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keas and slivovica

Arthur’s Pass – the town at the highest elevation in NZ, and about a kilometer away from the mountain pass of the same name. I spent three frosty, cold (but fantastic) days camping for free next to the Bealey River, cooking on my tiny little Trangia stove, and shooing the noisy keas away from Dr. Gonzo. Keas are a native NZ mountain parrot – grayish green, with bright red-orange underwings. Highly inquisitive birds with an appetite for windscreen wiper blades and the rubber moulding around car doors. Still, pleasant, entertaining company for my time in the Pass. Coming off of two months in Tekapo and Methven and then the city last weekend, this was a much needed wilderness retreat. Cold, though. Air temp 3 degrees celsius (about 36 F), ground temp -15 C (5 F!) – heavy, thick frost on the tent, the ground and the car every morning. Note to self – buy a windshield scraper! I was sleeping with every non-cotton article of clothing I own – long underwear, fleece, polypropylene, wool mittens, hat, my hooded sweatshirt, thick woolly socks – all bundled into my sleeping bag on my foam ground-cover. I’ve never savored my morning tea quite so much as these three mornings as I huddled over the cooking stove, shivering and commanding the water to boil faster. Hiked up Avalanche Peak (1800 meters) under a bright, hot sun and shared the tiny, jagged summit with about ten keas, all squawking and trying to sneak up on my lunch. Fantastic views, 360 degrees of mountains, glaciers, snow, rock and tussock. If you know me at all, you know I was in heaven.

Drove the rest of the way through the Pass, emerging on the west coast! The Tasman Sea! I haven’t been this close to the open ocean in two whole months, and as I drive, windows down, sunglasses on, warm salty air on my tongue, I feel like I’ve been given a brand new lease on summer. The west coast is a different world – from the desert of Tekapo to the lush, misty green rainforested hills of Hokitika and Okarito. Spend one night in my car on the beach in Hokitika, playing around with my camera on the smooth-stoned, tree graveyard of a beach, then drive south to Okarito. Like a little piece of paradise – a town right on the edge of the sea, 25km from anywhere, home to only 30 permanent residents. Just houses, a kayak rental shop, one backpacker’s accom., and a campground, which is where I set up shop. Best $7 I ever paid for accommodation – lovely grassy lots for tents, hot showers, a 3 1/2-walled shelter complete with a couch, chairs, fridge, tables, and the wild, crashing sea just 50m away. After a hot shower and a tasty meal (cooking on a cookstove is a lot easier when one is indoors, out of the wind), I got to know my neighbor for the night – a Czech man named Lumir. A photographer and laid-back adventurer, Lumir is the embodiment of The Traveler, and an inspiring example of a fulfilled life. His photography and his philosophy went right to my soul, and for the last day I’ve felt hugely inspired and happy, simply from being in his company. We huddled on the cement floor of the men’s toilet at the campground (it’s the only place that had an electrical outlet) and pored through his photos on his laptop, sharing my sleeping bag and a liter of “slivovica” (sliv-vo-vitz-a: potent, homemade czech liquor) against the cold.

So, two days in paradise with a new friend, and now I’m in glacier country! Franz Josef yesterday (overrated) and Fox today (significantly more interesting and exciting). And now, my internet time is up! Stay tuned, faithful readers…

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