It has been a while since I have seen the Hulk, as I try to keep him in reserve for when he is truly needed. However, cramped inside our stuffy van at Siberian Flat campground on the Wangepeka River I could feel my blood boil, eyes redden and muscles tense against the fabric of my shorts. What could possibly set me off in this paradise of New Zealand seven months removed from the stresses of my grown-up life in Seattle? I slapped at my itching visage and smeared a dozen tiny black flies filled with my own blood across my balding forehead, repeatedly slammed my cheap plastic air mattress against the roof of the van and screamed out in curses not repeatable here on the pages of Front Door Adventures. Jenny waited patiently outside the van for the episode to pass, my heart rate to slow and my skin color to return to normal. Bless my poor wife.
It is true that New Zealand harbors virtually no dangerous flora or fauna. You won't get bitten by nasty snakes or attacked by a bear tramping through the thick bush of this beautiful and unique archipelago Country. You may however completely lose your mind trying to battle the robust populations of austrosimulium australense that make their home on the West Coast of Southern New Zealand. The brochures of majestic peaks, white sand beaches, crystal clear rivers and rollings hills of thick native bush are strangely absent of angry red-headed tourists covered head to toe in thick clouds of tiny sandflies, swatting fruitlessly in every direction and screaming like a madman at the air; but rest assured it is all part of the authentic New Zealand experience.
As far as I can tell the only way to escape the assault is to climb out of the river valleys and beaches above the bush line into the peaks of the mountains that rise steeply out of the Tasman Sea and run the length of the West Coast of Southern New Zealand. With this in mind, Jenny and I shouldered our packs with four days of food, followed the Wangepeka River deep into the Kahurangi National Park and climbed steeply up the wooded slopes of Kiwi Creek into the southern end of the Arthur Mountain Range. Over the next three days, we traversed north along exposed alpine ridges of snow grass with the Marino Range towering to the south, the rugged Kendall Range rising proudly to the west and the vast oceanic void of Cook Strait expanding into the northern horizon.
The mountains are the place I feel most at ease and the beauty of this place almost made me forget the itchy scabbing red welts beginning to heal on my flesh. Alas, all good things must come to an end and heavy northwest winds blowing hard against the aluminum walls of the John Reid Hut signaled our time had come to descend from the high country and ford the Wangepeka before it swelled into a flood and trapped us into an exposed, hungry wait on the wrong side of the River.
As expected the swarms of sandflies were eagerly awaiting my return to the valley and attacked with a renewed ferocity and vigor as I stopped just long enough at the river's edge to swap my boots for sandals. I breathed easy however, closed my eyes and put myself back atop Patriarch Mountain in the warm sun and cool alpine breeze that I hold so dear, and managed to keep the Hulk at bay rationalizing the stinging bites as the small price of entry. Nowhere in the world is perfect, but after a couple weeks exploring the South Island, I can say that New Zealand comes pretty darn close.