Saturday, February 19, 2005

NZ

This place is amazing. The past week has been a total blur of driving around, looking at stuff (generally with my mouth hanging open), drinking, dealing with sleep deprivation, and then drinking more anyway. I find it really remarkable that I haven't gotten sick, actually. Aside from the party aspect, with which I've become very well acquainted and have to say that I highly approve, the actual natural splendor of New Zealand--which was my original reason for coming here--is nothing short of stunning.

I don't think it's possible to oversell the landscape here. Nothing can prepare you for anything like this. Our very first morning out we drove over Haast Pass towards the west coast and encountered a low cloud snaking across the foothills of the mountains. Those mountains were sharp and steep, and covered with the most lush greenery I've ever seen. I think Hawaii comes closest, but even that still seems somewhat patchy compared to this. There were waterfalls everywhere. In short, a tropical paradise. But, like, cold. It was probably around 50 degrees out, plus rain and wind. But no tropical paradise is really complete with a parrot or two, and I got my first look at a kea, a mountain parrot and apparently one of the most intelligent birds in the world. They're also damn cute. They didn't fly around too much, instead hanging around on the ground doing this little sideways skip to move about.

A couple days later we got to Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu--Polynesian names are fun to say--which is a bit further south on the southern island of NZ (I still haven't seen the northern island, but based on reviews from other travelers I think I picked the right one for my week here). It was in this area that they filmed Lord of the Rings. Again, stunning, but in a completely different way. The hills here are, for the most part, barren. There are a few trees in some places but it's amazing to see these golden mountains just stretch up out of blue mountain lakes and go so high. It looks like such a forbidding landscape and you have to wonder at the logic of people who decided living here was a good idea. But while we were in Queenstown we paid a visit to Milford Sound, in Fiordland, and forbidding doesn't even begin to describe it.

Fjordland National Park is one of the biggest in the world, and it's estimated that no human has ever been within 100m of 98% of it. And when you see it, you can understand why. I've never seen anything like these mountains. Steep is an understatement; they must go up at angles of 60, 65 degrees. On average. There's water everywhere. We went on a rainy day and there were literally thousands of waterfalls to be seen everywhere, pouring out of crevices, snaking over the rocks. And then there were the big ones that fell into the sound itself. These make Yosemite Falls look like a poorly-done experiment... they easily matched its height, but the volume of water was overwhelming.

As we left the park, we stopped off at one place to walk up and look at a stone crevasse that had been created by the water. The water had eaten out a gap that was now thirty or forty feet down, the rock itself now carved into smooth, wavelike formations. But the most amazing detail was the trees. The most common tree in the fiordlands is the beech tree, which lives for about 80 or so years and then rots and falls over due to the wind, the rain, and/or the snow, all of which exist in abundance there. Some get caught in the runoff and end up in streams like this one. In one part of the rock the water had carved out a hole, about 20 feet above where the water level was when we were there (on a day in which it was raining plenty). This hole had 3 or 4 full-sized tree trunks sticking out of it. Think of the force of the water that threw them in there. There were a number of others lying about the area too... you'd think some beavers had been at work, though it'd take a friggin' insane beaver to decide that that narrow gorge was a good place for a dam.

Milford Sound was easily the highlight of my visit here, despite all the wind and rain (I wasn't exactly equipped for such weather, seeing as how the other six weeks of my travels were spent in much hotter climates). Here again the vegetation was so lush that it actually seemed otherworldly, particularly in contrast to all the rock faces elsewhere. The southern island of New Zealand is stunning, breathtaking, awesome, spectacular, and just about every other adjective in that vein you can think of. This is a place you have to see before you die.

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