(The original version, with many more photos, is here.)
The roof, the roof…
A respite is, by its very definition, finite. And so we’re not really surprised that yesterday’s break in the weather has this morning been replaced by a thundering deluge. Rain pounds on the roof of our chalet, while buffeting winds threaten to wrest the roof from its moorings.
We fight through the gales to a buffet breakfast in The Hermitage’s grand dining room, then fight our way back and pack our car as quickly as possible, intent on escaping the rain at the first opportunity. For the entirety of our stay at Aoraki Mt. Cook, the southern end of Lake Pukaki has been wreathed in sunlight, and though low-hanging rain clouds prevent us from determining if this is still true, we’ve no reason to suspect otherwise.
That is, until we arrive.
Salmon of the bride
Pukaki is more milk than turquoise this morning, and not even the lowest elevations of fast-retreating Aoraki are visible. The situation is even more dire at the southern tip of Lake Tekapo, the site of so many beautiful photos of this peak-framed valley. However, here we witness someone even more negatively affected by the weather than a pair of otherwise-satisfied tourists. At the lonely Church of the Good Shepherd, a wedding party is bravely enduring both the driving rain and the high winds. Thankfully, the bride looks happy enough, though her dress makes several attempts to blow away during her struggle from limo to church door, and she is able to maintain verticality only through the Herculean efforts of her bridesmaids and parents. Unfortunately, her dreary wedding day is also our loss, as the church interior is closed to visitors.
We attempt to wrest some sort of value from this anti-scenic morning by making a brief culinary stop’n’shop, but while Mt. Cook Salmon might well be open for business, the only two roads leading to it are not. It’s a little strange, but there is a military base nearby. One never knows what the mighty Kiwi army might be up to…
There are two paths to our destination today…one flat and straight, the other the optimistically-named “Inland Scenic Route.” There’s really no question which one we’ll take, especially since we have diversions in mind. The road passes through sedate Fairlie and cutely absurd Geraldine (home of the world’s biggest sports jersey…and no, we don’t get to see it) before turning northward, scissoring through valleys and fields slashed with the occasionally dramatic river valley.
For a while, I manage to ignore the wind…because we’ve taken what seems like a forty-hour detour to the most ridiculously remote of the various Lord of the Rings sites we’ve seen on this trip. The path turns from pavement to gravel, from gravel to dirt, from dirt to undulating trench, and finally from trench to impassible chasm. How anyone is expected to reach dubiously-named Erewhon at the end of this road is beyond me. (Perhaps with a tank.) But after endless jaw-jarring bumps, our destination finally appears, rising like a…well, rather like a bumpy wart…from an otherwise desolate, wind-swept valley surrounded by icy peaks: Mt. Sunday, the now clean-scrubbed location of Edoras in the films. This has been the most insane side-journey we’ve ever made, especially given that it has no rational purpose, and yet…there it is, plain as day, somehow rendering the voyage bizarrely worth it. We launch into a haphazard humming of the appropriate theme from the soundtrack, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
The return trip is difficult, for the wind is picking up, buffeting the car and occasionally causing it to slide across the rolling gravel. The return of pavement is most welcome, but as we gain speed our vehicle becomes more and more difficult to control. In aptly-named Windwhistle, where we turn due east towards Christchurch, the gales are so fierce that I can barely maintain control of our car. Thankfully, the roads here are straight and true…no precipitous dropoffs or blind corniches to navigate…and with surprising physical effort, we manage to navigate our return to civilization, a reconnection that engenders a strange resentment. Once more, the lure of the untamed stains our interactions with the signposts of population: traffic, malls, even the people themselves. Have we been too seduced by nature to recover? I guess we’ll find out when we get to Sydney.
They’re fluffy and soft, calm but shy, and painfully adorable. But we’re not really here for them. We’re here for a bed…a surprisingly rare thing in this heavily-populated area.
Maybe I should back up and explain.
Our next actual destination, after Aoraki Mt. Cook, is Nelson. However, that’s a bit too much driving for one day (that is, if one wants to see anything along the way), and in any case we don’t want to pass up a chance to stop at Pegasus Bay, one of our favorite wineries in all of New Zealand. During the planning stages, however, it soon became clear that lodging was going to be a problem. There were places to stay in Christchurch, sure, but we’d already been there. And there were a few luxury retreats in the Canterbury countryside. Otherwise, lodging options were exceedingly slim…except for one place, found through assiduous Googling and no little consternation.
In reality, the farm looks pretty much like any other farm, set amidst flat, wet, grassy land and hosting a small collection of trucks, wagons, and other large-wheeled equipment alongside a stately, ranch-style house. The on-site accommodations, originally designed to host visiting farmers in search of breeding material, are gorgeous, with a sub-equatorial theme throughout. The only slight caveats: a non-functioning dishwasher and the usual lack of a good chef’s knife. But these are minor quibbles.
As for the namesake animals, they’re (as previously mentioned) almost painfully cute…and when one can be corralled, incredibly soft to the touch. One strange youngster called Dreamcatcher follows us around, shivering and uttering pleading little whines. Son Lloyd, giving us a tour of his family’s farm and a sketch of his plans for world domination (alpacas are expensive little buggers, but like most teens he has his entire future figured out), wonders if she’s mentally ill. Watching her attempt to pick a gate lock with her teeth every time Lloyd turns away, I wonder if she might not be smarter than her brethren, because it almost sounds like she’s trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s related to the painful braying in the distance…a sound that echoes across the plains, and seems to come every ten minutes or so.
I can no longer tolerate my curiosity. “Is there some sort of slaughterhouse over there?” I ask Lloyd.
He smirks. “No. Deer breeder. That’s, uh…well, the male is, uh…” he turns slightly red, glancing at my wife. She laughs.
“Well, he sure sounds like he’s enjoying it.”
Lloyd turns a darker shade, then reaches for the lock-nibbling Dreamcatcher, scratching her fuzzy head as she bleats and moans.
The peaceful aftermath
When the call of the rutting venison finally stops, all is peaceful in alpaca land. We settle in for a dinner accompanied by a few remnants from the Central Otago.
Springvale Estate 2002 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – More cream and less fruit than the winery version, and starting to fray about the edges. Still, it should develop some tertiary characteristics with (very) short aging.
Olssens 2002 “Late Harvest” Riesling “Desert Gold” (Central Otago) – Petrol, lemon rind, dense sweet apple and Greengage plum, with wet chalk and a building fullness on the palate, plus good acidity. However, it fades on the finish to leave a slightly sludgy impression. 2/3 of a terrific wine.