By Joan Larsen
Can you imagine a country where the only roadblocks you encounter are beautiful sheep blocking the road? Welcome then to New Zealand — with its two islands holding 3 million wonderful people . . . and 60 million sheep – a proud welcoming committee, actually posing for what looks to be a graduating class photo.
To say that New Zealand is beautiful is an understatement. There is something for the visitor that is so calming when the road ahead is one of emerald green pastures, forests, blue lakes and fjords, geysers performing against the bluest of blue skies. And yes, “the people population” actually vies with the sheep in welcoming you. Could life be better than that?
As my life has turned out to be one wild adventure after another, be assured I have a story-of-stories that happened here. But first, let me set the scene. On the South Island, right in the heart of New Zealand’s most spectacular mountain regions are The Southern Alps, the name itself thrilling to contemplate. For here are the tallest peaks in New Zealand – with Mt. Cook the training ground for mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who we all know made the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, along with his famous Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. As an aside, 2013 is the 60th year anniversary of that climb. . . made more memorable for me as, since that time, I actually had met the great man himself!!
We all have our own dreams in life. . . places that we would not want to miss, don’t we? I had counted on New Zealand for years – too many years to mention. But now I had finally arrived at the alpine resort of Mt. Cook, staying at the iconic old hotel (that has had additions since my visit) called The Hermitage. There were views of that mountain from every room, as well as such a variety of opportunities for day and evening trips that you had to pick and choose.
Irresistible is the line of small planes to take us up and see these mountains from above – planes with retractable skis for landing on snow. ON SNOW!!! There was no “selling” to be done. We were off, practically hanging out the windows, as the plane climbed until you felt you could touch the soaring peaks. I called it “Instant Hillary”!! But the climax of it all was the whisper-soft landing at the head of a glacier. The plane hisses to a stop high on the mountain, and we alight on the snow of the glacier and frolic, pretty heady with the belief that we had come this far.
The view? Mount Cook is the mountain I was drawn to in photos as a child – a vast pyramid coated in snow, dominating the peaks, lakes and forests all around. It was the crayon drawing one might design when you were little.
The walks branching out from the hotel don’t insist you go to their ends, but should not be missed. The easy Hooker Valley Track is considered a “tramp”, as the Kiwis refer to a hike, and the trail negotiates a network of swing bridges below which flow powerful rivers the color of chocolate milk shakes. “Nature” in the shape of clusters of mountain flowers and mostly reclusive birds – that seem to emanate from a world not seen before – let you know there are new surprises around every corner.
It is a raw, beautiful place, its silence only broken by an occasional rumble from the surrounding mountains – or the screech of the most mischievous bird in the world – the kea – who will entertain you for hours with his antics.
The nights? Made for love. Or for stargazing. Nearby is Aoraki Mount Cook, providing us expert astronomy guides to have a close look at the Southern Cross (not visible in the northern hemisphere) and distant galaxies. We – the visitors – are invited to use the powerful telescopes to see even the rings of Saturn, formerly just a name to about all of us. As one who believes that life itself should always be a “reaching for the stars” experience, I found myself one step closer!
I can wait no longer. For me alone, Mount Cook and the Hermitage Hotel have held another story altogether, never told. My personal quest in life is to see every one of the world’s out-of-the-way places. At times, the only chance to come back alive is to have with you an experienced guide. Our journey to New Zealand was to also encompass well over a month of travel to dots on the world globe. . . and so our guide had become as close as a friend.
One evening our guide divulged something we had never heard written about or talked about. As I became more experienced in travel, I knew his words as truth as I saw them first hand. Many women travel alone. . . and I commend them. Why miss anything? But sometimes, women traveling alone expect the guide to perform other duties in the evening for which, sometimes, a substantive tip is given. I had thought I was sophisticated – but found back then I was an innocent. Women, he said, were forward, upfront, on late night activities. The story was true. I saw it happen more often than I could believe on later journeys.
And so, with the guide’s mind-blowing tale imprinted on my mind forever, we are at the Hermitage Hotel. There would be 12 rooms on one side only of a corridor — with a glassed-in wall on the other — with the glory of the mountains to be seen in the hallways. Then there would be a door to keep the heat in … and then another 12 rooms, and on and on. Our room was at the far end to one of the doors.
I had hiked 6 hours and wanted the private hot tub, some distance away. I ran like the wind down to see if it was vacant. Unbelievably, it was. In those days, I was fit, running fast, down the corridor, opening the dividing doors in a flash, heading for my room. You know, our room next to the dividing door — and unlocked as I was in a fast dash to get my own towels and return.
Breathing hard, running hard, but determined to grab that hot tub before anyone else did, I opened the door of my room, took a right into the bathroom. After that moment, life was not the same. It was NOT my room. I had not counted at all the sets of rooms in my dash to get the towels. The door was unlocked . . . and I slammed into my guide, completely naked and stepping out of his shower. We collided from the force of my run. There was no room between us. None. I DO remember that. My face was bright red. . . and even a man, seemingly used to “forward” women, had not had this experience before. I find that a traumatized memory erases the apologies and how quickly I left. I felt like a scarlet woman! I no longer wanted that hot tub. . . or to ever see our guide ever again. He probably felt the same.
I did not go to dinner. I could not look our guide in the face for days after this. Does it even need to be said that – when I think of Mount Cook and the Hermitage Hotel – vivid images come to mind that had not one single thing to do with the majesty of this part of the world??
Outwardly, I carried things off well. That evening, the setting sun was glowing red over the mountains. (So was my face!) “Tomorrow will be fine. There’ll be time for another walk before we leave if we get up early”.
A quotation from author John Steinbeck seems to sum it up:
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all the plans, the safeguards are fruitless. We find after years that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”