Morantin 2009 “Côt à Côt” (Loire) – Varietally correct, albeit on the very light side of the greenish-black herbality the grape can show in the Loire, and ultimately thin and not all that interesting. (8/12)
Onetangi Road 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec “Reserve” (Waiheke Island) – After a picture of this half-emptied bottle hit Facebook, one friend asked me if what I was tasting was representative of Waiheke Island’s climate. My answer, then and now, was that it’s really hard to tell. There do seem to be some fairly distinct mesoclimates on what’s a relatively small island, but I suspect that the greater differences are competency-related. It’s perhaps worth noting that this winery doesn’t appear to exist anymore. As for the wine itself, it’s green beyond where even a traditionalist would wish it to be (better Waiheke Island Bordeaux-style blends retain an appealing proportion of varietally-essential pyrazines), and getting to that strange point where the green is mixed with a gummy purple texture that’s just not all that appealing. It’s not bad, but blind I’d guess some supermarket Chilean wine from an operation that didn’t have the money to slather industrial winemaking makeup over the thing. (12/11)
Cigar Box 2009 Malbec “Reserve” (Argentina) – The name doesn’t really ,ie, in that there’s a healthy whack of tobacco herein. But mostly, it’s about opacity for the sake of opacity, rather than in service of/consort with other elements. Big, big, big. (2/11)
Cruz Alta 2008 Malbec “Reserve” (Mendoza) – Coconut milkshake with chocolate Hershey’s would have rejected as too insipid, synthetic berry jelly, and powerful alcohol. Ugh. (5/10)
Argento Malbec (Argentina) – Non-vintage, but lot 12925 if that means anything to anyone, and from a 187 ml airline bottle. First of all, kudos to Argento for putting this wine in plastic rather than glass; no need for the heavier, more expensive material given the quality and the destination aboard an airplane. And second, it’s actually not that bad, once one readjusts expectations; it is, after all, non-vintage ultra-commercial wine. Blueberry and blackberry vie for dominance, and while both are a little soupy the only other element that really stands out is an alcoholic spice and heat that eventually takes over the finish. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s definitely present. No structure to speak of, though the alcohol itself provides a certain sense of foundation, and while thought applied to the wine leads to a realization that it’s pretty candied and syrupy, it’s a nice candied syrup. (4/10)
Birks “Wendouree” 1999 Shiraz/Malbec (Clare Valley) – Wine as amaro, and I mean that in an appreciative way. Quite tannic, with the signature eucalyptus note present only in a supporting role. Blackberries at the core, plus a dusting of Tellicherry pepper. Intense. Texturally, like drinking the finely-ground dregs of coffee. As a guess, this wine has decades of life yet to explore. What I love so much about these wines are their unrepentant individuality, even more so than their actual quality…which goes beyond iconoclasm to outright indifference to their reception. (4/09)
Kumeu River 1999 Merlot Malbec “Melba” (Kumeu) – Thick, even a bit sludgy, with a loud drone of muddy blackfruit. This hasn’t developed any complexity with age, it has just black dwarfed into itself. It’s not unpleasant in any way, and were it a young wine the performance would be fine, but this isn’t why I held the wine. In any case, Kumeu River has never been famous for their reds, so this was a long shot to begin with. It should “age” for a long time yet, but I don’t know that it will develop. (8/08)
(The original version, with more photos, is here.)
Were Matt Donaldson not the very embodiment of equanimity, he’d be impatiently tapping his foot. As it is, he’s standing in the tasting room at Pegasus Bay, jacket already donned, waiting for us to arrive. He’s headed north to Marlborough to check on some grapes, and we’ve delayed his departure. But it’s not our fault. There was a house in the way.
We’d left our fuzzy habitation on time, looking forward to a relatively quick jaunt up Route 1 into the heart of the Waipara. But approaching a large junction near Amberley, we slowed, then stopped, faced with a rather unusual obstruction. A truck carrying a subsection of a prefab home was stopped right in the middle of the intersection. Or, more accurately, the truck and the house were both in the intersection, but the house was no longer carried by the truck. Shattered ropes and chains were everywhere. It was going to be an interesting cleanup. Thankfully, police were on the scene – just how many can there be in sedate Amberley? – and soon got traffic moving again.
Informed of this, Matt almost looks as if he’d like to detour south to check out the domicilic carnage. Nonetheless, after a quick greeting, he’s out the door, leaving us with his partner and co-winemaker Lynnette Hudson. The shape of her morning thus far is clear: grape-stained work pants and dark purple fingertips, the signs of a working winemaker. She’s clearly been hard at it until our arrival. But the balance of her day will be much, much different.
Lynnette grabs several armfuls of bottles and ushers us upstairs for an interesting tasting, one marked by a series of micro-verticals. While we taste, she spins her and the estate’s winemaking philosophies, which are even more Francophile than on our previous visit. They’ve moved, especially with the top of the line “Prima Donna” pinot noir, from regional and national eminence to something approaching world-class, and they’ve done it by emphasizing restraint and beauty over a sheer power that seems too easy to achieve in the area.
We begin our tasting with riesling, a grape that is a major focus of the portfolio, but one that is not (by critics and certain consumers) as universally admired as the pinots. Some attribute this deficiency to site, but I wonder if it might not instead be a question of finding the wine’s ideal balance. Rieslings come at all levels of sweetness and intensity, of course, and some regions and sites seem more suited for certain styles than others. Pegasus Bay’s successes with riesling seem to increase in proportion to their retention of residual sugar, a trend which is (in part) natural due to advancing ripeness, but is also helped by their grapes’ ability to retain a glacial core of acidity despite escalating hangtimes, something that is not achievable in all terroirs.
In any case, the basic rieslings are fermented cool with inoculated yeast, and bottled relatively early. Lynnette says that both the 2002 and 2003 were full of botrytis and desiccation, with ’03 a little warmer than the vintages on either side of it, leading to a little more “flesh” in the whites from that vintage. As for 2004, December rainfall was at its highest level since 1860, which was paired with the lowest temperatures since the end of World War II. An unfortunate combination. January and February followed “astonishingly hot,” with warm nights, which caused even more damage to already overstressed vines. It was a bizarre vintage that required a great deal of attention throughout the growing season and in the cellar. 2005 looks to be no less difficult, with very poor flowering and precious little fruit (about 30% of normal).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Riesling (Waipara) – The nose is dry, with a dusting of white pepper and a little whiff of petrol. Medium-lightness contrasted by a slight thickening from residual sugar defines this wine’s form, though there’s the later suggestion of a thick palate redolent of banana skin. Great acidity and a long, balanced finish round out the package. Nice.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Riesling (Waipara) – Seemingly sweeter than the ’04 (though only apparently so due to decreased acidity), showing stone fruit and pear. It’s a little more obvious than the vintages on either side.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Riesling (Waipara) – Just starting to show the first signs of aged-riesling creaminess, with sweet lemon-lime, spiced honey thick with aromatic flowers, and a very long, silky texture. This is delicious.
Moving on to the most famous grape of New Zealand (which here is regularly blended with sémillon), Lynnette professes to be seeking more of a Loire Valley, Sancerre-influenced style, rather than the boisterous chile pepper/tropical fruit festivals that are so common elsewhere in the country. The grapes are not destemmed, and after fermentation the sauvignon blanc rests on its gross lees for six to eight months, with some stirring to induce the complexing benefits of autolysis. Semillon is barrel-fermented and enzymed during settling, as apparently its fruit can otherwise be overly coarse. Malo is not induced, as a rule. The goal is a textural richness not often found in Kiwi versions of these wines, and a byproduct seems to be a true ageability that eludes almost everyone else (except those already consciously working from the white Bordeaux model).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Grassy, with mixed green elements. Peas and a flat wall of vegetables linger on the finish, which is shorter than I’d like.
One tank of the 2002 was naturally fermented – the first time it had been allowed in this wine – and it struggled to finish. The wine also underwent malolactic fermentation, which changed the texture somewhat dramatically.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Waipara) – Fetid hay, grass and tart green apple. Creamier and much more interesting than the ’04.
The chardonnays at Pegasus Bay are undergoing a transition, which is perhaps an artifact of both Matt and Lynnette’s experiences in Burgundy. The grapes are crushed but not destemmed, leaving lots of solids that go straight into the tank, but not given enough time to fully settle. Instead, they’re moved very quickly to barrel, where the must is inoculated (the sugar is apparently difficult to fully ferment with native yeasts) and then moved to 25-30% French oak.
2004 was a vintage that experienced very late malos, which had been arrested about halfway to completion by the addition of sulfur. The wines are traditionally notable for an overabundance of phenolics; Lynnette explains “New Zealand has so much upfront fruitiness, so we’re trying to do everything possibly to increase complexity.” And the results are beginning to show. “This is the first time ever that I’m happy with the complexity of the chardonnay.”
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Chardonnay (barrel sample) (Waipara) – Undergoing cold-stabilization, and recently fined with milk and bentonite. It shows fruit and spice, with good acid and a longish finish. It’s so highly marked by the aforementioned techniques right now that it’s a little hard to assess.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2002 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Rich stone fruit and spiced vanilla, with a sweeter-seeming palate than the ’04. Hudson identifies “sweet corn,” which encompasses both the aroma and texture. Quite nice.
Noir of the worlds
2003 was a good year for pinot, with even and consistent ripening. The winery mimics a post-fermentation maceration technique practiced in Burgundy (3-4 days in 2003, two weeks in 2004); as with the chardonnay, this is designed to move the wine away from upfront fruit while gaining length and structure. Another result is that wines tend to be lighter, overall, which seems to be a goal of Lynnette’s. Grapes are destemmed, and the percentage of whole berries has been increased. Lynnette explains that pinot noir tannin tends to reside more in the seeds than the skins; the lighter color that leads to some practicing lengthy extractions “breaks” the seeds and leads to an unwelcome surplus of tannin.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Medium-bodied strawberry and walnut with raspberry and apple-crisp acidity. This is definitely more “Burgundian” than some recent vintages, and it’s delicious and appealing in its youthful fashion.
2001 was another good year with nice, even ripening and a lingering autumn. The pinot from that year represented mostly the older, early-planted clones, while from 2003 onward newer Dijon clones have been a component of the blend. Inevitably, these clonal elements present different flavor profiles, with the Burgundian specimens providing more vibrancy in the red fruit spectrum (though not as many intact berries at harvest), better (not a synonym for darker) color, and more cohesiveness. From 10/5 comes a mix of ripe and unripe fruit and chunkier tannins, plus obvious strength, but without as much poise or elegance. Both clones are being pressed off sooner than in the past, and spend an average of sixteen months in oak…40% new French, and the rest a blend of one-, two-, and three-year old barrels…with natural malolactic fermentation allowed to occur in the spring.
(I must say, for the record, that my barrel-tasting experience is that the older clones are currently showing more red fruit than the younger Dijon clones, but I expect that will change with vine age; certainly the finished bottlings have taken a definite turn away from broodingly dark fruit..)
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Corked.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Darker than the ’03, with strawberry seeds, dark plum and cherry. There’s a slightly soupy cast to the finish, and the tannin edges towards the green, but it’s still a pleasant wine.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Plum, black cherry and juicy, vivid red cherry. These were whole berries, allowed a chilled pre-fermentation maceration and resting on the skins for two weeks, with a natural fermentation, twice-daily punchdowns, and pumping.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, West Block, 10/5 clone, just pumped over) (Waipara) – Soupier and bigger, with a darker brow and more tannin (obviously).
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 114 clone) (Waipara) – Graphite-textured tannin and dark blackberry fruit. Slightly coarse, but deliciously so. This is a Dijon clone that’s popular in Burgundy, but (as of yet) one that hasn’t produced much of interest in the Pegasus Bay vineyards. Perhaps with time.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, 113 clone) (Waipara) – Chocolate and elegant dark plum, blackberry and blueberry. Long. Very fruit-dominated.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, UC Davis clone 6) (Waipara) – Fatter than other samples, showing medium- to full-bodied blueberry, spiced chocolate and vanilla. Perhaps it’s just particularly amenable to its aging vessel, because it does appear to be soaking up more wood aromatics than the other clones.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 Pinot Noir (barrel sample, Scott-Henry trellised 10/5 clone) (Waipara) – Complex and gorgeous, with a lovely texture. This shows true class and breeding. “Not that I’m really into Scott-Henry at all,” notes Lynnette, “but [it’s] a really nice vineyard” that used to deliver huge tannin and fruit, but is now coming into balance. These, by the way, are the oldest vines on the property, and it shows.
Into the dark
2003 was a good year for Bordeaux varieties in the Waipara, according to Lynnette, and the qualitative focus is moving towards merlot and malbec rather than the harder-edged cabernets.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waipara) – Just bottled. Chewy black-and-blueberry with a dense, tannic, forceful palate and a medium-length finish. Quite good now, but its real strengths will come with age. This was just bottled, after spending 18 months in barrels (10-15% of them new).
“Maestro” is a semi-Bordeaux-styled blend produced in exceptional years. It’s a barrel (rather than vineyard) selection that’s given two years in wood (20% new) and additional bottle age before release.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2001 “Maestro” Merlot/Malbec (Waipara) – Blueberry and baked earth studded with walnuts, plus dark plum. The structure is just gorgeous, with ripe tannin and fine wood integration, though chocolate and vanilla do stand out a bit at this stage. The finish is ripe, showing oven-roasted blueberry, boysenberry and apple fading into a lovely, drying finish. Balanced and really, really good, with an excellent future.
Unlike the rare “Maestro” and “Prima Donna” bottlings, the late-harvest “Aria” riesling is made most years. In 2004, however, there are two selections: a regular “Aria” and an ultra-dried, botrytis-ridden bottling (picked on June 25th) that does not yet have a name. Keeping with patriarch Ivan Donaldson’s operatic theme, I suggest “Diva”…Lynnette agrees that it’s a favored possibility, but unfortunately the label is already in use. (Eventually, the wine will be called “Encore.”)
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Aria” Riesling (Waipara) – Pineapple, sweet lemon and a crisp, elegant, drying finish of medium length. This should be better in a few years, but it’s quite primary now.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2004 “Encore” Riesling (Waipara) – Very intense, with crystallized peach, quince and apricot. It’s exquisitely sweet, but balanced by sharp, crisp acidity, and finishes long and poised. Beautiful, ageable, and a true masterwork.
Botrytized, late-harvest chardonnay – which is, despite chardonnay’s worldwide ubiquity, somewhat of a rarity in bottle – is, to the extent possible, left out of the regular chardonnay, then separately crushed by foot, soaked and barrel fermented. 2003’s dried berries “didn’t give us a lot of juice,” but there is most certainly new wood employed during the process.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Finale” Chardonnay (Waipara) – Just bottled. Silky-textured, showing spiced citrus, peach and apple pie. The finish is clean and crisp with acidity. Terrific.
But wine isn’t the only thing at which Pegasus Bay excels. The recent recipient of Cuisine magazine’s “Best Casual Restaurant” award can be a tough reservation, even for a weekday lunch. It pays to be in the company of the winemaker!
After an arduous barrel tasting, we’re assembled at an outdoor table, while Lynnette pulls a few more bottles (as if we really need more wine) to show with food. And what food! Lynnette is largely a vegetarian (though she has certain weaknesses) and professes to be not all that hungry, so rather than order from the menu we just let the staff bring us a selection of marvelous small bites. One course that stands out in memory in a sinfully rich soup of creamed leeks, potatoes and goat cheese, but in truth everything is outstanding. While we eat, we continue to converse about wine, travel, the failings of French coffee and French marketing, exchange a bit of gossip about other New Zealand winemakers, and just generally have a great time.
Despite her initial protestations of gustatory parsimony, Lynnette suddenly turns all girly and orders both an extravagant cheese platter and an assortment of desserts to finish off the meal. What is it about women and dessert? We’re stuffed to the gills…in fact, we’ve been full to bursting for a good long while…but we nonetheless manage to steal a few bites here and there, including a taste of what she asserts are some of the very few truly high-quality cheeses made in the country.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (Waipara) – Shy at first, with ripe melon and apple skin finally emerging, crisped and sharpened by acidity. This has matured nicely, and is probably ready to go.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2003 “Prima Donna” Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black and red cherries, then strawberry and plum with soft, graphite-textured tannin. This wine is pure elegance and refinement, lithe and gorgeous as it caresses the palate, with a stupendous finish. Unbelievably good, and unquestionably one of the best pinots in all of New Zealand.
As the meal draws to a close and we say our farewells, we realize that we’ve been here for a little over six hours. Six hours! Our plans for a casual drop-in tastings elsewhere in the Waipara are now completely moot. But we can’t think of many more satisfying ways to spend a day, and even Lynnette seems to have enjoyed herself.
By the Bay
The wines at this property, already terrific on a previous visit and in many subsequent tastings Stateside, have moved from strength to greater strength. The improvements to the Burgundian palette of grapes are obvious, and everything in the portfolio shows signs of a little extra refinement, a soupçon more delicacy, and a persistent yearning for ever-escalating quality. The latter is the finest compliment one can pay to a winery, and it is one that Pegasus Bay richly deserves. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. These are tremendous wines.
Though the next time we visit, we’ll remember to skip breakfast. And to avoid immobile homes.
Disclosures: a rather extravagant lunch is provided for free, and we receive a discount on wine purchases.
The Road to Isengard
“Daaaaaaa-daaaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaaa…da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa…daaa-daaa….” The song enters my head, unbidden, and forces itself all the way to the tip of my tongue. Only a tremendous force of will keeps me silent. I glance at Theresa, and she at me, the simultaneous repression evident on both our faces. We grin, then burst into in the grandiose theme music from The Lord of the Rings, managing a few bombastically off-key measures before dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter.
We’d been warned. Twisty, at times precarious, and almost impossibly scenic, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road carries extra baggage these days; a rather striking portion of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was filmed in this area. Worse, this is a fact immediately obvious to even the most casual observer; every expansive vista and secluded hollow is eerily familiar. I say “worse” because the aforementioned impossible scenery scarcely needs another way to distract the unwary driver from the task at hand. The road describes a long series of irregular swivels, hugging the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu, then rising far above the water into steep, tree-covered slopes before plunging lakeward once again. After a sharp northern turn, the trees fade to be replaced by the smooth, grassy slopes of the Richardson Mountains, rising up several thousand meters to meet a cold, grey sky.
“It’s distracting,” the locals advise. “You’ll want to pay attention to the road.” I’m learning how right they are. Especially with my wife sitting next to me, now quietly humming a different theme from the movie. I shrug, capitulate and join her.
The Great River
I’m not sure if it would be uncharitable to describe Glenorchy as a frontier-town exurb of Queenstown, but as it doesn’t appear that a resident can survive without frequent trips to the markets of the bigger “city,” I think the characterization is accurate. But what Glenorchy lacks in infrastructure – though it is not without businesses, though most seem oriented towards the feeding, watering, and bedding of tourists – it makes up for in sheer enticement. It is, in one sense, the end of the road (the paved road, at any rate) that brings one to Queenstown, and it perches tantalizingly close to the end of the Milford Sound access road. Close, that is, but not touching; it is emblematic of the modern New Zealand symbiosis between commerce and environmentalism that the twenty-mile bridge, road, and tunnel system that would make the Queenstown-Milford journey a quick hour and a half (rather than at least four) remains unbuilt, and is likely remain so. Any other country would probably do it in a heartbeat, but not this one. Convenience would be…well, convenient, but it would be a tragic shame to spoil the remote beauty of this location.
As for us, we’re in Glenorchy for another of those seamlessly integrated tourist experiences that New Zealand seems to have perfected, wherein multiple modes of transportation are woven into a tapestry of activities that accommodate all levels of interest, adventurousness and athleticism. After our long, emotionally overwhelming day at Doubtful Sound, we’re up for no more than a half day’s excitement, and so after a early (and chilly) lunch under grey and gloomy skies, we make our way through Glenorchy’s few but well-ordered streets to the headquarters of Dart River Safaris.
Elsewhere in the region, jet boating is an activity built around speed and implied danger. Boats on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers spin and skid at shocking speed, clattering over rocks in four inch-deep water and narrowly careening under low-hanging branches and away from razor-sharp shoreline cliffs. Here on the Dart River, it’s less about adrenaline and more about sightseeing. To be sure, there are face-soaking spins and perilous near-misses of both rock and branch, but the epic hour-and-a-half ride gives both speedy and still opportunities to gaze at the incredible scenery. The river itself is barely up to the name: a few meandering rivulets of churning turquoise glacial runoff over rocks and sand – certainly not deep enough for anything except these shallow-hulled speedsters – but the valley it describes cuts a deep and dramatic angle between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains, and high riverbanks show that, during the springtime runoff, the aquatic story must be a very different one.
It’s early autumn right now, however, and it’s cold. We bundle up, take our seats, and with a ear-piercing roar head due north, into the teeth of the wind. Our driver stops, periodically and usually after one of those trademark jet boat spins has soaked us all in icy droplets, to point out some key feature of the landscape. Half of them are purely geographic, but the other half are – inevitably – somehow related to The Lord of the Rings.
“See that hillside there? That’s the backdrop for Isengard.”
“Remember when the Ents attacked Orthanc? That’s the edge of Fangorn right there.”
“That really pointy mountain…the one with all the snow on it…that’s Zirak-Zigil, where Gandalf smoked the Balrog.”
I can’t help but feel momentarily sorry for those on the boat who have no idea what he’s talking about. That said, of all the phrases I never expected to hear outside the confines of a fetid, acne-infested basement game of Dungeons & Dragons, “smoked the Balrog” must be very near the top of the list. In my mind, I see the opening to The Two Towers, and – digital creatures aside – it is in fact exactly as he describes it. Years ago, pulling into the Grand Canal of Venice, I’d felt like I was in the midst of an elaborate and impossible movie set. Here, I have that feeling again…except that it is the entire country that is the set.
The music wells up once again. Thankfully, no one else can hear me humming over the roar of the boat’s engines.
The Old Forest
We continue our race upriver, the snow-draped peaks of the eastern and western ranges looming ever closer, occasionally stopping for a brief and slow-paced detour into some crystalline-emerald pool away from the bubbling froth of the river, to simply enjoy the (relative) silence. Near the end of the trip, however, disaster strikes…or rather, it strikes our companion boat, which gets stuck on a midstream rock. Their driver jumps into the frigid waters in attempt to dislodge the vessel. No luck. Some negotiation ensues, and soon several passengers have joined him in an attempt to move the boat, which eventually succeeds. I wonder what level of compensation would be required to get me into that water, and fervently pray that I won’t have to find out. I do ask our driver what happens in situations like this.
(Continued here, with an extensive photo essay from the Dart River…)
Wake in heavenly peace
All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.
All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.
All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.
It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.
Put me in coach
At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.
The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).
We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.
Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”
Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.
However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.