Happy Campers

When we picked up the campervan in Christchurch, the guy showed us all of its salient features: here’s how to work the stove, here’s the hose for dumping wastewater, here’s the latch for the gas tank. He showed us where the dishes and the bedding were kept in the cabinets in the front and back of the roof extension. In hindsight, we should have taken a closer look into these cabinets, but we were way too anxious to get on the road to be concerned with such things. As previously stated, it rained all day and once we pulled into the campsite in Geraldine, we were ready for some dinner – our first cooking experience in the van. Upon opening the cabinet where the dishes were kept, the unmistakable smell of mildew wafted out and I realized that this cabinet, which was covered in carpet, was soaking wet. All of the dishes were covered in black mildew. Luckily, the bedding fared slightly better – only one pillow, a sheet, and some towels fell victim to the water. So we washed all of the dishes and decided to cook our dinner of sausages and potatoes in the campground kitchen. If we hadn’t, we would probably still be smelling like sausages.

In the morning after a full night of pouring rain, we got ready to drive to Lake Tekapo where we thought we would stay before making our way to Mt. Cook. We battened down the hatches and started to drive out to the road. We hadn’t gone more than two meters before a rushing wall of water came pouring from the roof extension into the van soaking the seat cushions, the bedding, and the backpacks. With every centimeter forward more water poured out and it refused to be controlled. The mocking “Happy Camper” logo on the side of the van became extremely ironic.

After finally getting a handle on the water, we turned our attention to the growing amount of snow accumulating on the side of the road. It was navigable without chains, but it was still snowing, so we thought we had better find the park at Lake Tekapo and call it a day. We had already had enough. Sigh…Little did we know…

The woman’s voice over the intercom at the park office informed us that they weren’t taking any more campers because there was a danger that they might get stuck. Then she said, “Well, do you have chains?”

We did. She said that we could give it a try and come pay if we were able to get to a spot. Adam put the chains on while I sat inside cheering him on, and we tried to climb the hill to get to the campsites. Needless to say we got stuck halfway up and had to back down. I know I keep coming back to this, but if that had been me, I would have parked there and waited for the snow to melt. What? I’ve got plenty of supplies. I can wait. But Adam got us and the campervan down in one piece and we parked again to regroup. Having no idea what the weather would be like further down the road, we set off anyway and it promptly cleared up. Not a trace of snow. And like that, our terrible morning took a turn for the better as we parked at the visitors’ center near Twizel (that’s Twy-zel), to gawk at Lake Pukaki. It’s amazing how natural beauty can lift the spirits. In fact, in the picture we took there we’re both kind of smiling (Lake Pukaki is a funny name). At the visitors’ center it was possible to book a tour to see right nearby the scene of the largest battle in The Lord of the Rings. I find it hard to keep all of those battles straight, so I had no idea which one this was, but there was no way I was going on one of those tours anyway. There are about 500 different LOTR tours in New Zealand all claiming to be the best and most authentic. One tour offered simply a look at the spot where the shire was filmed. The shire set was no longer there, but you could see the location. Then you got to go to the hobbit-themed lodge that was available for meetings, parties, and weddings. I can only imagine the nightmarish theme weddings that have taken place there. The bride dressed in all of her Arwen finery standing next to the groom dressed as Aragorn (perhaps with his crown on his head. Certainly he wears Arwen’s magic elfin amulet and is armed with his limited edition reproduction of Anduril). The officiant dressed as Gandalf instructs the groom to place the “one ring to rule them all” on the bride’s finger (in Elvish, of course) as a host of elves, dwarves, and hobbits applauds and an army of orcs waits to crash the reception. Good lord.

When we got to the relatively dry snow-free campsite, Adam gave the old campervan company a call to chat about our leakage problem which they surely must have been aware of. The solution provided was for us to drive over to the mechanic in town so that he could take a look. I’m sorry that we had to waste our time driving over there when it was obvious that nothing could be done about it, but I am glad that we got to encounter John the mechanic.

John was an older gentleman who looked and sounded, as Adam said, like he could be one of Brad Pitt’s carnie buddies in the movie Snatch. His dark, deeply lined skin was smeared with black here and there under his knit cap. In his grease-covered hand he clutched the butt of a cigarette and he gave off the distinct air that he did not give a fuck. He walked around the campervan scoffing audibly at the person who knew so little about vehicle maintenance that he would tell us to bring it to him as if there was something he could do about it. His estimation was that “the whole fucking thing” needed to be resealed and he certainly couldn’t do that in this weather. He gave a derisive snort after the person on the phone at the campervan company asked him to tape up the leaks. “He doesn’t know what the fucking hell he’s talking about.”

The two ivory spears that pierced his eyebrows pointed inwards as he crinkled his brow at the stupidity of it all. Yes, John was the man. The kind of man that you think of when you think of a real rugged existence in a harsh landscape. The kind of man who makes you wonder why you ever give a fuck.

The only other remedy was to drive back to Christchurch and exchange the van for a new one. In the end we decided not to drive back, but to stay the course. Blocking the water channels with the already ruined towels and sheet, we got ready to head off to Mt. Cook.

Apparently the universe had decided that we had had enough punishment and the rain stopped, and yes, even the sun made an appearance. We took advantage of our good fortune by hiking up a short trail to Mueller glacier. Then it was off on a longer hike to Hooker Lake and glacier.

After crossing two swing bridges a la Indiana Jones and tromping through rocks, snow, slush and mud, we came to the lake and the glacier. There was no one there but the two of us. I remember the first time I went to the UK I saw shades of green that I had truly never encountered before. It seems impossible that you could live your life without seeing every shade in the spectrum, but you don’t realize what you’re missing until you see a brand new color. On this day I saw glacier blue. If you’ve never seen a glacier before you may think you know what glacier blue is, but you don’t. I didn’t. And it was everywhere – in the river rushing below the bridges, in the lake, on the mountain. And Mount Cook itself, although not that high (although it is the tallest in New Zealand) looked, dare I say it, mystical with the sun barely breaking through the thick clouds that surrounded it. It’s the kind of beauty that makes you emotional.

Now, lest you think that I had some kind of conversion moment, let me explain that when I say “mystical” I don’t mean in the new age sense or the religious sense. I mean that the mountain is mystical in a way that makes one contemplate the mysteries of “life, the universe and everything.” It becomes an apt metaphor for what we know about ourselves and the world that we inhabit. And it’s the kind of place that led me to think about Life of Pi. In the book Yann Martel implies, as many others have, that people believe in religion because they want to believe in “the better story.” That the stories in any religious text are more fantastic than the “mundane” explanation. However, a place like this is liable to give someone a conversion experience of the opposite kind. When I come to a place such as this, I find it impossible to believe that any story is greater than the real story that is unfolding right in front of me: the creaking of the glacier, the rumbling of the rocks as they slide down the mountain and splash into the lake, the water that has slowly carved the paths that we follow. To me, to say that God simply created these things and the people who marvel at them is a cop out. It’s way too deus ex machina, Dorothy wakes up and it’s all a dream. Isn’t the better story 4 billion-odd years of evolution? The unfathomable circumstances that had to come about in order for us to be here?

But mostly I had the same feeling that I had one day a few years ago when, on a Tuesday afternoon when most people are at work, I was sitting on a donkey, climbing up the steep cliffs of the Greek island of Santorini overlooking the sea and I had this profound feeling that I was one lucky bitch. Of course luck doesn’t have much to do with it, does it? My choices in life led me there, led me here. But had the circumstances of my birth been different, things may have turned out quite differently. As it is, I’m glad that they didn’t. Standing there in front of that scene, I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

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