On the second to last day in the South island, we drove from Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast over Arthur’s Pass. We stopped a couple of times, but the best was the stop where we saw a gaggle, for lack of the proper word, of keas. We had only seen one kea up until then, so we were excited when we pulled into the lookout point and saw a kea standing next to the van. No sooner had we stopped the car than a large group started coming somewhat cautiously out onto the pavement from behind the rocks much like the Munchkins after Dorothy’s house lands on the wicked witch. It was now clear why every trail and campsite had signs saying, “Don’t feed the keas.” These guys wanted food and they weren’t afraid to come up and get it. As I started taking very close up pictures of them, one decided that if we weren’t going to give him any food he would simply eat the van and he began to chew noisily on the mud flaps at in the back. We were clearly losing control of the situation and although they had not mounted an attack on us yet, it seemed prudent to leave before such a thing could take place. As we got back into the van, one of them flew up on top of it and started trying to break in with his beak. As we drove away I watched them regroup just in time for another car to pull in.
That was the fun part. The terrifying part came later. We had pulled into a campsite on the other side of Arthur’s Pass and thought that we would camp there for the night instead of making the rest of the long drive to Christchurch. The weather looked a little questionable, but we decided we would just keep an eye on it and move if we needed to. That evening it started raining pretty hard, so we started to look out for snow. At around 9:30 that night we saw it. Thankfully we had not been drinking because it was clearly time to get the “F” out of Dodge. As we started to drive out of the campground, large flakes fluttered against the windows. The road seemed to be OK at first, but we quickly realized that rather than going down, we were actually climbing and the road was getting worse.
When another person is “in charge” of a situation, I tend to look to that person for clues about when I should be concerned like in To Kill A Mockingbird when Atticus says, “It’s not time to worry yet. I’ll let you know when it’s time to worry.” So when the van started sliding over the icy road and Adam started saying, “We are so fucked, we are so fucked,” I took that as a sign that it was time to worry. Adam was able to remain in control in order to get the van over to the side of the road so that he could put the chains on. We had had one other experience with these chains previously, and it wasn’t a good one. Much like everything else in the van, the chains did not exactly inspire confidence. After getting the chains on, we continued to drive through the almost blinding snow climbing and climbing. All the while I was hanging out the window every minute or so with a headlamp making sure that the chains didn’t fall off. We were only driving about 30 km per hour, so it was really one of the longest nights I’ve ever had. The sausage that we had eaten for dinner was churning in my stomach and it was all I could do not to upchuck which would not have helped matters. I really thought that perhaps it would never stop snowing. What I was glad about, which Adam pointed out, is that it was so dark we couldn’t see what was over the edge as we were driving. Eventually it did stop snowing and gradually turned to rain. Adam took off the chains and we made a mad dash to Christchurch (both of us being awake and alert). We didn’t get to sleep until about 1:30.
This was one of those experiences where you think about how at any point one little mishap could have led to catastrophe. And then you don’t want to think about it anymore.