In 2005 I saw the approach of my 40th year here on this crazy earth and had always envisioned me spending this particularly momentuous birthday walking. I've always worked really hard, if not on art and business, I'm playing music or building on the house or whatever. So, I wanted to make sure I slowed down to honor the event.
Being a December baby, it quickly occurred to me that if I wanted to go for a hike it would be winter. At first, I considered taking the hike in the summer in honor of the day, but then I was talking to a client who'd just returned from a year off, touring the world. He convinced me to look into New Zealand, which being in the southern hemisphere, would be smack in the center of summertime in December.
The more I looked into New Zealand, the more excited I got. We booked the tickets and planned the trip. NZ is tailor made for road tours. Hotel rooms there all have mini kitchens and bbq grills, so it's easy to cook at home. The roads are all in great condition and drivers there seem to all drive at exactly the speed limit - not over and not under. I later found out this is because the entire country's roads are rigged with cameras which promptly send you a ticket in the mail for any infractions.
Anyway, this is the sketchbook I kept while there. Marcela's recent post about her trip there, in combination with the terrible news yesterday about the earthquake in Christchurch, prompted me to post this. Aotearoa is the Maori name for their land, and yes I misspelled it on the cover of the sketchbook (above).
We started our trip on the North Island, up in Hawkes Bay. Wine Country - absolutely gorgeous territory. After a really, really long flight first into Auckland and then to Napier via a small plane, we climbed into our rental car - which not only had the steering wheel on the wrong side (and stick shift mirroring a normal one), but we had to drive in a sleepless stupor on the wrong side of the road. All that was quickly forgotten in the sheer majestic beauty of this country.
Although people make cracks about NZ food being some grim mutton-and-potatoes sort of thing, it's everything but. It's actually a foodie paradise - an intriguing mixture of British, Polynesian and Asian cuisines. Every grocery store, even the mundane warehouse ones, only carry organic produce, locally caught fish and free-range meats, at normal prices. The wines of course are legendary as well. This area had a lot of magic to it - it seemed as if the vibrant fauna could come alive and talk to you at any moment.
New Zealand's indigenous beasts tend to mostly be birds. However, one creature there that has a bit of notoriety is the Tuatara, known as the "living fossil" because of it's odd connections with fish and snakes. These lizards also have a third eye in their forehead. We saw this guy in Napier's Aquarium, where he made for the perfect model as he moved so little he appeared to be stuffed. As we were about to embark on a longish road trip, we were a bit preoccupied with the weather status, hence the newspaper glued into the book. Yes, rain was forecast...
Also in the Aquarium, there was a dark room that had a glassed off wall inside of which we were able to see the island's namesake mascot, real live Kiwis. Magnificent little creatures, they looked like they just walked out of the looking glass, shuffling about pecking at the ground and spitting rejected bits.
We drove down the east coast to the southern tip of the North Island into the beautiful city of Wellington. I could live here, such a great city. We stayed near Cuba street, which is sort of a hip and happening hub. We'd eat breakfast in this great old cafe, the Hallenstein Brothers. NZ has the cafe scene down as well - gorgeous baked goods that were more often savory than sweet, as well as phenomenal coffees.
It happened to be graduation time when we were there, which they called Capping Day. All through the streets you'd see kids walking around in packs wearing their gowns, followed by their families.
After Wellington, we took the ferry across to the top of the South Island. Driving south, we came into the second and more famous big wine region of Marlborough. Naturally, we stayed here for a couple of nights to sample the goods. Marlborough reminded us a lot of our own Napa Valley, although it was even more rural. We stayed at a lovely little b&b that apparently Bill Clinton stayed at some point. Sheep, everywhere.
Onward, down the east coast of the South Island, the road got thinner and the scenery stunning. We stopped in the gorgeous seaside town of Kaikura, where we took a boat out into the rough seas and swam with the dolphins. They dropped us off of the back of the boat about a mile offshore and told us to sing. I decided to sing a song from a band I played drums with, Warm Wires, called"The Dolphins", about some dolphins in a bay in Ireland that would only appear for a certain gay guy that my friend who wrote it knew. Anyway, I sang the song underwater and all of the sudden out of nowhere these dolphins were all around us, flying past. It was crazy and amazing.
We finally arrived in Christchurch. This was the first place we saw in this great country that exhibited signs of urban sprawl on the outskirts, but as we got to city center it appeared as a beautiful, well maintained city with low buildings and flat land. Christchurch has a gorgeous central garden park, as well as a wonderful central square where merchants and food vendors sell their wears.
It was extremely sad to hear that Christchurch got so walloped by the earthquake yesterday. I believe this church that I drew here was one of the many buildings that collapsed. I don't know what to say about the quake there other than my heart goes out to this great city and the fine folks who are there.
Christchurch is a big college town, with the University of Oxford smack in the center. This is where Lord Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom, and his visage graces the $100 NZ bill.
After a few days here, we headed up to the interior of the country and up into the New Zealand alps - which are stunning. Apparently a lot of car ads are filmed here because of it's majesty.
We came into Queenstown, which is yet another absolutely stunning place right on the huge Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown is a staging place for many of the South Island's hikes (known there as "tramps"), and as my b-day was approaching, it was to be our stop for a while to prep for the hike. Cynthia had told the hotel people that we were there for my big 4-0, so we got a killer corner room looking out over the lake. I drew this out the window.
I can't remember why I drew this, other than there was a lot of local Queenstown hullaballoo about it being the place where bungy jumping was invented. It made sense.
At last, we set out on the hike. A four day "tramp", along the famed Routeburn trail, which is limited each season in number of hikers allowed so as not to overwhelm the path. The entire hike was done in a fine rain, and was absolutely magically magnificent. One of the great things about tramps here are that the country builds "huts" at sleeping spots along the trail, multi-bunked cabins which have basic gas cooktops and coal stoves, so you can pack less gear and look forward to communal camp spots where you get to know your trail mates. The first night in, I got to know a friendly old chap who's brother happened to be the original drummer for T-Rex. Night two was at Mackenzie Hut, and because we arrived there in the afternoon, after firing up the coal stove I made a point to sit on the deck and attempt to draw the stupendously gorgeous scene around me.
The day after Mackenzie, we traversed the mountain pass. It was also my very last day of being in my 30s. It was a big day for me, but in a quiet way. It could not have been a more beautiful place to have been for this day for me, so I felt quite blessed. That evening we made it to the Falls hut, the area around which much of the Lord of the Rings films were made. It did indeed feel like middle earth. I drew this sitting out on the deck in the rain, waiting for our dehydrated food to boil up.
After the hike, we spent a few more days in Queenstown and then hopped a plane back up to the tip of the North Island to get some city time in NZ's superstar city, Auckland. It was a grey day, Christmas morning. This was the view out of our hotel window..downtown Auckland.
Post holidays, like any Brit influenced country, NZ celebrates Boxing Day.
We made a satellite trip for a few days down to the west coast and the city of Raglan. I knew about Raglan from the classic surf film "Endless Summer", so I couldn't miss an opportunity to surf there. We stayed at a surf commune place high on the hills overlooking the glorious ocean and million dollar views. I attempted to draw the ocean with my crappy set of watercolors.
This is the only photo I'll post in this article, and it's mainly to show how amazing the surf was when we were there. This is Raglan at it's best, I have no idea how we had the fortune to be here for it. I will say that I rented a board and paddled out into this and it was really tough - extremely hard cross current and powerful waves. I'll also say that these surfers, mostly Australians and Kiwis, were far more courteous and skilled than many places in the US. The thing about the water here too is that it is clear and warm, and curiously lacking in dangerous beasts such as exist in Australian coast and the US and many other spots. In short, a perfect surfing spot.
From Raglan we headed inland, taking time to experience the "glow worms" of Waitomo. A tourist trap that wasn't much of a trap really, the crowds gather onto boats and go into underground caverns to witness yet another strange wildlife of NZ, the glowworm, which cling onto the roves of caves and glow for their mates.
The last place we spent time in was Rotorua, which is the heartland of the North Island. The area gets a hard time for its eggy smell, due to hot springs, but it is a wonderful area. There is a great Maori museum here which also has an area where you can watch Maori artisans making traditional totems.
Anyway, I can't write anymore, although there is much more to say. If you haven't been, go. NZ is crazy amazing.
And again, here's sending strength to the people of Christchurch.