“You are a guest of nature. Behave.”
Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian sculptor and painter, spent his life between Vienna and the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. To describe his work and himself as eccentric is a grand understatement. The man likened a toilet to a church because they were both places of meditation. He’s one of my favorites. It was more than twelve years ago that I visited the KunstHausWien for the first time. As the largest collection of his work and just a half mile away from the Hundertwasser Haus apartment complexes, it was there that I learned he spent the majority of the last three decades of his life in NZ. In fact, he died in 2000, while sailing back to Europe for a visit.
He had grown to love the remoteness, the anonymity, and the vast natural beauty. His work was constantly complicating a busy, commercial, modern culture with themes of a more organic, creative imagination. He was prudent to remind us where we came from and is credited for the clever quote above. The gift shop was selling a bookmark with one of his drawings alongside these words. I bought it. And unlike many museum gift store purchases, I still have it a dozen years later as my own cheeky little reminder.
Two Thursdays ago, Andrew and flew into Queenstown beaten down by tiredness. Rain had been present in the region for more than a week with snowstorms in the mountains. It was the perfect weather for a transition day: pick up rental car, gather basics at grocery store, navigate to our air BNB stay in charming Glenorchy, shower, climb under comforter, and orient our senses to the other side of the world.
A young teenager, I first fell in love with New Zealand as I sat in my oldest sister’s apartment watching a low-budget movie on HBO called ‘Alex’ that told the story of a female Kiwi swimmer. It really wasn’t a great movie, but the beaches and likable accents intrigued me. It was later in the year that a world geography textbook revealed the truth of its mountainous wonderland. Captivated. But even between my twenty years worth of daydreams and Andrew’s months of meticulous planning and research, we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. So the morning of Friday, February 6, as our well-rested bodies rolled out from under said comforters, there’s no way we could have prepared for the day before us.
The morning had pushed away the clouds to reveal snow-capped mountains surrounding the small farm on which we stayed in Glenorchy. We loaded up our packs, laced up our boots, and decided to give a lengthy day hike on the Routeburn Track a go. With an estimated plan in mind and a map in hand, we began the hike with an unbridled enthusiasm. We were in New Zealand–for a month. And we were in absolute disbelief.
Disbelief at the tropical forests that welcomed us for the first few hours alongside rivers and over swinging bridges. Forests that were decorated with glistening moss and steroid-injected ferns. Disbelief at the valley that we at first followed and then left behind. Disbelief at the snowstorm that had just ended hours before in the middle of the night and left us mountains topped with delicious powdered sugar. In just five hours we hiked through multiple layers of beauty and bewilderment to Harris Saddle–an amphitheater of powdered mountains and a space that made you feel small, thankful, alive. I am a guest here.
The next several hours were spent descending what we had just climbed. We revisited valleys and forests, we walked next to rivers and waved goodbye to the snowy peaks. We began to feel the soreness in most joints and muscle groups, and felt the beginning of an atrocious, snow-magnifying sunburn. Our faces are still peeling.
That day hiking the Routeburn was special. Maybe it was the endorphins, or timing, or first impressions…or maybe it does that to everyone. But for us it’s the kind of day that stands still. And for better or worse, we will compare other places, days, and moments to its sacredness.
The wonderment would only continue as we spent the weekend in Milford Sound. Before this visit I couldn’t have given an articulate definition for a sound or a fiord, and I may still be slightly confused. But apparently Milford is more appropriately defined as the latter. This fiord land of New Zealand is made up of many narrow inlets of sea with dramatic, steep sides carved out by glaciers. And it is, in fact, dramatic–and enchanting; I wholeheartedly expected merpeople to be sunbathing on jagged boulders.
Weather can be fickle in this area, so we took our sunshine and rare clouds with us on a cruise into the Tasman Sea the moment we arrived. Our captain took us by sunbathing merpeople–I mean seal pups–and to the edge of swollen waterfalls. Andrew and I stood under the pressure of the falls with drenched, gleeful smiles. I am a guest here.
The second night I awoke at 2am fully expecting to find Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt wheeling out in their jeep. It was a grand storm. Due to the acoustics of the fiord, it sounded even more impressive and devastating. For Milford, it was just another night. By morning the surrounding mountains had become large water balloons taunt with pressure, and the storm a thousand small needles that had punctured its surface. The rain water filled the mountaintops that fed the freshwater basin that merged with the sea. Quite the confluence.
We left the fiord and its impressive vasculature to prepare for our three day Kepler Track. Our packs were 25 pounds, our bodies preemptively sore from being out of shape, and our minds somewhat wearied from disjointed sleep. We would ascend and descend over 5000 feet across 60 km the next two and a half days. There were several Monica Seles-like grunts of exhaustion, and by day three I was hallucinating about fistfuls of naked Snicker bars swimming in a lake of Gatorade. Such a scandalous hiker. But just like the rest of life, it was the cramped shoulders and perpetual hunger that let us walk for hours along alpine ridges. And it was the inflamed tendons and blistered feet that let us wake up above a blanket of clouds. Above it. I am a guest here.
By no means do we need a snow-capped mountain amphitheater, storm-induced waterfalls, or clouds beneath our feet to know and experience life, sacredness, and gratitude. But if and when we’re there, we must recognize our place in nature’s story…and by all means, behave.