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Transitory traumas

Where the heck is our luggage, anyway?

by Thor Iverson


Safely landed, several bags lighter
Emotional baggage

It’s the most stunning flight ever.

I’ve flown over the towering spires of the Alps. I’ve flown over deep blue equatorial ocean flecked with glinting white. I’ve flown over the jagged russet shading of the Grand Canyon. They’ve got nothing on this series of views: isolated, snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu rearing above a few drifting clouds, the girdled regularity of Mt. Egmont and its endless downflowing rivers, flowing white-capped turbulence on Cook Strait, the delicate golden tracery of Farewell Spit, and then the towering, rust-colored Kaikoura Range in disordered majesty, bordered by the relentless oscillation of the Pacific Ocean.

Theresa encourages me to get the camera and take a few pictures through the plane’s tiny window. But no, I don’t think I will. Some pictures are beyond the lens.

In Christchurch, arriving later than we’d anticipated thanks to a delayed Auckland departure, we engage in the most unsecure of transfers – through a door, around a corner, and into an already-queued line of passengers, with nary a security camera or officer in sight – to our next flight. A thirty-three seat, double-propped needle in Air New Zealand blue and white sits on the tarmac, and Theresa immediately gets nervous; she doesn’t like small planes, she hates turbulence, and this flight promises an abundance of both. Amid the clatter and chaos of the care and feeding of an airplane, carts and hoses and identically-suited men swarming like workers ‘round a queen bee, we board the plane, passing our luggage – currently sunning itself atop an overstuffed baggage cart – along the way. We’ve paid $100 in “overweight” charges to get this already-irritating collection of clothing and wine onto the Waiheke Island ferry, onto an Airbus shuttle (as always, incredibly delayed and highly unreliable), and onto a small domestic jet. It’s amazing what the addition of a single case of wine can do to otherwise hassle-free travel, and my back still hurts from lugging the box across a busy Quay Street in Auckland.

The southward flight from Christchurch is bumpy and far less scenic than its predecessor, with the buffeting waves of the Pacific coastline petering out against low, rocky cliffs that only slightly elevate the farmland to their west. It seems we’ve barely ascended to a level cruising altitude when we make a slow, sweeping turn to the right and begin the seemingly endless westward descent to Dunedin’s remote airport, the enveloping hills turning green and lush and overrunning the last traces of farmland. A tiny, somewhat ill-designed terminal is packed with students returning from holiday (Dunedin is a major university town), and one by one they pull battered knapsacks and trunks from the conveyor belt and depart for re-acquaintance with friends (and, no doubt, re-acquaintance with hefty quantities of Speights). Eventually, we’re left with a dozen other forlorn-looking tourists and students, luggage-less.

[Otago Peninsula]

Otago Peninsula & Harbor…

[southern view]

…and the view towards Antarctica
One hundred extra dollars for this?

Emotional baggage

It turns out that the contents of the aforementioned baggage cart – and several others like it – were deemed overly bulky for our small cargo hold, and denied entry. We fill out a form, wondering if we’ll ever see our luggage again (and wondering what the warm Christchurch sun is doing to our wine), and exit the terminal in search of our rental car. Down a sidewalk, through a parking lot, across the main traffic roundabout, around the construction of what appears to be some sort of one-room annex to the terminal…at last we’re faced with a second parking lot and a smattering of mostly-unidentified rental cars, with only a vague idea of location on which to rely. A meandering five-minute search later, we finally locate our vehicle – unlocked, and with the keys still in it – and take a long, assessing look. After all, it’s going to be our companion for the next month, on roads paved and unpaved, straight and hilly, legal and semi-legal, and we want it to be able to survive the trials to which we’ll put it. All seems in order, and with another chorus of “left…left…stay on the left” we’re on the road towards Dunedin.

Almost shockingly, it’s a long, straight road – who knew they had such things in New Zealand? – and the first curves appear just as it enters the semi-industrial, strip-malled outskirts of Dunedin. The city itself rises up on a series of hillsides, looking (as many New Zealand cities do) more horizontal than vertical, with a from-a-distance indeterminate city center. We swing right at the waterfront, then left onto Portobello Road, wheeling our way along a precariously twisty waterside driveway with a hundred blind driveways. It’s a scary drive, made all the more so because the views on the left are so stunning: the glassy blue waters of Otago Harbor mirror the house-dotted hillsides and stretch, eastward, over water towards an indefinite blue-white horizon. On both sides, hills fall steeply into the harbor, ending in little riots of flowers and small clusters of tree-shaded houses. Every few miles, there’s a bus station painted by the unregulated fancy of a local artist, providing yet another distraction from the car’s-width video game that is our road, on which every oncoming vehicle is an exercise in wheel-gripping tension.

After what seems like an hour (but is really only about half that), we reach the tiny hamlet of Portobello – halfway along the remote Otago Peninsula, and the only town anywhere along its length – and realize we’ve missed our turn. And so, back towards Dunedin we go (on the much safer-feeling landward side) for a few short minutes, until we spy a previously hidden sign carrying the address of our rental. Fern Grove Garden virtually defines cozy, not only thanks to its compact interior but because it is quite literally tucked behind a lush grove full of ferns and tall stands of yellow and orange flowers. The driveway, too, is a bit of a car-squeezing adventure, and we’ve quite a trial extracting ourselves and the remnants of our luggage from our automobile.

From a nearby house, our host comes to meet us. Bill Strang is a man “of a certain age,” short and sun-wrinkled but with a lively glint to his eyes. In conversation, he drifts back and forth between “I” and “we,” and soon we begin to wonder if he might not be recently widowed. He shows us around, gives some detailed advice in response to our questions about hiking tracks, tourist sites, and food sources, and drifts away to his dinner.

[navigational lights]

Whatever happened to Uncle Arctica?
Our first priority is the retrieval of our luggage, so I return to Portobello to use what may be the peninsula’s only public telephone.

“Hello. We were just on a flight from Christchurch, and our luggage didn’t make it. I was wondering…”

“What your name, sir?”


I hear the creak of a chair. Then, a bellow across some sort of cavernous, echo-y space, “what about the Iverson luggage?” Ah, the technology modern baggage tracking. I’m told that the luggage is in Dunedin, aboard a coach, and will arrive around dinnertime, and will be delivered either tonight or tomorrow morning. Not an entirely satisfying answer, but it’s better than a return to the airport (which I’m told would in any case be unhelpful; the terminal will be closed by the time I arrive), and with that I’m off to collect other necessities for the evening.

Highs and lows

On any trip wherein we are renting accommodations with kitchens, I compile long lists of potential food sources, preferring to shop for local specialties whenever possible. These lists rarely go wrong, so it’s a bit of a disappointment when a scallop purveyor, in search of which I return to Dunedin, has apparently departed for elsewhere. My options recede to a supermarket – decidedly better than the dismal Waiheke Island version – and a curious store that seems to sell nothing but frozen items. With our wine enjoying an extended layover in Christchurch, we’ll also need something to drink, and a busy nearby liquor store is rather nicely stocked with wine. Options abound.

Fearing a return to our cottage via winding Portobello Road, I opt for the peninsula’s interior track, accurately named Highcliff Road. Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Ascending wide suburban streets, I emerge onto an exposed ridge with fantastic views on either side: the dusk-emergent twinkle of Dunedin spread out on my left, the sky-darkened flatness of Otago Harbor and the irregular grass-covered line of the peninsula in front of me, and a horizonless expanse of ocean on my right. Four intense navigation beacons shine out, star-like, in the distance…the lights all that stand between our location and the Antarctic ice to the south…and the true remoteness of my location begins to set in.

The wisdom of my alternate route is immediately called into question when the paved but only mildly precarious road becomes a narrow gravel track. I recheck my map, and there’s no obvious alternative, so I proceed. A few farmhouses tucked into dark forests are all I see for the first few minutes, but then the road turns and dips dramatically to the north, and suddenly I’m plummeting down an impossibly steep corniche, my brakes and the tenuous, sliding grip of wheel on pulverized rock the only thing between me and a tumbling death into the harbor below. I gingerly pick my way down the road, negotiating impossible switchbacks every few hundred feet and praying for the absence of oncoming traffic – a prayer that’s not answered, thanks to one spine-tingling encounter during which it seems my left wheels dangle over sheer nothingness by a single tread – and a three-kilometer descent becomes a twenty-minute chamber of horrors. Clearly, I am not made for this sort of drive.

[the lights of Dunedin]

Done eatin’ in Dunedin
Finally, the houses of Portobello surround me, heaven-sent in their relative horizontalness. I’m drenched in sweat, shaking with tension, and pull over for a few minutes to recompose. Back at the cottage, Theresa openly wonders what took so long. Were I psychologically equipped for a repeat journey, I’d be tempted to show her, but one near-death experience per trip is enough for me.

With only a small electric hob at our disposal, cooking in our kitchen is as much a matter of pre-planning as it is of execution. Succulent filets of blue cod marry crisp snow pea shoots and cucumbers, and are drizzled with zingy Rangihoua olive oil, with which we consume a wine about which we’ve heard much from friends in New Zealand, but have not tried until now.

Wither Hills 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Smooth and ripe, showing intense yet easygoing gooseberry and melon flavors with white plum and a complete absence of green grass, asparagus, cat pee or capsicum. In their place, however, is a smiling façade of what appears to be residual sugar. People iffy on the prototypical “Marlborough style” should give this a shot, while those less iffy will probably find it a little slick and characterless. But it’s an undoubtedly pleasant drink, and it’s hard to fault it too much for sharing a little consumer-friendly trick with thousands of other wines around the world. Personally, I prefer my sauvignon to be a little less user-friendly.

We clean up after dinner and prepare for bed, regretfully resigned to the idea of wearing our clothes again tomorrow (hand-washing a few items to reduce the potential unpleasantness of it all). The sun has almost completely set, turning the sky to streaks of dark blue and beautiful shadings of purple, and we watch the color show through our patio doors. Just as we’re about to turn out the lights, our sky-watching is interrupted by the noisy rumble of a large van dragging an open-topped trailer behind it, a surprising sight and sound on an otherwise abandoned Portobello Road. It passes our cottage, slows down, stops, and begins to back up – beeping all the while – into our driveway, a maneuver which I would never even attempt with our relatively compact car, much less with a trailer in tow. These Kiwi drivers really know their stuff. And they’d have to, to handle Highcliff Road.

At long last, we are reunited with our luggage. A smelly fate on the morrow is, blessedly, averted.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.