The following morning dawned ultra-fine, so I prepped to reattempt my previously aborted plan of heading (on one of the country’s numerous one-way-in, one-way-out drives) to Glenorchy, tantalizingly described by my Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘heartbreakingly beautiful.’
With my grumbly tummy already eagerly anticipating lunch at the praised Glenorchy Café, I embarked on the approximately hour’s long drive on more of the winding, barely-clinging-to-the-cliff-face roads I’d grown accustomed to on the South Island (still with a 100 kmph speed limit, of course – these were well-paved twisty roads, dammit), unless you account for the many instances of [gasp] ‘Holy s*** – I gotta get a picture of that!!’
Pull over, snap snap snap, jump back into van [VROOM]…
[twenty seconds elapse]…
‘OMG, holy hell, lookit THAT!’
So with photogenic stops taken into account, I revised my estimated time of arrival from a hour-ish hence to – ohh, sometime next Tuesday. Seriously, of all the knock-you-on-yer-ass scenery in New Zealand, the road between Glenorchy and Queenstown was the chart topper (and—at least, in terms of universal appeal—remained uncontested for the balance of the trip).
I’ll let said scenery speak for itself, shall I?
When I arrived at Glenorchy proper (on Tuesday) ‘town’ proved to be a very small collection of buildings – perhaps four streets total? – so it took me no time to zero in on the restaurant in question.
The blazingly warm day was rapidly evaporating memories of the spate of rain and clammy fog we’d just endured, so I fixed on the outdoor seating (all the better for basking in) and placed a order for an open faced steak sammich (I was reaaaaally hungry) and despite the warm temps, had to try the homemade mulled wine. (It was December, remember. I found a little holiday-spirit, Dickensian-England appeal in the idea, even though it was eighty-some degrees out and I was wearing a bikini under my shorts and t-shirt.)
The backyard view was awesome.
As was the mulled wine, when it arrived. Tasting it, I immediately flashed back to drinking sangria earlier this year in Amsterdam on the patio at Joselito’s – similar flavor, but taken steaming warm here in the New Zealand sun, versus cool in the humid city.
Sipping on hot booze in the streaming sunlight started to become overly sweaty and cornea-searing right about the time my sammich arrived. Except it wasn’t just a sammich; it was a feast worthy of the kitchens of Valhalla, layered heavily on one enormous plate – slabs of toasted and buttered foccacia, heaps of steak in juicily seared cross-grain slices, shimmeringly fatty ‘bacon’ (though what Kiwis call bacon usually is more like what we think of as ham, not the skinny little crispy rasher variety).
A traditional lettuce/tomato sandwich accompaniment was presumably the original inspiration for what had morphed into the hefty salad I found topping the meat. Having had to inquire when I ordered what a mushie* is, I was aware of the coming mushrooms (and roasted peppers and asparagus ) but nothing fried egg-related had been mentioned in the description of my meal, so I just assumed it was for the aesthetic, golden-crowning glory appeal and totally decadent protein overload effect.
I took a couple of pics and then grabbed my drink and camera to relocate to a shady table to better savor the sammich’s proffered pleasures without risking heatstroke.
The moment I stepped away from the sandwich of the gods, an enormous seagull swooped down and greedily swiped half my bacon and a goodly bit of lettuce. Bastard!!! For the remainder of my meal I was obliged to keep a sharp eye out for more gulls, or even innocent looking little brown sparrows, who loitered about nonchalantly, but pounced in eager anticipation on the topmost chair slats at my table immediately after I departed to refill my waterglass. ** I had smartened up by this time, however, and tucked my napkin over my plate as a safeguard. The food itself was divine: the steak perfectly done, the garnishing side dollops of a chutney and a red pepper coulis (er, if I am remembering correctly; I negligently did not take notes on this meal) lending variation and hugely amplified depth of flavors to the sweet roasted veggies and savory beef slices, all cooled by toothsome lettucy veggies. The earthy flavor of the egg – a really perfectly done sunny-side up, too, with just the right combo of tender, leathery, and crisp on the base, and a viscous golden yolk – lent gravitas and a rich mouthfeel to both the salady bits and the steak and toasty ones. Niiiiiice.
Having discovered upon my arrival in town that my plans to camp at the DOC site would be complicated by the fact that the campgrounds were not in Glenorchy as I’d thought, but a somewhat sizeable drive away on roads that were not all paved, I ran my tentative plans by the winsome young man who waited on me. He suggested I proceed with driving to the campground, but take on an additional detour to…. Paradise. Now, I’d seen the painted signs proclaiming Glenorchy the ‘Gateway to Paradise’ but assumed this was an evocative moniker calculated to lure tourists, not a geographic description – but the latter is exactly what it was. Paradise was a 15 km jaunt away on a gravely and dusty road, but it was where they’d done a lot of the Lord of the Rings^ filming, Winsome explained to me. “It’s really worth the drive, and then you can continue on to Kinloch afterwards,” he advised. Charmed by Winsome, the town name, and my initial confusion over the meaning of the slogan I’d seen, I decided to take his advice.
The tooth-rattling effect of a gravel and dirt road – a reasonably common surface for more rural roads in more rural parts of New Zealand — cannot be overstated. Especially a 20-some km journey (each way) thereon. I think they also refer to these as ‘shingle’ roads, but I was not entirely curtain I understood the answer when I tried to confirm that – if true, it is because of a grater, or subsurface, or SOMEthing they use on the roads that give them little ribs, like a very tiny Caterpillar bulldozer tread had driven over them. This increases the rattle-factor already existent from the heaps of loose gravel on the track – and the inevitable puddle holes. In a van with a metal grill / gas burner hybrid in the back; regular and ginger beer bottles stowed in the food storage area; and placesettings for two stacked in the dishpan – well, it’s quite a cacophony.
The entire route to Paradise was like some Buddhist proverb-ish ‘It’s not the destination; it’s the journey’ sort of thing. Beautiful? Yes.
Slightly intimidating warnings and increasingly large stream fords — for someone driving a minivan, let us remember—? Also yes.
A constant nagging [uptight American tourist?] sense of, “Um, are we there yet? What exactly am I supposed to be seeing here? Where are these supposed filming sites? I don’t recognize any of this…” Once again, yes.
I was not the only one to experience this – I was hailed by a pulled over Lexus SUV full of Asian tourists who asked me if this was still the way to Paradise…
Okay, so here the mind boggles at the many allegorical, even metaphysical associations that could be concocted in response to this query. I will refrain from indulging in any except for noting this: The road did keep you wondering – “Is this it? [later, frustratedly] Wait, wait is this IT?? Or, no, is it further up the road?” If your expectations were too high you missed seeing the beauty in front of you. [Hey, I can’t help it when reality itself is trite; I am merely reporting.]
Because it was a beautiful road -if rattly- but at no point was there an ‘Ohhhh, HERE it is!’ sense of arrival and recognition at some single, obvious spectacular vantage point.
On the contrary, the road petered out at a river crossing with a small DOC site that offered several hikes of varying length, including to the area where the scenery around Saruman’s tower was filmed in LOTR. I was abashed to have fretted over the wisdom of attempting the stream crossings as much as I had when I saw the huge variety of vehicles that had made it to the End of the Line safely: tiny little Yaris-type vehicles; large ‘short bus’ sized tourist shuttles, stolid Camrys of the bourgeoisie… So I took a few snaps and headed back.
On the way I could see an enourmous storm racing up the valley from Queenstown – “Mmmm, camping – ?” I considered, looking at the mountains perceivably being swallowed by the hungry mist as the minutes elapsed.
Every aesthetic gland I had felt fully sated by the day’s sights, so I decided to buckle in and push on toward the damn-near southernmost Kiwi city of Invercargill, which would serve as my launch point for attempting to sight penguins in the wild.
But first – I lied earlier (well, I was mocking for effect) when I said I didn’t recognize any of the scenery. The forest I drove past on the way to Paradise were, at the edge, unmistakably the Woods of Lothlorien, where the Fellowship enters the forest of ‘the great and powerful elf-witch’, and Gimli uneasily warns. (Yes, I am geeking out hard; look away.) But I did keep expecting Cate Blanchett to swirl out of the trees with those creepy fake long fingernails they put on her for the scene where Frodo offers her the Ring… “All shall love me and despair!!” Bring it, girl.
* Kiwis have a weird penchant for abbreviating the hell out of words. Mushies = mushrooms, Wellington = Welly, even truck drivers, not normally the most cuddlable bunch at first glance, become rather cute-sounding truckies….
** They – so simply yet brilliantly – streamline waitservice for everyone in many eating establishments over there by placing clean stacks of glasses and pitchers of water [or a small water tap] either at the end of the service counter or at a station nearby… help yourself, refill yourself – no waiting thirstily!