‘Hey Oliver’ I said. ‘I’m beached ez bro’.
‘Huh’ Oliver replied. Without even looking up.
‘Beached Az’ is an ABC cartoon where a whale washes up on the shore and declares himself ‘beached az’ to a seagull. Humorous conversations ensue in thick New Zeland accents. Check out this link if you have no idea what I was on about.
We were on a plane from Sydney to New Zealand at the time. I was in a good mood and whatever silly Kiwi thing I thought of was tumbling out of my mouth. Oliver meanwhile was teaching himself how to solve the Rubik’s cube by studying a book on speed cubing and had no idea what I was talking about. He had no interest in my silly Kiwi ramblings.
I thought of telling the customs officer in Queenstown that I was ‘beached ez’ too, but before I could he asked why we were visiting New Zealand. ‘We’re here for a bungee jumping conference’, I told him proudly and then I demonstrated my technique for taking the plunge, flinging my arms back and my chest forward as I had planned in my mind. Emma, Amy and Oliver tried to look as if they didn’t know me but I didn’t care. The customs man chuckled and stamped our passports but I don’t think he thought I was there for a bungee conference.
We had two weeks in New Zealand. Two weeks. Last time we went travelling it was for 52 weeks! How can you see everything in two weeks? You can’t. Not even in little New Zealand and so we were forced to limit our ambitions to Wanaka, Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo, Queenstown, Te-Anau and the Milford Track. And somewhere along the way I was determined to jump off a bridge…
- On the shores of Lake Wanaka I got jumped on by a wet dog two seconds after pulling into a carpark and opening the door of the car. It was a skittish kelpie scared witless by a paraglider and desperately seeking refuge… on my lap.
- We rode bikes around the lake, beneath the beautiful mountains, stopping to picnic and then swim in the lovely but cool water. As we went we pondered how to pronounce Te-Anau. Is it Te-ah-no? Or Te-oh-no? Or Te-ah-noo?
- We spent way too much time at the local supermarket because the effort of thinking ahead to the next meal was too much for us and this meant we kept retuning every three hours. This is not a good thing because supermarkets are not very exciting and this one was not big enough to cater for all the tourists.
- We visited Puzzle World, which is a fun tourist trap with a huge maze, a wall of faces that follow you when you move around and a room built on a 30-degree angle but which looks normal. It made me feel sick.
- I got a speeding ticket, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because New Zealand charges about two thirds less than Australia for speeding. I know this because I got another one just recently less than a kilometre from home.
- We hung out at the Wanaka Tree. It’s one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites, because it’s pretty, which is an odd thing to say because most of New Zealand is pretty. So many people visit the Wanaka tree that there is a fellow who wheels in a piano on a mobile platform to entertain the crowd and sell CDs.
- We took a drive (at the speed limit – for the most part) for an hour and a half out of town because I wanted to visit the Blue Pools. The Wanaka visitors guide said,
‘An easy short walk through mature beech and podocarp forest leads to these natural wonders of pure glacial water gathered from the mountains’. But when we got there, the Blue Pools were thick, muddy and grey because it had rained the night before and that’s what happens to New Zealand’s rivers when it rains. Still, what a great Podocarp forest. Yep, you’ve got to love a Podocarp forest. Emma and I thought it was a nice drive even though Amy and Oliver thought it was too long.
At Aoraki/Mount Cook:
- The weather was fine. So fine, the summit of Mount Cook was in view and so we took a walk up the Hooker Valley to the mountain’s base. The valley was huge, there were hanging glaciers, moraine fields and a glacially fed, boulder strewn river in which we held competitions to see who could keep their feet submerged in the icy water the longest. Amy won, but I think she cheated, because otherwise I would have won.
- We watched the hogs back cloud sit above the summit – a peculiar formation that sat there all day, sometimes blocking our clear view.
- Instagram’ers carted ball gowns and dinner suits up the 10-kilometre track, stripped down and put them on and took glamorous selfies with Mount Cook as a backdrop. It’s a thing. I don’t get it, but it’s a thing.
- A decade ago there used to be a massive glacier, over a kilometre long, where now there is a long muddy glacial lake with bergy bits floating around in it.
- Emma, Amy and I proved that all three of us could shower in less than 5 minutes. We did this because we only had one, one dollar coin to pay for a shower at the campground and that only brought us 5 minutes of water.
- Oliver didn’t have a shower… so business as usual.
- Emma teased me for pronouncing Te-Anau differently every time I said it. I couldn’t even get it consistently wrong. Te-Anoh, Te-Anoo, Te-Anow.
At Lake Tekapo:
- We found a caravan park on the edge of the lake, pitched our tent because the cabins were full and Amy and I went swimming.
- The water was cold and clear and did I mention cold? It was also that beautiful cobalt blue colour, like the Blue Pools were supposed to be, and for reasons unknown to me (because I am generally a wuss when it comes to cold water) I just couldn’t get enough of it. Amy will swim anytime, anywhere and so the two of us spent a lot of time in the water.
- Emma and Oliver read books on the shore while Amy and I pretended to be fish.
Lake Tekapo was as far north as we made it and on the way back into Queenstown we stumbled across the Kawarau Bridge bungee jump. I was excited, but couldn’t help pondering why paying $180 for 2 minutes’ worth of entertainment (at best), and possible death (at worst), seemed like a reasonable proposition. As we watched I imagined myself on the platform. ‘I got this’, I thought and in my mind I practiced how I would leap gracefully upward when it came my time to jump, throwing my arms back as I went and screaming like a fool. I went to book a jump, but there were no places left that day, which was a major anti-climax.
- We booked into an overpriced campsite by the Shotover River. Kiwi’s can spot a tourist from 12,000 miles and have refined and fine-tuned the art of milking them for all their worth. Queenstown, and to a slightly lesser extent Wanaka, have an amazingly diverse range of crazy things to climb up, slip down, fly through, paddle on, jump off and ride across, none of which are cheap. They even have a speed boat shaped like a shark that whips along, dives under the water and leaps into the air!
- We contemplated going on a jet boat ride but I was put off by the photos of William and Kate (of the Royal variety) plastered all over the shop front. Privilege by hereditary birthright gets up my nose. Emma was put off by the thought of moving through spectacular scenery at a pace which meant you would not see any of it and Amy and Oliver weren’t sure what they would have been signing up for or missing out on – so we didn’t go on a jet boat ride.
- We did sign up for a zipline tour through the forests on Bob’s Peak, the mountain behind Queenstown. While this wasn’t cheap either, when you combined it with a hike up the mountain and a morning tea at the top with spectacular views over Lake Wakatipu, it constituted nearly a full day’s entertainment – making it much better value than 20 minutes in a jet boat for the same number of hundreds of dollars. I enjoyed the zipline tour so much the guides offered me a job. They said I had just the kind of enthusiasm they were looking for. I think it was my rendition of ‘Take On Me’ while zipping through the trees upside down that did it.
- We went for lots more swims in the beautiful, refreshing, cool, waters of Lake Wakatipu and then sat around for hours building stone inukshuks (Inuit stacked stone cairn) before sitting back and taking pot shots to see who could knock them over the fastest. Oliver won most of the time, but I think he cheated, otherwise I would have won. A little post trip research suggests this was very poor form because in Inuit tradition, it’s forbidden to destroy an inukshuk!!
After Queenstown, we drove to Te-Anau where we picked up our tickets for the Milford Track and I asked the lady at the National Parks centre how to pronounce Te-Anau. She looked at me like I was weird but explained that it was Te-A-no. I walked out repeating it over and over again and then had to go back because I forgot to buy sand-fly repellent.
The Milford Track was the reason we came to New Zealand. It’s the finest walk in the world, just ask a local, if you can find one. Other than the guy at the customs counter I think everyone else we met was either a tourist or a European backpacker.
The Milford Track is 55 kilometres tackled over four days and is subject to a strict apartheid regime. On the Milford Track you are either an ‘Independent walker’ or a ‘Guided walker’. Independent walkers are discernible by their large packs, progressively deteriorating odour and fatter wallets. Guided walkers are discernible by their well-groomed, well rested and slightly superior airs and graces. Evening accommodation is well separated to ensure there is no cross contamination.
It was unseasonably hot the day we set off across Lake Te Anau to the start of the walk and by the time we had covered five kilometres to the first hut we were cooking. Fortunately the hut was but a short walk from a stunning bend in the Clinton River. Glassy, clear, aqua and green water tumbled over rapids, between boulders, beneath over hanging beech trees (and podocarp trees probably but I’m still not sure what they look like) and into a large still pool. It was even colder than Lake Tekapo, but so idyllic. We were in and out all afternoon (except Oliver… too cold for Oliver).
It was clear and hot the next day too, but the day after that a massive dump of rain was forecast. It was looking increasingly likely that this weather would arrive the day we were scheduled to climb out of the Clinton Valley, over the McKinnon Pass and down into the Arthur Valley. Fjordland receives a whopping 9 to 12 metres of rain every year. 9 to 12 metres! Canberra gets 600mm. The McKinnon Pass is nearly 1200 metres above sea level and that meant that the forecast rain was more likely to be a snow storm.
This was not my preference, because we had been looking forward to the spectacular alpine vistas for which the Milford Track and McKinnon Pass is known for. Hiking the Milford Track however is like riding a conveyor belt. You must move each day just the prescribed distance from one shelter to the next, and whether the weather coincided with our passing the Pass was up to the weather.
The Milford Track is a stunningly beautiful combination of temperate rainforest, rivers, lakes, plunge pools, water falls, glaciers, alpine meadows and sand-flies and if you go into it expecting to follow a groomed trail (for the most part) and sleep in bunk houses along with forty strangers snoring like chainsaws, it’s a very enjoyable outing. Previous experience told me that this track was well within our collective capability and so I didn’t even suffer from my usual pre-outdoor adventure nervous breakdown.
The same could not be said for all of those who set out on the track the same day we did. Not everyone who hikes the Milford Track should hike the Milford Track. Just because the track is smooth, flat and unmissable does not mean you don’t need a degree of fitness. Still, in two of the parties keeping the same schedule as us, one member of the group ended up carrying another’s pack just to get them to the other end. Tempers flared and bodies hurt, but fortunately not in our little group. We happily skipped along taking in the scenery, reflecting on group dynamics and trying to work out which of the other groups were least likely to snore.
We cleared the McKinnon Pass in swirling cloud punctuated by clear breaks which provided stunning views from a vantage point high in the alpine range. The rain was late and I wasn’t upset about that. It was the next day, our last day, that the heavens opened and for 18 kilometres it rained and it rained and it rained. Amy and Oliver ate lunch that day walking in circles to avoid the sand-flies which swarmed in inconceivable numbers every time you stopped moving.
A few days back in Queenstown followed during which we just hung out. We ate very large pizzas followed by ice-cream while while marvelling at people with their feet strapped to jets of water on Lake Wakitipu. We also took a mildly scenic drive out to Glenorchy where we ate a picnic on a jetty and took a walk on the end of the Routeburn Track.
With all of this behind us time was running short and I still hadn’t leapt from a bridge. I made a booking online for the next day, still wrestling with the eye watering price tag. I figured that a bungee jump constituted approximately 2 minutes’ worth of entertainment, from the time you are strapped in to the time you are set loose. To experience those 2 minutes costs $180 which when converted to an hourly rate means you are paying $5,400 an hour!
Still, I figured, you either paid and jumped or left New Zealand without jumping and spending the next 30 years wondering what it would have been like. $180 over thirty years means that the daily cost of knowing what it’s like to jump off a bridge, instead of wondering, is just 1.6 cents per day. Bargain!
Come my turn, a towel was folded and wrapped carefully around my ankles after which the bungee cord was strapped to the towel. Then came the interesting part, the bungee people help you to your feet and shuffle you to the edge of the platform. Standing upon the edge of the platform I felt a lot less brave than I did moments earlier. Emma, Amy and Oliver however were watching. There was no going back and I rationalised that there was no risk, only the illusion of risk. I paused, waved and then leapt up and out. I threw my arms back just like I showed the man at the airport and hoped I had pulled off a stylish jump.
The world rushed up at me and adrenaline surged because all of a sudden I was falling in a most unnatural way. Clichéd though it may sound, time slowed down a little and then accelerated to catch-up and then it was all over. Six months later here I am sitting on my couch at home after work one evening, writing a blog and thinking… $180 was cheap.
And because the Milford Track was so good below are some more photos.