Day 5: Ice Hiking & Rubbernecking
Day 4: Keep Rubbing!
Day 3: Glowworms, Hydroslides and Dragons
Day 2: Gas for the Pass and Passing Gas
Day 2: Thar She Blows!
Day 1: The Adventure Begins
A Dash of Preparation
September 26, 2003
Day 1: The Adventure Begins
"So it begins," was probably the first coherent thought that trickled through my head. It brought a huge grin to my face seeing the rolling green splash into the thundering blue Pacific Ocean as I ate hot mushroom quiche, yogurt and sausage. The Qantas 737-400 descended into the relatively small but bustling airport.
It should be noted that customs and MEF (Kiwis’ stringent agriculture inspectors) are very strict when it comes to people, food, plants, animals, and tiny specks of dirt on your well-worn hiking shoes entering their country. Kiwis pride themselves on having a zero bio-contamination policy, which goes a long way in explaining the airport’s free-roaming dog handlers. As you process through MEF, everything is questioned. Stiff penalties await the jokester, and bureaucratic tape awaits the liar. These guys, doubly more serious than New Zealand customs, thoroughly inspected my well-packed boots and quite insisted that I declare my dried Ramen noodle packets.
At any rate, here I was in Christchurch, quite excited and probably looking delirious or crazy with a huge grin showing off my pearly off-whites. Outside, it was comfortably cool - almost exactly what my mind had envisioned - and I puffed on only my second cigarette of the last 18 hours, sucking in the crisp air and nicotine. My bag and I had both made it, and I began searching for the 'Super Shuttle' that would ferry me to the rental car agency. Brand loyalty aside, I hopped in one of the 5 nondescript vans waiting outside the terminal. A flat $15 NZ and friendly conversation later, I met up with Steve, the manager of Ace rental cars' Christchurch office.
A jovial man with an easy manner and a classic Kiwi lilt, Steve was quick about the rules, which consisted of "nothing that I've got to answer for in the middle of the night", and one or two off-limit roads. He also mentioned that there would be "a few" one-lane bridges and that navigating some of the roads would be "tricky" for a first-time driver on this side of the world. Once the paperwork was complete, Steve walked me to my four door Mazda Familia (which didn't look familia to me) while engaging me on the finer points of the New Zealand healthcare system, lawsuits, politics, the number of sheep on the island, the fact that most vacationers are in a terrible rush, the high cigarette prices, and (finally) the places not to miss on the South Island.
Before I drove away, I asked about his smoking policy. Steve quickly quipped "I'm not the bloody police, mate. And I won't be able to see you anyway. Just make sure you don't burn the car down." There you have it. So, for a mere $29 NZ a day, I drove away, enjoying the thrilling experience of driving on the left side of the road, while smoking, flipping through songs on a CD player, looking at a map and trying to shake the sleepiness out of my brain (which had now been awake for 30 or so hours).
The "highway", once out of the suburbs of Christchurch, becomes a simple two-lane paved road. A mere 30 minutes outside of town, I found myself leisurely driving through several wineries. Though I had not previously planned to do any wine tasting, sampling, or drinking, I impetuously decided to check out one of the wineries anyhow. I pulled into The Canterbury House, a faux Tudor estate with a large, yet cozy lobby. Inside, Mary served tastings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Blanc and Merlot. I was all too eager to discuss my arrival less than three hours previous, and my impending adventure. As I left, I more or less felt obligated to take a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon (new vintage, first year for $25 NZ) with me. Tossing it in the trunk, I hit the road again.
After another 30 minutes of fairly straight level road, I began hitting curves, each of which had a recommended speed posted. There really is no choice in the matter here either, for when they say slow down to 45 kilometers an hour around a curve, what they really mean is you better do 40 unless you're a NASCAR driver. Then again, my novice left-side-of-the-road driving skills probably left a little to be desired. No rush and no worries, though, since the road was winding this way and that, and I was now traveling uphill at a fairly good incline, life slowed somewhat, and I began to really take notice of all the sheep and scenery parading around me. The day itself was a gorgeous one, with scattered high clouds ironed into a silk blue sky, and it seemed as if I could smell the excitement of the days ahead. The road continued twisting and turning, eventually descending down a towering cliff through a series of languid switchbacks. Then, in my first of many surprises, it spit me out eye to eye with the boiling Pacific Ocean.
I stopped almost immediately along the blue-green waters to take a few pictures - some of myself, and some of the scenery. It was all very startling, seeing the road plow through the seaside cliffs by way of narrow granite tunnels, beholding the strange color of the Pacific, gazing at the nearby Kaikoura range that dropped into the sea only a bit further up the coast. Even though the weather was clouding somewhat, it was still awesome to look upon these things as I neared my first day's destination.
It was only a short drive now to Kaikoura, covered in another 15 minutes of winding road. Already, two signs had welcomed me, though I was only now heading into the town center. The trick here was finding the beachfront hostel specifically mentioned in my guide book. But, as I pulled into the tiny town center filled with spring tourists, I noticed only one place, conspicuously painted with the word "Backpackers" in large friendly letters.
The lobby looked very professional and somewhat new, and I inquired of the hostess if this was the place I was after. She briefly explained to me that the old place, being somewhat shoddy, had gone out of business and was immediately repurchased at foreclosure price (someone made out very well!). The money saved went to all new paint, beds and linens, showers and curtains, toilets, washer/dryer, phones and furnishings for the TV room. Even though it wasn't a BBH hostel - that is, one of the 290 hostels included in the discount network of Budget Backpacker Hostels - it was still more than reasonable at $20 NZ for a bunk bed.
Lunch and "I'm here and safe" emails were next, and once I was back at the hostel, I headed upstairs to get a hot shower, thanking Tammy silently for helping me pack light. I realized already how foolish it would have been to be lugging around an extra bag of clothes I wouldn't ever really need. The shower felt great, being my first in over 36 hours, most of which was in the air. It wasn't the hottest or the best water pressure, but it got the job done nicely. Feeling fresh and clean, I poked my head into the TV room. There I met my first fellow wanderer: Chris. This Brit was right in the middle of a round-the-world backpacking tour, and I was very interested in his (brief) stories about Australia, Thailand, and Vietnam. There were others in the room as well, though most were fooling around with their own business, so I made a quick offer to take anyone down to the Seal colony, an offer no one accepted.
Slightly spurned, but still optimistic, I drove the quick 10 kilometers up road to Kean Point. The change wasn't subtle, but far from dramatic. Buildings disappeared and the rocky shore became more intruding. There were low cliffs here, and a large area of exposed, wet rock - regular hang-out spot of the seal colony. I took a few pictures, eager to see some fur seals, but to no avail. Instead, I walked along the point, around the cliff, navigating tricky rocks and slick sea-crossings, stumbling into the shoreline end of someone's sheep farm. Continuing on to a short headland, I passed by sheep and gulls time and again, but unfortunately saw only seal-bones, and no actual seals.
I wound my way back to the parking lot, still without seeing my intended photographic subject, though I had to guess they would be well camouflaged in the rocks. Nevertheless, I made my way up an observation hill, the kind that reminds one how out of shape one is, with its steep sides and switchbacks. Once on top, I offered to take a photo of the Japanese couple that was enjoying the view, and in great tourist custom, they were only too happy to accept and return the favor. Just like that, my first roll of film was gone.
Kaikoura reminded me of several locales in visual unison. The unusual rock formations sang of Zion or Bryce Canyon. The coast had a distinct Northern California or Oregon feel to it, the wildlife reminding me of Monterrey. Nearby splendorous granite mountains echoed of New Hampshire, or possibly the Sierra Nevadas. Having it all join in with sand dunes in one picture is something that doesn't occur to often on our precious Earth, so I was quite humbled to have this all fall into place on the first day.
Finding myself back at Sleepy Whale Backpackers [I finally got the true name], I socialize, first meeting Kristy from Edinburgh and Francis from Glasgow in the kitchen. Kristy was doing a semi-round the world travel deal, and had just finished up working in Australia. Francis had several in-your-face (actually, in her face) piercings, but seemed very quiet, either disinterested in us, or feeling uninteresting herself. I eventually opened her up a little bit, but being somewhat of a clod myself, didn't push it too far. Not long after, I met up with my two roommates Richie and Martin. Richie was a 40-year-old ex-soccer player from Birmingham in the UK doing a self-paced laid back round the world adventure. He was very cool, and quite funny as well. Martin from Manchester had been here before doing a work stint, and got hooked; now he was here on a leisurely backpacking vacation.
The reason I'm relating these details to you is this: like me, you may not have pulled off that first adventure. Or you may have been around the world a thousand times. This fact never changes: in hostels, there is always someone interesting who will think you're interesting too. You've just got to find that person. Ah, I know, I'm eternally optimistic, and a big naďve wide-eyed goober stumbling through New Zealand. Still, I find it easier to feign interest than to sit alone and sulk.
Somehow or another - and I always like to say it was my idea - we all ended up down the street at the local (only?) pub in the main section of town. The pub was about half full, and at first glance it looked like mostly locals (strictly based on the number of stares our group received when we walked in). We grabbed two tables under heat lamps, 'shouting' a round or two at a time from the bar. After the first two rounds, Fez and Yolanda, a traveling couple from the UK (I think), showed up. They were pretty quiet, and after introductions, I didn't converse with them too much. Pints later, we found ourselves discussing various hostels throughout New Zealand and the world, traveler tales, and eventually (as it always goes) about how "effed" up the world is. Richie had a lot to say about racism in England, of which he had experienced more than his fair share, being a public figure. His explanation of how bad things really got over there put a somber note over the session, and just as the laughs were starting back up, I excused myself to get some sleep before tomorrow's whale watching event.
The walk home was quick, especially since I was 5 beers into the crisp chilly night and hadn't slept in quite some time. Once I was in bed and had set my newly purchased mini travel alarm, it took all of 10 minutes to fall into a dreamless peaceful slumber.
Posted by Mike on September 26, 2003 08:34 AM
Category: Kaikoura / Christchurch