At this rate, I’ll never get a good night’s sleep. Then again, at this rate I’ll also see the world before I’m thirty, so I guess I can’t complain.
It’s 4am and I’m drenched in sweat, huffing and puffing outside of King’s Cross Backpackers as I wait for the Uber that will take me to the airport for my 8 a.m. flight to New Zealand. I’m on my way to see my cousin, Lena, who just moved to Wellington a few weeks ago and, despite the 3am wake up call, I’m actually feeling pretty good. Who needs sleep when you have adventure, right?
My Uber comes in no time, probably thanks to the surge pricing, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s sad that I’m getting an Uber to start my morning while the rest of Sydney is getting one to finish their night. When I finally arrive at the airport I’m so early that there’s only one person at the Qantas desk and they’re at the desk in front of the First Class line. It would seem arriving 2-3 hours early for an international flight is a strictly American airport thing to do.
Soon another Qantas rep comes out, though, and I’m able to check my two bags and head for security. The security checkpoint is a ghost town: I’m in and out in under ten minutes and, with the day just beginning (and with everyone being Australian and therefore the nicest people ever), the security agents are incredibly friendly, asking where I’m from and where I’m headed and what my life’s dreams are before bidding me safe travels and expressing their sincere hope that I’ll come back to their beautiful country again soon. With the checkpoint cleared and still two and a half hours until my flight leaves, I wind through the maze of high-end, duty-free shops and sniff out the only open coffee shop in the airport.
Once I have a cup of coffee in-hand, the time flies unexpectedly fast. Before long, I’m frantically collecting my scattered carry-on items from the waiting area and boarding my flight to New Zealand. It’s finally happening — I’m going to New Zealand!
Hopping aboard the flight, I have grand plans to be very productive on the way to Wellington. Or at least I do until I realize that Deepwater Horizon is available to watch for free and that, as an environmental science student, it’s imperative that I watch it…you know, for my education. And so my work now lays abandoned at my feet, even as the movie ends and breakfast carts start scooting up and down the aisles.
My own lack of productivity, however, isn’t the only expectation getting crushed this morning: I really didn’t expect much in the way of luxury on my economy flight over the glorified ditch that separates Australia and New Zealand, but my goodness. Qantas, you’ve done it again. As small as the seats may be — and as turbulent as the flying conditions over the ocean are today — the breakfast is scrumptious and to me, that’s all that really matters. I honestly don’t think I’d have found a better breakfast if I were still on the ground in Sydney. The fruit is fresher than what I normally buy at the supermarket and the yogurt is better than even the stuff you pay a million dollars for in California. Plus it comes with a warm muffin.
I love muffins.
…ok, so maybe my fatigue is starting to get to me.
Almost the entire flight is clouds and sky and blinding sunlight, but when we start our slow descent into the area around New Zealand, the clouds open up and I get my first taste of how unbelievable this area of the world is.
Out on the horizon, the peak of a snow-capped mountain slides out of the clouds, gleaming stoically as it stands defiantly among the heavens. It’s like something straight out of a fairy tale, floating there on its pedestal of white, fluffy clouds. I stare at it in awe, unable to believe my eyes and almost laughing out loud at the impossible magical quality of it. I look up, searching for a flight attendant whom I can question about the mysterious mountain island, but we’ve reached the official “final descent” phase of the flight, in which scurrying rapidly around the cabin is a requirement and so I fail to catch anyone’s attention. Instead, I sneak peeks at the other passengers, wondering if anyone is as impressed as I am (no one is). Shrugging, I resolve to ask Lena about it when we land and turn back to the window, half expecting the mountain to have disappeared into thin air like a magic trick, but nope. It’s still there, still magical, and still blows my mind.
Eventually, the stunning snow-capped peak does disappear. One moment it’s there and then, all of a sudden, it isn’t. Luckily, more views have appeared to make up for it. We’re flying lower now over one of the islands, the clouds covering the land like an old worn-out quilt: a patchwork of sun-struck clouds and gaping holes through which lush mountain forests gleam.
The last part of our descent is sudden and steep — we break through the last of the low-hanging clouds and find ourselves suspended over a stretch of choppy azure water. Seconds later, with a rattle and a bang, the plane finds solid ground and a particularly serene voice comes over the intercom. “Welcome to New Zealand.”
The airport is cute and quaint and surprisingly packed. I haven’t seen my cool, climate-change fighting, international superstar cousin in half a decade, so to say I’m anxious to get through these crowds and out of the airport is an understatement. Sadly, as promised by said superstar cousin, customs is tight on biosecurity and I have to take out all of my camping gear for inspection. After disemboweling my bags so customs can sniff my hiking boots and shake out my tent, I’m finally free (they do repack my tent much better than I ever could, so I suppose it’s a net win).
No more than two steps out of the gate exit, Lena is there, jumping up and wrapping me up in a huge hug. Ah, I missed you so much! She helps me with my bags and we make for the airport’s exit. I’m so excited that fully-formed thoughts and sentences evade me until we get to the car waiting outside for us and I realize with a start that the man in the driver’s seat is the infamous Noel! The boyfriend! I finally get to meet the boyfriend! (Ahem, Lena’s boyfriend who is a human being. Sorry.)
Noel and I trade pleasantries and then the conversation dies out a little bit as Lena and Noel work to navigate the car out of the city. This is their first big trip out of Wellington by car since moving here (and I get to be a part of it?!), so they haven’t quite figured out the roads yet. Once we’re on open road, though, we start talking again. I tell them about Sydney and life back home and the family and school and they tell me about how Wellington has been and what the plan is for this evening: we’re heading out into the countryside for a UB40 concert being held in a vineyard.
Am I dreaming, or is my life really this awesome right now…?
The drive is spectacular. We glide up the coast, no more than a few feet above sea level on a road that puts the PCH to shame. Waves lap happily onto the shore, splashing against the scattered rocks and sparkling with brilliant blues while the sky pouts, dramatically gloomy, overhead. Soon the ocean falls away and we find ourselves winding around hairpin turns in the lush, temperate rainforest-y mountains. I’m in absolute awe but, true to my roots, am soon overcome with motion sickness. Lena notices I’ve gone silent and pale as a sheet and laughs in an oops, that’s right! sort of way. Some things — like me almost vomiting on beautiful road trips — never change. She rolls down a window for me and regularly checks in to ask how I’m doing for the rest of the drive. Luckily, once the windows are down and I can numb my face in the frigid, humid air outside, I’m doing more than just fine — I’m doing great. Make all the dog-related comments you want, but there are few things I love more in this world than sticking my face out of a moving car — especially when there’s a view like this.
Once we’re out of the mountains, we pull into a little town for a quick break. Though the open window helped a ton, the chance to steady my weak, car-sick head is very welcome, as is the prospect of a caffeine boost. We duck into a cute, cozy little cafe and order coffees and some tasty-looking feta, spinach, and tomato pastries. Everything is unbelievably delicious (Lena wasn’t kidding when she said people take coffee seriously here) and has the added benefit of giving me some much-needed strength after my bout of nausea. As we hit the road again, Lena gives me the front seat so I hopefully won’t get sick again and I thank her profusely. Lucky for me, the rest of the drive is on mostly straight roads through sprawling farms and vineyards, so I stay happily un-sick.
The lines of cars on either side of the quaint country road belay the proximity of our destination before the GPS does, and Noel parks the car, wondering out loud if we should park closer. After much wavering over the car’s location, a nice walk through the perfect, crisp country air, a surprisingly long wait in line to get into the vineyard, and a small snafu with the ID checkers that resulted in Noel running back the car and get his wallet, we finally make it into the venue.
We step inside the gate and my jaw drops. We’re in a broad, bowl-shaped clearing hugged by small, swaying trees and carpeted in soft green grass. Rolling hills of grapevines and trees stretch out into the distance as far as the eye can see, while in front of us, a rainbow of fellow concert-goers mill about happily in the meadow-like clearing. The shape of the venue and the surrounding vegetation shield our little valley from the cold wind we experienced while waiting in line, and treats us instead to cool, pleasant air and the sweet sound of rustling leaves. Food trucks curve around the half of the venue closest to the entrance, filling the clearing with delicious smells and the cheerful clamor of pots and pans. Meanwhile, two enormous bars dominate both sides of the center of the venue, with most of the crowd congregating between them. Dead ahead stands a small stage with people seated picnic-style around it, scattered along the shallow natural amphitheater created by the curve of the clearing.
Noel, Lena, and I head first to the bar to get some wine (yes, I’m feeling very grown-up, thank you for asking) and then find a comfy spot on the grass under a tree to the right of the stage. We still have a little while until UB40 comes out, and we spend it chatting, watching the openers — one of which is a super cool quartet of Maori singers who combine modern tunes and traditional Maori vibes — and, of course, drinking our fantastic bottle of local red wine (granted, any wine is fantastic when you know nothing about wine…but I’m not the only one who enjoyed it, so my judgement stands).
In the final break before UB40 is comes onstage, Lena and I go to get dinner at one of the food trucks. We choose a Greek place and, after a surprisingly long wait (but in great company, so no matter), we walk back to our spot with delicious, hot pitas in hand. Noel, having been alone and bored for the hour it’s taken to grab supper, has made the most of our second bottle of wine. I join him to finish off the last of it while enjoying my pita far more than anyone would think possible.
We’ve been back for no more than a few minutes (read: I’m sadly almost done with my pita) when UB40 takes the stage and we all stand excitedly as they introduce themselves and start to play.
I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of UB40 before tonight, but between the fresh local wine, a belly full of delicious food, and a beautiful vineyard amphitheater in which to dance and sing, tonight’s concert is on its way to making me one hell of a UB40 fan. Noel, meanwhile, is in heaven: this is one of his favorite artists of all time — they’re from Birmingham, just like him — and so this, as he puts it, is “a really emotional experience for me.”
Together, the three of us swing and sway to the music as the sky darkens and stars begin to pop up like fireflies. This truly is unbelievable. I can’t believe I’m here — in New Zealand! In a vineyard, no less — watching a famous reggae band with my amazing cousin and…
Oh my goodness they literally have a song called “Red Red Wine.” Did I mention we’re in a vineyard, right now? It’s official: my time in this hemisphere has peaked. I’m watching the famous UB40 play their famous “Red Red Wine” after having (ahem, quite a bit of) red (red) wine.
If the Kiwis keep this up, Lena isn’t going to be the only one in our family to pick up and move to New Zealand.