So today is Sunday and I am catching a bus to the closest airport where I'll pick up my last rental car of the New Zealand leg of this trip. I'll then be driving back to Wanaka and north to a town called Haast which lies on the west coast of the south island. From there I have ten days to drive up the coast and across the island to Christchurch where I fly out of in 13 days. I plan on spending most of my time in the Southern Alps where there are glaciers and additional ski fields to keep me busy.
The Wanaka leg of the trip has been wonderful. The whole atmosphere of this town falls nicely in between up and coming tourist town and remote, beautifully situated, local community. It does not have the build up of neighboring Queenstown and yet has just enough in terms of restaurants, cafes, and bars to keep me comfortable for my three weeks here. I'll give you guys a quick hit list of the people and general things that I've experienced the past three weeks.
General points -
A few things have happened in Wanaka that are side notes but worthy of mentioning. Now that I've stopped moving for three weeks I have picked up some bad or good habits (depending on your POV) that are lost when you are seriously backpacking every day. First, Chief among these is going out and drinking. Wanaka has a few great bars and one very fun club. With the friends I met over the three weeks here, the wine was flowing in ways it just did not when I was on the road. Second, I have had wifi in my lodge and I've had my iphone to play with. The simple ability to roll over in bed and check your email is something I think most Americans now know as commonplace reality, and it really was very nice not having this ability for the last six weeks. Its a love/hate thing, point is, Ive had the internet back on my fingertips, for better or worse. Book reading has taken a hit, largely because, you know, Ive had people to talk to. I finished a short story collection of Dosteovsky and am now back to Le Carre spy novels....midway through his masterpiece "A Perfect Spy".
Well there was the Matterhorn crew. Apart from the natural revolving door feel of people who spend the normal 1-3 nights there were six or so people who were at the lodge when I arrived and are still there now.
Heath - an American guy from Vermont who is skiing down here for the season. Great skier and nice guy, who volunteers at the mountain for a free season pass. His home mountain is Jay Peak so hopefully I'll see him up there.
Sophie - a brit who is a children's ski instructor at Treble Cone. She is 30 and just got married, her and her husband are indefinitely staying in New Zealand. Its nice to have the older people around, as it makes me feel a bit less weird having late 20s and 30 something backpackers to talk to.
German girls - Isabel, Tabia, and Kristina - germans are an interesting breed, as I'll get into some more below. These girls are backpacking around and got stuck in Wanaka where they worked for free accommodation at the lodge the last five weeks. It took awhile to actually get to know them, but they were all very nice and became integral parts of our communal dinners as their German food was quite good. They also helped facilitate many of our drinking nights.
Melissa - a young French-Canadian from Montreal who came down to snowboard for the season. She arrived almost the same day as me and we hung out with Sophie and Heath for many dinners.
Apart from this crew we'd have good people stop in for 4 or 5 nights who would inevitable join forces with us. I wont deny that staying in the lodge for an extended period of time gives you that seniority feeling that comes with any territory that you 'feel' like you kind of have rights to. People obviously realized that we were the long-timers, which is inherently a dorky thing to say, but it was nice to have a little clique. This weekend I am leaving, the Germans left yesterday and Sophie is out in one week. Backpacking cliques are not meant to last.
Peter and Donna - The new managers of the lodge are worth a quick mention. Peter is 45, and has 2 foot long dreadlocks, Donna is his new wife (both second marriages). They are extremely nice people who, if I had to guess, are using this lodge as kind of a new adventure for both of them as a means of starting out a new life together. Peter is the quieter one, who works as a builder in town and is an ex-pat Brit, who has lived in NZ for 15 years. Donna strikes me as a partier. I mean, they both still put down a few bottles here and there, and its just nice to see them together and putting all of their energy into re-vitalizing the lodge.
Max the German - Max is a younger guy who stopped into the lodge about two weeks ago. He looks like one of the Aryan henchman you'd see in James Bond film, cast as the main villian's muscular body guard. I can make a joke about the Third Reich, but it would probably be in bad taste, so I'll just paint this picture. He is a mountaineer and a cyclist who, when we met, was 700 kilometers into a 2,500 kilometer bike trip around the south island. Yea, the kid is biking around the mountains down here, doing about 7 hours a day on the road. He inserted himself into our little group at the lodge and before I knew it he had invited himself to come skiing with me the following day. Turned out to be great, as he kept up admirably and we had a good day skiing the back country which is best done with someone else. What I kept thinking was how Max the German was really the person I wish I had met to be my travel partner. He is a serious mountaineer and had summited a few mountains I wish I had done on the North Island. Of course, he had a partner to the climbs with, which I never found. Instead I got Ryan the Jew, who if you read back a few posts was about as far from a german aryan muscular sports guy as possible.
Fitz and one-armed Peter - This is a good one. I met Fitz and one-armed Peter on the Saddle Chair at Treble Cone. Fitz is 64, sports a poorly trimmed mustache, and talks to you as if you've known him your entire life. By this I mean, he'll reference his buddies and places and things he's done even though I have no idea who or where he's talking about. He lives in Utah, and skis Snowbird and Alta 130 days out of the year. He is the quintessential life long ski bum. He moved from Maine to go to Vail University in the last 60s, bought some property, and has lived off those investments the rest of his life. All he lives to do is ski, and in the last ten years he has become a ski racer on the elder circuit, which is how he met Peter, while he was racing in NZ.
Peter is a Kiwi and has one-arm, due to a car accident when he was two. What he lacks in appendages he makes up for in money. He and his wife own New Zealand's most successful sushi chain restaurant. He is an adventurer and life long skier who races in the handicap races.
So I met these two guys on the chair, Fitz starts talking incoherently about skiing in Utah, he realizes I am an American and as we get off the chair, Fitz is still talking so they invite me to do a run with them. Two hours later, and I've skied all afternoon with these two guys in their sixties and really am not quite sure what to make of either of them. Peter is about to call it a day, so they invite me back to Peter's Porsche Cayenne (the Porsche sport utiilty vehicle), for a few beers before heading back to Wanaka. I oblige, figuring I can bypass a few runs for this experience. I got to the Porsche we unload our gear, and Peter opens up his cooler filled with Heineken's and wine. It dawns on me that Peter is an important fellow as we end up going into Treble Cone's front office and having a beer with the mountain director. It also turns out that not only is Peter a millionaire, one-armed skier, he also happens to have a drinking problem. One thing leads to another, and Im back at Pete's mansion in Wanaka where I hang out with Fitz before heading back to the lodge for dinner. The takeaway from the whole thing is that Peter is a millionaire who likes doing this stuff. He tells me that he loves meeting the travelers in Wanaka and showing them a good time. Yes, its a bit strange that I met a one-armed old guy who in the course of an afternoon decides to go on a bender with me, but apparently, he does this thing often. Fitz was the strange guy who has seen just a few too many sunrises through bloodshot eyes, and can't stop talking about that epic powder day he got in 1984. Point is, good times were had.
There were many other people that made the time in Wanaka memorable. As for the total take away, I wanted to spend time in a ski town because I regret never having lived a full winter on a mountain. In the end, the feeling I now have departing Wanaka is that three weeks is not enough, a full season may not be enough, and ultimately when I see people like Fitz I pause and wonder if I can do it, if I could just live in the middle of nowhere and ski forever. Despite the fact that I am like a pig in shit whenever I am skiing I still do not think I could handle the isolation. Even Wanaka which has its array of culture, bored me after awhile. I can't really answer the question that I pose. I love it out in the mountains, and really could delete the rest of my itinerary and just stay here for another four weeks, but at the same time, I do not really want to be Fitz in 30 years.
A last note on photos, I have been waiting to fill my 2GB memory card before burning pics to a CD, which only then allows me to post them online. Since I have had very little to shoot apart from the town and the ski mountain, pics are going to have to wait. They'll be up soon.