Under the NZ Southern Sky
Remember our van Lucy from our past stories? (here & here). We finally found a mechanic in Christchurch who was able to source and replace our engine about two weeks ago. Once she was hauled away, Josh and I set off for Queenstown in what they call a “ute” which are these tiny flatbed utility trucks that don’t even look real. First stop – the Kawarau Bridge for a pee your pants type of adventure. Upon arrival at the bungee jumping facility, I was feeling pretty good, hyping myself up and trying not to look down while they bound my ankles together. The employees setting up for my jump were asking me questions about myself to keep me distracted but I’m pretty sure I blacked out since I don’t remember much besides thinking “this is mental.” So there I was, scooting my toes towards the end of a bridge hanging 160 feet above a raging river…what could possibly go wrong, right? My last words to Josh were “Merry Christmas” which made him laugh – a sound that helped me weasel my way to the end of my rope.
Before I could reconsider, I jumped off headfirst and holy shit – it was scary. For a split second, I felt weightless while the slack in my bungee cord free fell with me which takes butterflies in your stomach to a whole new level. With inches between my finger tips and the water, my cord caught and I went flying back up. At this point, I no doubt looked like a rag doll hanging from a rope and could literally feel my smile stretching from ear to ear. A total rush and SO worth it. While I didn’t touch the water beneath us, Josh took a full dip. Thinking the guys up top were joking, Josh agreed to get wet which gave them the liberty to adjust his bungee cord accordingly.
After turning into full blown adrenaline junkies, we cleaned ourselves up, traded the ute for a gondola and spent the rest of our anniversary sipping wine at the top of a mountain in Queenstown. I learned something new about Josh that night – take him to an all you can eat gourmet buffet at your own risk. I have never seen someone so happy to stuff themselves with salmon, ramen, sushi, steak, french fries, and desert. Luckily for us, the gondola delivered us to the bottom of the mountain because otherwise I would have had to roll him.
A few days later, Lucy our van, was returned to us in what we thought was good health and we hit the road again – this time heading towards Milford Sound. Our leisurely drive over mountains and through valleys led us to the heart of the Mackenzie Basin which sits pretty much directly in the middle of the South Island. What amazed me more than the jaw dropping landscape and vibrant milky blue glacial lakes was the southern sky at night. Unbeknownst to us, the Mackenzie Basin is home to one of eight dark sky reserves in the entire world and we were camping directly in the center of it. With light pollution strictly controlled in the area, the stargazing and visibility were unlike anything I have ever seen before. Once the sun had set and dusk had passed, millions of stars began to illuminate the night sky. For the next several hours, we simply sat and admired one of the most breathtaking natural wonders I have ever seen while sipping a few hot toddies.
It can be so easy to get caught up in the day to day routine of moving around, making sure we have water and keeping up with our GPS that some experiences can feel rushed or taken for granted. While a year certainly sounds like a long time, there is so much to be treasured in this country that giving each area as much time as it deserves would take years. That being said, as much as I wanted to spend another week stargazing, it was time to appreciate everything I was fortunate enough to see and move on to Milford Sound.
Before Josh and I were ready to attempt the 6 hour hike to one of the remaining glaciers in the Southern Alps, we had to practice our tramping (local word for trekking/hiking) skills on a smaller scale. After reviewing numerous trails in the area, we ended up choosing the 3 hour return hike to Lake Marian, which sits just below the entrance to the Milford Sound Fiords. The winding ascent through dew covered tropical foliage was challenging but fairly well traveled and the deep rooted tree trunks served as a natural staircase. Once we reached the top of the mountain, the forest cleared and opened up to a hidden lake tucked away within the surrounding taller peaks. The stark contrast between steep rugged mountain and the quiet crystal clear glacier fed lake that lay at its base was incredible. Once again, nature left us speechless.
We woke up the following morning feeling ready and excited for the 6 hour hike we had planned before reaching the sounds only to find out that our car wouldn’t start…once again. While not surprised and trying to remain in good spirits, we knew that we couldn’t have been in a worse place. It was 5am, it was raining, cellphone reception was at least 10 kilometers away and we were stuck. Josh ended up taking one for the team and solo hitchhiking into the nearest town to call for help. Long, sad and wet story short, a new mechanic towed us back to safety but away from the sounds. As if we weren’t bummed enough to have missed out on the hike we planned our trip around, the bad news just kept coming. It turns out our second hand engine had been in a crash, was not tested correctly before being placed into our girl and therefore was not mint. Thankfully, we were within the 7 day warranty (yes, the damn thing broke down after only 6 days) and the garage who completed the less than sub par job is stuck with the task of starting over and getting us what we payed for. Unfortunately, we don’t really have any idea how long that could take but are hopeful that she will be back on the road once again in the near future.
After a solid 24 hours of sulking, we got our shit together and decided to get to that 6 hour hike whether we had a car or not. It only took us about 5 minutes to get picked up while hitchhiking and we met another awesome couple heading out for a day of exploration to celebrate their recent wedding. Something that I still have yet to get used to is how genuine and friendly the locals are. I can say with certainty that if we all showed this type of compassion to strangers, the world would be a better place.
Once we arrived at the Gertrudes Saddle trail head, I started sweating just looking at the massive glacier I was about to (attempt to) climb. About an hour into the hike, we had reached 1,350 feet and the view was already incredible. Over the course of the next 100 feet, we passed not one but three signs warning us of the dangers ahead. We had officially passed all trail markers and were on our own to navigate through cloud covers and over stream crossings. The next 3,080 feet were extremely challenging with no path, slippery slate and uneven rocks that are prone to avalanches. Needless to say, I was scared shitless but so taken by the views that I found myself forging the path ahead of Josh at times. We ended up climbing about 1,300 feet above the saddle to a point clearly less traveled than the steep incline below on account of my desire to reach and walk on the nearest hanging glacier.
The euphoria I felt once I reached out and touched that snow was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The landscape was astonishing, the air was crisp and the silence was magical. I felt complete bliss for the first time in my life – what a gift. We took our time on the descent admiring each waterfall and hidden lake. The entire hike was surreal with views so picturesque, it seemed like a fairytale. Had I not completed this hike myself, I wouldn’t believe that something so breathtaking could exist…
While hitching a ride back into town, we encountered a fatal motorcycle accident just feet ahead of us on the windy road that leads to the sounds. Being so close to an accident after the enlightening day I had was extremely sobering. While we prayed for a positive outcome and waited for the area to clear, I was once again reminded of how beautiful and fragile life can be. We don’t always have endless amounts of time to do and say what is important to us whether it be traveling, telling someone you love them or simply being the best version of yourself. Those few hours waiting on the side of the road reflecting back on all of the amazing things we have been fortunate enough to do here really put this time into perspective for me. This trip has and continues to exceed all expectations and we just barely began.
Looking ahead, we have another few days of jumping from hostel to hostel while we sort out the van before settling down for the next few months to work.