Gorges and Glaciers

April 1, 2011 Comments Off on Gorges and Glaciers

204 km

First thing this morning we tried to book a heli-hike, but they had just switched to their winter schedule, so we had to book it for tomorrow instead, which meant that we had a nice leisurely day to go not-far and enjoy the coast. We decided to take the time to go visit Hokitika Gorge, which the guidebook called “a ravishing ravine.” It was 30km outside town, through beautiful farmland at the foot of the Southern Alps. It reminded me of Heber City, UT, which is where I would live if I were Mormon.

Everywhere we went that was named “— Gorge” was so striking that I keep wanting to use the word “gorgeous,” except the accidental pun kind of kills me. It makes it less respectful, you know? So anyway, Hokitika Gorge was amazingly beautiful and completely worth doing. The trailhead is in the level rainforest, and you can’t see where you’re going—the rainforest is wonderful enough in itself—and then suddenly you come to an overlook where you can see the swinging bridge over a river that’s the most amazing color you’ve ever seen, and that color is Rock Flour. Because of all the glaciers up in the mountains where the river has its source(s), a lot of finely-ground rock from under them ends up in the river, giving it this milky turquoise color that is very distinctive.

Rock flour in the water.

We were mesmerized for the entire trail, and it ended at some rocks that were fun to clamber over and a mud beach (from all the rock flour getting washed up). I was admiring and Simon was taking a ungodly number of pictures when we noticed painful pricking on our exposed faces and hands. Tiny flies were swarming us, and they bit. It was then that I remembered seeing a sign about “sandflies.” Aha.

We eventually developed a strategy of pausing several yards from the car and unlocking it remotely, then shouting, “GO!” and racing for the car to try to leave some of the sandflies behind. We had moderate success. Fortunately, driving reasonably fast with the windows down seemed to get rid of stowaways.

The road back to Hokitika was just as beautiful, except we had to wait for a very long time for a couple hundred feet of road to be paved. Fulton Hogan is apparently the paver of roads in NZ—it was not the first or the last time we’d been stopped for FH to do some work, but it was the longest. I developed a habit of shouting “Fulton Hogan for the win!” every time I saw their logo, which Simon thought was funny the first couple times. Downtown Hokitika appears to be the South Island mecca for jade dealers and glass blowers. We watched a glass blower for a while, and then Simon bought me some pretty little jade earrings. Apparently jade is massively important in Maori culture, and is traditionally bought as a gift.

Further down the coast we arrived in glacier country. We were staying in Fox Glacier (the town), and after checking in at the hotel we drove ten minutes down the road to see Fox Glacier (the glacier). It was a surprisingly long hike across this vast outwash plain before you could even see the glacier; there were rivers anastomosing through a perfectly level surface of small grey boulders which turned out to be schist (this means that they were sparkly). Finally the terminus of the glacier came into view, looking dirty and not as majestic as you’d expect, but eventually you looked as far up the valley as you coud and saw the ice river curving into view far, far up the mountain, and that was something to think about. Also something to think about were the danger signs, which were pretty great. (You should be able to see a bigger version of the picture if you click on it.)

Small bits of the glacier were calving off as we watched. (Or maybe they weren’t small, maybe they were the size of campervans.) Glacier photography (and viewing) proved to be addictive at this point, and it took us a very, very long time to leave.

Dinner is worth mentioning because it involved one of the only two really good beers I had in NZ. (Granted, we tended to take advantage of the wines.) It was a Monteith’s Celtic Red, and the funny thing, at least to a couple Wisconsinites, was that we asked the waitress what such-and-such a beer was like, and she had absolutely no clue, and she called over another waitress, who also had no clue, but shrugged and offered, “I like it okay.” It’s actually pretty hilarious after going somewhere like the Old Fashioned, where the waitstaff has not only tried every beer on the list, but remembers which is which and can describe the flavor for you in approved brewery language. Also, while I’m on the subject of dinner, let me tell you: it is worth spending a single day in NZ just so you can eat lamb. They cook it perfectly everywhere, and it’s amazingly delicious. Simon and I started making jokes about how we wanted to catch a lamb, take a bite out of its rump, then set it free to continue to gambol. Mmmm. Lamb.

After dark we took what the hotel receptionist had described as a “romantic walk” through the nearby rainforest, where you could see glowworms. It was an easy, level walk (thank god) in the pitch black, and at first we kept turning off the flashlight and asking each other, “Do you see any?” “Is that one over there?” “I don’t know…” But we didn’t have to worry about them being hard to see. After a while, they were in big patches very near the path, and by the end of the walk, we had seen hundreds and hundreds of brilliant turquoise pinpricks in the dark, mostly on the undersides of logs and on the root mats of fallen trees. It was very, very cool, except the rainforest was really scary. I realize I sound like a five-year-old, but no matter how old or brave you are, you cannot deny that those were big, scary trees. It’s almost an empirical observation. And the longer I went without feeling like I could adequately understand what was going on around me (because I couldn’t see it), the more I felt the pressure of being surrounded by huge, probably very old trees with correspondingly old spirits. How did I know they didn’t have it in for me?

And the stars! It’s funny, because I don’t spend a lot of time stargazing and I know hardly any constellations. I can’t find the North Star to save my life. Yet over the course of almost twenty-five years I have to have developed some kind of mental image of what the sky looks like, and that’s certainly enough time to have inadvertently memorized something. Because the Southern Hemisphere sky was violently disorienting, especially on a night like this with no moon. It looked strange. It was vaguely familiar (in that there were stars over my head in a black night sky), yet completely alien. And maybe that’s why I was so easily confused by the glowworms. After maybe half an hour of alternating squatting to peer at glowworms and craning my neck to look at the stars though the trees, I completely lost the distinction between them. “Oh, there’s one wayyy up high,” I’d say, thinking it was a glowworm in a tree, only to realize that it was a star peering through the branches. And I’d get confused, thinking that star was way too low considering where the horizon ought to be, until I realized it was a glowworm. And it was an eerie experience, to feel that I existed in a black globe pierced all over, above and below, with bright points of light. It was wonderful, but overwhelming, and when we got back to the hotel I found myself compelled to turn on all the lights and curl up in bed.

[back-posted]

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