Sunday, February 19, 2012

Visiting Wanaka, i.e. Civilization

            Last week I took another trip outside Haast, courtesy two-and-a-half days off from my job at Lost Lodge.   Since the weather forecast for those two days looked to be pretty wet, I decided to drive over to Wanaka, on the other, drier side of the Southern Alps in search of better weather.   It was the first time I’d been off the West Coast in over two months, and getting to visit a real town, especially one as pretty as Wanaka, felt great.   It’s nice to occasionally experience the perks of civilization, like cell phones, bookstores, espresso coffee, movie theatres, and organic vegetables.   

             I spent most of my time in Wanaka hanging out with Janina, a Czech girl who’s recently finished three-month stint working for the Fantail Café in Haast.   We ended up staying in the same hostel, the YHA Purple Cow.   We went on a hike up Mount Iron, a small outcrop just outside of town.   The walk up there was pretty steep; despite this, joggers were regularly passing us up and down the hill.   From the top, we could see most of Lake Wanaka, part of nearby Lake Hawea, and a whole collection of mountains ringing them in.   The landscape looked remarkably dried than Haast, despite being less than sixty miles away.   Most of the yards were brown with dead grass, with here and there a pocket of green indicating where some industrious homeowner regularly waters his lawn.   

Looking over Lake Wanaka from the top of Mount Iron.

            Back at the hostel, we met Liezy, a journalist who is writing a newspaper column about her time in New Zealand for a paper in her home country of Belgium.   She just got finished working for a resort in Tasmania, and is now touring New Zealand for a couple of months.   She shared an interesting story about a German hitchhiker whom she took to Wanaka, who is trying to travel around New Zealand for seven months, and attempting to rely as much as possible, on the kindness of strangers for food, transport, and places to sleep.  Apparently, he’s been making it work for over a month, but the extra responsibility this put on Liezy to help this guy find food and a bed for the night was obviously a little more than Liezy wanted to deal with.   She was trying to find a way to politely un-invite him from sharing her rental car.

            The Purple Cow was full both nights I was in Wanaka, partially because several group tours were staying – I could see the buses and luggage trailers parked further down the street.   Accordingly, most of the dinner conversation at the hostel concerned which bars looked to have the best atmosphere, or the cheapest drinks – and most of the breakfast conversation consisted of recounting everybody’s drunken exploits from the night before.    There was also some 2AM drama involving an obviously distraught and possibly inebriated French-speaking girl being loudly upset in the hallway.   I debated getting out of bed to make sure that no one was sick, injured, or dying, but there was someone out there talking to her (also in French) who seemed to be trying to calm her down.   Since I didn’t understand the language, let alone the situation, I just tried to go back to sleep.   

            The next morning ended up giving some ibuprofen and an ace bandage to a girl who woke up with a large bruise on her ribs, and very vague memories of how it had gotten there.    Events like this help me justify carrying around my ridiculously large first aid kit; I tend to give a lot of the contents away to fellow travellers.

            My first evening in Wanaka, I took a rolling lesson from one of the guides at Alpine Kayaks.   After two hours in the pool, I still cannot roll a kayak, but I am now failing to roll a kayak with much more confidence and skill.    I was glad to have gotten some time in a boat, as in three months I will be back in Alaska, and jumping right into kayak training for the Iceberg Lodge’s upcoming season.   This coming summer, as a returning staff member, I’ve been given slightly more responsibility for helping to teach other lodge staff who are interested in using the boats.   Also, my company is paying for some of the guide staff to take a kayaking accreditation course, so I’m trying to put in as much effort as I can into being ready to jump right in the (ice-covered, snow-fed, possibly still frozen) lake and get as much out of the training as I can.   

            In addition to two hours of intermittently hanging upside down under a boat, I also got to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie.   Well, it’s not new; it’s the one the rest of the English-speaking world got to see four months ago.   I don’t get out much.   The Cinema Paradiso is a Wanaka icon - a one-screen café/moviehouse, whose seating is mostly made up of really comfortable couches.   You also have the option of viewing the movie from inside a full-size model car, which is parked on house left.   I wasn’t in early enough to score a seat in the car, but I got a loveseat nearby, and watched the car occupants enthusiastically rolling the windows up and down.   Nice to know that adults can get just as excited as toddlers about model cars, given the right ambience, and the right amount of beer.   The theatre was packed, and the energy level of the crowd – all backpackers, mostly international – reminded me of a the house at a live theatre performance.  Everyone was chatting with each other, and it felt like everybody was psyched to be there.   Then the lights dimmed - and the Hobbit trailer came on, eliciting hamster-like squeals of joy from most of the audience.    (The ones who weren’t squealing were trying to shush us so they could actually hear the dwarves’ singing…)   Also, one guy in the back - who is apparently both well-travelled, and obsessed with the films - was yelling out the locations of all of the outdoor shots.  

            The venerable Nissan survived the trip to Wanaka and back, but I’ve come to accept that travelling in this car takes a degree of Zen-like acceptance that starting a trip in the Nissan does not necessarily mean that you will finish the trip in the Nissan.   Possibly, you will end up by taking the bus.   Or hitchhiking.   Or asking the nice tattooed man from the motorcycle club to come and take a look at your radiator hose.   

            The Nissan is accumulating operational quirks at a rate of about two per trip.   Fortunately, I don’t drive it more than maybe once a week (the other girls hardly drive it at all).   The door ajar light turn on and off when you go over bumps.   The key can refuse to turn in the ignition (a problem which is apparently related to a malfunctioning anti-theft system); this can be alleviated by wiggling the steering wheel slightly while turning the key.   Also, the engine takes about five minutes of idling before it will run reliably –though this can be shortened to three minutes through judicious use of the choke.   However, if you shorten the interval by too much, the engine is liable to die if one accelerates past 20kph.   The first time this happened in Wanaka it was terrifying, as in Wanaka the main roads actually have traffic.   This is not usually a concern in Haast.

            Worryingly, the Nissan just successfully passed its Warrant of Fitness, meaning that the New Zealand government believes that the car is safe to operate, at least until August.   The shop who did the inspection also reattached the choke knob - which fell off in the parking lot of Okorito Nature Tours three weeks ago.   The knob is fixed, but now the choke indicator light still stays on all the time.   (As opposed to the door ajar light, which blinks on and off at random intervals.)   Turning the choke on and off is now a matter of paying attention to the subtle changes in engine noise and RPMs.   When parked, the car has a tendency to spew antifreeze out of the radiator overflow valve, in sufficient quantities as to attract the attention of well-meaning bystanders.   The motorcycle guy thought that either the shop had overfilled the tank, or that the radiator cap is so corroded that it isn’t able to keep the fluid at the right pressure.   

            Driving back to Haast, I stopped halfway over the Haast pass to hike up to a scenic overlook above treeline.   The hike was steep, if short, and the view was nice, looking along the length of the high-mountain pass that the highway runs along.   I could even see the faint indication of snow patches on one of the higher summits.   

            Back in the carpark, the Nissan refused to start the first several times I turned the key.   Eventually, I got the engine going, but after that, I was highly disinclined to turn the engine off, for fear that there would be more drama involved in getting it started again.   I did stop in a few places along the road to get pictures of the Gates of Haast bridge, but I kept the car running the whole time.  The Gates of Haast is basically a wide avalanche chute that has been widened enough to accommodate a two-lane road.   The Maori name for the Haast pass is Tioripatea, which translates in English to ‘the way ahead is clear’.   This, apparently, is what the Maori trampers would call down from the pass if the weather was amenable for crossing.   (On low-visibility days, I’m guessing they’d be shouting ‘the way ahead sucks’.)   Considering that the area is prone to landslides, avalanches, and flooded streams, being able to drive straight from Wanaka to Haast is not always a foregone conclusion, especially in winter.   There are signs all over the place warning of rockfalls, and in winter, or after heavy rain, snow and landslides can still occasionally close off the road.   I have never before driven a road where I have been tempted to get headcam footage of the road itself (not the scenery, mind you, just the road).   Here in New Zealand there are several candidates for good GoPro videography – the Gates of Haast, the 90 degree curve between Fox and Franz glaciers, and Arthur’s Pass further north in the Alps, where a hundred meter waterfall is diverted over the road.   Yep, a waterfall.   Over the road.   The South Island’s roads, particularly the passes through the Alps, feel like a Top Gear episode waiting to happen.
With the Nissan at the side of the road...

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