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It is winter here.  I haven’t seen any snowfall yet, only crusty, frosty piles on the sunless southern sides of mountains and on the tops of the larger peaks I see in the distance, but it is winter, unmistakably.  The tourists have gone home, the towns look closed-down and nearly devoid of life.  Trees have shed their colorful fall drapes.  The sun shines for less than nine hours a day, and even then its zenith is low and to the north, as if it’s too much effort to climb far from the horizon.  It is not a time for traveling.

My luck with the weather, all sunshine and clear skies, continued after I left Fox Glacier, where I wrote my last update.  I drove south along the west coast, giving Andy (the skinny Brit who hiked the Copland Track with me) a ride as far as the Haast township, then moved on alone, driving in a pinkish dusk through the alps via the Haast Pass.  Where the west coast is lush and leafy green, the eastern side of the mountains is brown, gray, and barren, and the shift from one landscape to the other is surprisingly quick: a blink, and suddenly the ferns become tussock, and the forest becomes open land.  The constant parade of mountains, waterfalls, bluffs, rivers, lakes, hills and intense open sky on the drive to Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring Nat’l Park became a blur after a while.  My senses were full; I was numb.  In Wanaka, I drove into the National Park and along the Matukituk (mah-took-e-took) Valley, and did a short hike up Mt. Iron, overlooking Lake Wanaka and the mountains around it, but I’m not sure that I even took out my camera.  I noted each vista, acknowledged its beauty, but after a while, there’s just too much.  Instead of roaming the hills around the town, I spent two days with Angus, my artist friend from Wellington (he’s recently moved to the South Island), watching movies, getting takeaway curry and catching up on his recent trip to Nepal.  I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – there’s nothing like friends to make one feel at home, even halfway across the world from home.

From one friend to another – Anja!  We had a happy reunion in Queenstown before driving around Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy and preparing for a five day tramp in Mt. Aspiring National Park.  The Routeburn Track is designated one of NZ’s “Great Walks,” like the Lake Waikaremoana Track I did on the North Island.  Our plan was to cover the Routeburn in three days, then connect to another nearby track, the Greenstone, making it a five day loop.  Only one word can possibly start to cover our trip: WOW.  Not even a word, just an exclamation, an amazed, disbelieving exhalation of breath.  The trip was incredible.  It’s a surprisingly easy walk, but one that is hugely rewarding.  The trail features a full day (seven hours of walking) above the treeline.  Our day in this alpine zone was perfection.  Truly not to be believed.  Not a cloud in the sky, not even a whisper of wind or a small cluster of fog to obscure our views – mountains above, behind, rivers and fiords below, and tarns, waterfalls, rocks, and sunshine all around.  And a good friend to share it with.  I value my independence, and savor my moments of solitude in the mountains, but this time it meant even more to stare out at the trail ahead and then turn to grin at Anja, not needing to speak a word because I know we’re both thinking the same thing.

The sky at night on the track was starry and cold – the huts were cold as well.  We slept in wool hats and mittens, and begged our bladders to hold on until sunrise, not wanting to leave our sleeping bags until the light had begun to melt the frost and ice on the path to the long drop toilets.  One night I bundled into my ski jacket and climbed to the helicopter pad outside one of the huts to look at the stars with Kevin, a blonde, Canadian stoner.  The mountains that ringed the valley (on whose side we were perched) framed the sky in a long, ragged oval. Not wanting to lie on the cold ground, Kevin and I stood on the edge of the landing pad and stretched backwards, bending our backs impossibly until we had caught the entire expanse of sky in our line of sight.  Our vision dominated by purplish starlight, our voices strained by the angle of our backs and necks, we marveled.  “I’ve like, just realized our infinite smallness, man,” Kevin whispered, awed.

Rain in this region of the country is inevitable, and we counted ourselves lucky to have just one morning of heavy falls.  Where the trail was stone, tiny pieces of jade and ruby glistened like wet silver from the crushed rocks underfoot.  Lower in the valley the rain turned the trail to mud.  Anja had commented earlier that traipsing through this country makes her feel as if she’s an elf in the Lord of the Rings.  This day, in the rain, she amended, “Today, I feel like an orc, marching through the mud.”

I asked,”So if we’re orcs, does that mean we should be thinking evil thoughts about killing hobbits and taking over the world?”

“No, I think the orcs feel the same way that we do – ‘Oh, why am I here, marching in the mud, I wish I was in front of a fire with a cup of tea!'”

After the hike, the night before I had to bring Anja to the bus station (she’s flying back to Germany), we slept in Dr. Gonzo in a deserted campground in the middle of a sheep paddock outside of Queenstown.  It was already dark by the time we parked, and a slight wind nipped at any bits of exposed skin.  The two of us squished into the enclosed long drop toilet (think plastic port-o-potty) with my cook stove, seeking shelter to boil water for instant soup and noodles.  Back in the front seat of the car, we prepare the rest of our dinner using the arm rest, dashboard, and our laps, cutting up cheese and buttering bread while our hot soup steams up the windows.  “Dinner at home is going to be so boring!” Anja declares.  Backpacking is a test of resourcefulness, ingenuity, inventiveness, flexibility.  It pushes the boundaries of one’s ability and also one’s basic needs – how much, exactly, can you live without?  It’s this challenge that appeals to me.  One’s living standards are drastically lowered.  Things unthinkable become acceptable and fussy concerns are forgotten.  Not showering, not having a dry towel or dry clothes.  Weird combinations of food because it’s what there is (boiled potatoes and canned asparagus pieces, potatoes and half-cooked lentils, beetroot on crackers, rice with cheese, carrots and tuna).  Sleeping in the same clothes I’ve been wearing for a week straight.  Stripping naked in a hut full of people.  Cooking in campground bathrooms.  Getting smelly.  Getting downright stinky.  Having a pee on the side of the road next to my car.  Living out of the car.  Dr. Gonzo’s become my house – bedroom, living room, kitchen, wardrobe, garage, pantry, office, library, tool shed.  Everything in its place, all the essentials within reach from the driver’s seat.  It’s a good lesson in simplification, one that I hope to bring home with me.

This life, lived intensely for most of May, this hiking, living out of the car, cooking on my small stove, packing certain things and not others, learning what kinds of food to buy, walking day after day after day has come to feel routine.  I think I’m getting the hang of it, and oh, it feels good.  And yet, just as I’m feeling at my most self-sufficient, fit, equipped and prepared, I lose the plot.  Brick wall.  As I mentioned earlier, this is winter.  I’ve had good weather thus far, but it’s getting progressively colder.  After saying goodbye to Anja, I drove to Te Anau, west of Queenstown, and then pointed the Doc due north, heading for the legendary Milford Sound.  The drive is intense – the landscape almost too wild and rugged to be beautiful.  Sheer rock faces, mountains layered impenetrably, like a stone barbed wire fence between humanity and the remote fiords.  Even in the late afternoon, the road was still frosty in large areas, shunned by the sun.  The Homer Tunnel, a truly gutsy piece of engineering, little more than a wormhole, bores straight through the mountains and provides access to the coast.  Unlit except for the Doc’s headlamps, edges unsmoothed by tiles, the tunnel is an imposing black cave of dripping sharp rocks.

I camped for the night, in the car, at a trail head.  It got dark fast, and with the dark came cold.  The mountains seemed to loom, ominous, unforgiving, cold, completely indifferent to my presence.  I felt my aloneness as a physical pressure.  I am tiny, insignificant, and I don’t belong within these peaks.  Humanity doesn’t belong within them.  They’re too big, too sublime and awful and sharp.  It’s frightening.  My desire to continue this trip is freezing over.  At this point, I still had two weeks before I had to be back in Methven to work, but this all felt like the last gasp, like I was running out of luck and out of energy.  I’m tired.  This was my state of mind as I shivered over dinner, and then bundled up to sleep.  It was a rough night.  My legs seemed to get more sleep than I did, boastful with pins and needles.  The nights are so long.  And so cold. It’s dark by five, and not light again until 8:30, fifteen endless hours later.  Cold has become my constant companion, clinging with icy nails to my bones, in my hands worst of all.  The word, “cold” is a tangible being, demanding attention and siphoning energy.  It’s the constancy, I suppose, that makes this unbearable. Cold while cooking dinner, cold getting ready for bed, cold in bed, and waking up, there’s ice on the car and air laced with frost waiting to claim me.  It’s relentless, and it wears away at a person.  Hot food, tea, and mittens reclaim frozen flesh, but only momentarily, and never completely.  And each time you get a little less warm, and then a little less again.

And with that, I retreated.  From being hardcore, on top of the elements, I’ve shifted to the other extreme, humbled.  I spent a few days in Te Anau at a backpacker’s homestay, then a couple of nights in Cromwell with the parents of my friend Jim from Wellington, quietly, wonderingly grateful.  Warmth, lights, running hot water, a bed, facilities, laundry, proper cooked food.  The little things, too.  A fire, a duvet, a mirror.  A drying rack.  Books.  A soft black cat.  People to talk to.  Walls, doors, and windows between me and the elements.  I could have wept with relief.  Fifteen days out of twenty days of traveling, I’d been outside, or in the car, or in a hut.  Fifteen nights of fighting the cold, of cooking, washing, living as a constant adventure/challenge/struggle.  No wonder I’m tired.

At the moment, I’m back on familiar ground, staying with Moni in Tekapo, relaxing before I begin work on Tuesday.  It’s been a fun month, but I’m missing you all a lot.  Be well, my friends.

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