Monthly Archives: October 2009

when you least expect it.

There are certain things I expected to do during my year in New Zealand. Like I’ve written, I knew a bit about Fiordland and was looking forward to visiting Milford Sound. I figured a trip to Oz (short for Australia by those-in-the-know) would be a mandatory pilgrimage already living Down Under. And I couldn’t wait for my first foray to Asia, something that’s soon to happen in about ten days when I leave Christchurch for Bangkok.

But then are there things I would have simply laughed at the thought of if you’d told me about them back in March. There are things I had no idea would even be possible to be a part of in New Zealand. Getting back into music has undoubtedly been the greatest surprise of the year thus far. I started off playing just a couple of songs each Sunday at Wattie’s – something I was fine with as it was certainly more than I’d played in the past year and a half. But it wasn’t long until my manager Braden got an idea and had a plan brewing. Working with our promotions manager, he had soon created “Wednesdays Unplugged,” a mid-week acoustic night that would feature five local musicians each week – including me!

It was hard to believe I’d gone from two to three songs in between another artist’s set to officially having my own 45-minute-long set. All of a sudden, I was back in it, back in the music; scribbling down set lists on the back of comment cards from the supermarket, learning covers, digging out old originals. I even started performing with another guy from Wattie’s, an English guy named Dave. Braden was pretty set on putting the two of us together – Dave on guitar, me on a mic – and while I felt stressed he kept calling me, telling me to arrange a practice session with Dave when I barely had enough time for both jobs, even that collaboration has been great. The simple feeling of creating music with another person, of having someone else up on stage with you, to give looks to, to banter with in between songs, to laugh with when you forget yet another word.

But even with having a chance to perform every week in Wattie’s, nothing could have prepared me for the latest musical opportunity. Braden can tend to have quite the laissez-faire approach when it comes to music and getting gigs together. From the first Sunday he wanted me up on stage to pairing Dave and I together on Wednesdays, he’ll either leave it to the last minute or bring the subject up in the most nonchalant way. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when last Friday, I walked into work at the bar and the first thing Braden said to me was, “So we’re all confirmed for the radio next Friday.”

Excuse me? Confirmed? I had no idea there was anything of the sort in the works, let alone good to go or “done and dusted,” as the Kiwis might say. And ecstatic as I was over the news, my nerves kicked in an instant later and in that crisis-management kind of way, I needed details. “What do you mean I’m on the radio? Which station? When? For how long? Do they want covers or originals?”

But of course, Braden could give me nothing, only that I had to be there at 7.45 am, a truly unacceptable hour in our line of work. And although I knew I’d be performing for a  segment called “Friday Live,” he couldn’t even tell me what station it would be on so there was no real point in telling friends to tune in (not that there was any chance of them being conscious at that hour) because I had no idea of where to direct them. But so I showed up one bright, early Friday morning to the RadioWorks office in town where most of Queenstown’s radio stations are based. Braden came with me and we were shown into the reception area where we waited for our slot. Around 8.15 (having been told I was playing at 8.30), the two announcers, Emma and Margot, came out of the recording studio and asked who I was.

“Oh, we were expecting a Dave…” Which is exactly what you want to hear when a) you’re eaten up with nerves and b) you’ve already set your Facebook status to “OMG!!!! Going to sing on NZ radio!!!!” or something similarly overdone, and we all know the embarrassment of Facebook-status-retration. “Oh, sorry guys…false alarm…” But the women were lovely and accommodating, making a split-second decision – supposedly against what their bosses would probably agree to – to include me anyways, having me go on before this mystery “Dave” arrived to play and promote next week’s Jazz Fest.

They brought me into the recording studio and I was shown the seat I’d be playing from. As I waited to play, I marveled at how animated and expressive they were on air, even while talking to an empty room. Maybe that’s the secret to DJs we know and love? The whole affair was pretty quick-bang – thirty seconds in and they announced I’d be playing – “Alright, folks, we’re about to get even prettier in here. We’ve got Candace Rose in the studio this morning who’ll be playing for us.” Two minutes later we were back on air. It was go-time.

It was all I could do to ignore the microphone in front of me and just talk to them as if having a normal conversation. “So what are you playing for us today, Candace?” And the more leading question, asked purposely as a sort of plug for Watties – “Do you play anywhere around town?” By that point, though, I’d gotten into the swing of things and I let the newfound promoter in me come out. “Absolutely, Emma. Every Wednesday night at Wattie’s at 9pm, we have five amazing local acts in…” It was one of those moments where you stop and ask yourself, “Who are you and what have you done with the old me?”

I only ended up playing one song, an original called “Yours for the Taking.” It’s one I wrote on piano but have since transferred to guitar so I can play it at Wattie’s. It goes over great every time I play it, so I decided it might be the best choice for the radio. It went well, especially considering it was probably the earliest I’ve ever performed live I was grateful for just a few parts where my voice got scratchy. As I played, I looked around the room, at Braden and the announcers, and got affirming nods, thumb-ups, and the like. I wanted nothing more than to enjoy it, to live in that moment and revel in the fact that it was really happening. When I finished, Emma said, “What an absolute treasure we have here today. Thank you so much for that, Candace, and remember you can see Candace every Wednesday at Wattie’s…” I chatted with them briefly afterwards but it was soon time for jazzy Dave to have his go on air.

As Braden and I walked back out into the still-early Morning, I was completely buzzing – no other word for it. Exhilarated, energized, on a high, whatever. All I could say to myself was, “Who woulda thought? Who woulda thought?!” The last thing I pictured happening in New Zealand was having a chance to sing and play live on a major station – the total last thing. “You nailed it,” Braden says, “The lyics are brilliant. You know what you’re doing.”

I do? Really? It was a cool thing to hear, to think that the years of lessons, practice, camps and performances are paying off in a way. That as a musician, I am able to offer something people enjoy. The buzz stayed strong through the morning (the longest, most productive morning I’ve had in a while, I might add), making the thought of going back to sleep an impossibility. So I carried on, officially submitting my application for grad school, wrapping all the Christmas presents I’m taking to Thailand to send home with my mother – and even going into work at the supermarket more cheerful than usual.

But after four hours of utter monotony – of the dreadfully draining task of my arm moving in the same swiping motion ten thousand times an hour – I had lost it. The morning in the studio was but a faint memory in my mind-numbed state. Until, that is, one gentleman came down my till and after a few moments of talking, he asks, “Was that you singing on the radio this morning?” Talk about an irrepressible smile – I couldn’t even help it, I was absolutely beaming. “Why, yes it was,” I said with a  sly grin on my face. “That was pretty sharp. Was it pre-recorded or live?” I assured him it was indeed live (hence the name of the segment, really) and as he walked off, he says, “Keep at it.”

It’s one of those phrases that hits you right in the gut. There, in my checkout lane, I fought back tears, blinking fast and staring up at the fluorescent lights hanging overhead. Because sometimes, caught in the never-ending monotony, you just have to wonder. What will all become of this, you ask yourself. Often while closing the bar each night, as I’m sweeping up piles of bottlecaps, straws, napkins, and broken bits of glass, Braden will walk by and call me Cinderella. I have to laugh and wonder if he’s right. It’s hard to balance having a mind that’s itching to be creative with having jobs that are anything but. But – this is where I am right now, these are the jobs I have and I will aim to do them with the smallest amount of grumbling that I can manage. And, of course, always holding onto every opportunity like this one, hoping they are only a taste of what’s to come.

And to you, sir – you in checkout lane 4 telling a tired young checkout chick to keep at it…yes, sir, you better believe I will.

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until i can’t…

Over the past year or so of traveling and living abroad, I’ve noticed an interesting theme weave itself in and out of the conversations I have with people about what I’m doing – that being the perception that this time of my life is temporary, an idea that’s often expressed in the phrase “while you can.”

That’s great you’re doing this while you can.”

“You should definitely have these experiences while you can.”

Or the most wistful approach – “I wish I had done the same when I was your age.”

While I can? It’s always a phrase that scares me slightly – it’s unnerving in the way it implies a time will come when I can’t, when I’ll have to “settle down,” “get a real job,” “have kids,” etc. It’s weird to hear other young travelers like me say they have to go home to the real world because, to me, this is my real world. When I went to Egypt last year, there were three other American girls on the tour who were also living in London through the BUNAC program. As you do in these situations, everyone was asked where they were from, what they did in London (where it seemed everyone was living), where they were headed next, and so on. When the girls were asked about their post-London plans, all of them replied, “Oh, probably go home and get a real job.” It fascinates me how the traveling life almost always gets written off as not a proper job. But why? Why can’t being a backpacker be a real job, even if it doesn’t require a university degree? Granted we’re not crunching numbers or putting on suits in the morning or earning a stable five-figure salary from a single employer, but who’s to say it’s not real? The only reason I work two jobs in Queenstown (and am thus told by everyone that I work too much) is so that I can continue to save a reasonable sum every week. Just because I’m traveling doesn’t mean I can’t be financially responsible, it doesn’t mean my savings account has to get run into the ground.

Thus with all my frustrations and misperceptions, I look forward to meeting people who defy this concept and haven’t limited themselves to a global lifestyle only “while they can.” Like the family that came through my checkout lane a few weeks ago. The dad was wearing a Notre Dame baseball hat and I was feeling particularly chatty and up to striking conversations with customers, so I asked him about it. Turned out he was from Indiana, his wife was from England, and they met while working abroad for the same company…in Stockholm. And as if that wasn’t random enough, they currently live in Sydney with their two daughters. Increasingly intrigued by this couple’s story, I kept asking questions. Something my Kiwi friend Paul and I have discussed while joking about getting married is where the wedding would be for such an international match. This particular couple got hitched right near Windsor Castle, something I can’t imagine many relatives complaining about having to attend. And then the ever-popular question of how often you’d see your families living so far from home. “Not much,” he says, especially considering his twin brother lives in Alaska. Ouch. Looking at his daughters, though, he goes on to say, “But this is my family now.” How cool is that?

Or, to move on to Exhibit B, there was another woman who came through my till this week who asked me almost immediately after hearing my accent, “Are you from the States?” (Sidenote: You know you’re bound to have a good conversation with any American who refers to the country as “The States” rather than using the Team America-esque pronunication of “America.”) An American herself, she met her South African husband on a blind date in New York City, a date that brought her all the way to Queenstown, New Zealand, six years ago where she now raises her ten-year old twin girls. Another question I’ve given a lot of thought to is about children living in one country with parents who originated from another. Do these twins, for instance, consider themselves Kiwis now, Americans or some hybrid form of  Ameri-zealanders? Interestingly enough, she shared that one daughter has developed a New Zealand accent while the other has retained her American one. Brings a whole new meaning to the word fraternal, doesn’t it?

And finally, my flatmate and friend Jordan. Although originally from Colorado, her art-dealing parents have lived in Bangkok the past four years as well as places like Nepal, India, and Costa Rica, if only for a few months in each country. She thus attended an American International high school in Bangkok and hopes to go to university in Melbourne, Australia. Where the whole idea for this entry even came from was on our overnight trip to Milford Sound. At dinner on the boat, we were seated with an American couple from San Diego. As Jordan shared her story in answer to more rounds of the usual getting-to-know-you questions, I grew more and more amazed at the woman’s inability to grasp Jordan’s life history. In every lull in the conversation, she’d come back to it, returning to it like an old Sudoku you couldn’t solve but weren’t yet ready to admit defeat to. “So, where did you go to high school, then?”…”You went to a school in Costa Rica, but wouldn’t that have been in Spanish?”…”And you haven’t started college yet?” It was all I could do to not laugh and say, “Come on, now, is it that hard to understand?” At the end of dinner – such sweet sorrow that it was to part from them – the woman said, “Well, I’m glad you girls are doing this while you can.”

That’s when it hit me…why, why – and I ask that with every ounce of exasperation I can muster – do people say that? What is it about the life abroad that seems so mysteriously incompatible with having a “real” job, raising a family, and just carrying on with life in general? Why – there’s that frustration again – does there seem to be such a divide between this time of my life and the next chapter? Now, to be fair, a friend in Christchurch asked me once, “I presume you’ll decide to settle down at some point?” And every so often, I am filled with such a desire, especially after looking at Pottery Barn or Urban Outfitters too long and simply wanting a place to finally hang some of the pictures I’ve taken. And as my mom always reminds me, at some point I will have to have a small life and deal with its normal, daily struggles – annoying neighbors, frustrating queues at the supermarket, paying my children’s tuition. I can’t always jet about – at some point I must connect with one place and build a community. But the key to that is reconciling the fact that life is often small with the knowledge that the world is big, and we must have both. We cannot live in the world disconnected from real relationships, but we also must never lose perspective in life on the greater world around us. So rather than thinking of that day when I do settle down as a be all, end all to my travels, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing…not “while I can” but until I can’t.

And I suppose what’s keeping me from feeling like this chapter of my life is just a series of random wanderings, just a way of delaying the real world, is the belief that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, this is right where I’m supposed to be. I’ve written before on my love for Jack Kerouac after reading On the Road, especially the following line:

“I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way out.”

I instantly connected with his reckless abandon, his searching after something undefined and potentially unobtainable, and his constant decision to go. But a few days after I finished Kerouac, I picked up a book by Oswald Chambers, a well-known religious author who ran a Bible College in London in the 1910s. There, in his writing, was my answer:

“A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, and He stretches and strains and every now and again the saint says – “I cannot stand anymore.” God does not heed, He goes on stretching till His purpose is in sight, then He lets fly. Trust yourself in God’s hands.”

In a desire to develop my travel writing for the mainstream publishing industry, I’ve sort of kept much of the spiritual side of my journey in New Zealand out of the picture of this blog. But the truth is, it’s been a major part of what I’m learning here and how I am growing and changing as a person as a result of living in this country. And I know faith and spirituality are not taboo subjects by any means, as best-selling books like Eat, Pray, Love and Blue Like Jazz show people are willing and want to read about, but for me personally, it’s something I want to make certain that I present and discuss topics in a way that’s approachable, interesting and relevant.

But when I came across this juxtaposition – or perhaps intersection would be a more fitting word choice – this collision of ideas – “I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way out” vs. “My life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer” – I got it. This is it, this is the perfect marriage of ideas and ideals. Life is an adventure, we are meant to shoot all the way out as far as we can reach, and it’s not a matter of getting our sense of curiosity and lust for the world out of our system before the age of 30. However – and this is where the glorious “but” of my epiphany comes in – we are not sailing through the universe on some random trajectory, falling when and where we may. Just as Shakespeare wrote, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” we are an arrow shot by an Archer with a dead-on shot, an Archer who knows the exact point where we will fall. We don’t know, though, and that, my friends, is what makes life such an epic adventure.

So it’s funny to pause at this moment in my course through the air and look back at points in my life where things could have gone in such another direction. One of those moments was my last semester before graduating from university when I began dating a guy I was essentially set up with by family friends back home. On paper, we were perfect for each other – eerily similar tastes in music and movies, similar life experiences and hobbies – you know how it goes, what prompted the set-up in the first place and fueled our families’ pressure to begin a relationship even though neither of us had ever dated anyone seriously before. But as the months went by and graduation drew nearer, it became clear the connection wasn’t there and – worse yet – he wasn’t talking about it. As I struggled to make a decision about life post-university, I wavered between getting a teaching job in my hometown to be near him or pursuing another job elsewhere. Ultimately, London won out almost immediately after I heard about the opportunity, a voice inside me whispering louder each time, “Go. Go. Go.”

I write all of this only to say I had a Family Man moment the other day, a moment where you see what your life could’ve looked like had you chosen the prize behind Door Two instead of Door One. The terrible beauty of Facebook is that it enables these moments to happen a lot sooner than your 20th high school reunion where you see your first love balding and thirty pounds heavier – or in better shape than ever. So I happened to see photos of the house this guy from last semester is currently building on some property his family owns – a perfectly normal, plastic-sided, two-story construction found all over Suburbia. And all I could do was thank God this guy hadn’t talked, that he hadn’t told me to stay. Because now that I’ve gone, now that I’m here, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s not that I want more or better than that house, it’s not that I want to aim higher – it’s just that I hope, by the grace of God, my arrow shoots out in a different direction.

Until then, I’ll be here…until I can’t.

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she’ll be coming ’round the mountain…

There couldn’t be a more fitting time for the phrase “Better late than never” than to refer to me going up the mountain for a little snow action. Having not decided to even make the move to Queenstown until early June – once the season had already started – I first missed out on any good deals that would make a season’s pass even remotely affordable. Then there was the whole issue of gear – board, boots, bindings, a stylish Roxy or Burton jacket with coordinating pants, of course – another pricey investment all on its own. And finally, once I actually arrived in Queenstown and realized that I’d need two quasi-full-time jobs in order to keep saving at the same rate as I was in Christchurch, I wasn’t left with much time to make all that investment in gear and a pass even worth it. All of this leading to the unfortunate reality that I had soon spent three months in Queenstown without a single trip up the slopes – a fact that left me shame-faced every time yet another customer would ask, “So you’re in town for the snow, then?”

Because, let’s face it, not many aren’t. In this mecca of adventure and snow sports, the options are extensive. An hour or two away in Wanaka (a mini-Queenstown, if you will) lie two ski fields, Cardrona and Treble Cone, one that boasts of the longest vertical rise in the Southern Lakes region. Closer to home for Queenstown residents are the Remarkables and Coronet Peak, whose claim to fame is its status as New Zealand’s first commercial ski field. Opened in 1947 by Harry Wigley, it began with only a single rope tow – compared with the $30 million invested in 141 new snow cannons last year, it’s safe to say Coronet has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

But it was to the Remarkables that I headed to for my debut run on a New Zealand ski field. Rumor has it the mountain range earned its name from being one of only two in the world that runs directly north to south – true or not, the ski field offers a little something for everyone: plenty of runs for novice and intermediate skiers as well as terrain parks for the experts among us – parks like the Stash, an “evolutionary, revolutionary Burton signature park,” apparently the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. I was initially supposed to make the trek to Treble Cone for my first run having won a free pass from the bar for being the best-dressed pirate at our Pirate Party on International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day. (Turns out strapping on an eye patch, hoop earring, red-and-white striped shirt and skull socks can be good for something!) But when I went to book my shuttle to Treble Cone, neither bus company was running their service anymore due to lack of demand. (Alas, as a workmate at the bar said, I should’ve gone, “Well, I’m demanding it! Here’s your demand!”)

I trudged back to our promotions manager to see if I could exchange the free pass for the $50 voucher to our sister bar that had been my other option. “Well, do you want one for Coronet or Remarks instead?” he asked. Really? Was it that easy? Best case of “Ask not, receive not” ever! Jordan had already asked me to go up to Remarks with her on Monday anyways, so I eagerly swapped my Treble Cone pass and started making the necessary preparations. It amazes me how much this town is geared towards getting you up the mountain. Maybe I’ve just never lived in such a purpose-built location before, but I couldn’t believe how simple it was to get everything taken care of before my big day. I had about twenty rental shops to choose from when getting a board out. When I walked into the one nearest my house, the shop attendant asked, “You’ve been here a few times already, right?” Don’t you love it when someone thinks they know you and precedes to give you discounts because of it? “What was your name again?…Oh, right, right, I knew that…Where do you work in town?…Yeah, that’s what I thought…” With the price on one-day board rentals already knocked down due to spring and the end of the season, he also gave me the multi-day rate on my oh-so-modern elastic black ski pants. My outfit for the day was turning into quite the hodge-podge affair – pants from the ski shop, one of Jordan’s extra jackets, cracked goggles that a flatmate left behind after moving out – at least the beanie would be mine. Lastly, there was the transport issue to be sorted, which thankfully wasn’t the dead-end that it had been for Treble Cone. A bus would take me there and back to Remarks (about an hour from Queenstown) for only ten dollars. Done, done, and done!

And so the day came, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. Just the day before, Treble Cone, Cardrona, and Coronet Peak all closed for the season, leaving the Remarkables as the only open ski field for just a week more. Having not been on a snowboard since last Christmas in the French Alps – and then, for only a week – I was a bit hesitant about how the day would go. Jordan – herself an experienced rider – said she would stick with me for the day, but I was nervous I wouldn’t remember what to do and end up holding her back. Rather than start off on the basic beginner slopes (referred to as the Magic Carpet), I said we might as well go up the proper lift and do a real run. It was the same method the guys used on our Alps trip and I was hoping it’d work this time around, too. Despite a few hiccups at the start – buckling up my right foot in the front when I actually ride regular (left foot front), or forgetting how to carve back from my heels to my toes – it all ended up going okay. Our other flatmate Sarah, who works in the rentals on Remarks, likened it to riding a bike – even if you don’t do it for a while, boarding is something that slowly comes back to you. It was cool to actually be able to pick up where I left off in France – getting off the lifts without crashing and making a complete fool of myself, carving and making wide S’s down the slopes, and ultimately pushing myself – not letting myself off easily but putting my left front forward and going vertically down steeper slopes. Sure, the falls may be worse, but boy is the speed of the run worth it.

For our last run of the day, Jordan asked if I felt up for an intermediate track. “Why not?” I thought – better to make the most of my one chance on the slopes than play it safe on the beginner runs I’d already been on. While the first slope was the steepest I’d encountered the whole day, it was also nothing but thick powder – none of the slushy snow that had been tracked over again and again. And although the powder is a little harder to get going in (not to mention getting up from if you fall!) it feels incredible once you start carving in it – like cutting through a cloud, you might as well be floating on air like some character in Super Mario Brothers. And that is when you realize just what about this – the snow, the slopes, the scene – is so alluring for the hundreds of thousands of people that flood this town – and so many others across the world – every season. The chance to feel like part of another world, if only in the few seconds of air you get off a jump.

In the end, I was glad to see what the snow is all about. Although my bar job has given me quite the look into the nightlife scene of Queenstown, there’d been a massive blank where I spend my days behind a supermarket checkout till while the rest of the town hits the slopes. Finally it was my turn, my chance to don the gear and be the one coming ‘round the mountain.

And even if I didn’t get the goggle tan I was going for (which is a surefire sign of any legitimate skier or rider), at least I’ve got a red nose and chapped lips to show for my day up the slopes…

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what the fuss all is about.

If there’s one thing you can’t miss while on holiday in Queenstown, it’s Milford Sound. Even a bungy jump – while a strongly suggested addition to your itinerary – should fall second to a journey to this much-reputed fiord in South West New Zealand. And – should you think I’m making all this up – take a look at the results from Trip Advisor’s 2008 Travelers’ Choice Destination Awards. Second place went to Queenstown, which is obviously exciting in and of itself. First place. though? Milford Sound, baby. But before visiting, even I had to ask: just what exactly is all the fuss about?

I decided I had to find out for myself. Among the locals of Queenstown, there is quite the debate over whether Milford Sound is better than Doubtful Sound, a sort of “sister fiord” to Milford, only much larger and closer to Queenstown. But is bigger always better? Despite my doubts about which to visit, in the end it was a pretty obvious answer. Could I really leave New Zealand next year without visiting Milford Sound and still hold my head up high? And so my flatmate Jordan and I departed Queenstown on a Real Journeys coach bus and began the five-hour trek through Te Anau and Milford Road and Homer Tunnel to a far corner of Fiordland National Park. That might be the first thing that helps to explain the allure of Milford, simply the absolute remoteness of its location. It is a mission to reach, situated far from any largely populated area – 295 kilometers from Queenstown and 279 from Invercargill. It’s one road in, one road out – a road often subject to avalanches, further heightening the challenge of reaching the sound. But reach it they do, with over 550,000 visitors a year paying homage to what even Rudyard Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world.

If the not-exactly-convenient location doesn’t seem to thwart the influx of visitors, you’d think at least the weather would. Milford Sound receives a mean annual rainfall of 6,813 mm on 182 days a year – so much rain, in fact, that it’s often considered the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand. When someone asks you if you had good weather on your trip to Milford, it’s a bit of a tricky answer. Although sun is often equated with good weather and rain might be classed as less-than-desired conditions to visit anywhere else, Milford Sound in the rain – not to be ironic or witty in any way – is when it shines, when it puts on its best performance. The copious amount of rainfall creates hundreds of temporary waterfalls in addition to all of the permanent ones already gracing the cliffs with their presence.

The mist generated from these falls, combined with the already heavy fog hanging over the walls of the fiord, makes for quite the surreal scene. Jordan and I discovered this not long after our cruise left the dock at Milford Village. While we had originally intended to join the masses on a day trip to the sound, the locals’ discount offered on overnight cruises made it a whopping four extra dollars to go from two-hour scenic cruise (picnic lunch provided, of course) to eighteen hours on the sound, inclusive of accommodation, dinner and breakfast, and our choice of water activity. Talk about value for money. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, trust me.

We left the dock at 4:30 in the afternoon and were welcomed on board the Milford Mariner with tea, coffee, and – much to the delight of our hunger – muffins! We spent close to an hour cruising the sound before anchoring for the night in Harrison Cove. So many aspects of the trip kept giving us reasons to be glad we came. When Jordan and I found our room for the night (I kept wanting to refer to it as our berth, so nautically-inspired was I), we collapsed on the beds in sheer giddy gratitude for the chance to spend one night on a proper mattress covered with clean, proper sheets and a proper duvet. (Alternatively, spend one night in our house and you’ll see where I’m coming from.) And then I couldn’t have been happier to find a piano conveniently positioned in the ship’s “saloon,” i.e. main dining and lounging area. As if my first overnight cruise on Milford Sound wasn’t already guaranteed to be perfect, it’s like someone went, “Here, Candace, you want perfect? You even get to play the piano.” I played a few of my songs and laughed when everyone in the saloon clapped and told me to keep going – what more could I have really asked for?

Well, kayaking it seems. I mentioned earlier a water activity being part of the night, and it was our choice between a kayak and a seat on a guided tender craft. When the time came to choose, though, Jordan and I found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. In the days preceding the trip, I had – per usual – told everyone I would be going kayaking, leaving out the fact that I’d only been once before on Beachcomber Island in Fiji (and I’ll leave you to assume how that ended up for me…) So when the time came to strap on a life vest and pick up a paddle, I wasn’t quite as keen as I was originally. Part of our dilemma arose out of the fact that it somehow didn’t register with us to pack activity-appropriate clothing. Thus, if we happened to tip (an outcome we both considered highly likely), we would be – for lack of a better term – screwed for the night. But then there was a little thing called our pride at stake. We stood on the lower level of the Mariner, where on one side people queued up for a kayak, and on the other side, a line formed for the tender craft ride – a line comprised mainly of those white-haired retirees I mentioned in my last post. There was no doubt about it, the tender craft would be safe, but is that really what we came for? Could we go back to Queenstown and tell our friends, “Man, was that guided boat ride a thrill or what?” In the end, we stripped down to our bare essentials (still including pants, of course), leaving behind a few bits and pieces so that in the event of an unexpected swim in the sound, we wouldn’t be left entirely high and dry (or should I say, not dry?) and got in those kayaks. Just like that day in the bungy pod, there was no way I could have realistically come all this way and not kayaked in Milford Sound.

And oh was it worth it. Within five minutes you know this is what the fuss is all about, the utter magic of the fiord. A light rain was falling, not too intense, hardly noticeable, just enough to mist around you as you glided through the stillest water you’ve ever seen. The walls of the fiord are insanely steep, the rock faces rising over 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above you. Waterfalls abound, cascades of all sizes and lengths, running down the rock and through the deep green trees and foliage clinging to the near-vertical cliffs. You feel infinitesimal, absolutely engulfed by this overwhelming display of nature in its most majestic and untainted state. You could be in Lord of the Rings or on the set of some other fantasy film, surely anywhere but in the real world. I was silent, partly due to my intense concentration that I would not tip over, but also due to yet another moment of disbelief – “Am I really here?”

We followed along the edge of the cove, paddling up to where the cliffs met the water to view trees that had fallen into the sound as a result of tree avalanches. At a wider stretch of shoreline, we paused in order to wait for the chance to view the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Although I laughed at the contradictory language used in Real Journey’s brochure, which stated, “Rare penguins can often be seen,” this particular penguin is indeed rare, with only 2,000 breeding pairs left in the world – a fact that made my first penguin sighting that much sweeter. Despite the initial empty shoreline, it wasn’t long before three little penguins were seen making their way out of the trees, using their adorable “waddle-waddle-jump!” method to get from rock to rock before diving into the water. Our kayak guide (coincidentally also Skip, our bus driver as you may remember from my last post) advised a few more inquisitive members of our group to stay away from the shore – “We don’t want to intimidate them.” Fair enough, Skip, but dontcha think a group of twenty people wearing bright yellow life vests, sitting in bright yellow kayaks, holding bright yellow paddles, waiting eagerly to see them, has already posed a big enough threat of intimidation? Not to mention ruining the aesthetics of the scene…

With the success of a dry kayak ride and a rare penguin sighting behind us, the dinner bell beckoned us back on board the Mariner for a well-deserved, delicious three-course buffet dinner. French bread and dips, cream of mushroom soup, roast lamb, and the best dessert table this side of the equator –I was in love. As tempting as an hour-long slideshow and talk on Milford Sound sounded for the perfect post-dinner activity, Jordan and I opted to camp out in the saloon, working on writing projects and application essays while other passengers broke out poker sets, Yahtzee and Connect-4. It was low-key and internet-free, everything a night away from Queenstown should be.

The next morning, after feasting (okay, gorging…) ourselves on a breakfast buffet (including the cutest little jars of Marmite called Just-mite), we went outside to the deck as the boat set off for a longer cruise around the fiord. What I hadn’t realized before the trip is that Milford Sound is actually connected to the ocean, running fifteen kilometers inland from the Tasman Sea. Its entrance isn’t easy to spot, though, obscured by Dale Point, which meant that it was often overlooked by early whalers and sailors. Even James Cook, one of the first great explorers of New Zealand, passed right by it…several times. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a Welshman, Captain John Grono, sailed into Milford Sound thinking it was a large bay. While not a misunderstanding on the same level as Columbus taking Florida to be India, Grono soon discovered it was anything but a bay and named the fiord after his hometown of Milford Haven in Wales. (Real Journeys then returned the favor, calling their bar on board the Mariner “Grono’s Bar.”)

This connection between the fiord and the Tasman Sea has an interesting effect on the physical makeup of the sound’s water. Although the sea itself is – obviously – saltwater, the high amount of rainfall in the region causes a layer of fresh water to rest on the surface. Much of this layer originates from the rivers and waterfalls emptying into the sound, carrying with them water that has been “stained by tannin and other organic matter from the forest floor” (thank you, Real Journeys brochure – I can only get so technical in my own words.) What all this means is that this fresh water is much darker than usual, the shade of tea, even, and this discoloration does not allow the normal level of sunlight to reach the saltwater (10 meters in the fiord compared to 70 meters on the coast). Thus, marine life, including black coral, which is typically found at much deeper depths, can find a shallower home in Milford Sound.

So it’s no wonder so many people cast their votes for Milford Sound as the #1 can’t-miss. When we finally returned to the dock the next morning, I disembarked completely satisfied, feeling that if I left New Zealand tomorrow, at least I saw everything that I came to see.

But that statement’s never entirely true, now is it?

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