The Coronavirus Chronicles – Heading South in New Zealand

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

It’s time to start seeing the rest of the southern island everyone’s told me is so beautiful…

Staying with Deb in Christchurch was fabulous. She’s a great person and also a very successful female business owner which has been great energy for me to be around. We laughed loads and had a lot in common, like both having a teddy bear! Because of my annoying cough, which Deb simply decided not to get, I wasn’t able to join her in drinking as much wine as I would have liked, but man, she’s a great cook and fed me well and generally took great care of me and made me feel really welcome. So, though I’m happy to get to see more of New Zealand, I miss her as soon as I’m on the road again. (Spoiler alert – no, I do not have the coronavirus, the cough is confirmed as the one the asshole from my flight gave me, and is viral only.)

It’s now February 26th and I’m on my way to Dunedin. I’m looking forward to seeing their penguins and catching up with my friend Marie, who was kind enough to lend me her home in Portugal when I was there in 2018 and again for a few days last year. I take an Atomic Shuttle bus to Dunedin and stay at a backpackers hostel. I know it’s safe, but the area the hostel is in makes me feel like I’m in the “wrong side” of town. Remember those uphills I mentioned? The hostel driveway has a hill so steep that my Uber driver actually has to back out onto the street and get a fast running start to make it up! At breakfast time I meet some fellow hostelers, many from Germany. We talk about travel plans – where we’ve been and where we’re going. At this point, the world is still an open oyster and we can go anywhere. For me, even this hostel is expensive for my budget, and I’m whipping through the southern island because I can’t afford to stay as long as I’d like. Paying for group tours puts me over my daily budget.

Dunedin is, to me, a blend of hippy and cultural. It’s a relaxed town with a highly Scottish influence, complete with a Cadbury factory and whiskey distillery. I visit the local museum and have a wonderful catch-up with my friend Marie. She drives me around the area and we end up walking down to one of the beaches. Well, to my delight, there are some seals/sea lions! I try not to get too close as I snap some photos. We continue along the beach and I see what I think is a mom and calf. I take a few pictures and, as I’m about to walk away, I learn they’re in fact, a mating pair. Like any normal person, I immediately return and video them having a romp on the beach. I even capture what looks like a happy dance they do afterwards! I of course don’t realize at the time what a gift this was. You see, now that I can’t have safe sex for the forseeable future (#CondomsDontStopCorona #CantSelfIsolateWithSomeoneElse #CantEvenMakeOutFromAMeterAway) I’ve got something to watch to get my jollies if the internet crashes.

Sea lions mating and doing a happy dance.

Photographs by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

After the sea lion romp adventure, Marie takes me to the area where we can see Albatross. It’s the same area that the little blue penguins hang out, but apparently, in New Zealand, they only come to shore at night, and by day go fishing. I’m later disappointed to learn that the yellow penguins I want to see are only viewable from a reserve and it costs 50 NZD to see them in captivity. I decide to skip it. This is one of the hardships I’m having in New Zealand – I’d really love to see and do more, but at these prices, I have to leave much undiscovered. I’m staying in frequent contact with my friend Bec, near Sydney, since I’m visiting her next. I keep bumping up my arrival date due to the high prices. Originally I thought I’d spend about two months in New Zealand, but since it’s so expensive, I’m now thinking I’ll fly out to Sydney the first or second week of March. I’m delighted to get an offer from other friends to take me in for a couple of nights when I reach Auckland, and figure I’ll book my flight while I’m there. Interestingly the virus is making the flights cheaper, so it seems like I’ll even be lucky and get a great airfare!

“I’m trying to find a balance between seeing all that I can and not destroying my travel budget.”

A view from outside Dunedin. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

After going to Australia, I’d been hoping to get to Bali, Malaysia and maybe even Borneo. I have a couple of friends, coincidentally, going to Borneo around March and April so I’m excited to meet up with them. However, I’m beginning to wonder if Bali is a good idea. That virus seems to be spreading to other parts of Asia. Should I just avoid Asia all together? I’m hearing rumors that some countries are requiring people to get tested before jumping on a plane. I decide to call my health insurance company to see if I’m covered for that. This is when I learn that they will cover the test, however, if I get the virus, I’m only covered for medical attention if I’m in my home country, where it’s not my fault. If I fly to an impacted country, then I’m not covered. I request the definition of “impacted country” and learn that it’s any country with 1 or more cases of the virus. Shit. I registered for that insurance while in South Africa last year, so I think they consider that my home country. I’m now thinking of skipping Asia all together, and, after Sydney, going to Perth and direct to Cape Town. Gosh, I can’t wait to be back there!

I spend some time at the Asian garden in Dunedin, perhaps as a way to be in Asia in case I can’t get there. It’s relaxing enough that I’m inspired to have a pot of tea. I’m noticing that public restrooms, everywhere, are immaculate. I’ve never been to a country that takes such great care of their bathrooms. In fact, I’m often finding the public ones are more pleasant than the ones in hostels! It seems like they’re clean and I haven’t yet encountered one with a lack of toilet paper. (Even in late March, the dispensers are still well stocked…)

The Asian garden in Dunedin.

After seeing the highlights of Dunedin, I grab an Intercity bus to Te Anau. I heard that Milford Sound tours were cheaper from here than from Queenstown. We’re dropped off in front of a souvenir shop. I ask the driver if he knows where my YHA hostel is. (Side note, if you want to save money on hostels, join the backpackers network, or book direct with your hostel.) He says it’s only five minutes walk away. I get there easily and it ends up being delightfully clean and bright. I check in to my room and relax for a few minutes. I look out my window, and this is when I realize I may, possibly, be hallucinating. I see a fairly elderly person sitting in midair. Now, this seems bizarre, that they’re just suspended in a sitting position, but I figure, perhaps there’s a swing. Yes, when they start moving in that suspended position, I realize it must be a swing. The problem is, they don’t swing back. They just slide, and disappear. There’s a house blocking my view of where they went, and they don’t reappear on the other side of it. I decide I better not tell anyone that I’m seeing old people flying around the city.

I go to the supermarket to buy some breakfast food for the hostel since I’m going to be there three nights. I get a loaf of bread, a small jar of Marmite, a small tub of butter and four tangerines. This ends up costing more than $18 USD! So much for saving money by going to the supermarket. At this point I’m tired, and I’m hungry, and I’m not going to cook. I pop into a restaurant and my eye is drawn to the lamb. I haven’t had any lamb yet and I have been dying to try it! I mean, New Zealand lamb chops are like, the best you can have in New York city and here I am in that lamb’s country! But the menu has no lamb chops. I pout. There’s only lamb rump and lamb shank. I don’t feel like eating lamb’s ass, so I go for the shank. It’s really good, though not exactly what I was hoping for. One surprising thing is that the shank has no visible fat, not one bit. So, though it seems like I’m eating something fattening and bad for my health, it’s actually extra healthy! Add to it that the portion is so small (I think I mentioned how tiny the portions are in my last post) that I’m still rather hungry afterwards. Now I understand why I could have paid $10 more and gotten a second shank. I decide to let my waistline shrink instead.

Lamb in Dunedin.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Sadly, because of budget, and because of my cough combined with allergies, I haven’t been drinking New Zealand wine yet, apart from a delicious glass of rose my first night in Christchurch. I make a mental note that I need to really shake this thing so I can start sampling all the local vintages. On that note, I did stop into a pharmacy my first week in Christchurch to get something for my cough. They gave me the most foul-tasting herbal plant liquid stuff I’ve ever tasted. I’m supposed to take it four times a day but I can only manage once a day. While at the pharmacy, I bought a couple of hand sanitizers. With this virus around, it seemed like a wise idea to have a bit on my person at all times. Also, with all these cats I’m around, I’d like to be able to rinse my hands off frequently so my allergies calm down.

Another thing that’s really cool here is the abundance of Manuka honey. Back home, it is soooo expensive! Here, you can get it really cheap, or you can get really expensive stuff in the tourist stores. I still struggle to understand the meaning of the UTF and the different levels of antibiotic potency, but the lozenges and small jar I got have been great. I’m also seeing tons of bees everywhere. It’s nice to know they are happily buzzing about and doing their pollenating.

The next morning, walking to the center of town along the road my hostel is on, I see a playground. In the playground, instead of the usual swing set, there’s a small version of a zipline that you can slide along. I see the adults are using it even more than the kids. Aha! Floating old-person mystery solved! I’m not losing it after all.

Next stop, Milford Sound. Stay tuned…

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