Gems in Wanaka

With a hiss of air-brakes, the bus drew away. Gratefully, I breathed in fresh mountain air and stuck out my thumb. Two lifts later, I  wandered in a haze of exhaustion along the breezy shoreline of Lake Wanaka to a motor camp at the far end of town. God, it felt good to be surrounded by high mountains again! I called Rosa. “I’m exhausted and I'm going to treat myself to a room with a bed,” I said. “I need a good night’s sleep."

$55.00 secured a room but not the sleep I longed for. Just as I laid my weary head on a pillow, the sound of a child's sobbing rose from the adjoining room. It would be a third disturbed night and I had misplaced the ear plugs.

Next morning, after returning from the supermarket, I found a weary and doleful young father minding his son. He apologised for keeping me awake. His wife had gone away on a day trip and I got the firm impression that he had been left behind in the dog-house.

While I prepared and packed nine days’ worth of food supplies, we fell into conversation. He and his wife had been brought up in some kind of commune or ashram situation in Germany.  “It didn’t work out,” he said. “It started as a way to build a better life but after it became too spiritual and a hangout for self-seekers, it imploded. Too many rules and not enough fun.”

“Too much brown rice and tofu?” I asked, smiling.

He chuckled. “That was just the beginning! So after my parents moved to NZ, my wife and I followed them."

I wondered what refugees from a draconian spiritual community did when they landed on NZ’s shores.

He watched me slide energy bars into a zip-loc bag and confided, “I go into the hills and mountains to search for gold and gems.”

At once, he rose about fifty notches in my estimation. “How fascinating!” I exclaimed. “You’re a prospector!” My admiration did not thrill him. In fact, he looked more downcast than ever. It turned out that the work involved a lot of risk for little return.

“The terrain is tough enough but you also have to watch for Maori,” he said. “They don’t like you taking away rocks from the land even if it’s legal. Recently, I had filled a rucksack with valuable rocks when this huge brown guy stepped out from behind a tree. I was terrified and knew enough not to argue. He ordered me to give them to him. So I returned home empty-handed after three days away.”

“What did your wife say?” I asked.

His face lengthened. “She told me I was a good-for-nothing and to go back to find some more rocks so she could put food on the table.”

Later, while walking the long road to Makarora and the trailhead, I reflected that I had better bring back something valuable enough to satisfy my wife. A hard luck story would not do the trick.