Let’s get outside!
We left the US in early spring while still in its brown and white slumber. So we were eager to start hiking and exploring our new and lush surroundings. It was the beginning of winter in New Zealand (being in the Southern Hemisphere and all), which I quickly learned is actually the green season. The rains and cooler temperatures bring everything to its fullest, richest, greenest potential. When summer comes around it all goes crispy and dries up. The Wither Hills to the south of town then glow yellow in the summer sunset, their own shadows starkly contrasted. And a barefoot stroll across the spiky summer grass is no longer a picnic.
For our first trek we found an easy, flat cruise through the Wairau Lagoons. Most of the track was on a well-constructed, elevated wooden path. Mason was curious enough to keep his little legs going for the entire three hour jaunt, with a few rest stops on Daddy’s shoulders. We were rewarded at the end of the plank by a rusted hull of an old ship which was originally towed from Wellington to the mouth of the Wairau River to be sunk to form a breakwater. It was quickly swept up the channel in a flood to where it now rests, surrounded by so many snails and crabs.
What struck me on that walk and all walks thereafter was the solitude. Where are all the people? We never saw them. One busy holiday weekend we went to Nelson Lakes National Park and hiked halfway around Lake Rotoiti with plans to stay in the Department of Conservation (DOC) hut at the lake head. With bunks enough for 28, it was filled only with echoes as we arrived. Mason climbed every ladder and thundered over every bunk. Then…what’s this? People? Another couple arrived just in time to kill our slumber party. We spent the remainder of the night chatting quietly and reminding Mason that not everyone loves elephant stomps and pretend sword battles.
Sawcut Gorge, a riverbed hike that ends in a sharp, narrow gorge was next up on the agenda. We departed the main road and wound around curvy farm roads raised up just enough from the beautiful valley below. Like so many great New Zealand hikes, the end of the road dumped us at a beautiful white farm house with elaborate (but natural) gardens. We helped ourselves to their gates, signed the register and headed up river. Again, Mason surprised us with a Herculean hiking effort crossing the river multiple times, stepping on thousands of stones, up on the banks at times, and rewarded at the end by sharp, steep walls on either side with the river tranquilly passing through. We saw one other family. In six hours.
Sawcut Gorge stayed true to its advertised conditions of wet feet and no toilets, and I thought that was going to be a New Zealand norm. Was I ever wrong. This country has, hands down, the best public restroom system I have ever seen. On the trails, in the back country, in town, on the road. You name it, you’ll find a toilet.
After about six hours of hiking, I was getting hangry! We found the DOC estimated hike time of three hours to be grossly underestimated. At the gorge end we all shared the single Cookie Time cookie we had brought. Not my finest parenting moment (cue headlines of my family trapped in the wilderness eating our lip balm and shoe leather). We dragged our hungry bods all they way back along the river and up the hill to the farm and were greeted by six curious llamas. Just standin’ in the path, starin’ at us. Hunger mirage? Nope, just another day on the farm.
I suppose I could have sustained myself with some sweet insect anal juice as I had done on a previous hike. Honest mistake. I get a bit too eager on hikes to suck in (literally this time) the flora and fauna as fast as Mother Nature can churn it out. Mason has taken to rolling his eyes and ignoring my solicitations to come take a look at some leaf or another. On this particular day, I remember we had started to notice little dew droplets on the blackened bark of the beech trees. Tony had a vague memory from his youth about birds drinking this dew. The air surrounding the trees smelled sweet like honey; Manuka honey sprung to mind (a New Zealand specialty). With such reputable references, I thought I should give it a go and tasted several of the sticky, sweet droplets. Definitely palatable. Well, they come from the business end of a scale insect’s anal tube. The scale insect has no wings or legs, only mouth parts through which he sucks out the phloem of the tree (I can’t make this up!) and sells it to me dirt cheap when my guard is down.
And I was worried about my feet getting wet.
Kiwi Glossary: Pear-shaped. When a situation goes awry. Our hike started out lovely, but everything went pear-shaped when we ran out of food, got our feet drenched, lost our car, and got chased by a gang of llamas.