It’s the 9th of July. My bride has just pulled up to the United departure entrance at Dulles Airport to let me out of the car. The radio announcer has been dithering on and on about the temperature and the humidity both being in the upper 90’s. Summer in D.C. Hey, that’s normal in July. What was not normal to the porter trying to take my bags was my luggage. A large “fortnighter” suitcase, a boot bag, and a SKI BAG!
“Hey, man, where you going with THESE?”
My reply, “New Zealand, man, New Zealand. I am headed Down Under!”
“Hey, man, I got baggage tags for New York, I got’em for New Jersey, but I ain’t got no tags for no New ZEE-LAND,” said the guy as he shook his head in disbelief.
It didn’t get any better inside the terminal, as people who believe it’s OK to travel in running shorts and shower shoes and pack their belongings in cardboard boxes stared at me in my long sleeves, ski jacket and a ski bag over my shoulder. Oh, well, let’em stare, because behind me were another 20 people suffering from the same dementia.
We were going skiing in JULY, half a world away. We were set to begin the first Pentagon Ski Club (PSC) trip to New Zealand and Australia with 24 people from six of the clubs that make up the Blue Ridge Ski Council (BRSC). Unfortunately one of our own couples, Jerry and Nancy Fee, had to drop out the day before departure after she broke her foot, and another individual from Richmond had to cancel due to personal reasons. (Jerry, I warned you that the standing up in the hammock routine was dangerous at our age!)
In addition to the six PSC skiers on the trip (Norma and Lash Lasher, Jay Weides, Hank Robinson, Duane Knoepfel, and myself) we had skiers from the Ski Club of Washington, DC (SCWDC), Arlington Hall Station, Fredericksburg, Goddard, and Richmond ski clubs. This was a trip, which due to its duration of nearly three weeks and cost of $2550, was probably beyond the ability of any single club to pull off, so it was opened up to all the BRSC member clubs. It was also a trip that required an early commitment, as the trip was closed out 1 May. Still, I had people calling the week before we left hoping to get on the trip! It only emphasizes the need for people to make their decisions early if they really want to get on a trip.
I could go through the rigmarole of getting from here to there, but do you really want to read about how dorked up United international flights are at Dulles? Or how we almost missed the connection to Air New Zealand in L.A.? Or how they lost 18 sets of skis in L.A. that never made the transfer to the flight to Auckland? Nah, I’m not going to badmouth them.
Just the usual perils of air travel. We did establish one parameter though: Art Stasick, Arlington Hall S.C., arrived a scant 30 minutes before flight time, and he thereafter became the bellwether. If Art was there, everyone was there, so I didn’t have to count noses. I won’t even go into detail about 13 hours on a full 747 from L.A. to Auckland, but the Air New Zealand people were super, the food was great (for airline food), and the booze was free. I could probably do a thesis on how people pass 13 hours in a plane. I did wonder, though, why Sanjay Ghosh, SCWDC, put the blanket over his head the whole way, when, for me, it was my feet that were cold!
6:30 AM on 11 July. Auckland, New Zealand, the northernmost of the two islands that comprise New Zealand. We left L.A. on the 9th. We landed in Auckland on the 11th. What the hell happened to the 10th? Somewhere south of the equator and east of NZ, we crossed the International Dateline. We would get that lost day back on the way home, but for now it was gone. In Auckland we had good news and bad news. Our luggage arrived, but our skis didn’t. “Don’t worry, mate,” said the baggage rep for Air NZ, “They’ll be on the next flight - tomorrow!” A trip leader’s nightmare! The members of my own club are pretending they don’t know me, and the others are discussing a lynching.
All the delay in doing the paperwork for missing luggage has caused us to miss our onward flight to Christchurch, on the South Island (except for Santa Zizzo, SCWDC, who was smart enough not to bring her own skis - she made the connecting flight wondering where the hell was the rest of the group!) We all made it to Christchurch, eventually, for a well-deserved day of rest and sightseeing, with promises that our skis would catch up with us.
The next morning we are off early in a motorcoach (sounds better than a bus) across the sheep pastures of the Canterbury Plain to begin our climb into the Southern Alps, through Mackenzie Country. Seemed Mackenzie was a sheep rustler of great repute in days gone by (1855), who used his dogs to rustle other peoples’ sheep up into the highlands. Our driver, Kelvyne Clarke, was a babbling fountain of information on everything about New Zealand, from the tectonic plates that form the country to sheep and deer breeding. I can’t wait to go back during “tupping” season - it would give new meaning to the phrase “I’m having a Tupperware party.”
We are headed for Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain between Papua, New Guinea and the Andes at 12,283 feet. It was taller, but in 1966 a 66 foot chunk of it broke off, scaring the hell out of a bunch of mountain climbers. For lunch we stopped at Lake Tekapo, an extraordinary milky-turquoise colored lake, that gets its color from a rock “flour” created by glacial action and held in suspension by the frigid waters.
Lash Lasher regaled everyone during a seafood lunch near the lake with his incredible repertoire of jokes which unfortunately, wouldn’t end for another two weeks. Norma became the official “green-lipped mussel” tester at Lake Tekapo. Tekapo is the upper of three lakes that provide NZ with 45% of its hydro-electric power. We would spend the afternoon circumnavigating the second lake in the chain, Lake Pukaki, which is fed by the glaciers surrounding Mt. Cook. We planned to spend a full day (two nights) at the the Hermitage Lodge at the base of Mt. Cook to allow people either to ski the Tasman Glacier, a 35 km river of ice, or to heliski in the nearby mountains; but the weather in the area is notoriously changeable, and the beautiful weather we had so far enjoyed deteriorated rapidly, wiping out all skiing plans. We discovered we had two distinct groups within the group - those who enjoyed hiking the nature trails in the rain/snow and those who preferred the lodge with its fireplace and bar (Katherine Stentzel, SCWDC, led the former and our own Hank Robinson led the latter). Katherine would become our trendsetter, being the first to try any new or different adventure.
So the next morning, after getting another negative on flying up to the Tasman Glacier, we saddled up and Kelvyne led us down the mountains to Queenstown, a picturesque city sitting on Lake Wakatipu, a glacial lake in the shadows of the saw-toothed peaks of the Remarkables on one side and Coronet Peak on the other. This would be our home for the next eight nights.
Someone noted that after leaving Mt. Cook, we traveled for nearly an hour without seeing another vehicle; and near our breakfast stop we encountered three vehicles, and had to even pass one! Kelvyne complained about rush hour traffic! New Zealand is a different world - one day ahead and twenty years (or more) behind. Kelvyne set speed records through the icy passes to get us to Queenstown just in time for the last bus going up to Coronet Peak. I think he sensed a near mutiny brewing after three days without a ski touching snow.
Luckily our skis had caught up with us at Mt. Cook. The group that made it up to Coronet Peak discovered a modest ski resort, with a vertical of 430 meters served by three chairlifts. It was very crowded with Kiwi and Aussie kids on their winter break, who rate very high in the arcane world of kamikaze snowboard tactics. I don’t think anyone ever went back to Coronet during our stay, even though it was the closest ski “field” (as they refer to them down there) to Queenstown.
Jay Weides led a contingent the next day to the Remarkables. What he found most remarkable was that he survived the bus ride. About 30 minutes out of Q’town, the 4WD bus commences to climb a narrow dirt and gravel track that can only be described as switchback city. The neat thing about switchbacks is that for half the trip you can’t look straight down the side of the mountain from your side of the bus. When you can see down the vegetation starts as evergreen fern bushes growing two to three foot tall despite the snow. This gives way to massive thorn bushes and hummocks of tall grass. At about 600 meters elevation, after coming around a hairpin named “Gin and Tonic,” the bus stops to put on chains front and rear. The bus continues to creep upward at a blazing five km/hr, past a sign that reads, “do not stop - avalanche area.”
Finally you arrive at the ski base area, a modern building in an alpine glen, from which radiate three chairlifts serving a couple of green and blue runs and quite a few ungroomed black runs. We were soon to learn that their groomed blue runs could earn a black rating at many US resorts. Two days of intermittent snowfall had added 6 to 8 inches of new powder, and made the runs exciting and challenging. We’re not talking Keystone or Telluride here, but there is still lots of fun to be had. It’s more like skiing back during the sixties. Lunch was a meat pie, or it would have been if a mischievous kea bid, a dark green mountain parrot, hadn’t stolen it! The bar consisted of a glass case with canned cocktails. Hank Robinson particularly liked the Johnny Walker and Coke! Good taste, Hank!
During our stay in Q’town, the group began exploring and finding other adventures in addition to the downhill skiing. Cross country, jet boat riding through the river gorges, bungee jumping from a 340 foot bridge, horseback riding, hiking, golf, sheep farms, Maori festivals, and that favorite of all - shopping! A group of nine of us decided we still wanted to do the Tasman Glacier, so we flew back to Mt. Cook, transferred to a ski equipped plane, and spent one of the most awe inspiring days I’ve ever experienced. This will be the subject of a separate article, because it was too fabulous to pass off with just a few lines.
Most of the group made a side trip to visit the Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, a long, deep fiord that opens into the Tasman Sea. A two hour bus ride out of Q’town brought us to Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s third largest lake, and the entrance to Fiordland National Park. The road winds through deep, rugged valleys where waterfalls cascade down into what looks like a tropical rain forest, with moss covered beech trees, up to 600 years old, and and every type fern imaginable. The surprise is that it isn’t tropical, it is an evergreen forest, growing through a covering of snow in sub-freezing temperatures. In fact the road we followed had been closed by avalanches for two days prior to our trip. The road eventually winds its way down to Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is a ten mile long fiord hemmed in by sheer rock walls rising to 4000 feet, which was created by a succession of glaciers before I was even born. The glaciers gouged a trench several thousand feet deep below what is now the surface of the Sound out to the Tasman Sea. We took a two hour lunch cruise on the fiord, and I was out of film before we even cast off. The visual center of attraction is Mitre Peak (nothing to do with the local Beltway Bandit firm), which at 5600 feet, dominates the fiord. Then there are the waterfalls; lots of waterfalls, some dropping straight down over 500 feet, they simply take your breath away. We avoided the bus ride all the way back to Queenstown by taking a plane out from the Sound, just as the rains set in from a storm coming across the “Roaring Forties” from the Indian Ocean (Milford Sound gets over 20 FEET of rain a year, and lies on the 45th meridian of latitude - exactly halfway between the equator and the South Pole!).
There was one activity, in addition to skiing, that occupied everybody’s attention at regular intervals - eating! And eating is something that you can do very well in New Zealand (and at reasonable prices). A number of us tested a local pub the first night in Q’town, the Pig and Whistle. Their ad touted “pea pie, pud and a pint - $5.00” ($3.50 US). Norma and some others tried the “lamb fries,” figuring that lamb and french fries sounded good - wrongo! Lamb’s liver - Yuuch! Katherine again became our great explorer, putting a new recommendation each day into the Club info folder. I am pleased to report that no one starved during the trip.
Hey, time for more skiing! Lash Lasher set up a trip for all those interested to travel a couple of hours north to Treble Cone, named for three distinct peaks that rise above Lake Wanaka. Norma Lasher has written a separate story on our day at Treble Cone - some of the best skiing we experienced on the trip. Later Lash would organize another trip to Cadrona, another resort closer to Queenstown. I didn’t make that trip, but everyone said it was fabulous, even though they had to evacuate 17 people for broken bones that day - hey man, now THAT’S fun! Hank Robinson was a victim of a snowboarder who decided to fall down in front of him as Hank was going full blast down the mountain, bruising his ribs badly. The hotel barmaid decked the bar in black, as Hank spent the last couple of days in his room!
Hoo Boy, I’m about six pages into this, and I still haven’t done this trip justice. My most distinct memory is of excited people coming back from some adventure saying, “Hey, guess what we did today.” Hell, I’m just trying to cover some of what we did during two weeks in New Zealand. I’m not even venturing into the five days in Sydney. That will be in chapter two (for mature audiences only). Is a nearly three week trip too long or not long enough? Some of each. No one did all the things they wanted to do, but also, I believe, everybody was ready to come home when we boarded the plane in Sydney.
We are all saving some things to do on the next trip “Down Under.” And that’s not an “IF” we go back, that’s a “WHEN.” Join us next time - you missed a really good one!
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