Beach Clichés

The feeling of sand between my toes. The sound of surf washing through my head. The taste of salt on my lips. This is what we were here for. Cliché but we didn’t care. It all seemed so right. It was Spring Break after all…

Slower start. The sun was lazy, hiding beneath the cloud cover for most of the day. But as it was our last day in PR, the beach called.

An Uber to Ocean Park at noon, passing for sale signs, gated neighborhoods, graffiti, public murals, adult entertainment ads, huge hotels, and glittering billboards.

Ocean Park Beach: a surf beach with soft sands, seaweed lines, and massive waves. The wind was strong and the sky was heavy and beclouded. Only a few tourists, desperate for a tan, were there. We didn’t stay long.

Lunch at a highly recommended (by tourists and locals) seafood chain of sit down restaurants. As the bartender from the other day put it: They’ve been around for 10 years and they’ve opened up 10 locations; while everything else is going to shit, they’ve been booming. So that tells you something.

Alexa got mahi-mahi and Nathaniel and I filled ourselves with the Puerto Rican version of paella and fried plantains. We all acknowledged that we were going to miss Puerto Rican food.

The wind had died and the weather had warmed (yet the sun still refused to show its face), so we decided to try our luck again with another beach. La Isla Verde Beach also came recommended. Surrounded by hotels and condos, the area had been another option when we were looking for places to stay. So it wasn’t surprising to see so many people, who despite the lack of sun, were lounging and drinking in the sand.

We set up camp between a gaggle of spring breakers who thought Nathaniel looked like Donald Glover (they were not the first, people tell him that all the time, so much so that we’ve recently nicknamed him “Tallish Gambino”) and a group of roaring drunk black girls who ended the afternoon dry humping each other and flashing their boobs…yup.

Body surfing, sand man making, existential walk taking, and coconut drinking followed. Check. Check. Check. All we could’ve wanted from the beach. We stayed until the area began to clear and the sun began to set, eventually leaving sand-covered and happy.

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The Bricks of Puerto Rican History

The Puerto Rican capital was in our sights before the clock struck 9am. A mix of Spanish and Greco-Roman styles and built out of swirling white granite, the capital stood out amongst the colorful Mediterranean buildings at the edge of Old San Juan. A dozen bronze US Presidents (including Obama) guarded the street across from the front entrance, each one honored for paying their respects to the territory (even if it was just a simple state visit). We found American and a few Asian tourists clustered around them, pictures and delighted laughs abound.

We snuck in with that tour group, passing through security and entering the main rotunda just before masses of Puerto Rican school children streamed in. We gazed up at the mosaicked ceiling with them, everyone ooing and aweing over the intricate depiction of Chris Columbus (the European “discoverer” of the island), other famous people in Puerto Rican history, and personified images of ideals and governmental duties. It was really quite stunning.

As the students chatter quickly created a cacophony within the space, we left the rotunda behind and began to wander around: dull painted faces of Puerto Rican politicians, wood-lined hallways, closed offices, and busy secretaries. It didn’t take us long to see all that we were allowed to see.

To continue our history tour: Castillo de San Cristobal and Castillo de San Felipe Del Morro, the two forts that once guarded the island and the city from attack. It was in El Morro that a former Floridian history teacher turned park ranger gave us a brief history lesson about the forts and Puerto Rico itself. It began with the Columbus and the Spanish Empire. (He argued that Puerto Rico was the key to the success and might of the Spanish in the New World.) The English attacked the island twice. The Dutch once (burning San Juan to the ground). The Americans popped up a couple of times, once during the revolution when they sought help and safe harbor from the British and then again over a 100 years later during the Spanish-American War in which America gained Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and other islands as territories. And through everything, the forts were at the center of it all. The last time they were used as military bases was during the World Wars, particularly the second.

Images and impressions of the two forts easily blended together in my mind…A maze of plastered walls, limestone brick, and concrete sentries. Views of the flat rooftops of Old San Juan. Echoes of the crashing waves in empty white rooms. Shadowy tunnels designed to blow up. Gaggles of cruise ship passengers smelling of sunscreen. American WWII concrete look-outs, black amongst the red of the chipping Spanish brick and plaster.

At each fort, we wandered from level to level, often finding ourselves along on the terraces and outlooks as sun showers appeared and the wind pushed the waves against the rocks at the base of the stone fortress. I often found myself wondering what life was like on the bases and I wasn’t alone…

“Aim and fire!” Alexa proclaimed at every cannon.

Yup, probably very different from now.

Locals on the Beach

The sun filtered between the palm trees as the sand sifted between my toes. The chattering of tourists blended with the constant crashing of the surf as the occasional bell of the ice cream vender and the coo of the pigeons interrupted the lethargy.

“Are we human?” wondered Nathaniel as we all laid on our backs, looking up at the unripe coconuts bundled underneath the palm trees’ leaves.

“Debatable,” answered Alexa, beer in hand.

 

The sun streaming through the unclosed curtains in our condo in Old San Juan, PR woke us up at 7:30am. Begrudgingly we got out of bed and ate our breakfast (bakery bread and ripe pineapple both bought the day before). The weather forcast: mixed but hopeful.

“To the beach!” exclaimed Alexa.

We were out by 9am. A stop for the customary Puerto Rican cheap beer, Medalia, and we were off to the beach. While walking along a newly built boardwalk, we past an abandoned hotel graffitied: “muerte a la opresión” “Libertad y socialismo” and “Yankees go away.” Naively, we practiced our Spanish by saying them out loud.

Once at the beach, we noticed that two groups of tourists had beat us, but the lifeguard wasn’t even set up yet. In the parking lot, a cop car oversaw the palm trees and out-of-order restrooms. We planted ourselves underneath a tree, cracked open a beer, and stared out at the turquoise waves.

The next few hours were a series of moments that flowed with the same pace and rhythm as the waves: Wading waist deep in the water, fighting the push and pull of the surf. Filling empty beer cans with sea water to aid the construction of a sand man. Dozing in the sun as Alexa turned our sand man into Zander the Sand Alien. Bananas, bread, and ham for lunch. Watching a birthday party set up camp in the shade. Listening to two tourists chatting with locals over cans of Medalia. Drifting in and out with flittering of the shadows of the palm tree leaves.

Hours later, when we were turned away, preparing to leave, we heard someone say:

“Did you see that?”

The Madalia-drinking tourists had just been robbed. The locals had run off with their bags. The tourists had taken off in pursuit but everyone knew they weren’t going to catch the thieves.

With our own bags safely in hand, we walked along the sand, the beach not much more crowded than before. We side-stepped bikini-clad bodies and beer-drinking bros to reach a grassy hill that laid just beyond the sand, the sight of some old Spanish ruins. We stood at those weather beaten walls and gazed out into the waves. Nearby, the tourist hotels and time shares of Ocean Park were lost in the glimmer of the heat and the spray of the sea.

Ruins, palm trees, and condos…

On our way back to Old San Juan and our Airbnb, we passed the Medalia-drinking tourists reporting their theft to the cop in the parking lot. We walked on. We then encountered another tourist (at least he looked like one). Bearing scratches on his nose and a hosting a swollen hand, he told us his story about how he and his father wandered into the wrong area, got beaten and robbed, and now their hotel won’t help them with the cap fare from the hospital. We gave him our singles and walked on.

Sun and heat and a mile of walking later and we were back in the condo. Shower, rest, change of clothes, and we were out again. Dinner: plantain tamales stuffed with pork, red peppers, and one olive paired with rice and beans and fried cod flat bread, all topped off with vanilla flan. The others had good food as well. Much better than last night. A no muss, no fuss eatery that served tourists and locals alike.

We roamed around the street of Old San Juan again afterwards, walking off our dinner and buying postcards. The orange street lights turned the world sepia-toned as the sidewalks emptied and we reached that awkward time between dinner and drinks. Undaunted, we stopped at an empty reggae bar for happy hour-priced alcohol. Two mojitos and one rum punch ordered amongst us. As we were sipping, the bar tender wrote us a list of things to do and places to party while we were here on spring break. He was eager and adamant that we both had fun and see things and places that he, a local, knew and loved (and were safe). We thanked him and gave him a big tip before going home for the night.

Arriving in the American Caribbean

Nathaniel, Alexa, and I were in his Honda, still bundled up for the northeastern cold, driving quickly through the beclouded city. In a Hispanic accent, our Airbnb host guided us through the notable sights of San Juan, Puerto Rico, spouting tips and history as we nodded awkwardly along . The wind, he said, had been ferocious  today and, as if to prove his point, we zoomed past tourists clinging desperately to their hats as their shirts pressed into their sunburnt bodies.

And then, we were in Old San Juan, bumping along narrow one-way cobble stone streets, frequently stopping for tourists and construction trucks that skirted around the edges of colorful Spanish-style buildings. While sifting through the traffic, our host continued his tour: there’s a bakery over there that’s really good; here’s the chocolate café; around that corner is the supermercado and the visitors’ center; etc. I got quickly turned around in the maze of streets as I started to sweat in my pants and boots.

Eventually, he dropped us off at our Airbnb, a condo inside a gated and locked building complex. Complete with ‘70s-style tiles and turquoise-colored fixtures, the condo was simple and clean, just enough for our three day trip.

The view from the staircase in the condominium complex our Airbnb was located in. © Violet Acevedo

Food — that’s what we needed the most. So to the supermercado we went. As we walked amongst the colors and the cruise ship passengers, Spanish-language music faintly wafted out of the restaurants, mingling with the American pop that blasted out of the tourist shops.

We soon reached the supermercado and wandered the isles in search for breakfast nibbles for the next few days. At check out, the cashier joked in Spanish and I awkwardly choked out a “Gracias” as she handed me my bag. The exchange felt amazingly foreign, but as my friends kept saying, “Puerto Rico is America!” And, yes, my passport was still locked up in Boston and the American flag flapped in the wind at the visitors’ center, but it was still hard for me to grasp that I wasn’t technically on foreign shores.

Off on the side street, Calle de Luna, in Old San Juan. © Violet Acevedo

After we grabbed our breakfast supplies, we found dinner at a restaurant that occupied a slice of a building on San Francisco Street. The waiters spoke fluent English and the walls were covered with sharpied statements of love or celebrations, other spring breakers proclaiming their presence or advertising their Twitter handles. I had chicken stew with rice and beans, topped off with a Piña Colada. It was good and authentic for all we knew.

As we walked around afterwards, my eyes drooping with the alcohol and the lack of sleep (we woke up at 4:30am for our flight). On our wanderings around Old San Juan saw a Sheraton and a Starbucks nestled amongst the locally-owned bars and cafes, and massive cruise ships towering over the docks as the territory’s capital stood quietly in the distance. Soon the wind picked up again and rain peppered the sky. We huddled under doorways and slowly made our way back to the condo where a night of card games and Puerto Rican cookies awaited us.

A mural spotted while walking back to our condo. © Violet Acevedo

An Adventure Ends

So I’m back in Boston, surrounded by the aging buildings of Boston University. The weather is cold, but snow has yet to fall on my watch. At work, a fellow student asked me about New Zealand. A sophomore, she was thinking of going in the fall and wanted to know about the program, the logistics, and the country.

Her questions made me nostalgic. I logged back onto my blog. I hadn’t posted anything for two months. Over the winter break, my grandmother had commented how I just kind of stopped after my Christchurch story. There was no conclusion to my New Zealand adventures. Nothing to say good-bye.

Final rainbow in New Zealand.
My final rainbow in New Zealand.

The abroad program had already ended when I wrote the last post. Therefore, on some level, I felt I had already said good-bye to the life I had been living in the country when I left Auckland. I had stopped playing the expat and was now playing the tourist on a tour bus with strangers all excited to see the famed wonders of New Zealand. I had switched roles, mindsets. An ending had already happened. There was no need for a conclusion at that point. I was way past the final chapter; I was in the epilogue.

Still, when I sat on the Air New Zealand flight back to America after my adventures in the South Island, gazing out the window as the country fade into the grey skies, I wrote in my journal:

“I just watched the last bit of New Zealand green disappear. That’s it. The adventure is over.”

Some part of me had registered then that the ending, the real ending, had finally come. But there was still no time to really feel it. There so much more now to think about. I shut my journal after those few short sentences and settled in for the long plane ride, dreaming of a good taco and my own bed as well as dreading the shape of my country and my last semester in college. Plus, I was sick. Then there were two months of family, holidays, and lethargy to keep my mind occupied.

Honestly, I don’t think the end has truly settled in until now. As I look back at some of my posts and my pictures from my time in that little, often-forgotten country out in the middle of the Pacific, I’m starting to feel it.

Posing on a Devonport beach. Photo credit: Kirsten Johnson.
Posing on a Devonport beach. Photo credit: Kirsten Johnson.

I’ve recounted parts of the adventure to several people now and no doubt will do so plenty of more times (despite the fact that my blog was created to prevent that). I get wowed looks when I say where I’ve been, and I smile every time. I feel thankful for my astonishing luck and support, and pride that I pushed myself to go out that far.

But I also feel a bit of longing for those vivid greens, volcanic peaks, and violent sunlight. The people I met there were kind and unforgettable. The culture refreshing and fascinating. The places unreal and breathtaking. But every hobbit has to return home sometime…

I’m back inside the American bubble now, a changed and changing space but still incredibly insular. I will also be graduating in May, and another ending is currently creeping into my thoughts. And as time moves forward, New Zealand will soon become a only collection of anecdotes and otherworldly pictures. However, at least I know that for four brief months it was not some far-off, fantasy land, but a vibrant reality.

Flowers for Christchurch

It was an early morning out of Mt. Cook. We left the famous peak still shrouded in mist with the faintest hint of a rainbow glittering in the valleys. It was a full little rental bus that trundled through the roads. The real large Stray bus was undergoing maintenance. So we crammed together friends with friends.

Relationships are formed quickly while traveling. I’ve known these people for less than a week and yet the ease and conversation hinted of a longer connection. The woes and excitement of traveling forms bonds like little else. (Will these bonds last? Only time will tell…)

We drove back down the coast of Lake Pukaki, the vibrant blues of the water blinding us in the early morning sun. Next stop, the shores of Lake Tekapo. The equally vibrant waters were complimented by a small field of Russell lupins (technically classified as a weed by the government because of its nonnative status), the purple stocks forming peaks that mimicked the snowy outline of the Southern Alps in the background. Tourists were roaming around the area like hungry little bees, their cameras desperate to soak up the beauty as their nose captured the lupin’s heady fragrance. We left when we got our fill.

Back on the bus, the landscape morphed as we moved closer to Christchurch. The mountains sank back into the land as the field were stretched flat and were monopolized by tractors, cattle, and sheep. Flashbacks to the American Midwest filled my head as our group in the back of the bus chatted and sang along to the 90s hits blasting out of the speakers. (They almost all were 8+ years older than me.)

It was a long trip to Christchurch and we kept getting tripped up by the traffic. Originally Stray wasn’t going to stop in the city but outside it instead, at this little town off the map. But since the earthquake had dismantled the only road heading directly north out of Christchurch, in order to make the timing work for the new, longer route, the bus had to move a little farther north and stop in Christchurch. Since none of us had planned to see the city anyway, and this was now our chance, we weren’t too disappointed in the change in destination.

Our driver began to give us an account of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that had devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people and leaving hundreds homeless. We all looked out of the window out of morbid curiosity, hoping to see some of the lingering damage or at least the approaching city. But all we saw were newer houses, all characteristically short and flat. Where was the city? The tall buildings? The people?

When we arrived at our hostel, the clouds were creeping in, covering the brilliant sun that had followed us all day. But the warmth remained and the resulting humidity plagued us as we went out to explore the city. It looked like we were out in the middle of suburban isolation, with uniform(ish) houses and tree lined streets, but one look at the map told us we were only 10-15 minutes away from the city center.

I had been warned about Christchurch, particularly by one of my roommates who did a road trip around the South Island during Spring Break. She said the city center is a bit lifeless and everything is very spread out, so it can be hard to navigate on foot. She said it wasn’t worth the effort (a thought Stray seemingly also shared if their original route is anything to go by). Yet the Lonely Planet guide book had pages on the city and there was certainly a lot to see on the tourist map they gave us at the hostel.

When we got closer into the city center, the construction fences and phosphorescent orange cones began to pop up like mushrooms. Murals brought color into the concrete buildings and empty lots that began to replace the houses.

As Rosie and I stopped for pictures, the kiwi and fellow Stray passenger we were with, Chris, began to point out sights and things he knew about from the news and stories and his previous trips here. That lot there was the building that collapsed and killed 100+ people. There’s another still damaged office block. Turn here if you want to go to Quake City.

Quake City is the small but poignant museum dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of the 2011 earthquake. Rosie read about it in her Lonely Planet and had put it on the top of our sightseeing list. We managed to get there 30 minutes before closing time and were only just able to convince them to let us in (they ended up giving us a discount in the process for our limited time).

Pictures mounted on wooden boards and the occasional television screen displayed the destruction before, during, and after the quake. There were also documentaries conveying accounts of eyewitnesses and clean up volunteers, bringing a voice to the natural disaster. The voices carried into the various rooms where artifacts from the rubble sat, giving the event an even more emotional presence. Something stirred in my chest at the sight of the cross of the damaged cathedral trapped in a glass case, surrounded by a wall-sized photo of the rubble. The museum then ended on a light note, however, with plans for the new Christchurch, giving one a message of healing and hope. I only wish I could’ve stayed longer to linger.

We then wandered through the now famous shipping container mall Re:Start, and then over to the cathedral. We hung around the square as we waited to meet up with another Stray passenger (an American named Phil). Chris and Rosie roamed as I tried to capture the gapping maw of the half-destroyed church, watching other tourists attempt to do the same. It felt weird, especially after coming out of the emotional weight of Quake City, that something so painful to the residents of the city could become a tourist attraction. But I guess if it’s unusual or pretty and can be photographed it will eventually attract tourists like flies to honey.

Phil finally joined us and we began strolling around again, picking up some gelato before checking out the Botanical Gardens. Rosie and Chris left us in the blooming rose garden, having other plans. So Phil and I roamed around the flowers for a bit before heading back out on the streets, talking of Austin and Trump and future plans.

As we were exploring the nearly empty streets, hints of emerging modern architecture and the occasional murals/graffiti bringing life to the grey world under the golden light of the setting sun, I began to feel a deep respect and sympathy for the city. Holes, figurative and literal, are still present in the city and there is more construction orange and builders’ banging than should be possible in such a relatively small place. But the city is clearly trying to bring itself up again. The murals/graffiti are signs of that, so is the shipping container mall and the replacement cathedral made out of cardboard and recycled materials. They might’ve been half destroyed and might not have much going on because of it (in those few hours I spent on the streets, I saw the majority of the city), but the city is healing and trying to make the most of it.

Alongside the Art Gallery is a neon instillation with the words: “Everything is Going to be Alright.”

I tried to keep that in mind as I headed off to eat my last dinner in New Zealand.

Trecking to Mt. Cook

Despite my experience the day before, after sleeping ten hours, I was ready for some more walking. I couldn’t help it. The sunshine was calling me, and plus there’s really not much else to do here. The hostel, if you can call it that, is really just an out of date hotel with bunk beds in the rooms and a “T.V. Room” tucked into a dark corner on the ground floor. There’s nowhere really to hang, which I guess is even more an incentive to go out and enjoy the scenery.

This time I checked with the front desk to make sure I knew where I was going (the free map was crap) and packed enough food and water for the day, and headed out into the windy sunshine. Today’s adventure: the Hooker Valley track with an end point at the Hooker Glacier Lake. Return time = aprox. 3-4 ½ hours.

I started out at the glamorous and imposing Hertmitage Hotel, situated at the top of the hill Mt. Cook Village is settled on. The building overlooks the whole park and serves as the starting point for most of the treks. And so I walked down through the shrubs, moss, and rocks into Hooker Valley. The track picked up more and more people the farther I went. They stood like bright specks in the landscape as their colorful coats and gear picked up the light.

The dark looming mass of Mt. Wakefield blocked Mt. Cook from sight for a good chunk of the walk as the wind rushed through the valley. More than one Asian tourist clung desperately to their hat. Cameras were pulled out the moment Mt. Cook came back into view, its white heights staring coldly down at the green expanse at its feet. I was asked to take a couple group photos.

Three suspension bridges were crossed, each gently rocking in the furious wind. And small hut was explored, the inside full of graffiti spanning 20+ years. (I of course left my own mark.) All the while Mt. Cook stood on the horizon and the wind continued to rage, as if the mountain had partnered up with the air to try and push the tourists back. But still they came, all types and ages in their bright parkas with cameras desperate for a chance to gaze at the famous peak and the lake in its shadow.

After almost two hours, I arrived at those cold waters. Remnants of glaciers drifted upon the blue-grey surface and above it all Mt. Cook looked with its chilly stare, aloof yet awe-inspiring. The wind was more monstrous here, whipping clothing and throwing children off balance. It came in bursts that surprised people as they attempted to eat their lunches and take the perfect photo. I quickly ate my food, snapped a few pictures (I swear I took at least a hundred photos of Mt. Cook that day) before the wind became too much and I moved on back towards limited civilization.

Through Canterbury Heights

After Stewart Island we spent a night in Queenstown before heading off through Canterbury.

9:20 am = And we’re off with a quick travel update post-earthquake.

9:33 = A truly mirrored lake makes everyone turn their heads.

9:40 = Bungy bridge spotted, passed out of view just as someone was about to jump.

9:44 = An attempted sing-along to Coldplay.

10:04 = Stop at a fruit stall (Jones’s). Chinese tourists and heaps of apples and kiwis.

10:23 = On the road. Spotting orchards and making rafting plans. Outside: Snow caps and grape vines.

11:07 = Flowers and rocky outcroppings in Lindis Pass.

11:25 = Lindis Pass Summitt. The highest Stray bus stop. Waving shrubs, photo taking, and thin air. A growing heading and a full memory card.

11:35 = Stories of Shrek the Sheep, a local celebrity and “national treasure.”

11:51 = A river snakes peacefully through shrubs and vibrant purple flowers. Small yellow flowers also pepper the foreground as the snow-tipped blue peaks paint the background.

11:58 = A history lesson about Omarama and their gliders and All Blacks fame.

12:02 pm= Lunch stop. Stale roll and peanut butter. Conversation about college tuition rates and over-priced chips.

12:47 = Back on the bus with more fun facts.

1:02 = Salmon farms with turquoise waters (dyed by “glacier flour”). Passing Twizel. Maori stories about the naming of Mt. Cook or “Cloud Piercer.”

1:09 = Amazing views of flat fields spotted with yellow flowers and a line of be-snowed mountains. More turquoise waters. Pine trees.

1:16 = Lake Pukaki. Bright blue waters surrounded by dead tree limbs.

1:20 = Photo stop. A lake the color of the sky. In the distance, with a “cloud hat,” Mt. Cook.

1:43 = On the road. Still taking pictures of Mt. Cook.

1:55 = In Mt. Cook National Park. Accompanied by fun facts and stories about the mountain.

2:02 = Arrive.

Exhausted (I didn’t get much sleep at Queenstown), I felt like shit getting out of the bus at Mt. Cook Lodge. The sun was shining and the others were excited, so I felt bad leaving them, but I had to take a nap. Somewhat refreshed afterwards, I decided a short walk was necessary. Take in the day and the nature and all that.

I simply couldn’t believe the beauty, yet again. (Is New Zealand, is nature in general ever short on beauty?) The glaringly white peaks of Mt. Footstool brightened the whole plain full of pale green grass and shrubs. The wide skies were peppered with large clouds and in the distance the bright turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki shone ethereally. I think my disbelief and excitement at the scenery woke me up quicker than coffee would’ve.

So I took pictures and walked and walked and walked. I moved through the plain, across a bridge, down a road and partially up the side of Mt. Wakefield before I began to think: “Gee, this sure doesn’t seem like the one hour walk advertised on the free map.”

I look at the piece of paper again. Upon rereading the description of the one hour return walk to Tasman Glacier, I noticed it started at a car park, which was a 20 minute drive away. God I felt stupid…and tired. Needless to say, I turned around and headed back.

It was a much less pleasant trek toward the lodge. The sun was waning, beaming straight on my shoulders with an intensity that only New Zealand’s sun could give. And so I walked. I didn’t bring a lot of water, thinking I wouldn’t need much for a “short” walk, so my throat began to itch with thirst. And so I walked. When I finally returned to the plains, the wind picked up and blew at monstrous speeds, whipping my clothing against my body as I moved against it. And so I walked…

By the end, I was literally shouting at the wind and those wide blue skies in exhausted anger. The mountains just looked on and said nothing. My supposedly easy, one hour hike turned into a two and a half hour haul. Needless to say, I was not happy as I stumbled into the shower practically the moment I returned to my room.

Wildlife Adventures on Stewart Island

Here we were on a tiny little boat rocketing through the seas; a blue speck in a grey seething mass…

Someone else had decided to hop off the Stray tour bus at Steward Island as well (a woman from south England named Rosie), so I met up with her the hostel and together we headed off into nature. Ulva Island, like parts of Stewart Island, is a natural reserve, but unlike Stewart Island, Ulva is completely pest free. No rats, dogs, stoats, ferrets, etc. to threaten the delicate native ecosystem. Consequently, indigenous birds and plants flourish on this isolated piece of land.

The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.
The ticket for the Ulva Island ferry.

We got to the small port in time for the ferry, were handed our tickets (consisting of Sharpie-d leaves), and hopped on to a six-seater with a bird enthusiast from DC and an Aussie couple. And off we went into the ocean, leaping through the waves, towards a misty green bulk.

The forest rustled with the sounds of birds when we arrived. A weka greeted us as at the hut next to the dock, waiting patiently for us to drop crumbs out of our pockets. We apologized to the weka, bought a guide, and headed off into the wet bush. The narrow packed gravel path twisted through the greenery. The foreign bird song complimented the steady drip of water on the leaves. Ferns swayed as we passed, mosses followed at our heels, and native trees provided protection from the wet chill of the grey skies.

We talked of dinosaurs as New Zealand parakeets flitted and tittered in the corner of our vision. Fantails hopped along the path ahead of us, evading Rosie’s camera. A weka would occasionally be heard shifting around in the undergrowth. And the Stewart Island robin would come and peak at the bugs at our feet when we bothered to stand still long enough.

The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.
The misty distances from a beach on Ulva Island.

The path also took us to a couple beaches, deserted save for a few wandering oyster-catchers. The misty distances that stretched out beyond the sea had a faintly unreal quality to them, and we struggled to imagine living on these wet and barren shores as some people did in the 1800s.

It was leaving one of these beaches that we encountered a shock. Rounding a corner, Rosie suddenly put her hand out and stopped me. There, off on the side of the path, was a pale, brown mass: a sleeping New Zealand sea lion. He awoke from our approach and reared his head. We froze and backed away, unsure what to do. We looked at the bush for a way through. Dense ferns and fallen logs blocked our way. We looked at the guide for information. Nothing. That path was the only way forward so we essentially had two options:

  1. Back track and miss a part of the looped track.
  2. Sneak past him, stupid but not inconceivable…

My heart was pounding as I lightly stepped on the moss at the edge of the path. The sea lion snorted and knocked the ferns at his side. I reached his neck, he moved his head, and I rushed forward. I had made it past.

Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.
Rosie sneaking past the New Zealand sea lion.

Meanwhile, Rosie stood on the other side, nearly immobile in fear. We had concluded that the sea lion was probably injured and/or half-awake, which was why he wasn’t making more drastic movements other than raising his head and displaying his teeth. Even so, Rosie couldn’t move until the sea lion had turned his eyes away from the path and fell back to sleep. I continually motioned her towards me as she inched forward on shaking legs, displaying the appropriate amount of fear and trepidation. When she reached his neck, he moved and she ran away. Clutching my arm, we both rushed around the next corner.

What followed after the adrenaline had died down was more tramping through the bush, a couple of scares as a few kaka flew across our path, and Rosie worrying about whether or not we did the right thing. At the next beach, a sign warmed people to stay 10 meters away from sea lions at all times. Woops

Rosie calmed down a bit as we encountered the others from the boat and learned that they did or would’ve done the same thing. We weren’t the only idiots on the island.

Eventually the little blue boat returned, and we were welcoming back into the sea.

 

Tea, dinner, and a movie at the hostel before we went out to see the main attraction of Stewart Island: kiwis.

You see, all varieties of kiwis are endangered. These nocturnal birds can only be found in certain areas around the country and they are often so few and far in between that they are rarely seen. Stewart Island with its relatively high kiwi population is therefore one of the places to see New Zealand’s iconic bird. In fact, it’s why most people come here.

We’d heard a lot of tips from various sources (written and verbal) about the best way to go about spotting this allusive creature on Stewart Island. The consensus: go out to the rugby field at night, pick a spot, turn off the flashlight, stand there in silence, and wait for them to come out of the surrounding forest. It was raining fairly heavily when we thought about kiwi spotting, but we were determined, so we bundled up, slung on our rain jackets, and headed out.

photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)
photo credit: flyingkiwigirl Okarito, West Coast via photopin (license)

Up a hill and down a muddy driveway, we were there at the rugby field. Planting our feet at one corner, we let our eyes adjust. With water clouding my glasses, the world soon became a monochrome impressionist painting, but still we stayed.

Soon a red light appeared on the other side of the field, followed by a sweeping beam of white. It lingered a moment on us before moving on. It had appeared that another duo had come out to search as well. We must’ve been a strange sight for them to see: two people standing alone and silent in the middle of a field at 11 ‘o clock at night in the pouring rain.

At one point, Rosie turned to me and whispered: “What if kiwis are some national joke that New Zealand plays on tourists?”

It certainly was starting to feel like that. The wind was picking up and the rain kept on coming. I had to wipe my glasses off several times to even remotely see anything other than splotches of misty greys. I was about to turn to Rosie to see if she wanted to call it a night when we heard it: a high pitched chittering noise at the edge of the field, the distinctive call of the kiwi. We froze as the other kiwi spotters swept their beam of light across the grass. The sound moved through the trees, around the edge and then…it was gone.

Disheartened, soaked, and chilled we didn’t stay much longer and quickly slugged back to the hostel, longing for warmth.

On the Road Through the Fiords

8:00 = Notified of a 7.2 earthquake outside of Christchurch. Told people died and to calm loved ones back in civilization once we had service.

8:17 = The windows have fogged over, making the snowcapped distant peaks and encompassing bush seem even more like a dream.

At the top of the Key Summit walk with views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
At the top of the Key Summit walk with views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.

8:20 = Nature walk through the wet bush (the Key Summit Walk). Up and up through a stone strewn path as it zig-zagged through the forest. A waterfall here, fallen moss-covered tress there. A conversation with a Londoner. Soon the trees fade out and shrubs fade in and we see the others. Mountains views, snowcapped peaks, and a conversation with our driver. We linger in the chill at the top. Then the long, long, long walk down.

10:25 = After the hike, fingers so cold can barely write. Legs not aching…yet.

10:38 = Rushing around the bends and through the heights with pop music beat matching the rhythm of the bus.

10:48 = Sun and chilled sweat.

10:55 = The Londoner with a banana and Downtown Abby as peaks and trees fly by.

10:58 = Reggae and tour buses.

11:01 = It’s funny how the wow-factor wears off after first viewing. I can still appreciate the beauty though.

11:07 = Through the forest and National Park, now farms and sheep, highlighted by distant hills and though bright yellow flowering bushes (gorse).

11:39 = Back in civilization. Phones blowing up with worried messages from friends and family. At the café everyone glued to their phones, reassuring and searching for info.

12:26 = Back on the road. Nominating DJs.

Lake Hauroko, New Zealand's second deepest lake. © Violet Acevedo
Lake Hauroko, New Zealand’s second deepest lake. © Violet Acevedo

12:42 = Stop at NZ’s second deepest lake. Calm clear waters and beclouded distant blue peaks. Photos and an earthquake update.

12:50 = On the road.

1:11 = Interrupted by baby and earthquake talk.

2:13 = Toilet break and Invercargill fact time.

2:50 = Invercargill…almost. Water spotted at least. I’m not actually sure what town that was.

3:25 = Now in Invercargill.

I took one look at that empty, drab town (sorry NZ standards have labeled it a city) and knew I was not going to spend two days in Invercargill as planned. I’ve never done this before, change my plans at the last moment. But I got on the phone as the bus bumped along to the Steward Island ferry port and changed my ticket and then I was set. It was thrilling and not as hard as I thought it would be. I wasn’t the only one to be hopping off the bus on Steward Island. So I had company and there was always the birds.

Bumping along in the ferry to Steward Island.
Crashing through the waves on the way to Steward Island.

The ferry was…rough. This tiny little boat packed with people crashing through the waves. Bump. Splash. Rattle. (It was worse than Calais to Dover.) It took all my will power to continue talking about Thanksgiving with my fellow passengers and not throw up like this poor man in the front who filled two sick bags.

Legs shaking back on land, we made our way through the small 300+ people town to the hostel. Dinner was at the only pub in town and consisted with fresh seafood chowder, a pint, and wonderful conversation. As other went out in the rain to hunt for a kiwi, I settled into bed and knew I had made the right choice.