The long way to Nelson from Blenheim is through Picton. This is not a bad thing, the road is gorgeous, coastal, and Picton is just the kind of place that you’d make a stop for no reason whatsoever. Were we the kind of tourists that had the time to see ALL of New Zealand, this is where we would board a ferry that would take us to the North island through the Cook Straight. Reports from others say that the crossing, while safe on any of the large ferries that cross it several times a day, is a rough experience. Too many large bodies of water coming together at a small junction.
We stay on the land. We sit at a cafe and watch the ships come in and the travelers mark out their next destination. There are older, retired types with tour groups. There are younger backpackers, of whom we’d see a great, great many over the next several days, charging cell phones at whatever outlets are available. Other backpackers are moving out of their hostel beds, replacing shoelaces, checking maps and weather, and taking off down a trail and out of sight.
To get to Nelson from here is a trip on the Queen Charlotte Drive. This is an unbelievable road that follows the Marlborough Sound through windy hillsides. As we drive it, half the road is under construction, covered in gravel, and advised we travel it at maybe 20km an hour. At some points it is a single lane with turnouts. At other points we’re passed by road cyclists who are out for a relaxing ride on their day off. We stop here and there, a shot with the selfie stick, another panorama. The road drops down the hill and into an impossibly straight stretch across farmland and into the tiny, sleepy town of Havelock.
Search your phone for “Havelock, lunch” and you’ll find yourself at The Mussel Pot. It’s world famous for the same reason Havelock is world famous: Green Lipped Mussels. Sitting in the small dining room of The Mussel Pot you have a view of the sound right across the street. In the sound the mussels are grown, all of them as big as your fist, full of fatty flesh, brought across the street and enjoyed. These are good unlike any mussels I’ve had before, they’re good unlike any seafood I’ve had before. Adding a side of the seafood chowder that I’ve developed an affinity for and would become the high-sodium compliment to just about everything I’ll eat the rest of the trip.
From how the crow flies, Nelson is maybe a 20 minute helicopter ride from Blenheim. But since we’re in a car, and the most direct route closed from yesterday’s fire, and the various curveballs of Waitangi Day, it takes us most of the day to roll into Nelson. The first thing we pass is a street fair for Waitangi Day. It is just like any fair you’d see in your own hometown – food and art vendors, a few booths for the kids, someone selling cellphone plans or cable packages.
Waitangi Day is a New Zealand federal holiday, February 6th, that stands to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – New Zealand’s founding document – in 1840. If you rely on history, this is a day that marked final peace between the native Maori tribes and the British Colonizers. The treaty made New Zealand a part of the British Empire and gave Maori rights to their land and the rights of British Subjects. There are a great many who have seen this as a bad thing since 1840. Many more have a hard time placing the context of the treaty in modern New Zealand. It stems from a weird mix of global and tribal politics that I’m not able to distill even after reading into it.
If I had to compare it to American standards, this might be like those who say the South will rise again or who think that the Vietnam War never really ended.
We roll into Nelson in the late afternoon. First we meet at McCashin’s Brewery to meet with people we knew by some strange association to Carly’s father. They’re a nice enough retired couple who live on the outskirts of the town. They’ve been Kiwis all their life but travel to the states a fair bit to tour America. In return, the father-in-law travels down here periodically to hunt for sport. We get familiar with each other and promise to meet for dinner after we settle into our B&B.
Which, admittedly, is a ridiculous accommodation by pretty much any standard. The Wakefield Quay house is a gorgeous old home resided in by Woody – a retired British woman who is key on hospitality and reminds you of the Aunt who your family doesn’t really have a problem with, but may not be at the top of their list when it comes to inviting people over for dinner. Woody is a world of stories that open up with the uncapping of several bottles of wine on the enormous, sun-drenched deck of the house.
And the views of the room – lord. A wrap-around balcony looks out onto the Tasman Bay. Even the bathroom walls are mostly windows, looking out on more of the same, where I can watch ships come in and out of the harbor while showering.
The modernness of Nelson falls away into small-acre farms where people raise a handful of animals – sheep and horses – or grow fruit trees. We’re treated to a home-cooked meal – a welcome departure from the menus of seafood-chowder – and are given a tour of their property and the apple orchards.
Stepping away from the picturesque frame of tourism the aesthetic changes. Those who live here seem to keep things pretty spartan. Rooms in homes are typically big, empty, and relatively clutter free. Makes sense, seeing the cost that it would take to ship in the stuff that would fill these rooms. Most of the island is environmentally sustainable. Central heating and air are non existent with the climate responsibilities focusing on airflow, small electric heat pumps, and heated towel racks.
Every single accommodation we check into has two things: an electric tea kettle and a heated towel rack in the bathroom. All of America is severely damaged by missing out on these two items.
Driving back from the small farm I’m thinking more about the very idea of travel. The more people we meet and the more stories we hear, the more I realize that travel cannot necessarily be exclusively tied to recreation or vacations. For many Kiwis the act of traveling is a way of life. They go places for months, rather than just a few days or weeks, before coming back to wherever they are calling home for the chance to save up and make the next excursion. In just the few weeks we chose to exist on the other side of the world each day seems more full, more complete. Of course, everything is new and requires recognition and observation.
So I find myself asking: is the fetish for the familiar a purely American trait? Is that why we travel less, build more entrenched houses, and stay in routines for so long?
Read On: Abel Tasman Park