Guardians of the Marlborough Sound

The eleven-hour overnight bus ride from Auckland down to Wellington was a foul atrocity. Overnight bus rides are far from my favorite moments in the glamor of travel but this one had particularly slayed me. If you’re somewhat of an insomniac like me, these trips are long and arduous after the first two hours when the lights go out, lap tops and cell phones die, music is no more, and all you have to accompany the pitch blackness are your thoughts and the base drum snoring in the seat behind you. But this little gem of a ride came with a complimentary toddler kicking and shrieking behind me for the better part of the journey. Five hours in, the girl next to me starts spewing vomit in her sleep like a demon, covering my foot with sick. We are currently on the edge of a cliff side road so the bus driver refuses to stop and I’m the only one awake to help her clean up. She refuses to throw her now hideously destroyed dress out so we spend the next six hours with a peaceful bag of vomit-covered articles in between us and I’m pretty sure I’ve just contracted Ebola.

The bus driver drops us off in the industrial port town of Wellington at the southern most point of the North Island just as the sun is waking, reminding me enviously that I’m still awake. It’s a three-hour ferry ride from here to the South Island and I don’t know where I’m going once I get there but I’m going. Once aboard the massive cruise line of a ship that is the Interislander ferry, I order an Irish coffee (“Yes, Irish,” I repeat to the barista that asks if she heard me correctly at 8:30am) because I think I deserve it and settle in a small, whicker basket chair in a large, glass encased room at the very back of the ship. I can’t even count how many ferries I’ve been on now traveling from place to place but they are definitely my preferred mode of transportation and this sky room look out is a nice new touch, despite the current view being a bunch of cranes and industrial chaos.

The freighter pulls from the port, slowly tanking along through the water and expanding my view as she presses onward. As Wellington gets smaller, the mountains on either side of me get closer and larger as they slide past. Browns and greens, lavenders and yellows as the morning sun stretches her arms, casting technicolor patterns across each sloping peak and valley she touches.

I set my coffee down, my sleepy eyes now wide and I’m scanning for a way out of this glass case on to the rear deck. I heave all my weight against a dry rotted wooden exit door and am met with the chill of the ocean air as it opens. The early Spring New Zealand air still carries the reminder of the winter they are trying to leave behind and the sun is not yet high enough to warm us into believing summer has arrived. A massive steam engine erupts from the rear high above the ship sounding its existence through a thick cylinder of aqua and navy painted swirls. Blocking the speck that is now Wellington in the distance, it splits my view in two, a few scattered villages along the mountain slopes to my left and untouched hills on my right, the sun making its way up from behind them and kissing my right cheek.

The only sound is the slow and steady rumble of the engine beneath me and the muffling of the wind in my ears. I can’t see where we are going but only from where we are coming, each new landscape sliding past me a thrilling surprise. And I’m like a stunned child walking from one side of the deck all the way to the other to admire each new cluster of floating hills, unable to decide which one I like best and for some reason needing to. Sloping unscathed hills enter on my right and they are so close that I’m sure I could touch them if I reached, dragging my fingertips against the brown rock, over the coarse short shrubbery, flickering yellow and green with the sun at its back. A solitary white lighthouse stands assuredly at the very top, stretching up through the shallow clouds, the only evidence that man has ever been there.

The floating hills keep coming, each one greater than the next, as we slowly weave in, out and around, careful not to disturb them. Lying sleepily and unmovable like giants floating on their backs in the calm blue water, fat and wrinkly, with round soft curves and a blanket of mossy skin stretching smoothly over their massive bellies and chubby thighs. Protectors of the Marlborough Sounds, only to be woken in dire circumstances.

The giant on my right, still and peaceful, left alone in his ancient peace. Small colonies of barnacles and Mollusks have embedded into the ankles and drooping thighs, under arms and chunky fingers of the lounging giant to my left. I wonder if he minds that he’s been colonized, or if he notices the people and their villages at all amidst nature’s other life forms growing from his mossy bed. How long have these massive creatures been hibernating and what happens if this man made giant roaring past shakes them from their prehistoric slumber?

I imagine the inhabited giant to my left yawning and stretching his bright green arms, shaking the tiny parasites from the folds of his neck as he sits up to see who has dared to disturb him. Timber and shingles crumbling off houses, china plates falling off shelves and sliding across floors that have now become walls as the woken giant attempts to realign his vertebrae with a thunderous crack. Tiny people hanging onto door knobs and mailboxes for their lives as they dangle in the air now high above the giant’s legs and their neighboring town. Little villagers sliding down the giant’s face as he uproots their homes with a furrow of his overgrown grassy eyebrows, or shooting into the sky like dust as he twitches his now tickly nose and sneezes.

His face is sunken and his ancient skin droops now that he’s upright, covered in porous scars and scraggly facial hair. Long sparse strands of slimy seaweed hang from his scalp, their ends still floating in the deep blue waters at his waist, and his arched back is covered in a rug of coarse hair, thick as tree roots and caked with mud. He cracks his neck with his pruned palms, looks over at us sleepily, and disinterested, settles back down in the sea covered sand, irritated that we’ve disrupted the perfect mold his body had made in it after all these years, unaware and unchanged by the tiny lives he’s just uprooted.

“I said wake me up if it’s something important,” the giant mumbles grumpily before settling back into one of those slow and shallow, reassuring snores.

I smile as we leave him be, wondering if he’ll even remember it in the morning, whenever his next morning may be.