Along the Dark Sky Reserve

Twizel felt homey and quaint like the small rural towns spread along the eastern coast of the North Island. With only one Four Square supermarket in the Town Centre, one hostel, and other small private businesses embracing modern European architecture, it became the last stop before our job on Lake Pukaki at Lakestone Lodge. This job would finish our trip in New Zealand before touching down back in America for summertime. But, adventure did not end just yet. It only just begun.

We wandered away from town following a walking path interspersed with pine, beyond it lay golden fields of brush. Ben Ohau Mountain Range planted the landscape like the backdrop of a surreal painting, surrounding us lightly with white snow. I stopped by the bridge watching fishermen scrutinize the Twizel River while I peeked out towards the raging sun. Kelly bumped into me.

“What’re ya doin’?”

“Waitin’ fer this dude to leave on the bridge…I wanna camp down there by the riverbank.” I pointed down to the rubble shore of smoothly rounded stone scattered between the scrub brush and spiky weeds. A clear patch of earth enveloped the dry bank just south of the woodland making it the perfect spot to freedom camp and the whistling of water through the black of night always soothed me to sleep like a baby’s lullaby.

I jarred my neck at the slam of a car door and off skittered the SUV with the two fishermen. I hopped the guard railing and scampered down through the tussock speargrass to rocky, dry, shore. Cars thrummed by on the highway, but Kelly and I already made our way through the marshy tall spikes of weeds. We zigzagged through the muck until reaching flat earth covered in a blanket of round fists of rock.

I unclipped my hip holster and dropped my pack on the ground, plopping my ass on top of it while Kelly rifled through our cheese, pizza salami and crackers. We chomped down on food as the vibrant day turned to a blustery night with the onset of pink dusk ruminating the clouds. The air felt thick with chill and as the sound of zipping wheels died off I unraveled our tent poles, stomped in our stakes and propped up our tent for a long frigid night.

I thought about last year, and how my wife experienced a month of hitchhiking and rough camping in the tropical climate of Hawaii. Unlike sleeping in the jungle heat, I knew the cold temperatures of the Southern Alps would not bode well with her bones. I worried. Even on normal days she felt, “burrrrrry” as she put it. But, she wanted to camp out under the stars so I cooperated with her request.

We lay insulation on the tent floor, garbage bags and newspaper, before nestling into our sleeping bags. After chatting briefly, my mind drifted with the flow of the river, and I ran around in my dreams.

Chattering teeth and the feeling of touch woke me as Kelly shivered beside me, snuggling my body for warmth.

“Are you cold…you can have my jacket…”

“No…you need it honey…I just need to pee, but I’m a lazy little Kelly. I don’t wanna get out of my seeping bag.”

She finagled around the miscellaneous camping gear spread awry in the tent, reaching for her flip flops. The zipper zinged as she opened the tent flap and bright lights colored the sky.

“OH MY GOD…this is the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen…the stars…they’re so close…they’re so bright…there’s so many constellations…and the…”

Before she finished I already slipped into my sneaks and pressed the bridge of my glasses up against my nose, stepping outside to gaze up at the sky.

“Wow…you weren’t kiddin’.”

“I know…I forgot we’re in the Dark Sky Reserve…it starts in Twizel.”

“No kiddin’.”

Twinkling stars glittered the night sky with bright winks as the creamy Milky Way swirled its way through the thin atmosphere of constellations. My wife pointed at each constellation in awe of the clear visibility and her radiant smile glowed through the bright darkness. She looked up, dancing around at the luminescence speckling the landscape like a field drizzling with fireflies, pointing at the dark spot in the sky.

“Ya see it…ya see it…the dark circle by the Milky Way,” she said with a chipper squeal.

“Yeah, looks like a black hole kinda…”

“That’s where stars go to die…I believe it’s a nebula above the atmosphere…it is so thin here ya can actually see it.”

I peeked up at the black lagoon occupying the white swirl of sky between the stars, and for a second, I lost myself in the beauty, not only from the sky, but from sharing that moment with my wife on such a frosty, bone-chilling night, rough camping by the river.

We wandered back to our tent, and I felt the frosty breath of night plate the rain cover in a slippery film as I groped around for the zipper. Once inside, we crawled to our sleeping bags, nestling inside them. The cold pockets of fabric tickled my limbs in a soft trickle up from my toes to my ass, creeping up my spine.

It felt like poison oozing from my bones while I lay there on the cold ground, looking up at the canopy of tent draped over us, waiting to drift away as the soothing sound of rapids rushed from the Twizel River making my wife have to pee.

Restlessness and adrenalin kept me awake and I worried about my wife as her body was designed for the cozy indoors with comforters, bedding and heat, not the blistering outdoor nights with stiff frosty grounds, and squealing winds. And so that night we never slept, simply mesmerized by the stars and because of a cold, little, Kelly.