We’re on the road. A tiny Toyota Yaris, right hand drive and winding north along the coast and it is everything in me to not get carsick. Wrong side of the road, wrong side of the car, other side of the world. The sensation is damning. We find a small beach town (Kaikoura) to stop at for lunch and a deep breath of steady air. Here is the shore, here is the infinite ocean and the postcard-blue waters enclosed partially enclosed that spreads out to the massivness of the Pacific beyond it. This part of Kaikora, which features the school and houses and people who make this place home, is very quiet. We rest on the beach of smooth stones and I try not to think about getting back into the car.
Eventually I get over it. Hydration helps.
We eat lunch at a small roadside diner – one of many we’ll stop at over the coming weeks, to drink a beer and eat a pizza that features squash, walnuts, and a handful of other ingredients you’re not likely to ever find on an American pizza. Walking up the road we find a boardwalk full of tourists. Shops that feature beachwear, ice creams, expensive restaurants. Little towns like Kaikora may have been fishing or shipping hubs in years past. Today they serve as roadside oasis to travelers like us or as stopover towns for backpackers to work for a few days to earn up some cash, do some laundry, or enjoy food that hasn’t been rehydrated from a freeze dried state.
Like most islands, where you are in relation to the mountain will determine if you are in the midst of a lush rainforest, or a parched desert. Everything we’ve seen since we landed has been on the dry side. As we left Christchurch we learn that small brush fires had broken out in one of the numerous vacant and overgrown lots. As we drive the lat 50km into Blenheim, the city center of the Marlborough region, there is nothing but dry grasses in every direction. Our Yaris was fighting against dry, hot crosswinds as we plugged along at over 110km/hr through this desert. If these conditions were in the Rocky Mountains, everything would be on fire and Coloradans would be begging for relief by way of the rains. But this is Marlborough Country. This arid atmosphere is what gives the region its ability to create some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc wines.
Through Blenheim is the smaller town of Renwick. No frills, just the necessities. During our few nights in the region we’re staying at an AirB&B that is a mother-in-law suite attached to a large house on an even larger tract of land surrounded by live, green vines. Our hosts are a retired couple who used to be in the wine industry. They kept the house, the land, and leased everything else to a nearby winery. It’s a lifestyle anyone can aspire to in their golden years. The most striking feature of their expansive backyard -after the vineyards – is the small, two seater helicopter. We’d see a lot of these in the coming weeks as they were THE way to travel around New Zealand if you were a resident. A four hour car trip would be a half hour hop in one of these things.
We take in a meal of oyster on the halfshell and chowder on another vineyard, equally picturesque. Jetlag still has my head in a bit of a fog but I sit and enjoy the sunset over the mountains to the north and drink some wine to congratulate myself on staying up to see the sun fall for the first time in days.
The wine goes to work fast and I fall asleep hard.
Yet, I’m once again awakened at 4 in the morning. My phone cuts through all varieties of silent mode and buzzes to life to warn me of a wildfire that was less than 2 km from us. And sure enough, out the window of our apartment flames jump from tree to tree on the mountain side. Pockmarks of bright orange against the pre-dawn darkness. Everything we saw that was dried and deserted yesterday is now up in flames. In those early morning hours I sit on the deck of the rental and watch as the plume of smoke starts to make itself a permanent character in the sky as the sun starts to rise.
Today is also Carly’s birthday. It was by design that we would wind up staying in this area for it. Ride the valley by bicycle, drink wine, and enjoy everything fully.
Our host appears on the deck from the sliding glass door off their kitchen. He’s a tall man thick at the waist with the pleasing Kiwi demeanor that we see out of everyone. Everyone. Absolutely none of this seems to phase him. A wildfire sprouting up is as common as leaves falling every autumn.
“Would ya look at that” he says. Between us and the fires are acres upon acres of well-irrigated, lush vineyards. Overhead, the first of the line of helicopters – not unlike the one parked on his lawn, drag buckets of water high above the flames. No one is being evacuated, everyone in the area is spread out enough and knows what to do. The people of Blenheim are true stewards of their land.
Our host set us up with his bikes and gives us his cell number. “You know, if you get a flat. Or if you are too drunk to ride back. Or if you just don’t feel like riding back.” I could learn so much from this man – to offer up absolutely everything without a care in the world. And we’re off on the road.
We arrive to the first winery to news that we better drink fast, because a cruise just docked in the Marlborough Sounds. This means busloads of tourists will soon be scattered all over the region and the otherwise peacefully empty tasting rooms would be bowled over with bored tourists in tacky clothing and expensive cameras who probably can’t discern one wine from the next. So we ride quickly, staying one stop ahead of them.
Each stop is a taste of wines – each with the subtle spin on fruits and woods and earthy flavors which I have no means to write about with any degree of intelligence. We find Moa brewing – who had only just landed state-side a few months prior, and drink our fill of one of the few New Zealand craft brewers. Everywhere we stop we load up with just enough buzz for the courage to jump back on the bikes and find the next spot. As the day grows hotter the head winds get stronger. By lunch we’re pulling into the shelter of the Wairau Valley winery.
It’s the same salads and chowders we’re coming to know as the regular fare of Kiwi cuisine. But in the high-calorie burn, slightly drunken spin of the morning, all under the looming plume of wildfire smoke. From where we sit and eat lunch the fire lines are less than a kilometer away.
Still, no one seems worried. The smoke is just another thing to see. Though the high winds stoke the flames, it keeps the smoke moving fast enough.
The dead sprint home. The winds. The climb of the smoke in the sky. That night on the news we would read of a helicopter that would crash into the Wairau River while attempting to refill a water bucket. Fortunately, no one is hurt in the crash.
We arrive back at the vineyard at the edge of exhaustion. Traveling, vacationing, seeing things as close to the ground and the experience takes it right out of us. I feel like I’ve been in this country even though we’ve only seen it for a handful of days. We shower the grit off and jump in the Yaris, back into Blenheim and into something familiar – an Indian restaurant in a building that used to be something else. The food is as delicious as I am ravenous. Across the street is the familiar setup of a grocery store where we pick up after-burn aloe as my pasty complexion will hurt by morning. It’s a product commissioned, marketed, and sold by the New Zealand Cancer Society – a magic elixir of aloes and cooling agents. I’ve never seen anything like it in the states, I’ll wear it forever.
By the time we wake again in the Wairau Valley two things are apparent. First: my internal clock is finally settling into New Zealand time – I actually sleep past the sunrise, it only took four days to get to this point. Second: the smoke from the fire has mostly dissipated. Throughout the night we could hear the quiet hum of the helicopters flying up and down the valley.
The news informs us of two things this morning: the road that we had planned on taking is closed due to the fire – so our drive to Nelson requires a detour north. Second: it is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. A national holiday we didn’t plan for, but doesn’t affect us too much. But our host, in bidding us off on our trip, tells us it might mean banks and gas stations might be closed – “but who knows, everyone runs things different, you know?”