My Flying Kiwi tour of New Zealand's South Island started off in a hippie hostel in Picton, after a beautiful 3-hour ferry crossing through the famous Marlborough Sounds. It was there that I met my companions: Marc, a 29 yo French ChemE postdoc; Terry, a 45ish Aussie cyclist and easygoing mate; Caroline, a 28yo English cynic; Yuki, a 23 yo traditional Japanese girl; Saeko, a 29 yo Americanized Japanese girl; Kenn, a peculiar young Japanese guy of uncertain provenance; enough Germans and Swiss Germans to sink a ship. Note that our group of 24 included only 3 native English speakers and a total of 7 people who were kind of forced to communicate in English. The tour was run by a German-speaking kiwi woman and her German non-husband husband. We also travelled with their two blond blue-eyed boys, 3 and 4 years old, both of whom spoke tolerable English and German.
Rather than supply the gory details of the trip, I'll just give a few statistics and vignettes:
Total biking: 400km Really sunny days: 5 German learned: a lot Accents distinguished: German vs. Swiss-German (the latter much more lilting, not nearly as harsh and quite beautiful) Cheese sandwiches eaten: enough to last 37 lifetimes Days in wilderness: 5 (hiking two tracks) Things I thanked God for: Gore-Tex boots, Gore-Tex rain pants, Gore-Tex parka, German cassettes I listened to in my car last fall Diseases contracted: 24 hour stomach flu during which I felt like throwing up and wished to die, but did neither Items broken: smashed filter on 28mm lens, Powerbook 170 died unassisted (power entry problem so that it could run on batteries but not charge them or run from the mains)The overall character of the trip was one of good fellowship, open discussions, cooperation, sharing, and intimacy (sometimes a bit forced by limited space on the bus and in tents). I was the subject of some teasing, partly because I had brought as much luggage as everyone else combined, and partly because I wrote my diary on the Powerbook -- very quickly dubbed "Samantha" by the German girls, who were convinced that I was in love with her.
Eight of us were dropped off at the trailhead for the famous Routeburn Track the morning of Dec 30. It was pouring rain, the track went relentlessly up, and I was being outrun by the 21 yo German girls. If the weather denied us views of the distant mountains, it also impressively swelled waterfalls and creeks. I felt pretty macho for doing the track at all, that is until I met a middle-aged Sacramento couple doing the entire 38km in one days with nothing but lycra clothing, gloves, and running shoes.
We spent our first night in one of New Zealand's marvelous huts. Gas stoves, real mattresses, flush toilets, running water, tables and benches, good fellowship. The only thing missing in this helicopter-supplied corner of the world was a hot shower, but for US$7/night I wasn't complaining.
By the time I had arrived at the hut, Brigitte (pronounced Bri-git'-uh), a 22 yo Black Forest girl who was half gazelle and half mountain goat (although she looked like a cross between the St. Pauli girl and the Swiss Miss girl and had a joyful smile that would light up a room) had already prepared hot tea and soup.
The morning of Dec 31 found me groaning myself awake at 6:30am, next to Alex, the indestructible 26 yo Swiss-German plumber, whose muscles did not hurt at all (neither did Brigitte's). It was drizzly when we started the next 1500' of climbing to the famous Harris Saddle and all of my pains from the day before returned after 15 minutes of walking, despite the fact that I was travelling pretty light (no tent or sleeping pad).
Trudy, a 48 yo Swiss-German, almost couldn't make it up the hill and her fellow Swiss and Germans zoomed past her. I was a bit worried for her and in no hurry (we had six hours of hiking and 18 hours of light) so I stayed with her and added her heavy things to my expedition-size North Face pack. Marita, a finely built redheaded nurse from Stuttgart, also stayed with us and we had a lovely time together as the weather cleared to reveal diamond-bright snow-covered granite peaks, a beautiful bay on the West Coast (part of the Tasman Sea), and distant waterfalls still running from the previous days' rain. Trudy and Marita made an interesting pair: Trudy loved to tell the younger women that the most important thing in life was to find a man who was sexually inventive and with whom one would not get bored; Marita had left behind a boyfriend in Germany who also had a blonde girlfriend ("I think every man will have two women if he can." -- this was a common theme and the younger German women also asked me why men all wanted N women in their bed at once (I told them it was so that the Samoyed and Shetland pony did not get bored)).
New Year's Eve was spent in conversation around a hut table. Trudy abused Americans even though I was the only person who offered to carry any of her stuff, thus proving that no good deed goes unpunished. She maintained that America was a "Fourth World" country (as opposed to NZ's Third World status). Micha, our German tour director, told me that the big oil companies kept efficient solar cells from being developed by killing scientists. Marc and Yuki nuzzled (you wouldn't think that a Japanese girl from a good family would have a fling with someone she'd known for five days, but I guess all you have to be in this world is French).
At midnight, we went outside and lit the candles that Brigitte had remembered to bring. We shared some wine that she'd also lugged up and down the 6000' mountain and sang Auld Lang Syne (which means nothing in German either; Ducky says that it is Old English--she should know because she also went to New Zealand; the American Heritage Dictionary claims it is Scottish). I asked people what their wishes for the New Year were and Alex the practical Swiss had none. Brigitte wanted "better luck than last year" (she'd been unlucky in love apparently). I wanted better judgment.
We stayed out until 1am wishing on shooting stars in the unfamiliar southern sky (no big dipper and Orion is reversed) then rested for the next day's trek.
We stopped at a roadside cafe near Mt. Aspiring National Park at 7:30pm and boarded a single-engine Cessna in a field for an eyeballs-to-the-peaks flight through spectacular mountains. At the end, we dropped down to a tiny grass airstrip in the narrow Siberia Valley and unloaded our packs. With two more hours of light, we casually set up our tents and relaxed with drinks and food. Due to the tent shortage, I was forced to share my 2-man tent with Brigitte and her best friend Beate (a 21 yo brunette with the longest eyelashes you ever saw and a romantic heart tempered by German life and university).
After a night nestled between the two German innocents (don't worry, nothing happened that would lessen my desire to run after the sheep), we packed our stuff and left it beside the airstrip before hiking down the river for three hours with just fanny packs containing food and sunglasses. When we reached a particular spot on the shore that had been indicated during our flight, we were met by a jetboat. This is something invented by a New Zealand farmer. It sucks water in the front and spits it out the back, above the waterline. Thus, you have a boat that can go 55 mph in as little as 3 inches of water. Plus, the jet of water coming out the back is great for hosing down people in other boats, livestock, etc. We zoomed downriver, under branches, next to rocks, over waterfalls, then up another 4river until the reached the original cafe. There we were met by the Flying Kiwi bus and our packs that had been flown out.
This is my kind of wilderness experience!
To give you an idea of how ridiculously cheap everything here is, the airplane/jetboat/luggage flyout only cost US$44.
New Zealand is a fabulous place where people are super friendly and everyone invites you to come stay at their house (not that you'd need to since you can stay at a "backpacker's" hostel in any part of the country for about US$6/night -- these are actually much nicer than American motels because if you are alone you meet people).
NZ business has not figured out how to squeeze the last nickel out of consumers as efficiently as American business. Thus, you don't find a coin box by the air hose in gas stations here.
Being able to ride a bike around the city here last night until 11pm and have light until 10pm and complete safety at all times is pretty nice.
One realizes how small the place is in odd ways. For example, with the same population as Boston, not too many brands can be supported. Thus, every bathroom has the same brand of paper towels. Every campground is full of Sunshine Leisure tents.
The country is solidly First World in attitude. Public streets and facilities are meticulously maintained and in general harmony with private things -- you don't find private splendor and public squalor as you might in Israel or Egypt. Gas station convenience stores have UPC scanners and debit card readers. The phone system is more advanced than the US's.
Roadbiking here is fabulous. Even the main roads connected big cities have only one car every five minutes. You can bike for hours and hardly notice cars, even on fabulous coastal routes. The roads are really well-maintained also.
People do some good computer science here but they still have lots of time for visitors.
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