High school student travels across New Zealand in an RV
December 12, 2009
Craig — Wesley Chapman never lived Nov. 23, 2009, but he lived Dec. 8 twice.
Such is one of the strange things that happens to a person when he travels to the other side of the world.
Chapman, a 15-year-old sophomore at Moffat County High School, left Los Angeles the night of Nov. 22, went backward in time as he passed over Hawaii and arrived Nov. 24 in New Zealand on the far side of the International Dateline.
Time travel was the least of his interests, though.
For the next two weeks, Chapman and his grandparents toured the Land of the Long White Cloud, rumbling from the top of the country's north island to the bottom of the south island in a rented RV.
"The reality hit me about a week before we left," Chapman said. "Then, it occurred to me, I was going to be halfway around the world."
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Holly and Melvin Norman — the aforementioned grandparents, 68 and 70, respectively — first took Chapman to the Waitomo Caves, one of the only places in the world where scientists have found glowworms, a rare species of insect larvae that glow in the dark.
"They pull a boat through there, and you look up and it looks like sky," Melvin said.
"They look just like stars," Chapman added.
From there, the trio toured some of the country's bird sanctuaries, saw a giant squid at the national aquarium and visited a dormant volcano used for geothermal power, all before departing in their RV on a ferry to the south island.
"Birds in New Zealand have no wings, because they had no predators," Holly said. "There are a lot of birds who nest and spend their entire lives on the ground."
For Chapman, being on the edge of a volcano where he could "see the mud boiling" was quite different from driving by the Tri-State Generation & Transmission power plant south of Craig.
The Normans make it a point to take all their grandchildren on an international adventure when they reach a certain age.
Chapman is the second-to-last to take such a voyage. Some of his cousins have toured Europe. His older brother went to Alaska about 10 years ago and took a long trek through the mountains.
Melvin said he and his wife wanted something similar for Chapman — something outdoors, something that got the blood pumping.
They briefly considered taking him to St. Petersburg, Russia, to see the State Hermitage Museum, but Chapman said succinctly, "That's not me."
"What we try to do," Melvin said, "is we try to pick something that will both accommodate the maturity of the child — I'm sorry, young man — and increase their knowledge about travel and other countries."
Becoming a citizen of the globe is important, Holly said.
"There are great people all over the world," she said. "We all have our problems with our governments and what happens to some of us, but there's a lot of beauty in the world, too."
The only downside to New Zealand, Melvin said, is that Chapman did not get to see the perils of the world firsthand.
"New Zealand was not one of the Third World countries like Asia or Bangkok or Thailand," he said. "We didn't see a Third World country. New Zealand is very much first world, very modern. I was hoping we'd see some of that to understand what it's like to have some of the opportunities and the things we have in the United States that some take for granted."
The experience of being in a foreign land did teach the high school student about his own country.
"How much more powerful we are," Chapman said, nodding. "Even down there, in their newspapers and all that, they talk about Barack Obama and the war. They want to know what we're doing."
On the south island — on the way to their ultimate destination, a four-day, 33-mile hike through the mountains of southern New Zealand known as the Milford Track — the party took small detour in Queenstown.
Chapman, being a self-professed adrenaline junkie, wanted to jump off the 144-foot tall Kawarau Bridge, known as the birthplace of bungee jumping.
A video of the event shows him walking calmly to edge of the platform and diving off headfirst.
Melvin said his grandson later described the feeling of his innards levitating during the freefall as being the same as when he takes a particularly high jump on his snowmachine.
The Milford Track hike proved to be everything they hoped for, Holly said.
"It was beautiful," she said. "We were so lucky."
"It's one of those things," Melvin added. "A once-in-a-lifetime deal."
The trip was a priceless opportunity to get to know their grandson, Holly said.
"We talked about a lot of things," she said. "Teenage things. Old people things. What's important in life and what isn't, what can be secondary. It's a wonderful thing for a grandparent to be able to give their grandchild."