Lake Matheson was the destination for our morning stroll before driving on to Queenstown. Katie was anxious to get there as early as possible, citing the need to avoid those tourist-mobbed bus tours that kept following us throughout our travels.
A loop trail leads to the lake, which rewards you with a glass-like reflective scene if you are lucky enough to get there when the air is perfectly still. We walked along the empty trail, stopping at a lonely bench that overlooked mountains. Everything was still and quiet, almost frighteningly so, other than the distant sound of birds. The air was crisp and void of humidity, just like every morning in this country. Out of nowhere, Katie whips out an engagement ring and I nearly fall off the bench. New Zealand became a permanent fixture in my story in that moment.
Distracted and emotional now, we managed to continue down the loop trail and to the actual lake. We hung for a moment to stare at the water, glassy and reflective, as sand flies nipped at our carelessly exposed ankles. I lingered to absorb the view for a few more minutes and burn that image into my mind.
The drive to Queenstown was our last “on the road” portion of the trip. The pavement stretched ahead far and winding, through nothing but mountain passes and farms. The hillside hugged the road and moved with every turn, cutting through fog one minute and piercing sunlight the next. We drove past turquoise blue water lined with white pebbles that looked like an exaggerated Instagram filter. How do you even leave?
Before Queenstown we stopped at Rippon Winery, which may be the most shockingly beautiful winery location on earth. We sat on barstools at the top of a shoestring dirt road, drinking Riesling that tasted like Manuka honey and chatting with the owners:
“After we close each night, the grandchildren of the farm owners come over and run through here like it’s a playground”
After driving aimlessly to find “That Wanaka Tree” (a random, absurdly over-photographed tree growing out of the water) our car struggled down the final steep passages of road and into Queenstown.
I sank into a plate of juicy salmon enjoyed by heat lamp because we got to dinner too late to get a table at the restaurant inside. The wind by the lake kept knocking out the desperate flame and our only source of warmth, so we shivered through our glasses of wine and tried to focus on the beauty of where we were.
The engagement began to sink in as we awoke the next day. I shifted the sparkling ring on my finger as I grew used to its presence. Having never once been a little girl who “dreamed” of her wedding day, and finding the whole endeavor commercialized and stressful, I felt whole and right in that moment. It wasn’t about anybody but us, and that gave me sense of power and warmth.
We had a rare, slow day of perusing shops in Queenstown’s little downtown area and taking a trip up the Skyline. At the top was a short hike that was inconspicuously detoured through an active construction zone, and with no concern for fences or barriers (only in New Zealand). Before dinner, I had dragged Katie into nearly every store in town for a tiny jar of Manuka honey to add to my “collection” and I was pretty sure she would disown me and start drinking alone. The plus side of this shopping jaunt was using nearly every honey-infused facial product test sampler known to man….and visiting a downtown winery that gives you a keycard and a glass to try as many of the store’s 300 wines as you want, like an inebriated adult Toys-R-Us.
By the water that night, we watched baby ducks crowd around beach-goers in an unusual display of trust (much like New Zealand in general). The sun sank as we chewed through plates of creamy butterfish and pink-tinted beef wellington at a lakeside restaurant that was, thankfully, warmed by more than a half-operational heat lamp. The grey silhouettes of beach walkers cut into the fading horizon like a knife as we bid goodnight to our New Zealand dreamland.
I could hear the faded city sounds spliced with country nature noises from our hostel window before falling asleep. At the Skyline peak that day, you could see the clusters of homes sandwiched between rugged and untouched mountain ranges. It was safe and compact, but also hugged by open roads. I knew it would be the last night of that kind of peace. I held onto that centering feeling, in our cheap and barren room, where we had to walk to the shared bathroom with bare feet against the carpet like we were staying at a friend’s place. I was blessed and certain.