Unexpected Encounters

Day 12 – There was no blast of disappointment upon waking this morning, because the whoosh of rain and wind coupled with the ear-splitting thunder all night served as a solid enough clue that Franz Josef was not going to happen. It didn’t. Looking out my window, I confirmed the storm was well under way and showed no sign of stopping. All good. As I said, it wasn’t altogether unexpected. No time to dawdle as these are the trip’s final days. When I went to load my car, I passed a few rooms with open curtains and sad-looking people staring out at the gloom. It was wet. It was misty. I could only see maybe the first 30 ft of the mountain, the rest selfishly hidden from view by the storm cloud.

I drove by the glacier to see if I might spot even just a little bit of it. Just a tiny peep. Nope, it seems I had my one good look last night. Hiking/walking was totally out of the question.The rain was coming down hard. Not to mention the lightning. In fact, as I began my drive I started wondering if even driving was advisable in the conditions. The roads were slick, visibility was low, and the rain just kept on coming. This first bit of my drive to Queenstown was more of that snaking road through the mountains, but I was in the rainforest now and waterfalls became a staple of the scenery. The waterfalls were flowing thick and fast, many of them spilling out onto gutters abutting the road. The gutters could barely contain the volume of water being pumped out by the rushing falls. I had a couple scary skidding moments on the drive, but my internal caution light was at 100% so I drove a slow and deliberate 30-40km while the storm raged on.

During the drive, after the fear of driving my car into a unforgiving rainforest river subsided, I thought about Franz Josef. My feelings were yes, some sadness at not being able to even see the glacier, but also relief. I didn’t have to make that decision between risking the odds – however much they’re actually in my favor – on the heli ride or taking the “safe” route and just walking the trails nearby. The decision was made for me. If I’m being really honest, I probably would’ve gone the cowards way. Which is so silly and bears up to no logical scrutiny. Fear and superstition are odd things. I’m humbled that I fell under their spell. Perhaps I’m weak-willed after all. Or maybe just lily-livered.

My drive to Queenstown was about a five and a half hours, with a stop at Wanaka along the way. Wanaka is a charming lake town an hour or so north of the city. When I arrived, I had a way too late breakfast at 1pm, but man oh man was it a good one! Probably one of the best meals I’ve had since I landed here. It was fried eggs with a lime something sauce on salty mint lentils. The flavors in this dish were basically batman – POW, Wham! BOOM. Yummm. Scarfed that down right quick. Then I spent a very long time at the iSITE around the corner, but I’m glad I did. I planned the rest of my time here, down to the last minute. Now all I’ve got to do is ride the wave. Or jump. You’ll see what I mean later on, though I’m sure more than a few of you can guess.

Before leaving Wanaka, I visited this odd little… museum thing? Fun park? I’ll just call it by it’s name – Puzzling World. A bizarre place filled with things like hologram galleries, optical illusions (one was a WOVEN optical illusion of Albert Einstein), and other random odds and ends. My favorite room featured tiles of famous faces whose eyes seemed to follow you wherever you went in the room. Both creepy and fascinating. There was too much tourist action going on at PW for me to stay without the agoraphobia kicking in full-force, so I did a quick sweep, thought better of the maze, and off I went for my last bit of driving, the final hour to Queenstown.

Anyone who knows me well will know I like to leave the best for last. (This, by the way, is an ill-advised habit that one Andrew Walden learned the hard way in the great Halloween Candy Dump of 1995. Many of the best sour candies were lost and hundreds of big crocodile tears shed). But I digress. In this drive, I wouldn’t say that the very very best was last, but pretty close to. There was such a dramatic reveal of Queenstown as I came over these mountains dusted with golden yellow shrubs. I added an extra half hour with all of my stops to take pictures and stare, eyes agog, at the view that sprawled in front of me. It was an entirely satisfying final leg of my trip.

I arrived at my hotel to find that my accommodations for the final 3 days are the swankiest yet. Not necessarily by design. With Queenstown proper almost entirely booked I had to look out a bit further and shell out a little more cash. I’m very glad I did. I’m staying in a B&B in Arrowtown, a mining village a mere 15 minute drive from the center of Queenstown. It’s the best of both worlds – country living and city slicking. Also I’m in a crazy awesome suite with multiple reading nooks and a clawfoot tub. I mean.

My hostess is Amurrican. Hails from Michigan. I was feeling a bit tuckered and thought I’d save Queenstown for tomorrow night, so she sent me to a cute historic street in Arrowtown and gave me the name of a couple good spots to get some victuals and libations (I’M IN MIDDLE EARTH, OK?). Off I went to the Blue Door Pub. A tiny hole in the wall place that was glowing and warm and somehow provincial while also luxurious. I would have loved to linger there all evening, but on this mini fairly unremarkable journey to a pub, a thoroughly unexpected encounter happened. A couple guys were hanging around grabbing a drink while they waited for their Thai food takeout to be ready for pick-up. They were locals – the bartender gave them a warm welcome as soon as they walked in – but their accents were unmistakably American. Curious. As they stood in the tiny Blue Door pub space waiting for their food, I had to sneak by them to get to the spot I’d selected as my throne for the evening. In the middle of the sneaking by, they struck up a conversation and that was that. I met and shook hands with Curtis and Trey. I assumed they were a couple, which turned out to be quite wrong. We got to talking about New Zealand and what I was up to and what they did and why they’re living here. They were a bit evasive in their answers to some questions. Curtis simply said Trey was an artist and that he (Curtis) ran the business end of things. Hmm. I got the sense they were trying to avoid talking about it too much, but I wouldn’t find out until later why that was.

We continued our conversation and though I was hesitant about them at first, they did seem like two standup super friendly gentleman. Trey, the artist, showed me some of his work. A peak into his soul he said. He’s a photographer that digitally tweaks photos. They’re quite something. I was impressed. And he was impressed that I recognized an, by all accounts, unrecognizable shot of a remote spot in Hobbiton. Of course I recognized it. That’s imprinted on me for life.

The conversation continued, started flowing freely, and they somewhat randomly invited me to join them for dinner at Trey’s home. My skepti-cense flared up, and I tried to weasel out of it. They insisted and insisted, and after Trey called his wife who he called “the dragone” to let her know they’d picked up a guest at the bar, I relented. I know. This could have been very bad and sketchy. It really felt ok. They seemed trustworthy, and since I’m able to post this you know that they were. Curtis rode in my horrible trash of a car (he unexpectedly jumped in, I died of embarrassment) and we followed Trey to his plot of land in Arrowtown.

It was a simple but tastefully impressive home. Huge glass windows on either side of the dining room looked out to forest on one side and their couple acres of land on the other – fitted out NZ style with 4 sheep and 4 chickens. I felt no small degree of awkward, but helped me feel at ease with their gracious hospitality and we sat down to dinner with some wine, delicious Thai food, and Trey’s kids even joined in as well. I definitely did not see my day going in this direction, but I’m glad it did. Meeting interesting people was part of my goal in this trek, and I’ve done fair little talking except to the odd Gavin and some iSITE folks. Trey and his wife, and Curtis and his partner were all lovely and it was nice to get a perspective on New Zealand and Kiwis from fellow Americans who’ve been living here for some time. To sum it up, they love it here, find Kiwis unassuming and chill, and like that their kids aren’t being fed the consumerism crap that they were getting in the states. It also helps that NZ is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Me and the gals ended up chatting for a bit while Trey and Curtis went to fire up the movie room (this place was swanky). They came back and tried to get me to stay for an episode of Black Mirror – apparently a quirky sci-fi BBC show that they were convinced I’d love. Tomorrow’s wake-up for the bus drive to Milford Sound is quite early, with the bus leaving at 7am, so I somewhat forcibly took my leave. I also hate overstaying my welcome. Trey asked if I’d left any contact information, which I hadn’t, so he gave me his. Or rather, he gave me Curtis’s email who he said I could contact to request his own info. This final piece to the puzzle confirmed what I’d been suspecting all along – that Trey was maybe kind of a big deal in his circles. He is. I stalked of course. Trey Ratcliff of Stuck in Customs seems to be a bit of a big deal. Who’d-a-thunk?

Another day, another adventure. Milford Sound tomorrow kicks off my final two days. I think I’m coming down with a case of the affliction known as melancholy, but with the final few activities I have planned, I think I can keep it at bay. For tonight, here here to good wine, good people, and good times.

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