Friday, March 27, 2009

Last Days in New Zealand

Its hard to look back and think that almost three months have passed since we landed in New Zealand, but its true. Our last month here has been somewhat of a blur, not just because its gone quickly, but because its been far more disjointed than February, where all we did was cruise from one overnight hike to another.

After an epic 6 day circuit covering two grand river valleys in Nelson Lakes National Park, we left the South Island with a bit of saddness in early March. We spent a couple evenings in Wellington again with Baekdu Daegan guidebook author Roger Shepard, and had a look around New Zealand's capital city. The cultural highlight was the magnificent Te Papa museum, but we also found culinary delights in a small bagel shop run by a New York native, trained in the art of bagelry by an old Jewish baker. For a soul deprived of crusty hard on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside bagels for 7 months, this was indeed a welcome treat.

All but too soon we headed north out of Wellington, making our way to Tongiraro National Park. The park consists of 3 volcanoes which we intended to walk around in 3 days, but the weather gods of Tongiraro decided that this wasn't the time, and we decided to move on rather than wait for a clear spell.

Rotorua was our next stop, and it proved a nice change from the continual and almost overwhelming immersion in incredible scenery that characterized our travels around the south island. Stunning natural settings is certainly what I dreamed of when planning our trip, but after a solid month of it, we both felt we couldn't absorb much more without just sitting in one place for a long while. Rotorua was still natural scenery, but different enough to break the streak.

Rotorua is an area of extreme and pervasive thermal activity, just another manifestation of the huge natural forces at work that have created and are still shaping New Zealand. There are hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud holes boasting colors so rich, so bright and magnificent that the mind can't quite grasp that the visual information its receiving is natural. We went for a relaxing dip in Kerosene Creek, so named for its slight smell. The entire stream was the temperature of a typical hot tub, and the sandy bottom got warmer the deeper you dug your feet. A little waterfall into a large bathing pool nestled in the trees provided a massage and the final touch on this unique little gem. Later that evening, we experimented with the Maori method of cooking using the steam vents of the area, slow-cooking our dinner using the "Hangi" at our camp ground.

With time winding down for us in mid March, we reluctantly returned to Auckland and spent a somewhat hectic five days selling our beloved Toyota campervan. Its an oldie, and a car that's older than many of its potential buyers looking for a sound vehicle to carry them around New Zealand can be a bit of a scare. We had the same sentiments before we bought it. As fate would have it, a mechanic bought the van on the spot without even getting inside it. His wife had wanted one for years and he knew he could work with this classic. It felt like a fitting exchange, since we knew the buyer would take care of it, keep it touring NZ. It served us very well and, now that I don't have to worry about selling it anymore, I can look back on it fondly for all the comfort and memories it provided us.

For the last 10 days, we chose to explore Northland, north of Auckland. Quaint towns, dramatic coastal views and remote beaches was what Northland was about for us. We camped on beaches almost every night, falling asleep to the waves and waking to sunrises with our feet in the sands. Further north, we kayaked in the iconic subtropical Bay of Islands in perfect late summer weather. One afternoon, we hiked up and across massive sand dunes, and boarded down them, cruising at high speeds and covering ourselves in sand. It was everywhere. Beyond civilization and at the tip of the north island, the experience of sitting in silence with the land and the seas at sacred Cape Reinga was something the pictures won't show.

Finally, we settled into the cosy Endless Summer Lodge, our first sense of home in many months. Spending a few nights in an actual house instead of the van, our tent, or a dorm-style hostel was restorative, and brought a glimpse of home just a few months away now. From the comfort of the Endless Summer Lodge, we explored our blooming surfing interests in Ahipara Bay. Well, to be honest we mostly got pounded by waves, but we did catch and ride a few! The beaches of New Zealand, and particularly those of the north island, were an unexpected surprise that filled out our final leg here, and once again demonstrated NZ's wide variety of landscapes. Northland was a spectacular way to go out.

On our last full day in Auckland, we walked to the top of Mt Eden, a small hill overlooking the city. From this vantage, the maze of suburban streets we'd been navigating seemed to make a bit more sense, helping me wrap my head around Auckland a bit before departing. But the prize of the afternoon was realizing that the whole city is dotted with small, dormant volcanoes, including the one on which we were standing. They're everywhere, and looking out across the land their shapes were unmistakeable. We had a picnic lunch and reflected on 3 months--a whole summer's worth--of traveling around this small little island nation of natural beauty. Liz commented on how strange it is that the gateway to a country where you've come to see the natural world is usually a city, thereby making up your first and last impressions of the place. I sat back and imagined the landscape we were looking out upon without all the buildings. In my mind's eye, it was no less stunning than the rest of what we'd experienced. I think this was New Zealand's spirit, shining through in the landscape and bidding us farewell.

Here are a couple photo sets from the last couple weeks. Click on the slideshow to see them in full size.

Nelson Lakes National Park

Rotorua and Northland

On Monday, March 30th, we fly to Bangkok, spend an undesireable night in the airport, and then fly on to Kathmandu, Nepal. We'll spend April trekking around Annapurna, and during May we'll join IMG's Sherpa Trek to Everest Base Camp. Nepal was a must for both of us, and we're looking forward to it, even it means we have to leave New Zealand.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Popaw Riggs

My grandfather could wiggle his ears. It's something I would look forward to witnessing every time we went to their house for a visit. I would wait until after dinner, while the plates were being cleared and coffee was being made, and beg him to wiggle them. He would hem and haw and then finally give in and sternly instruct me to pay close attention. Then to my delight, those massive ears would wiggle up and down. He could also pull the tip of his thumb off in a magic trick that flummoxed my young mind for many years. Grandfathers can do the most amazing things.

My grandfather was a stern and rather imposing figure that I only saw a couple of times of year. I can't say I was particularly close with him, but I will dearly miss his strong presence that was a key ingredient in the tight-knit mix of our small Riggs family. He had this uncanny ability to nurse a single shot of Bourbon on ice for what seemed like hours. He would gently swirl the ice around in the tumbler, occasionally tapping the ring finger of his right hand holding the glass, the massive ring on the finger adding a more staccato "tink" to the tinkle of the ice. This sound was an integral part of the presence of my grandfather - like the sound of his voice. His voice was a deep gravelly sound that liked to instruct the "Yankee" portion of our family and later my very "Yankee" fiance on the proper pronunciation of "bayou" and more importantly "pecan." He could tell the longest stories; the sound of his voice and the tinkling of the ice the tell-tale sign of a Riggs gathering.

Popaw hated commercials, a quality I absolutely love now, but didn't understand when I was younger. Each commercial break during Jeopardy! he would hit the mute button. Commercials were for talking, but woe to the person who talked during the television show. Once the mute button was flipped, talking was to cease. Yet he put up with, even encouraged and chuckled at, the elaborate horse jumping courses my cousin, sister and I would set up and for hours pretend we were horses, running circuits around the house, regardless of the state of the mute button.

Popaw had papery hands just like his mother, my great-grandmother. He does not have what I have dubbed "Riggs hands" which are in reality "Breit hands" a trait my grandmother seems to have passed on to all of us - huge wrinkled knuckles with skinny fingers in between. Popaw's fingers were thick and even. He would spread his hands on the table while waiting for coffee after dinner and use all his fingers to play a little roll off - like the drum cadence at the beginning of movies. He would fold those papery hands in front of his face while listening to Benny Goodman (another quality I could not appreciate until I was much older), occasionally tapping the tips of his fingers together in time with the music. Or those solid hands would rest on each arm of his easy chair, tapping occasionally in time to the music. He had the other uncanny ability to doze with his legs crossed, still always holding his drink up, occasionally tapping those thick fingers in time to music.

My grandfather also hated the saxophone and I absolutely love that about him.

My impressions and memories of him, even as an adult, are still that of a child remembering a loving grandfather. I often think of some of my baby pictures, me on Popaw's lap, usually dumping something in his morning coffee, and him just smiling, happy with his first grandchild.
I never knew my grandfather in a professional sense or in any adult way that most people in the world knew him. But I do remember staring at the wall of the guestroom/office my sister and I would stay in when spending summers at my grandparents. It was filled with plaques from various civic clubs, Rotary, the many square dance clubs and federations he served in various offices for and engineering degrees and distinctions. I remember being filled with awe by a person so active and so seemingly important. To this day it inspires me just how involved he was with his community, not to be today's super-mom or dad, but just because it was the right thing to do.

Eighty-four is a good long life; I'm very fortunate to be 29 and still have grandparents in my life. But his passing still makes the time seem too short. I will miss him dearly.

* * *

My biggest nightmare when travelling is the death of someone back home and not being able to get back. My grandfather died on March 2, 2009. I was sitting in a hut in Nelson Lakes National Park waiting out the rain in order to have a clear day to hike the alpine section. We were hiking for six days and it had been well over a week since I had checked my e-mail. In that time my grandfather was admitted to the hospital with a blockage in one of his bypass arteries from his previous heart attack. He also had pneumonia at the time. Early Monday morning he went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated leaving him on life support. The fortunate thing was that the whole family was in Fayetteville, AR (where my grandparents now live) to see my grandmother who just got out of the hospital for hip replacement surgery. My grandfather did not wish to be artificially kept alive on life support, so later that morning they took him off and surrounded by his family he died shortly after. I did not find out about all of this until two days later - 16 hours before the memorial service. It would be physically impossible for me to get back home in time.

My family is very practical and even if I could get home, I think we would all feel it would financially be an unwise thing to do. So it leaves me here in a small town in New Zealand feeling a little lost. Normally I would be with my family, I would meet other people who had been in Popaw's life. I could hug my grandmother. But instead I'm sitting in an internet cafe debating if I should send flowers. How weird to send flowers to your own family?

So I'm writing this tribute to my grandfather. I'm sure he's a like a lot of other grandfathers out there, uniquely wonderful in the way only grandfather's can. I hope I can do justice to the truly wonderful person he was.

Goodbye Popaw. I love you and will miss you.

Routeburn Track, Mt. Aspiring and Arthur's Pass

More to write soon, for now here are some pictures to enjoy. We are currently in the Golden Bay area and it's raining again! We'll cross the Cook Strait to the North Island in a few days and start touring up there.