Among the many landscapes and features, the thing that tends to grab my attention again and again in New Zealand is the water. Be it alpine lakes and streams, rivers running through deep gorges, or ocean waves, the water is either strikingly colored or crystal clear, giving so many scenes an unreal quality. Many of the lakes at the base of the Remarkables are completely opaque, like someone had only just painted the landscape in front of me in liberally-applied oils with the idealized hues of a child’s drawing. The majority of the rivers in their shallower reaches are almost invisible, only hinting at tints of blue in the deepest pools, shining like a streambed of polished, rippled glass, and even the shallows of the lake extending away from Queenstown look like a tropical reef just beneath the surface. On more than one occasion I have to make sure my gawking doesn’t drive us off the road and into the very bodies of water I was staring at.
Wake up to clearing skies, birdsong, and sporadic gunfire. Across the bright blue glacial lake, occasional popping like automatic weapons echos, but even a scan with the pocket binoculars I brought along shows nothing resembling an invasion by British forces looking to continue their conquest and defense of irrelevant southern hemisphere island chains. We break out the instant oatmeal with diced apples and raisins for breakfast, dismantle the back tent which is delightfully brief compared to breaking down an actual tent, and drive back to the little town of Lake Tekapo, where I pick up a wool pullover I’d been eying before we start on the brief one-hour drive to Mt Cook National Park. On our way out of town, the gunfire mystery is easily solved by a large sign declaring a military training camp hidden behind a hill.
The scenery along the drive is increasingly stunning, despite being all but completely hidden by clouds. Finally reaching the Hermitage Lodge at the end of the road, we buy lunch in the cafe and stare out the large plate glass windows at the spot where Mt. Cook, highest peak in New Zealand, is supposedly looming behind a wall of clouds and rain. After lunch we pace inside for a while, wandering through the Hillary museum and perusing the gift shop, until we finally give in to the fact that the weather is not about to improve and start searching for a campsite, stopping briefly to fill up on gas at the lone gas pump in the park with an excessively picky card payment system. By this point Mads has succumbed to the preceding week’s stress at work and is nodding off in the passenger seat, so we park in the nearly deserted lot at Tasman Lake and while Mads curls up in back, I hike up the piled boulders of the glacial moraine to look up the valley at the Tasman Glacier.
The rain is persistent, but by no means heavy, yet it’s enough to drive off the casual tourists, so I have the lookout, and at times it seems the entire valley, to myself. Such immediate evidence of a landscape in the process of being formed is striking, and something I’ve rarely had a chance to see before. The impression of such raw elemental power is on par with the volcano in Kilauea back in Hawaii, only in this case, instead of the fresh, shining newness of a landscape only days old from bubbling to the surface, this valley of ancient volcanic rock is being ground away by a titan of ice, cleaving the earth like massive axe wounds. It is a humbling landscape, clearly shaped by immense and timeless forces. I watch for some time as the rain streams as waterfalls down the steep gullies carved in the cliffs of the surrounding mountains, then make my way back down to the campervan and make myself comfortable with my book while the rain drums on the sunroof overhead.
Fully refreshed, we complete our hunt for a campsite, settling on another isolated spot backed up against a waterfall, overlooking the valley that we optimistically hope will be clear in the morning. The rain is blowing so hard at this point that we’re forced to cook with the door of the campervan partly closed, and cook as quickly as we can so we can retreat inside, eating our dinner that tastes as good as only camp food can before we pass out again to the roar of the waterfall behind us.
The following morning the weather, while not clear, is at least greatly improved, and we’re rewarded with the valley view we’d hoped for. We fix breakfast, pack up, an head back to the Hermitage to use the bathrooms, get a bit more food, and check the weather forecast. We also look expectantly towards Mt Cook, but it’s as shrouded in clouds as the day before, still taunting us. After debating a hike, we decide to forgo the longer hike up Hooker Valley which is still being pelted by rain, and instead head back to Tasman Lake, just a narrow ridge of mountains away, yet bathed in sun, which we’ve had precious little of at this stage. We return to the lookout, considerably more crowded now than the day before, and hike down to the edge of the lake, which is an opaque brownish-white from the glacial deposits. Even just a few inches below the surface, my hand disappears in the brightly murky water. We bask on the dock for a bit, Mads giving me a hard time as I geek out over the mini-icebergs floating next to us. Satisfied that we have done what we came to the valley to do, we hike back, settle back in the van, and head off for Queenstown.
Back out into the rolling hills, the landscape of New Zealand becomes increasingly and confusingly like northern California. Many times, if it were not for the fact that we were driving on the wrong side of the road, I would swear we were somewhere around Napa as we drive through dry, yellow hills that are increasingly covered in vineyards. For the final stretch, there is a sign for a winery almost every five kilometers, and I have to resist the urge to stop at each one for wine tasting in the interest of making it to Queenstown before dark, especially since we have no idea where we’ll be sleeping. As we drive, Mads starts making phone calls for activities the next day, since apparently there’s almost no point in going to Queenstown if you’re not going to be doing something eXtreme while you’re there. Driving into town only reinforces this, as every street is lined with advertisements for bungee jumping, skydiving, whitewater rafting, and of course beer and internet access after you’re done being eXtreme. The place is lousy with backpackers, and Mads and I eventually decide finding an isolated spot anywhere near town is going to be an impossible task, so we suck it up and check in to our first official “campground”.
The place is little more than a grassy RV parking lot, which we suspect they are overbooking as it is, but it has showers and a sink, and is walking distance from downtown and a supermarket. We content ourselves instead with our first showers since Christchurch, a relatively lavish dinner including fresh chicken, making backhanded jokes about the people sleeping in tents, and stealing a towel from one of the empty motel-style rooms. Satisfied we’ve made the best of a potentially ugly evening, we mix our usual drinks, watch Dylan Moran for the second time in three days and try not to laugh obnoxiously loud. We don’t really try that hard, since we’re fairly sure half the tents and vans around us are occupied by college backpackers having sex.