Kiwi Country, February-March, 2008

New Zealand had been in our travel plans for many years, but it was only after we had both retired that we were able to find the proper time: six weeks toward the end of southern hemisphere summer. The country is composed of a lot of islands, but only two big ones: North and South. The whole place has only a little more than four million people, although it is about the size of California. It does, however, have many non-human inhabitants, especially sheep. It is also Lord of the Rings territory: tours abounded, attracting foreign visitors. Many locals had been extras in the films. When folks like what you have done, they say, “Good on you.”

We divided our time roughly as follows: two weeks on our own, mostly in the North Island; two weeks with a commercial adventure group in the South Island; the rest on own again, still in the South Island. It was a very busy trip, and a tiring one, at least for me. You would be tired too, if I listed all the details. General idea: we hiked, kayaked, rafted, biked, almost snorkled, rode horseback (Susan) and rock-climbed (me). We stayed in 24 different places, none for more than two days in a row, except at the beginning and end. As I write, I am recuperating from all this.

We flew to Auckland via Los Angeles (no direct flights from NYC). We crossed the international dateline, thus missing Valentine’s day altogether. LA-Auckland is a bit over 12 hours. The plane was enormous--a 747-400--and nearly full. The service (Qantas) was excellent. We were able to sleep--fortunately, because we arrived in the morning, long before our downtown hotel room was ready. New Zealand is only three or four hours behind California time; the flight from Los Angeles is as much south as west. But you need to remember that it is now the next day. Also be aware of the gravity of Customs. The country has too much destructive imported flora and fauna and wants no more. Our hiking boots were taken away and returned five minutes later, cleaner than they had been since manufacture.

Auckland has a population of 1.3 million, which makes it by far the country’s biggest (one might say its only) city. It has little character, but is pleasant and largely walkable. The Auckland Museum is worth an extended visit. Same for the Maritime Museum. We also recommend the short ferry north to Devenport, an engaging little town where you can climb a small grassy volcano. Auckland food, as everywhere in NZ, is expensive. NOTE ON MONEY: the currency is the New Zealand dollar. The bills are colorful The recently deceased Edmund Hillary (“Sir Ed”) is on the five-dollar note. Not so very long ago, a U.S. dollar would buy NZ$ 2.50. Then it was 1.50. Now it is about 1.25. The trip was probably the most costly we have ever taken. We would not care to add it all up. (All prices below are in New Zealand dollars.)

After a couple of days we rented a bright red Ford Focus and headed north. NOTE ON NZ DRIVING: They go on the wrong (left) side of the road. Many bridges are only one lane, so be careful. (These bridges are being replaced, but so slowly that most will outlast us.) The roads are generally one lane each way, with occasional passing lanes, usually on uphill. Drivers are usually polite and stick to the speed limit, which--take care--is in kilometers per hour. As in England, there are many roundabouts (traffic circles), some of which require steel nerves. Gasoline is very pricey--the Focus cost us $60 for 3/4 of a tank.

Our first drive took us to the village of Russell, in the Bay of Islands. We stayed at the White House, a B&B that we recommend most highly. It has great breakfasts, helpful hosts, and a kitchen that twice enabled us to avoid having dinner out. We took three excursions from Russell: 1) short ferry to Pauhi, where the Treat of Waitangi was signed in 1840. This is how the British gained control of the country from the Maori. The treaty has two versions, one in Maori, the other in English. Not surprisingly, the English version is more favorable to the British. The restored Treaty House is very impressive, as is the enormous Maori war canoe, capacity 100 or so. The Maori are the big minority group in the country, more numerous in the North Island than the South. See, among other things, the recent films Broken English and Once Were Warriors. 2) a drive north, though not all the way to Cape Reinga, at the very top. We had lunch at “the best fish and chips place in the world.” It was very good. Kiwis love fish and chips. NOTE: contrary to rumor, they don’t seem to mind being called Kiwis. The Kiwi is a medium-sized long-billed nocturnal flightless bird. There used to be millions of them, but only about 50,000 remain. They are vulnerable to predators like rats and especially possums. The latter were introduced in the 19th century for their fur. Another bad idea. They found the terrain so congenial that there are now some 80 million of them, about 19 for every human Kiwi. The possums collectively chew through some 20 thousand tons of vegetation every night. They are enemy #1: if you see one while you are driving, aim your car right at it. 3) a 30-minute coastal drive followed by a hike to Whangamunu, a disused whaling station. It was an hour up a forested ridge and down to a beautiful, virtually empty beach. That’s New Zealand. Though we did meet a couple from California. That’s also New Zealand. Main other tourist sources seem to be Australia, Germany, Canada, and Japan, and U.K.

NOTE ON NZ DINING: Food is generally quite good, especially fish. Service varies, but was better than we had been told. Prices are higher, and would be even with a stronger U.S. dollar. But remember: taxes are included in the price, and most places do not encourage tipping. (This in contrast to a local establishment that claims to serve NZ pies. It has a counter jar that says, “Tipping is not a city in China.”) One peculiarity is that places charge extra on public holidays.

After Russell we headed south, eventually reaching a B&B on a farm near Rotorua. Here we encountered our first wet weather. In general we hit a lucky time, avoiding most of the country’s famous precipitation. A year earlier the Bay of Islands had an enormous flood, which happily killed no one but did a lot of damage. We were taken on a tour of the farm, something we were told not to try on our own. They raise sheep, deer and have a couple of ostriches. Don’t fool around with these very big birds. During mating season, the male’s legs become bright red. At such a time Lyn, one of the farmers, entered the ostrich domain wearing a red coat. The ostrich mistook her for a rival male. She was in a wheelchair for two months.

The Farm also has an elk. Every year the horns are carefully removed and sent to Asia in small pieces. They fetch a great price (like $1,000 per ounce). Most of the venison goes to Germany.

Other guests at the B&B included a Canadian couple. The husband was an elderly but very upright (in both senses) former police chief of Calgary. With them we visited the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, followed by a stage performance and buffet supper. I and others mounted the stage to pretend we were Maori warriors. This entailed much foot stomping and striking the warlike pose: eyes bulging and tongue out as far as it would go. The supper was meaty. It ended with each table obliged to sing. Ours tried “On, Wisconsin,” quite unsuccessfully.

Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity, including a simmering volcano that will one day again blow its top. It behaved well during our visit. Susan also had a jolly time at a Polynesian Spa that she recommends highly.

Continuing our way south, we had our first experience with unsealed (that is, unpaved) roads. Ours twisted up and down hill over the center of the island. It was not scary, but it did hold our attention. We stopped for an hour hike from one lake to another. NZ has innumerable lakes, many very blue and big. Most are astonishingly clear--you can see perfectly six feet down or more. They are generally of glacial origin, though big, beautiful Lake Waikaremoana was created by a major landslide 2000 years ago. NOTE ON NZ NAMES: if of Maori origin, they are likely to begin with W, K or P, contain as many vowels as consonants, and be pretty indistinguishable.

We were soon in Wellington, at the southern tip of North Island, where we deposited the Ford. Although it is the country’s capital, it has a population of under 200,000. It is a lovely place, with ocean front backed by a long curved hillside. We stayed in a B&B up there that featured a large indoor swimming pool. The Te Papa museum is one of the biggest and best in the country. And don’t miss the “Beehive,” executive wing of the parliament buildings. It is said to be the ugliest building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Now carless, we headed for the South Island, There are many ferries, but we missed the one that we had booked, our only such mistake of the trip. Another showed up in a few hours for the three-hour crossing to the town of Picton. This can be very rough; sailings are occasionally canceled on this account. Fifty years ago, a ferry went down in Wellington Harbor during a fierce storm, claiming 51 victims. Nothing of the sort happened when we crossed. The last hour, in Queen Charlotte Sound, is especially beautiful.

We were now on our own on the sparsely populated South Island. It has much wild scenery, but cannot be considered remote. There is easy access to the Internet, so kept apprised of the follies of U.S. politics. The Spitzer affair made the local newspapers. Journalistic samples of other matters are featured below.

NOTE ON NZ BUS TRAVEL: It is generally on time and comfortable. The brief trip from Picton to Nelson was odd because of the driver. He was compulsive about the cleanliness of his vehicle. “Now, mind you, I am not a rubbish collector,” he announced, many times. If we were chewing gum, we could continue, but by no means were we to leave the finished product on the bus. Nor were we to start a new stick. Nor eat anything. Once the driver called out: “Somebody is eating a banana!” I think we were not to drink even water, but we sneaked a few sips.

Our first night on South Island was at the very pleasant Grampian Villa, in Nelson. Thence we embarked on our first organized trip--three days tramping (that means hiking) in the Abel Tasman Park. Guides pointed out the many native plants. It was like many such ventures in NZ--part beach walk, (larger) part fairly gentle wooded trails; the beach part depends on the tides--when high, you must go inland. Many of the other group members were on the paunchy side, so I knew they would have trouble keeping up. Wrong. But at least we didn’t fall far behind. The total distance was about 25 miles. That was sufficient. The two nights were spent in comfortable lodges.

NZ Journalism #1: Nurse Rapped for Misconduct with Killer

Seems that the nurse, who like many other accused folks in the county, had “interim name suppression,” was charged with having sex in her home with “an insane killer in her care at a maximum-security psychiatric ward.” “The [Maori] nurse denied this, saying she took the killer to her home once while on day leave because she was menstruating heavily and needed to change.

“The nurse used expert evidence from a Maori health worker that, ‘from a Maori cultural perspective,’ it was not acceptable to continue her daily tasks without attending to her personal hygiene need.” The paper gravely reports that “the tribunal’s ruling said it had reservations about this explanation” but nevertheless acquitted her.

Having completed one tour, it was time to start a longer one (two weeks). First we needed to get to Christchurch, on the east (Pacific) coast, which we did by a lengthy but scenic bus ride. Christchurch is said to be the most English town in the country. It is quite lovely, and we regretted not having more day time there. At 10:30 one Sunday morning we met our group, 12 other folks. Ages ranged from 30’s to me. Two Germans, 4 Canadians, the rest Americans. Our leader was Kat, a 25-year-old Kiwi of part Italian descent. She not only ran the trip but also drove the bus. She was even more ebullient than most Kiwis, as evidenced by her post-trip e-mail:

"Hey team!! Hope you all made it home safe and sound and well rested from your arduous Active trip!!I'm in Franz Joseph, (remember that really big block of ice?) for 2 nights, we don't stay at Okarito ) :That's a bummer, cos I love it out there!! Quite apt to be at Franz actually, the dad on this family tour had knee surgery recently so needs to ice his knee every night. He's been keeping up OK, though this hasn't been such an ACTIVE tour, his son and I have been playing a lot of frisbee.Two more sleeps, then I'm all done with work with active for a while, looking forward to getting some regularity in my life, it's hard being on holiday all the time isn't it? teehee .... Sweet as everyone, keep in touch, keep on living the dream and remember LIFE IS GOOD!! xox kat." Kat was assisted by Richie, a male Kiwi in his mid-thirties, who turned out to be a first-rate cook. The bus, a 2002 Toyota Coaster, had 19 seats but little leg room: it was designed for Japanese. It was our constant companion for the two weeks. The tour, Rimu, is called by its sponsors, Active New Zealand, “our most action-packed trip.” One can only hope so.

We first drove up the coast to Kaikoura, where we were scheduled to snorkel “within a couple of feet of native New Zealand Fur Seals as they cavort in the water.” But the seals canceled the venture because of rough weather. We stayed in a B&B; the living room was home to a 12-year-old white cockatoo named Admiral Creighton who kept saying “‘ello dahling” in a plausible Kiwi voice.

Next was the 3-day option: Biking, hiking, or kayaking. No one chose to bike. We would have hiked but for the need to carry 30-pound packs. Four of us did go, and at least one had a hard time. So it was sea kayaks: sleek 20-foot fiberglass jobs built for two. We had been in this kind craft only once before, near Vancouver, and discovered that our skills were limited and our arms weak. We were consistently at the back of the pack and twice ignominiously accepted a tow from one of our strong young Kiwi guides. But it was a lovely experience when we could forget the pain. We were in Queen Charlotte Sound, which is forested and little populated. We spent the two nights at Lochmara Lodge, which is a splendid roadless location.

Reunited with the hiking contingent, we spent several days on the west coast. We visited art galleries and saw the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. They really do resemble pancakes--very big ones. Soon we ready for more kayaking. That is, ready or not we had another morning of it. This time it was in a the large Okarito lagoon. The water was shallow and calm, so we expected a relaxed time. We could get really close to the rain forest and the numberless birds, some of which we could actually see. But on the return the tide had turned against us, no rescuing guides were to be seen, and paddling was a struggle.

Now it was the time for glaciers. NZ has many of them (retreating, of course) in the SW part of the island. Here you find Mt. Cook, highest in the country. Although less than 13,000 feet high, it is a dangerous challenge, and very beautiful. For sturdy mountaineers only. We made a short hike to the Franz Josef Glacier, a big hunk of calving ice. At the bottom is a large blue ice cave. Stay away. A recent visitor encountered a big fall of ice and emerged minus one arm.

After more than a week, we had a scheduled day off in Queenstown, population 8000. This is the tourist capital of the touristy nation. The tour prospectus promised “adrenaline-pumping activities!” such as hang gliding and bungy jumping. We decided we were too young for these, and chose instead a raft trip on the Kawarau River. The scariest part was the hour-long bus ride to the launch point: “unsealed,” twisty, with enormous drop-offs. The guide, not NZ but acted as though he were, regaled us with stories: “Only one of our buses has ever fallen off. The driver survived but lost his spleen. So if any of you finds a spleen in the river, please return it.” He made a string of vulgar jokes, then explained: “I’m no longer the Hong Kong schoolgirl I once was.” One of the bus passengers was a rafting guide from Pokhara (Nepal). So I had another chance to demonstrate how little Nepali I could speak.

As usual, the raft had 6 passengers and a guide. The latter was a young woman from Vancouver. The other passengers were two young women from Hong Kong and a honeymooning Polish couple. The Poles got the front positions--fortunately, as they were much the strongest of us. The river was low, which meant less volume but more exposed rocks. The rapids had names like “Jaws,” “The Toilet” and (next) “Oh, Shit.” There was the usual jumping about and frantic paddling. Nobody fell off our raft, but a couple of Aussies in another did. The two-hour trip ended with a spooky glide through an old mining tunnel. Following recuperation and a walk around town, we took an evening ride on the Skyline Gondola; its cars take you 1500 feet above town to Bob’s Peak. Extraordinary views.

The next morning the group re-assembled for a bus ride to The Divide, the ridge that splits the island north/south. We hiked a portion of the Routeburn Track. It was steadily but not overwhelmingly uphill. There is a nature walk up top. The views are, yet again, astounding. Once down, we headed back west for a wee bit of biking. All downhill on a dirt road. As some of my small but enthusiastic readership are aware, I did not learn to ride a bike until I was 22, and never did learn it very well. It is not my favorite activity. Moreover, Richie cautioned us to stay well left, as there was a lot of “hooning” on the road. That meant speeding. Though terrified, I managed the ten or so miles without falling off more than once. The bike had 21 speeds, but I never dared change mine. Then another hike, fortunately short, to a waterfall. Thence by bus to a somewhat rustic lodge. It was perfectly comfortable, even if (first time) we did not have our own bathroom. This was, incidentally, our first night with cool weather. Dinner was NZ pizza and a birthday cake for Uwe, the male part of a German couple, who was now 50.

NZ Journalism #2: Man Attempts to Have Sex with Goat

The perpetrator, age 68, had chosen a goat because he assumed the animal would not discuss the incident. But the man was observed in the (abortive) act. He was granted “interim name suppression,” as perhaps was the goat. NOTE: had this happened in colonial Massachusetts, both man and goat would have been executed. (As Susan discovered, something similar occurred lately in suburban New Jersey, but with a pig.)

We were now in the most famous place in the country: Milford Sound, site of the Milford Track. It’s not really a sound but a fiord (NZ spelling), as it is of glacial origin. It is truly spectacular, with forested mountains rising steeply from the ocean. Kat said that this was only the second of her eight visits without rain (though there was a good deal of cloud). We had breakfast at 6:30 to have a quick start kayaking, but some obscure time change meant that we were an hour early for the vessels. Our kayaking skills had improved somewhat, and we almost kept up with the pack as we ventured into the Sound. Although your arms will surely feel it, this is a terrific way to see this amazing place.

Our final tour stop was the shearers’ quarters at a sheep farm, where we spent two nights. It was a small farm--only a few thousand sheep.The farm is on the east shore of Lake Pukaki; it had to be moved in the early 1990’s, when the lake was raised 125 feet to provide hydro power. We had to drive way south and then farther north around the west side of the lake to reach Mount Cook National Park. Here we had a choice of hikes. Susan joined the sensible majority for a fairly level though spectacular hike to yet another lake. I recklessly headed up a very steep ridge. The trail was well kept, with wood-fronted steps. But it was unrelenting. Only one of us reached the goal, the Mueller Hut, some 3300 feet up. I stopped after about 2500 and was glad I did. On the way up, a couple of young men asked whether any attractive Kiwi women were ahead. I mentioned Kat, but said that she was off limits, being a guide. I soon discovered that this boundary may be crossed, as it was by a male guide and female client (American) on a similar tour. He was reportedly astonished to find how much of her body was covered with tattoos.

The last night of the tour was on hand. We took nostalgic photos, with Mount Cook in the background. We enjoyed the barbecue that Richie had arranged. Even Susan had a bite of the venison sausage. (She had indicated her aversion to red meat. Having no such restrictions, I was listed as an “omnivore.”) A number us did reunite the next evening for dinner at the Dux de Lux cafe in Christchurch.

On our own once more, we awoke at 6:45 the next morning to catch the Tranzscenic Train to Arthur’s Pass. The tracks were completed about one hundred years ago; it was a formidable engineering challenge. It bisects the island, from Christchurch across the spine to Greymouth on the west coast. It has 19 trestles and many tunnels. Arthur’s Pass is the high point. We stayed at the Wilderness Lodge, one of the most comfortable and by far the most expensive of our many venues. We ordered our $22 box lunches and set off on a guided hike (an extra $98 per). The guide, Wally, who also managed the Lodge, is the grandson of Alexander Graham, one of the country’s best-known climbers. We were accompanied by a Japanese couple and an American family: parents and early teenage daughter. The daughter proved a champion hiker, in contract with her rather tentative parents. We did reach a small glacier and skidded about on the snowy surface. We also toured the Lodge’s sheep farm. We saw a few of the beasts being neatly herded by a couple of dogs. One sheep was sheared for our viewing. It was dragged into a sitting position, where it remained seemingly indifferent to the rapid loss of its fleece.

After returning to Christchurch, we had yet another early morning so we could catch the 9:00 a.m. flight to Invercargill, at the island’s southern tip. This smallish town is known for its bad weather and Scottish tone. Its most famous citizen is Burt Munro, who startled the racing world with his hand-crafted motorcycle. Catch Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant impersonation, complete with local accent, in the film The World’s Fastest Indian. The museum features Henry, a large lizard 120 years old. He is said to have a bad disposition that was modified a few years ago by a successful cancer operation. His sprits have revived. He is now awaiting the birth of a child by Mildred, one of his three lizard girlfriends.

Invercargill is the gateway to the bird-rich Stewart Island, which has only about 400 permanent human residents, but 30,000 visitors annually. The ferry ride that takes you there from the port of Bluff has a frightening reputation for roughness. Posted on board is advice to keep your eyes on the horizon, not read, and sit near the back of the boat. None of this proved necessary on our crossings (70 minutes each way). On our first afternoon a watertaxi took us to Ulva Island, which has been declared rat- and possum-free, and therefore safe for birds, even kiwis. We didn’t see many birds, although we certainly heard them. We also encountered some of the rain for which the region is famed. We had a very good dinner at the Church Hill restaurant. Because it was a public holiday (Good Friday), the 15% surcharge was imposed. We worked off the meal the next day with another hike--forest and beach once more, plus an unwelcome section of paved road.

NOTE ON NZ BIRDS: They are abundant, if not always easily visible. One that you cannot miss is the kea, the national pest-bird. They love rubber and have been known to devour entire car tires. Here is an encyclopedia entry that our experience confirmed:

“The birds belong to a species called the kea (Nestor notabilis), a maverick member of the parrot family, described as everything from a fun-loving prankster to a heartless mountain mobster that knows no bounds when it comes to procuring a meal. Indigenous to the high country of South Island, the bird is loved by many and hated by some, and its antics frequently solicit moralistic comparisons to human misbehavior. As the big tour bus revs its engine and pulls back onto the roadway, one of the keas breaks off its search for discarded junk food and glides to the bus's windshield, alights on the windshield wiper, cocks its head sideways, and peers at the driver. The driver blasts his horn but the kea stays put. The driver guns his engine and enters the tunnel, accelerating to about 40 miles per hour. The bird still hangs on as it is buffeted by the wind. The driver mutters to no one in particular, ‘Watch, he'll let go now’--and as if on cue, the kea lets go and sails over the top of the bus like a candy bar wrapper. The bird can be seen flapping its way back toward the tunnel entrance to rejoin its family group sorting through the trash.” (We did see a Kea munching on a windshield wiper.)

We had now been gone more than five weeks and were ready for our final destination: Wanaka, an hour’s drive from Queenstown. We rented a car in Invercargill and headed north. This time we had a manual transmission Toyota Corolla that used far less gas than had the Focus. The only problem was that the turn signal was on the right, with the windshield wipers on the left. Whenever we tried to indicate a turn, we clicked on the wipers, thus confusing ourselves and any other traffic.

We arrived at Wanaka (Te Wanaka Lodge) at the very end of the warbird show. This exhibit and demo of old war planes occurs here every other year and is a major event--some 80,000 visitors this time. Our Lodge had been populated by an Aussie group that had come for the show. In farewell celebration, the Lodge put on a “barby” (barbecue) with lots of meat. Kiwis like that. The next morning our friend Erik arrived from California with his charming and energetic daughter, Elisabeth. Neither showed signs of jet lag; they immediately plunged into a week of impressive activity. Some years back, Erik had the foresight to buy a plot of land--a “section,” in Kiwi talk--on the shores of big, lovely Lake Wanaka. We had a look at the land, which is houseless for the time being.

Susan and I split up the next morning--she for a horseback ride, I for a taste of NZ rock climbing. Half an hour from the town, the hillsides are studded with rock outcrops. My guide, Jeremy, had trouble finding anything easy enough for me. The routes are generally short and protected by expansion bolts. The bolts are sometimes justified by the crackless character of the rock, but are in some cases unnecessary as well as disfiguring.

Last day: We accompanied Erik and Elisabeth on a hike to the Mt. Aspiring hut, where they planned to spend the night and watch the sun come and go. Erik carried a big pack, Elisabeth a small pink and orange one. At 3:00 in the afternoon, we turned around, with the hut nowhere in sight. (It was only 15 minutes away.) On the drive back we drove over many small fords until we were stopped (twice) by hundreds of sheep crossing the road, managed by the usual dogs. We gave them right of way. Once back at the Lodge, we plunged happily into its hot tub.

New York was only 26 hours of plane travel away. Having left NZ at the end of summer, we arrived at JFK just as spring was about to begin. Good on us.


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