Te Anu to fill up, but I was at this point, really sick of back tracking. We’d already gone to town once the night before to get some beer because there was another group camping on the beach and we welcomed an opportunity to socialize. And then Jan had forgotten his bathing suit and we had to go back again. We had enough to get to Milford Sound, we could just fill up there. We had JUST enough to get to Milford Sound, which can only be reached by one road. We arrived, rolling in neutral into the town, which consists only of an info center and a lodge. Only those two things. Not, for instance, a grocery store, or most importantly, a gas station. We had no idea what to do. We called AAA, but unfortunately, to qualify for roadside assistance, you have to belong to AAA. Membership was 180. We found the one person in town who seems to be a local and borrowed a can for petrol from him. There was, apparently (we sure didn’t see it), an emergency gas station 45 km back towards Te Anu. We tried hitchhiking for a while, but nobody seemed to feel sorry enough for us to give us a ride. And the sandflies were brutal. As we were giving up, a van pulled over and told us to go to the docks where you can rent kayaks, ask for a man named Roscoe. He might be able to sell us a tank of petrol. Roscoe’s assistant Ben was there, and sold us 15 liters for double the price (well worth it), which would be enough to get us back to Te Anu. He also told us a good spot for camping, where we wouldn’t be bothered by pesky police or Department of Conservation employees.

We developed plans for a cooking show, “Wild Cooking with Jan and Rachel.” Once a week, we’d have a special, “Noodles: How to Improve Them,” as well as our regular, “What’s for dinner?! I don’t know…let’s see what we catch!”
One night, we found mushrooms growing in the wild. Jan has a survival book and we found a picture that matched. These were non-poisonous, most likely. I went to collect wood and when I came back Jan had read all the information he could. “The book says if you’re not sure, then don’t try it. But I had a little nibble, because I’m pretty sure. But you shouldn’t try them until 24 hours have passed. If I get sick, you can drive me to the hospital.” We dried them, and a few days later, snuck into a hostel to use the kitchen and put them in our pasta sauce. They were quite tasty.
In Te Anu, Jan really wanted to catch a duck. I sat on the shore while he swam in the water, hoping to grab its legs . I noticed that he was directly behind a woman filming her baby wading in the water, and enjoyed the fact that years later, she would watch and see a wild man in the background hunting a duck. Eventually, he didn’t catch it, although he could have, because there were too many people around. Although, the children didn’t bother him. “They are so little. They wouldn’t even remember this in a year.”
I want to go outside and swim in the pool and am not sure when I will next have internet access. When I get back to Napier, I want to stay in my car for a few nights until I know I have a job. So, I will end this quite long post with some statistics from this month:
Number of times I’ve slept in a bed: 4
Number of times I’ve snuck into a hostel: 5 (for showers) 2 (for kitchens) 1(for sleeping. But that wasn’t really on purpose).
Number of packs of noodles consumed: 20ish
Number of showers: 7
Number of world heritage sites I’ve illegally camped on: 2
Amount of money saved by camping in the wild: approx $700
Number of campfires: 22
Animals spotted: sea lions, penguins, weasels, parrots (one flew away with one of my 6 socks)
Hospitals visited: 1 (my eye got messed up again but is now fine)
Kilometers driven: 6,000
I will probably write more about this adventure later. There is still a lot to say, but for another time. It’s a lot to read.

1 comment:

  1. Rachel, this is so you. I could pretend that you were telling this to us around the dining room table.

    A few comments:

    1. I'm glad you didn't start smoking.
    2. Dinner on the beach sounded fantastic.
    3. It is February here, so there are no vegetables in the garden. Though the sage and thyme have weathered these last couple of storms pretty damn well. One just has to be willing to wade through the hip-high snow to pick it.

    I can't wait to hear more.