Saturday, March 22, 2008
Strangers on a train
We'd had such amazing sunny weather all week, I decided to take a train excursion up into the mountains of the south island. So, bought my ticket yesterday and was a little excited to use my hotel's fancy "SO Sleep System" to wake me up in time for my 8:15 am train departure. Rather than an obnoxious alarm to wake you, the room slowly "eases" you into the morning by slowy turning up the lights over 5 minutes. If you don't wake up then, the TV automatically comes on playing soothing music and showing lovely scenery of the area and stays on until you wake up to change the channel. I followed the SO easy instructions and, as a precaution, set my small travel alarm clock....just in case something went wrong.
Guess which alarm woke me up and eased me into the day?
It was so not the "SO Sleep System". Thankfully, my tried-and-true travel alarm clock woke me up or I would have missed the train. Not sure what happened, but the fancy system must have eased itself into a lovely sleep and decided to just take the morning off. So, I got up, got dressed and went downstairs to wait for the shuttle. It turned out that 6 other people were also waiting to take the same train trip and one of their "So Sleep Systems" had done the same thing and, thankfully, they had also set their portable alarm clock as a backup. With the RAIN falling around us...we all got on to the shuttle, then the train, and headed up to Arthurs Pass National Park.
I thought I might be able to get some nice photos during the 2 1/2 hour train ride up into the mountains, but it turned out that taking pictures from inside the train just gave you pictures with your reflection in them and the one "open car" area available (no windows, so no reflection) was packed with people all attempting to take the same picture at once, jumping around as the train sped into mountains. It actually became quite funny just watching everyone, young and old, bobbing up down/back forth thrusting their tiny cameras out at the scenery, then suddenly clutching on to the rail to keep their balance as the train shifted from one side to the other. I decided to just take pictures up at the park and went back inside to my seat.
I was seated across from a really lovely woman from England who was there with her nephew, Toby. He was THREE ("this much" he said with tree tiny fingers pointing up) and this was his first train ride ever. Toby lived with his parents in ChristChurch and he and his visiting grandmother were going up to meet them at a cabin up in Arthurs Pass for the weekend. Toby was also very proud of the bread that he had made with grandma (used for his wee sandwiches in the lower left container). I had him keeping watch for horses and dinosaurs...and elephants....and polar bears, which he was very vigilante about doing until we arrived at our destination.
The train stopped at the national park, let us off for the next five hours, then continued its journey with a few people who were going an extra 2 hours up to the top of the local "Swiss Alps" (which I'll see in Queenstown next week, so I stayed at the park). Those of us who stayed quickly realized that we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, in the drizzle and clouds and not quite sure where to go or what to do. So, we headed to the nearby visitor center and each paid $2 for a map/brochure that very few of us would really need or use. I was very thankful that I had brought along my sweater and umbrella. It drizzled and rained the entire five hours. But, everyone appeared determined to hike into the mountains anyway and at least see a couple of sights.
Everyone seemed to scatter off with their friends/partners pretty quickly and, as I stood outside alone staring up the road of the little town wondering whether I might have made a bad choice (I'm not really a "let's go hike into random mountains in the rain" kind of person)...I noticed Anne, the Scottish woman from my hotel who had also not been eased into her day by the SO Sleep System that morning. She looked very prepared, wearing her hiking boots, a rain coat and matching "slickers", which I would later refer to as her "water pants" for the rest of the trip and, thankfully, it gave her quite a laugh...so now that's what she calls them. She came out of the visitor center alone and, we chatted briefly and just started heading into the same direction. Always hike with a woman wearing water pants (not with water in her pants, wearing the pants!) ...they know where they are going and what they are doing. Unlike some Americans wearing a wet cotton sweater, jeans and carrying a pitiful portable umbrella with several broken rods sticking out.
Anne turned out to be the perfect person to head into the wilderness with. She loved to hike and walked with a purpose and, thankfully, she seemed to enjoy talking to blathering wet Americans. It turned out that we were both kind of in transitional points in our lives, so we had discussions about everything from life suddenly changing, people passing on, following your instincts and heart (this trip to New Zealand was the first one she had ever taken alone) and even about how much it turned out we both loved "Northern Exposure", "Lord of the Rings" and Meryl Streep. It was really nice to hike around the wet, but lovely, wilderness with her. And, as much as I initially thought the rain might put a damper on the whole trip, I actually ended up really liking it. The low clouds sweeping in and around the mountains, plus the light drizzle, gave the whole day a kind of mystical/magical feeling.
We hiked for an hour through the woods, up steep hills and through a variety of twists and turns to an amazing waterfall. It was breathtaking. We took turns taking pictures and even took a few minutes alone just to collect our thoughts, say little prayers, and generally just take in the spectacular beauty all around us.
It really was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
We hiked around for almost three hours, then decided to head back to the small town and get some food before the train came to pick us up. We ate in this nice little tavern, had a great lunch and a beer, and ended up talking to another American college girl traveling alone who ended up hiking with a man who, it turned out, was also traveling alone for the first time since his wife randomly left him four months ago. People in transition...
We all just sat, chatted, shared a piece of chocolate cake (there's always time for cake) and dried out before heading off to catch the train back to the city.
Once on the train, I was determined to take some pictures of the amazing scenery that I had missed on the way up because of the hoards of photographers crammed into the one car. Thankfully, many people were exhausted from their day, so I was able to grab some cool shots on the ride home.
As I stood there waiting for the next change of scenery (and praying that trees wouldn't sweep in front of each shot, as they were prone to do just as you focused your camera), I noticed a short little man trying to squeeze his way in front of where I was taking pictures and, honestly, the first thing that came to mind was....
"Well, well, WELL....
He visually reminded me of one of my favorite characters from the TV show "Will and Grace" and it took all of my will power not to tell him. So, I just snuck a picture of him, laughed to myself (knowing that several of my friends will be laughing very hard right about now) and went back to enjoying the lovely scenery all around us.