Saturday, June 14, 2014

new zealand travel journal 6/5/14: like wild, but shorter

1. rock, mud, logs and europeans

Here is my mini-mini version of Wild (probably—I still haven’t read it. But I want/plan to!). A grueling two-day hike is like every life journey: If you could see what you were getting into, you probably wouldn’t sign up for it, but in the end you’re glad you did it.

We rented a car (left side of the road—I was happy to be a backseat passenger) and drove through the sheep and cattle pastures of the NZ countryside. NZ is a big dairy exporter, and these cows look much happier than the ones you see on the side of the 5 freeway in smelly Hanford, California. These cows gambol.

Happy as cows in spring.
From the little town of Thames, we turned off into the parkland of the Coromandel Peninsula and began our backpacking journey through the ferny forest. It seemed one part NorCal, one part tropical rainforest. We went up, up, up, taking turns wearing Emily’s too-big backpack, whose straps dug into my collarbone.

Doing something physical and faraway always makes worries fade. You also have plenty of time with your thoughts. I thought of Zoey on bed rest and how lucky we were to be able-bodied in NZ. It’s rare that I feel lucky next to any pregnant woman, so maybe that is the profound though I worked my way to on that long hike. But mostly the trip wasn’t that profound. No crying. An escape, but a subtle one. Maybe that means my life is actually okay right now?

I'm smiling because I'm still wearing the small backpack.
There were a couple of those Indiana Jones bridges, but they were sturdy, and not too high up, so not scary. There were stone steps carved into the mountain for pack horses, from when the forest was a logging camp back in the late 1800s through the 1920s. Imagining living out here, dirty and aching and poor, for six months at a stretch, is another thing that will remind you that life, historically, has been hard.

The "hut."
We arrived at the Pinnacles Hut, where we’d booked beds, exactly two minutes before sunset. It was a tidy building that ran on solar power and had two big dorm rooms lined with bunk beds. Stepping into that room, my heart sank a little. I wasn’t going to be warm until I crawled into bed hours later.

So I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the dining room, where there was a coal fire going and several dinners steaming up the room. There was a middle aged Australian couple, a funny thirty-ish German couple named Kat and Matt, and a young Dutch woman named Irene.

Later we were joined by Pete, the hut warden, who showed us slides (actual slides!) of the camp’s logging days: photo after photo of ragged men in front of kauri logs the circumference of Emily’s living room. Thousand-year-old trees felled and shoved down the mountain in various haphazard, inefficient ways (screeching down train tracks, crashing through dams).

Irene and AK.
In the morning, we took the fifty-minute hike to the tip-top—the pinnacle, I guess—of the Pinnacles with Matt, Kat and Irene. We felt light and free without our packs, but it was still a climb: first stairs, then ladders, then metal rungs drilled into the rock. There was lots of vegetation, though, so it never got too scary—you could fall and smash your head easily enough, but it would have been difficult to fall off the cliff. From the platform at the top, we could see the mist rolling through the valleys, and the ocean on the other side of the peninsula.

I need to stop carrying a Fossil purse on hikes if I want to look like a true mountaineer.
The guy at REI in L.A. had said this area was spooky, something about ghosts in the mountains, although he may have been speaking about NZ as a whole, or just Lord of the Rings. Emily said Japanese folklore was full of mountain ghosts, mostly scorned women “which speaks to women’s role in society and men’s guilt.”

I love traveling with a historian. Whenever things got dull, I could basically be like, “Emily, tell me a story.” She knows about NZ, Japan, Mormons, socialists (Marxist and Christian English subtypes) and much more.

The original log ride.
Then it was back down the mountain via the Billy Goat Track. It was longer and muddier—we were practically sliding down a mud trench at one point—but with bits of old trestles and views for which overused words like “spectacular” and “breathtaking” were made. You peek through the bush and suddenly you’re on a cliffside looking out over a waterfall and steep, steep, tree-covered mountains. An American scene amped up a notch and more vertical.

Emily's fancy camera would do this scene justice.
The last hour was naturally the longest; I have never wanted to see a parking lot so badly. My toes slammed into the front of my boots. The backpack strap pinched a nerve in my left arm, a fact Old Cheryl would have found alarming.

We landed, tired and cold and hungry and dirty, in Thames, where we had steak and fish and chips, respectively, at a sort-of-Indian restaurant. (My new fitness app said I’d burned something like 1,200 calories, so if ever there was a time to eat fish and chips, it seemed like now.)

2. adventure hub

This morning we bummed around Auckland in our creaky bodies. We went to the nicest souvenir shop ever, Pauanesia, site of stuffed kiwis made from salvaged fabric and handmade tropical textiles and expertly curated jewelry from local artists. The woman who owned the shop talked about the kiwis like they were her little buddies and wrapped everything in colorful tissue and stickers.

One part store, one part art gallery.

Textile porn.
We bought a handmade stuffed bird rattle for the future, hoped-for Baby Ykleinra. I’d love it to be for Zoey and Jim’s twins. But maybe there will be a baby after that. We’re pretty much the opposite of that couple who buys tons of baby stuff the minute a kid becomes a glimmer in their eyes—I barely let myself even look at baby clothes if I’m not shopping for a friend’s kid. But for once this toy wasn’t going to be for a friend’s kid. Buying it was like building a little totem of hope.

Emily drove us to Rotorua, two hours south, where we are now. It seems like a kind of adventure hub, with all kinds of manmade joyrides to fill up your free time between nature-based adventures. We keep joking about Zorb, a human-sized hamster ball you can roll in down a hill, and Wet Zorb, which is the aforementioned + water. The main draw is the geothermal pools; the whole town smells like sulfur, but in a comforting, spa-like way.

Paella in Polynesia.
We unpacked at Crash Palace, our graffiti-art-decorated hostel, and went straight to the Night Market. It’s a farmer’s market more than a night market like the ones in Hong Kong or Singapore. A girl with a guitar played ‘90s songs and made me want to cry with aimless gratitude. There was manduka honey, mussel fritters, kebab, Chinese dumplings and a sort of empty Mexican food booth selling what my mom always called chili-mac. (The friendly front desk guy at Crash Palace called his Chihuahua mix, Puddles, a “dirty little Mexican.” “It’s a compliment, Puddles,” I told the dog.)

AK and Old Jemaine (who was really nice and is rocking the gray!).
AK befriended a T-shirt vendor we nicknamed Old Jemaine, after Flight of the Conchords. We finished the night (it feels so much later than it is) drinking Irish coffee at an empty-ish pub.

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