When J, Max and I returned to Queenstown for the second time in the middle of May, we were convinced that this time it was really the end – Max had only a few more weeks left in New Zealand before he had to go home to his girlfriend, and J was committed to finding a job ASAP. So we spent a lively few days in the city enjoying each other’s company and taking advantage of all the ‘lasts’ we thought were happening (“Last opportunity to
party drink a Speights spend a normal evening together?!” “APÉRO!”)
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), it seemed that the universe had other plans. On the day that J was set to leave for his job in Martinborough, Max and I woke up at 5 in the morning to accompany him to the local airport and say farewell. In our excitement we got there a little too early however, and while we were drinking our coffees and biding our time until the check-in counter opened, an announcement came over the intercom: J’s flight had been canceled. Immediately, Max and I assumed devilish grins and started goading J that “it was a sign!” and “we have to take another road trip!”, but we restrained ourselves just enough to fulfill our best friend duties and help him arrange for a second flight the next morning. So we picked up his (stupidly heavy) bags, walked out the door, and took the next bus back into the city.
The next morning (now knowing that Kiwi airports were far more relaxed that normal ones), all three of us woke at a far more relaxed pace. We found ourselves sauntering into the airport a mere hour and a half before take off, and this time J actually succeeded in checking his baggage and confirming his ticket. Success! (Max and I had decided that we were going to rent a car and travel up the East Coast together despite the somewhat unsettling feeling that traveling without J was perverse on the deepest level. ) Meanwhile, Max and J went outside to smoke a cigarette and – perhaps in some backwards way of warning us of our addictions – the universe conspired to cancel J’s flight a second time. (!) Being outside, Max and J didn’t exactly hear the announcement, but I think my running through the doors with a huge stupid grin on my face might have given them a bit of a clue…
When J heard what happened, he wouldn’t believe it until he saw the cancellation notice with his own eyes. Once he did though, an hour, a long line, and two strong coffees later found us once again waiting at the bus stop holding all of J’s bags. But this time, he had $125-worth of flight vouchers, and we had a second Jucy campervan and a third road trip planned!
Our first stop on the way up the East Coast towards Christchurch was Dunedin, but we didn’t spend more than an evening in the city. We did see a really creepy war memorial and (almost) saw NZ’s only castle, though! Good times.
Our third time around was slightly different than the previous two – it was shorter, slightly more stressful, and somewhat deficient in mind-bogglingly beautiful landscapes (I know, pompous right?) But we did see a few cool things, including the (largely overrated) Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru. The blue penguins on the coast are a famous tourist attraction thanks to their size, bright blue bodies, and nightly exodus from the sea to their burrows on land. It’s such a big tourist draw that they’ve built an entire visitor’s center and grandstand(s) to watch the spectacle! J, Max and I didn’t exactly feel like being ridiculous enough to sit in the grandstands and take photos of penguins like idiots, but we did want to see them, so we bought a ‘self-guided tour’ for $15 instead. Worst. Decision. Ever. What did the self-guided tour include? A 1-minute walk around the tiny backyard garden where you might catch a glimpse of a penguin in a burrow (if you’re lucky), an only slightly longer peek into the dark room (where you can actually see penguins in their nests thanks to glass ceilings installed over some burrows), and a walk past the grandstands where your ever-present ‘guide’ (aka guard) chirrups at you about all the things you could have seen if only you’d bought an evening pass, and then excitedly points out one lonely seal on a rock like it’s the most rare creature in the universe. Lovely.
A far better attraction was Mt. Cook (Aoraki), the drive to which was easily one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve seen in New Zealand. The road into the Park leads through rolling hills of golden fields that drop suddenly into a huge glacial valley filled by a lake of the most intense blue. On the day we drove in, the colors of the landscape were like something out of a photograph enhanced with all sorts of special image filters, the kind of colors you think can’t possibly exist in real life because they’re too rich and immense to appreciate. We all had to stop the car multiple times to admire it, and I know that we stopped in mid-sentence several times because it was too distracting from what we were seeing outside the window. “Colors Of The Wind,” anyone?
On our way back out to the coast from our inland sidetrip to Mt. Cook, one of our nights also involved sleeping in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road next to a dairy farmer’s field. That night J went outside to do his business, and came running back seconds later with fear in his eyes and terror in his heart. What could have possibly provoked him? Just the thundering sounds of thousands of cows running towards the (very inadequate) wire fencing, breathing heavily and looking unsettlingly like the Minotaur in the gloom. Max took a picture with his camera to see what was going on (“Don’t worry, I’ll just use the little red light! …oh wait.”), and he ended up with this picture:
Luckily we survived the night, and found ourselves in Akaroa later that day. My poor French boys had a bit of homesickness thanks to the French-themed homes, businesses, and buildings all over town, but we sat on beach and watched the sun set over the harbor and felt all of our stress melt away. Such lucky people, those Kiwis are….
When we did eventually arrived in Christchurch, none of us knew what to expect – what had once been one of New Zealand’s biggest cities and tourist attractions had been devastated by two major earthquakes more than a year ago, and the city was still reeling from daily aftershocks and reconstruction efforts. (To see a very good interactive map that shows the quake history in the area, click here.) The entire Central Business District is still completely inaccessible, and more than half of the city’s tall buildings are scheduled to be demolished. Even the pride and joy of the city – Christ Church Cathedral – is set to be torn down due to the astronomical cost of repairing it (though huge efforts and demonstrations are still being made to preserve it). Most of the people I’d met along the way said that Christchurch was flat, gray, and sad – and that, despite their best efforts, the energy of the city was dark and unwelcoming. Surprisingly, I found my experience to be the complete opposite however. True, the city is flat and sprawling, and much of it is still mostly one giant construction site. But if you take the time to walk around the many gardens, parks, and public spaces, it’s clear that people are continuing to live and rebuild in their beloved city. I couldn’t bring myself to take more than a couple of photos (disaster-zone tourism isn’t exactly very honorable), but the two photos I did manage to take seemed like a fitting pair in after-sight. A devastated building abandoned to the elements, and a sculpture entitled “Falling In Love.” Isn’t that the essence of the human condition?