A Swift Sunrise
Things are backwards down here at the opposite end of the world, at least they seem that way to me. It’s the middle of February but the heart of summer; the days here are long and we stretch the light as much as we can. When the night finally comes the sky is unfamiliar, a host of upside-down constellations and ones that we’ve never even seen before. And for the first time, heading south means it gets colder, so we unpacked our extra blankets as we rolled off the ferry. Our first two weeks in New Zealand were some of the best we’ve had, and we were looking forward to what the South Island had in store.
Our first stop was Kaikoura, a little seaside town on the eastern coast. We spent a day walking along the ragged edge of the water, where the waves crashed against the rocks and the air was heavy with salt. We saw a host of seals, one albatross, and approximately two million seagulls. Driving on a narrow road through town, we passed a sign for a sheep-shearing show and learned more about the wool-making process than we ever thought we would. Later that night we went on a quest for the best lobster in town, the name Kaikoura means “meal of crayfish” in Maori and we were determined to find just that. We settled on a little mom and pop joint nearby - there were crayfish there as big as your face, cooked to order too, on paper plates with plastic utensils and plenty of butter.
Kaikoura is known for its whale watching too, which has always sounded so damn boring to me but we knew we had to try it. We took off on the last boat of the day, attempting to catch a glimpse of one of the several sperm whales living off the coast. Sperm whales can grow to over fifty feet long and weigh over forty tons, but there’s really an art to seeing them - we stuck what looked like a huge megaphone under the water, listening for their calls before finally taking off after one just a few nautical miles east of us. They only spend about fifteen minutes at the surface between dives, so we had to be quick if we wanted to see him. When the boat slowed down we all rushed forward, eyes peeled, scanning the water for a glimpse. When we finally saw the spray coming from his blowhole we inched closer - we never really saw more than a little sliver of his back, but in seeing only that, we began to understand its magnitude. The view of his tail as he dove into the sea was one of the most spectacular sights I have seen.
The weather was good to us as we drove south to Castle Hill. Clear blue skies meant we could see the farmland stretching out before us for miles, we picked the biggest boulder we could find amongst the scattered, strewn rock, and climbed our way to the top. We watched the sheep grazing in the distance, pickups driving across the dirt roads, disappearing into tiny clouds of dust.
Driving west to Mt. Sunday, we discovered our favorite hike of the trip, maybe ever. It’s where Edoras is filmed in Lord of the Rings, but you’ll like it even if you haven’t seen the movies, trust me. Take a quick forty-minute walk, through some dry, yellow grass, cows grazing peacefully, cross over a stream or two. Walk up a steep, narrow pathway until you get to the clearing up top, and you’ll be met with a 360-view of the most breathtaking scenery you’ve ever seen - gentle rolling hills under vast pasture, patches of scrub, layered purple mountains. It’ll be windy up there so hold onto your hats; the gusts will snatch the words right out of your mouth before you can say them, so you’ll have no choice but to sit there in silence. The breeze will billow through the yellow grass below, it looked from afar like waves in the sea.
I think the best thing about Mt. Sunday was the people - there was no one fucking there. I’m not sure why such a beautiful, easy hike on a clear summer day was completely deserted, but I’m not complaining. I think the more we’ve traveled, the more we’ve started to realize what a huge place this planet really is, and what a small space we occupy inside it. Sometimes it feels like the world itself is standing room only, and it only gets bigger and more crowded the more you see of it, especially coming from some of the dense cities in Southeast Asia we’d just been in. Up here we looked out over the vast, empty plains and endless clear blue sky. I walked to the opposite edge of the hill as Peter, it’s not a big hill, but it was enough to feel completely alone for the first time in a long time. Like I’d carved out this little corner of the Earth, just for myself, just for a moment.
We went bungy-jumping on our way through Queenstown, I don’t think any trip to New Zealand would be quite complete without it. The suspension bridge over Kawarau River is where commercial bungy-jumping was first popularized back in the ‘80s, and to this day they boast a zero percent fatality rate, which was good enough for me. The trick is just not to look down, to close your eyes and not open them until you’re hurtling towards Kawarau Gorge and there’s nothing that can stop you, and you realize that if you had to die here then what a way to go.
So much of South Island has blurred together, but in the best possible way. It’s hard to keep it all straight when each place is more beautiful than the last, the hours stretch into days spent lakeside, or on mountains, or during the endless miles on the open road. We drove to Lake Tekapo, where emerald pines flanked the turquoise waters where we went swimming in the morning. We went horseback riding through Peel Forest, through rugged, dense and dark green woods. Countless hikes through Mt. Cook and towering glaciers. I finally got to see the famous tree in Wanaka, and the crystal clear waters around it - you could see gemstone rocks on the lake floor through five feet of water, those same rocks that would hurt like hell on your soles when you start walking towards shore. Driving through Fiordland we stopped off at every hike or lake we could find, stretching what should have been a short drive into hours. We sped around Milford Sound in a boat, dolphins breaching the surface of the water in our wake, we got soaked by all the waterfalls along the way.
The campsites are cheap, you have to pay extra for running water and even more for a shower, and frankly we weren’t budgeting for that. But all can be forgiven when the sun sets. Out there in the middle of nowhere, the stars light up the sky in a truly indescribable way. I’ve always wanted to see the Milky Way - I have before, or at least I think so. Maybe back in Joshua Tree I could make out the faint arc, the splattering of stars that looks a little denser in the night sky, but it was a little cloudy that week so I’m not sure. Here, there was no questioning it - there was the sun in the day and the Milky Way at night. We sat on the ground of those dirty campsites, necks craned upwards, shivering, fixated, mesmerized. Seeing the night sky like that has a strange way of making you feel very small but at once part of something so much bigger than yourself.
Nearing the end of our trip we found ourselves in the southeastern corner of the island, a little area called the Catlins. It’s a quiet little seashore place, understated, but it was one of my favorites. We spent the day out hiking inland, but in the evening we trekked to the lighthouse near the coast, overlooking a group of rocky islets, home to penguins, seals, spoonbills. We stared out into the water for a while, the sun was setting and bathed us in a soft yellow light. It wasn’t the grandest of sights we’ve seen, but if there is one universal thing I have found to be true from our travels it’s that there are few things more beautiful than where cliffs meet the sea.
New Zealand gave to us so much - rugged coasts, black sand beaches, emerald lakes and rolling hills. It’s the place where we celebrated our first wedding anniversary, and both broke our personal records for longest number of days gone without a shower. For everything we did here though, looking back I think I’ll remember New Zealand most as a feeling, as a time of day. As golden sunlight pouring into open windows, the musky scent of farmlands, melting strawberry ice cream from the dairy just a few miles back.