Hey there, how's your new year been? I hope 2014 has been everything you've been hoping for! Me? I've had no particular hopes or dreams for 2014; I'm just taking it as it comes. And so far it's been pretty good, I can't deny. I've had some good opportunities to meet and hang out with some people I legit enjoyed spending time with, and have been able to go to some of the more dramatic natural areas of New Zealand. Plus, I was given pounds of free meat! But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's go back and see how this first week of 2014 has gone.
So, we start all the way back on New Year's Day. After all the excitement of the night before, I went back to my room and stayed up for a couple hours, doing...whatever, really. In truth, I was actually awake to see if I could stay up late enough to see any of my roommates come back. One did...briefly. One of the German girls came in, and then said she was leaving again. (I was later told that she had brought in a...guest to spend the evening with, but upon seeing that I was indeed in the room, decided to take her philandering elsewhere.) I eventually went to bed at, maybe, 3:30 or 4am, with nobody back. When I woke up at 10am or so, I saw that the two girls were in there, but the guy had never come back. I got up, had some breakfast, and talked to an Israeli couple that was staying in the tent portion of the hostel. (By the by, why are they no longer called "Israelites"? Serious question.) As we were talking, some guys I'd never seen before came in and asked if we wanted their unused food from the previous night - a pack of sausages, a pack of shoulder "bacon" (which is really more like what you'd call - if you were to order it at Denny's, for example - ham), and a pack of lamb spare ribs. Uhhhhh......sure, why not? The meat fairies then left, never to be seen or heard from again. I decided that the day would be a bit of a "nothing" day, and that suited me just fine. I went back to my room, sorting through my photos and playing some games for a while. Lunchtime came - and everyone else was still asleep (or gone) - and I ate, and then got to the epitome of neurotic organization when I decided to re-plan my eating schedule for the next several days to accommodate the newfound meat in my life. Like, what was originally going to be "sandwich for lunch, two pies and veggies for dinner" every day, now turned into sausages for dinner tonight, a pie for lunch, spare ribs for dinner, and so on. It was a five minute period in my head that would make any spur-of-the-moment types break down and cry.
I messed around for a little while longer as the rain continued outside, and the two girls got up, whilst the guy finally got back to the hostel, having stayed at some dude's house (I think he might be gay, but I'm well-known to have the worst gaydar money can buy, so I'll refrain from speaking in absolutes). He came in to the room and started asking me questions about this, that, and everything, but in a way that annoyed me, and seemed to be attacking me, albeit subtly, for being American. Once he brought up the topic of Snowden and the NSA, I gave my truthful answer - I don't care. (That can go on record: I don't give a damn about any of that one way or another. I always figured spying on citizens and other countries was going on, and so learning that I was right means nothing to me. So don't ask.) This was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of me getting annoyed by him, so I went into town for a bit, as the rain had eased up. It was pretty interesting to see the mass exodus that was happening now that the New Year's festivities were over and done with. I stayed in town until it started raining again, when my California sugar-skin started to kick in.
I went back to the hostel, where it seemed like literally everyone there had done literally nothing all day. And it turned out to be dinner time by now (so I guess I was also in that "do-nothing" crowd), so I cooked up the sausages. It was probably the least healthy way in which they could be cooked - pan fried in oil - but with all the other people around the kitchen, I didn't have the desire to really stick around and try something different and interesting. Still, despite the oil (or, more likely, because of it), the things were great. I ate a couple, and then made a quick announcement that everyone could have some. I felt like I needed to share, seeing as they weren't technically mine to hoard. As it turned out, that was a pretty popular move, and people jumped on the opportunity, not least of all the German guy, taking a full four of these things (I had been told by the girls he was a bit of a moocher, a schnorrer, if you will). Afterward, I went back to my room and relaxed even more, and then went up - to be social and all that - but everyone was just watching a movie, something I never found to be a very social activity, even though that's how it's always marketed. I half-watched as well, and then everyone basically went to bed, I the latest of all.
The last phrase of that previous paragraph is important because I woke up hours before everyone else. Like, I know they were hung over from New Year's, but the three of them ended up sleeping for fourteen, fifteen hours. It was pretty crazy, especially since my walking into town and back was the most physical activity any of us had done the previous day. In any case, I decided to continue on my free meat streak, so I cooked up some bacon and eggs (which the meat fairies had also provided a couple of the previous day). Not gonna lie, it was a nice change of pace from either cereal or some means of toast. I then milled around the hostel for a bit - playing with Jimmy the Cat mostly - waiting for the rain to clear. (Did I mention it was raining? No, but I didn't really have to.) Before I knew it, it was already noon, and time for lunch.
Man, it's a thrill a minute on this blog entry.
After finishing lunch, and seeing that my roommates were all still asleep, I left and went into town. I decided I was going to walk around the lake, at least for a portion (it was an 84km perimeter, so a full circumnavigation was a bit optimistic). It was a pretty nice walk, and it was cool to see some boating pieces that had clearly not been in use for many a year. I also had a weird moment of introspection when I found a dead bird on the ground and took a picture of it. This is not the first time I've taken a picture of a dead animal I've found lying on the ground. I wondered to myself, why take a picture. I briefly contemplated that it might be a morbid sense of male curiosity, but upon further rumination, I figured that it's more likely because that bird (or squirrel, or whatever) has done everything it can possibly do in its life; no flying around to garner people's attentions. And soon, something will come by and eat it, and there will be no evidence visible to humanity that it ever existed. No evidence, that is, other that my picture. I'm not going to be so arrogant to say that me taking a photo somehow validates the bird's life, but it is odd to think that it may be the only photograph of this particular bird in existence. So, yeah, odd tangent. In any case, I kept on this path for a number of miles, heading towards a nearby town called Frankton, until it started raining again. I decided to head back.
After a brief stop in the local Starbucks, I got back to the hostel, where I saw my roommates finally up and about. I let them know I was pleased that they weren't dead. I then went back to my room, and began packing a bit. At about 6pm, I decided to start dinner, which was going to be the lamb spare ribs. The weather outside was still unpleasant enough that I didn't want to cook on the outside grill. So, I decided to cook them in the oven, using the ol' tin-foil-tent-over-a-water-filled-pan trick, which I only know because I looked it up online. But, I had two problems. Problem the first: this process would take about two hours, so I started way too late. Problem the second: the German boy was pestering me, because he somehow saw this as me cooking for him as well (when I never made such a claim). He was whining about it taking so long, to which I responded, "Dude, there's half a package left, you can cook it on the grill if you want." But he didn't want to, and was content to just mutter about it. I went down and played some games, coming back every so often to check on the ribs. Each time I went up, it seemed as though the kitchen got more crowded, which bugged me to no end. Remind me never to work in a restaurant, because I need to be in a kitchen by myself, otherwise I get really bothered, for whatever the reason.
The ribs finally finished up - at least to a point where I felt safe about eating them - at 8:30, and I was pleased that I could finally have dinner. I was considerably less pleased, though, when I actually had the ribs, as they were the fattiest things I have eaten since China. Like, literally, half of any particular rib's non-bone section was fat. It really took a lot of the enjoyment out of eating ribs. I hear that's how lamb is, so I'll guess I'll stick to pig for that kind of food in the future. Overall, not worth the time put into it. I then went back to my room, and did a little more of my own thing. One of the German girls was in there as well, telling me about her travel diary, which she said was a mish-mash of sexual encounter tales and recipes. "Don't take this the wrong way," I said, "But you really seem like the embodiment of id." She didn't know what id was, though, so she couldn't be insulted. In my mind, I tried to imagine the other two Germans as embodiments of the other two aspects of the Freudian Trio, but the comparison broke down pretty quickly. After cleaning up my space a bit, I went upstairs. I saw a bright flash. "Was that lightning?" I asked one of the Israelis. Before they could answer, the biggest, loudest rumble of thunder I ever remember hearing rolled over. It was nothing short of impressive, and it was only then that I realized how amazingly hard the rain was coming down, which made me feel really bad for the Israelis who had a tent out in the elements. So, in the quiet of the living room, I just sat, listening to the rain and thunder, with Jimmy the Cat on my lap. That was actually a really nice moment, and reinvigorated my desire for a pet, if possible, when I get home. After Jimmy left to curl up in his sleeping space, I took a shower, finished packing (placing the items outside of the room for easy access), and then went to bed while the two German girls were doing some kind of pseudo-lesbian kiss-wrestling, should such a thing exist. I had to wake up early, so I just zoned them out and went to bed.
A rude buzzing of alarms woke me up at 5:30, and I quickly bustled out of bed to avoid waking anyone else up. I got all that was left of my stuff out of the room, and then went upstairs to make breakfast. To my surprise, a Cambodian tenant was in the kitchen, doing a full set of cooking (I think she may have been making a day's worth of food for her family). I wanted some more of that bacon, but seeing as she was using all of the stove tops, I decided to microwave the bacon. (In hindsight, I don't know why it didn't occur to me to use the other stove freely available in the kitchen.) It ended up tasting decent enough, but I was a little worried when I cleaned the container, and what I had thought was coagulated grease turned out to be melted plastic. I thought the container I had used was microwave safe, but...I guess not? So, I shortened my life a bit, maybe. What a way to start the day! I was also feeling that I might get an upset stomach, but that may have been more psychosomatic than anything.
The previous night, I was considering a taxi in case the weather had not improved from the thunderstorms of the prior day. Thankfully, the weather did improve, and so I was able to walk to the bus stop without being miserable. I did almost get lost along the way, mainly because the pickup point was different than the drop-off point, and the bus was from another company, but after a few frazzled minutes, I was on the nice warm bus. Shortly afterward, an old woman sat next to me (I'm not sure if it's because I have an inviting face [not bloody likely] or because I had next to me a free seat near the front of the bus, but man I get a lot of old people next to me). She chatted with me throughout the whole trip, but unlike the previous old chatterbox I shared a bus with, she was very pleasant about it, and would point out derelict old buildings, saying that her family would stay there back when it was open, and there's the cliff they used to climb as kids, and so on and so forth. Really expanding on the lore of the area, if you will. We also played a game of who could spot the next rainbow, because there were a hell of a lot of rainbows to be spotted (including some full Earth-huggers). My only real regret was that I was so damn tired that I kept having those long blinks that almost go into sleep. So it was a bit of a mixed blessing when she got off a bit early, because I was then able to recline and sleep for pretty much the rest of the trip.
Eventually we got to my new city, Te Anau. Unfortunately, the drop-off point was about two or so miles from the hostel I was staying at, and as soon as we arrived, it started raining. I had to take shelter inside the Fiordland National Park Visitor center, where I called Bob, the owner of the hostel (which was called Bob & Maxine's Backpackers, creatively). He was kind enough to pick me up, but because I wasn't clear about which visitor center I was in, he told me that he'd pick me up at a nearby supermarket...or at least, what he thought was nearby. Turns out, it was still about a mile's walk on my end with my bags, so...oops. I then met Bob, a very nice and talkative man, who took me to his place. I know I've said a number of the places I went to were really nice, but I'd say this place was the best of the bunch. Comfortable, casual, clean, and they didn't try to nickel-and-dime you. As long as you used it reasonably, you had free Internet, free laundry, free firewood, and free bikes. It's all on a kind of honor system, but overall, it just seems to be a nice deal.
After putting my stuff down and showing me around the place, Bob introduced me to two of my roommates, Lisa and Lisa. You get no points if you can guess they were German. They were apparently having a conversation with Bob earlier about hiking, and he recommended that I go with them along a small portion of the Kepler Track, which is one of the New Zealand "Great Walks" (a series of typically multiday hikes set up by their conservation department). While I was thrilled at the prospect (mainly because the start was far enough away that their car became a great asset), I made it very clear that I didn't want to be a bother, and they were under no obligation to indulge the idea. However, they seemed pleased enough at the prospect, so we got started getting everything prepared, making little packed lunches and all that. While preparing, I met Maxine, who had come into the place to clean. Maxine is a very lovely woman, but with a few peculiarities, mainly the combination of her garrulousness and her soft-as-a-feather speaking voice. She just goes on and on, and you don't as much listen to her as try to interpret what she's saying. To the best of my knowledge, she was telling me about her time in California, her relatives, and how I need to grow a mustache. She wouldn't let up on that last point; she made it pretty clear that she didn't like my un-roofed goatee, and that I need to grow a mustache to make it "right." Once we were all packed and ready to go, I had an excellent exit to the conversation, and so we drove on our way to the Kepler Track.
Now, truth be told, for all the planning I've done for this trip, I've done very little research with regards to these types of hikes. I didn't know the names of them, I didn't know where they went, or anything like that. I would just find one, make sure it was doable in a day or less, and do it. So I have very little in terms of informative commentary about the Kepler Track. Hell, I don't even know who Kepler is supposed to be. What I do know is that this portion of the trail we walked through was like a goddamned enchanted forest. Seriously, you've never seen so much green. I defy you to have seen so much green. There were leaves above, moss on the ground, moss on every tree. You half-expected to see a gingerbread house around the next corner (I made sure to note that one to the girls, since I figured, as Germans, they'd get the reference). I kind of wanted to listen to my whimsical adventure music, but with two other people, most of the soundtrack was conversation about all manner of things. And again, not too much to say specifically about the hours spent on the trail, aside from a few tidbits:
1. There was a sign I saw briefly at the base of the trail warning against thieves. Immediately, my mind thought of some sort of Robin Hood-like highwayman hiding in the trees to rob passers-by, a notion which seemed simultaneously impractical and amazing. Upon exiting, I read the sign closer and saw that it was referring to thieves in the parking lot who would break into your car, which was a lot less interesting.
2. One of my favorite things when hiking is finding a good natural walking stick, and I was able to do so during this trip. Had it been another foot or so taller, you could even say it could be a walking staff. I made good use of it, using it as a vaulting pole of sorts to get over larger, deeper puddles, and just to walk in style.
3. Speaking of larger, deeper puddles, I found myself becoming really...I dunno, trailblazing? When such a puddle would come up that you would easily get your foot submerged into, I looked around, found the largest piece of fallen wood I could find, and then put it into the middle of the puddle, forming a stepping stone of sorts.
4. We didn't have terribly great views, as it was still cloudy, but it wasn't terrible.
5. I refilled my water bottle at the local hut, but noticed it looked and smelled a little funny, so I didn't drink it. Turns out that was a pretty sound decision, as the water was untreated river water.
So, after a few hours of hiking and talking, with a lunch at the local hut (which, if you wanted to sleep in there, cost a hefty $54 per person per night), we turned around, made our way back out, and drove back into town. We stopped at the local big supermarket, where we all picked up groceries, and then went to the hostel, where there were clearly a greater number of people around. We just all hung out in there, watching the rain come and go, come and go. Before too long, people began preparing their dinners. Since I have already established that I don't like cooking in crowded kitchens - and also because the only usable oven was occupied - I just relaxed while people did their thing. When the German girls, aka "The Lisas", were eating their meal of potato salad and some sort of German meatloaf (I couldn't help but be impressed by their commitment to cooking actual meals whilst traveling), they offered me some, which I took little bits of to be polite. It was indeed very good, I just felt a bit guilty eating their food, despite their insistence. Later on - well, once the oven was free - I began cooking myself. And by "cooking", I mean heating up some pies. It was a little awkward, because the oven here might be a little hotter than your standard one, and the tops of the pies got burnt, making me look like an inept chef who can't even properly cook a pre-cooked item. Still tasted good, aside from the shame baked in. But the worst part of that meal is that I had to sit at the table with a family who had been sitting there, eating silently, for a half-hour already. It was the most awkward fifteen minutes ever. No one said a word; I just tried eating my pies and veggies as quickly and unobtrusively as I possibly could before washing up.
The rest of the evening went by fairly uneventfully. I mostly did some organizing on my computer, primarily of my photo folders (with the main goal being to have them so that my many folders for each country/city are arranged in chronological order. I don't know why it's taken me so long to come to this realization, but the catalyst for the change is that the Lisas and a couple other folks noted that they wanted to see some of my pictures before we all left, so I wanted to make that process all the better. We also got a couple new roommates coming in, this being a pair of sisters from Ontario named Stephanie and Lee Ann. By the time they arrived, the Lisas were already heading to bed to prepare for an early morning into Milford Sound, so I was only able to get the most initial of impressions (which was, "They seem nice enough") before we all went to bed.
By the time I woke up the next morning, the Lisas were already gone for their trip into Milford Sound, which made me a bit happy that I hadn't planned the thing as a day trip, because Lord Almighty, I would not want to wake up that early - it takes a lot to be worth getting up that early. In any case, I had some breakfast, and decided to do some laundry, to take advantage of the fact that it was free. There wasn't any detergent or anything, but I figured a water rinse was better than nothing. I then just hung around, contemplating what I'd be doing during the day. Well, that problem was solved very conveniently. And pleasantly, for that matter. The two Canadian girls, Stephanie and Lee Ann, woke up fairy late in the day, and after some contemplation and discussions with Bob, they decided to walk a bit on the Routeburn Track, another hike further up on the Milford Road, about an hour-and-change drive away. I was talking to them a bit, and they offered to drop me off wherever on their way there. After a short amount of contemplation, I let them know that I'd actually like to go all the way to the same trail they were going on, with the note that I was not asking to tag along, and that they had no obligation to me after that point (though a ride back would easily be appreciated). They actually seemed thrilled at the concept of having company on the trip, so in ten minutes, I packed my bag with everything I needed, offering to make them some PB&J sandwiches as payment. They seemed more tempted by the offer than I thought anyone could be, but decided they'd grab something from the local Subway before we headed out proper. So, we all jumped in their car and started heading up.
Tangentially, if I gave proper titles to my blog entries, this one would be "Riding in Cars With Girls".
Borderline copyright infringement aside, I hit it off great with them. Maybe it was just that North American solidarity that built up a rapport, but we were having conversations the whole time, as friendly as if we had known each other for...well, not for years, but maybe weeks. Two months of weekdays, perhaps. In any case, after a long drive, with a couple stops in some beautiful locations for great pictures, we got to the Routeburn Track. It wasn't quite as breathtakingly enchanted forest-like as the portion of the Kepler Track I had done, but it was very nice as well. Stephanie was actually a quick walker, almost as quick as I am, so we kind of plowed ahead, chatting it up like a pair of hens all the while. I did feel a bit bad because we had had a sizeable lead on Lee Ann - and more so that I was breaking the sisters up - but they both assured me that it was fine, so I could only hope they were being honest. We did take breaks every now and again to regroup for a bit, and also to admire the views once we got above the tree line. But man, what a difference the tree line makes in terms of wind. It was super windy at the summit of this mountain (which seems to be a running theme amongst mountain summits). We walked around a nature trail loop around the summit, took some pictures, had as much late lunch as we could each manage with the cold wind blowing in our faces, and then started out way back down, where we managed to stay in a bit more of a group.
(Side note: there's something I've noticed about myself when hiking, to go along with the myriad other things I've noticed about my physical self. While I have no real advantage over anyone else going downhill - and in fact, may be relatively slower that way - and I'm weakest at an uphill incline, I go faster than most on flat terrain, and I actually don't lose momentum on - quite specifically - steep, rocky uphills. Which is to say, uphills involving you to jump from rock to rock. Not sure why this would be the case, but I always notice any sort of gap between me and others widen in this situation.)
So yeah, we head back down. Along the way, we meet a kindly old man, who we learn is actually the caretaker of the track. It's not a crew who maintains the trail, just an old man who lives in a hut at the top. He was a real gentleman, and said that his work kept him healthy physically and mentally, so good on him for loving what he does and making it a place to enjoy (and we had noted what great condition the trail was in). I somewhat wish now that I had taken a picture of him for posterity, but t'wasn't to be. Upon reaching the bottom, we stretched out a little bit, looked at the maps of other potential things to see on the road, and then headed out to a place called Lake Gunn (or Gunn Lake, one of the two). When we got there, we spent a good fifteen minutes just skipping stones on the water, which for those of you who haven't done it in a while, is really cathartic; give it another shot when you have the chance. We then decided to walk the half-hour nature trail around the lake. As it turns out, the trail wasn't very clearly marked, with the right path only noted by some pink ribbons tied onto otherwise brown and green branches. The thing was, we didn't know this, and so not once but twice, we ended up traveling off the path into what I'll incorrectly call uncharted forest. Aside from me slipping on a mossy tree branch (and luckily falling onto more moss, providing the softest landing you can imagine), I actually and ironically LOVED this. We were climbing over dead trees, stepping in mud, and getting lost (at least, as lost as you can be when it's pretty clear the car park is just over yonder). This was the most adventurous I'd felt in a while, because there actually was some unpredictability to it. So maybe that's the trick. Of course, we were probably doing something terrible, like disturbing local flora, but I was having too much fun to care.
Anyway, after finding our way back to the actual path, the girls wanted to keep on going, so we walked back to the car and continued driving southward. We made a quick stop at the Mirror Lakes, which hardly seemed like a lake at all, much less multiple lakes. That said, the surface was quite mirror-like, even in the middle of the day (the ideal time was supposed to be early morning/sunrise, but nuts to that noise), so it was pleasant to look at. We then continued all the way back to the hostel, deciding what we'd all do for dinner. I suggested the local pizza place, as it had Bob's recommendation "and all the weight that carries". So, we arrived back at the hostel, where we saw the Lisas, who told us about their rainy cruise trip. Apparently, the rain was great for seeing non-permanent waterfalls, but everyone had to be on the inside of the boat; in fact, the only few who stayed out on the top were knocked over by an errant and particularly vicious wave. The Lisas then noted that a mysterious bounty of apples had appeared in the free food bowl, so they said they could make apple crumble. To help, the Canadian girls and I peeled the apples, and then promised to buy some accompanying ice cream while we were out.
Instead of driving, we used some of Bob and Maxine's free bikes. They were all a bit short for me, and the Styrofoam helmets did nothing to assuage the general stigma associated with wearing helmets that I've felt in non-US countries. But they could get you from Point A to Point B, and that's what we needed. We got to the pizza place, which seemed to be a traditional Italian family joint. And we probably had the most Italian Waitress ever; basically, she was Maria from West Side Story (actually, I've never seriously watched that play/film, so that may be a bad comparison). But the pizza was very nice, and the three of us continued the conversations we'd been having all day. When it came time to pay, I went to the register and took out my credit card. I figured this would play out in one of two ways. First, I'd pay by card, and the girls would pay me back for their items in cash, and I'd get the points and we'd all be scared. Second, I'd pay by card, and not be paid back, but just be the nice guy who paid for dinner. I was fine with either scenario, especially since they had given me a ride and all. As fate would have it, the second scenario played out, and the girls seemed legit touched by the gesture, particularly because I'd been talking about my penny pinching ways earlier in the day. Even the older lady at the register said, "It's good to know there are still some gentlemen in this day and age." I brushed it off as best I could, and then we walked to the supermarket next door to buy some ice cream before cycling back to the hostel. After a bit of a wait, the Canadians, the Lisas, some guy I've never seen before, and I enjoyed a delicious homemade apple crumble and some very good ice cream. It was a nice little bit of roommate bonding, I think. While eating, I showed off a good number of my travel photos (something I haven't really done in a good while, but something I really found I enjoyed). We then just talked for a good while longer, until it was very clearly time to go to bed.
I woke up relatively early the next morning, well earlier than I really needed to. I had a quick breakfast, and then realized that everyone else in my room was awake and also getting ready to go. Even the weather was already up in full force, which is a really clunky way of saying that it was raining outside. Hard. This was not really a day to be going out and doing any sort of activities in town whilst waiting for my 1:30 bus to Milford Sound. So instead, I lit the fire in the central wood-burning oven and just tried to keep myself warm while hanging out and doing whatever. The Lisas ended up heading off, so I wished them well. I then got an offer from Lee Ann that I could drive to Milford Sound with her and Steph. Seeing as it would probably be a more comfortable trip, and with better company, I decided to go onto the NakedBus website and cancel my trip (I wouldn't get a refund - not that it mattered, since I had a bus pass - but I didn't want to cause any sort of confusion for the bus driver). When I confirmed I could go, I got a bit of a yelp of joy from Steph. (Y'know, it's nice to be wanted every now and again.) I enjoyed some leftover pizza while waiting for them to be ready. (Odd note: while authentic Italian pizza may be better than American-style pizza when fresh, I think the opposite holds true when the pizza is cold.) I also gave the girls my pants - by which I mean the pair I wasn't wearing - to put in with their laundry, which I'd pick up upon my return to Bob and Maxine's. Then, a bit after 1pm, we left.
There was a little bit of confusion at the beginning, when I said that I thought there may be a gas station in the direction to Milford Sound (whereas I knew there was one heading back into town). When it turned out that there was no such station in that direction, Lee Ann pulled into a driveway, and then turned around. After about, maybe, 150 feet of driving, an oncoming car came into view, and it became apparent that we were in the wrong lane. This mistake was corrected quickly and with little issue, or so we thought. When we finally arrived at the gas station, and Steph went in to pay, a police car came around. "I received a complaint about your vehicle," she said, and Lee Ann pulled over. Suddenly, I saw another car pull in - it was the oncoming car we had seen, being driven by what was apparently the most vindictive man in history, considering he stopped his travels and drove the other way just to make sure this offense didn't go unpunished. He gave a thumbs-up to the cop, and then, while driving out, gave a cold stare to Lee Ann, tapping his finger on his head. Really poor form, I felt. Lee Ann went into the police car to talk to the cop. I figured that, considering the circumstances and the fact that this is the simplest mistake you can make, this was prime warning territory. Nope. Apparently, the guy said he had exaggerated the story (saying he had to swerve out of the way), and although the cop was nice about it, Lee Ann was hit with a $150 ticket. This dampened her mood a bit, and I couldn't help feeling a bit bad, especially since I was partially (although very indirectly) responsible for the situation coming about. In any case, from that point on, Steph was the one driving, while I just was content to remain in the backseat.
We continued for a couple hours, and for the vast majority of that time, the rain never stopped. This didn't make all the tight turns any easier to traverse, especially later on, when they could just about qualify for hairpin status. Along the way, we listened to some music by some New Zealand indie singer named Lorde. Upon hearing her for the first time, my comment was, "I'm not sure if I've heard her music before, or if she just sounds like every other current female singer out there right now." After going through the whole CD, I can confirm it was the latter. We didn't do as much stopping as the day prior, mainly because we'd seen a lot of the things we'd wanted to see already (also, rain). There were some amazing views of the mountains, though, and we pull over to take some pictures of a number of mischievous kea, birds which make the magpie look like an Honest John. They were hopping on people's cars and trying to steal whatever they could, but it made for some funny moments. We then went through the dark and long Homer tunnel, passed through a few more hairpin turns, and got to Milford Sound. The girls didn't know exactly where they needed to meet for their kayak trip (which was coming up really soon), so they dropped me off at the lodge with the most hurried goodbyes ever.
I got inside and checked in, and was then asked to pay. Now, lemme tell ya, there is little more disheartening - at least in reference to accommodation when traveling around the world - than thinking you paid when booking online, and then realizing that no, you'd just given them your credit card details for "security reasons", and you now have to pay that amount for real now. One of my Business Psychology professors taught me about the "Pain of Paying", and I can confirm that it's real. In any case, I paid an amount that I thought was quite high, but tried to shrug it off. I then noticed that this was indeed the place where all kayaking trips met up, so I was hoping the Canadian girls would figure that out soon (I would have called - I've become quite adept at getting phone numbers these days - but there was no service of any type up for miles and miles). Turns out, they did realize it, because after I dropped off my food in the kitchen, I went back to the lounge to find them there. As it turns out, because of the foul weather, their kayak trip had been cancelled. Really, it hadn't been their day. Thankfully, they were able to reschedule for the next morning (although that meant waking up super early), but yeah, not the greatest. They were a bit tired of driving, so we just sat in the lounge, talking for about an hour. Finally, they decided to head back to Te Anau, and we had a much less rushed set of farewells (or in Steph's case, a see-ya-later, as we planned to meet up in Auckland, where she was currently living).
I then went to my room, which was very clearly occupied, so I took the upper bunk that seemed...well, seemed the least occupied. Before too long, though, a few guys, all of French persuasion, came in and met me. Two of them, from France and New Caledonia, barely spoke any English, while the third, from Whitehorse, Canada, was a bit more talkative. They only stayed in the room for short stretches, though, so I was relatively free to just lie back and relax; I had no real plans to do anything in this weather, and could only hope it would clear up by tomorrow, for both my sake and the Canadian girls' sakes. When dinner time rolled around, I had some chicken I had bought in Te Anau, and to my pleasant surprise, I found a couple packs of Nando's chicken sauce in the lodge's free food section, so that worked out great. I then just did some writing in the lounge for a few hours. I then took an early shower...or tried to, rather, because it seemed like all the showers had this issue where you could turn the dial left or right. Turn it left, you'd get freezing cold water. Turn it right, you'd get scalding hot water. There was no in-between. I tried three different stalls, and all had the same problem. I ended up forgoing the shower, because I couldn't really deal with either option. So, I went back to my room and continued writing until the French guys came back in. They went almost immediately to bed, and since I had a kayak trip at 8:30, I decided to get as much sleep as I could as well.
I was woken up the next morning by the French guys packing their things, but I didn't mind all that much, since I really needed to get up and pack, seeing as I was also going to need to move rooms, for whatever reason. So, I got up, had some toast for breakfast in the busiest morning kitchen scene I've seen in a while. I think part of the reason I dislike crowded kitchens is because everyone is in your way, and you simultaneously feel you're in everyone's way too. After that, I pack up my stuff, check out, put my bags into storage, and then waited in the lounge. Before too long, a guy who was clearly in kayaking gear came in and asked for my group. It turned out there were seven of us. Four from Indonesia (two mother/daughter pairs, I think?), an Indian(?) couple from Australia, and me. We got in the van and drove a short distance to the starting point, but not before experiencing the sandflies. So, apparently, sandflies are the main nuisance of Milford Sound, apparently put there by the god of death when he felt like the beauty of Milford Sound made humans forget their own mortality, so that they'd be driven away. (That's one thing I like about Maori culture and stories; they don't sugarcoat the creation stuff and make it seem like everything is great and sacred. They're like, "Wow, sandflies really suck," and create mythology to match.) They're essentially a mixture of gnats and mosquitoes. They're small and omnipresent like gnats, and they suck blood like mosquitoes. There's no 100% effective prevention; you can only use oils to try to drive them away. After putting some of that on, I had... relatively little issue with them. I did get bit a little, but they seemed to prefer the other folks to myself, which was a welcome surprise.
Also a welcome surprise: it wasn't raining. Well, okay, it wasn't sunny, and there were a few minutes of sprinkling, but compared to the trip-cancelling downpours of the day prior, it was a goddamned godsend.
In any case, we got into the main tent, where we changed into our kayaking equipment, which included the ugliest striped thermals you can imagine (likely to discourage thievery), some wet weather gear, and the always-fashionable kayak splash skirt (and if you don't know what that looks like on someone just walking around, you owe it to yourself to look it up). We then grab our paddles and head out to the kayaks. Along the way, the guide informed me that this was the "Easy Rider" route, so it would probably be a bit more relaxed than some of the stuff he assumed I was used to. I assured him that I've become weary with high-octane activities that aren't checking my boxes, so a more relaxed trip may just be what the doctor ordered. I also learned that since we were in doubles boats, I'd be partnered with the guide, which was fine by me. We went out and into the smooth, calm waters, and it really was nice. Like I imagined, it was nice doing a slower paced activity. In some way, it was more like the kind of Huckleberry Finn rafting that I said I might enjoy. And the fact that it wasn't raining was just great; I was actually able to take pictures, and not spend the whole time being wet and cold. I also noticed that I felt really in control of my paddling. Whereas some of the others - in particular one of the younger Indonesian girls - paddled in a way that could be described as "frantic", if you were being generous, my strokes were calm and powerful, which actually surprised me a bit, since it's been years since I'd kayaked.
We made our way to one of the two permanent waterfalls in the whole of the fiord (the rest are all dependent on rain), an impressive 500-foot beast. We then took some pictures, and headed back to the starting point to finish up. It was a pretty relaxed pace, so we had only gone about 8km during the whole time, which was maybe two hours on the water. I had heard the more advanced trips went out to the sea itself and lasted for something like six hours, but I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it that long, because after this trip, I had some worn-away skin on my left hand (forcing me to change my grip) and, worse, my legs got super sore from resting on foot pedals which were too short even when fully extended. I would have been dying after six hours, methinks. Still, overall, I thought it was a great trip, and I'm glad that I did it.
We then drove back to the lodge, where I had a PB&J sandwich for lunch (also, I've found that PB&J is easily the most cost-effective type of sandwich you can have for a longer trip). I also asked the Australian couple if they could give me a ride to the wharf, as they were on the same cruise I was. They agreed, and so about ten minutes before we were supposed to be there, I hopped into their campervan (where there were no more seats, so I just rested on some slick furniture, making for some interesting turns), and we headed to the wharf. We unfortunately lost a bunch of time searching for a parking place in the overcrowded parking lot, and had to make up for it by running to the terminal. When we arrived, we realized it was all irrelevant, as our 1pm cruise was cancelled due to technical difficulties, and we could choose to go on the 1:30 alternative, which would go on the same route, but would be half-an-hour faster and have four times as many people on board. But options were somewhat limited, so we had to acquiesce. We went on board, and were able to see a much larger portion of the fiord, including going out to the Abel Tasman Sea, which was neat, but really could hold much of a candle to the kayaking trip. The weather was still very much in our favor; it was windy as all hell, and a few people on roof of the boat did get blown over as they were trying to walk in their puffy jackets, but it wasn't raining, and we even had a few patches of blue sky. About three-quarters of the way through, I was let off at this mysterious "Discovery Center", which was apparently part of my package. I said goodbye to the Australian couple, and then went down onto this little outpost in the middle of pretty much nowhere. It was...decidedly lackluster. There were a few displays talking about the history of Milford Sound, and then you could go down to a little underwater observatory to look at some fish, but that was about it. You were also beholden to their times, since there you could only leave via a small boat. There wasn't even enough time to look at all the displays. I don't know what the normal price of that was, but if it's anything over, maybe, $10, it's way too much. Also, the guide there seemed to have no idea what he was talking about at any point.
So, I got on the smaller boat back to the wharf, and then walked back to the lodge from there. On the drive over, I had seen a sign for a Glow Worm trail, which I thought might make for an interesting quick walk before getting back, but for some reason, I didn’t see it on the way back, so that was a shame. I checked back in to the lodge, got my new room key, and then asked about the prices for my package, since the numbers didn't seem to add up (as I seemed to be paying more for the package than the individual items added up to). It turns out, I was owed some money, and then it turns out I was also supposed to receive a breakfast voucher at the lodge (I didn't), a lunch voucher on the cruise (I didn't), and all sorts of stuff. So really, there were some problems going on somewhere. I let the reception staff try to figure it out while I went to my new room, and met my new roommates, a pair of Law students from Washington DC named Zach and...I can't remember the girl's name. But they were both quite nice. When they went out, I just lied down to relax and write a bit. However, I must have been really tuckered out, because I took an unintended nap in the middle of my writing (so apologies if there's a portion of this entry which had made little sense). Once I woke up, I ate a quick chicken dinner, and then got back to my writing.
At some point, the DC'ers came back, we talked a bit, and they said they'd be going to the nearby cafe/bar for the evening. They invited me to come, which I accepted, just to mix things up. We walked to the bar, which was a good 25 minutes (and made me really intent on taking a shuttle to even-further-away wharf where the NakedBus would pick me up, so that I wouldn't have to worry about lugging all my stuff that whole way). At the bar, the two of them got some drinks (and I just had water), and we played a game of pool (which I did absolutely horrible, significantly worse than my normal average performance). We then just hung out and noted how we - I especially - were at the upper echelon of the age range here. There were so many young kids here, both biologically and mentally. That's one thing I can absolutely say in favor of America's 21-drinking-age: it helps keep riff-raff out of the bard. But yeah, a lot of these patrons - most of whom were people working, albeit temporarily - in Milford, were young and loud and obnoxious. It was clear the three of us and the head bartender (who also happened to be American) were a bit less than amused. But the bartender actually was a really nice guy: he was more than willing to indulge the DC'ers in their wine identification game, talked to us a fair bit, and then ended up charging next to nothing for the fair amount of drinks that had been gotten (including actual nothing for the Shirley Temple I ordered). I'm not sure if it had to do with that North American camaraderie I mentioned earlier, or if he was just a stand-up guy, but it was much appreciated.
We then decided to walk back to the lodge. I was originally thinking about leaving a little bit early, but it's just as well I didn't, because it was pitch black outside. Seriously, no street lights, no nothing. And I had left my phone in the room, so I had no means of generating light. Thankfully, the DC girl also had a flashlight app on her iPhone, so we used that to illuminate, albeit faintly, our path home. It also started raining a bit, so it wasn't the most pleasant of walks back, but I suppose it could have been worse. I, being the sober of the three, spent the time telling them about some of my interesting encounters at Askari (I found I've done more oral recounting in the past week than I have in the past couple months). We got back safe and sound, and I tried taking another shower. To my supreme shame, I found that all the showers were working just fine; it's just that I wasn't turning the dial enough in either direction to reach the midpoint of comfortable heat. So, I had a nice, proper shower, and then went promptly to bed.
When I woke up this morning, I could hear the rain coming down. Not in any sort of faint, subtle way, either. I could hear it. "That's not a good sign," I said to my roommates. Luckily, they had already done their kayak trip (and apparently had done so with Steph and Lee Ann, coincidentally), so they would probably be fine for their cruise. But yeah, any hope I had of taking a hike today was probably not going to pan out. I mean, I could hike in the rain, I just didn't want to. Like I've been saying, being cold and wet isn't an exciting prospect. So, I just figured I'd play the day by ear. I packed up my bags, and then went out to use the breakfast voucher that the lodge had finally given me. It was actually a decent breakfast - poached eggs, spinach, bacon, toast, and a cup of hot chocolate. I don't know if poached eggs are supposed to be considered a highfalutin method of preparation, but they've always seemed really fancy to me, I dunno. I then went back to my room, grabbed my stuff, and checked out. I found out I would be getting something like $35 dollars back, just simply because I overpaid, but they weren't going to do anything about my missed lunch, because it was the cruise company's fault. Egh, whatever.
I then went into the lounge and started writing for hours. While doing that, the DC'ers left, so I wished them well, and then I saw the Australian couple again. They were also leaving, so I gave my farewells to them as well. Then, with a short lunch break, I just sat and wrote, all the while listening to the rain alternate between "heavy" and "Christ-that's-heavy". Pleasingly, it did actually clear up for a bit, but by that time, I didn't feel comfortable enough that I would have the time to go on a proper hike before I'd have to leave on the shuttle. I then listened to some music and talked to some of the other people in the lounge while I waited for said shuttle. When it finally arrived, I braved the sandflies to hop in, and we started driving to the wharf. Along the way, my shame returned to me when I saw that the glow worm trail thing I had been looking for yesterday was right there, at the lodge itself. It would have literally taken me two minutes to get to the entrance of it. Not that I would have seen any glow worms during the day, mind you; it's just the principle of the thing. In any case, I got to the wharf, and just sat inside with my bags next to me, flagrantly flying in the face of the "no bags" sign on the wall. And there I waited, for about an hour and a half, just messing around.
The NakedBus then came, though it was really more of a small shuttle bus, which I was perfectly fine with. The driver, a man who looked like he should be the most crotchety on Earth but was in fact really kind, loaded us up, and then stepped on the gas. He was going through those hairpin turns with both speed and skill; it was thrilling, but you felt pretty safe. Along the way, we were able to get some great views of the area, what with half the sky being blue. When we got into Te Anau, I asked the driver to drop me off near Bob and Maxine's, and thankfully, there was a little ladder on their fence for exactly such an occasion. Considering the rain had started pouring down like nobody's business, this shortcut was most welcome. I quickly dropped my stuff on the main lobby, and then walked over to the reception (aka Bob and Maxine's house) and rang the bell. Bob opened the door with a smile. "You're all wet, Andrew," he said, letting me in. Really, this guy knows a thing or two about hospitality; he really makes you feel welcome. After paying, setting up a ride to my bus pickup point tomorrow, and getting a piece of candy for my trouble, I went back to the main dorm building.
Everything was just how I left it. My pants were still on the clothesline, my forgotten yogurt still in the fridge. Hell, even the vanilla ice cream from the apple crumble was still sitting in the freezer (though now that the only valid claimant to it had arrived, it wouldn't last the night). There were a whole bunch of people inside; the place was actually fully booked for the night. However, despite the crowd, everyone was doing their own thing. Almost every section of the main room had someone sitting down, reading or typing or doing whatever. For my part, I made no serious attempts to get to know anybody. After all, I was going to be here for less than 12 hours, most of those sleeping, and I'd likely be gone before the majority of them woke up, heading off to Queenstown and then Fox Glacier. Besides, looking around, I didn't get any of the same kind of vibes I had gotten as with the previous groups. And like I've said a number of times before, I'm not going to go out of my way to meet people simply for the sake of meeting people. If I'm supposed to meet people, I will meet them.
And maybe that was the case this past week. I was meant to meet and get to know a number of good people, and I did. Such is such is such.