Irony. Reacclimation. Wildlife. Devastation. And Coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

[Note: this post took a little longer than planned to get online due to the lack of WiFi in rural New Zealand. I point this out in response to friends who keep telling me how awesome cloud computing is, how I need to be doing it. Yeah. Not really an option when you tend to be in places where you can’t get online to start with. But anyway…]

Leaving the Ice has been strange in ways I did not expect it to be strange, which has made it all the stranger.

I adjusted almost instantly to the humidity (negligible here compared with, say, Virginia in summer, but still noticeable coming from a continent drier than the Sahara), to the throngs of people (Thousands! Uhm, hundreds! Okay… dozens. This is New Zealand, after all), to colors and flavors and textures and shapes I have not seen for months. Ten days after arrival, I still have a problem handling direct sunlight, but that’s what sunglasses are for.

My body is doing quite well, thank you, dealing with fresh fruits and vegetables and loads of real, proper, scrumptious coffee in the form of New Zealand’s famous flat whites (like a latte, only better).

My biggest problem acclimating to the real world–and I grasp the irony in this–is that I’ve been cold all the time. Kiwis are walking around me in t-shirts and shorts and I’ve got three layers on and my shearling boots and am still shivering. The ambient temperature is more than 60 degrees warmer than it was in Antarctica and I am quivering like a chihuahua in air conditioning.

Of all the issues I expected to have upon leaving the Ice, this was not one of them.

My best guess is that my body just can’t deal with the feel of fresh air on it, that it’s overreacting in a way I have chosen to interpret as comically melodramatic.

In any case, I am in New Zealand, on the Banks Peninsula outside Christchurch to be exact. The past ten days have been a whirl of experiences and emotions not easily summed up.

A Farewell to Ice

On the morning of Monday the tenth, having packed and bag dragged and put things in storage and said good-bye to friends and played a final practical joke on “Dad,” my across-the-hall neighbor, I suited up in Big Red, my wonderful parka, and took one more walk down to Hut Point.

Vince's Cross at Hut Point, looking north, 10 October 2011

It was an overcast day with low clouds obscuring the summits of Mount Discovery and the Royal Society Mountains, creating what I call the dead light, when cloud and ice conspire to create a world that seems two-dimensional, and trying to judge distance is folly.

At the base of Hut Point, a few Weddell seals were resting on the sea ice, one of them so heavily pregnant that rolling over took her the better part of five minutes to accomplish. I sat on the volcanic rock and snow for nearly an hour watching them, listening to them breathe. I kept thinking what a perfect last morning in Antarctica.

Seals on sea ice in the dead light (note how pregnant the one in the center bottom of the shot is... she probably had her pup later that day).

I’d stopped in the galley on the way out to pack an early lunch–french fries with ketchup. The fries were hot when I started my three-quarters of a mile walk with them inside a folded, insulated paper plate and several layers of plastic wrap, all tucked in a pocket of my parka. By the time I got to Hut Point the fries were frozen, but it was still a treat to eat them and enjoy an Antarctic picnic without getting mugged by a skua, which have not yet arrived for the summer.

Then it was time to get ready for the shuttle out to the Ice Runway. Our C17 landed a few minutes early, dropped off its passengers and cargo and then loaded us–about three dozen WinterOvers in various stages of crustiness.

Our ride. The C17 parked on the sea ice shortly before we boarded.

I don’t know why WordPress has chosen to make the photo above so huge. The settings are no different than the other pics. I guess WordPress just really likes big planes on thin sea ice.

Our flight was wholly uneventful–five hours of windowless air travel that I’ll remember only for reading the new Operation Napoleon on my Kindle, by one of my favorite authors, and being terribly disappointed. It was dreadful–what was he thinking?–but also amusing, as a few scenes took place on a C17. As he described the hefty cargo plane’s layout, I looked around the C17 I was in and shook my head at the inaccuracies. You didn’t do much research, did you, Arnaldur? Tsk tsk.

When we landed in Christchurch and the plane’s door opened, I smelled the sea. The airport is several miles from the ocean, but my nose, assaulted with the smells of trees and flowers and fuel fumes, picked up its briny scent. It was near midnight by the time our shuttles dropped us off at various hotels.

The next morning, I woke to the sound of Tui and bellbirds in the trees outside my hotel window. I laid in bed listening to them and thinking about the seals I’d heard breathing out cold clouds of air less than 24 hours earlier. I couldn’t decide what was more amazing: that such a range of wonderful creatures have made their homes in such disparate environments or that technology has made it possible for me to go from watching seals nap in an icescape to waking to chirping birds in less than a day.

A City Gutted

I spent a few days getting together paperwork for my passport renewal, having my wonderful bath and figuring out the immediate WhatNext. After staying for two nights at a rather anonymous hotel, I moved with two other IceBuddies out to a lovely, low-key place in New Brighton, near the beach.

Then, with a mix of curiosity, dread and that peculiar human need to bear witness, a couple of us took a bus to the Red Zone.

Sad to see another great Christchurch building gone, but note the panes of glass untouched amid the wreckage. At the Red Zone border.

The once-thriving heart of Christchurch, full of its most beautiful historic buildings and the hub of tourism for the city, is now a crumbling ghost town. Thanks to the February earthquake, it is now the Red Zone, blocked off by miles and miles of fencing. We walked most of the perimeter, staring in horror at old haunts reduced to rubble, a familiar skyline still there at first glance but, upon closer scrutiny, full of ruined and empty high-rises.

Catholic Cathedral remains, Christchurch, 13 October 2011

It was sad and yet fascinating to see what was still standing and what was nothing but a heap of bricks. While we passed a lot of bulldozed lots, it seems like the rebuilding hasn’t even begun. It reminded me of the London shown in 28 Weeks Later. Familiar yet wrong, terribly wrong.

Another old building lost. Near the Cathedral.

I kept thinking of all the ruined castles and historic heaps I’ve visited and how much I loved clambering over collapsed parapets or down half-tumbled staircases. Juxtaposing those romantic ruins with the Red Zone’s fresh scars, I thought of the people who had lived in those once-thriving palaces and cities and monasteries and imagined they must have felt the same sense of disbelief and loss, probably much more so given that Christchurch is just a city I know, not my home and livelihood.

Christchurch skyline as near as we could get to the Red Zone. The city's tallest building, the Grand Chancellor Hotel (right) is still standing, but leaning significantly. Take a close look and you'll see how ripply the building's lines are. They are going to demolish it floor by floor, trying to save the buildings around it, including my beloved Hotel So, closed since the quake but still allegedly structurally sound.

Skirting the Red Zone put us in a grim mood, but not, I have to admit, for long. Because we headed into Hagley Park and stumbled on the NZ Rugby FanZone. Christchurch was supposed to be one of the main venues for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which is currently winding up (the last two games are this coming weekend…Go All Blacks!), but the quake stopped that plan dead in its tracks. So instead of matches and festivities at the now-closed stadium, they’ve set up a temporary fest in the park, with a giant inflatable screen so locals can watch the games en masse.

We were there in early afternoon, when the Real New Zealand festival, running concurrently with the rugby hullaballoo, was in full swing. We sat and drank good local beer and ate amazingly yummy sandwiches–steak for Jeff, fresh blue cod for me–in bright sunlight. Er… a little too bright sunlight. I felt I desperately needed a parasol to shield my vampiric white flesh.  We sat under an umbrella, wearing long sleeves and jeans and sunglasses while Kiwis all around us frolicked in shorts and t-shirts and bare feet.

Mind the Seal

The surly seal, moments after reminding Jeff who was da boss.

After our fantastic lunch, we walked through the park to the relocated information center, a shadow of its former self, and booked a deal on a rental car. The next morning we set out along the coast northward, stopping first at Kaikoura. I’d been there twice and loved watching the New Zealand fur seals, who hang out in one of the car parks. Jeff was a first-timer, however. One of the highlights of our trip was watching him back up, trying to take a photo of one seal, and nearly step on another that was camouflaged among the rocks. She let him know with a roar and show of teeth that he was too close and the next thing I knew he was sprinting across the shoreline. Snicker.

Jeff showing total disregard for the ten meter distance rule when it comes to interacting with the seals... Meter? What's a meter? We're Americans... that's just like a foot, isn't it?

In addition to watching the seals, we sampled Kaikoura’s famous seafood, including its crayfish (what Americans call rock lobster) and another scrumptious fish sandwich, this time with grilled whitefish. Then it was back on the road, through Blenheim and Marlborough’s wine country and the twisty roads around the Sounds to Nelson, at the north end of the South Island.

Snoozy seals on a rock, Kaikoura. It never gets old.

Booze, Views, Seafarin’ and More Seals!

The following day we checked out Nelson’s big Saturday market and McCashin’s Brewery, recommended by a local. If you do one brewery tour in New Zealand, make it this one. I have been on many a brewery tour–way more than you might think for someone who doesn’t particularly like beer–but this may have been my favorite. After a quick but interesting walkaround the entire place, right on the factory floor, we went into the adjoining cafe and got to sample their products. All of them. A dozen or so lagers and ales and a stout or two, several ciders and a handful of vodkas, plain (the marketing term is “crystalline”) and flavored,  including a scruptious pumpkin and cinnamon vodka that I mixed with ginger beer. A delicious experience, though slightly more intoxicating than we had anticipated when we signed up for the tour.

We took a walk up Botanic Hill, the geographic center of New Zealand according to the informational signage at its summit. Then we feasted on our first proper sushi in more than a year at Sachi, an authentic (and authentically expensive) Japanese restaurant. They don’t have a website, but if you go to Nelson, eat at least one meal there. We nearly licked our plates it was so good.

The view from Botanic Hill

The next morning, we drove to Marahau, at the edge of Abel Tasman National Park, for our Big Adventure… sea kayaking! We got the sketchiest of safety briefings and headed out into the water unchaperoned. It was a clear and bright and calm morning and everyone else who’d rented a kayak for the day was in shorts and t-shirts. We were bundled up and I for one was still shivering whenever we pulled ashore on one of the uninhabited islands dotting the waters.

Our sea kayak ashore at Fisherman's Island, Abel Tasman National Park

People had warned me how hard sea kayaking was, but we did probably well over 15km without breaking a sweat. We stopped at Fisherman’s Island and Adele Island, making a big figure eight around both and taking in the small fur seal colony on the north side of Adele.

Water and wind-sculpted rocks, Fisherman's Island

We saw half a dozen seals snoozing on the rocks and two more boisterous ones chasing each other in the water all around our boat. We also saw, thankfully in time, a number of large rocks just underneath the water’s surface and were able to navigate our way safely back to shore.

Karl goes kayaking!

The wind picked up in the afternoon and our last couple kilometers were more of a fight, with waves rocking the kayak and sometimes sloshing over it. We also discovered it is a bit more difficult than we thought to take photos while kayaking and avoiding excitable seals and submerged rocks… as a result, our pictures of the adventure are somewhat lacking. It was a terrific time, however, and I would be up for it again.

Those of you who know how much I love dogs will be shocked to learn I was not the biggest Dogttraction around... dogs we met, like this enthusiastic fellow, consistently ignored me in favor of Jeff, who was far better at throwing sticks for them. Jealous.

Once ashore and showered, we began the long drive back to Christchurch, this time through the mountainous interior, which a local had promised would take less time than the coastal route. Whatever. That local apparently doesn’t break for hedgehogs or possum or rabbits, or pull over to the side of the road to turn off the headlights and stare at the stars. We did, and ended up getting into Christchurch near midnight.

Rain, How I’ve Missed You. Well, Not That Much. Okay, Calm Down. You Can Stop Now. Really.

The next morning Jeff left for the States and I found myself readjusting my plans. Originally I had wanted to head into the wild and do the St. James Walkway, a five day, 66km trek through subalpine forest and mountains. A look at the weather forecast changed that. Rain, rain, rain, rain with intermittent spells of rain.

No leprechauns and/or pots of gold spotted. I checked. Banks Peninsula, 18 October 2011

I headed out instead to the Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula, an hour from Christchurch, where I got a bed in a lovely 19th century farmhouse converted into a hostel. Built in 1892, the house has a central hall plan and neat fireplaces and trim and a big old kitchen that I love, plus a wraparound verandah and several enormous spiders of the meaty variety (as opposed to innocuous Daddy Long Legs).

Half Moon Cottage, Barrys Bay, Banks Peninsula

The awesome kitchen at Half Moon

Although the weather has been less than ideal for hiking, it’s been lovely for moody photos and just sitting on the sofa reading and listening to the patter and clatter of rain on the roof.

The lounge at Half Moon... cozy, comfy and, thanks to the rain and it being low season, all to myself!

Looking down at Akaroa's bay from Summit Road during a brief pause in the rain

I’ll be in New Zealand until my new passport is processed, probably for another week, and then… then… uhm. Dunno. I do know that I need to put on my sweatshirt, though. It’s a bit chilly in here. Jeez, it must be barely 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrrr.


One thought on “Irony. Reacclimation. Wildlife. Devastation. And Coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

  1. Welcome back – very nice post and photos. I can’t imagine being away from plant life for 14 months. I was shocked when I came back after only a month. Cheers!

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