South Island Roads are Different

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A waterfall captured by the wind, Milford Sound

I know I spent years pining after Croatia only to relinquish that dream without much fanfare. But weaving through the islands and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds felt like home. Across this country, I’ve just felt a little more settled in my skin. It’s not perfect, of course. There are plenty of things that annoy, disappoint, and frustrate me. All the same, I would live here in a heartbeat. This feeling has only intensified over the past week.

I’m only going to share a few short bullet points from this week. It’s a summary, but describing each thing in detail would still fail to convey my experiences. It’ll be brief but hopefully you’ll still get the gist of everything.

Wellington is quirky and weird but in, like, a classy way. Would live there. I’d prefer the countryside, but it would be just fine.

Arrived on the South Island at night and the next morning, early, headed out and the sunrise over the mountains and water was delicate and opaline and exquisite.

Went kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, a wonderland of turquoise water, bird sanctuary, and sunny beaches.

Driving to Greymouth, watched the clouds stretch their soft fingers over the mountains from the sea.

Driving through the Southern Alps across Arthur’s Pass was magnificent.

Arrived in Christchurch, where the 2011 earthquake is still very much in evidence– notably in the still mostly-collapsed cathedral. Would probably not live there, earthquake notwithstanding.

A trip across plains and foothills giving way to peaks. Visited New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki (Mount Cook), and the glacial lake at its base. And by glacial, I mean there were icebergs in it. One end of the lake was a beach, the other end was a glacier.

Arrived in Queenstown after a long journey, having seen the bluest water probably on Earth. In lakes, in rivers, just a lot of very blue water. Probably a cute town but very touristy, at least at the moment. Also, there are deer farms in New Zealand?!? I ate deer for a couple meals.

Long journey to Milford Sound (which, incidentally, is not a sound but a fjord). Beauty that absolutely defies description, appropriately obscured by rain and clouds. Profoundly incredible.

I’ve had a feeling that has been building this whole sojourn and it was cemented by our trip to Milford Sound today. You know that I’m not overfond of absolutes or favorites. And I still could not say what my favorite travel destination is (or my favorite part of this trip). But while beauty is subjective and comes in many different forms, and while I haven’t fully explored any single county, I can say without hesitation that this is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.

This trip has been altogether incredible. Starting in Sydney and basically every moment since. We have a few more days before heading back to the US and the great unknown which that entails. I’m planning on making the most of that time.

This is the longest I’ve been out of the US–thirteen months pretty much exactly. I rather wish I weren’t going back but whatever. If you know anyone hiring, let me know. Mostly if they’re hiring in New Zealand, but I’ll take what I can get.

The Literal, Figurative Shire

Because last week’s post was just a laundry list of fun things I did in Sydney, I thought I’d change it up a touch this week. I have just a few sections with observations mixed in with activities.

Concerning nature:
I will never not be obsessed with fern trees. They are everywhere and I love them. I could almost convince myself that I’m in Ireland, or maybe parts of England, but then I see a grove of fern trees or a field of pampas grass or a stand of palms. It’s very dinosaur-y. Haven’t encountered a lot of animals but I’m hoping the South Island will have some in store for us. Mostly kiwis. So far, it’s been pretty exclusively cows and sheep. The sheep thing about New Zealand is totally true, not that I’m complaining.

The weather has been mostly good. Apparently, the sun here is especially intense, so we’ve had our bouts with sunburns and all that. Recovered or recovering at this point, we’ll see how the next week treats us in that regard. Recently, it’s been quite rainy but nothing that we can’t handle. Besides, the low misty clouds make the mountains unbelievably magical. Also, the ocean is a very pleasing color.

Concerning the landscape:
Lots of green hills. Not the rolling kind like I saw in Devon, a bit more rugged like around Galway. My sister described it aptly as some strange combination of Ireland and Hawaii. Definitely bears a strong resemblance to Ireland with palms and volcanoes. But whereas Ireland seemed to work really hard to be green, like the land was strained to its utmost limits producing that rich emerald, the countryside here looks just easier . I don’t know if it’s the stronger sun, the awesome volcanic soil, or what. But the green here is easy. I would describe Ireland as ‘verdant’ but New Zealand as ‘lush.’

Except for the barren volcano parts. Which, when we did a section of the Tongariro Crossing, were alpine and ghostly and awe-inspiring.

We’ve visited many waterfalls, all incredible and jungle-y. We stopped for a swim in a thermal stream which was relaxing and cool, made more so by the rain and thunder.
We spent a quiet afternoon on the beach, reading, while Thomas tried to surf having watched one instructional YouTube video.

Driving this afternoon to Wellington, we encountered a great deal more of what I want to call heath, though I’m not certain it’s accurate. Heather, low shrubs, and mountain-y hills. Beautiful.

Concerning adventures:
We walked and tubed through the Waitomo glow worm caves, which were incredible. It wasn’t extreme or anything, but it was fun to get all suited up for a fairly lengthy sojourn. The little maggoty constellations were made a little more mystifying and ethereal for me because I wasn’t wearing my glasses, courtesy of persistent and strong humidity.

Thomas pressured Kaitlin into trying bungee jumping for the first time in Taupo. Into a river. They both seemed to enjoy it though, certainly a rush if nothing else (though not the kind of rush I’m interested in chasing). There was also a cat at the bungee place, they seemed cool.

Concerning entertainment:
There is a TV channel called Giggle and it is just quick, like five second ads, sandwiched between little animated memes and dad jokes. Also, saw the official world’s coolest McDonald’s in Taupo.

Concerning hobbits:
On Wednesday evening, I had the distinct privilege to visit the Hobbiton movie set. Though most of the North Island that has so far been in evidence strongly resembles the Shire, it was amazing to see door after round door built into the hills. We toured the grounds, rebuilt for the Hobbit movies, and then had a fantastical feast at the Green Dragon. Just… a truly incredible time. It rained heavily, lightly, and not at all in random cycles, but it was warm enough that it didn’t detect one iota from the tremendous atmosphere. Definitely an experience to remember, the inevitable kitschy bits included.

We arrived in Wellington this afternoon and, being rather tired from our late night at the Green Dragon, didn’t do a whole lot of exploring. Even so, I feel pretty confident in saying that I would definitely be okay living here. Auckland, definitely not. But Wellington, or some small town in the countryside, yes. Yes. Yes.

Everything has been such a whirlwind and at the same time incredibly relaxing. This trip has surpassed my already high expectations and is, even though I’m typically uncomfortable with absolutes, probably my favorite ever. It’s just stunning, and it’s not over yet.