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The color of memory

All our dreams, washed away

by Thor Iverson

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.

[rain on Remarkables]

Remarkable rainstorm
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…

Human nature

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 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.

Get back

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.”

The weather is, indeed, as bad as predicted…and worse along the endless mountain drive to the fiord, with visibilities approaching zero and minor flooding on the few low-lying parts of the highway. The result: Te Anau is…well, not exactly “bustling,” but at least packed with busloads of glum (and overly moist) tourists, most of whom have just missed their one and only chance to see Milford Sound on their tightly-scheduled holidays. It’s yet another reminder of why we eschew scheduled group travel.

Defeated but determined to avoid being discouraged (an attempt that mostly fails for the first hour or so), we duck into The Bake House (1 Milford Crescent) for some fine flat whites and a few savory pastries: a “brie ball” (just OK, with doughy bread and bland New Zealand “brie”) and a bacon-infused baguette (with a flawlessly permeating flavor), plus an excellent whole-grain loaf for later (which turns out to be one of the best breads we’ve ever had in this country). A stroll by the local theater leads to a surprise: an excellent DVD revealing both the familiar and hidden beauties of Fiordland. And we do some more shopping, finally finding the paua shell watch that Theresa has been seeking for weeks.

“If you can point to the place, the day, the hour when all was renewed and reborn, can you ever really return?” I’d asked, so long ago. And even back then, I’d had the answer:“no, you can’t, because it’s raining so hard that the road is closed to traffic.” On some future trip, we will return to Milford Sound. But for now, perhaps it is better left in its place: a memory, a catalyst, a moment in time, a life-changing event. And all it takes to return is to close one’s eyes and remember.


The drive back to Queenstown is, inevitably, a progression from gloomy grey to bright blue. The rain has nearly stopped by the time we return to Mossburn, where we have an unexpected roadside encounter with a field full of inquisitive ostriches. Theresa things they look arrogant (something about their stiff-necked strut), I just think they look prehistoric and ungainly. They do, however, cause me to consider modifying the evening’s menu from lamb to ostrich.


So, on a beautifully sunny early evening in Queenstown, with colors splashed on the surrounding mountains, we’ve got both time and energy to spend. We recall some notions acquired on our previous wanderings and settle in for a drink at Bardeaux (11 Searle Lane, Eureka Arcade), a small, modern, comfy-feeling place that’s just opening for the night. It’s nearly empty at the moment, but one can sense that it’s a hipster destination in the wee hours (they close at 5 a.m.)…there seems to be plenty of demand for such venues in this area…when the après-ski (or après-bungee) crowd gathers around the roaring fireplace. More importantly for our needs, it has a killer wine list, though there’s no food to go along with it. Theresa sips a Peregrine 2003 Riesling and expresses great enjoyment (no surprise there), while I try something that will provide a bit of contrast…and a sort of preview for our next wine destination just four days hence.

Muddy Water 2003 Riesling “James Hardwick” (Waipara) – Off-dry, with intense wet iron minerality and terrific structure. Tartly malic and really quite striking, especially for its long finish, this is a stellar wine that’s built for aging.


Deer diary

Afternoon has broken

Back at our rental, Theresa roasts a leg of lamb and steams some carrots, which she then mixes with herbed goat cheese and a good deal of excellent local butter. I opt for a beer while she works.

Founders “Long Black” (Nelson) – Semi-cleverly named after one of the Aussie/Kiwi coffee variants, but done in the style of a German black beer. It’s got the dark, tarred and hoppy notes right, but the finish is watery and wan. Eh.

With dinner, we revisit something from much earlier in our Queenstown sojourn.

Amisfield 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Almost-big cherry and plum which start strong but grow increasingly (and worryingly) hollow with air. Emergent and slightly raspy tannin only make a fairly short finish seem even more abrupt. This is very little like the version tasted at the winery, and unfortunately it’s even less convincing.

And so a day that moved from monochromism, to black and deeper black, then back to riotous colors once more, proves much more than a mere remembrance or revisiting of things passed. Perhaps the lesson of the day is the futility of recaptured memories. For travel – and life – is all about making new ones.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.