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
October 07, 2003
Day 3: Glowworms, Hydroslides and Dragons
Day 3: Hokitika // Awake at 0930L // ACTIVITIES: Cave Rafting, Jade Carving
I awaken with a rough throbbing headache that tries to beat the backs of my eyes onto pillow. The sun is creeping in a little, and reminders of yesterday’s squall have disappeared. I swing my legs out of bed, searching for my bottle of Motrin, and after popping a few helpful orange pills I stand up and stretch – trying to greet the day with an enthusiasm I’m not sure I have yet. I fish a Ramen noodle packet out of my backpack and ramble back to the kitchen to cook it up. The excess boiling water soon finds a home in a cup of instant coffee.
For my hangover, the immediate remedy is to drink tons of tap water - I find it’s the best water I’ve ever had. It's pure and heavenly, as only glacially fed spring water can be. Once I can think straight, I begin pouring over several notebooks worth of pictures and drawings of jade carvings, trying to generate an idea for my own unique design. There are simple shapes, spirals, fishhooks, traditional Maori designs, and complicated loops. The more intricate the design is, the more it costs. I start my own drawing with no real focus and nothing truly inspirational comes out of my dehydrated mind for about an hour. Then I start drawing dragons – lots of them. Of course, I’m a horrible artist, but I try.
Within the hour, Gordon ambles into the house. He’s in what I’m guessing to be his usual jovial, smart-alecky, good-natured mood. His manner is like a steaming pot of coffee – one whiff and you’re awake. Gordon pokes and prods, asking if I managed to seduce any of the locals the night before. I tell him a short version of my sad but true Jocelyn story, before remarking on how friendly the town was. Gordon shoots back with a few jokes and good-natured ribbings and agrees that New Zealanders, on the whole, are a really friendly bunch.
“Betch’ll have more luck tonight mate – or any night. Shit, yore here anutha three weeks. No worries” he laughs. In my mind, one clear thought emerges: He’s absolutely right – on this trip there are NO WORRIES!
I make arrangements to stay an extra night, finish up my design for the jade carving that evening, and polish it in the morning. Somehow, I’m under the impression that I’ll be able to do it all by noon the next day and be on the road. As will become habit, however, those plans will change.
With a half-full belly, I take off towards Greymouth, revisiting the one-lane rail-bridges and the rocketing west-coast wind. After cruising the 40 km. like a pro, I find the adventure center I’m looking for with little trouble. Norwest Adventures is just off the main drag, and I pull my sedan in between two mammoth WWII era Mercedes diesel trucks with oversize off-road tires and duck inside the absolutely tiny and empty front office.
A minivan pulls up out front, and a whole line of people sheathed in wetsuits piles out. Their tour guide nods at me with a quick smile, “be with you in a tick mate,” and follows the group into the changing room. Not even a tick passes before he emerges from the opposite door. “Right, you must be Mike, the Internet reservation” he presumes after giving me a once-over.
“That’s me, “ I reply, and follow Simon around to the back room. Vicious techno music blazes through the speakers and echoes off the mostly bare walls, giving the air of a chintzy dance club.
“Just look these over mate, sign here, here, and here – read this, and we’ll get you started.” Simon requests, handing me 3 pieces of paper and a pen. Now I love Kiwis – their combined passion for adventure and respect for nature is absolutely unsurpassed by any other culture, I’m sure of it. The proof is in their insurance waivers, damage waivers, responsibility and stupidity waivers, which say basically this:
I _____________ agree not to hold the parent company __________ responsible for any equipment damage, public embarrassment, libel, slander, bodily harm, injury (intended or unintended) and especially not death. In addition, my relatives and relatives of relatives, no matter how pissed off they might be, will not hold any claim or right to sue anyone ever remotely involved with anything this company endorses. Signed __________ , the dumbass for doing this.
Of course, I sign it without hesitation. After all, this is why I’m here in the beautiful land of New Zealand – to escape the drudgeries of life, to live and taste adventure. Today would prove to be a great start to that end.
I introduce myself cordially to Bart, the new arrival, as Simon collects our paperwork and directs us to gather two pairs of socks, a wetsuit, booties, “grubs” [boots], mittens, rubber gloves, a fleece skullcap, and a helmet.
Soon enough, we’re on our way. We take the very same still-damp Toyota minivan that had pulled up outside upon my arrival. As we bumble and bounce our way along the local roads, Simon tells us a history of the area before we park in a rocky gravel lot just off the main ‘road’. There’s nothing descript about the area, and I’d be hard pressed to find it on my own, even if I was really searching.
The weather has grayed up significantly and clouds are spitting a cool mist down on the land. Ahead of us is a mixed temperate rainforest with a few timber boards forming a rough trail. Immediately, I understand the need for the ‘grubs’ – galosh style boots – as there are several very deep pools of thick, slimy mud, and more puddles than I can count.
It’s a good twenty-minute hike, and the rain’s having trouble breaking the canopy of leaves, but it doesn’t much matter since we were sloshing around in wetsuits and galoshes. The mud sticks to every inch of anything it touches – a grimy brown sludge of wet dirt clinging on for life and amusement. We plunging along through the thick growth, alternating between muddy earth and wooden-planks that trail on for hundreds of feet at a time. As we get nearer to the cave, the trail turns treacherous. We cross a zip-wire bridge inch by inch, holding onto the guiding line for fear of limb loss. The line is strung over a paltry but dangerous and muddy thirty-foot gap. Shortly after the crossing, the ‘trail’ transforms into a winding mass of mud puddles surrounding massive gnarled exposed tree roots. The going is slow as we eye the constant slippery footing. I fall down flat at least once, splattering myself with mud, and laughing at myself. After all, this trail is every kid’s fantasy – and every mother’s nightmare.
Once at the abseil point [a hole in the ground that drops right into the mouth of the cave], we can hear the rush of water though we can’t actually see anything through the utter darkness. Simon relates some of the Maori mythology surrounding the entering of caves and descending into the Earth. To ensure that the Maori soul-eating lizard demi-god, ‘Whiro‘, doesn’t steal our souls when we’re not paying attention in our journey through the underworld, we must ‘paint’ spirals on our cheeks with mud. This ostensibly is a sign meaning “I’m not really dead, so please don’t eat me or my soul, thanks very much...” Additionally, we appease the Maori Earth goddess and mother ‘Papatuanuku‘ by taking one of her most cherished symbols – the fern leaf – along for the ride.
At first, the water seeps into my feet and is so frigid that it stings sharply, causing me to gasp involuntarily. Bart and I are encouraged to submerge ourselves to chest-level in preparation for an upcoming ‘surprise’. We gasp as the shockingly cold water penetrates our wetsuits. It’s as if icicles are growing along my back, and the chill has me breathing heavily for some time.
Using our headlamps and carefully feeling out every step, we creep along, ever cautious of slippery rocks that wish to shatter our bones. Once we’re deep enough into the cave, Simon has us douse our headlamps and adjust our eyes to the utter darkness. To our amazement, we realize the entire cave roof is littered with hundreds of thousands of phosphorescent glowworms – each appearing as a tiny blue star in the black night of the cave.
This is the first of several personal epiphanies: Just for a moment, everything makes sense. Everything is supremely beautiful. The world is right, the cosmic flow of the universe is unimpeded, and each of us touched in some special way. The blue lights are the stars – and I’m flying through that space in a haze of complete contentment.
Just as abruptly, the feeling disappears, and I’m back in a cold, damp and very dark cave.
The surprise is here. I’m the first to go – with my headlight on, I slide right into an opening in the river floor, plunging feet first into a fifteen-foot hole in the cave bottom. The water is icy cold still, but I’m somewhat acclimated, so the urge to gasp for air isn’t present. There in the gripping embrace of the ice water and the blackness, I open my eyes, ignoring the stinging effect of the cave river. The light from my lamp dimly illuminates the tightly enclosed space – where roughly hewn cave walls are pocked with tiny holes, and I imagine eyeless fishlike creatures making their homes in them. I surface, hauling myself out onto a slab of wet rock, and for the moment, keeping the micro-journey to myself.
Norwest Adventures is a smart company – they know that hauling inner tubes back and forth to the cave for each tour group is a logistical nightmare, and would probably leave more than a few customers with a sour taste in their mouths. So, they do the smart thing – once upon a time, they hiked the entire inventory of tubes in, floated them to the back, and found a convenient ledge on which to stack them. There are about fifteen tubes, divided up into three stacks along the cave wall in a small antechamber, out of the way and unobtrusive, yet extraordinarily easy to get to.
As Simon tosses them down, he reminds us with that famous Kiwi guide humor which side of the tube is up: “If ya get a sharp pain in your bum when ya jump on tha tube, ya’ve got ‘er right side down mate”.
In this portion of the cave, the water roars fiercely, swallowing my senses. We kill our headlights and the cave roof explodes again – blue diamonds swallowing the walls and ceiling. I have no idea how fast or slow I’m floating – the darkness is complete, save for the tiny specks of glowworm light that are more disorienting than helpful. My balance and directional sense are quickly lost in the cave – sometimes, I can’t even tell if I’m moving. The Earth has swallowed me whole, and I was just another piece of Her now, drifting along sublimely…
My tube slides up on a rock, and I’m hearing what sounds like a large waterfall just behind my head. I switch my low-grade blue light on and look around, letting my eyes remember what depth perception is. Sure enough, we’re right against a steep waterfall protected by a hole too small to slip down. Simon tells us it’s was time to paddle our way back up the cave. You know the rules, when Simon says, you do. We paddle up languidly, taking our time, and as we drift in, Simon hops out and has us pose for another picture. By now, I’m in the spirit of things, and give a big thumbs up.
We help secure a fifteen-foot ladder to the base of an outcropping. Going up the ladder is slow, and once at the top, the footing gets very slippery. Our mud-caked, soaking wet, no-grip boots have little traction on ultra-slick, smooth limestone formed by thousands of years of slow dripping. We’re cautious as we crowd into the area, examining the fantastic formations that don’t seem possible as we climb over to an impossibly slick and cramped precipice that dangles over the pond we had left our inner tubes in. Simon shoots down the ladder, as I start inching my way over to the ledge. My foot catches a slick spot, and as I try to brace myself, my other foot starts sliding as well. My heart rate shoots up instantly, and adrenaline flows freely through my veins as I claw at the smooth cave walls, trying to keep from falling awkwardly and breaking something. I stop literally on the edge of the crag, bracing myself firmly with my hands. Before the adrenaline high disappears, I suspend my legs off the edge, and swinging twice while pushing off from the cave wall, plummet right down towards my tube.
Have I mentioned how ice-cold the water is?
If you can’t tell already, I miss my target and crash into the water, laughing hysterically as I surface. I feel frozen as I inch my way over to the limestone shore of the pond. A nice cup of hot cocoa awaits me, and it’s the best I’ve EVER had. We laugh and joke for a good fifteen minutes, before Simon tells us it’s time to go – out through the “Tunnel of Love”. This exit is so named for its extremely tight (though not by spelunking standards) crawlspaces. We stretch and contort our way to freedom, and there are no places to stand in the tunnel of love.
Up ahead, I see a dim gray light. The rush of water, which had dissipated in the last few minutes, is starting to approach din level again. I zip through one more two-foot tall antechamber, feeling like an old spelunker, and popping out into the main entrance chamber of the cave, I make my way out into the blinding hazy gray of late afternoon. My eyes feel swollen and sore as I squint my way through the water pools, careful not to fall or twist an ankle [since according to our guide this is where it happened most] on the way out.
We make our way just past the zip wire bridge that had taken us towards the cave hours earlier. Once again, we’re in for a treat. In front of me is the ‘hydro slide’ – a sloping shallow limestone water-cascade that crashes and crags down the hill for a good fifty yards at a good thirty-degree drop – in appearance if nothing else.
Simon gives us shoddy Styrofoam mats, the kind day care centers use for naptime, and we trot up the hundred-and-fifty-foot slope. At the bottom is a giant pool of water, blocked in by a few well-placed logs. The effect is a perfect landing zone. I volunteer to go first – adventure adventure adventure! Placing my feet in two convenient crevices on the waterfall, I lean back, pulling the middle of the bottom of the mat into the air, and leaning my head all the way back, just above the water. Then I lift my legs.
I take off in an instant – gaining incredible speed on the almost frictionless surface – my legs are crossed over the bottom of the mat. I peer down, seeing the landing pool and the logs blocking them approaching with great rapidity. I’m laughing - whooping with joy as I speed down the hydro slide.
Once again, I’m immersed in ice-cold water. Damn good thing I’m wearing this wetsuit.
The journey back is all too quick, as is often the case after a sustained adrenalin high. Once we’re back at the company, we strip down to the bathing suits we had wisely been advised to wear underneath everything. The floor feels even colder on my bare feet now than it had when I changed the first time. I practically dive into the “Thank Higher Powers and the Good Sense of the Company There’s One Here” hot tub, feeling instantly warmer in the steaming jets. Bart and I share stories of life as I down the brew I’ve chosen over the proffered coffee. Somehow I just know beer will go better with this day – all of which only ran me $105 NZ.
It’s back to Hokitika now, knowing I still have to finish designing my jade carving. But wait – Whiro is a lizard – a dragon, and the circle of life, and Dragon Cave - yes…it’s all coming together now. …
Back at Gordon’s place, I meet the newcomers – a group of Korean students and a Japanese teacher that had arrived that afternoon, and are polishing their new jade pieces profusely. As I’m observing, I bite into the lamb shank I picked up on the way home and shrivel from the horrible taste. The chips [fries] are great, but the lamb tastes like … well, something without much taste. It’s bitter and much too chewy for my liking. I end up giving it away to the students, who apparently had not eaten much that day.
There are 3 students, along with the teacher, Miwa, who is a cute Japanese woman in her 30s. I notice 3 boxes of wine on the kitchen counter, and another 2 in the fridge. Kim, one of the Korean students already has a red face (a dead giveaway for inebriation in Koreans), and seems busy hitting on Gordon’s daughter. I sit down and sketch out the final design for my dragon, hoping it looks better in 3 dimensions.
Gordon runs off to the shop to begin work, explaining the differences in each piece of greenstone, and lamenting over recent Maori claims on the pricey rock. Not too long ago, several Maoris petitioned to the legislative body responsible for Maori culture that the jade was all on the island originally, and as such, should be theirs and theirs alone. Almost overnight, any piece of uncut or unfound jade, not in prior possession of a certified artisan, jeweler or distributor became Maori property by default. No one else could lay claim, and anyone using jade would now have to purchase certified pieces from Maori merchants. Gordon’s not happy about the new laws, as it plays havoc with his relatively small business.
Gordon, in his normal jovial tones tells me about his earlier days. “I came right out of high school, ya know. Worked in the jade factory right up near Greymouth. It’s not there anymore, but I started there. It was all master jade artisans back then, I could only apprentice, do the detail work and polish all the bloody time. That’s why I don’t polish anymore – I’ve had enough mate!”
He goes on as he expertly carves the piece from a section of ‘bloodstone’ – named for the streaks of red that could be seen when the jade is held up to the light. His diamond [?] drill seems to crackle and spark as he carefully etches the edges.
I don’t know if I’ve adequately explained what this vacation is all about for me. Number one is fun and adventure – something new and different, a big change from the routine I’m drudging through at home. Number two is to meet and experience different cultures and people, since I eventually want to travel full time. Number three is a release of myself. I want to jump into the cosmic stream and let it take me for a ride. Part of this release is mental, part physical, part spiritual – and part of it is just to get laid. It has been too long, too far, and too rough to not have at least one semi-meaningful partner on this trip.
Anyhow, the gang of jade polishers and I trade stories and jokes. My dry wit and American style vulgar humor prove to be a great addition. Occasionally I hustle out back for a smoke, and even more occasionally, I give Kim English slang lessons:
“Wow – you are a hottie. What’s your number baby?” I say, repeating myself as necessary.
“Wa – yu ayh uh hote tee.” Kim replied.
“Good enough man – a little practice and you’re in there.”
He ends up practicing on Alicia, Gordon’s daughter.
Meanwhile, Gordon is grinding the rougher edges down in his workshop. I stand over his shoulder for a while, asking more questions, and answering his.
I assume he’s referring to Miwa and not Michiko. “I’m not sure she plays cards.”
He laughs, deep and hearty, appreciating the joke. “Well, she’ll be playing whatever you want once you get her in the sack. Michiko already mentioned your flirting with her. It’s good, ya know. Japanese women are great lovers.”
Deep down, I want to agree with him – to know and understand. But I don’t, I can only keep wishing at this point.
Gordon moves over to the water drill to finish up my piece. I struggle to fight the exhaustion that’s consuming my body. I bounce between the workshop and the dining room, continuing to talk to Miwa. It doesn’t seem right that she’s so reserved – I figure I’m not the first American to show interest in her, but I don’t have the combination – and can’t quite string the right words together. Maybe I should just know her for who she is…
She tells me about Hiroshima – her hometown. And I’m truly interested, I try to hold her gaze, but my eyes only want to close. Sometimes your body works against you.
Gordon is finishing the piece now.
“Gonna stay up and polish, right mate?” he asks, laughing. He knows I won’t. “And Miwa’s not ready – you’ve got to stay up if you want that.”
But I can’t – not any more. The day is done, it’s time to sleep. I feel like I could sleep forever. I take a hot shower, say my goodnights, and crash on the mattress set out for me in the hallway. I’m out in five minutes flat.
~~ end day 3 ~~
Posted by Mike on October 7, 2003 02:21 PM
Category: Hokitika / Fox Glacier / West Coast