Pigments of our imagination
The colors here are amazing. Water can be mirrored sunlight, the deepest nighttime sapphire, or a bright, sky-reflecting blue…and then the next day, a milky, luminescent turquoise. Sunsets are particularly exciting: brilliants streaks of fire appear and then vanish in the next instant as the sun transitions some distant and unseen peak or trick of the atmosphere…and in the final moments of light that glow over the western ranges, there’s a neon band of lime green. I’ve never seen its like anywhere other than here. Then there are the aptly-named Remarkables, with their bright tans, grays and browns claw-riven with darker greens and blacks, gradually transformed by the movement of light through forbidding blue-brown, rich and warming gold, and brooding dark blue…light and sun-drenched one moment, deeply shadowed the next, their jagged and razor-sharp edges fiercely ripping the heavens but softened by their nightly dusting of powdered sugar snow.
This morning, the palette is muted and gloomy; dark, wintry and urban earth tones subdued by deep blue melancholy from the sky. Queenstown is shrouded in low-hanging clouds that press down upon the sweeping mountain ranges and obliterate contrast, leaving a depressingly narrow chromatic range in their wake. But we don’t care that much, because we’re leaving.
Not for good, though. Just for the day. That is, if the weather cooperates…
How do you go back to the place where everything changed…the place where the lens of your world reshaped itself and an unspoiled wilderness of perspectives was revealed in dramatic new light? And if you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return? I asked this question at the beginning of this travelogue…a philosophical musing, perhaps, but also one with a physical answer. For the place was Milford Sound, visited on our previous trip to New Zealand, and that was indeed the exact moment when everything changed.
Nature works its charms in funny ways. I’d grown up in the midst of it, trapped in a pretty but isolated and lake-infested region of northern Minnesota, a manageable four hours from anything one could legitimately call a city but a seemingly infinite distance from the energy of the modern world. The scope of my world was narrow, its boundaries closely defined despite the limitless horizons visible on the endless flatlands around my home. I’d been raised “in the woods,” with its peace and its gentle rhythms all around me…and I desperately wanted out.
I’d leapt at the first opportunity for escape, retreating to urban and urbane Boston and, several decades later, was generally pleased with the choice. What I craved was not so much the pace or intensity of the city, but rather its complexity and its opportunity, the ability to choose from a wider palette of options than would ever have been available to me in my youth, and the energy of the people and institutions that drive the relentless modern hunger for change. In my subsequent travels, I’d soaked up the country and the city in equal measure, pleased by both in the surface way one experiences a place on holiday, occasionally penetrating to the heart of something deeper and more significant, but never losing the viewpoint to which my life had brought me.
Theresa had arrived at essentially the same destination, though by a very different path. A city girl through and through (from a place much bigger and grittier than Boston), she’d expressed a general preference for the quiet peace of the rural on our travels, but was fundamentally at a certain kind of war with nature and its fundamental indifference towards comfort and ease. It wasn’t that she needed any sort of pampering or coddling, but rather that the difficulties of the wild – the physical perils, the biting and stinging creatures, the lack of “facilities” – seemed to physically repel her. (Or, as she sometimes put it after a long day of fighting off stinging insects, maybe nature liked her a little too much.)
But at Milford Sound, New Zealand’s only easily-accessible fiord and one of the truly majestic sites of the world, the parameters of our worldviews came crashing down, replaced by a stunned yet exuberant revelation in the glories of an earthly paradise. We’d been in New Zealand for just a few days, most of them spent in Auckland, on driving tours with friends, wine tasting, or just ambling around Queenstown and its environs, so the long trip to Milford was our first real chance to escape the normal rhythms of a vacation. We’d decided to drive ourselves rather than take an insulating tour bus packed with fellow tourists, and had soaked up the ever-changing and always-breathtaking landscapes and vistas along the way. Barriers began to melt away, and change approached…until that moment on the fiord, when we were quite literally overwhelmed by the unleashed power of nature. We wanted more.
Since that time, our travels had changed. We’d settled into a decidedly non-urban mode of travel, finding (not always sensible) excuses to avoid all but the truly great cities of the world. We’d explored the wilds of our voyages and the wonders of our own backyard. We’d started to take notice of what was all around us…not the conveniences and the artifices and the constructions of man, but the persistent and encompassing warmth of the not-yet-defeated natural world…and found ways to include its richness into our lives. We weren’t ready to give up the opportunities of the city, but we were no longer trying to escape (or battle) its alternative.
Or, as I previously (and much more succinctly) put it thirty-five chapters ago: we’d changed.
But of course, “going back” is a notion fraught with the danger of disappointment. It is unquestionably true that nothing could ever replace that first moment of awestruck inspiration. What once seemed untouchably beautiful may, with new perspective, seem to have shrunk in both majesty and significance. And…the thought is inevitable…what if we don’t even like it the second time around?
There’s only one way to find out, and despite the still-vivid memories of our recent trip to Doubtful Sound, we endeavor to recreate our previous journey: the long drive from Queenstown, though Te Anau, into Fiordland and…eventually…Milford Sound, with many stops and side-trips along the way. All timed to miss the bulk of the tourists both coming and going, bringing us safely back to our beds as blue-black darkness blankets the mountains and the lake.
However, another danger looms: bad weather. The forecast is, admittedly, dismal. But we’ve had such great luck with the weather – avoiding predicted thundershowers on both Doubtful Sound and the Dart River – that we decide to chance the trip anyway. We’ve seen Milford Sound in the sunlight, but in the rain its waterfalls are reported to be majestic, its mist-wreathed cliffs ethereal. How can we lose? Besides, despite the thick clouds overhead, it’s not actually raining at the moment. In fact, the sun is starting to peek through a few cracks in the dense ceiling, with sharp beams of light falling on distant hillsides and glistening waves. Undoubtedly, the weather will clear and we will have another fantastic day.
Darkness, darkness, be my blanket
By the time we get to Mossburn, we are considerably less optimistic. There are no longer any breaks in the clouds, and in fact everything is decidedly darker…though not as dark as the westward road ahead. Undaunted, we press on.
Twenty kilometers from Te Anau, we’e in the midst of a full-fledged downpour. Timid drivers are pulling off the road at the every opportunity (and I can’t say that I blame them, for the combination of driving rain and gusting wind is more than a little hazardous). We discuss what to do, and decide that as long as the possibility of a break in the weather exists – fronts move fast in this exceedingly narrow country – we will press on.
Te Anau is frigid, blustery (with the expanse of its lake allowing chilly winds to roar down from the snow-capped Kepler and Murchison Mountains), and so rain-soaked that it feels like we’re in, rather than aside, the lake. Merely opening the car door is an effort, and one is immediately rewarded with a soak (and its attendant chill) that penetrates to the marrow. I dash into a tourist office to cancel our cruise reservation, which draws no more than a wry smile from the girl behind the desk.
“Thanks for the thought, but it’s not necessary. The road’s closed.”
“The Homer Tunnel’s flooded?”
She shakes her head. “No. The whole road.”
(Continued here, with more photos…and even some tasting notes…)