So I didn’t get the job with the glacier guiding company at Franz, though the manager there very kindly sent out an email to a few affiliated tourism companies recommending me as an employee. I left the West Coast the next day, heading north to see what sort of work I might be able to find in a warmer and drier climate than Franz.
I spent the worst bus ride ever going up from Franz Josef to Nelson – I felt slightly carsick for most of the time, and the driver was on the microphone frequently to talk about food – mostly, the various food options at the huge number of lengthy rest breaks we made while driving up to Nelson. The scenery was nice, but I was in no condition for appreciating it – the road appeared mostly as a lot of two-lane switchbacks, with the lane so close to the side of the hill that all I could see from my vantage point was a blurred succession of ferns whipping past the window at various rollercoaster angles. I think it would have been a great road to drive on myself – scenic, and with very few other cars on the road – but it wasn’t a good pick for a bus. I’m going to try and not do such lengthy travel days in the future, if I can at all avoid it.
During one of the rest breaks, I fell in love with an Australian possum being kept at a roadside tourist attraction. The place was called the Bushman’s Center, and appeared to be a tiny bastion of Australia-ness nestled into New Zealand’s west coast. Out of the approximately forty people on buses who were at the Center, I was the only one who paid my four dollars to go in the back and see their animals – four possums, and some deer and goats. Three of the possums were soundly asleep in their little hidey holes – but the fourth was awake, and seemed very interested in what I was doing. These possums reminded me more of lemurs than of the possums we have back home. Their tails are furry, for one thing, and their eyes are really big and cute. Possum fur garments are a big seller in New Zealand – possums are an invasive species here, so they seem to be an animal that everyone loves to hate – and subsequently trap, skin, and make into souvenir kitsch gifts.
This particular possum seemed so tame that I did something I would never encourage anyone ever to do, and put my fingers up to the bars of his enclosure. He gave my fingers a perfunctory licking, and continued to stare at me with his big, soft possum eyes. Eventually I figured out why he was being so attentive: there was a bucket mounted on the opposite wall that read ‘Possum Food’. The food turned out to be a handful of stale Chex breakfast cereal. (I hope that whatever his owners feed him is healthier than that. At least give him some Wheaties, or whole-grain Cheerios…) I fed him a few Chex bits anyway, and he licked my fingers some more. I offered to take the possum away with me; I would get a job waiting tables in some seaside town and feed him all of the Chex breakfast cereal he could eat. The possum declined - he was a carnivorous invasive species, and I was a vegetarian bird-watcher. It would have been a torrid affair.
Later on, the bus stopped at Punakaiki, at a place called pancake rocks, which is a bunch of stacked limestone pilings, with an ocean blowhole, and a small (but vocal) colony of white-fronted terns. The ocean blowhole wasn’t blowing (it was past high tide, so the water wasn’t high enough) but the weather was beautiful (it was actually clear blue skies from Franz Josef all the way up the coast), and it was really nice to get out of the bus, see some birds, and take a little walk. Punakaiki looks like it could be a nice beach town – but I’m not sure that there is a town component to Punakaiki at all. At the place we stopped, there was a car park, two cafes, a gift shop, the pancake rocks, and an information center about the pancake rocks. I am hoping that somewhere around Punakaiki there is actually a town, but I’m not totally sure that there is.
Nelson was great, once I actually got there. The hostel I stayed at was called Accents on the Park, and it is, as Lonely Planet described, more like a hotel than a hostel. The bathroom was amazing – tile floors, really clean, really big, and there were shelves in the shower’s changing area. How civilized. I went to Nelson’s town museum – where I discovered that Nelson is the birthplace of Ernest Rutherford, the physicist. Also highlighted prominently was Nelson’s pivotal role as the site of New Zealand’s first rugby match, held in (I think) 1881. Had I been in Nelson a few weeks earlier, I could have watched a reenactment of the first New Zealand rugby match, which was held in honor of the World Cup. I also saw a replica of the first photograph taken of a New Zealand rugby team. If I didn’t know it before, I certainly know it now – this country is obsessed with rugby to a slightly alarming degree.
The second day in the town, I took a walk on the hills just outside, and ended up at the Geographic Centre of New Zealand. It was on the top of a grassy hill, and commemorated with a tall metal monument looking a bit like the arrow on a compass, or an oversized lightning rod. The view was striking – not so much that I could see the entire town, but that when I turned around, I was looking at forested hills, dirt roads, and sheep. For being the largest city in that region, Nelson is surprisingly self-contained. While I was enjoying the view, two girls came up, lugging video camera and a tripod, and started filming what seemed to be part of a school project on Nelson landmarks. Over the next ten minutes I learned that Nelson is not actually the Geographic Centre of New Zealand – it’s actually just the most centrally located province, and that someone actually went to the trouble of figuring this out as early as 1841.
A day later, I took the bus over to Picton (two hours, fewer curvy roads, and no discussions of food). I visited the town aquarium; my first impression was it looked like the place used to be a public swimming pool. The fixtures were old, but it seemed clean enough, and the resident fish looked as happy as fish ever do. I showed up in time for the 2pm feeding, which was actually more of a thirty minute animal encounter for the five or six people who were at the aquarium at the time. The keeper showed us a three-year-old tuatara – a dinosaur, basically, they aren’t closely related to any other kinds of living reptiles – fed a few of the fish tanks, and then brought out an eight-week-old little blue penguin. This fellow was an abandoned chick who came from the penguin colony across the bay. Apparently, penguin chicks here are sometimes abandoned by their parents before they’re quite old enough to look after themselves, and this happens often enough that the Picton Aquarium has taken it upon itself to run a sort of penguin halfway house. The staff take the penguins in, feed them for a few weeks, and then turn them back out into the bay when they’re ready to go. They’re planning to let this penguin go swimming for the first time tomorrow. They don’t have a dedicated pool for the penguins to swim in - apparently they just throw them in one of the larger fish tanks for a half an hour or so. (That ought to be really interesting to see for anyone who’s in the aquarium tomorrow.)
The next day I went out on the Queen Charlotte Track, and hiked the first twelve kilometers of the 71 kilometer walk. I went out on the Cougar Line water taxi, with a few other people from the hostel, a guided group who were doing the whole walk while staying in lodges, and a German couple, and a group of Kiwi ladies who were doing the walk and camping. I kept running into the German couple off and on throughout the walk; everyone else started out before me, as I lingered at Ship Cove to look at the Captain Cook monument and I hiked fifteen minutes up a side path to see a waterfall before starting out on the actual trail.
Ship Cove is where Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand during his first voyage, and he apparently liked the spot well enough that he kept coming back to the cove on and off during subsequent expeditions. Also on the beach was a very dead sea lion – reduced to a skull, ribcage and a mummified pelt. It looked tiny compared to the sea lions I’m used to seeing, but I think it was probably an adult. I’ve heard that the sea lions here (Hooker’s sea lions and New Zealand fur seals, which are technically sea lions, and not actually seals) are much smaller.
The trail started out with an uphill climb to the shoulder of the adjacent hill, where you could see down into Ship Cove on one side, and into Resolution Bay on the other side. I like hiking in the Marlborough Sounds because the landscape is hilly, but not as steep as the fjords in Alaska. That means, the hills are easy to hike up, and because they’re a lot smaller, you reach the top a lot quicker. All in all, the Marlborough Sounds is like a kinder, gentler version of Kenai Fjords National Park. Part of this has to do with the geology – fjords are carved by glaciers, and tend to be huge valleys with very flat floors, and very tall, steep sides – kind of like Yosemite valley, except with half of it being underwater. Sounds, on the other hand, are river valleys that were formed when the sea level was lower, and then were flooded by the incoming ocean, so the sides aren’t nearly as steep.
There is enough of an elevation difference between sea level and the tops of the hills that you can find different plants growing depending on where on the hill you were. At least, this is what the informative signs said heading up the hill from Ship Cove, though I didn’t notice much of a difference until I was able to see one of the hills from a distance – some of the more eye-catching species of tree ferns never seemed to be growing more than three hundred feet up from the water. I suppose that the tops of the hills are too cool or exposed to allow them to grow in the higher areas. I was initially impressed that there were both interpretive trail signs, and kilometer posts – but once I got to the top of the first hill, both forms of signage disappeared, and the kilometer posts didn’t pick up again until I was nearly at the pickup place four hours later. Maybe the DOC figured that hikers would be more likely to stop and read a sign if the sign was located partway along a steep uphill climb. The signs had some interesting information on the native uses of some of the plants in the area, but since I had no idea what any of these plants actually were, the information was only moderately interesting.
Two fellow hikers complained to me about the weather – which really irritated me because it wasn’t actually raining. In fact, it stayed overcast but dry for the whole day. After living in a temperate rainforest for as long as I have, I don’t have much patience for people who complain about the weather when the weather isn’t actually bad to begin with. It is OK to complain about bad weather; it is not OK to complain about weather that isn’t perfect. Perfect weather is what happens in tourist brochures; it is not all that often that a traveller experiences such weather in real life.
In addition to great scenery, and interesting plants, there were a good number of birds around. I saw a few tui, which are jay-sized birds with a little pouch on their chest made of fluffy white feathers. There were some terns, gannets and shearwaters that I saw from the boats, and a few kinds of cormorants as well. The woods were also crawling with wekas. A weka is a native, flightless bird about the size of a chicken, all brown, with reddish legs and bills. They are tame to the point of being a little scary, as though they wouldn’t think twice about snatching your sandwich out of your hands, or ripping your backpack apart to get at the chocolate bar inside. A few of the wekas had obviously staked out some of the more popular lunch spots. At one such stop, a weka would run out of the woods every time a new hiker arrived, and spend a few minutes casing out the new arrival, and assessing the potential for food scraps. Once the weka was fed (or not), he would disappearing back into the woods, only to reappear whenever a new hiker showed up. I did what I would never recommend anyone ever do, and fed the bird a bit of my tortilla crust. If I’d had food with me that I was sure wouldn’t make the weka sick, I probably would have fed him more. (The wekas choosing to employ more traditional food-gathering techniques were pulling insects out of the ground, and from under decaying branches and tree stumps. If they eat insects, I’m guessing the wekas would take to sandwich meat pretty readily. Unfortunately for them, I’m a vegetarian.)
The end of the hike (for me at least) was in Endeavor Inlet (all of these coves are named for Captain Cook’s various ships, by the way) at Furneaux Lodge, one of a cluster of private houses and lodges in the bay. There’s no actual road there; all of the properties are accessed by water, or by the Queen Charlotte track itself, and for about two hundred yards the trail ran basically right through the front gardens of a lot of these properties, between the houses and the docks or beaches below. That part of the trail was actually lovely; all of the gardens, and the docks and houses themselves were a nice change of pace from walking through the forest. About forty-five minutes after I got to the lodge, the water taxi picked me up and took me back to Picton. That night, I got chatting with a New Zealand country music songwriter who was also staying at my hostel, and have an invitation down to Christchurch to play violin with her band for a benefit gig later this month. (Not sure if I’ll be able to go down there or not; it depends on whether I’m working or not…) All in all, it was a really lovely day.