Having traveled to Norway a couple of times and seen its abundant natural splendor, I was certain New Zealand would be my kind of destination. Yet, somehow, a trip there eluded itself all these years, perhaps because deep down I have known it would be special, to be saved for the right moment.
That moment came in February, 2017 when Allison and I realized the dream and in the process upgraded our relationship status.
Kiwis apparently have a firm stance against not only foreign fruit and nut invasions but also potential pests from the great outdoors of other continents. With plans to backpack a few nights so as to immerse ourselves in the scenery, we brought along some gear. Our tent, sleeping bags, and hiking shoes had to be thoroughly inspected for stowaways. Warnings about the dire consequences of not declaring these potential biohazards were posted throughout the customs area. Sure, it held us up, but on the upside, Allison's hiking boots came out looking brand new.
After a brief nap, we took off exploring Auckland. Over a million people live in Auckland, but it is not a dense city. It is laid out well, has good public transportation and is bespeckled with public parks, such as Albert Park, pictured above. Here, and elsewhere in the country, the trees look like greatly scaled-up versions of bonsai.
To save money, we had made our car reservation with a no-name company for the next day. As we looked over our booking confirmation in the morning, we realized we had made a poor decision — the company had many bad customer reviews, and it sounded like the pick-up process was an ordeal for others. Being a runner in need of exercise, I ran to the airport from our Airbnb and managed to score the last available car from Thrifty, with all other rental companies being fully booked.
Crisis averted, wheels in order, and gear packed, we drove down to Addington Coffee Co-op, a coffee shop serving delicious flat whites and outstanding avocado toasts. Bellies full, the next stop was the mountains.
A longer hike to Hooker Lake would have gotten us an even closer look, but sadly time was not on our side. With stores and restaurants closing early (think 9pm), when it is not even dark yet in the summer, and over two hours' drive remaining to reach our Airbnb, the long shadows were a warning sign of impending hunger.
Nights on the farm were serene. And with zero light pollution, we experienced some of the best views of the Milky Way we have seen. Whenever I have photographed the galactic strip in the past, the long exposures have invariably also captured a light streak or two from passing planes. Being so isolated, New Zealand's skies are pure.
Our hosts, Sharon and Peter, welcomed us with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, freshly picked strawberries, a personalized note, and enough breakfast stock for a week. The eggs? The hens laid them that day. They even encouraged us to pick whatever fruit we liked from their extensive orchard.
Many Central Otago vineyards are a short drive away, and the region is the biggest grower of Pinot Noir grapes in the country. Allison and I dedicated a whole day to exploring the wine produced here.
Being intelligent and highly curious, the keas seek out hikers' trail mix and whatever snacks they can find. One of them nonchalantly pecked at my backpack, trying to open it, and this brazen act allowed me to capture a pretty decent close-up image.
One of the other popular attractions on the South Island is Rob Roy Glacier. In the winter, much of the hiking trails are closed due to avalanche risks, but in the summer, the only danger is to one's vehicle when crossing the many fords on the way to the trail head, especially if said vehicle is classified as a compact.
To reach the Rob Roy trail head one must travel for about 30km on a dirt road that bisects farmland along the Matukituki Valley and hugs the glacial rapids to the north. As we approached the first ford crossing, about 20km in, I started to have doubts that our little car would be able to get us all the way there. With careful maneuvering we got across safely. And then another ford appeared. And another. The closer we got, the more fords there were and the dicier they became. With just a couple of miles left to go, we decided not to push our luck further and parked behind the most hair-raising of fords.
Our next stop on the South Island tour is one of New Zealand's most famous spots: Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park. Although not far from Rob Roy, Queenstown, or Cromwell as the crow flies, there is no road that cuts across the mountain range separating them. To reach Milford Sound, once must travel pretty far south to Mossburn, slingshot around to Te Anau (Fjordland National Park's activity launching pad), and drive another two hours on a road with absolutely no service stations. Given its isolation, we decided to camp nearby to amortize the driving time.
We decided to pitch a tent at a small campsite in the valley just south of Milford. With mountains on either side, the site was sheltered and calm save for the ever bothersome sand flies. The western coast of the South Island is infamous for its blistering population of these terrible insects. The tent and car were sanctuaries, but one has to be covered from head to toe when out in the open or risk falling prey to the bloodsucking demons.
The flies part of their name makes them sound innocuous. They are anything but. The moment one lands on skin, blood starts flowing. The impending itch lags by a few minutes. And it does not go away. For weeks after returning home, the sand fly souvenirs itched uncontrollably.
Settling in for the night, scratching the bites intermittently, we left the rainfly off the tent, the Milky Way clearly visible through the meshing. It was neat to see the Southern Cross rotate as the night progressed.
A popular backpacking route here, or tramping in Kiwi speak, is the Milford Track, a 53km long trail. Most backpackers take several days to complete it, but I would love to return and run it in a single day, thereby avoiding the sand fly army.
At the waterfall, we encountered a couple of young ladies trying to pose for the perfect selfie. Having brought my tripod for photographing the falls, I offered to take their picture with my DSLR, which would more artistically capture the motion of the water. This inconsequential gesture was much appreciated and got us chatting.
Alissa and Alina, childhood friends from Australia, were enjoying a few weeks together in New Zealand to celebrate the end of Alissa's year-long tour of America. Allison and I were astonished that Alissa had managed to visit every single U.S. state while abroad, a feat not even the vast majority of patriotic Americans have managed. So few people have the courage to leave their creature comforts and monthly salaries for such an adventure. We said goodbye and were left inspired.
If I was going to get this sunset proposal idea right, I would really have to make sure we have dinner secured ahead of time. The next morning, while exploring the town, we stopped at a grocery store and stocked our Airbnb's pantry for dinner. And naturally, a bottle of bubbly was set to chill for later.
I suggested we both stand in front of the camera. By now the trail was deserted giving us total privacy. I rigged the camera to take a continuous stream of photos every second, and we smiled.
By the time we got back to the car, it was completely dark. Dinner would take a good long while to come together, but we weren't going to bed hungry that night. We were content.
We decided to spend our first day as an engaged couple in as carefree a way as possible. That meant sleeping in, brunch, long strolls on the beach, a dip for Allison in Dunedin's spectacular salt water pool, and a run around town for me. We knew life would be better together.
Naturally, we ignored this misdirected greeting. We don't know anyone in New Zealand. The handwaver was persistent, however. I was forced to turn my attention away from the beer menu. Vague recognition followed. “It's Alissa!”
This surprise rendezvous made us feel like old friends. The odds of running into each other, days later in a small village hundreds of miles away from where we initially met were astronomical. The four of us saw this as a great sign. Alissa and Alina had the rare honor of being the first people we told about our engagement. They were thrilled for us, and over the next few happy hours, several beers, and pizza, we recounted our respective adventures.
It is worth mentioning that Kiwi brews, particularly stouts and porters, are quite excellent. Unlike their cousins in San Diego, the beers are low-alcohol and delicious. I would later learn that alcohol is taxed heavily, so to keep beers affordable, brewers try to keep the alcohol level low.
Even so, beers are not cheap. Yet, Kiwis like beer. A lot. This combination has created a market for home brewing kits and has undoubtedly spurred the craft brew scene, thereby making beers even better.
They say Americans have a peculiar way of quoting distances in units of time, but Kiwis seem even worse when it comes to walking (hiking) informational signs. Every one of them is in units of time rather than the more useful distance and elevation gain.
That evening, our Airbnb host in Christchurch recommended we dine at a restaurant known as the Clink. The food was probably the best we had tasted during our entire visit. The restaurant also has rich history. The building was originally constructed to incarcerate the mutineers of a British ship carrying early settlers from the late 18th century, hence the name.
As we savored the delicious dinner, we reflected on some other differences between here and home. For instance, utensils are known in Kiwi land as cutlery. And bills are never settled at one's table — one pays at the bar.
On our Air New Zealand flight back to California, we experienced the airline's overblown economy class feature for couples known as the “cuddle couch.” If a couple occupies only two of three adjacent seats, the calf portion of the seat can be pulled and locked up in the horizontal position, turning the three seats into a makeshift bed. While the marketing shows a smiling couple bundled together, the experience is anything but rosy. Unless you are shorter than five feet, it is going to be uncomfortable.
It was bittersweet landing in California. Yes, we were glad to get off the cuddle couch, but nostalgia for New Zealand was setting in quickly.