When I signed up to go on this trip, I didn’t really factor in the fact that there would be nineteen other people going. It was a non-issue for me; they would do their thing, and I would do mine. I imagined us as separate ecosystems, quite naively if I do say so. I didn’t stop to imagine the possibility that I might make some (lasting?) friendships.
This past weekend, sixteen of us twenty decided to plan a separate excursion since we had two days off for the queen’s birthday. Sixteen people planned an entire trip, got along, and had a blast. I don’t know about you, but I find that exceedingly impressive.
The entire bus ride down to Lake Tekapo, our chosen destination, I could hardly contain my excitement. Nearly every kiwi we had talked to described this place as a slice of heaven, their favorite place in the whole of New Zealand. Upon arrival, I could see why.
The lake is by far, the most intensely blue body of water I have ever seen. Accented by the snow-capped mountains, the lake glistened like something off a movie screen. I think each and every single one of our jaws hit the floor of the bus when we finally got there.
Another really great aspect of the trip was one that sort of happened by accident. Since it was a holiday weekend, Tekapo was booked full, with backpacker’s lodges not having any rooms available. As such, we decided to rent three hotel rooms and just sneak a few people in. At the time of the booking, we didn’t really pay attention to our accommodations aside from making sure we were close to the lake. We didn’t take the time to realize that we had somehow managed to nap three villas with a lakeside view at an unreal price. This was quite a nice surprise to find.
We started off our first day with a hike up Mt. John to watch the sunset. The hike was a lot of fun, but a lot more treacherous than we had initially planned for. Much of the trail had frozen over so we had to be especially careful. There would be long stretches of clinging to trees or climbing up over shrubs in order to avoid sliding down or injuring ourselves. With a lot of our group not having proper footwear nor a lot of hiking experience, it was a bit of a struggle to get to the top. Once we got there though, I think we were all very glad to have but in the effort.
Standing at the summit of a mountain with an altitude of 3,376 feet is an extremely sobering experience. You feel small, but also accomplished; calm, but simultaneously triumphant. Trees that stand at least five times taller me when next to them now looked like garden shrubs. Passing cars on the road looked like ants. The lake, in contrast, spanned the field of my vision, before disappearing into the horizon. The silence on the mountaintop was deafening, with each of us lost in our own thoughts as well as lost in the atmosphere of the mountain. I would like to think that we all got some sort of comfort at that summit, a peace of mind.
Personally, I sat on a rocky ledge for a bit, just taking in the scene, the crispness of the air and the general feeling of the place. Before this trip, I will admit to being a bit of a mess. Second semester had fried my nerves with stress academically, professionally, and personally (for a taste of this, check out my previous post “The Myth of the Blank Page). Coming here has been such a blessing in that I feel ten times lighter; I no longer have a weight pressing on my chest. I’ve taken a step back and taken the time to relax, to unwind, and to reason through issues that had previously overwhelmed me. Watching the sun sink between the mountains is something I’m never going to forget. I’d like to think that the next time life becomes a bit too much, I’ll just think of that mountaintop. I’ll think of the way the tired sun sank between those twin snowcapped peaks. How the light made the mountains look a bright purple color. Or how the silence was so incredibly pure: no talking, no birds, no busy cars or slamming doors. I like to think I will find that sense of peace again.
That’s enough on my teenage angst, however, and more onto the fun stuff. The hike down was a little rough, with the sun having gone and with it all the warmth we had previously enjoyed. The path had only gotten slicker with the dropping temperature, and so we clung to the brush for dear life, trusting no rock or patch of snow. At the bottom, however, it was all smiles as we reflected on that feeling at the summit.
We turned up for dinner quite early with the hike having left us ravenous. The restaurant we booked was notorious for their lakefront view…it’s just to bad we hadn’t factored in the pitch darkness of the night. Nonetheless, dinner was fun and quite good. I had a delicious udon noodle soup as well as some miso basted fried salmon. We all had some house made ice cream for desert as well (I ordered a delicious bowl of green tea flavored ice cream, my favorite).
After dinner, we headed back to our rooms, meeting back at our villa to hang out and chill for a bit. I mentioned at the beginning of the post how I didn’t really factor in making friends here. I can’t express what a mistake this was. The people I’ve met here are not people I would have encountered were it not for this trip. We come from all different backgrounds, majors, and ages. Our group dynamic is quite odd, and yet, it works. We are all kindhearted and truly look out for one another. Sure, we have a few jokes at the expense of each other (okay, a lot more than a few), but we know how to have fun and we genuinely have grown to care about one another. I count myself as extraordinarily lucky to now call them my friends.
A very unique part of Lake Tekapo is the fact that it has the second clearest view of the stars in the world. I’ve seen stars before, there aren’t that may lights on my street so they’re decently clear on a nice night. Not like this though. Around two in the morning, we all layered up and trekked out to see the stars in a field by our lodge. We plopped down and laid amongst the frozen blades of grass, taking in the sky above us. With the new moon making things even clearer, the stars were so unbelievably bright, they looked as though they were fake. The purple outline of the Milky Way was clearly visible, creating an awe-inspiring view. I will say, I didn’t stay out for all that long, after twenty or so minutes, I was ready for bed. The view was incredible, but I wanted to be rested for the sunrise trek to the lake in the morning.
At 7:00 in the morning, our alarm clocks blared, rising us from what’s probably been our best sleep since we got here (the room had heat, something most of our homestays do not). I will admit to a moment of weakness in which I contemplated going back to bed and missing the whole thing. I’m only human.
Upon dressing and layering up for a frigid morning, we headed out the door, groggy and blurry eyed. The second our feet hit the beach though, our eyes went wide and the weariness left us. I know most of those who read this blog are probably tired of me describing things as beautiful. Honestly, to me it sounds like a cop out. But the fact of the matter is that there are not any words in the English language that are capable of describing the sights of seen in the last few weeks. Lake Tekapo is one of the hardest. Seeing the lake at first light was a wholly unreal experience. The stillness of the lake combined with the frosty morning made it appear as though made of glass, the mountains accenting its near-frozen beauty.
We sat there for upwards of 45 minutes, watching the sun make its ascension to the sky. Again, totally silence ensued (for at least the first half of the time, we are a particularly chatty group). After, we headed back for breakfast and check out, readying ourselves for another hike.
Our hike this time wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the climb up Mt. John, it was actually quite the opposite. We took a bath around the lake, stopping at a few beaches here and there, enjoying a relaxed view of the scenery. We laughed and talked and munched on the snacks we had brought as well as some hurriedly made PB&Js (they were made with love though).
Overall, this trip has been one of the best parts of New Zealand. We planned it by ourselves and it went off without a hitch. That’s not to mention the fact that it was a boatload of fun. Everyone hung out together as well, it wasn’t just like we split off into our factions and ignored everyone else. While there are those of us who have become closer than others, we are, overall, a very inclusive group and that’s something that makes the trip that much the better. I suppose I will conclude by saying once again, how incredibly blessed I am to be on this trip. It’s better than anything I could have imagined.