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Down Under

Over Down Under

 

Carpe Diem

 

Australia. I have been threatening to do this for a long time, but the threats weren’t real. They were undercut by projects that begged to be completed. Add to that the siren call of those bits of the Hispanic world I had not yet visited, and the even more compelling call from roads that demanded that I walk them again. Then, as Linda’s health gradually deteriorated, it became harder for us to travel together—which had always been our joy­­—and if I went someplace by myself for some professional reason, then half of the fun was missing, and I didn’t like to stay away very long.

 

Peter Mayer, my college roommate in 1960 (!), came to Oaxaca with his son Janek to visit for a couple of days last year and it was great to spend even that brief time together. I realized that I had only seen Janek (now early middle aged!) only once previously, and I had never met Peter and Lata’s other daughter, Asha, who has a debilitating condition and does not leave her house. And Lata, at whose wedding I stood in for Peter all those years ago because on the big day he was indisposed in the college hospital, Lata I hadn’t seen in decades. Right out of grad school Peter had accepted a short-term contract at the University of Adelaide in Asian studies. He is still there.

 

Projects? The mining book is all done except for reading the proofs and paging the index, and the Santa Cruz Etla book is all done pending don Filio Santiago’s comments and recommendations for changes. And for the first time in years I am not hemmed by obsessing about all the details that come with care-giving. So I figured, what the hell. My friend and financial advisor Steve said “It’s a long flight, pamper yourself. Sit in those sardine-class seats; you know your legs are going to cramp. Trust me, you’re not going to live long enough to run out of funds. Spend some of the kids’ inheritance money. Go first class, while you still can.”

 

And so, reckoning that that was pretty good advice, I did, at least for the trans-Pacific legs of the flight.

 

Peter’s Big Idea: Milford Sound

 

It seems that New Zealand’s Milford Sound, which as many of you know was only narrowly edged out by Slarty Bartfast’s work on the Norwegian Fjords when the Prize Committee gave out the Millennial Planetary Engineering Awards, had for a long time been on Peter’s bucket list of places to see. He suggested we meet there in early September. If we timed it just right, it would be just after the last snowy blast of New Zealand’s winter, and the precise moment that the cherry trees, bursting with optimism, dressed themselves with pink and white blossoms.  

 

So we followed our individual routes into Queenstown, engaged a hotel, rented a car, reserved two passages on a Milford Sound cruise, and set out to see the sights. First, however, I bought a stocking cap to pull down over my ears; my Tilley hat was fine for protection from the sun, but not from the icy wind that the glaciers blew down to howl through the canyons of the lakes. The temperature around Queenstown hovered at 1 or 2 degrees after dark, 8-12 in the early afternoons (that’s low-30s to mid-50s in the five remaining world powers that still calculate their chill in Fahrenheit: Belize, the Cayman Islands the Bahamas, Palau, and the United States).

 

The western edge of NZ’s South Island is called the Alps because it looks remarkably like Switzerland, except for the green swathes of meadow and vineyard in between the Swiss Mountain chains that the NZ Alps do not allow themselves the luxury of. NZ’s mountains are crowded cheek to jowl: jagged peaks, many which are glacier clad, with knife-sharp ridges connecting each peak to the next. They are steep-sided, forested on the lower slopes, bare rock on the upper, scarred with avalanches, ancient and recent, and with waterfalls that bring the snowmelt down to the narrow intermountain lakes. Every night in the valley it rained, and in the morning the snowline on the peaks had dropped another 200-300 meters. By early afternoon the night-snow had melted, and by the next morning it was there all over again.

 


Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of New Zealand. All winter and well into the spring they tempt the adventurous with downhill skiing and snowboarding, bungee-jumping, kayaking on rough rivers, speedboat racing through narrow gorges, sky-diving, balloon riding, parasailing, and zip-lining. On Queenstown’s half-dozen streets three stores alternate like clockwork: restaurants (favoring Asian), outfitting shops (skis, boards, and all the necessary and/or stylish apparel), and tour booking agencies. It will come as no surprise that Peter and I were very distant outliers on the bell curve of the age group that swarms to Queenstown in the early spring. In fact, except for two old Japanese ladies lugging skis back to a rental shop, I don’t believe we saw another person over 50.

 

 
It is not that Peter and I weren’t tempted, but that the dram or two of common sense that we have acquired over the years, coupled with the morning view in the mirror as we shave, overrode our urge for adrenaline jolts. I substituted coffee; Peter, tea. So we mostly gawked at the scenery. The snowy peaks reflecting in the icy, pristine water of the narrow glacial lakes that fill the valleys between the mountains. The para-sailers floating down from the mountain and landing the rugby field next to our hotel. The rosy cheeks and droopy eyelids of the returning expeditioners every evening. The joggers and fast striders looping the long peninsula across from the town pier, and the frisbee-golfers trying to zip their disks to metal baskets set among the towering Douglas firs. These, we learned, are a noxious week that muscles out the local vegetation and must be culled (and sold as lumber, of course) to allow reforestation with the original inhabitants.





One day we drove north, up to the ski fields, to toss a few snowballs and try to hold our cameras still enough in our shivering hands to take shots of the spectacular scenery.



By the time we had dropped down to the valleys we were warm enough to stop at a couple of wineries to try out the vintages (Peter sipped, I wet my lips), and the many local cheeses.




Another day we drove way up Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, to count the lake birds and the herds of sheep that had been moved down to the narrow lake plane for shearing and lambing.

 

 

Milford Sound was the apex in a whole week of high points. It is only about 20 kilometers from Glenorchy on the Milford Track, a path that takes experienced hikers who have been granted a government permit (waiting time, 6 months) up and over the snowfields and glaciers and down to the Sound. There are no passes to accommodate vehicles, so the trip by car is 130 km. and takes five full-attention hours to bring you to the base of the Alp that blocks the East end of the Sound. The final two kilometers go through a tunnel.



It almost always rains in the fjord (fjords differs from glacial lakes in that they are in-filled by the sea), which is why the slopes are covered by rain forest, with individual trees sometimes taking half a century to wedge roots down deep enough into the rock to begin to put up a trunk. I think every member of the crew commented to us how unusual it was to have a day with clear blue skies. We cruised slowly west toward the Tasman Sea past waterfalls, avalanche scars, tiny beaches harboring fairy penguins, fur seals sunning on the rocks, and then back again along the northern shore as we watched the late afternoon sun tinge the snowfields with gold. The postcard views mask the gigantic size of the landscape: many of the peaks bordering the fijord rise 2,000+ meters (nearly 7,000 feet).

 

 

I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, until I learned that there are four more fijords, approachable only by sea, between Milford and the island’s southern coast. So, who can say?

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