New Zealand feels enormous. It’s odd, considering that we’ve just come from a country that could fit the entire of Europe in it, to say that this diminutive pair of islands seems so much bigger. It just goes to show the impact that people have on a place. With so few people living on the south island (33% of the population of the entire country live in Auckland) there are huge spaces of land with nothing as far as you can see. No shops, office blocks, houses, farms (ok, perhaps the sheep are proof of habitation), just a road curving through a mass of impossibly beautiful scenery. Admittedly, had I headed inland a bit in Oz, I’m sure I would have said the same thing, but our journey up the east coast meant that we weren’t ever that far from people. Not only that, but the frequent forests crowding over the side of the road gave it a sense of being closed in. Here, the glaciers have left very flat, open land, which makes the sky look bigger than you realised it was.
I was hoping that these wide spaces would lend themselves to a flurry of creativity. A corner of my brain was hoping (yes, perhaps unrealistically when travelling with a baby) that I would have an outpouring of ideas, and would come back laden with short stories, perhaps even half a novel. Seeing as I am typing this in a laundrette while the baby naps in the carrier on my front, I think that may have been optimistic. So if not that, maybe all this exposure to the great outdoors would bring me some kind of meditative peace that I find tricky to get hold of when I’m rushing around in London.
My attempts at hypnobirthing while in labour are a testament to my inability to stay mentally focused. Call me weak-minded, but I just couldn’t access my ‘safe space’ while my entire body was clenching up from its core. Other people have said that you forget how much it hurts in order to have a second baby. I can’t imagine that happening. It makes me realise what a wonderful invention the epidural is. But anyway, surely my brain would find its focus when exposed to this spacious environment.
Mordor looks quite pretty in the sun
One thing that this country has definitely given me is a range of landscapes in which I can attempt to boost my creativity/become more zen/find inner peace, or whatever I was expecting. We’ve driven across a desert (where they filmed the scenes for Mordor in Lord of the Rings), hiked over mountain trails, floated on fjords, walked through sub-tropical rainforest and watched sheep (so many sheep) graze on gently sloped hills. The kind that look like some giant creature is sleeping and the folds of the earth are a blanket draped over it.
From Aoraki, in the middle of the south island, you can walk incredibly close to the peak of the tallest mountain in the country – Mount Cook. While this sounds like it involves crampons and impressive climbing abilities, thanks to a rather helpful glacier that trudged through the valley a few hundred years ago, there’s a walkable flat plain right up to the foothills. We did the walk on a glorious day – clear blue sky, the odd cloud fluttering over the peaks, the temperature just enough to give you a sting in the cheeks. A recent snowfall meant that the surrounding hills, as well as the mountains, were sprinkled with a frosty top layer. Perfect.
Beautiful weather for a mountain walk
On the way up, you walk through scrubby grassland, flanked by sheer walls of rock. Some of them are topped with glaciers, creaking their way down the slopes. There are swinging suspension bridges that take you over chalky-blue rivers tumbling over round grey stones. At the end you reach a glacier. Hunks of ice float in the clear blue lake that reflects the jagged peak of the mountain.
Hanging out with a baby and a glacier
A place of myth and legend. A place of grand narratives and heroic deeds. Or so you would think. I had the ‘Coconut’ song by Harry Nilsson from the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack stuck in my head. This was thanks to the new shower gel we’d just bought which had, you’ve guessed it, lime and coconut milk. Very tropical, but it didn’t help with my hopes for a meditative state. Other songs that have been lodged in my brain during hikes have included ‘When You’re Gone’ by Bryan Adams and Sporty Spice while trudging through the rain in Greymouth, ‘Fill Me In’ by Craig David while walking through beautiful glowworm caves, and ‘Let’s Go To The Mall’ by Robin Sparks while walking by fur seals on the coast. Very zen indeed.
Baby fur seals learning how to swim
If not the mountains, then surely the stars would prove a better muse. A huge advantage of renting a self-contained (and much larger) camper van is that we’ve stayed in a lot of free Department of Conservation campsites. These have minimal facilities but allow you to stay out in nature, away from the towns and cities.
Near Mount Cook, we stayed right next to Lake Pukaki. It’s an impossible blue thanks to the grinding action of glaciers on rock, so from a distance it looks like a huge pool of cobalt ice. It’s also part of the International Dark Sky Reserve, which means it’s excellent for viewing the night sky. Baby safely asleep, I donned four layers (including a vest), double socks and a woolly hat, and we went out to marvel at the cosmos.
A huge swipe of the milky way rose above us, the stars stretching all the way to the line of the horizon. In the gaps between the bright points of light you kept seeing more, so it seemed as if there were no black spaces to be found between them.
Stunning, yes, but my god it was cold. I think we managed about five minutes before the lure of our in-van heating (oh sweet wonder of technology) called us indoors. So much for cosmic inspiration.
The second memorable star-viewing was on a tiny campsite (we went there because we read about the alpacas) on the road to Queenstown. This time, the temperature wasn’t too bad. I decided to go out on my own. Plenty of time for a quick epiphany before my feet got too chilly.
Gazing up at the speckled sky, I found myself narrating what I would say when I went back inside. Not as good as by the lake, but still pretty impressive. I think I saw a shooting star.
Why, in the act of seeing something, was I planning on how I would report it later? This is not the first time it’s happened. While watching the slick back of a sperm whale rest on the top of the sea, it’s spray huffing into the air as it breathed before diving down deep below us, I was thinking about how I would describe it to a friend back home.
Even in the middle of my favourite part of our trip so far, I found myself imagining how I would report it to people when we got back. I was swimming with dolphins just off Kaikoura. They find a pod of wild dolphins and drop you in amongst them with a snorkel. It was breathtaking. After the initial shock of seeing these sleek and incredibly fast creatures whip past me underwater (the same size as me!), fascination took over and I dived and span, trying to catch their eye and follow their movements to keep them interested enough to swim around me. At one point I had five or six swimming beside, below, all around me, a rhythmic and effortless consort to my flailing limbs.
These guys were great fun to swim with
Yet there I was again, telling the story of it, as if it was already past, to people I hadn’t seen for ages. Of course, that could be part of it. Having been away for almost three months, our opportunities for conversation with friends and family are pretty limited, so it’s natural to think about them from time to time. But I really wanted to live in the moment, to find that headspace that allowed me to bask in it, enjoy it, find some mental stillness.
As it turns out, having a baby is quite useful for this. I read that narrating what you are doing, or what you can see, is a good way to help with language development. So while we were on a not particularly exciting walk, I decided to try it out. We were in a park in Queenstown. It was quiet, nothing but the sound of clattering frisbees (they have a frisbee golf course!) and lapping of water against the lakeside. She was starting to get restless, turning her head around and arching her back, the way she does when she’s had enough of being in the sling. I started to ask her what she could see, and point out all the different things we encountered.
The autumn colours of Queenstown
All of a sudden, the walk got more interesting. Pine trees, with impossibly straight trunks, their wood and needles dark against the sky. As it’s autumn out here, the colours of the leaves on other trees were amazing – from a silvery yellow through to toasty orange and burnt red. The path had crunchy gravel with different coloured stones. There was a pond, a bridge, ducks, a statue. Pebbles, leaves, clouds, the shuffling waves on the lake, the wind pulling at a tyre swing hanging over the water.
I became fascinated with this small stretch of green, noticing textures and colours that I would have strolled past had I not started pointing them out to her. I’d already been told that seeing things through a child’s eyes can help you appreciate them more, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.
From now on, I will try to do this at every opportunity, even is she isn’t there. However, I should probably do it in my head to avoid some funny looks. I’m hoping it will allow me to stop and appreciate the wonderful things I’m seeing now, rather than how they will look through the lens of a past story, the things they will become after I return home.