The morning after my nice afternoon in Christchurch, I got up at 6:30 to drag myself and the backpack to the bus stop for 7:15am. Groan. I arrived in Queenstown at about 2, and while trying to figure out the way to the hostel, I met Grace from England. We found the place, and once settled made a plan to grab a drink in the evening, as we both had some errands to do.
Queenstown is absolutely beautiful! It's set on Lake Wakatipu with gorgeous mountain views as a backdrop. After some Internetting and some dinner, I went to sit by the lake and read as the sun started to go down. Amazing. At about 8 o'clock I strolled back to the hostel to meet up with Grace. Our hostel gave us a coupon for two for one drinks at a local joint called Buffalo Bar, so we rolled back into town and grabbed a couple of glasses of wine. After about an hour of chatting, we learned the other reason Buffalo Bar is popular with backpackers (particularly of the male persuasion). Girls. Dancing. Everywhere. In Hooters-inspired attire. They were on every available surface, and ironically Grace and mine's conversation on the topic of feminism was all but completely interrupted when a hot pants-clad girl jumped onto our table, almost kicked our wine over and wiggled her bottom at us. Ah, yes, thanks. Goodbye.
The next morning, after a trip to the Internet cafe and the supermarket, I was feeling outdoorsy thanks to the stunning scenery, so I took myself on a walk/hike around the lake. Though it was drizzling a bit (shocker), it was a lovely trail and I walked for about two hours, getting me back just in time for another carol service at a local church- more progression in my mission to get into the Christmas spirit! Although a lovely service, it didn't help my mission that it was outside, on blankets, in the evening sun. "Are you on holiday," asked a local lady. "Ah, yes, I'm backpacking," I said. "I'm going home next week." "And where's home?" said she. "The New York City area- it'll be cold there! It's crazy that you guys do Christmas in summer." She laughed, "People from the Northern hemisphere always say that!" People from the what? I mean, I think of people as being from different countries, continents even, but never from another hemisphere! "Oh, those Northern hemisphereans, always causing trouble!" I don't know.
After the carol service I made some supper at the hostel and Grace came back from her day out at Milford Sound. Then together we went down to the lake with a cheap bottle of wine (Fat Bird- brilliant!) to meet up with friends I'd made on Fraser Island in Australia- the three lovely Dutch boys who'd taught us the 'Box Game': Roy, Roy and Ruud. We had a lovely time catching up, and it wasn't long after we'd replenished our beer and wine supply that the Queenstown police force paid us a visit. THIS is when I learned one cannot imbibe outdoors in NZ. Luckily a swift cover-up with a sweatshirt saved the Fat Bird, and the kindly officers went on their way. I felt 17 again, eluding the Darien PD. NOT that a drop of that sort of stuff ever crossed my lips before I turned 21. Ahem.
The next day Grace and I paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens, followed by lunch by the lake listening to some awesome live music and a stroll around a craft fair. In the evening we snagged another bottle of Fat Bird and went lakeside again, this time keeping the Bird concealed a bit better! After that, we went to a couple of bars as Grace had some coupons for cheap beverages and ended up dancing our faces off at a fine establishment called "The World Bar." Top night out.
The following day was my last in Queenstown, as I was to spend the next four of my last five nights with a Kiwi family friend, Kelly. When I was growing up in London, we had a nanny from New Zealand for about two years. Her name was Georgina, and I was about eight when she joined our family. George and Kelly are identical twins, and Kelly was also a nanny in England at the time, so I got to know her pretty well also. George is a teacher in Poland, and wasn't going to be home for the holidays, but Kelly lives in Invercargill and drove the two hours to Queenstown to pick me up. It had been 17 years since we'd seen one another, and both decided the other looked mostly the same! From Queenstown we went to see the old gold-mining town of Arrowtown and the remains of the Chinese settlement. Many Chinese came over in the 1800s to the gold mines and it was interesting to see how they lived. Kelly is a teacher as well, and often brings her students to Arrowtown, so she told me a lot of historical tidbits too.
After that we drove two or three hours down to Bluff, basically the most Southern point in NZ. From there, you're only 4800km from the South Pole! It was a bit windy and chilly, and Kelly's brother Phil wasn't around as she'd hoped, so after taking a picture to prove I'd been there we set off for Kelly's house in Invercargill. I cooked some dinner to thank Kelly for driving me all over creation (and there was much more to come), and afterwards George called from Poland and I was able to catch up with her for while which was excellent.
The next morning after breakfast we went to the Invercargill museum to see the tuatara. They're basically lizards, but they're amazing because they live for a hundred years or more, and are the closest things to dinosaurs still alive today as they've barely evolved. The 111-year-old tuatara Henry recently mated (perhaps for the first time! Oldest virgin ever for sure!) with spring chicken Mildred (only 80) and they had 11 baby tuatara who are so cute! They don't move much, the tuatara, or even really come out in the daytime, but Henry did make an appearance and they were a treat to see.
After that we went into town to pick up a few DVDs to watch at Kelly's brother's beach house later on, grabbed a coffee at the world's most Southern Starbucks (I'm generally anti the 'bucks- overpriced!- but this time the novelty overrode that!) and then began the third (and last- yay!) medical saga of my journey.
Sometime during my travels in Southeast Asia, I got two bites on the inside of my right forearm that were definitely NOT mosquito bites (I'm an expert in that department, let me tell you). They itched like nothing I'd ever known, and though I did my best not to scratch and put the itch stuff on, I would wake up in the night tearing at my skin. Soon enough, they turned into a right mess (I'll spare you the details) but what bothered me was that they appeared to be, well, moving. In a squiggly line, along my arm. I didn't like it. I showed them to Kelly and she decided we'd better stop by a pharmacy. So we did that, and they suggested going to the hospital. Thinking that this would be cheap (as NZ has a national health system, plus I could probably claim any costs back on travel insurance and once home I wouldn't be covered for this sort of thing), we went to the emergency room. "Oh, sure, we can see you," said the lady at the desk, "It'll be NZD$780 (USD$590)." Um, what? No, I don't think so. I wasn't dying (that I was aware of). They suggested an after hours clinic that might be cheaper, so we took the number and decided to check that out later on.
From the hospital, we set off for the beach house in Riverton. It was beautiful, right by the water which was a most shocking blue. We spent the afternoon watching two great Kiwi movies- The World's Fastest Indian, which starts Anthony Hopkins and the story basically put Invercargill on the map, and Boy, a very funny, smart new movie about a Maori boy growing up in the 1980s. I highly recommend both.
In the evening we had a lovely dinner at a local restaurant, The Beach House, and then went back to Invercargill to find this after-hours clinic. It was a no-go. For whatever reason, it wasn't open so we called the number and they suggested ANOTHER doctor to try in the morning. OK then, back to Riverton. We spent the rest of the evening watching a movie about the Topp Twins, who are Kiwi institution. They're a comedy act comprising lesbian yodeling twins. Trust me, they rock.
In the morning we tried the last doctor, but he sounded about 900-years-old and by that point I figured I'd probably live, plus I think I'd scared the bites into submission as they were looking a bit better. After breakfast, we headed over to Kelly's parents' house- Mr. and Mrs, or John and Lindy, Dobson. This was very exciting for me, as when George took care of us, we heard a lot about 'mum, dad and the farm'. Kelly took me for a drive around the farm- I even drove a little Rhino 4x4 ATV thing. It was INCREDIBLY windy that day, so much so that many homes in the region lost power, including the Dobsons. No problem, we spent the afternoon reading books and generally relaxing, and then at about 4 set off for the main event- Susie Hughes was going to milk a cow!
Overalls and wellies secured, we headed over to the, um, milkery? I actually don't know what it's called. Now, I'd love to tell you that I went all Little Bo Peep style or something: sitting on a three-legged stool with a bonnet on, milking Bessie by hand into wooden pails which I then carried across my shoulders to the barn so I could churn the milk into butter. Alas not. My task instead, given that cow milking technology has advanced so much, was to attach the four suction cups to the udders of one of the hundreds of cows. I was a bit nervous for two reasons: first, I was standing right under the cow's, ahem, back door and secondly, if she didn't like my technique she'd kick me. Eek! Luckily, it went off without a hitch, and for all intents and purposes, yours truly has milked a cow!
Back at the Dobsons' that evening, Mrs. D cooked us a lovely steak dinner, the power came back on and we relaxed in front of the telly until it was time for bed, as we were getting up early the next day for a visit to Milford Sound. It had been touch and go as to whether we'd even make it, as the main road had been closed the day before due to a landslide following all the wind and rain. Lucky for us, that had been cleared up, and Kelly, Sarah (the Dobsons' exchange student from Montana) and I set off for the four-hour or so drive. As it happened, we made great time and got to Milford early and got the next ferry going. Now, Milford Sound is famous worldwide for its absolutely stunningly breathtaking natural beauty. I'm sure this is the case, but I can't say for sure because, in true Susie style, drum roll please, IT WAS POURING WITH RAIN! The cruise was still a good time, however, and there was a certain romantic, melancholy beauty to the scenery with the fog shrouding the peaks and the waterfalls cascading- by the hundreds- down the mountains. It was MY Milford Sound experience, and I was happy with it and very grateful to Kelly for taking us.
That evening was my last with Kelly. Tired after our day out, we grabbed some pizza and back at her house, I performed the Great Backpack Evisceration of 2010. I discarded old clothes, no longer needed toiletries, grody socks and undies, torn up flip flops- you get the idea. By the time I was done, I'd got rid of about 17lbs of stuff. Excellent- why couldn't I have done that before, before the backpack wreaked so much havoc on my back that I'm destined to look like a hobbit before 30?!
The next day I was due to fly back to Auckland, so in the morning before going to the airport Kelly took me to the very pretty Queen's Park, and then we did some window shopping around town. Upon arrival at Invercargill domestic airport, I went to check in and was told that no ID was necessary, just my name, please. Oh, ok. Boarding pass in hand I readied my handbag for security, only to learn that there is none. NONE. NO security. No metal detector, no x-ray machine, not even a vague body frisk. I mean, there was no security in Madagascar either, but at least the metal detector was there, unplugged in a corner. Someone had at least had the right idea at some point! "But what if I had a gun in my bag?" I asked Kelly. "We trust people here," said she. Well, ok then. Loved the sentiment, hoped that no-one did indeed have a gun upon his person.
I was sad to say goodbye to Kelly, it had been a FABULOUS four days and a totally brilliant way to wind down my trip. I had a long journey back to Auckland via Christchurch where I had a four-hour layover. I thought about going to check out more of the city given that my time there before had been so short, but that involved spending money, and THAT I was not prepared to do! I arrived in Auckland at about 9pm and was at my hostel (where I'd stayed before) by 10. I went for a mosey around and some dinner as it was still quite light out. That's really the reason Kiwis don't go in for massive holiday decorations. What's the point of millions of lights if you can't put them on until 10:30 at night?
And, so, that was the last night of the whole adventure. After a sandwich and a bag of Maltesers (naughty I know, but it was the finale!), I was in bed by midnight. Perhaps it was a bit anti-climactic, but I was probably better off than if I'd gone out partying or something, given that I had a VERY long journey ahead of me the following day, Christmas Eve.
I woke up mid-morning and checked out of the hostel. I went for a walkabout, picking up some last minute gifts and souvenirs for fun and looking around a discount bookstore. Before long it was time to grab my bag and head back to Auckland airport, from whence I departed the 'Land of the Long White Cloud' bound for New York via Los Angeles- Haere Ra Aotearoa**, good times. Luckily, my Qantas flight wasn't full and I snagged two seats for myself. I couldn't sleep though because we departed at 4pm, and though technically flying overnight once we crossed the International Date Line, I just couldn't do it. I arrived in LA at 6:30 in the morning, on the same day, and therefore began Christmas Eve once again! Once through customs (a breeze! The guy didn't even look at all the bizarre stamps in there!), I reclaimed my bag, rechecked my bag, and got right back on the same plane I'd just gotten off. Against what I considered to be all odds, I arrived at JFK only 30 minutes late and it wasn't long before I was on the road back to Connecticut with my dad and brother who had kindly sacrificed part of Christmas Eve to come and get me! Thanks fellas!
And it was over. I was home safe and sound. I SHOULD have gone straight to bed when I got home, but I couldn't let the Epic Voyage end like that, so I cracked a bottle of wine, invited my good friend Matt over to booze with me and tipsily wrapped my Christmas presents while we hung out with my mom.
The days since I've returned have been a whirlwind- I'm still not totally back down to earth, I don't think. The blog isn't going to end though folks, don't you worry about that! I've convinced myself that you must be on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out how I feel now that I'm home, what I've learned and what I'm going to do next. Even if that's not true, I'm going to keep writing, because I really love doing it.
Until then (and it won't be long), THANK YOU, ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls, old friends, new friends and family, for accompanying me on my Epic Voyage. It was a pleasure to have you along for the ride.
*Maori for Hello/Greetings New Zealand
**Maori for Goodbye New Zealand