It is raining here in Fox. It rains often on the West Coast I have learned. The hostel was not as nice as I hoped, and despite them having room for work I decide not to stay. I am about four hours from Queenstown, one of the most popular tourist destinations. I browse hostels on my phone in the morning, when something catches my eye. Another town a little bit closer. Wanaka. I remember back to the hostel in Auckland. Someone mentioned they lived in Wanaka for six months and it was their favorite place in New Zealand. If he could go back to living anywhere, he said Wanaka would be his choice. I need no further convincing and I head off to Wanaka.
The weather clears up as I get slightly inland on the West Coast. The scenery here is the classic dramatic landscapes that people talk about when referring to the South Island. The North Island is beautiful, but it is a peaceful, calm beauty of rolling green hills and forests with a few mountains. The South Island is striking and spectacular. Long valleys turn sharply into steep rock. Flat, expansive runways take off rapidly into mountains everywhere you look. Driving the roads of New Zealand is an adventure itself. One hardly needs to do any hiking to see the beauty this country has to offer. But one would miss significant views if they did skip hiking.
I stop at a few places on the way down to Wanaka. I have lunch on the shore of Lake Hawea at a campsite. Sitting on the grass above the rocky beach, I am hopeful Wanaka will be up to my expectations. It is supposed to be a small, quiet version of Queenstown. Plenty of hiking and right on the lake, with a bounty of restaurants and shops, young travelers working, ski fields a short distance away are all attractive features while lacking the too busy, transient crowd of Queenstown. Nobody stays in Queenstown, they all simply pass through. Or so I have heard. I finish my last few bites of my two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches gone but I linger by the water for a while. A Lake surrounded by mountains, it is hard to imagine a landscape I would prefer over this to see daily. People always ask if you would prefer a beach house or a lakeside cabin. The answer was always easy for me. I wonder if a beach will ever appeal to me over a cabin. But right now, it does not.
Wanaka is a small but busy town. The downtown area is crowded with people. Right on the lakefront are restaurants and smaller takeaway, quick food options. A couple streets up from the lakefront are outdoor stores, a supermarket, clothing stores, a few hospice shops, and more bike shops than it is reasonable for there to be within a couple blocks. Well, if it were a city. But with the surrounding mountains, there is ample mountain biking available. This town though is not the busy of a city or a more touristy place where people are running around to see the sights and do everything. It is busy, but a relaxed energy, everyone is trying to do nothing in particular except enjoy themselves.
Having decided to come to Wanaka so recently I am forced to bounce around hostels, moving to a different one each of the next three days. There are four backpackers within one street, and another few down the road. They are mostly full days in advance, but I got lucky for a few nights, and after the first three nights I book the rest of the week with one. After checking in I head down to the lakefront. It is sunny and warm and a welcome reprieve from the last few rainy days.
My phone buzzes. ‘New message from Janna,’ it tells me. A friend of mine I met back in Auckland. She was working and staying at the same hostel as Kyle, Elvis, and I before we left.
“Hey are you in Wanaka?” she asks. I posted some pictures from town today, she must have seen them.
“Haha, yeah I am. Are you?”
“Yes! Let’s hang out tomorrow!” A bit of back and forth and we decide to head to Rob Roy Glacier in the morning.
Janna only has a couple months left in New Zealand and has a few places left to see. After being disappointed by the glaciers at Franz Joseph, the Rob Roy glacier is her last opportunity to see an impressive glacier. She could not get close enough to the glacier at Franz Joseph to be impressed. One can pay for a helicopter flight to the glacier. But she did not, for the same reason that people generally do not book helicopter flights to places. Greeting her in the morning is refreshing. It is a welcome familiarity after the shifting landscapes and changing faces since I left Silverford.
“Did we take a wrong turn? How long is this dirt road?” Janna says, voicing my own thoughts.
“But there really was only this one road on the map… I think we’re ok. It was supposed to be about an hour.” The dirt road takes us through a valley surrounded by the sharp peaks that form the mountain ranges here on the South Island. They remind me of smaller versions of the mountains I visited in Switzerland. There is a reason these are called the Southern Alps I suppose.
“This must be it then,” I say, having arrived at a car park where the road ended. Plenty of other cars are parked here despite us having left fairly early and not seeing another vehicle on the way. Signs are posted for the glacier and a few other walks that all start from here.
I enjoy the hike with another person for a change. I would not mind being on my own as always, but the company is comforting, a reprieve from the discomfort I have felt the last few days. The walk is not hard and we chat for the two hours it takes us to get to the lookout point for the glacier. The sun shines off the blue and white ice brilliantly, a natural gem sitting on top of the mountains. We spend an easy time sitting on the grass eating lunch in the sun while enjoying the view.
“Do you want to get some ice cream?” Janna asks.
“It is a wonderful day for it. Is there a good place in town to get it?”
“Yes, there are a few places.”
“I do have quite the terrible sweet tooth.”
Back in Wanaka, we sit on the lakeside with our ice cream cones. It is the first time I have seen American sized portions here, the two scoop cone in my hand is ridiculously large. The air is warm and the sky is clear. The lake glistens in the sun. Birds stick close by to us as they tend to in spots where people bring food. I let one pick at my cone once I have finished most of it.
“I feel so comfortable here already. I have been looking for somewhere to stay. It will be here.”
That was at the end of January. Today I have been in Wanaka a little over two months. I have shifted back to living rather than traveling. I found simple and enjoyable work in a restaurant and a pleasant day to day life here. My plan is to spend the rest of my time in New Zealand. Life suites me here.