It's winter in New Zealand, and there are two strange things about that. First, it's July. Second, 'winter' refers not so much to cold as it does to random, extended periods of torrential rain between bouts of general grayness. Questionable seasonal shifts aside, Jon and I decided to take off on a weekend hike in the Waitawheta valley (pronounced why-toff-eta) for a much needed escape from the city.
The first half hour of walking is along a river through a cow pasture, which although scenic, was kind of laced with land mines. After that, the hike is mostly flat and mostly forest, and you follow the river all the way up to the hut. Because it's a valley, the whole hike is laced with one of my favorite things ever....
Surprise Waterfalls! Basically the best thing ever, really. If you're thinking of visiting New Zealand and you're even remotely into waterfalls, you should check out Waterfalls.co.nz which is, well, basically what it says on the tin. An interactive map of all the waterfalls in this lovely country complete with hike times, difficulty ratings, and even information about available parking! With this resource, imagine our surprise when we stumbled across a rare, yet-undocumented waterfall just off the path on our hike!
Naturally, there were photo ops:
I'm one of those people who photographs everything on trips - I've managed to tone it down a bit to no longer include taking pictures of the informational signage in museums and historic sites (for future reading!), but I still take loads of photos wherever I go. Whenever I look back through the photos I always wish there were more of the people on the trip, so I've been making an effort to take more of those. Even if it means holding a great honking large DSLR up and awkwardly snapping pictures like a complete loon....
Either that, or you take turns taking pictures of your hiking companions.
Okay, so I know I said surprise waterfalls are the best thing to discover on a hike, but after about another 45 minutes on the trail, we came to the other best thing to discover on a hike: What trip would be complete without a swing bridge over a canyon?!
Much like my knowledge of oceans, my firsthand experience with swing bridges pre-New Zealand was basically limited to the miniature ones at playgrounds that take you between the jungle gym and the slide. There aren't exactly that many canyons and rivers to cross over in the Midwestern US, so they just aren't necessary. In New Zealand, they're a common staple on well-established hikes. This particular trail cris-crosses several times over the river, for a total of seven swing bridges, one icy-cold river crossing, and one normal, non-swinging bridge (boring!). The latter, although swing-less, crossed over something quite spectacular indeed:
It's called Toilet Bowl Falls for the way the water swirls down and under the bridge (counterclockwise, obviously, because this is the southern hemisphere after all). Looking down from above was quite surreal - it's a very long drop, maybe about 50 feet, and the roaring of the water echoing up from the basin was audible long before we actually came to the falls.
We arrived at the hut around three - an hour earlier than what we estimated. This is a big deal because the last time Jon and I went on an overnight hike, he estimated it would take four hours, we allowed five hours because I'm slow, and it took us seven and a half hours because it was muddier than I thought possible, the weeds came up to our knees (weeds with these aggressively painful little barbs on them...), and there was a section where we had to climb up an actual waterfall where the trail had washed out. At one point I sat down on the side of the mountain and cried. So when I say we estimated four hours in this trip, and we did it in three, well, it was kind of a big deal. Probably mostly because it was a well kept and comparably flat trail, but I will take my victories where I can find them thankyouverymuch.
We were so early that we even considered turning around and hiking back out in the same day, but we'd booked beds in the hut, so we decided to stick around.
When the sun went down, Jon convinced me to remove myself from my station by the (nice, warm) fireplace and go (cold, windy) outside to try for some night sky photos in the clearing near the hut. There were some clouds, but we were hopeful that the wind might blow them away.
Those hopes were dashed pretty quickly, although we did have some fun with the long exposure settings. While we waited through the exposures, Jon wouldn't even let me put my hands in his pockets (which will become relevant later) I was confused and lacked my own mittens, but it wasn't too bad. Then, Jon suggested we try some camera tricks by using a flashlight to 'selectively light' one subject during part of the exposure.
The camera was set to a 30 second exposure, but for 2-3 seconds he lit me with the flashlight so that I appeared in the darkness. Of course, once that worked he decided to go a step further. I'd never done anything like this so I wasn't even sure if it was going to work...
The camera was set for 30 seconds, and I started off in the frame. Jon triggered the camera, lit me for three seconds, and then we quickly swapped and I lit him with the flashlight for three seconds before the exposure was over. It took us a few tries, but look at that result! We're both in the picture, standing next to each other, even though that didn't actually happen!
Although quite pleased with the results, the cold was starting to seep through my jacket, and my fingers were feeling the chill. At first, I was a bit frustrated when Jon said we couldn't go back inside yet, but then he pulled out the ring box (out of that pocket I wasn't allowed to share) and we had ourselves a proposal under the stars! I may have interrupted the asking in my haste to say yes, but I think we both communicated our points in the end.
I'd helped design the ring a few weeks earlier, so it wasn't like I had no idea it would happen. Jon didn't actually let me see it when it was finished, so that was a surprise, and I also had no idea it would happen on this trip - but we're not really the kind of people to make a major life decision like that without talking about it first.
The next day, we packed up early and headed back down the valley so that we could beat the traffic and be home by dinner. The rain had mostly stopped, and the sun was even out for part of it. I spent most of the walk catching glimmering bits of Shiny New Engagement Ring out of the corner of my eye, and we were just rounding a corner and discussing who we'd tell first (hi Mom!) when out of nowhere, a wild billygoat appeared!
We were a bit surprised, and we about laughed ourselves silly at the fact that it was not letting us cross its ~billygoat bridge~ (a knowledge of creepy childhood stories is both relevant and useful) - until we realized something wasn't quite right with it. It was ducking its head and shuffling as though it might charge at us, and it didn't run away when we made loud noises and waved our arms.
I retreated to safety on top of a large boulder, and Jon hid behind some bushes, which seemed to calm it down a bit (maybe it didn't like pink hair) but it still wouldn't move off the bridge. After 10 minutes of sitting and waiting, it still hadn't left. We tried throwing some rocks to land near it in an attempt to scare it off (it didn't even register the noise) and we contemplated escape routes. The hill was nearly straight up on the left, and straight down into rocky, rapid river at the right. The bridge went over a waterfall into the river, so we couldn't go around it either.
Eventually, it decided to turn around and head down the trail. It was wobbling like it was drunk, and I don't pretend to be a rabies expert but there was some definite foaming around the mouth area. About 20 meters further, it fell/laid down on the trail, and stayed there. The path was too narrow to walk around it, right next to a washed out section of hillside, so we backtracked and found a spot to climb down to the river. I slipped rather ungracefully on a deceptively slippery rock, and I also just about fell off the side of the ravine because I put my trust in a branch that LIED to me, but other than that the cliffside scramble was largely without incident. We climbed back up on the other side of the goat, and booked it down the trail until we'd gained some distance.
Discussion centered around our goat misadventure for a while, but we circled back to the engagement eventually. Mom had requested pictures be a part of our engagement process, but that was difficult given our 'under the stars' setting, so we stopped at the waterfall from the day before and set up the tripod:
I texted my mom as soon as we got back into cell range, and we stopped at Jon's parents' house on the way home. They suggested we stop at Jon's Grandparents', and by the time we were done there, Jon's brother had organized a surprise engagement party with about eight of our friends.
The ring was custom designed and made just for us- my favorite part is the little filigree detail in the side of the setting - it lets the light in and really lets the sapphire sparkle. It's a pretty dark stone when there's no light involved. Sapphire, besides in my opinion being one of the prettiest stones and being 'something blue', is the birthstone for September; the month that Jon and I started dating.
It was pretty wonderful to have a bunch of friends to celebrate our engagement with that night, especially since percentage wise, the great majority of my friends don't live in this country. I did spend the first 23 years of my life making friends in the US, after all, and have already spent a lot of time thinking about how to involve everyone who is important to me in the wedding. That said, we didn't even have time to shower before they showed up and we were still tired, muddy, and covered in more than a few burrs from our rabid-goat-avoidance maneuvers off the trail. There's something slightly disconcerting about sitting around drinking champagne with mud caked around your ankles.
One of the weirdest parts of the immediate aftermath of our engagement was how many people asked us when the wedding will be. I mean, less than a day after it happens, how much are we really supposed to have figured out? It's been a month now and I still couldn't tell you when it's going to happen. Or where, or any of those other important questions. It'll be a trick to plan it while taking both of our countries into account, and right now I'm quite content to actively ignore it and be happily engaged. All I can say with absolute certainty about the wedding is that Jon and I will be there.