Middle Man in Middle Earth

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, July 25, 2013 was originally posted on August 06, 2013.

PART 13 (DAY 26-32): There are different types of tourists that travel around New Zealand. Those with a limited timeframe of two weeks or less — mostly Americans — often do a package tour to pack as much as they can with an organized schedule, even with the 13-16 hour timezone difference. Others may stay put at a luxury resort, and play golf or something. And for the past decade, director Peter Jackson’s country of birth has seen an influx of Lord of the Rings nerds, who come to experience their beloved Middle Earth. There are several companies that offer tours to film locations — some even with costumes and re-enactments by other nerds.

As for the independent backpacker set — those who have weeks, months, or even a year at their disposal — many choose to do the common cost-effective thing of renting and sharing a camper van, to travel from place to place at their own pace. The parks department makes it easy to do, with well-marked signs on all roads and hiking trails, and plenty of designated areas for “freedom camping,” where one can park, prop the camper’s tent up, and spend the night to relax with a few outdoor brewskis.

Of course, the camping thing is best done during the warmer spring and summer months (October through May), especially since the huts along New Zealand’s world-class hiking trails are closed for the winter. The colder months do allow for camping — people still do it with tents on the trails — but a lot of what the winter tourism scene is about involves snow sports, particularly on South Island.

After a mediocre experience at the local ski area of the Remarkables, I had convinced myself to go heli-boarding with the Harris Mountains Heli-Ski company — for real snowboarding in alpine powder. However, it wasn’t so easy to do during my week-long stay.

“[The weather doesn’t look good,]” said Chris from the Harris Mountains Heli-Ski desk in The Station, the building in Queenstown where you can book all adventure/extreme sports and activities. “Maybe Friday,” he informed me, looking at the week’s weather prediction on the computer. He explained to me how the past couple of days were either too windy or too cloudy to get a chopper in the mountains, and that there was already a list of people waiting for a permissible day. I realized then how I’d see their daily flyers posted around town with the weather report on it, along with the words “NOT FLYING TODAY.”

“Why don’t you go to Milford and come back [to Queenstown] and we’ll see,” he suggested, referring to the popular day trip to Milford Sound on the southwest coast. “The weather changes all the time. But we’ll sort it out.”

And with that said, I was grounded for a few days, looking for things to do and people to meet.

THERE IS ANOTHER GROUP OF TRAVELERS IN NEW ZEALAND, who aren’t really in transit every few days or weeks at a time, for they settle in a place and look for jobs to support themselves. Usually these are Aussies, Brits, Scots, or Irish kids on “gap year” — that year that many young people of these nationalities take off between high school and university. It’s during this year that they are meant to take a break from academia to find themselves and immerse in another culture, which in reality, usually translates to finding work to support nightly bar tabs when drinking amongst their own kind. Ah, youth.

Some of these Gap Year Kids stayed where I did, at the Southern Laughter Lodge and Backpackers Hostel on the edge of town, just far enough from the noise of Queenstown’s thriving nightlife to either walk two blocks and be a part of it, or stay in and veg out. The place was decent and clean, with old funnies hung on the walls and jokes painted outside, like “Blonde jokes are short so men can remember them,” “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder,” and my personal favorite, “Breasts without nipples are pointless.” (Get it?) I stayed in two private rooms during my stay there, first one called “The Love Shack” and then another (generically, Room 15A) with a better view.

I usually opt to stay in hostels when traveling solo; they are the best places to meet people — especially other solo travelers, as you’ve read time and time again if you’ve followed this blog since The Big Trip. (You may recall those moments I met Navid, Lara, David Sebastian, and Lily at hostels.) Usually I hang out in the common area and join conversations of people trading travel tips, and bonds are formed naturally, if only for the day. However, it was different in Queenstown; many of the Gap Year Kids staying there didn’t trade travel tips; they talked about work, or where to find work if they were broke. Fortunately for them, Southern Laughter provided a big pot of delicious vegetable and couscous soup each night — sort of like a self-service soup kitchen for anyone staying there.

It was particularly hard to break the ice with these “1995ers” — young millenials, or rather, whatever label there is for the group of 18 and 19 year-olds that is coming up after the mid-20s millenials demographic. Not only were they really unrelatable to my thirtysomething Gen X self, but they either just talked amongst their established cliques or buried their faces in their mobile phones, surfing Facebook and Instagram — you know, social networks that actually make you anti-social in real life.

Is this what backpacking is these days? I wondered. Or is it just because I’m in Gap Year Central?

I made small talk with a few of the Gap Year Kids, around the dining table and in the lounge where movies like Home Alone and Cowboys & Aliens were on TV. (I also sat through a viewing of Twister, and it transported me back to that tornado chasing trip I did in 2007.) I made no real connections, except for this one night when I made friends with the other person there that stuck out like a sore thumb.

“I’m at the age where I could be everyone’s mother here,” said Andrea, fiftysomething(?) grey-haired woman from suburban Ontario, who was taking advantage of the long vacation time teachers like her get.

“I’m right in between that,” I admitted to her. I think she pegged me for late 20s. Regardless of our age gap, Andrea was the only one I could actually have an adult conversation with amongst all the Gap Year Kids, who pretty much brushed her off. Our chat was a nice change from the glows of mobile phones, discussing independent travel — we’re so old school, we still use the Lonely Planet guide book, which younger people thought was odd — but it only lasted for a night; Andrea left early the next morning.

I made a new friend on the other side of the age spectrum during that day trip to Milford Sound that I had arranged with Southern Discoveries. Saskia, from a small village in Germany, was also traveling solo, and I assumed she was in my demographic when the bus picked her up at a hotel outside of town.

“Are you staying at that hotel?” I asked her. I figured she was old enough not to have to stay in a hostel of Gap Year Kids.

“[No, I’m doing couchsurfing. The hotel is the closest place to where I’m staying,]” she answered. Apparently she was another kid about to go to university, traveling on the super cheap before studying. Regardless of our age gap, we gave each other company that day as our quirky bus driver/guide Bruce took us out of Queenstown to Te Anau, the Fiordland gateway town on Lake Te Anau that is normally bustling in the summer, but a virtual ghost town during our winter pitstop. From there, we stopped at several places for photo ops en route to Milford Sound: the Mirror Lakes by the Earl Mountains, Christie Falls, Monkey Creek, falling ice-prone Gertrude Valley (where it started snowing), the Homer Tunnel, the Cleddau Valley on the other side, and The Chasm of the Cleddau River — where we encountered curious Kea birds (but didn’t feed them).

A rainbow greeted us when we arrived at the docks of Milford Sound, where we boarded a boat for lunch and a 90-minute cruise to the Tasman Sea and back, through the fjord. More rainbows were seen as our captain — who did the tour so often he could steer with his feet — brought us through the off-and-on fog to points of interest: Fairy Falls, Seal Rock (yes, those are real seals in that photo), Stirling Falls, Mount Pembrooke and Harrison Cove, and Bowen Falls.

“Can you take a picture of me?” Saskia would ask me throughout the day whenever we were on the deck and not eating at a table together. She asked it often enough that it became an unspoken assumed question, and she’d just smile and pass me her camera. However, any sense of bonding we had that day fleeted fast. In fact, when she left the bus to the hotel near her couchsurfing stay back in Queenstown, she didn’t even say goodbye.


“[SO I GUESS WE’RE NOT FLYING TODAY?]” I asked Alana, marketing manager of Harris Mountains Heli-Ski, who became my other liaison with the company. It was Friday, the day that was supposed to have cleared up weather-wise, but clouds had come in again. Queenstown, like most of the world, was having weird, unpredictable weather patterns as of late.

“Maybe tomorrow, but it’s looking more like Sunday,” Alana told me. “How long do you have?” She implied that we might not fly until Monday. I explained to her that for a change of scenery, I was going to spend the weekend in Wanaka, a smaller lake town about an hour away. Fortunately, Harris Mountains Heli-Ski had an office there too — which was actually closer to the helipad. “No worries,” Alana told me with confident optimism. She even had my all rentals extended from the Snowbiz gear shop down the hall at no charge — and she’d even arranged to have it brought to Wanaka for me on whichever day we flew, so I didn’t have to lug it myself. “Everyone’s laid back here. It shouldn’t be a problem.” And it wasn’t.

I still had time to kill in Queenstown before my hotel reservation in Wanaka. Mostly I killed time over the week wandering around town solo, from Queenstown Gardens, with its frisbee golf course, to Lake Wakatipu harbor, where fire jugglers performed, musicians jammed with each other, and Segway tours zipped by. I ate at Fergburger and Fergbaker next door for meat pies, green-lipped New Zealand mussels (crumbed not battered), and sesame breadsticks from the local supermarket. One afternoon, I rented a bike to ride from residental Queenstown to neighboring Frankton and back, on the Frankton Track along Lake Wakatipu. But on my last day in Queenstown before moving on, I set up an impromptu Lord of the Rings tour as soon as I found out Friday’s flight was canceled. Rather than ride in a helicopter, I’d ride on a horse with Dart Stables’ “Ride of the Rings” tour.

“PARADISE IS FREEZING!” I said to, uh, break the ice, no pun intended. No one really laughed though. I was the lone American cowboy riding in single file in between two couples, Australian and Scottish, both of which weren’t very outwardly social. The two guys of the respective pairs were well-versed in Tolkien’s universe and appreciated the locations more than casual me.

Our guide Rachel in front of the single file of horses took us through Paradise, an actual town and nature preserve (population: 6) about 45 minutes from Queenstown — beyond Peter Jackson’s holiday home on Lake Wakatipu — where several scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed, as well as some parts of the upcoming second Hobbit movie, The Lovely Bones (also directed by Peter Jackson), and Wolverine — not the new one based in Japan, but the old one that was supposed to be in Canada. Winter in Paradise was in fact, freezing — or just very cold — and I definitely didn’t have enough layers on as we rode through scenes of Middle Earth: the edge of Lothlorien, where the Fellowship regrouped after escaping Moria — without Gandalf; Amon Hen, where Boromir died; the treeline where Merry and Pipping emerged from the Enchanted Forest with the Ents; and, most impressively the Valley of Isengard (picture above). At one point, some feisty off-duty horses blocked the trail, and someone made a “You shall not pass!” joke. It too didn’t get a big reaction.

Tough crowd.

Things were better in the town of Wanaka, about an hour’s drive away north through the Crown Range and Cardrona Valley. Saskia had described it to me as “like Queenstown, but smaller,” and when I got there, I knew exactly what that meant. It too was on a lake — Lake Wanaka in this case, with its iconic tree growing out of it — and had similar bars, cafes, and adventure outfitters, just with a much smaller quantity. (There was also a smaller number of Asian tourists feeding seagulls than Queenstown.) If you could walk the entire downtown area of Queenstown in 45 minutes, you can do it in Wanaka in 15, and I did. Like Te Anau, it too was a little sleepy in the winter, which made it super laid back — and without Gap Year Kid drama. Or perhaps it’s because Wanaka is more of a “real” town, as opposed to a “resort” town like Queenstown. Locals gathered to watch the local rugby match at the Upper Clutha Club, while others took to the Glendhu Bay Track, an awesome running, hiking, and single-track bike trail that hugged the lake from Wanaka to Glendhu Bay. (Three hours back and forth.)

Despite Wanaka’s smaller size, it was there that I had a finally had a quintessential night out with Dave, a fellow “middle man” at the “old” age of 25 — old enough not to be a Gap Year Kid and actually have a steady, well-paying job that could allow him to travel on a whim for a week, away from his home in Perth. It was with him that I went out on the town (town being 4 blocks wide), bar hopping from the touristy Speight’s Ale House, with all its proud microbrews, to the smaller bars two blocks away where there were in fact Gap Year Kids — in smaller, manageable quantities.

I didn’t make friends with Dave at a hostel though. I stayed at the budget-conscious, but very lovely Wanaka Hotel, while he stayed elsewhere. We actually befriended each other in a van — one that drove us to the helicopter that finally took us, and several others, on the ride of our lives on a beautifully clear and sunny day…


Dave from Perth was, to my surprise, the first non-American I’ve met who actually raved about American beer. (Usually I get the repetitive comment, “American beer is shit.”) Granted, he was basing his opinion on a trip to Colorado, where he had nothing but local microbrews, and only explored America’s growing craft beer market. Alright, U.S.A.!

Next entry: Hello, Heli.

Previous entry: Beautiful, Yet Remarkably Mediocre

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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

Next entry:
Hello, Heli.

Previous entry:
Beautiful, Yet Remarkably Mediocre


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