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New Year's Day, 1993
My muscles ached and the day was cloudy, but the forest was peaceful. It was a short walk to the northern end of the Routeburn Track, where we caught the daily bus to Queenstown, tourist Mecca of the South Island. There are a lot of perfectly situated towns in New Zealand, but Queenstown is just a little more perfect. It sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipo, another mountain-ringed beauty, which makes for good hotel balcony sitting and a lively trade in tourist steamers. In the winter, the mountains are perfect for skiing. In summer, you have your choice of mountain biking, white water rafting, or jetboating.
We found Queenstown was packed with young Kiwi lowlife, for it is the traditional New Year's gathering for Kiwis who want to get drunk and sleep with strangers. Still, "packed" and "lowlife" in New Zealand don't have the feverish intensity that they do in Manhattan so the compact town was coping gracefully.
All of our desires were gratified in Queenstown. I showered and shaved at the town's shimmering outdoor pool, then stripped to a pair of gym shorts and washed everything else in a laundromat. Marc had been desperately trying to cash a personal check from his bank in Australia, but could never find an open bank; I selected one of Queenstown's 10 bank machines and withdrew NZ$300 for him. Some people even admitted to patronizing Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut, though I personally ate a delicious salmon sandwich at a "health food" restaurant (if it isn't fried or boiled until gray, it qualifies as health food by Kiwi standards).
After everyone was sated, we drove 20 km north along Lake Wakatipo to a beautiful lakeside campsite. Brigitte shared my tent, but only after making me promise "to be a good boy."
Micha told us that the ride into town was "mostly flat," but he had been suffering from a credibility problem in this area. Tremendously strong and driven, Micha simply could not accept that 1000 meters of climbing made a bike ride tougher than one with 100 meters of climbing. We probably should have noted the fact that Melanie, despite her beautiful strong legs, refused to go, declaring the road to be too rugged. Marc, Terry, and I were tired before we had even climbed out of the campsite onto the paved road. There were brutal climbs up the mountain every kilometer and then we would tragically lose all the altitude we'd just gained, only to have to do it all over again in the next kilometer.
When we finally rolled into Queenstown, I relaxed in the botanical gardens, which overlook the lake. Here there is no hint that the culture of Empire has been overthrown by international mass tourism. On the perfectly-groomed bowling green, I watched several impeccably-dressed gentlemen play. They would first roll out a small white ball, then try to get larger balls as close as possible to the white marker ball.
Coming back to the harbor, I happened upon a Backroads cycling tour group. My Flying Kiwi mountain bike wasn't bad, particular as it was brand new, but I was envious of the 20 identical beautiful road bikes being used by the Backroads tourists, most of whom appeared to be aging California yuppies. They were just winding up their 14-day tour and looked about as refreshed as you'd expect for folks who'd been staying in the South Island's finest hotels. When I reflected that they were paying about five times the price per day as the Flying Kiwi tourists and that we had 11 young single women on our trip vs. zero on theirs, I felt that my $500 had been well-invested.
After I rejoined the bus, we drove to the A.J. Hackett "baby bungee" bridge. A.J. is the guy who started the "sport" and there were at least a hundred people waiting to jump or watching. This qualifies as a mob scene by South Island standards. Alex, Stefan and Klaus acquitted themselves with style during the 45 meter drop and subsequent bounces, yet nobody was impressed. Marita and Dorothea had gotten up at 6 am to ride a jeep into the bush and do the "real bungee" jump off a remote bridge that is 70 meters high.
I tried to get a few decent pictures, but it was tough to focus on the rapidly moving jumpers and a policy change by A.J. Hackett ensured blandness. It seems that one formerly could jump for free if one were willing to do it naked. Unfortunately, so many people took advantage of this offer that they discontinued it.
Micha let us off by the shores of Lake Hawea so that we could bike 20 km to our dinner site. I rode with Melanie and coached her up some big hills. She was attacking each hill like an enemy, pushing a big gear and pedaling like crazy, only to run out of energy halfway up and have to get off the bike. I pulled up next to her and made her shift into the granny gear and pedal slowly.
"How long could you keep that up?" I asked.
"How long is the hill going to last?"
Melanie had an attractive face framed by long brown hair, but when she smiled she was truly radiant. I could have ridden with her all day.
At 7:30 we stopped at a roadside cafe in Makarora and about 12 of us decided to embark upon the "Siberia Experience." We walked out in a field and boarded a Cessna 185 for an eyeballs-to-the-peaks flight to the heart of Mt. Aspiring National Park: Siberia Valley. I decided then and there that if I ever were to live in New Zealand, I would learn to fly. Small planes never struck me as especially fun in Massachusetts, where the landscape is flat and unimpressive from any altitude. However, on the South Island, as soon as you lift off the ground, you are filled with wonder and awe at the majesty of the mountains, lakes, and waterfalls. Flying becomes a five-minute cure for cynicism.
Siberia Valley is narrow and deep and a gradual approach to the grass airstrip wasn't possible. Our pilot put the Cessna into a sharp turn to lose altitude in a hurry, which made my fellow passengers quail, then we were bumping through a meadow and unloading our bags quickly so that the plane could go back for the next group.
We sat around in a circle chatting on the soft meadow, then retired to our tents. My tent was pretty cozy, filled as it was with two backpacks, three mattresses, me, Brigitte, and Beate.
Beate was Brigitte's friend from university and companion for a three month work-study stay in New Zealand. They were both studying agricultural engineering, but came from different kinds of families. Brigitte was from a tiny village in the Black Forest, Beate from a more privileged, more urban home. Although she was only 21, I thought of Beate as the consummate SuperGerman. Beate always appeared composed and well-adapted, with the right tool in her hand despite the fact I never saw her dig through her minimal luggage. Her composure extended to settled attitudes about education and romance, ones that she did not seem destined to reexamine. Although I worried that she would never be able to understand or tolerate different points of view or lifestyles, I grew very fond of Beate the more time I spent with her. Some cultural differences misled me into thinking she had a heart of stone at first, but she proved capable of real feeling and sensitivity.
Whatever the composition of her heart, there was nothing wrong with Beate's exterior. She was compact with a Dorothy Hamill shock of brown hair, a round face, round glasses, and brown eyes that somehow sparkled all the time from underneath the longest eyelashes I've ever seen. If I had to choose one word to describe her, it would be "round." She had a feminine roundness in her face, breasts, hips, and legs. Definitely not the anorexic fashion model figure, but a look that grew on me with each day.
Beate struggled horribly to wake up at 7:30, but after the struggle was complete, she emerged from the tent looking 100% fresh and hollered "GET UP YOU LAZY BUMS" to everyone else.
We packed our tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks and left them by the side of the airstrip. The pilot was flying some folks in this morning and said it would be no trouble to pick up our luggage. Before we started hiking back to civilization, we had to ford a freezing mountain stream flowing swiftly over a 20-meter wide bed of slippery rocks. I was apprehensive about it, but Ken was genuinely scared. I held his hand and led him over the rocks and through the thigh-deep water. My fear evaporated when I felt that he was even more scared and needed my help.
Micha had described the trail out of the valley as "mostly flat" and told those without hiking boots not to worry, but I found it hard going even in the Gore-Tex boots that I had come to cherish. Like everything else in New Zealand, the trail rose and fell relentlessly. Slippery moss-covered stones and rocks didn't help. Although the track was fairly well blazed, Klaus, Stefan, Terry and Ken managed to get lost for awhile.
Around 11 am we came to the spot where the stream we had been following flowed into the Wilkin River. A few minutes later, the roar of a jetboat greeted our ears. It wasn't the pickup we'd been promised, though, just a Kiwi family out for a day of fishing in what looked like a homemade welded steel craft.
English farmers came to New Zealand in the 1830s and for nearly a century getting a spare part generally meant waiting for a boat to come from England. That made New Zealand farmers into legendary mechanics. Kiwis claim that a South Island farmer developed and flew a practical airplane a year before the Wright brothers, but that poor communications resulted in him not getting credit for the achievement. It is beyond dispute that a New Zealand farmer invented the jetboat, which operates by sucking water in from the front and spitting it out the back in a powerful jet above the waterline. With no exposed parts, jetboats can operate in 10 cm of water and travel up to 100 kph. The only thing that has kept the design from supplanting traditional craft is that jetboats gulp fuel.
After another 10 minutes, two jetboats arrived and took us on a wild 60 kph ride down the Wilkin, around rocks and under low tree limbs. We got vivid demonstrations of the efficacy of the jet for hosing down people in other boats and cows grazing 20 meters away on the riverbank, then were reunited with the Flying Kiwi bus and our flown-out packs.
At the top of the Haast Pass, I got on a bike for an effortless 15 km cruise through a river valley punctuated by waterfalls. By 4:15 we found ourselves on the west coast. Micha spoke of a "very flat" bike ride up the coast. Terry and I started north in a great mood. The going was flat, the air still, the sky blue. The scenery was similar to that on the California coastal highway, but with 1/100th the traffic. After about 20 km, however, we were confronted with a 150 meter climb up the coastal range and we went up and down the same 100 meters repeatedly after that for another 40 km. We were knackered when we rolled into camp around dinner time.
Our campsite by Lake Paringa was sunny but sandfly-ridden. I was coming to appreciate how nasty these creatures could be. When not inside the bus or tent, one had to keep moving at all times or risk being consumed. Beate, Christine, and Nadja jumped into the warm-for-New Zealand (65deg.F) water and swam 700 meters or so to the other side. Christine belied her Princess appearance by swimming powerfully. Nadja's strong performance was no surprise, for she is a veteran of an organized sport in Europe that would in the U.S. be circus horse gymnastics, i.e., one must stand on the back of a running horse. Nadja came from a Swiss village of 500 and had an open and playful disposition. She spent a lot time caring for Rubin and Milu, who were actually remarkably well-behaved most of the time and impressively bilingual.
Alex and I jumped in after the women, but turned back after going halfway across, numb from the cold water. Alex was good company. He didn't say too much but when he spoke it was always worth hearing and often entertaining.
Contretemps between Melanie and Micha/Lucy resulted in Melanie picking up her two backpacks and hitching a ride north. After 12 days on the road together during the coldest and wettest New Zealand summer in memory, it was a miracle that there hadn't already been more conflict, but people didn't see it that way at the time. Everyone was sorry to see Melanie go and moved sluggishly. It was 3:30 pm by the time we finally set out for what Micha called the "easy 5 hour hike" from Highway 6 to the Welcome Flat Hut on the Copland Track. The big draws on this hike were escaping the tension on the bus and hot springs at the hut. We were in a holiday mood with six hours of daylight left.
Each successive bit of information we collected dampened that mood: the sign that said it should take 6 hours; the young fit guy who'd walked down in 7 hours; the two women who'd walked down in 8.5 hours; the three thigh-deep crossings through fast rivers. We did the last four hours at a pace and in a mood appropriate to a Vietnam War operation. I forgot to enjoy the scenery or thank God that it didn't rain much. I felt pretty proud of myself for getting to the hut around 9, although Brigitte had arrived at 8:30 without feeling that she'd exerted herself. Some combination of perfect genes, the agility of a mountain goat, being aged 22, and weekend hikes in Germany had made Brigitte into the kind of person for whom Micha's estimates were designed.
Welcome Flat's hot springs had been channeled into mud-walled pools of different temperatures. Brigitte, Marita and I were the last to arrive at the springs and found the others decked out in bathing suits and looking ready for the Holiday Inn Jacuzzi. We stripped and luxuriated despite the sign warning of a horrible meningitis that one could contract from the water.
Brigitte had insisted that we pack my tent and she turned out to be prescient, for the hut was full. We could have found a bit of floor space in the common room, but pitching the tent on the wonderfully soft grass of the helicopter landing pad was much nicer. Out site looked up at glacier-covered peaks and out over a river gorge.
This was the day my honeymoon with New Zealand ended.
The night was bad. Brigitte was constantly slapping at sandflies. They must have preferred her creamy skin over Playboyesque figure to my hairy hide over decrepit carcass because I wasn't bitten at all. Sleeping with two women is great, but when one's relationship with both is undefined, it is a little confusing. Those who had stayed with the bus were waiting for us in a dreary parking lot, so the objective was to get back as quickly as possible. I set my alarm watch for 5:15, which is apparently when I do some of my best sleeping because I slept right through it. At 6:15, Marita said firmly "Philip, it is time to get up."
We staggered out of the tent and into the hut for a breakfast of cheese sandwiches. These were hard-core cheese sandwiches. Two pieces of mass-produced bread and one slab of cheese. We never even did find out what kind of cheese we were eating, for in one of the greatest dairy countries in the world, cheese comes mostly in huge bricks labeled "CHEESE" in huge letters and either "mild" or "tasty" in tiny letters in parentheses below. These bricks cost almost nothing, but they are ill-suited to a sandwich without tomato, lettuce, or mustard. As I forced the nutrition down my throat, I hoped that I would never have to eat another cheese sandwich as long as I lived.
While we were enjoying our breakfast, Dorothea lectured us on how late we all were, for Klaus and Stefan had apparently not been early risers either. There were reserves of tenderness in this 29-year-old German nurse, but she didn't squander them on those who do not fulfill their obligations, real or imagined. Responsibility is Dorothea's sacred cow and I felt that I was getting some insight into what it must have been like to serve in the German Army when the Russians were marching west.
If I had enjoyed people telling me what to do, I probably wouldn't have moved out of my parents' house when I was 15 (oh yes, and I'd probably have a job too). I told Dorothea and Brigitte to relax and hit the hot springs, since even if they left at 8 am, they were sure to be back before the sandal-clad Klaus, for example. They insisted on martyring themselves, however, and set off at a killing pace. Klaus, Stefan, and I rolled out of the hut at 7:07 into a light rain and chill. We grew warm with exertion, but the rain steadily increased to a drenching downpour. Like an idiot, I hadn't put on my rain pants so my Gore-Tex boots filled up with water from the top. Also, my shorts were wet and my legs began to get cold. Much of the track was just hopping from stone to stone over streams and mud. Brigitte had done this aplomb the day before but it seemed like a doubtful proposition in the wet. Every stone was covered with water, moss, slime or all three and presented an opportunity to break an ankle.
Adding to the Deliverance atmosphere of the walk down were the suspension bridges over streams, which were, shall we say, not built according to the specifications of the MIT Department of Civil Engineering. Two steel cables carry the load and the bridge itself is ordinary chain-link fence hung between them. A single 2x12 wooden plank resting on the bottom of the U formed by the chain link provides comfortable, if slippery, footing. A sign reading "One Person Bridge" compensates for the fact that one's life is hanging by a chain-link fence. Even if you believe in the engineering of these things, the fact that every step causes the entire to structure to sway is unnerving.
The Bridge over Architect's Creek was my favorite. It didn't have full chain-link so that one slip and you were in this charming little stream. First, you'd fall 13 meters, then be swept away by a torrent of water flowing at 50 kph and hurtled over some rocks 30 meters into a rock-strewn chasm below. We stepped carefully.
After three hours, every step was costing me. I had blisters on my blisters; sandfly bites on my sandfly bites; a sore neck from staring down at my feet for nine hours; fatigue from not sleeping enough; fatigue from walking too much; fatigue from hypothermia; fatigue from the torturous pain in my feet. I was close to delirium and am not sure that I could have made it without Stefan and Klaus. They not only stuck with me, but helped me over the tougher obstacles, e.g., when we had to scramble up a meter-high rock.
We got back to the bus at 1:15, tired, wet, and sore through to the bone. Those who stayed behind had suffered horribly from sandflies and boredom. Christine's beautiful face and legs were mottled with sandfly bites. Though she never complained, every time I looked at her I felt that a great work of art had been disfigured. Klaus had some angry words in German with Micha about him not giving us enough information about the hike. Lucy snapped back in English that he had to take responsibility for himself. I didn't feel angry with anyone, but just wanted to get warm and rest; I stripped off my wet clothes and got into my sleeping bag without saying much.
We continued north up the coast and stopped at the Fox Glacier cafe where I was thrilled about the idea of eating anything other than a cheese sandwich. Nobody wanted to walk up the glacier face in the rain, so we hung out in the warm cafe. It wasn't exactly springtime in Paris for me, though. Lucy told me how upset she was that we hikers hadn't apologized for being late considering how miserably damp and sandfly-ridden their campsite had been. Dorothea criticized me for being lazy, i.e. not getting up at oh-five-hundred and being on the trail by six.
Given the persistent rain, Micha decided we could all benefit from a night in "civilization," i.e., a roadside bar with bunkrooms near Hokatika. The bar was filled with smoking locals pounding back ale and speaking with such thick accents that I didn't understand half of what they said. This asymmetry was a recurring theme in rural Australia and New Zealand. Everyone could understand me perfectly and were never even surprised by Americanisms because they watch so many TV shows from the U.S. Yet I couldn't understand them.
I was graciously invited to have a pint and looked upon piteously when I said that I didn't drink beer, but this was soon enough forgotten and everyone went back to their pool table and pitchers. Lucy and Micha had only rented eight bunks so I decided that I'd sleep on the bus with the others, but Klaus, Stefan, and Terry had already reserved a bunk for me in their quad room. I couldn't say no to a real pillow.
The West Coast is renowned for nasty weather and we weren't disappointed today. We decided to spend the day in a couple of towns. Hokatika is famous for greenstone, which is actually a kind of jade. The South Island never had much of a Maori population and is today 99% white so that one doesn't come here to look for native crafts. I picked out a pair of heart-shaped earrings.
"Which lucky woman on the bus is going to get these?" asked the shopkeeper.
"I wish I knew myself," I replied.
Brigitte and I strolled through town where we found some beautiful handpainted T-shirts. Unfortunately, the one I bought shrunk into a strange, useless, and much too small shape when I got it home. The inability of other countries to make decent T-shirts is something that I will never understand, but I'm sure that Americans will be grateful for it when the last Detroit factory has rusted away and Hanes and Jockey are our only exports.
When Brigitte and I were alone on the beachfront, I presented her with the earrings, which she accepted with first reluctance and then a grateful kiss.
Lunch in Hokatika was a fine example of small-town New Zealand cuisine, which is to say that it would also have been a fine example of 1950s English cuisine. Determined to experience the local specialty, I had a whitebait omelet sandwich. Whitebait are little fish that are bound together, complete with bones, by omelet. Needless to say, this was extremely nasty. In fact, I'd begun to notice that my pants were all getting too big. Between the cheese sandwiches, the biking, and the complete lack of spices in any food that we didn't cook ourselves, I had simply stopped eating for pleasure.
Greymouth, with its population of 3000, seemed a real metropolis after Hokatika. Terry, Lucy, Melanie, and I were in a "cooking group," which had initially seemed cushy because of the knowledgeable Lucy and energetic Melanie, but Melanie was gone and Lucy was generally rather worn out from leading the tour and managing her kids. Today was our day to cook and Lucy had done more than her share of shopping, so Terry and I volunteered to restock the food coop. We decided to cook tacos and scrounged up the necessary ingredients in the supermarket. Twenty-five km short of our campsite, Micha asked if anyone wanted to cycle. Terry, Stefan, Lucy, and I were the only takers but Terry and I asked if we'd be back in time to cook. Micha said "no problem, take your time, stop at the pancake rocks."
The ride was tiring and included a rainshower, but we had a nice stop at a pub in Derrytown. Conversation was easy, Coke was 90 cents (NZ), and the strong light outside whispered to us that we had plenty of time. Lucy left us a little early and Terry pulled away from me on the road. I rode about as fast as I could, including a quick mountain bike circuit of the famous pancake rocks. These are sedimentary rocks that look like pancakes in the cross sections that are visible because of pounding by the surf. Several blowholes add to the excitement.
When I rolled into camp, numerous people were cooking under Lucy's supervision, the menu had been changed to chili from tacos and the very idea of tacos was derided.
People were really enjoying being heroes and martyrs and nobody questioned the idea that we were "late" despite the fact that there wasn't a fixed time for dinner and that nobody had told us they wanted to eat by a certain time. About only people who didn't abuse us were Klaus and Brigitte, who were among the hardest working, but Dorothea more than made up for their indulgence by excoriating us in a voice that sounded to me like the New Jersey state anthem played on an electric shaver.
Ken's English had scarcely improved during the trip, so Terry and I decided to give him an English lesson at dinner: "when you really love a group of people, here is what you say `you can all go fuck yourselves.'"
Terry and I were saddled with the entire cleanup, usually done by four people.
I was awake at 6 am but was reluctant to exchange the security of the tent and the pleasure of Brigitte's company for the angry mob outside. The first word I heard upon exiting the tent was from Trudy, whose heavy articles I'd carried on the Routeburn.
"Look at these cutting boards. You call these clean?"
I wanted to remind her that they'd been washed in the dark while Lucy et al. harangued us.
"Since you didn't work last night and some cooking group members might be back late today from the cave tour, you should also cook tonight," Christine helpfully suggested.
"You and Terry can write about how you survived the Flying Kiwi without washing a single dish," Micha chimed in.
"Oh yes," I replied, "it was really nice to have Melanie washing everything while we kicked back." This was a truly nasty swipe at Micha and Lucy for driving our sweet companion off in tears. Boston nastiness is trump over New Zealand nastiness and Germans trying to be nasty in English and thus we earned some peace.
Terry and I spent the day mountain biking on Bullock Creek Road, an unmarked gravel road leading up through a forested canyon into a flat valley surrounded by mountains and graced with meandering rivers. Terry and I rode side-by-side and I got to see a new side of his personality. In dozens of hours of conversation and 400 km of biking, this man had never said an unkind word about anyone. I figured that he must be constitutionally incapable of viciousness. Yet, he roundly abused the women, especially Dorothea and Lucy, whom he felt had just been itching for an excuse to beat up on us. I had almost calmed him down when we remembered that we'd also done an hour's shopping the day before.
Once up in the valley, we took off onto what Kiwis call a "pack track." This was a gravel road just wide enough for a hiker and it cut through a dense beech forest. This was real mountain biking at last and we forgot the ugly events of the preceding 15 hours. Coasting back down to the coast was almost as fun as the singletrack, until it began to pour. I curled up with Illywacker, which I felt as though I'd been reading forever, and Beate under a sleeping bag in the back of the bus.
Dorothea led the cooking crew in the production of an excellent pasta dinner in the campground kitchen. I was beginning to notice that the German concept of healthy must be a little different from the American one. Dorothea, a nurse, smoked heavily and cooked everything with generous portions of cream and butter. The rain let up just as we were ready to eat, so we sat outside at picnic tables marveling at the clear views to the coastal mountains.
Ken was slurping his noodles noisily, oblivious to the fact that none of the Westerners were doing likewise. It was almost exactly like the Italian restaurant scene in the movie Tampopo where a Japanese etiquette instructress is teaching 15 girls not to slurp their linguini, but a slob sarariman slurps obliviously over her instruction and induces the girls to do likewise. The German women were laughing cruelly at poor Ken, but he didn't seem to notice.
Towards the end of dinner, Beate suggested, in all seriousness, that Terry and I once again do all the dishes. I asked Ken to repeat the phrase he'd learned the night before ("you can all go fuck yourselves") and he proved to be not as bad an English student as he appeared, for he not only remembered the phrase but mouthed rather than spoke one word.
Around 11, we all got together again to celebrate Alex's 26th birthday. Saeko somehow procured an enormous chocolate cake for the occasion.
The big excitement for the night, though, was that Stefan kicked Klaus out of the tent and replaced him with the substantially more comely Caroline.
Brigitte woke me up around 6:30 to ask the time. I grunted "don't worry, Dorothea will take care of that." At 6:55, Dorothea bellowed "Auf Staen" ("get up," literally "stand up"). We left at 8 pm after some farewell photos of Terry, who was riding south with a trucker to be sure of catching a plane in Christchurch.
After driving through light drizzle for a couple of hours, we stopped for some whitewater rafting down the Buller River. About half the Flying Kiwi contingent continued into the town of Westport while the half who had chosen rafting squeezed into Buller Adventure's van, Christine sitting on my lap for the 30 minute ride.
Christine and I shared our raft with M.J. and Randy, two rugged Montanans who had their own whitewater raft back home. M.J. looked like the classic Western woman, tanned and freckled with a wide and open face. Randy looked like the kind of American husband that one sees in minivan ads, with a slight paunch filling out his polo shirt.
New Zealand river guides are probably the most professional in the world and ours were thoughtful to boot. Gavin, guiding my boat, had been a schoolteacher in England until he got tired of the grind.
The river was simply terrifying. Other whitewater raft trips I understood: water flowed gently down the flat portions of the riverbed and fast over sloped portions or where rock obstructions constricted the flow. The Buller River was a "big water" river that moved fast all the time. Occasionally the flat surface of the water degenerated into roiling enormous waves for no apparent reason. Gavin said that there were submerged rocks, but we seldom saw any. The waves were hard to miss, though, being at least 6' high and, unlike ocean waves, were in no way predictable. You just paddled through them for dear life, half the time catching air.
It seems that on 20% of the trips, a raft tips over. Alex's presence on the other raft sealed its fate. He had tried every adventure sport, from hang gliding to parachuting to climbing, and hurt himself severely with each one. Alex's body was held together with good Swiss stainless steel pins in several places, although it didn't seem to bother him. I was still trying to figure out how he avoided injuring himself in the bungee jump; the man was a walking catastrophe. Saeko, Ken, Caroline, and Stefan would have avoided his raft like the plague if they'd been thinking.
We'd been keeping fairly close tabs on our companion boat but we never saw them in trouble or flipping over. Our first clue that something was wrong was seeing them floating downriver clinging to their overturned raft. They were holding onto what is colloquially know as the "O.S. rope," which runs around the edge of the raft. They looked shell-shocked and not even happy to be alive, with the river water streaming out of their helmets like tears.
We hauled the survivors into our raft and learned that they had overturned in a rapid and had been held under by the waves and raft. Their guide stayed in the water and righted the raft with our assistance. At this time it became clear that Alex was not only missing but in no danger of floating down the river anytime soon.
Saeko was sobbing uncontrollably, like Anna Karenina when Vronsky fell off Frou-Frou in the steeplechase. The mystery of their true relationship was solved. Gavin made her bail to take her mind off the unaccounted-for Alex while we commenced the difficult task of paddling up a powerful whitewater river, moving up tortuously through the eddies along the banks. One guide would get out and hold the boat with a rope while we paddled furiously. Progress was measured in meters.
After about 30 minutes, we spotted a smiling Alex on the other bank. Dorothea hollered to him in German to wait for our signal, jump, then grab the throw rope. The actual rescue went as planned and, once on board, Alex explained cheerfully that he'd tried to jump back in the water and float down to us, but he was trapped by eddy currents near the shore. He had landed his boat's lost paddles and was waiting calmly for us, the only one of the group who did not appear to have been stunned by the experience. Caroline said simply "it was the scariest experience of my life," and several others nodded their concurrence.
As we were taking off our wetsuits, I taught Ken to say "I got my ass thrown out of the boat by a big wave."
During the bus ride through the interior toward Ruby Bay, I felt sick and tired, but as soon as I got out and onto a bike, my head cleared. It was a beautiful 40 km ride down the Mot river then to McKee Reserve to camp. The Automobile Association map shows five towns along the route, but we didn't pass a single gas station, restaurant or convenience store. We did see a lot of gentle farmland, surrounding hills and mountains, and animals. The sun was shining and we took our time, not rolling into camp until 8:30 pm by which time a fish/steak barbecue was beginning to bear fruit. Poor Beate had been vomiting all day so I was shocked that she still had enough energy to make a nasty comment about my being late for cooking two days before.
This is the sunniest portion of the South Island and we were blessed with blue skies at our fabulous beachside campsite. We broke our last camp at 10:30 for the ride to Nelson, a surprisingly prosperous and large town. My primary objective around noon was to either vomit or die or both, but somehow I couldn't manage to do either. Marita had been the original source of this flu, but she was sufficiently recovered to resume her professional duties as a nurse. I lay on a bench in the sun with my head in her lap.
Although Nelson is famous for its cathedral, the high point of my visit was running into the smiling Melanie and her Israeli companion Naomi. Naomi looked as thick and sullen as Melanie did thin and bright. Naomi's gaze seemed to have a critical element to it and I sensed that I'd been found wanting. She reminded me of "Natalie," the girl who'd been responsible for my taking the Flying Kiwi tour in the first place.
Maybe it was the flu, but I thought I felt a twinge of guilt for preferring the German girls I'd been with to most of the Jewish girls I could bring to mind.
By the time we arrived back at the Flying Kiwi hostel in Picton, our group was sadly diminished. A bunch of people had stayed in Nelson, preparing to hike or kayak in the fabled Abel Tasman National Park. I all but collapsed into bed and was cared for by three women: Christine with peppermint tea, Beate by bringing my luggage in (no small task), Brigitte with caresses.
On balance, though, I'd have to say that the day should have been cause for celebration, for I finished the dreadful Illywacker.
I said my good-byes to Lucy and apologized for my role in fomenting discord. She was friendly and efficiently tallied up my final bill. Something had happened with exchange rates that I didn't understand, but I ended up getting piles of cash back from what had only been a US$495 check to begin with.
It is a six-hour train ride down the coast to Christchurch and there are two ways to do it. One is in a brand new car with panoramic windows, air conditioning, and a high-tech suspension for a smooth ride. The cost was NZ$63,. which was absurdly cheap by AMTRAK standards but all my price thoughts were now in New Zealand dollars: "I could get five nights in a backpacker's for that"; "I could buy 63 sandwiches in a tea room for that." I opted for the NZ$24 "backpacker's carriage," which is actually just a standard AMTRAK-type train car.
A young boy with a pasty complexion, rather flat face, and clipped vowels was creating a bit of a stir in my part of the car. I looked up from The Savage Crows, another paragon of modern Australian literature that the world could probably live without, and started talking to the boy's father. Alex was a dairy farmer on the west coast of the north island.
"I started out as a share-milker. A farmer owns the land and the cows but doesn't do any work. The share-milker comes in and milks the cows, splitting the proceeds with the farmer 50-50. After about ten years, I had milked my way into my own farm."
Was he going to bring in a share-milker himself?
"Oh no. Dairy farming really isn't that hard. I have 140 cows and 300 acres. I milk the cows twice and day and occasionally mend a fence, but most of the work is done by machine. I probably have to work two and a half hours per day. I just let them roam free among 30 paddocks. If they were in a barn, it would be more work."
Did the government fix the price of milk and buy up huge mountains of cheese like in the US?
"The dairy industry is completely unsubsidized... has been so for about 10 years. Prices have been good lately."
What about cheese? Wouldn't there be good money in making non-generic cheese.
"The average Kiwi consumer hasn't any interest in gourmet cheese."
I went back to the buffet in one of the panorama cars. The least disgusting item on the menu was a semi-greasy lamburger. As I was ordering, another backpacker came up and took out his checkbook to pay, then hesitated.
"I'm not sure this will be my last trip to the buffet. Would you mind keeping a tab for me and I'll come back at the end to settle the bill?" he inquired.
The request was immediately granted and it reminded me of how few extended consumer transactions there are in America. The issue of trust or distrust never comes up because all transactions are immediately settled or an agreement is enshrined in a written contract.
When I got back to my seat, Alex's kids were as rowdy as ever. His wife Bev threatened them with physical violence, but never carried out any of the threats. I asked them old they were and then told them that I was almost that age myself, yet had no kids, no wife, no farm, and no career.
"We got married when I was 24," Alex said. "I'm not sure that it would have been good to wait any longer. Our friends who stay single until they are 30 keep living with boyfriends or girlfriends and breaking up. They say that it is good practice for marriage, but I think it is just good practice for divorce. You get comfortable with the idea of leaving someone you once loved and getting on with your life, you learn that you can be OK without whoever was your partner."
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