The beginning of the end, near the end of the earth

A climber moves through one of the ice caves on Franz Josef Glacier.

A climber moves through one of the ice caves on Franz Josef Glacier.

Editor's note: Former Appeal photographer Rick Gunn left the Golden Gate Bridge in July 2005, setting out to ride his bike around the world.

Along the way, the 44-year-old South Lake Tahoe man has seen poverty and wealth. He's rejoiced in the kindness of strangers and wept at the lingering effect of man's cruelty to one another.

And he captured it all in photos and stories that have been printed in the Nevada Appeal.

He recently completed 24,000 miles.

Now, he's on the final stretch of the Wish Tour, with plans to return to his starting point on May 3. We'll be there to document the end of his journey and to welcome him home. You'll be able to follow the final legs of his journey on the following Sundays in the Nevada Appeal.

A forested plot of wild coastlands located on the northern tip of the South Island, at 139 square-miles, Abel Tasman is New Zealand's smallest National Park.

But as we'd soon discover, good things come in small packages.

"Dude, you ready?" I asked good friend and fellow photographer Eric Jarvis who had flown in for an adventure, as I grabbed the starboard of the kayak.

"Ready," he sounded, then slid the boat into the giggling waters.

Minutes later, self-propelled across a vast shimmering seascape, our paddles swirled rhythmically through the blue-green waters. Carving a liquescent trail out of Sandy Bay, we paddled along a string of remote beaches, where sculpted granite cliffs tumbled into cerulean blue bays.

Seal colonies splashed beneath towering sea-spires, while a dotting of islands flanked us offshore. That afternoon, we spent our time exploring, nosing in and out of sea caves, then rotated our paddles toward our designated camp spot.

After lifting rudder, we built camp within the tiny cove of Te Pukatea. That night, as we exchanged stories above the blue-flamed hiss of our camp-stoves, storm-clouds stretched across the sky. Then, late, long after we'd tucked inside our tents, the sky billowed into fists, and began hammering-down with rain.

That rain would last for nearly two days.

The next morning, I crawled from my tent into a torrential downpour.

Jarv was up and making tea. After watching for a minute as the raindrops bounced-off his Gore-tex, he turned around and smiled, as if to say, 'Rain? What rain?'

That attitude was not only brilliant, but contagious, and soon to pay off.

For an hour later, after we'd muscled across a hair-ball stretch of wind-blown cross-chop, Eric pointed-out the mouth of Bark Bay's tidal lagoon.

"We're in," he said, after negotiating the wicked threat of currents ripping between tidewater and slack.

It was there, upon that simple body of water, that Abel Tasman National Park unveiled it's magic.

Calm, protected, dancing with raindrops, we followed that interior waterway, as it doglegged into forests bursting with waterfalls.

Floating, photographing, astounded by it's raw beauty, we plied those placid waters until we took our fill.

Building our tents that night, on the edge of that lagoon, we sipped boxed wine and spoke until late.

There was little talk of stress, tension or rain. Just two good friends, a boat, and one hell of a good time.

After three days of kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, we traded our paddles for tires.

Rambling across the landscape like Kerouac and Ginsberg in a late model rental-car, we pointed those wheels south down New Zealand's wild west coast.

Blazing that ribbon of pavement from St. Arnaud, to Westport, Greymouth, and Hokatika, we continued into the heart of New Zealand's southern Alps.

This until the two of us stood crampon-clad, craning out necks at the immense mouth of the Franz Josef Glacier.

After a short briefing about safety and etiquette, our guide Johnny Rutkowski informed us about the monolithic river of ice that stood before us. Most alarming was how far it had receded in the last century.

Once stretching all the way to the Tasman Sea, The Franz Josef is one of thousands of shrinking glaciers on the planet.

A recent research project conducted by Arizona State University geologist Rick Wessels tracked changes in nearly all of the 160,000 glaciers around the world.

Wessels's newest data came from the NASA-operated ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer), Wessels and his colleagues concluded that global warming is the most likely explanation for the loss of glacial ice.

Several seconds later, we started single-file up an eight hour climb, on what seemed an ice-carved stairway to heaven.

Ascending at first upon ice, rock and sand, Johnny explained the physics behind the glacier. How it moved an untold mass of rock, from mountain to mouth, like some monstrous-geologic conveyor-belt.

Several hours later, after a series of climbs and dips, our efforts delivered us beneath a blinding-white ice-fall, where office-sized ice-blocks appeared frozen mid-avalanche.

It was here I became increasingly convinced that we'd entered what looked to be some sort of ice-sculpting studio of the gods.

Suddenly we were skirting deep-chasmed crevasses, or scrambling between the spires of immense towering seracs.

It was like some frozen version of "Alice In Wonderland," where all our surroundings heli-coiled and morphed, into a mind-bending array of icy-shapes.

We quickly descended from the towers through a magical succession of caves: Cavernous yawns of ice that glimmered in symphonic refraction's of varying blue light.

Four hours past in a flash, as we scrambled, snaked and ducked. Then we U-turned and descended down to a warm awaiting bus. Five minutes into our bus-ride back, Eric closed his eyes, then quickly fell asleep.

Our last adventure took place on the outskirts of Queenstown, as we edged into a river like wet-suited lemmings. Wriggling into the frigid waters, atop a well-worn boogie-board, I ignored a direct order by my guide not to pee in my wet-suit.

Sporting fins, helmets, and extremely dorky-looks, Jarv and I commenced flutter-kicking into an explosion of class-3 rapids. For an hour we practiced drowning, one set of rapids at a time, using only our faces to brake waves.

When were done, I was readying to empty the fish from my head, when we were shown to our reward: A 70-foot cliff where we were gently encouraged to huck ourselves off like a pair of crash-test dummies.

So we did. Again and again.

One of our last nights of the trip was spent atop a rocky bluff, making photos of Curio Bay; a dramatic coastal landscape near the southernmost tip of New Zealand.

After the last light bled from the sky, we turned to pack all of our gear.

As we sat that night and ate a simple meal, it occurred to me that our journey was nearing an end.

It came to me that I'd connected with Eric on many levels - and how lucky I was to call him my friend.

A silence soon filled a natural pause in the conversation, and as it did, my vision was captured by a strange glow in the distance.

A transcendent, show-stopping full moon.

Rising, widening, shimmering, glowing, it crept above the horizon like some mad-ethereal headlight.

"Dude!" I shouted to Jarv, before we grabbed our camera gear and ran back to the bluff.

Smiling with satisfaction after a series of photos, Jarv turned and said, "A perfect night with one of my best friends."

With that, I left Eric to his craft, then meandered to a cliffside perch, where I silently took a seat.

Listening to the contemplative throb of crashing waves, I strained my vision toward the southernmost horizon.

There, well beyond my vision - a mere thousand miles away - stood the distant, icy shores of Antarctica.

I had reached the ends of the earth.

With that, a smile grew within, radiating outward through every cell of my body.

After two-and-a-half years, more than 24,000 miles, through 32 countries ...

I was finally heading home.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHERE: New Zealand (south island): Abut Head, Franz Joseph

Glacier, Bruce Bay, Pleasant Valley, Haast Pass, Wanaka, Queenstown, Chatto, Ranfurly, Dunedin, Invercargill, Curio Bay, Manapori, Te Anau, Milford

Sound, Mt. Cook, Christchurch

WHEN: Feb. 1-29, 2008

MILEAGE LOG: 23,200-24,000


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