Monday, February 18, 2008

Green Marathon

QC Sounds Opening

2/16/08 Debrett's backpackers, Portage Bay, NZ

I am halfway done with my walk on the Queen Charlotte Track and too tired to do anything physical other than sit and write. Today and tomorrow are basically each half-marathons in mountainous terrain (mountainous by Chicago standards, anyways).

Despite a tight schedule, things have been smooth since I left South Pole on Wednesday, just two and a half days ago. The process of getting reintroduced to the planet has unfolded in stages, the highlights of which I will now share with you:

1. The Trans Antarctic mountains as seen from our C-130. Glaciers, crevasses, nunataks, mountain peaks, ice falls. I never tire of the views from the plane.

2. At Pegasus field outside McMurdo, twice the oxygen I've been breathing, and the sights of Mt. Discovery, Ross Island, Black and White island. The pleasure of actually seeing something on the horizon. Unlike the last two years, our C-17 actually arrived just after we landed, though we had to wait a few hours after that for cargo offloading/loading and for passengers to arrive by bus from McMurdo.

3. Night in Christchurch: darkness for the first time in a month.

4. Wandering around town, shopping, eating non-Pole food; saying goodbye to friends/colleagues.

5. The train to Picton. Rocking sleepily through rain-blurred green landscapes. Watching sheep fleeing from the tracks as we passed. Meeting and comparing notes with other Ice people.

6. Getting on the mail boat in Picton and seeing Marlborough Sounds from a completely new perspective (in the past I have just taken the ferry straight to Wellington). During the four hour or so trip, the mail boat visits a dozen small homes or clusters of homes reachable only by water. The first time we approached a house/pier, I was sure we were actually going to ram the shore! But our skipper stopped on a dime just short of the pier and brought the boat close enough to exchange mail bags and a few words with the gentleman who came out to meet us. Then we were speeding off to the next harbour. The jocular skipper asked where I was from.

"Chicago," I replied.

"Chicago!!! Do you have a rat-a-tat gun?"

"Uh, sorry...."

"No?! I thought everyone in Chicago had a rat-a-tat gun, like in the movies."

There are dozens or hundreds of isolated homes on the Sounds, most probably reachable only by boat. Any of these would make a perfect getaway, or movie set.

7. Arriving at Mahana lodge, whose dilapidated dock looks like something from a Tarkovsky film (I fell in love with it instantly). Ann and John's home-cooked meal was by far the best food I've had in five weeks, accompanied by rain, thunder, and (!) hail. Sleeping in a room with three other people and being so tired I just fell asleep instantly.

8. Walking here. The Queen Charlotte track takes about three days, two days of which I'm doing. The mail boat takes your bags from lodge to lodge while you walk. The track winds over low mountains through terrain varying from dry scrub to rainforest, with vistas of the sounds opening up now and again on either side. I saw, in no particular order, birds called "wekas" which look exactly like a cross between a chicken and a kiwi bird; a dead worm the size of a small snake; gazillions of tiny pink mushrooms and a few large bright orange ones; strange plants with a straight stalk and long rigid leaves like green knives serrated on both sides (I had seen these in the Christchurch botanical garden but was convinced they were from another planet); and maybe a dozen people.

Most of the time it was just about the walking, with plenty of time to think or just look at all the growing things.

Tomorrow will be more of the same, though perhaps a little easier going. Which is fine with me and my sore legs. Then I have a night in Picton all to myself in a small cottage attached to a B&B, and finally to Wellington for three nights until I fly home.

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