Tag Archives: Neuseeland
January 18, 2012




It was time to check out of hell.

None of the other campers were headed back to Warkworth, so I asked the female owner once again about the taxi. It came to 40 euros, she guessed. She still recommended hitching.

There was now a tremendous hill involved this situation, one we hadn’t had to deal with on the way in. We’d have to get over it before even raising a thumb.

As I walked back to Antje, I thought, “If she agrees to hitch-hike, then she can use the saved taxi-money on clothes.”

Before I could suggest that, though, Antje agreed to hitch-hike, with one contingency. “Only if I can spend the money on clothes.”

That was a win-win.

What was a lose-lose was huffing up a very big hill with all our stuff, walking alongside to a road for another mile (1.6k), and getting sunburned – with nothing to cool us down but whooshing cars. It was our last full day in New Zealand.

Leigh came into view, and we agreed to call a taxi there. It was the worst of all possible outcomes. Just before Leigh, though, a Toyota 4Runner pulled over. A woman swung the door open, smiled, and said, “Sorry if I don’t talk much. I’m hungover.”

It turned out she’d been one of the revelers at our campground’s campfire the night before. She felt like crap, but she had to get out early, since she and her (French) husband had to cater a friend’s wedding that evening.

About halfway through we went around a roundabout that, one day a week, serves as the focal point for a farmer’s market. The entire roundabout was swarming with bees, so thick they darkened the air. Parents were shielding their children, and all in all, it looked like a scary movie. Distracted by the bees, Marie almost hit someone.

She’d done her share of hitch-hiking, Marie, and was happy to see us doing it. “It’s too bad, it was kind of a tradition, you know? Kiwis like it when they see tourists getting in on it.”

Still, we were happy for our bus seats on a scheduled bus. As we headed into Auckland, I checked the map. More bad news. Our hostel was a mile away from the bus stop, and that was no longer tenable.

We buckled (in) and took a cab.

The hostel, called “Verandahs,” was the most beautiful we stayed in. Continually running through my mind was a variation on, “We don’t deserve this for this price.” It was white and victorian, with all sorts of carved wood furnishings and trims, new carpet, fresh paint, stained glass windows, everything perfect. Behind it was a park and the cityscape, and, looking out on it all, a large verandah.

Dinner was at “The Brewery”, where we ate on our first, horribly jetlagged night in New Zealand. The funny thing was, they were now brewing their own beer (they’d been too new when we first visited) and the beer wasn’t as good. Or maybe we’d changed: “You cannot drink the same beer twice.” Either way, oh well.

The next morning we ate breakfast at a hundred-year-old brick fire department converted to a café. The food was delicious, the servers young and caffeinated, the owner Vietnamese and very friendly, and we enjoyed, for now, the last of our beloved Flat Whites.

The bus picked us up near the top of a hill, drove thirty more feet (10m), and stopped at a light on the corner.

Walking toward the bus, or rather strutting, was… I don’t know. He/she was Maori, possibly drunk, and was either a transvestite or transgender or a very masculine women in a pink top. As he/she got closer to the bus, the strut became a full-blown comic exaggeration of a runway walk; showgirl knew how to work a crowd.

The entire left side of the bus was now watching, partly out of boredom, and as the bus rolled back and went into gear, showgirl stopped, yanked out a breast, aimed it at the bus, and started shaking it like a squirt gun, grinning at our faces with both sets of teeth.

And you know what? That’s the kind of farewell I’ve always wanted.

So goodbye, New Zealand! We’ll miss you. You were just voted “Friendliest Country on Earth”, and we agree.


January 17, 2012

Kiwi-English of the Day

Kiwi-English of the Day

Burger rage: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10778643


January 16, 2012




Back when some plans were in the process of bursting (thanks again Airjet!), I called a campground in Leigh. This was the day after the Milford Track, and we’d spent most of that day – up ’til 4PM – getting to a point, plan-wise, where I could even make this call. And… success! The two-night reservation was arranged, all pertinent questions about the facilities were answered, and only at the end did I enquire about local buses from our stop in nearby Warkworth.

“There aren’t any,” the woman sighed. “So you can either take a taxi, or hitch-hike. A taxi’s pretty expensive, so most people hitch-hike. It’s really easy, you won’t have any problems.”

Hitching a ride is far more common in New Zealand than it is in the US or Germany, and among those hitch-hikers there were a few couples like us, smiling hopefully from the road’s shoulder. Kiwis themselves encouraged the behavior far more than they discouraged it, just like this woman in Leigh.

I’d been standing at an intersection with a sign that read “Leigh?” for ten minutes when an elderly woman walked over.

“You’ll have a much better chance if you go up the road a bit,” she pointed. She had a very specific location in mind, one that virtually guaranteed success, she was sure of it, one where everyone HAD to be going to Leigh. But when it came time to tell us how to get there, the directions included a lot of ‘stay to the lefts’ and ‘stay to the rights’, a few hand gestures, some squinting of the eyes, and a particular tree we “couldn’t miss.” Well, we never found that tree, but we did squint a lot, and, with the help of a map, find the spot!

Five minutes later a beat-up hatchback pulled over, two guys in the front seat. “Just need a second,” the passenger said, cleaning up for us. “Got some eggs back here.”

The driver had pink hair and asked our names.

“I’m Antje.”


The guys nodded.



I’ll never forget those names, but it also wasn’t the right time to explain what they meant in combination to an American.

Jessie, the pink-haired guy, laughed when he found out Antje was German. “My daughter’s German.” The mother was from Münster, and he was visiting them that day at a camp-site close to Leigh. Jackson told us stories about the recent oil clean up, and how he’d hitch-hiked all through Europe with a Chicagoan. Both had hitch-hiked in the past, and were happy to return the favor. We got along well, and could’ve spent more than 20 minutes together, but at that point we’d reached our campgrounds.

It was a dump.

Not only was it a dump, but the price of our “cabin” was a touch too high for the plywood it contained.

Well, that’s OK. Two chairs were on the porch, and the view of the ocean was pretty nice, even though the wind made things… cold. Hm. Hopefully the roof didn’t rip off. Bathroom break – but the door to the bathroom was broken, the soap dispenser was broken, the hot water tap was broken, the men’s urinal was broken. Later I’d find that the shower was sort of broken. In the kitchen, the wall-mounted boiler was broken, one of the toasters was broken. On the plus side, there were heaps and heaps of dishware and silverware for general use, save for those unnecessary items called “spoons”, “knives”, and “bowls”. (To be fair, the second kitchen did have a functional water boiler, which I used to sterilize our encrusted silverware.) And where were the trashcans if they weren’t inside the kitchen or outside the kitchen?

We’d come to this campground because it was THE access point for the Goat Island Marine Reserve, a snorkeler’s paradise. With the wind blowing that seemed unlikely, and a talk with the owner, who rented out the snorkel gear, confirmed it. “I wouldn’t even rent it to you. It’s too murky. You’d just come back in ten minutes and ask for your money back.”

Well that was honest and disappointing, let’s get some food!

Technically we weren’t in Leigh, but just outside of it, and we had to get to town to buy our groceries. Funnily enough, that turned out to be almost 2 miles (2.9k) on a roadside shoulder that didn’t exist. Also funny were the General Store’s monopoly prices and lack of, er, foodstuffs.

So this is what we’d hitch-hiked for.

This place wasn’t in need of renovation, it was was just plain rotten, rotten to all hell, and it depressed us. The kitchen felt like college, and the children, having made so many new friends and come up with so many new games in such an awesome place in such a short time, were, for all intents and purposes, on natural methamphetamines, which was fine until they found the piano.

It was time to hunker down.


January 15, 2012

Drawing randomely

Drawing randomely

Some drawing at our favorite coffee place (Vudu :) in Queenstown.


January 14, 2012



It was straight back to Queenstown, with a pit-stop at a kiosk/convenience store. Having been away from that stuff for four days, it didn’t really appeal to me… until Antje came back with two ice cream bars, three bags of chips, and two ginger ales. Whoa! And YUUUUU-MMMMY!

In Queenstown we drank too much coffee, ate too much food, had one beer too many. It was perfect.

Our flight took off at 2PM, heading north to Auckland. Down below, a lake drifted by with an island in the middle. Lake Wanaka!

“Lake Wana-naka,
we hold you in our heart!
And when we think about you,
It makes us wanna ________!”*

That’s where we’d kayaked and spent New Year’s with Robbie and Rebecca, and watched a catamaraner lose his money; next the captain announced that Mt. Cook was on the right-hand side, and sure enough, there was the mountain we’d watched turn orange with a bottle of wine in Twizel; behind Mt. Cook was Lake Tekapo, with the Mt. John Observatory somewhere on top. Maybe we could see Christchurch…?

The reminiscing was interrupted by the worst turbulence I can remember, and the kind Antje, who hates flying, will hopefully soon forget. The airplane was small, much too small – the dreaded Boeing 666!? – and the wings kept flapping with each and every elevator drop. No one was injured, but it was bad enough that I remember thinking, “I should’ve emailed my parents that we were on this flight.” Then we broke through the clouds, and all the shaking was over in an instant. To calm Antje, I ordered her a 4-euro airplane Heineken, and my 9-year-old seat neighbor found this entire transaction very fascinating, start-to-finish.

This flight, with New Zealand’s low-cost “Jetstar”, was the only flight that day, and had originally been scheduled for 10AM. They’d sent an email a while back explaining that it’d been changed to 2PM, and that it was totally, totally OK if we wanted to cancel our flight, no questions asked, everything refunded IN FULL, seriously no problem.

Um, that doesn’t help.

People usually book a flight first. After that they lock in accommodation and transportation, and after that, excursions. The delayed flight meant a missed bus, the last of the day, and the first domino in a series that resulted in a missed dive-trip.

Everything was refundable, but the dive was one of the world’s ten best, and Jacques Cousteau’s personal favorite.

So with regard this “We changed your flight time” phenomenon that seems to be happening more, rather than less, here’s two votes for seeing that go away, immediately, through legislation, in the next congressional session. Otherwise, where are we headed?

“Dear Passenger,

Your flight has been moved to yesterday.

Where were you?

Low-cost carrier”

So, instead of diving, we got an extra night in Auckland. And, for the first time on this trip – and almost ever, for us – we stayed in a real HOTEL.

We’d almost forgotten about this world, with its piles of white towels and little refrigerators with cold candy bars and room service and a pool with an exercise room and a sauna and a cocktail bar and a helpful concierge next to the business center.

Checkout time was 11AM, an hour later than the hostels.

And 11AM is when we checked out.

* Modified Nickelodeon theme song. The missing word begins with ‘f’


January 13, 2012

Milford Sound Track #4

Milford Sound Track #4

The first person to fall asleep that final night was an older man who’d been invisible somehow the entire trek. He was sleeping on his back, and slowly, but perceptibly, his breathing went from the standard human variety to that of a gasping guppy. As I was trying to remember exactly how sleep apnea worked, he switched over from guppy to Stihl Chainsaw mode, ripping the bunkroom apart. It was exactly the situation we’d been warned about by others – “There’s ALWAYS a snorer, always” – but luckily his wife popped up from below and shook his elbow. “Sleep on your side,” she said. “Oh!” he sat up, blinking. “I thought was awake.”

His side-sleeping helped, leaving the room quiet and pleasant, save for some lingering smelliness. We’d been warned about stinky boots and sweaty clothes, as well, but given the proximity of the rivers on the trip, it really wasn’t a problem.

Just about everyone (save for the Israelis) was awake for breakfast, a breakfast which saw Antje andI more or less run out of food. We had an apple left, two fingers’ worth of peanut butter, and a couple mini Snickers for the next 12 miles (20km).

Regarding those 12 miles, the reason we’d been encouraged to “take our time” and “take it slow” was, counterintuitively, because of a time constraint. Most of the group had to catch a 2PM ferry, the rest a ferry at 3. Doing 12 miles before 2 (or even 3) is pretty tight, and most trekkers, according to the ranger, put their heads down and stomp their way through, seeing nothing. A shame, really, but that certainly wouldn’t be our problem.

With the combination of another weird night’s sleep and the tape job of a helpful trekker, Antje’s left leg had gone from marginally flexible to something like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. [note: the tape was intended to make things less flexible, so really, it helped.] Still, going down anything resembling stairs took three times as long as normal, and 800mg of ibuprofen did nothing.

So, having loaded Antje’s pack into mine, we indeed took it slowly. Before the first mile marker, the Germans overtook us. Between the first and the second, the Koreans overtook us, followed by Biologist and friends. I asked Antje when we’d left that morning. “6:45,” she said. Green Day overtook us, the Bushwalkers overtook us, and when mile-marker two came up, we checked the time. 9:00. I did a quick round of calculations, and it had us arriving at the dock… at… oh… about 8PM. “Um, Antje?”

I really meant it when I said I didn’t care if we didn’t make it. The rangers had made it pretty clear that, no matter the circumstances, no one was going to get left behind on the Milford Track. This wasn’t a “42 go in and 38 come out” sort of scenario. That’d be bad PR. So everyone comes out of the Milford Track, and that was final. If we were late, I argued, we’d figure the rest out when we got there, and if it came down to it, we’d call in a helicopter.

Antje was having none of it. To miss the 2:00 boat meant missing a bus that we’d paid for, and a room in Queenstow, also paid for. I tried to explain the irrelevance of all that, but she wouldn’t have that, either.

Instead she leaned on her stick like a pole vault and narrowed her eyes. The next mile went by in 35 minutes, and the next in 40. Antje was dripping sweat, and luckily we’d reached an obligatory stopping point, Mackay Falls.

An aside: As the story goes, two men, whose surnames were Mackay and Sutherland, had taken this same route from the other direction. Coming upon this waterfall, the most beautiful waterfall either had seen, they, being males, naturally wanted their surname attached to it. A coin was flipped. Mackay won. A short while later they reached the 5th-highest waterfall in the world – the one we’d seen the day before – now called “Sutherland Falls.”

While I climbed inside a feature called “Bell Rock,” Antje stayed outside and took 600mg of ibuprofen. When I came out, the Biologist and friends asked how she was doing. We said “Alright,” which wasn’t true.

It was 2 more miles to Poseidon creek, and it took an hour fifteen. The trail had gone from flat to moguls, and wasn’t as well maintained. Anything resembling a stair was either torturously slow or painful for Antje, and her knee, if it was possible, was locking up even more.

At some point the only other family in the group overtook us. They were a focused family, one who often sent their teenaged son ahead in the last section of each stage to secure good bunks. They’d been quiet the whole trip, so we’d never spoken, but now they stopped to ask about Antje.

“It’s my knee,” Antje explained. The father nodded, knowing the injury. He offered one of their hiking poles, and his daughter immediately offered up a second.

It was incredibly nice of them, and the poles were a HUUUUUUGE help. Antje had a much easier time with bigger rocks, and, on the flat stretches, we made better time.

Still, we were annoyed how long it was taking to get from Poseidon Creek to an area called “Rock Cutting.” It was supposed to take an hour, and we’d been going an hour twenty when we finally saw it. It’s at an area where the lake bottlenecks, and the trail, by default, has to go through granite. With dynamite and chisels, a few guys hacked a path out and tagged it with their names in 1899.

Just before that point we’d caught up with a middle-aged guy who called our attention to the water. “Right there,” he whispered, “see it?” We saw nothing. “Just went behind the bushes there. Trout. Let’s see if he comes out again.”

We stood there, waiting for the trout to come out again, and this was a complicated situation. Because there was almost nothing on earth at that moment as irrelevant as a trout beneath a bush. Whether it came out of the bush or stayed in the bush for the rest of its life was of no concern to us at that moment, and yet somehow I could not find the words which would exempt us from watching trout. And so we waited, and waited, and waited – for a trout that never came.

Halfway up the “Rock Cutting,” I looked down, saw another trout, and before I could think, said, “Look, there’s another one.” Why did I do that? I have no idea why I did that. It was like the burp that came out at Mt. Cook, and the result was of course that we all had to stand there, looking at the trout. “Where is it?” Antje asked. Why did she ask that? The guy pointed one of his fingers at it. “There, by the shore. See it? Over by the log, almost at the log.” She saw it, and we stood there, just standing and looking at another trout. I willed the trout under the log, but defiantly he stayed in the sunlight, flapping about without a care, laziness incarnate. Stupid bastard. Enough was enough, and we said goodbye to troutman. When he overtook us just after the top, I asked if he’d seen the engravings on the wall. He hadn’t, and went back to find them, guaranteeing us at least fifteen minutes with no trouts.

I speed-walked ahead, dropped the pack, sliced up our final apple, scooped our the last of our peanut butter, and readied myself to pass them to Antje, relay-style. Instead she stopped to eat, in accordance with German tradition.

15 minutes later came Giant’s Gate, the last waterfall of the trek. The hole beneath the falls is so sparkling blue and deep that it really is a compulsory swim. Having cleaned up lunch, I’d just caught Antje, and asked if she wanted to swim. She shook her head, eyes forward. “You can catch up to me,” she said. We had three miles left (5km), which, if we kept the same pace, would take an hour fourty-five. The ferry left in two. I dove in as fast as possible, and, as we’d run out of water by that point, filled our bottles with waterfall.

When I caught her, she was miserable. 9 miles isn’t too terribly much, but when you do it without stopping, without really drinking, without really eating, and with a stiffened leg, it’s very, very hard.

With 2 1/2 miles left, we caught, to our amazement, the Bushwalkers. But then again, they were observers, and Stone Cold had also had problems with his knee. He had his own advice. “If it hurts, just bloody walk through it.” Antje was doing just that. I said I was happy we hadn’t had a drop of rain the whole time [the region gets 7m (22 feet) per year], even though ranger Katie had said we’d be missing some beautiful waterfalls without it. He agreed with me. “Last time we did it, it rained one day and you just put your head down and go. Don’t see a bloody thing.”

The Koreans caught up, having stopped somewhere for lunch, and asked if we were OK. “Yeah, we’re almost there,” Antje tried. The family that’d lent the walking sticks walked by, and asked how she was doing. “Good, thank you so much for the walking sticks. I wouldn’t have made it without them!”

By that point something of a 500m-long “group” had formed, with about a dozen people between us. For the first time that day, it looked like we’d make the 2:00 boat. That said, we had two miles left, and, with no waterfalls or rivers or anything else to distract us, they went on and on and on and on and on.

A portable day-hut passed by, and suddenly we were worried. Our notes read “1 hr” from that point, which would have put us there at 2:05, or even 2:10.

But something was wrong with those notes, and way before we expected, Sandlfly Point came into view. “Is that it?” Antje asked. I thought it was. “Is that it?” People were milling about. “Yes, that’s it.” “But is that really the end? I don’t want to think that’s it, and then…”

It was the end.

Antje broke down, then, having kicked a week’s worth of ass in half a day. We shuffled our way into the day-hut and got congratulations from Green Day and his girlfriend. Antje took her boots off, having taken her final steps in them. She had five new blisters (on top of all the others), one of which was gigantic and pus-filled and looked like the picture you might see next to the definition of “blister”. Her 16-year-old boots were officially retired.

“For sale: Hiking boots, never worn (without blisters)”

The families were there, the Koreans were there, the Germans were there, too. The Swedes showed up at the very last second, and the Israelis never made it.

Before going to bed the night before, a woman asked them when they’d be getting up. Generally they woke up waaaaaay later than everyone else, and the whittling Israeli looked back at her, genuinely confused. “How will I know this now?” Well, hopefully they caught the 3 o’clock.

The 2 o’clock had pulled in, and I loaded our bags onto it.

Antje hobbled toward the Milford Sound, and, with all of her clothes on, went in.

The End


January 12, 2012

Milford Sound Track #3

Milford Sound Track #3

“….I’ve been up here for seven years now, and I love it, I absolutely love it. Every day I don’t feel older, I feel younger, and I feel like this is my home, and not the ‘outside’, as I call it now….”

It was the kind of speech that keeps coming back to you after the fact, returning in little loops. It was from Katie, our Mintaro Hut ranger, and it had a ring to it that we couldn’t quite get a hold on. It was like hearing a politician who once believed in his message, and maybe still believes in his message, but has had to repeat it so many times that it becomes too practiced, too polished, to be believed in entirely. Anyone forced to speak in front of other people has this problem, teachers included, but hers had an air of NEED to it, like it was something SHE needed to hear for herself every evening, as justification of her life choice. Being a ranger implies solitude, meaning no significant others, not much extended family, and certainly no children, unless they’re let loose in the wild and allowed to go feral. But society doesn’t accept feral children very well, and society still expects babies from women. And Katie is a woman. So it’s not easy being a female ranger, and Katie’s in a weird position. The hut she’s responsible for is in one of the most astounding places on planet earth – she couldn’t possibly do better than Mintaro – and yet people ask her why she’s there. When she’s alone and has some free time, she writes.

After the speech, Stone Cold Bushwalker raised his hand. “We found some Old Man’s Beard yesterday. I was wondering if any of the rangers had–”

Katie laughed. “You know, I wanted to talk to you about that afterwards, in private, but since you asked…” she smiled at the others in the room, “… it wasn’t Old Man’s Beard you ripped out.”

A big long “OOOOOOOOOHHHHH!” filled up the kitchen, with whoops of laughter piled atop it. The Bushwalker’s face didn’t turn red, it turned pale. He was shellshocked and devastated. It was like watching a priest find out he’d urinated on a cross.

“How much do I owe you,” he flatlined.

The crowd laughed, and Katie said. “It looks a lot like Old Man’s Beard, it really does. It was [whatever] plant, and when it’s juvenile it reeeeeeally looks like Old Man’s Beard.” Bushwalker nodded, looking horrible.

She shifted gears to the next day’s climb. We were to cross Mackinnon Pass. Up top there was a day-hut and a bathroom that was promised to have “The World’s Best View From a Bathroom.”

“And it’s clean,” she promised. “You can just sit on down and… plop!” The crowd laughed – but Katie was serious. “The reason I know it’s clean is ‘cuz I helped clean it out. And you know how we do that?” The crowd didn’t know. “With shovels,” she grinned. “500 lbs.’”


She shifted to Kiwis, meaning the birds, and mentioned that two were in the area. “They’re nocturnal,” she reminded. “And this is proooobably one of your best chances to see them in the wild, just doing what they’re doing. It’s very rare to actually see one, but if you don’t try….”

A woman across from us tried – at 2AM. She hadn’t packed the night before, so she packed at 2AM, why not? As a result we were awake off and on between 2AM and 5AM, when our own alarm went off, and we, too, tried.

It was cold. We had goosebumps, and sometimes shivered. For the first half hour we needed a headlamp, and thereafter we used the cool blue light of the behind-the-mountain sunrise.

Save for a few Paradise Ducks, though, Lake Mintaro was deserted. And at that we headed for Mackinnon pass.

Katie had warned us about the switchbacks, all 11 of them, and from a psychological perspective, I’m not sure if that helped. It’s kind of like a dentist telling you beforehand, “The first part’s gonna hurt, and then the next part’s reeeeeally gonna hurt… but then you’ll be just fine.”

It took two hours, and with the help of the single boiled egg inside our stomachs, suddenly we were at the grassy saddle of the pass, with the sun coming up. We stopped to take pictures of the clouds being sucked over the pass (yesterday’s photo), feeling warm and sweaty and satisfied. 10 minutes later we ascended the pass, and icy hell broke loose.

My layman’s guess is sustained 40MPH (70km) winds, with gusts of 60MPH (100km). The clouds became our fog, and as our sweat cooled, we tried to put pants on over our shorts, our fingers already numbing. (It really is amazing how quickly all this stuff happens.) A few steps later, we dropped our packs again and removed our ponchos. When those were on, we turned into highly flappy, very inefficient sails. But sails we were, nonetheless. “Let’s just get to the goddamn hut,” Antje shivered, and we found the sign on the pass. “Mackinnon Hut – 20 minutes.” WTF? 20 minutes? We were ON the goddamn pass!

Heads down, hoods up, we burrowed into the wind and up the saddle. On the way we passed three Kia birds, who’d also hunkered down atop the pass, watching us with commiseration and occasional attempts to fly. By the time we’d made it, and this will really sound like exaggeration, but it’s not – Antje’s lips were blue, and my fingers were almost useless. In 25 minutes!


In the hut we made “breakfast”: granola with extra nuts and sliced apples, and powdered molk. Another boiled egg was slurped down, and, when Antje wasn’t looking, some Snickers with chunky peanut butter. Miserably, a perfectly operational gas range sat before us, begging to be used for hot tea. We could not do it. We had no pot. So instead of tea, I sat on Antje’s lap, and felt her shiver.

Five minutes after the hut, and the wind died down. The sun still hadn’t reached the backside of the pass, but the wind had died, and the ponchos made us warm. We slalomed down the mountain, into a bowl with a half-dozen waterfalls, and fresh, drinkable water. A helicopter swooped by, doing all sorts of aerial tricks for the paying passengers, and down, down, down, we continued.

“My knee’s really hurting,” Antje said. It sounded like my old knee injury, and I recommended a few stretches, one of which worked. We stopped when we reached a series of cascading, sandstone waterfalls that, once again, looked like a child’s dream. On the boardwalk above them we took off our packs, raised our feet to the rail, and dreamed senseless thoughts for five minutes in the sunlight.

A ranger walked by with a wink and a faithful Münsterlander, checking tbe traps for stoats.

“Man.” Antje stood up. “My stupid knee.” I looked for a good walking stick, but, also stupidly, they were all rotten. Down, down, down, it continued, and halfway down, we finally had to stop. Antje’s knee was locking up, and the ibuprofen wasn’t doing much.

For those who haven’t had an IT band inflammation, it starts off as a pang and ends up feeling like an exposed nerve. As for the effect it has on the knee, you could say it’s like a motor running out of oil.

The Japanese couple walked up, and the woman asked if she could help in any way. We said no thanks, and they went on. The 2AM kiwi-hunter came up, and, as we exchanged kiwi-hunt stories, it turned out no one had seen a kiwi. Off she went.

The trail finally leveled off to some extent, but Antje was still hobbling. “We don’t have to go to the waterfall,” I said, but she shook her head. “We’re going to the damn waterfall.”

Sutherland Falls is a 1 1/2 hour round-trip extension to the day’s already-very-long trek. Kaite had said we “couldn’t miss it.”

It’s almost 600m (2,000 feet), and we’d never seen a fall like that up close. Though it was “light” due to the recent drought, its power was impressive, like aiming a thumbed-over hose into a bucket. We both swam out in the fall’s general direction, but the blowback kept us away. The Japanese couple were there, and we took turns taking pictures of each other.

Antje’s knee warmed up on the way back, and halfway through we saw the Israelis. “You were swimming?” they asked. We were. “You were with the Koreans?” they asked. Wait, what? Koreans? Why had we thought Japanese? Why had we ASSUMED Japanese? Oh westerners. Good luck to us.

Antje’s knee had stiffened by the time we reached the original trail. Things really weren’t good. She seriously dependent on the stick, a stick that was far too flexible, and was wincing at every tenth step or so. She’d never had the injury before, and was finding out how it injured. From the trail juncture it said “1 hour”, and it took us closer to 2.

Next to Dumpling Hut was another perfect swimming hole, though and Antje used its waters to cool her knee. Insjide our bunkroom was Green Day and his girlfriend, and two things came to light: Green Day needed better deodorant, and they weren’t from Germany after all, but Vienna, Austria. Oops.

During dinner, German girl was cooking for German guy. He walked up from behind, looked over her shoulder, and snarled, “ISN’T IT READY YET?!” She ignored him, and at that point I completely gave up on the redeemability of German guy. I proposed to Antje that we pass around a flyer signed by all that said, “You should break up with him. Sincerely,…”

After dinner, which was instant for us, but included an avocado that was now fermenting, we listened to Amanada, our final Ranger, who implored us to take the next 12 miles, our last, as slowly as we could.

Antje and I would take it slowly.

We’d just had the season’s hottest day, Amanda informed us: 33 degrees, which was 91 degrees Fahrenheit.

Her speech ended, and NEC boy, with a fair share of nervousness, approached our table and sat down. “Hi,” he said. We said hi back. The whittling, harmonica-playing Israeli engaged him head on in conversation, one man to another, adult-to-adult, all while drawing with a pencil. He had been impressed by Antje’s drawings throughout the trip – even requesting her to draw on his newly whittled backscratcher – and, inspired, he’d been spending the evening drawing… Antje. He laughed at himself for doing it, for such an obvious sign of affection for her, and continued to do so while talking to NEC boy.

“So,” he asked the boy. “Do you ever fight with your brother?”

NEC boy, it turned out, had perfect manners. He never said “Yeah,” or “Yup” – always “yes.” He listened with the type of attentiveness that all human beings wish they could listen with. He’d even stopped slamming doors, thanks to his (attractive) dad’s request to stop doing so. This whole situation was probably a big deal to him – he was talking to so many older people – people who could do whatever they wanted – people who weren’t his parents – and he drank in every word, every movement, every social cue from the “cool kids”.

During a pause we talked about something alcohol related, and NEC boy chimed in, “Since my grandpa paid for this trip, we took him out to a restaurant, and the waiter said, ‘it’s OK for kids to drink alcohol in New Zealand, if their parents are there.’ So my mom let me have a sip of her wine, and I took a big gulp, and it was sooooo disgusting!”

(The grandpa, who was to complete the 33.5-mile journey the next day, was 73.)

In the meantime, the other Israeli had pulled out his Ukelele. I knew he’d brought it on the trek, but had only heard it the evening before, just slightly, as he was playing it on the helicopter pad. While strumming it he explained the difference between a Ukelele and a guitar, and even let me play it for a few minutes. The Swedes sat down, and one asked the same guitar-vs.-ukelele question I’d just asked. Instead of answering, the Israeli completely ignored him and just kept playing. It was rude, but also lovely, and his strumming became more confident.

“You’re really good,” NEC boy said. “My guitar teacher teaches me to play classical stuff. But you’re REALLY good.”

The compliment was so heartfelt, so childishly genuine, that even though it had come from a child, it charmed the Israeli down to his socks. He smiled for five minutes, then hummed along, and then, in the thinnest of voices, began to sing in Hebrew. The other Israeli joined in.

We didn’t take a picture then, but if any single “mental picture” stays stays in my head from that trip, I hope it’s that one, with NEC boy watching the whittling, harmonica-playing, Antje-drawing, and currently-singing Israeli, whose Puerto-Rican-model-looking friend was also singing to the Ukelele, with Biologist girl next to him reading a book about the history of the Milford Track, and Japanese couple, who were now Korean, making another, perfect meal. At just that moment, the Bushwalker group burst in.

“Are you just NOW getting here?” someone asked.

“Of course we are,” he growled, surveying everyone in the entire kitchen. “Don’t see what the bloody rush is all about!”


January 11, 2012

Milford Sound Track #2

Milford Sound Track #2

We’d heard horror stories about sleeping in the bunkrooms, and in preparation, Antje had bought a pack of long earplugs presumably made for aircraft carriers. When inserted at maximum depth and given a corkscrew turn, they almost touch brain.

Still, we were awoken the first morning by a man speaking in full volume to his boys, wife, and father-in-law. It was 6:00AM, and silently we loathed every one of them.

We’d seen the dad the day before. He and his family were Australian, and at one point Antje said, “He is very good-looking for his age.” It was true. He hadn’t picked up an ounce of fatherly flab; his hair was receding in all the right places; when he wasn’t laughing, he was smiling; he also had a trekking beard.

As for the two sons, the oldest looked like a blonde, pubescent version of Carrot Top; the youngest was a cherubim, but sort of ruined the effect by slamming doors and covering his shaggy head in a baseball cap that read:

NEC Data Centers
Fast. Reliable. Affordable.

As for the mother, she wasn’t my best friend, either. I’d been trying to read myself into sleepiness the evening before when she called out to her husband:

“Now here’s an idea. Why don’t we put the molk [milk] in the river, so it’s nice and cool tomorrow morning?”

That was a very good idea indeed, he agreed – so much so that when grandpa walked in, he encouraged her to tell him about it, too. “So I was just thinking,” she told her father, “why don’t we put the molk in a bag, and kind of put a rock on it or something, and put in the river. That way we’ll have cold molk in the morning.” Grandpa thought it was a great idea. Nothing worse than warm molk!

The oldest son moseyed on over, having only caught the end of it. “What’s the plan?” His mom explained. “We’re gonna put some molk in the river. That way it’ll get nice and cold for tomorrow morning.”

The door slammed so hard that the bunk-room shuddered; NEC boy was in the building. The older brother walked past him and said, “Ask mum about her stupid idea.”

NEC boy turned innocently to mum, full of curiosity. “What idea?”

“Well, I think we’re gonna put the molk cartons in a plastic bag and put it in the river, so it’s cold for tomorrow morning.”

He pondered this for a moment, and said, “I know what we should do! We should put the water from the river in a plastic bin, and then put the molk inside, to cool it. Then we could put the purifying tablets in the water, so we could drink it!”

It was ingenious, he was just sure of it!

The thing was, we did have tap water. Plus, water from a bin with a milk carton is probably not delicious.

But no one wanted to hurt the boy’s feelings, especially mum. “You know what? That’s a really good idea, and that’s exactly what we’ll do when we go camping sometime. But we can save the purifiers for now, I’m pretty sure.”

Whether their molk was cold the next morning, only God and that family know. What we knew, though, was that they were incapable of sleep empathy. How could you talk in full voices at 6:00? Unbelievable. Regardless, it was time for everyone to go ahead and get up and eat some goddamn breakfast.

Around us there were instant porridges and instant oatmeals and many many other instant things that required only hot water. There was a lot of watching and learning going on, and one idea that took hold was to drop tea bags into a boiling pot of water, rather than making tea cup-by-cup. The Japanese couple spent over an hour preparing their breakfast, which included a delicately carved red and green apple with very sharp cutlery. Green Day and girlfriend ate silently in a corner. As for the other German couple, she was busy cooking, while he was busy leaning over her and being a hungry, grumpy male. At one point his girlfriend shouted, “YEAH I’M DOING THAT!”, momentarily hushing the room. It was an important moment for some. A cliché had been confirmed.

Not long after setting off, we caught up with bushwalkers next to the river.

“Trout in there,” the guy pointed. There was some discussion as to whether the trout, which was lazing about in the sunlight, was brown or rainbow. Brown, the group decided. Stone Cold Bushwalker shook his head. “Rather look at the bloody thing than eat it. I don’t get these people coming out here, pulling ‘em out and eating ‘em.”

It was the last thing you’d expect from a guy who looked like a Hell’s Angel, and we all walked together after that, exchanging almost zero personal information. Instead we stopped to examine different tree varieties; to check out animal tracks; to look inside a stoat trap (no stoat, but the egg-bait stank); to look for birds; to explore the overgrown hut. The bushwalkers were seriously good at bushwalking, all five senses were completely in tune, always on the hunt for tiny details. Not really sure if we were intruding into that experience, Antje and I moved on.

The Israelis marched past, followed by the Swedes. For the next few miles we did the tortoise and the hare thing with the latter, as they stopped constantly to take pictures. Our own camera was Antje’s iPhone, and we’d only charged it halfway before the trip. That was very stupid. The trail went past dozens of skinny waterfalls threading their way down the mountains and into the valley. The Swedes found a perfect little spot right next to the Clinton river for their lunch, or maybe breakfast, and we moved on.

A half hour later, an unexpected sound came drifting through leaves. Someone was playing a harmonica. A day-hut came into view, and I half-expected a ranger to be sitting there, just being a ranger and playing his old harmonica. Instead it was the whittling Israeli. His eyes flicked up to me, but really he just wanted to finish his song, something from the Beatles. His friend had his back to him and was quietly singing along, his audience being the forest. The song finished, and the Israeli smiled. “I like it, the harmonica.” His friend turned on a battery-powered radio. The music that came out sounded like the Israeli answer to Frank Sinatra. “It is a treat for us. We listen to one disc today, now that we are halfway.” They stuffed it into a pack, and off they went, both singing along, fading into the forest. On their heels came the quarreling Germans.

She sat down with a huff, intentionally not looking at him.

He walked up to her, stopping directly in front of her, hands on hips… but ABSOLUTELY NOT sitting down, hell no.


“NO,” she said, and stood up. They stormed off. We allowed some distance before we followed.

Lunch was a boiled egg, mixed nuts, apple slices with chunky peanut butter, and, at least for me, Snickers bars… with scoops of chunky peanut butter on them! Antje was revolted, but man, that’s life in the bush!

It was hot by then, and after more than a mile of open plain, even hotter. A side-trip took us to a hidden lake that was neither hidden nor very swimmable, and away from it we trudged. For the next two miles we sweated it out over a dozen dried out riverbeds, until finally there came one filled with water. I immediately dropped my pack, scrambled up the boulders, dunked my head in, and had my first drink of river water. Delicious. A minute later Grandpa walked up, saw what I was doing, and followed suit. The Swedes walked up, saw what grandpa was doing, and scrambled up. One corner later, a much, much easier access point appeared, with deeper water to boot. Ah well. “It seemed like a good idea.”

The last two miles were the day’s Heartbreak Hill. At every turn you expected the hut, and at every turn it just got steeper. “Are your knees OK?” Antje asked. Surprisingly, my old running injuries were nowhere in sight. “My knee hurts a little bit,” she said. She also had six blisters.

When Mintaro hut came into view, we ditched it at once for Mintaro Lake. And Jesus H.W. Bush.

Mintaro Lake is the type of scene you’d expect a 2nd grader to draw when they very naively imagine the perfect mountain setting. “So there’s these really steep mountains, and then here’s the lake, and here’s some grass I made all around it, and here’s some sand in the middle of the lake so you can lay on it, and here’s some ducks that you can play with.” The ducks in question weren’t Ranger Ross’s beloved blue ducks, but Paradise Ducks, which were hilariously territorial, mostly out of boredom. They stood together in clusters for minutes on end, placid in the sunlight, only for one to decide, “ENOUGH BULLCRAP!” and run the others OUT.

The Biologist and her friends were brave enough to try the lake – and flailed right back out, shrieking. I went next, and yes, swimming was out of the question. Antje was the last, and afterwards we warmed ourselves on the sand. The Biologist and friends had left, and suddenly we were alone, and in the middle of something that couldn’t even really be talked about.

Instead, and having had a few minutes to find the best words I could, I said, “You know I don’t believe in heaven and all that, but if you ever want to imagine me in one, it can be like right now, rubbing each other’s feet.”

The German couple walked up.

They were both in bathing suits, and the guy put his feet in first. “Bwaaaaaahhh,” he groaned, then splashed the glacial water on his head, “Bwaaaaaahhh.” It trickled down his back, “bwaaaaaahhh, bwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.” His girlfriend went into giggle fits, then repeated the act.

They deserved some alone time, too, and as we left them there, they were curled up together on the sand, all made good by the mountains.


January 10, 2012

Milford Sound Track

Milford Sound Track


Having walked three-miles, we arrived at Clinton hut, the first on the Milford Track.

Across from our bunks were two Swedes, brothers Hakan and Bengt. I asked Bengt, who’d been living in Sydney for seven years, if he missed home. “No, not really,” he said. His brother was visiting for three weeks, and that was enough of ‘home’.

At dinner, we and the Swedes had our first surprise: there were gas ranges aplenty, and plenty of running water, but no pots. Pots, apparently, were one of those things we should’ve packed in on the trek with us. Everyone else seemed to have read that somewhere. Only we, and the Swedes, hadn’t. “Well, at least we’re in this together,” I said to Bengt. He looked around hopefully and said, “Maybe we can borrow one.”

Luckily, a single, beat-up, communal-looking pot sat under one the ranges. Antje and I used it for a dinner of ramen and baked beans, complimented by a a half-bottle of pinot noir and half-pack of oreos. As the Swedes used the precious pot, two early-twenties Israelis scooted into our table. One was whittling wood with a knife. The other was busy looking like a Puerto Rican model.

But when I said I was from Seattle and lived in Germany, both looked alarmed. “GERMANY? Why do you live in GERMANY?” “Because my wife’s from Germany,” I explained. “So we live there.” Their eyes went from me to Antje, the infernal GERMAN, who smiled and said, “I’m from Germany.”


We all kind of looked at each other and tried to smile, but it was as if the table had cracked in two. The situation was gigantic and stupid and totally unnecessary, and I aimed for common ground. “I visited a friend in Israel. He was in the army. We went to a Taglit.” At the mention of the Hebrew word (a Taglit is the the culminating party of a week-long, sponsored trip that any teenaged Jew worldwide can take part in) their eyes lit up. “You are Jewish!” “No, no. We snuck in. Through a side door.” “So you were not invited?” “No, we snuck in.” “Ahhhh. So you had a very good time!” “Of course. There were 4,000 people!” Hakan the Swede asked if they had been in the army, if being in the army was optional. “They do not ask you. They tell you,” the whittling Israeli said.

We were friends, then. Or sort of friends. Or something. The Israelis got up to make tea, using the same beat-up pot that we had. The next day, I realized it wasn’t a communal pot at all. It had been theirs all along. They just watched patiently while everyone else used it.

As they made tea, we talked to the Swedes. Next to the Swedes sat another couple, whose male counterpart I referred to in my head as “Green Day.” The guy had dyed his hair green, bright, bright green, and he had tattoos all over his arms. He even looked like a thicker version of Green Day’s lead singer. He and his girlfriend didn’t introduce themselves at all, and spoke only to each other quietly, in German. Another couple slipped in beside us, also German, and at that point the Ranger strode in.

He was 6’6” tall (2m), 60 years old, and wore hiked up shorts that accentuated the stork-like quality of his thin, white legs. “One look at these,” he joked, “will let you know I’m a darn good ranger.” The whiteboard had mentioned an 8:00 “Ranger Talk,” and after explaining some basic safety concerns, namely fire, he proceeded to explain the next day’s trek, milepost-by-milepost, including the lakes that we were to pass, the orchids we should look for, swimming holes and fishing holes we should watch out for, including the best for trout, a place where the Clinton river branched in two, an old hut that had been overgrown, and was now hard to see, but COULD be seen, if one looked hard enough.

The Israelis were bored. Quietly, but loud enough for our table to hear, the whittling Israeli said sarcastically, “This is a very in-ter-es-ting lecture we are experiencing!” The others smiled or laughed outright, and at this, their opinions on the Ranger, Ross, began to sour.

Ross moved on to a particular flower we were to watch out for, the Mt. Cook Lilly. “Now, the Mt. Cook Lilly is white,” he said. “Does anyone know why it’s white?”

No one knew.

“Does anyone know how they’re pollinated?” he asked.

A late-20s Australian girl raised her hand. “Well, if it’s yellow it’s pollinated by insects, if it’s red it’s pollinated by birds. so white… I guess… is… bats?”

Ross couldn’t hear her.

“By bats?” she said. “Or moths?”

“Moths!” he said. “That’s exactly right!” The girl smiled politely and looked down. Later it came to light that was working on a Ph.D. in Biology.

Ross moved on to the topic that mattered most to him: birds.

He mimicked the different bird calls, bird-by-bird, to a whole lot of laughter; explained which birds might be easily approached and which to wait for; suggested that we stop moving for five minutes and see what happens; talked at length about which birds were now endangered due to non-endemic animals; talked about the way the birds were banded for identification–left leg for female, right for male (“since men are always ‘right’”); lamented their failed attempts at attaching transmitters; told the names of particular birds. “Some of our ducks are named after Aussie cricket players,” he said “since you always have to ‘duck’ when playing against the Aussies.”

Our table, which was back in a corner, had completely given up on Ross. The German guy next to me exhaled loudly, twice, like a spoiled child. The Israelis, too, were no longer listening, and the Swedes were stifling yawns. The whittling Israeli turned to me, “You are paying very good attention,” he said, poking fun. I was. The lecture could’ve used some visuals, but as Antje later said, Ross was deeply, deeply passionate about his work, and passion tends to spread. Ross’s personal mission, the last of his life’s work, you could say, was to save the blue duck.

Blue ducks, he explained have been absolutely ravaged by stoats. A stuffed stoat was passed around, terrifying a Japanese woman, and for good reason: a stoat looks like a squirrel who’s gone so rabid that he chewed his own tale off and ate it for breakfast. Ross explained how the stoat traps worked, and the way he and his colleagues chase ducks into a river net to band them. “They’ve even got one named after me,” Ross said proudly. “He’s got long legs.”

By this point our table was exasperated to the point of mutiny, a classic example of group-think: The whittling Israeli had established that Ross was boring; a few smiles and laughter had followed; no one dared contradict the group’s perceived opinion; they instead reinforced it at every turn; spiral spiral spiral, into blackness.

Fortunately for them, Ross was nearly finished. “Are there any questions?” he asked hopefully. A thick palm shot up, belonging to the gruffest looking man of our 42-person group. His head was shaved, his voice, deep, and his body, thick; he reminded me of Stone Cold Steve Austin, a WWF (or WWE) wrestler. He described his party of three as “bushwalkers”, and said:

“We found some Old Man’s Beard today on one of the trees. Ripped the bloody thing right out and left it right in the middle of the track for you. It’ll take over the whole bloody forest if you let it.”

At this my face went hot. Halfway through the trek I’d found two hunks of moss in the middle of the track, picked them up, and said to Antje, “Look, all we need is some moss glue!” A little while later I tossed them back in the forest.

Ranger Ross asked a few questions about the moss, but otherwise didn’t seem to concerned about Old Man’s beard. He did want to verify where the bushwalkers had left it, though, so that he, or another ranger, could take a look. I almost raised my hand, but didn’t.

At that he finished–to the general applause he deserved.

Afterwards I asked him about a pair of tracks Antje and I had seen in a nearby bog. “Those are Kiwi,” he explained. “Can tell by the hole in the ground. They stick their beak in there, sniff around.” We were thrilled to have discovered Kiwi tracks on our own.

Next, and full of dread, I went to the bushwalker and asked about Old Man’s Beard. His description didn’t match my moss at all, a huge relief. The bushwalker was annoyed, though. “Bloody rangers only care about the birds.”

At that it was time for cleanup, and our second surprise of the day:

No garbage cans!

It made sense, of course. It makes perfect sense. On the 3-mile walk to Clinton Hut I’d been wondering how, logistically, they dealt with all that garbage. Helicopters? The answer was, they didn’t. WE did. Whatever we packed in, we packed out. Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. Somewhere we’d missed a manual of sorts. But also, I was mad.

The evening before, Antje had mentioned to our excitable hostel-owner, Bob, that we were thinking of bringing a bottle of wine on the trek, a little something to celebrate. “Of course!” he said. “You gotta bring a bottle of wine, everyone brings a bottle of wine for their first night!” It was only three miles, after all, that first day, an easy haul. And thus we brought our half-finished bottle of Pinot Noir.

And now? Now we had a large, empty, heavy glass bottle, one that couldn’t be tossed out.

Which meant we’d be carrying that heavy glass bottle for the next 30.5 miles, up and over a mountain.

Oh bother.

Oh, Bob.


January 10, 2012

Nek Minnet

Nek Minnet

When New Year’s Day came around a week and a half ago, the newspapers here did what most dailies do on January 1st. They ran those “Year in Review” pages with lots and lots of pictures. Overall, 2011 was a year of misery for New Zealand. Almost 200 people died in the earthquakes, dozens of buildings were condemned, thousands of houses were condemned, and the quakes didn’t–and don’t–look to be letting up. The photographs reflected that, and with the dust and destruction you could say that, psychologically, 2011 in New Zealand was like 2001 in the US. The New Zealand Herald chose to take a different tack, and their front-page spread said something like, “Pictures of only the positive things, in hope of a better 2012.” The Rugby World Cup win was featured prominently.

In that same paper, tucked into a corner on page four or something, was a list of the Youtube videos most watched by Kiwis in 2011. Number 1 was Rebecca Black’s “Friday” with something like 78 million views in New Zealand. That’s pretty impressive when you remember that 4 1/2 million people live here.

The rest I recognized–except number 2. It was called “Nek Minnet”, and was :09 seconds long. It had nearly 60 million views. Just before New Year’s Even some New Zealand teenagers had told me, “You HAVE to watch it, it’s like, all of New Zealand in 9 seconds. ” When I asked what Nek Minnet meant, they explained, “Next minute,” as in, “I was walking down the street, next minute my friend came up.”

That’s certainly Kiwi English, but regardless, the expression “Nek Minnet” has now taken on the same sort of in-the-know, wink-wink currency in NZ that “Double Rainbow” has in the US. T-shirts have popped up, all cheaply printed, with variations of “Nek Minnet” or “Nek Minute” printed on them.

So, without further ado – New Zealand in 9 seconds:



January 8, 2012

Heard from the deck of our hostel

Heard from the deck of our hostel

“If a girl’s cheating on me, that hits me hard. I don’t know why, but if a girl’s cheating on me, that really hits me hard. That breaks my heart. If a girl’s cheating on me, that really breaks my heart. But I don’t know, maybe I can’t love any girl.”

It turns out he’s 22 years old, with brown curly hair, smoking a ciggy, drinking canned beer. He and the other guy had tents on the lawn.

A few minutes later:

“And I’m just like, hey, don’t be a dick, didn’t you learn in school? Didn’t you get beat up enough? Don’t go to the police. Buy pot, and smoke it. Share the pot. Invite someone for a beer, get pissed. Be a good cunt. Don’t be a wanker. Just because you beat up your wife, don’t be a prick to me.”

At this he takes a leak below my deck, and meets two Germans. He’s from Paderborn (Germany), he says. They’re from Munich.

Some Tom Petty-esque music gets cranked up, and, apropos of nothing, he shouts, “You know why I wanna go to Canada? I will meet Becky from Quebec. I will shag her. I will shag her for sure. One day I will shag her. There will be one day in my life. She LIKED me.”


January 7, 2012

On the subjective v. the ontological in the musical experience, and whether coffee can be injected into the human ass

On the subjective v. the ontological in the musical experience, and whether coffee can be injected into the human ass

Back in our sort of crappy hostel with a million-dollar view, a hostel conversation was well under way. A Dutch guy and his girlfriend had befriended an English guy. The English guy played in a band. The Dutch guy was intrigued. “Do you think it is possible that there is an objective standard for being able to play music? Like an IQ test?”

No, the Englishman said. Music is just so diverse, there are so many instruments. There’s the composition, the playing, the aural aspect, the time.

“But do you think,” the Dutchman continued, “there’s an objective standard for music? That some music is ‘bad’ music and some music is ‘good’?”

No, the Englishman said. How can Tibetan monks be compared with Western music, or Arabic music, or African music?

But maybe within each culture, the Dutchman argued, an objective standard could be found.

No, the Englishman said. There are things we are familiar with, certain rhythms we like, mostly because we’ve heard them so often. But anyway those rhythms change over time. How to describe Radiohead, for example, which shifts in and out of musical time.

But scientists have studied rhythm on infants, the Dutchman countered, before they’re socialized to certain musical preferences. And first of all they do like rhythm, and second of all, they respond to specific rhythms more than others.

The musician frowned.


He’d only lost the battle, though, and maybe not the war. When the Dutch girl mentioned some injectable antibiotics she was taking, the Englishman pounced. “Injectable? But why not just, like, swallow it? I mean, I could inject coffee if I wanted to, but.”

“You can’t inject coffee,” the Dutchman said. “It’ll kill you.”

“I actually know someone who did that,” the Englishman laughed. “My sister’s friend. He got all weird for a bit and started injecting coffee. In the morning.”

When everyone looked at him incredulously he added, “I swear!”

A few clarifications resolved things. The guy had injected coffee into his butt cheek, not his arm, the Englishman said. The Dutchman nodded. Had he injected it into his arm, he would’ve died. “It has to be a salt solution. It has to have salt in it to be injected in the veins.”

His girlfriend said, “But heroin doesn’t have salt in it, does it?”

He frowned. “Yeah, but…”


Checkmate + betrayal.

But still, I’d like to know. Is coffee injectable? Shanny? Any other people of medicine? This might seem trivial, but the implications are worldwide. If a woman can breastfeed at Starbucks, a guy should be allowed to drop trou for a butt-cheek Frappucino.


January 6, 2012

Queenstown II

Queenstown II

Bordering our own room was the dorm room, and through the walls, the sounds of hostel-urchins could be heard. As for the mattresses, they were new 27 years ago, and now should be given to charity. The shared bathrooms were also pretty grotey. The good news was, the view from the deck is of the Misty Mountains, of LOTR fame, and of a deep blue lake with an old steamboat on it that blasts its mighty steamhorn every few hours. The other bad news was, after we went in for the evening, another guy blew a steamhorn, meaning his nose. I think it was allergies, since scotchbroom’s in bloom. But it was… special. Had it been in a film, I would’ve thought, “No one would do that in real life”. But in his real life it was a double trombone blast every time, a two-second honk followed by a shorter, more powerful quack. I might’ve pitied the guy, but when it happens outside your window at 1AM, and the guy’s drunk and talking bullcrap, and you can’t sleep because you’re waiting for the next unbelievable round of nose evacuation, or vocal bullcrap, then Mr. Brass Nostrils, you’re no friend of mine. The next morning, though, more good news: Even grotey showers, when downstairs, have good pressure.

So, still not sure what to make of our place, we headed into town.

I tried hard not to like Queenstown. Wanaka, which we fell in love with, has more than a few people who worry it’ll become the “next Queenstown.” That was enough to know that Queenstown was baaaad neeews. On the bus ride in, a fair share of poorly developed and megalomaniacal hotel/condos came into view, and I thought, “HA! Disgusting!” Stepping out, there were so many stores and restaurants and cafes and unnecessary consumer options that I thought, “HA HA! Also disgusting!”

But the truth is, most of the town is a long, happy pedestrian zone. Also, the restaurants and cafes are really delicious AND full of character AND affordable. And finally, in the midst of Queenstown’s humongous and perfectly manicured English garden, they have an 18-hole frisbee golf course. And it’s free! It winds through pine trees, down “Windy Way” (lots of wind that day), and back up “Bead me Up.” I’m sure we’re not the first ones to have played it and thought, “ohmygod this is such a good idea why doesn’t anyone do this anywhere else!?!?” There are signs all over the place, though, about careful throwing. Because the truth is, when it comes to frisbees, people get hit in the face. And the result is a lifetime of frisbee-nose. (www.frisbeenose.org)

On one evening we went to “Cow,” which you might expect to be a lot of things except the Italian restaurant that it is. As we slid into our booth, the waitress explained that the restaurant did shared seating when the place got full. No problem. Ten minutes later a guy sat down with his seven-year-old daughter. As he helped her with the menu options, I tried to place his accent. Canadian? Maybe American, but most likely Canadian. Vancouver, probably. When I finally asked, he said, “I’m from Seattle. You?”

“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears….”


January 5, 2012



I did something wrong during the booking process, and at about 60% of the hostels we check into, a variation of the following happens:

“Hi. We should have a reservation under Dillon?”

“Yep, let’s see here. Dillon, Dillon, Dillon…. Hm. Sure you’re on here somewhere, just… let’s see. Hm. It loooooooks like…. Is there any chance… no wait…. Hm. Is there any chance… could it be under another name?”

At first this was scary. But now I know to say, “Conor?”

“Ah yes, here it is! Right here!” Big smile! Big relief!

In Queenstown, though, having huffed our way uphill to the hostel, it was different.

This time, when I gave our name, she looked up with dread, as if she’d been expecting us all evening. “So,” she squirmed, “uh, one of our new girls must’ve done your booking, way back when, we had some new girls a while back and–


“well, I’m reeeeeeally sorry to say–”


“–I had to put you in a room with two twins, instead of a queen. But I pushed them together, so there’s really not much difference.”


“And it’s cheaper,” she added, “so you’re actually saving money on it.”

[stand down]

But the roller-coaster wasn’t over.


January 4, 2012

Wind, Water, Heart!

Wind, Water, Heart!


The plan had been to spend our last day in Wanaka doing nothing, absolutely nothing, just sitting on the beach, doing nothing. The sun was more than accommodating to that idea. When a breeze picked up, though, everything changed.

Further down, and next to the pile of (abhorrent) kayaks, stood the proud masts of two, 14-foot catamarans.

The third was out on the water, and as the breeze turned into real, sustained wind, the boat ripped left and right across the lake. Hm. Then came the gusts, putting “cat’s paws” on the water, and even causing whitecaps. Onshore, the willow trees started head-banging. Goddamnit, LET’S SAIL!

The day before, when we’d rented kayaks, our first try was with a female operator who turned out to be a witch. When Antje asked about renting individual kayaks, she shook her head. “If you don’t have experience with them, I can’t let you do that. I’m responsible for you, and if you flip over….” More solemn head-shaking. In nearly the same sentence she also mentioned a “front” that was coming in, that it could get reeeeeeeallllly stormy out there, real quick. Hm. Not a cloud dotted the clear blue sky, and all other weather forecasts had mentioned nothing of a front. So then. Thanks for all your help, lady.

[we later heard that she chewed out one of her customers for putting on a life-jacket WITHOUT A T-SHIRT UNDERNEATH! JUST THINK OF THE BACTERIA! THE HORROR! THE HORROR! Seriously lady, WASH the life-jackets. And secondly, are you in the kayak rental business, or the scare-people business? You might try haunted houses.]

A hundred yards (meters) downshore, another kayak operator sat basking in the sun. His beach-dog’s name was Ziggy, and if a guy has a dog named Ziggy, you know everything’s gonna be alright.

Still, his sunbaked wrinkles showed concern. “You’ll want to stay over here, to the right,” he said. “You lose ground every time you turn, and these things don’t sail to well into the wind.”

I confirmed what he’d said, making sure to translate every non-sailing term for its equivalent in the jargon of sailing. It’s a tricky thing, renting sailboats, since sailboats are, well, tricky. If the sailboat operator doesn’t demand credentials–and the owner of Ziggy didn’t–he/she certainly wants to know that you’ll bring the boat back safely. A few well-chosen sailing words accomplish that.

He’d been watching the other catamaran. “Yeah, see–he’s got himself in trouble there. Keeps trying to come back, but–”

The wind was aimed like an arrow from us to the other catamaran. Whoever was out there had a lot of work ahead of him. It wasn’t impossible to get back, but it involved a whole lot of tacking.

We stayed windward, and it was good that we did. Catamarans are really, really fast, which is why people love ‘em. But they turn very slowly and can’t sail as “high” into the wind as a monohull can. As rentals, they also weren’t the world’s best, either: the daggerboards were chopped up from hitting rocks, increasing slippage, and the traveler couldn’t be clipped in; it just kept traveling. What that meant was a lot more zig-zagging back to shore than you might expect, but thanks to a turn of the wind and our windward start, we got there easily.

Ziggy-man greeted us, staring at the lake. “I almost asked you to go talk to him,” he said. The other boat was still out there, and was now luffing listlessly. “He e said he was a little rusty, but I didn’t know HOW rusty.” Antje suggested I offer to sail back out, but by that point Ziggy-man had called a friend who was on a jet-ski somewhere. “He should be able to talk to him,” he nodded, “give him some advice.”

The jet-ski zipped out more than an hour later. An hour after that, the catamaran had come home. I can only imagine how frustrating that must have been for him, stuck downwind, unable to sail back, burning cash.

Lesson learned: Don’t rent expensive stuff by the hour unless you can get it back.

As it was our last night in the hostel, we ate in and made waaaaaaaaay too much salad. Earlier I’d seen a thin, elderly man walking around, hands clasped behind his back, smiling at just about everyone. In the kitchen I offered the salad to him. “Oh yes, yes, thank you. I’m just a rabbit when it comes to vegetables.” He was English, and his scruffy white hair and bushy beard made sense when he explained that he’d just returned that day from a mountain hut. “All that… dehydrated food,” he said. “It makes one so excited to eat vegetables again. You can feel the vitamins just–dancing!” He was volunteer with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, and a nimble vegetarian.

As Antje and I played board games, he sat at a table beside us, withdrew a surprisingly modern Apple laptop, and plugged in a large black pair of stereo headphones. Two minutes later he was slumped down in his chair, asleep. Five minutes later he awoke to change songs. Pleased, he drifted off again. Classical music drifted out of his headphones, and suddenly, he began humming it, “Hmm hmmm hmmm hmm hmm hmm hmm. HM HMM HMMM HMM HMMMMM!!!” His eyes were closed, his head bobbing in time. “Lalalalalala laaa laa LAAAAA!” A few hostelers looked over, then returned to what they’d been doing. “Hmmm hmm hmm hmmm,” he hummed, “hmmm hmm hm hmmmmmmmmmm.” The music faded. “Aaaaaahh!” he exclaimed. This one had nothing to do with music, just being tired, happy, and sitting in a sofa chair.


January 3, 2012

Robbie, Rebecca, Wanaka, Bakpaka II

Robbie, Rebecca, Wanaka, Bakpaka II

On day two we kayaked, and if there’s one thing I truly hate, it’s kayaking. I don’t know why, and I wish I could hide it better, but at one point Antje burst out laughing from behind at the anger that was apparently exhibited in my paddle strokes. I was a “grumpy fool,” she said. For her part, she was not only faster, but paddled like a very relaxed windmill. Unfair!

So this was about the destination, not the journey, and the destination was worth it. Ruby Island is one of a few islands in Lake Wanaka… and Lake Wanaka is almost too good to be true: clear blue glacial water, snow-capped mountains, hot white sunshine, local beer with “quaffable contingencies”, and omnipresent ice cream. In the US there’s a common bumper sticker that reads, “Keep Tahoe Blue.” I’ve never been there, but I think this is what they mean. If Jesus had been a lake instead of a man, he might have been Lake Wanaka.

Having hauled our kayaks on shore on Ruby Island, we swam, sunbathed, skipped rocks, swam some more, skipped some more rocks, sunbathed again, ate leftovers, skipped some more rocks, and swam once more. We decided to walk the 20-minute trail around the island, and discovered that it was being temporarily shared by 30 people, a handful of motorboats, a dock, and a free barbecue. It’d been 30 feet (10m) behind us the whole time, but by some trick of optics/acoustics, you’d never know they’re there.

After an angry kayak home for one of us, we went to one of the world’s best movie theaters for an early showing of Tin Tin. Instead of seats, they have sofas, airplane chairs, and an entire car. Food can be ordered before the film starts, and at intermission it’s sitting there on the table, just waiting to be eaten. Beer and wine are also served. All of these ideas should also spread.

Afterwards we made for Robbie and Rebecca’s place for a second round of backyard wine-drinking.

A family was out front, and about halfway through the English-language introductions, it turned out everyone was German.

“So you’re on your honeymoon?” the mother smiled.

Automatically all four of us answered yes–but then realized she’d of course meant Robbie and Rebecca, who the owners must’ve told them about.

“We’re also on our honeymoon,” Antje said, standing next to Robbie.

“We’re on our honeymoon,” Rebecca nodded.

The mother smiled, her eyes flicking back and forth, clearly confused as to who, exactly, was married to whom, here.

Finally I said, “We’re all married to each other. It’s very… modern.”

Not only did this elicit zero laughter from the family… but it also turned out to be the last stroke of conversation between us. As we bowed out awkwardly it wasn’t clear if the family had understood that we were joking at all–there was a chance they’d thought we’d actually meant that part–and this, of course, doubled up on the funny. Oh, Germans!

[Later they came out back to talk to us again, which probably did clear things up. But in retrospect, I wish I could've used that time to confuse them even more, ie, by massaging Robbie.]

But “All good things must come to an end,” as they say, and as we enjoyed that backyard with that perfect little brook one last time, it was a very good thing, indeed.

So thank you Robbie and Rebecca for the the good company and good wine, and safe driving in New Zealand!

January 2, 2012

Robbie, Rebecca, Wanaka, Bakpaka I

Robbie, Rebecca, Wanaka, Bakpaka I

Robbie and Rebecca are friends of ours from Düsseldorf. Recently we’ve had many things in common:

Not only did they, too, tie the knot this summer, as a human male and a human female, but they, too, chose New Zealand for their honeymoon, and they, too, postponed their trip to coincide with a Kiwi summer. We exchanged itineraries beforehand, and lo and behold, they, too, went through a town called Wanaka–on the same day as us!

And that day was New Year’s Eve!




Over two beers we tried our best to catch up on everything that everyone had done in New Zealand, but with the combined volume of tales to tell; our group’s tendency digress into other, also very interesting topics; our collective inability to tell things in the chronological order that they happened; some mixing up of name-places due to the preponderance of ‘K’s, ‘T’s, and ‘R’s in them; a touch of genuine human forgetfulness (aw shucks); and the fact that our table was bathed in an 80-degree (27) spotlight of ozone-free sunshine…. We made for the supermarket instead.

As the gas barbecue at Robbie and Rebecca’s B&B was free for the night–the entire B&B was empty, with no owners in sight, in fact–”KIDS RULE!”–we ate and drank in the backyard of their personal private mansion. A glacial brook curved under a bridge, through the lawn, and down to the lake, looking like it’d been plucked from the landscape of model train-set. The sun set, and between us we saw five or six shooting stars… save for a frustrated Antje :)

We’d chosen Wanaka for New Year’s due to a cryptic sentence slipped into the guidebook. It read: “Note: Wanaka wakes up in a big way for New Year’s.” At 11:45PM we walked down to the lakefront to see exactly what that meant.

It meant around ten thousand people in a town of five thousand, most of them between 18 and 23 years of age, drunk. A live band was playing cover songs, and they were pretty darn good for Wanaka. When the fireworks got going we found out that most of them would be seen through, and not above, one of the many willow trees that line the shore. Oh bother. But oh well. As the fireworks tapered off, and they really did just taper off, no finale here, not necessary in Wanaka, a drunk girl splashed into the lake, followed by her friend, another drunk girl. Some guys joined in, and when they’d all made it to the float, it turned out one was naked (a guy). A police boat slinked over, shining the spotlight across them, and all dove back in like surprised penguins… save for one guy who apparently wanted to sit there for a while and just have a nice pleasant conversation with the police boat at 12:30. He did just that. Then he jumped in, swam back, and by that point others were wading in. It was a “good idea,” this swimming stuff, and it was spreading down the beach. To the best of its ability, the police boat combated the lemming-like behavior, shining us back to the shore. As the boat retreated, two guys waded in to their ankles, dropped trou, and urinated into the water in dreamy oblivion. Before their pee-pee could osmosis its way over to me, I dove in and made for the dock. Happy New Year’s, Wanaka! Seattle still had 21 hours to go, and Germany 12.

So because of that time difference, as well as the fact that we’d all gotten married that year–the mighty 2011–it felt like, and actually was, the shortest of our lives.


January 1, 2012

Mackenzie District

Mackenzie District

To clarify:

A Flat White is a latté with no foam.
A Fluffy is steamed milk with a as much foam as possible. Kids adore it, and it gets ‘em hooked on café culture at a young age.
A Long Black is a very very strong Americano, and a Short Black is an Americano.

Still, strange to feel well versed in coffee, and then be confronted with so much newness.


As this area of New Zealand is called the Mackenzie District, I thought I’d share the comic history of the area’s name.

According to our bus driver, a lone traveler on foot managed to steal 1,000 resident sheep, and then…

“It wasn’t long later before he shook hands with the local policeman, and was arrested for theft and taken to the Timaru court to answer a charge of theft in front of the city magistrate. James Mackenzie was a Scotsman. He couldn’t speak English, but he spoke fluent Gaelic. My understanding though is that he told that magistrate in no uncertain terms that no jail would ever hold him. Well, he may have got his wish twice after that, but on his fourth arrest, he was again taken down to the Timaru court, where he was imprisoned for 12 years. Toward the end of the 12th year he was pardoned, and, later, deported to Canada.”


1,000 sheep? On foot? As a hugely conspicuous foreigner?

James Mackenzie, ladies and gentlemen: Scotsman, criminal, dreamer.


December 31, 2011

Omahau Downs

Omahau Downs

(For those who haven’t googled the answer, see Antje’s drawing below.)

From stargazing it was Twizel. The scenery was alpine, and at one point Antje put an earbud in my ear. With Sigur Ros, the trip was a documentary.

Twizel’s a town of 1,000 with a shopping center and a grocery store that, one fine day, will carry fruit and vegetables. Somewhere or another there’s a river, and somewhere else, a lake, as attested to by the powerboats attached to every third car. It’s summer AND it’s Christmastime + New Years in New Zealand, and everyone is in good spirits, and drinking spirits. It’s also where one German ended his holiday.

We had to pick up some antibiotics at the local doctor’s office, and as we walked in, a middle-aged Kiwi man was helping a wounded German bicyclist inside. His knee was bloodied, his gaze vacant, his face gray, and one entire shoulder was visibly, um, flattened. Antje asked if he wanted to use our Skype account to call home, but he shook his head. “I’ve been living here for seven years. This is home.” When a doctor came out, he asked where it had happened. “On a bridge,” the guy said. “Not under the bridge, though.” It was a fair joke for his condition, and when he’d gone inside, a patient-to-be asked the helper guy how he knew the bicyclist. “I found him on a bridge,” he explained. “He ran right into the frame. Helmet cracked through and everything.” The doctor stepped out to hear a repeat of the story. The man added, “He kept trying to nod off as I drove here. Might check him out for a concussion. Shoulder looks broken, too. Probably a collarbone.” His neighbor swiveled to look at him, face-to-face. “Why YOU should be the doctor here, shouldn’t you!”

But besides that, and five 18-year-olds who were drunk by noon at the shopping center, Twizel itself doesn’t have much to offer.

What it does offer, though, is in the picture on yesterday’s entry. Our room at Omahau Downs is arranged to face a wheat field that runs unbroken to the foot of the nearby mountains. The same stratus-cumulous combo that had threatened the stargazing the day before had veiled the view of Mt. Cook for most the day, but in the evening, on cue, they broke apart, throwing a spotlight on Mt. Cook. If Mt. Rainier had a butterfly knife in its pocket, it’d be Mt. Cook. (Cook kills a lot of climbers.) At that point all heaven broken loose, turning the wheat gold, Mt. Cook orange, the mountains purple, and the clouds pink-on-pink. Sunsets are kitschy, but when it lasts 45 minutes and there’s a bottle of wine involved, in can feel like something inside your body’s setting with it. Three other rooms shared the view, and each and every one of them sat on the deck in silence and watched it to the end. At the peak of its glow–as in, when the sun remained on the peak of Mt. Cook only–something bubbled in my chest and one of those involuntary, explosive, unstoppable burps came flying out of my mouth. Antje looked at me, shocked and confused, and I said, “I just ruined the moment, didn’t I.” She told me I had. I looked over at our neighbor, whose eye had been in a viewfinder. He’d heard the burp, too, I’m certain of it. And, well, I’m sure sorry about that, neighbor. I didn’t mean for it to happen, and I hope you weren’t on video mode.

An evening later, when the clouds didn’t break open and a sunset never did happen, one of the owners prepared an outdoor, wood-fired bath in a claw-foot tub. We stayed in for two hours, or until the cows really did come home.

So Omahau Downs B&B was the best of mid-trip splurges, a departure from backpackia to a place that, with a few minor tweaks, would have fit to a Van Gogh (“Wheat fields with poplars and a Mazda”). It was also a chance to recharge after a rapid-fire week of stopovers, bus rides, and small adventures. And recharging is important.



December 30, 2011

Question of the day

Question of the day

NZ-themed question of the day:

A Flat White, a Fluffy, a Long Black, and a Short Black are all kinds of what in New Zealand?

(Whoever guesses correctly gets an NZ-themed gift next time we see them. Whoever googles the answer goes straight to hell.)



December 29, 2011

Star gazing

Star gazing

The bus had been idling for five minutes; it was now five minutes late. In each of the bus driver’s three apologies, his frustration increased. He was a short, tough, bowling ball of a man, and when at last he saw his prey, he swung the door open and barked, “Get your butt on the bus. I told you two minutes, and now you’ve held up the entire bus.”

Through a mouthful of hot pizza a skater guy mumbled, “Sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” the bus driver said. “It isn’t accepted.”

The skater’s friend slinked in behind. When they’d seated themselves, the driver grabbed the microphone. “One of the things about this service is it is very, very tight. We cannot make time up. So now we are six minutes behind schedule, and we cannot make that up.” He scowled at them through his sunglasses in the rearview mirror… and then scowled at them some more. After a quick feint down he flicked his head up once more for the culminating scowl. “If this were the Queenstown service, those two gentlemen before would have been walking.”

Two minutes later he’d forgotten the episode for the scores of red deer that lived on regional farms. He’d driven the route so often that he knew which deer had younglings out in the fields, and where to look to find them. As the trees passed by he named them one-by-one, and, off-hand, digressed into photosynthesis. He pointed to some hay rounds. “They’re gonna start making those squares instead of circles in the coming years,” he told the passengers. “That way the cows can get a good, square meal.” A few passengers groaned–which, by the look on his face, was exactly what he’d wanted. A golf course passed by, and he explained that one should never wear socks while golfing. “You might,” he looked in the mirror, “get a hole in one.” More groans, a few laughs. The ladies behind him were Maori, and he rattled off a Maori poem into the microphone. “If anyone can tell me what that means,” he said, “please do.” When the snow-covered alps swung into view, he said, “You can see some cumulous clouds just over the peaks there, and above them, quite a bit of stratus. Stratus means we’ll be having some wind this evening. We’ve got something called a tropical depression headed our way.”

All of this was terrible news. Our entire day was predicated on an absence of clouds, and the stratus looked impenetrable.

“If you’re wondering why I know these things,” he said, “it’s because I got my pilot’s license 12 years ago. Don’t fly anymore, but I did back then. Part of the training is to know how to read the clouds, and that’s a valuable thing. I was also in the police force for 22 years, in case you’re wondering, and worked as a medic for 6.”

By the end of the trip our driver had endeared himself so much to the passengers (save the two skaters) that a couple asked him for personal photographs, standing next to his bus.

The pictures never stopped. Lake Tekapo is a bright blue divot in the middle of the alps. Throw in the natural bouquets of Lupin flowers lining the streets and popping up in the grasses, and it’s photogenic to the point that you wonder if Walt Disney actually had a hand in it. Or I should say, the NATURAL beauty feels Disney-esque. The suburbs are thoughtless, and the business center is more of a bus stop going through puberty.

To the west, cumulous clouds continued to glide our way, far below the stratus. I said to Antje, “I don’t think you should go up Mt. John tonight,” and she agreed.

Flowers and lake aside, people stay at Lake Tekapo (TE-ka-po) for the tours run by a company called Earth and Sky. They take tourists up the side of Mt. John, which is really a large hill amongst the mountains, to what are effectively the three southernmost, accessible observatories in the world. To someone from the northern hemisphere, that’s a big deal. At 44 degrees south there are stars, many in the top ten in terms of luminosity, that are never visible in the northern hemisphere. Like all observatories, these three had been placed on Mt. John due to the lack of light pollution and propensity for clear skies. Today was a different story.

Still, I’d been booked for months, and at 10:30PM, the tour-bus made for the mountain.

Near the top the driver turned the headlights off. From there it’d be red light, or no light at all. Some of the passengers were visibly uncomfortable at riding up a windy mountain road in a bus with no lights on, and fortunately he warned them about a loud, clanging cattle-guard a few seconds before it happened. Whenever he forgot, he said, passengers screamed.

When we exited, the the wind picked up at a cool 20MPH (28km). An oval-shaped patch had opened up in the sky, but, with his trusty laser-pointer, our tour-guide pointed at four clouds. “Three of those,” he said, “aren’t clouds.”

I’d already picked out the milky way, but the other two really looked like two clouds… that just happen to be static. Both are in fact distant galaxies. “They’re called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds,” our guide explained. “As you might have guessed, they were discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, who, being the humble man that he was, named them after himself.”

Inside one of the observatories, a 24-inch telescope was aimed toward the Large cloud, specifically at the Tarantula Nebulae. “That’s 160,000 light-years away,” said the guide. “So they’re looking at light that left the earth 160,000 years ago, during the last ice age. A lot older than I am, anyway.” He was in college.

Outside, a 9.5-inch telescope was aimed at the “Jewel Box”, a star cluster that looks to be a single star in the southern cross constellation.

Hot chocolate was passed around–it was cold up there–and some “ooohs” and “aaahs” were donated to the wind as the guides pointed out a slow-moving satellite.

Now, satellites are boring. They really are. If you stare at the night sky for fifteen minutes you’ll probably see one. So the fact that they elicited such reactions meant, I knew, that a shooting star would blow this group away.

And the amazing thing is, TWO shooting stars flared up near the horizon…

…and no one saw them.

Now, it’s possible I hallucinated both. People see “crazy things” in the sky. As a casual stargazer, though, I’ve seen my share of real and fake shooting stars, the most common fake being the underbelly of a fast-flying bird catching a streetlamp. At least one of these was the real deal. These were shooting stars.

And no one saw them.


December 28, 2011




At 8AM sharp, with neither food nor coffee in our bellies, Billy the northern Irishman pulled up in his bus-van. Billy was a mechanic most his life, but after visiting his sister in New Zealand, Billy packed his bags. “This is a dream job, really,” he said. “Every day feels like I’m on holiday.” Halfway through he pointed out a telephone pole. “See that? Now, you don’t have to, but what most locals do, what most Kiwis do is they hold there breath from that pole there, which is the start of the bridge, all the way to the other side. It’s the longest bridge in New Zealand.” All three of us made it. A short while later another bridge came along. “So here’s the Rangitata River you’ll be rafting on today,” he said. The river contained nothing but rocks and dry sand. We looked up at Billy, confused. He was smiling.

We arrived early, and after a few cups of tea and instant coffee, it was time for an early lunch and a prep talk. The head guide, Steve, introduced “one of New Zealand’s top female rafters,” a muscular Fijian woman, and another guide, who Steve said, “isn’t much good. Bad luck if you’re on his boat.” The guide in question looked up from the floor, squinted at Steve, and walked out of the room. As for the third guide (not present), his name was Chunk. “Anyone seen Goonies? The movie, Goonies?” Antje and I raised our hands. “OK cool, so when you see Chunk, you’ll know why we call him that.” Chunk walked in a minute later, true to form, with dreadlocks to boot. When it came time for gear-fitting Steve asked, “Are there any Aussies in here?” A couple raised their hands. “Good, good, because we’re kind of short on life jackets today. Aussies can swim, right?”

As Billy drove the group to the drop-in, Chunk asked where I was from. I said Seattle, and he said, “That’s close to Oregon, isn’t it.” He’d taken a west coast road trip from San Diego to Alaska, and had spent some time in Oregon. “They filmed Goonies there,” he said.

On our raft were Jerry, Diane, and their two daughters, Dakota (Cody) and Willow. Billy took a picture of us, but had a tough time with Antje’s iPhone. “Not much good with technology,” he admitted. “In Ireland we still have gas TVs.” Originally from outside Toronto, Diane (and family) had just finished a yearlong teaching exchange in Brisbane.

The Rangitata River is Grade 5, the highest allowable. 80 tons of water pass through per second. The chances of flipping are high, and in the first flat stretch Steve instructed us on minimizing that risk, including diving as a group to one side. We also practiced overboard procedures. The rapids progressed in perfect order, from 1-to-5. Surprisingly, it was the second rapid, a class 2, that slammed us the hardest, and that might have been my fault.

Steve had been adamant about continuing to paddle NO MATTER WHAT appeared to be coming, to paddle especially hard through rapids, even as they washed over us, that it’d help to get us through. Never were we to just FREEZE and do nothing. Okey dokey. The rapids were pretty idle at first, but as our raft began a nose-first plunge into a giant wave I scooted forward to dig the paddle in before it hit the raft. Steve later informed me that my forward slide had made the nose heavier, so that rather than bouncing over it we’d punched right through. The head-high wave blasted us off our seats. No one fell out, though.

When we’d finished the Class 5s we hopped out of the rafts and floated a long, easy section of the water. The sun was hot, the water cold and blue, and it wound through rounded grey boulders and green hills. Afterwards we jumped 5m (15-foot) and 9m (27-foot) cliffs, after being repeatedly admonished not to show off and try backflips or gainers. Steve pointed to a tree on the opposite hill. “We keep a backboard under there. We don’t like to use it.” I could have stayed there all day.

At the next rapid Steve aimed us back at a small waterfall and intentionally got the raft stuck in it, spinning us around and around as it filled it to the top with water. This went on for at least two minutes before Steve finally got what he’d wanted. Antje flipped backwards out of the raft and into the river, holding on to the side with one hand. With a yank of her lifejacket I got her back inside. “Thanks Steve,” she said.

When we’d rafted a rapid called “Last Rapid”, we loaded up the raft and Billy drove us back for the evening barbecue. Next he drove us to Geraldine, our personal chauffeur, and at the hostel wished us well a half-dozen times, and waved goodbye.


December 27, 2011

Akaroa and Hector’s dolphin

Akaroa and Hector’s dolphin

Akoroa and Hector’s Dolphin

The bus-ride out of Christchurch was sight-seeing + nostalgia + a heavy scoop of melancholy. The driver spoke in the tone of someone showing the exact spot where his house burned down.

“Do you see that building right there? That one’s got to come down. The one on the corner comes down, the next one’s gotta come down, and all of those because of the February earthquake.” He turned right at the fenced-in sector. “We’re about to go past the old arts center–but at the moment, that building, there with the crane, that’s coming down. Those were the south island’s most expensive apartments, and now they have to come down.” We passed a beautiful stone building. “On your right-hand side is the arts center, and this was one of our iconic buildings, and we don’t know whether it’s going to be rebuilt or not, because it would be a $300 million job to do it.”

Outside of Christchurch, he commented on something that, for professional drivers, is probably akin to a wineries for sommeliers. “It used to be a fine road, good and straight. Now it’s a bit bumpy… and there’s a few more bumps in here after yesterday.” The subject turned to liquefaction. “One of my friends has a house in the eastern suburb, and he cannot use his house, because in February there was a lot of liquefaction, and this went right through his house and was about 300mm, or 30cm, deep, in some places through his house. So he had to move out, and his house has been demolished. This just happened again yesterday, not as much as before, but significant.”

At a pit-stop, the Asian-Kiwi owner of an astonishingly beautiful hillside café–one that took in the entirety of the Akaroa bay we were about to visit–walked over to our table and leaned over the bold, red, NZ Herald headline that was to dominate the entire weekend, without containing a word: “1:58 – 5.8, 2:06 – 5.3, 3:18 – 6.0, 4:50 – 5.0″. It seemed like the guy wanted to talk, so I said, “Exciting, huh?” He shook his head. “You can’t get earthquake insurance anymore. Any damage, we have to pay for.” When Antje ordered a bagel with pesto, the rastafarian-haired waitress informed her that it wasn’t available. “It got smashed yesterday, so sorry!” Another earthquake casualty.

Akaroa, our bus-driver informed us, was France’s best effort at colonizing New Zealand.
At some point France decided that Akaroa–a thumb to the south island’s body–would be a good place to set up a colony. So they got together a group of 65 people, some French, some German, and set sail in early 1840. From there it was storms, storms, storms. They went to the north island as soon as possible to re-stock, at Waitangi, where they found the British signing a treaty with the Maoris, “The treaty of Waitinge.” It caused “no end of problems”, according to our bus driver, “because there’s an English version, and there’s Maori version, and the two do not say the same thing.” When the British found out that the French were intending to come out to Akaroa, one of the British captains decided he would slip out under the cover of darkness and beat them to it. 11 days later the French sailed up the harbor, ready to disembark. The British flag had been raised, and the British, kind as they are, let them stay, which is sort of like offering a second-place-finisher your stool to sit upon. And thus the French-feeling city of Akaroa.

Here, the women wear hats. Here, there are organic goods. Here there are rue-de-whatevers. And here there is Tree Crop Farms.

I can’t actually describe this place. It’s so idyllic, so utterly Eden-like, that to describe it in human language would be to remove a piece of that Eden, word-by-paltry-word. The photographs are a grave injustice. You have to physically experience it with all five senses in tune, and I can only say, “Good work, Lynne. You’re doing it right.”

Most tourists go to Akaroa–if they go at all–to swim with the world’s smallest dolphin, the Hector’s Dolphin, the world’s rarest. That’s what we were doing, and with the stupid good luck of the happy tourist, I asked one of our captains, a Scotsman, who this ‘Hector’ was. “Well,” he piped up, puffing out his chest, “you must be referring to Sir James Hector, the SCOTSMAN who did so much for New Zealand.” He went on to describe one of those 19th-century renaissance men who captured every field of science in a single lifetime, and then gave it all back at the end to whichever country he chose to love. In this case it was New Zealand, and the Te Papa Museum, New Zealand’s Louvre of the Natural Sciences, whose first floor we manage to appreciate… in three full hours. Our Scotsman/dolphin-guide actually swelled up in the telling–he believed in the man, in his mission, and because of that, we did too–and all of this in spite of the fact that this dolphin-guide had been a class clown five minutes earlier, telling each and every tourist, “This seat is the best, that seat is the best, that seat’s also the best seat,” etc. etc. etc.

In the harbor, fish were not dropped off the side of the boat. Nothing was done to attract the dolphins. Absolutely nothing. As our guides explained, they simply stop the boats where the dolphins are seen, and if the dolphins choose to swim around (“friendly”), we all hop in, and if not (“unfriendly”), we don’t hop in. Simple as that.

They’re as friendly as little children. For 45 minutes, in very cold water, the dolphins buzzed us dozens of time. At one point they encircled Antje for a full minute, and my own best moment was singing into an inverted snorkel (recommended by the guides for dolphin attraction), and hearing the “Puh!” of the blowhole behind me. [song: Flight of the Navigator theme]

Good work, Blackcat Cruises.



December 26, 2011

Thar she-

Thar she-

“Now, a lot of you may be tempted to yell ‘Thar she blows!’” our guide said. “But please don’t do that. Not because it scares the whales or anything, but because it’s wrong.”

The ship, a powerboat catamaran with about 100 seats inside, cruised up and down the waves. It was sea-sicky.

“Today they’re all gonna be male. If you wanna see females and calves, you are definitely in the wrong area. I don’t know if you’ve been for a dip here in Kaikoura, but our water is not tropical.”

Our destination whale was Birdy, a whale whose fluke tips resemble, surprise surprise, a bird.

Earlier, Antje had asked what you call these kinds of whales in English. “Sperm whales,” I said, and she rolled her eyes at what she thought was another really stupid joke that I had wasted more of her time with. When she realized I was serious, her face puckered up, “YUCK.” [German: Pottwal, "Pot Whale"]

On the way we passed a Wandering Albatross, whose four-meter wingspan, our guide said, makes them the “world’s largest bird.” It was a ripe opportunity for a real joke–I should’ve said something like, “But what about Larry Bird?”–but it wasn’t there when I needed it and the tour-guide kept going:

“The average dive-time for Sperm Whales is normally forty-five minutes. So this whale has been down for maybe fifteen minutes, and we’ve got fifteen to twenty minutes to travel out there, so it should be pretty good timing for us.”

A few more Wandering Albatross later, the announcement came. Everyone jumped from their seats simultaneously, creating an instant line. Slowly it inched toward the steel ladder that everyone was apparently having such a terribly difficult getting up. In the middle of all that unsuccess I let a couple in, and they let their children in, and their children let their stuffed animals in. If this goddamned sperm whale wasn’t there when we got there….


I’d always imagined sperm whales, as, uh, moving. Dynamic. Life-like. But this guy was like a jogger after a seriously tough sesh: “Whoooo…. whooaa…. wooow… what a jog… ohhhh… that was good… ohhh… OK now… stretch a bit… OK now… breeeeeathe.” White steam puffed out every thirty seconds or so from his gray-rubber back. Otherwise he didn’t budge. This happened for about ten minutes before the guide got on the intercom.

“OK, folks, get ready. He’s getting ready to dive!”

With the confusingly slow-motion movements of a tremendously huge mammal, the gray rubber back curved, arced down, and the flukes gave a goodbye flap. We gasped collectively and shuffled inside.

Our whale-guide instructed us to look back at Kaikoura’s bay-fringing mountains. One of the peaks, Mt. Munako, is 2,610m (8,000 feet) high. If that mountain could be flipped upside down, she said, that’s how deep a while dives. “When the whale dives to these phenomenal depths all non-vital organs are completely shut down. They’re like living submarines.” Some of my non-vital organs shut down just thinking about it.

Next we made for Tiaki, “The Guardian,” a resident whale who’d been spotted nearby. We pulled up short, though, as another announcement was made. “Just have to wait here for a few minutes, folks. We’re only allowed to have three vessels around a whale. That helicopter should leave any minute here.” Above the helicopter was a Cessna, also filled with whale-watchers, and with both of them circling in the same direction over the whale, and with two very different kinds of engine noise, it all felt a little bit ridiculous, like too much whale-watching, or whale-watching with too much intensity.

The chopper/Cessna combo zipped off to further whales, and our boat nudged forward to Tiaki. A line formed immediately. The ladder was once more ascended with due diligence by all parties. On the positive side, the line was one child shorter: one of the girls had fallen asleep atop her stuffed dolphin. Another memory lost.

From our perspective, Tiaki looked like Birdy, meaning a strip of gray rubber in the waves. But when he, too, gave a good ol’ wave of the flukes, even the layman could tell he was different. Flukes are to whales what fingerprints are to humans. Each one is unique. In other words, if a sperm whale robs a liquor store, he’d better wear a fluke glove. Personally, I’d hoped to see the big bad battering ram of a head, or one, intelligent eye. Apparently they live up to 80 years.

“Trust me,” our guide said, “there is so much that we don’t know about them. A lot of things about sperm whales are based on theory.”

As for the real, quantifiable statistics, they’re horrifying. For most whale species you can take the original population numbers, lop off three zeros, and that’s what you get today. Japan uses a “scientific research” loophole to kill 1,000 every year. That is absolutely vile of Japan. When you’re presented with this information after seeing these animals, it’s hard not to feel a surge of militancy. One group, Sea Shepherd, isn’t militant at all, yet still managed to thwart all but 50 last year.

On the way back we stopped for some seal watching, and no one’s hunting these guys. As a result populations have boomed in recent years–above 100,000–and, lying on the sunny rocks, they yawned at us like we were the most boring thing ever.


December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

In last week’s New Zealand Herald, there was a political cartoon that showed Santa giving a middle-aged man a tricycle. Two of the wheels show the names of the majority/minority parties in NZ, and the third “wheel”, which is in fact a rectangle, has “Maori party” written on it. “You said you wanted stability,” Santa says.

Merry Christmas!


December 24, 2011

Christchurch earthquake

Christchurch earthquake


At around 2:45, more than two hours into bus ride, our driver flipped on the radio. Tick-by-tick, he increased the volume. ‘Mr. Jones” was playing, and I thought, ‘Funny bus driver. Must be a Counting Crows fan.’ When the song ended, the news cut in:

“Still getting reports from an earthquake in Christchurch at around five minutes to two this afternoon. Looks like around 5.8, and at least four aftershocks since then.”

A few minutes later I was able to change seats and sit next to Antje. “Did you hear that?”

“Yeah. Scary.”

As we cruised into Christchurch, passengers stopped reading and started watching. It was 3:15, and, due to the surge of traffic, our 3:25 arrival time seemed doubtful.

“There’s the Northland Shopping Centre, on your right,” the driver announced. “Normally some good shopping. Unfortunately the stores are closed.”

In the mall’s parking lot, dozens of groups of high-school-aged kids sat in circles. It looked like a field trip. As bus pulled over to drop off an elderly passenger, I thought, ‘That must be hot, sitting on the asphalt.’

The woman exited, the driver walked her to the undercarriage of the bus to unload her bags, and standing on the corner–I thought she’d hop on–was a teenaged girl with earphones in.

The bus started to vibrate. First gently, then forcefully, it rocked to the left and the right. The top was swinging, and at some point Antje and I grabbed hands. It was still swinging when the last hit came. It was powerful and violent, like that last good WHIP when you’re cleaning a rug, and afterwards everything shuddered to a stop.

The girl with earphones re-steadied herself with both arms out. Above her, an electric pole danced back and forth, tugging at the wires. Outside the mall, friends and strangers hugged each other atop the asphalt. I finally understood: they’d been sitting there because of the first earthquake, duh. One was waving her hands at her eyes to blow back the tears.

The driver ran back on. “Is everyone alright?” Everyone was. “Everyone alright?” We still were, and he nodded. Another day in Christchurch, his tone had implied. When he slipped into his seat I asked, “Hey, was that you? Stepping off the bus?” It took him a second, but he smiled, grabbed the wheel, and pulled back into traffic.

Half the city was outside. In front of office buildings, on lawns, standing around and talking rapidly–everyone wanted reassurance, both from people and from the earth. When our bus rolled by they watched it nervously.

Once outside, we, the passengers, grinned at each other with relief. We’d made it! A few re-hashings were laughed about before the anxiety set in again. When was the next one coming? Would it be stronger? Were we safe there, next to the concrete lamp-posts?

The walk to the hostel was shocking. Since February’s earthquake, little looks to have been repaired. Most streets are checkered with vacant lots, cracked foundations poke up from scraped buildings, and piles of bricks and rubble are fenced in… wherever there’s fencing left. Something like 8 square blocks of the city center are fenced in. Every business within that fence is closed. We were nervous about our hostel.

The map showed Foley Towers as being very, very close to the fence. Second, its name implied, well, towers. Is there anything worse than a tower in an earthquake? We decided to demand a first-floor room or find an alternative–if there were alternatives. Half the places I’d tried to book had sent back auto-email replies that read, more or less, “Closed until further notice.”

The hostel staff opened the door. “You alright?” Their faces were pale. Both were Europeans doing the work-travel thing. This was their first earthquake. “So the water’s still running, but we don’t know if the supply is OK. We’re asking people not to use the shower or faucet, and if you have to use the toilet, don’t flush.” The sign-in sheet lay on a table covered in gypsum dust; above, a crack ran through the the ceiling. Hm. Our room, however, was a dream: ground floor, no rooms above, light ceiling/roof, a bed that could be crawled under. Only the framed paintings were off kilter. As we tested the mattress, a 4.6 aftershock rumbled the room.

Our only order of business in Christchurch was to buy two sleeping bags. Our only option to take a taxi. The store, Kathmandu, used to reside on what is now the wrong side of the fence. As one of the hostel staff dialed, another aftershock hit, this one 4.4

On the way out, our Ethiopian cab-driver, Gasha, told us how he had gone home that day for lunch with his wife and kids. When the first quake hit, he screamed at his boys to get under the kitchen table. For the next hour, his youngest trembled, speechless.

We later found out that, as he told that story,a 5.0 earthquake rippled beneath the wheels. None of us noticed.

Kathmandu, it appeared, had sent its employees home. Smart, actually.

We had him drop us off at a restaurant recommended in the guidebook. We were famishedd. Lunch had passed us by on the bus ride, and the adrenaline kick had worn off. It was time for some pan-Asian…

…gravel. Not even a stone remained of the former building. On the map it’s right there, but in real life? Not even an errant spot of soy left.

At a former Thai restaurant nearby (again on the wrong side of the fence) a water main had burst and water gushed out from under the entry. A few spectators had gathered. The street they were standing on had a hole that had appeared in the last few hours, had spewed silt onto the road in what is known as “liquefaction”. You hear this word often around Christchurch at the moment; there seems to be some satisfaction just in saying it aloud, “liquefaction.”

As the fence was between us and our hostel, we walked 6 blocks around to get close to home. No restaurants. No anything, for that matter. Everything was closed. Nothing was open for business. Our hostel could only think of one possibility: a brewery 4 blocks down. When the beautiful brick brewery came into view, we cheered. Inside the building, however, nothing moved. Its owner found us peering hopefully through the windows.

“Should be open in a few hours, guys. Engineer’s gotta come round, take a look at it, give it the ol’ thumbs up.” We told him we were ravenous and needed something, anything, it didn’t matter what, to eat. “There’s a place down this way called ‘Tui’. They’ll fill you up.” As we thanked him, he turned to admire his building. “Built in 1866,” he said.

Three more hundred-year-old brick buildings popped up one block later. Huge cracks had pulled them apart at the corners. On the next block the sidewalk was was covered in brittle glass from broken windows, and next to that was a single-story shop that sold stained-glass light fixtures. More than a few had fallen, and one was smashed. A pity, but no sympathy here. If you sell glass in Christchurch, well, that’s your call. What was sad, though, was a printed sign that had just been taped to a lamppost: Missing since last quake – Mailee [a Scottish Terrier]. Please call…. It’s hard to say which earthquake was being referenced.

Tui came into view.

Tui… was… OPEN!

We decided on the beer garden–no roof–and filled ourselves with fatty food and hoppy beer. A current of post-earthquake camaraderie ran through the place. Everyone was chatty, everyone drank an extra beer or two, everyone felt temporarily immortal. Had another aftershock torn through, it would have been met with a roar of approval.

Two of those revelers were a Maori named Gavin and a Fijian named Manassa. Both worked in what is, these days, a lucrative field in Christchurch: demolition. “If you want to know what dirty girls do,” Massan said, “I can tell you.” After a few rounds of clarification I understood that they’d recently demolished a building that had served as a brothel. “Everything they say about dirty girls is true,” he promised. “If you want to know something, just ask.” I took the bait. He leaned in close and said, “Needles.”

Gavin waived him off. “It’s dangerous, demolition. Every day you go home is a good day. If it shakes when you’re in there? Two buildings fell today.” [fact check: true, and no one hurt.]

In bed that night, still unshowered, a new round of anxiety took hold. Surely there’d be more aftershocks throughout the night? Or maybe a serious earthquake? Amazing that we can’t predict these things yet. Future generations will surely look at 3D earthquake maps the way we do hurricanes.

A few did hit throughout the night. Some buzzed the bed, another turned it into a massage mattress, and many, many, many more turned out to be my lovely wife, Antje, stirring next to me.

December 23, 2011

Kaikoura I

Kaikoura I


It’s usually about two minutes minutes before the bus arrives that the second-guessing begins. By that point a few dilapidated hotels, hostels, and B & Bs have rolled by, and it’s easy to think, ‘Mine could be one of those.’ And it could. But, with luck and a little research, our hostels HADN’T been one of “those” – until Kaikoura.

Kaikoura wasn’t part of our itinerary. The original plan was for Hanmer Springs, famous for its… well, you can guess that part.

But Hanmer Springs has a problem. IF a bus company does go there, they only go there sporadically, whimsically, just for fun, hardly for a profit. So we dumped Hanmer Springs like an internet girlfriend – “it’s not you, it’s the buses!” – and started making plans for Kaikoura.

After four tries, I finally caught a hostel that wasn’t busy or booked. To my surprise, they didn’t need a credit card. “Just a phone number.” When I told him I didn’t have one he said, “OK, then is there an email address you could give me?” When I gave him one, he explained. “Yeah, it’s just like, in case you don’t show up. I mean we can’t really do anything about it then, but at least, you know, I can vent at you.”

It’s a deal!

At the check-in desk, the list of other hostelers was foreboding: 75% were German. In general Germans are great, but here in New Zealand they tend to be young, as in 18, 19, 20 young. Which means they’re not really good at choosing hostels, since they can’t plan well, and don’t regret it. In other words…

Germans : hostel :: Flies : carcass

The owner gave us the standard intro: key-deposit, check-out time, and discount cards? Every puff of breath carried stale tobacco. Still, he was friendly and thorough, and I felt a surge of hope. The property, derelict as it was, tended toward the beach. Please, please, please. Maybe, just maybe, our double room was right… on… the…

… street?

When cars rush by every five seconds, their windshields reflect sunlight through our blinds and across the wall; give it 20 years, and the Easter-yellow paint job might even fade to reflect that fact. At night, two exposed, fluorescent tubes imbue the linoleum floor with extra industry. As for the bathroom sink, it could not possibly be narrower without ceasing to be a sink entirely, instead becoming two faucets that spew onto the floor. There is no sink “bowl” to be spoken of here; more like a sink “hot dog”. Anyone who’s used a baguette-sink knows that its design makes bending toward it is a necessity, especially in the case of toothpaste foam. But at some point someone affixed a cabinet just above the sink, making a forehead bump inevitable. There IS a gap between the two, leaving just one option: a serious craning of the neck resembling Shaquille O’Neill’s TNS, or Taco Neck Syndrome. Ah well. At least the view from one window is green as green can get: the signs, from nearest to furthest, are for Subway, John Deere, and BP. All great if you’re into farming and sandwiches from space, but we’ll head to the nearby bakery, thank you very much. For after all, who wouldn’t go to a bakery whose sign reads:

coffee – toilets

Talk about options! Why, I could spend all day in there!

OK, OK, OK. I should be fair. The room is large, we do have a patio, and we’re quarantined from the other hostelers. Also, the bed has memory foam – and remembers only us. Between our room and the Subway is a house with a pet seagull (lame wing) and a penguin.

So I guess what I’m railing against is this one, very specific, mismanaged strip of Kaikoura. Say, 100 square meters’ (yards’) worth.

But if this section could just… disappear – if this section could get sucked into a black hole, or were bulldozed and allowed to be reclaimed by jungle – if this section could be strafed and then firebombed and then flamethrowed – and then had acid dropped on it – boiling acid – and then hungry grasshoppers – then Kaikoura is one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen.

Kaikoura is a horseshoe bay. Instead of sand it has rounded gray pebbles that massage with a good hot hurt, and between those pebbles and the town are train-tracks that rumble our bedroom pleasantly five times a day. To the left (the north), the bay’s hemmed in by 6,000-foot (2,000m) mountains that plunge full tilt into the sea. To the right it has a finger-like peninsula, home to hundreds of fur seals. Apparently they smell bad, but all we’ve smelled here is the sea and sunbaked seaweed. There’s no boardwalk, just a sidewalk, and the tourists stroll down it with ruined hair, burnt noses, and seabreeze goosebumps. As a very touristed town, the food is mediocre at best and, at worst, induces diarrhea, which does make you happy for that private, double room.

We weren’t in Kaikoura for diarrhea, though. We were here for something else.

It was related, at least tangentially, to a hunk of polished white stone. There’s a lot of white stone in Kaikoura, and it projects like dorsal fins from the shores. This piece was in the middle of a lawn. It had been removed from the sea, polished up, and placed by the Tom Smith trail, on the walk to the peninsula,

Most of the time a memorial is just a memorial, a piece of stone, like a headstone. But, like a headstone, sometimes they stop the world from spinning for just a second.

The memorial was to “Captain Tom,” who died on June 16, 2003. When we walked by on December 22, 2011, there were flowers on top. On the day he died, a humpback whale had gotten snagged in some fishing nets, and Tom, as he had done about a year earlier, jumped in with a mask and fins. At some point, while unwrapping the lines, the flukes came down on him. On the memorial there was a four-line poem about Captain Tom setting sail.

Well, Captain Tom, I never met you but you sound like you were a really great guy. The world needs more people like you – a whole lot more. And, on that note, it was time to see some of those animals you loved.


December 22, 2011

Marlborough Country II

Marlborough Country II

Inside, Antje and the server did that thing that seems to happen most often to Germans, where they speak to each other in English for a while before realizing both speak German natively. In this case our server was Swiss-German, just like the proprietor, and he guided us through the five wines.

Wines are a subjective experience, and for us, subjectively, our palates were drying up. The wine was good, and we appreciated that the Hr. Herzog eschewed all forms of mechanization, but no wine jumped out us, nothing said, “This is the one.” Also, the place knows–or thinks–it is the best in town, and that got old after a while. The server did what he could to persuade us that their Sauvignon Blanc was absolutely top-notch, but Antje shrugged and told him that she’d realized she was more of a Pinot Gris fan. “OK, OK,” he said. “Do you have a map?” He pointed us down the street to Gibson Creek.

It was the last leg of the rip. Most cyclists go counter-clockwise, and in retrospect it should be the other way. The rectangle’s left leg is where the tiny boutique vintners, the little labors of love, nest up and grow grapes. These are the family operations, and you can’t even really find their wines in New Zealand, let alone elsewhere.

We parked our bikes at Gibson Creek, which looked like a wood-shop with the front wall removed. Inside an old man smiled and opened his arms. “Well! I guess you’re hear for a bit of wine tasting! Come on in! Come on in!”

When we stepped inside he said, “Now, do you know what we do here?” We told him we’d heard that their only wine was Pinot Gris. “That’s right! That’s right!” When Antje said that Pinot Gris was her favorite, he positively beamed, “Well you’re my girl, then! You’re my girl! That’s right!”

His name was Robin, and he made you feel as if your presence had made his entire day, that he’d keep you there just as long as he could. He had white hair and white grandpa eyebrows, and Lord of the Rings would have lost nothing–and maybe even gained something–by casting him as Bilbo Baggins.

“Now our first one… is the… 2009 Reserve,” he said, pouring two small glasses. The owners were gone that day, he explained. As their stand-in, he had a hand-written list of notes to which he constantly referred as he presented the wines.

“Now, Pinot Gris has become quite fashionable recently, in the last fifteen years, because it’s a touch sweeter than the Sauvignon Blanc. It’s especially popular with the ladies.” Antje liked it. It was less acidic than Sauvignon Blanc, she said. “Yes it is, isn’t it!” he laughed. “Yes it is!”

“In Germany we call it Grauburgunder,” Antje said. Robin smiled at her, confused. “Grauburgunder,” she repeated, “that is what we call Pinot Gris. In Germany.”

“Now I’m not familiar with that one,” he smiled.

“It is the German name,” she said.

“You’ll have to write that one down for me,” he smiled.

“‘Grau’ means ‘gray’ in German,” I tried. “So it’s the same name, Pinot Gris, just in German.”

“But doesn’t Gewurz mean gray in German?” he asked. “From Gewurztraminer?” [a german grape]

“Gewurz means spiced,” Antje said. “Like spices.”

“Oh!” His eyes lit up. “Well, my my!” He laughed at himself. “I’ve been telling people the wrong thing, then, haven’t I? All day long! I’ve been telling them Gewurz means gray! Oh no! Here,” he said, pulling out his paper pad. “What was it called again?” Antje spelled G-R-A-U-B-U-R-G-U-N-D-E-R for him, and dutifully he transcribed it, letter-by-letter.

“OK, then! Grauburgunder! So next is the 2009 Cellar bottle–or wait, now hold on. Oops. The first one was the Cellar bottle, I’m sorry about that. This one’s the reserve. Sorry about that!”

It didn’t matter. The wines were delicious, and it was our first “vertical tasting*,” having just learned that word at the Wine Museum in Napier.

“Now this next one is from 2010, which was… oh, I’d say the best year for wine in 20 years.” It did taste better, crisper somehow. But would it have if he hadn’t called it the best year? Who knows.

A fourth, a fifth, a sixth were poured. The sixth was a Rosé. The owners reappeared from wherever they had been. “You doing alright? The wine alright?” Absolutely. “We could’ve just retired,” he shrugged. “We could be on a beach right now. This is a lot more… challenging.” We told him he’d been recommended by Hans Herzog.”Oh really. Well we always appreciate that, it always helps. Expensive out there. We only charge $20 per tasting.” [A joke. It's free.] A seventh was poured, Pinot Gris mixed with Gewurztraminer. “Gewurztraminer!” Robin laughed. “Now I know! Hold on–what it is again?” “Spiced,” Antje said. “Spiced… traminer.” “OK, then! Spiced, not gray!”

We looked over the list, trying to decide which to buy. “Have I given you the last one?” Robin asked. “It’s the… Gewurztraminer. Ah yeah, we did that one.” The winery produces 2,000 cases a year, and when we finally chose two bottles, Robin rounded the price down.

Which is why, if you ever get down to Marlborough, go for the boutiques–and specifically, Gibson Creek.

* “Vertical tasting”: same vineyard, different years.
“Horizontal tasting”: same year, different vineyards.


December 21, 2011

Marlborough Country I

Marlborough Country I

At 10 in the morning, our lady hostel-owner gave us two bikes, a map, and enough “make sure to stop here!” advice to last well more than the 7 hours allotted.

Her advice was a re-hash of what her husband had told me the evening before. He’s the fourth Watson to run Watson’s Way Backpackers, and he (and she) have done a good job of it. The sofa and chairs in the communal room are arranged in a large oval, which doesn’t so much force conversation as gently nudge it forward. The local wine also helps, as well as the fact that most people have spent the day bicycling and just want to sit and be content. Mr. Watson caught me trying to make sense of a map of the town he’s always lived in, Renwick, New Zealand.

“Yep, it’s not too tough, then. We’ve got 25 wineries round here. They’re all within 5k.”

25 wineries in 3 miles? There was no way on earth that we could bicycle to 25 wineries and live to tell the tale. So after careful, excruciating deliberation, we picked our favorite 24 and set off.

At Cloudy Bay we ran into Mathilde, a 31-year-old Frenchwoman we’d met at our hostel the night before. She grew up in the region of Champagne, moved to Paris in her 20s, was tired of Paris now–but didn’t want to go back to Champagne, either.

“I am ready for quiet. Maybe in the south, I think. Better for the hears [ears].”

Our first tasting was a bubbly called Pelorus. When the server learned that a real Champagner might drink it, she covered her face in feigned shame. Mathilde laughed, and politely deigned to sip it. “It is good,” she said. “I like it.” Privately she gave it a Non. “Too much citrus. I like pear and apple. But that is just me. I do not know what is good.”

We thought it was fine, and felt the same about the Sauvignon Blanc, the region’s most famous grape. Next came Pinot Gris, also fine, and Riesling. One quaff was enough to know this wasn’t Riesling from Germany, and that it was, most likely, the same Riesling two British women had warned us about the evening before. “It smells exactly like fuel.” Indeed. Last was the Pinot Noir, which our server claimed to be a “soft, feminine grape,” at least in New Zealand. Um, that’s not what we tasted.

About two weeks ago, back in Napier (the Art Deco city on the sea), our hostel was right next door to The Wine Museum. It was purported to be a cheap man’s way of sampling what Hawke’s Bay, the north island’s grape basket, had to offer. But when we saw the price we wavered. 15 euros ($20 US)? For a museum?

In the end we paid up, went inside, and were led into a small, rectangular room. Inside was the complete, 54-scent kit of “Le Nez du Vin”, created by a Frenchman whom we can assume to be eccentric. Each metal stopper dips into a specific scent: blackberry, quince, red currant, musk, vanilla, coffee, toast. Like the jelly beans in Harry Potter, they also include bad scents–scents that mean a wine has turned (“horse”). All were to be lifted to the nostrils, inhaled, and hopefully remembered. At the end there was a blind 10-scent test.

This is probably old hat for serious wine drinkers, but for newbies it’s a revelation. It’s like that feeling in elementary school when you go from 16 Crayola crayons to 64. Above each of the scent stoppers are placards that say which wine a particular smell might be found in. When it came time for “smoke”, “leather”, “tobacco”, that kind of explanation became interesting. Smoke, leather and tobacco in wine? The answer is Pinot Noir. Or at least, Pinot Noir from the south Island’s wine region, Marlborough. And that’s exactly what we tasted, in a corkscrew turn of flavors, at Cloudy Bay.

The tasting continued at Allen Scott, with a Pinot Noir, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a third one. Mathilde loved the Pinot Noir, and so did we. We ordered a glass it with our lunch, which was delicious, but which also, at least for Antje and I, was cold. A car had crashed a few minutes earlier into a concrete electric pole about 100 yards (meters) down the road, toppling the pole and cutting all electricity to the restaurant. For this our waiter apologized at least five times, and later he comped half the meal. As for the accident, he said it didn’t look too good. “Don’t know how it could’ve happened. But yeah, the car’s pretty bad.” After a second’s thought he frowned more deeply. “Hope he wasn’t coming from here.”

Like America, New Zealand has very, very strict liquor laws. Signs are posted at every bar regarding the $10,000 fines for serving an intoxicated patron. You’d think that’d make the roads safe, but it doesn’t. Like America, everyone drives, and like America, bike lines are, at best, a sloppy afterthought. At worst, which is 99% of the time, they don’t exist.

Still, we were surprised to find that our 14k (8.5-mile) wine-tour bike route had neither bike-lane. There would be no hint of bike trail, not even a whiff, not even a thought. Nor would there be a shoulder. Amazingly, there’s almost always a wide strip of bumpy grass on either side of the road, fringing the street and the vineyards. It begs for a bike-lane. Without it, well, Marlborough is farm country, and huge trucks and double-semis whoosh by way, way too close, doing about 50MPH (85). The only thing that surprised me about the car accident–in a happy way–was that a biker hadn’t been involved.

Speaking of driving, Mathilde had to leave. She’d rented a car and had to drop it off 30 minutes north that day. She’d blown most of her travel budget in Australia–”Too much party”–and for the next 8-weeks was doing a work-stay at a nearby B & B. She was happy about it. It didn’t involve farming.

For us it was time for the winery we’d been looking forward to most of all: Hans Herzog. The most expensive in town, its tastings were still very reasonable. It also had Antje’s maiden name. We’d never said as much, but both imagined hauling a beautiful bottle emblazoned with the word “HERZOG” back home.

[to be continued....]


December 20, 2011

Few observations

Few observations

A few observations.

Many cafes are closed on Sundays.

Most restaurants/cafes/bars haven’t discovered faucets that combine hot and cold water to make medium water. So the options are, left: scald, or right: bacteria.

Tap-water is free at restaurants, and comes in a big glass bottle.

If you pull out a map, a Kiwi will help you.

If you need any help, a Kiwi will help you.

Kiwis are very, very nice.

“How you going?” and “Good on you” are common expressions.

The guidebook says tip 5-10%. When we tried to tip 10% on a meal, our waiter grimaced. “Ooh, you sure? That’s [$3 US].” They don’t expect it.

At one of our first meals I asked if we could pay. The waitress nodded, walked away, walked past us, walked away, walked past us again, and, well, even though I made eyebrows at her, nothing productive seemed to be happening. The reason? You pay at the counter.

As Antje pointed out, the word Kiwi is what Germans call a “Teekesselchen”. It has three distinct meanings. You can eat a Kiwi, protect a Kiwi, and ask a Kiwi for directions–and no one will know that the first is a human, the second a fruit, and the third a bird!


December 19, 2011



Zealandia is surrounded by a 8.4km/5-mile, reinforced mesh fence with a curved steel lip on top to keep out cats, rats, possums, and curious boys.

The entry includes two sets of 20-foot-tall gates with a mandatory bag-check in between. There they screen for – of all things – mice. Antje and I laughed, and after checking my own bag, I said, “All clear, just a raccoon in there.” The manager smiled politely.

“Not too long ago,” she said, “we actually did find a mouse in one.”


“They’d been staying in an RV park. I guess it just snuck in!”

How shameful. I mean, a bottle of water at the airport, sure. But a mouse?

After the gates, everything goes quiet. A gravel trail curves past a reservoir and into the forest, where it branches off and loops around for a grand total of 30 km (18 miles).

A few steps in, things get noisy again. Bird-call after bird-call echoes off the hills, off the reservoir. At the lake’s near end a mama Paradise Duck (like a Mallard with a better paint job) watched her ducklings learn to waddle. Almost within arm’s reach, a Tui dove into some honeysuckle. At the far end, a dozen “Shags”, which I think we call cormorants, were looking at things and doing nothing.

A few gates later (or really, “kiwi sections” later), a volunteer, Gil, came up the path. “You seen any Tuatara? If you come over here, I just showed another couple–there’s a baby one over the fence.”

Peeking out of a dirt burrow was a nondescript lizard, engaging us in a staring contest that never stopped.

“Just a baby, that one. Quite vulnerable. If one of the of the adults comes by, he might be in trouble. They eat them.”

“Wait, like cannibalism?”

“Not too nice, is it.” He poked his finger at the nickel-sized slots in the mesh. “Mice can get through here, believe it or not. Baby mice.” A Tui flew by. “They’re seen a whole lot more in these suburbs now, Tuis. Ever since we started this project here. Hey, if you’re interested in the Kakas, there’s a presentation at 2 o’clock, that way. Plenty of time from here.”

Before the presentation point, the Kakas had appeared. They’re coffee-colored parrots with burnt-orange underwings… except that they’re not really parrots. Charlotte explained:

“They do use that beak like a third foot, mm hmm, just like parrots. But they’ve evolved on their own. Anyone know what they use their beak for?”

We all looked hopefully at two little Australian boys. They looked back at us, amazed by the sudden attention being paid to them. We willed them on; they watched us willing them on. The father asked if they knew, and the boys looked back at him. It was all very quiet and a little bit strange, and Charlotte intervened:

“They use their beak to dig in trees for beetles, mm hmm. Sometimes they’ll dig for hours, just for one beetle. That causes problems sometimes–when they do it with rare trees. Kakas aren’t too popular over at the botanical garden. Would anybody like to see some Kakariki’s?”

Kakariki? The diminutive Kaka?

Not at all. Kakarikis are green parakeets that resemble the flocks let loose in Cologne, which now thrive in the parks.

But enough Kaka.

From there the trail looped upwards. Just before it crossed a dam, there came a placard summing up the two “interesting facts” found by a recent geological survey:

The concrete dam lay directly atop a tectonic fault.
The dam had 284 million liters of water behind it.

Thus a big slow drain of a significant portion of the water, and, following that, the pleasant encroachment of native flora and fauna atop the freshly exposed soil. It’s all part of a 500-year plan to return the bush to pre-settlement states. At least someone’s thinking ahead. Antje and I certainly hadn’t.

It was 57 (14) degrees that day, and, exposed atop the dam, it felt like less. Antje had whipped out the poncho, and I was willing myself warm with happy thoughts and a gentleman’s blazer. We had a choice: extend the loop by another hour, or head back. It wasn’t really a choice.

On the way back there’s a wooden suspension bridge that’s something of an illusion. When it starts wobbling up and down halfway across, you think, ‘Hm, how high is this thing?’ It feels like 20 feet (6m). But it’s 20 feet to the treetops, then another 80 feet (26m) below. At that point a Kaka gave a loud “Ka-ka!” and buzzed our heads, gliding down the valley for about 10 seconds before banking right down another valley and out of view. It was a moment that makes you think, ‘I want to be a philanthropist and donate to this project.” Or, ‘I want to be a Kaka.”

Kakas have had a bad run of it here in New Zealand, though. They like to lay eggs inside the warm safety of a rotting log. There’s one entrance, one exit, and they sit there incubating for about a month. Cats love that. 17 Kakas were introduced to the park, and, thanks to the fence, they’ve hit 300. The nocturnal Kiwis are also doing well.

One bird that’s not faring so well is the Takahe. If you want to know what a Takahe looks like, just imagine the creation that would happen if a turkey mated with an eggplant (aubergine).

A few decades ago there were 240 of them. And today? 240. We saw one munching grass by the reservoir, and, on cue, one of the volunteer staff walked up.

“That’s T2,” she said, “for Terminator 2. His dad was Terminator 1. He was mean, really mean. Aggressive. So we called him Terminator. We think Terminator 2 actually killed him.”

Patricide? In birds? No wonder there’s only 240.

“His lady’s back at the nest. Zealandia’s supposed to be a retirement facility for them. It was a big surprise when she laid an egg. Hopefully it hatches.”

We asked about Sirocco, a Kakapo parrot whose imposing green face adorns nearly every advertisement for Zealandia. He was gone for the summer.

“Oh he’s a character. He thinks he’s human. As in, he actually tries to have sex with humans. He climbs up on their heads and–”


Cannibalism. Patricide. And now, inter-special intercourse.

On second thought, the mouse-screening process made sense. It wasn’t for the protection of the birds. It was for the protection of the mice from bad thoughts.

Would we go back to Zealandia again? Unequivocally yes.

But at that moment it was time to go home, get warm, and start having nightmares.


December 18, 2011

Comedy part II

Comedy part II

4th act

Why don’t you put your drinks down right now because I’m – about – to drop – a news – BOMBSHELL.

News just in from the Cappedi Coast Paper. Apparently chickens LIKE listening to country music. [no reaction] Well, just like everybody in this room, I was gobsmacked.

To think that chickens would be that…


My first reaction was, it explains a lot. Because for years I’ve been listening to my little bippity-bop jazz records. And those chickens have been listening to country.

No wonder we’ve never seen eye-to-eye.

Look, I don’t know if you’ve if noticed, but I’m a white guy. Pretty well fed, six feet tall, don’t complain.

Look, I don’t know if many people here work in an office. I work in an open-plan office. Which means it’s pretty much a constant invasion of my privacy.

I think, I’ve lost count of the amount of times at lunch time when I’m eating a sandwich quietly at my desk and someone from three desks away will walk up and say to me,

‘Hey Rick, what’s happening, you eating lunch?’

And I’ll say,

‘Yes, you caught me. I’m eating my lunch.’

And they’ll say,

‘Uh, yeah, cool, I ate my lunch seven minutes ago.’

And I’ll say,

‘Well, I guess that’s because it’s lunch time.’

I’ll tell you another reason I don’t like the open-plan office is – does anybody know what the first open-plan office was?

It was Africa.

That is why zebras get killed by lions. I’ll tell you what a zebra’s thinking when it’s being attacked by a lion.

‘This wouldn’t have happened if I’d had my own office.’

Recently my boss bought a marine fish tank to improve our team morale. Which was a mistake because we didn’t have morale to begin with.

But anyway, so, he gets these four marine fish. I think they looked like that ‘Nemo’ fish. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hang on a second. I’m working my ass off here, and Nemo and his buddies are clowning around at the beach? That’s not fair.’ And I think there’s a strong word for that.

It’s called ‘unfair’,

[no reaction]

I – I was expecting that one to get more of a laugh!

But after a while I started feeling sorry for the office fish, and what happened is, our morale didn’t improve, the fish actually got depressed.

One of them jumped out of the tank and suicided.

And I think it’s because, if you think about it, when the lights go out and we leave the office, guess who’s stuck there? The office fish.

They’re there on the weekends, on the public holidays. It never ends for the office fish, does it? And um – um – that was also meant to have another joke at the end, which I forgot.

[bit that involved a van and homeless people]

So anyway, now I’m just the same old shallow idiot, working in an open-plan office. But now I’ve got a van.

Thank you.


Hot shit on toast!

I just wanna get real for a second before we bring on our closer – or ‘Headliner’, if you’re in the biz.

Um, I was recently chosen to go and do a thing up in Auckland, in Skycity, to be filmed for TV. Because I was, uh – the comedy mafia said, ‘You’re the most promising comedian… in Wellington. No one’s as good as you.’

[stares over the heads of other Wellington comedians]

And then they sent another email that said, ‘In fact, no one in the rest of the country, outside of Auckland, is as good as you. You’re the best comedian, who hasn’t got a name for himself, who doesn’t already live in Auckland.’

Not that it’s a big deal.

5th act

Wellington comedy is shit. And there’s not a lot of people who are passionate about it.

[heartfelt thanks to the guys who organized it]

I’ve lived overseas, I’ve traveled around the world. You can do that when you look like you’re a Mexican.

[comedian = 50% Welsh + 50% Samoan]

A lovely thing about The Lord of the Rings is that I was too ‘beige’, too ‘dark’, to be anything but one of the forces of eternal darkness. When I was in Lord of the Rings I was like, ‘Hey, Peter!’ and he was like, ‘Whoa, put a mask on.”

So I was one of the orcs, like every other Maori or Pacific Islander. Did we complain? No. Because Peter was fat back then, he knew how to feed people. He ate like a Samoan, he fed you like a Samoan.

If you don’t know, Samoa’s a very bigoted country. We are 99% homophobic – Christian, sorry, we’re 99% Christian.

Technically, my father’s a Pacific Islander. And there was this dude at school, he was always trying to pick a fight with me. And he said the most outlandish shit.

And we got into an argument because he looked at me and went, ‘Hey ni—-!’

And I, to be honest, took it as a compliment, because I am like beige as SHIT. So I was like, ‘Thank you.’

So I sent in this joke to TV and said, ‘This is my joke,’ and they came back and said, ‘You cannot say ni—-, you are too white to say ni—-, you will offend Maori and Pacific Islanders.’

And then TV came back and said, ‘Hey man, don’t DROP the joke. It’s a good joke. Just say something less offensive to Maori and Pacific Islanders.”

At this point, I was very curious what that sentence was.

I said ‘OK, what do you suggest.’

They went, ‘Hey. Ni—- is an offensive word, to brown people from all cultures, especially Maori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Say something like….


This 5th guy, the final act, the ‘Headliner’, did two other things that deserve comment.

First, he tried making a joke about a Wellington journalist who was murdered in broad daylight a few days ago for the sake of a few dollars. The crowd reacted immediately, 100% negative, and he said, “What, too soon? Seriously, too soon? OK, too soon.”

That mistake was permissible. Most comedians make a living by toeing lines that we’re not really comfortable with, and in this case he realized he’d gone too far and retracted it directly.

A short while later, though, he’d gotten into politics and was struggling to find anything that unified the group with funniness. Floundering, he asked a man in the front row what he thought about such-and-such politician. The guy, who was bearded and had been laughing with all his weight the the whole night, was suddenly nervous. He didn’t know the politician, he said, and added, “You’re asking the wrong guy.” The comedian couldn’t hear him and asked him to repeat. The man tried to smile and said, “I said you’re asking the wrong guy.”

There was no joke left. The comedian was stuck on stage, looking at him. He said,

“Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like a rapist?”

The crowd laughed. The joke was about 40% true. The front-row man smiled tightly and tried to laugh along, looking at nothing.

The poor guy.

He’d taken time out of his Thursday evening to go support some local comedy, and this is what he got.

Antje looked over at him throughout rest of the act, and, up to the end, he’d lost his smile. He’ll remember that “joke” forever.

Granted, front rows are dangerous. But that was a shit move by a desperate comedian who should’ve eaten the awkwardness himself, on stage.


December 17, 2011



On stage, a large Samoan-looking man was just finishing his act.

OK, last thing. I’ve got a few jokes.

‘What do you call a punishment for coughing.’
‘A coffee [cough-fee]‘

‘What did the whale say to the Japanese whaler who’d just asked the whale to his birthday party?’
‘Sorry I can’t make it. I will be unawhaleable.’

There’s a guy back there who looks like Tom Hanks from Castaway. Can you stand up? How did you film it? Must’ve been some boring stuff.

OK, now I’ll really finish. Wait – everyone here know Jabba the Hut? Here’s my impression of Jabba the Hut.

[spends 20 seconds pushing his chin as deep into his chest as possible]

‘Oh sah makka soh patta po makka pekka mo hetta so fatta fetta so hemma so Han Solo.’

‘OOOOOOHHHHH LA matta swa liicka lacka po patta moo la bwakka fekka muh hetta hatta picka swacka KFC nuhhh.’


Thank you everyone!

2nd act, a girl with pink hair

So my maturity level’s not that high. I was at the hairdresser’s the other day and my hairdresser said, ‘I’m just going to do a number two.’ And when I started losing it she said, ‘No, no, I’m just going to do a number two on your head.’

Miranda breeds some REALLY stupid criminals. It was recently reported in our local paper back home, his defense in court was, ‘I only went in the place because the light was on.’ Which is only really a defense for a moth.

I love Wellington, I’ve made it my home. Really efficient paperboys. I like Christchurch, too, now that it’s lost its racist edge. ‘Cuz under cathedral dust, everyone looks the same.

[Audience: "Ooooooohhh." Earthquake reference.]

And I love Auckland, a very high Asian population so you always get exact change.

Miranda, the small town where I’m from, is famous for its hot-pools, which are the largest thermally-heated pools – in Miranda.

And the bird sanctuary, which I always thought was an awesome place when I was a kid. I remember going there, so excited as a kid.

‘What could these birds have possible done to need sanctuary? Political crimes?’


…and like, do you ever go into a cafe and say, ‘I would like some hot shit on toast please, I’m splashing out’?

And they say, ‘No, I’m sorry, we’ve only got cold diarrhea on bagels.’

‘Oh! That’s the bad one! I don’t want that! I want hot shit on toast, just like mum used to make.”

I do a little bit of acting, as well. Um, I was in a film, I don’t know, a little film, you might’ve seen it, called,


Because I had exactly what they were looking for 12 years ago when they were making that film.

I was a person, and I lived in the greater Wellington region.

Wasn’t that a good thing of Peter Jackson to do? To buy Bat’s Theater? You hear about this? They might’ve been kicked out, and he saved the theater.

I’ll tell you what’s not an everyday occurrence. And that’s when a new comedian gets up here to try something out for the very first time. Because why would you, in this room? It’s bright, there’s table service, and people are laughing as if it was a choice between that… and… something I should have prepared to say was horrible. A choice between laughing… and sticking a thorn into their eye. A choice between – oh my god – are we ready to welcome into the fold, a new comedian? His very first crack.

3rd act

Hey folks, are you ready for some funny-ass jokes?


Any of you guys like racist jokes? I’ve got a racist joke for you. What do you call a racist in a suit?


I have no idea what I’m doing up here. I’m wearing sunglasses because it’s so bright, and so that way you can’t see my tears. Which helps. So I came prepared, I wrote my set down on paper, so I could just read it. And I’m about 50/50 on that at the moment.

Um, so, I feel I’ve got one thing which qualifies me as a comedian. I read somewhere that a lot of comedians aren’t really funny in real life.

I’m quite a shy person. You might notice that by the fact that I’m shaking like a leaf. I’ve just got involuntary jazz hands.

I’m a high-school teacher. It’s true. People entrust their children to me. I taught about 150 kids this year. A lot of young lives wasted, basically. And I – shit, I completely forgot where I was going with that.

I’ve got notes.

Um, I’ve kind of run out of jokes. I do have a few more bits.

Yesterday I found my first gray hair, which was awesome. Because I’m ginger [red-head]. And to be honest, any change is better than being ginger.

I think I’d rather be a silver fox, than an actual, orange fox.

I think I have like one more joke?

Oh no I don’t.

Thank you guys, you’ve been awesome.

[Reader beware, you're in for a scare!]*

* RL Stine reference


December 16, 2011

Wet Welly

Wet Welly

Being forced to pound a hot, ‘take-away’, 16 oz. latte – ”No hot beverages!” – before a five-hour bus-ride is the opposite of a good start, especially when the bus has no bathroom.

Fortunately there was an extended bathroom break in the middle. A thin, middle-aged Kiwi walked up to me.

“Muggy out here, in’t it.”

In no time at all he’d picked up my accent, then Antje’s, and then put together that we were together. “My girlfriend’s from New York,” he said. “We live out here, though. With my sons.” When I asked how he met, he nodded. “One of those dating sites, yeah. Never thought I’d do that, actually. But.” He looked at his shoes. He had a hearing aid. “I put myself on the site, and, uh, all these old ladies tried to contact me. I was like… no thanks. Not her, though. She was already out here, down in Christchurch.” His sons shuffled up, both with sleepy hair. They were half-Maori. “You guys alright? You hungry?” They weren’t. We asked Darryl if he’d been to New York. “We’ve only been together three years now. But yeah, I’d love to. It’s just one of those cities, in’t it.” He sang a few bars from Sinatra, and we hopped back on the bus.

For the next 2 1/2 hours a Maori man a few seats ahead did what he’d been doing for the first 2 1/2: receiving text message after text message after text message, each of which triggered his full-volume ring-tone until he stretched sideways, unzipped his fleece vest, reached into a pocket, flipped open the phone, noted who’d sent it, and, after a second’s thought, hit a button that silenced the melody. His three boys, all of them young, were old enough to realize that this behavior was a violation of some rule they hadn’t learned yet, which was hilarious. They watched the stages of this process again and again, whispering and laughing through it. The dad thought they were laughing with him, and began singing with the phone when ever it rang. The boys loved that. On their dad’s forearms were prison-esque tattoos, he wore a baseball hat that said “Ford Racing,” and, like a surprising amount of New Zealanders, had no shoes on.

As for “Downtown Backpackers”, it’s more of an early-1900s hotel: brittle windows, 18 paint jobs, brass fixtures, copper piping, and a bathroom with itty-bitty tiles. It’s six floors high and has about twenty rooms on each. Seasonal workers even stay there. Sitting on the toilet, one can swing open the window and make eye-contact with an office-worker. It’s hard to say who’s getting more harassed in that situation.

Darryl was in the check-in line, and I laughed at the coincidence. “No, no,” he said, “we’re just dropping the bags off. $5 per night or something. We’re heading to Christchurch.” I nodded, but couldn’t make sense of it. Christchurch is a ferry-ride + bus-ride south, around five hours.

By 6PM the rain still hadn’t let up. This wasn’t “Windy Welly,” as the guidebook had predicted, but “Wet Welly.” The drains couldn’t handle it, and when the crosswalks turned green, even the locals jogged. Antje and I broke out the ponchos and made for Cuba St.

Wellington hooks around like Massachusetts, and as for Cuba St., it’s a strip of irreverence in the heart of downtown-downtown*. There, one floor above the hustle-and-bustle, is “Mighty Mighty.”

As soon as we’d climbed the flight of stairs the tattooed bartrendress put a finger to her lips. A pair of pink velvet curtains had been drawn, cutting the bar in half. Behind them, someone was saying something into a microphone. “It’s free,” she whispered. “You’re welcome to go in. You can make a donation afterwards, if you feel like it.”

* For Seattle-ites: like dropping “The Ave” on 4th and Union.
For Cologne people: like putting a Cologne street in Düsseldorf.

*** drawing from Art Deco city Napier, loved the windows there :) (Antje


December 15, 2011



Daan from Holland

Booked or spontaneous?
Yeah, wherever the wind blows me. I mean I have some general ideas of the highlights, what I want to visit. I meet people, they offer me something, um, I say yes or I say no.

Mostly traveling or mostly working?
Traveling. Whenever I go somewhere and I like it, I stay there for a couple of weeks. Move on, you know. I’m actually going to the Cormando Sunday morning with a local in Turanga and two German girls, and we’ll see what happens. Next week I gotta be in King’s Country. A guy I met in Auckland, actually I met his whole family, offered me to stay at his place for a few weeks. He’s got a 1200 acre farm with 5,000 sheep and um, the little lambs get harassed by wild pigs. So basically my job is to be on a quad with a shotgun and take out any wild pigs that go for the sheep.

Wow. Work and travel!
That is the idea. I’ve been doing this desk job for 10 years. I’m quite out of my comfort zone by a looooong way. I used to be this guy in a suit, behind the desk. And this is, you know, there I am hunting and skinning, working the field. You know, don’t get me wrong, I don’t love to kill or whatever, but to be on the land, be outdoors, be somewhat more in touch with… it feels more honest to do that than to be in a supermarket and get something out of the fridge that has lived in a little cage for all its life.

So you had a desk job?
I actually lost my job at the end of July. And that was for me just a reality check. I have been into corporate recruitment for ten years. So I was first in temp agencies and later moved on to headhunting, outsourcing of personnel. They told me a week in advance, so yeah. New management. I was too experienced for her. She wanted to do stuff with clients that will lose us money and lose us clients, and I know that. And she was like, “Nope, we’re gonna do it my way.” And I said, “Well, I would advise not to.” And that was the only thing I said. And that was, for her, a reason not to extend it.

At what point did you know you’d travel?
Pretty much straight away. I’d been working around with the idea for a few months. I just… yeah, I needed to get out and, uh, just create some distance between my old life, and just look at it. I mean, after ten years maybe it’s also a good point just to look back at what you’re doing – are you good at it, do you like it, would you consider doing it for another ten years, or maybe until you’re a pensioner. Um, I don’t feel like that. I mean it’s changed. It used to be that companies paid you good money, but they expected a decent job, and you do that, you get credit for that, and you know, other clients come to you and say, “Listen, do you wanna do a job for us?” Nowadays it’s just – her favorite quote was, “Throw enough shit at the wall, something will stick”… in terms of sending candidates over. But you know, that’s not – there’s a saying in Holland: “A reputation comes on foot and leaves by horse.” So yeah, I haven’t been working for 10 years, you know, 70 hours a week, to create a reputation and then flush it down the toilet because she, you know, wants to make some money.

Why New Zealand?
It needed to be a country where I could use my language. Well, the only other language besides Dutch. My Spanish is bad, my French is bad, my German is, um… “nicht sehr gut.” Yeah, so I tried Canada. But Canada already had the maximum amount of people applying for a work/holiday permit. So somebody told me, like, “Why not NZ, it’s the most beautiful country in the whole world.” I mean, the whole idea… I quote the locals here, “It’s the arsehole of the world.” Just the fact to be on the exact opposite side of the world, creating some distance. You cannot get further from home except by going into space.

How long?
Uh, I have been traveling for ten weeks now. I basically – until I run out of money. But I hope that won’t be before June. But you know, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t come back, who knows.

You might stay?
Got to love the country, and I don’t feel a lot of ties with home. I do miss my friends and family, but at a certain point everyone goes their own life, and I cannot, you know, wait for everyone to choose a path… and end up doing something I don’t really like. So I end up here, it feels good, and I can always go back whenever I want to. But it feels like, you know, it’s got a good vibe to it. I feel happy here, and yeah, the world’s smaller.

What else did you leave behind?
Not a relationship, not a house – well, a house that I shared with friends. A little bit of material that I don’t actually need. Obviously my friends and family. Two brothers, parents, some really close friends.

Did they know you might not be coming back?
They know me well enough to have a hunch. Actually I only told one of my friends and my dad that I am contemplating it. But uh, I give myself until February, because it’s kind of a big step to stay here. And if in February I still feel the same way then I’m going to apply for a permanent residence permit. I’ve met some people, one owns a company, and he said, well, “You’re a decent guy. If you wanna stay, maybe I can provide you with a job that makes a permanent residence visa more easy.” So if February feels the same way, then I’ll go for it, tell everybody. Stress my mother really really bad.

No Kiwi girls?
Yeah, I met one. But, um, trying not to fall. It’s complicated. It makes life more complicated.

I was just thinking on the visa side.
I know, I know, that’s what every Kiwi says. “Ah, go find a Kiwi girl!” But I’m not the kind of guy that uses a girl for a visa. But yeah, I actually met one that, uh, you know, I really really like. But I’m just trying to keep a little bit of distance before I drive myself nuts… and her, probably.

Odds you’ll end up in Netherlands?
60/40. I mean, 60% for staying here, 40% for going.


December 14, 2011

Art Deco City Napier

Art Deco City Napier


O seaside Napier,
With street names like
Shakespeare, Dickens, Tennyson, and Milton
You inspire your guests,
to write poetry,
and think loftily –

unless they’re work-travel backpackers,
mostly from Germany,
who hand-roll ciggies,
and drink canned beer,
after a hard day’s work,
picking apples,
whilst they daydream,
with dirty hands,
of future fornication.

Your Art Deco buildings,
how they also inspire,
every mind to wonder,
how to describe,
in human language,
what Art Deco is.

How you remind of Ashland, Oregon,
sitting there,
being beautiful,
producing nothing,
importing everything,
and then raising the prices substantially,
for substantial tourists,
who have their shirts pressed,
and never drop the cutlery.

For this is where,
without a scoff,
men can wear red pants,
and a woman,
whilst drinking champagne,
al fresco,
at 1PM,
can regard her two Dalmatians,
on two pink leashes,
and think life’s normal.

You are a bubble,
lovely Napier,
and a happy one,
at that,
and we will miss you,
and your pedestrian street
with boutique shops,
and your quiz nights,
at your pubs,
where we won a bottle of wine,
with a lucky guess,
about the length of the border,
between Mongolia and China.

If we borrowed one of your boats,
we could sail right back to Seattle,
but for now,
quiet Napier,
we’ll take a bus,
and aim for busy Wellington.


December 13, 2011

Tongariro Crossing 2

Tongariro Crossing 2

Worried we’d miss the alarm, I woke up at 3:30 and cat-napped to 5:00. When Antje woke up at 5:00, her parched lips held the same unspoken question as mine. ‘Why the bottle of wine?’ Our legs were still tired from running + biking. Stupid.

Still, we were the first off the bus into the cold, mountain air. It was sunny with high, paper-thin clouds. What luck! It was 7:05, and Mt. Doom loomed.

When Antje did the Tongariro crossing four years ago, she had to run the last four miles to catch the last bus – which she did, by a few seconds. We were intent on not doing that again, and power-walked the beautiful “Soda Springs” section, with a few pauses in there to scoop handfuls of freezing cold water onto post-wine-bottle morning glow-face.

At the base of “Devil’s Staircase” are two toilets, and they caused me to pause. The owner of our hostel had promised that there’d be running, potable water wherever there were toilets on the trek. There wasn’t. It was alright, though. There was a hut later on that would have it, and until then we had one liter of water and two Powerades.

The water was gone by the base of Mt. Doom, as we prepared ourselves for the climb. Annoyingly, Mt. Doom is an out-and-back ascent that doesn’t shorten the trek by an inch. It adds around two miles to the Tongariro crossing, most of them vertical. Antje had described the climb as being like the story of Sisyphus, and she was right.

For every step taken on the volcano, about a quarter is lost to slippage. The mixture of pumice and ash gives easily, and it’s very, very steep – steep enough to require hands as well as feet. It feels (and sounds) like climbing a mixture of charcoal briquettes and charcoal ash, all of it dusted red. There’s no trail.

A Kiwi father-son duo had embarked at about the same time, and their “trail” became ours. At about the halfway point we stopped talking to them, and we had to pause every twenty steps or so to catch our breath. A Dane overtook us – “Inconceivable!” We pressed on, though, and it was heart-breaking. But somehow, someway, we eventually made it to the cone.

Up top, the Kiwi father grabbed his son by the shoulders and, even though they were clearly of European stock, they touched foreheads and noses, per Maori tradition, grinning all the while, right on the edge of the crater. I wish I could have taken a picture of them on the volcano and later mailed it to them. That was a moment. Afterwards he explained the geology of the volcanoes and the nearby fault zones, first to the son, then to all. Wellington, he claims, is at a much higher risk for earthquakes than Christchurch. His son asked, “Isn’t there a bridge in Seattle that’s made for earthquakes?” “Not that I know of,” I said, “but we did have the Tacoma Narrows bridge fall way back when.” The dad knew that one. “We use it to teach our physics students about resonance.” He was a teacher, then.

As Antje and I drank Powerade, the Dane bounded over. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He was wearing a hat that said “Maledives”. I told him I’d proposed to Antje there, that this was our honeymoon. “Congratulations! That’s great, really great. I loved the Maledives, absolutely spectacular.” He explained the geology of the Maledives in perfect English. The Kiwi teacher overheard, and interrupted when the definition for volcanic words such as “pyroclastic flow” came up. He had a different understanding. They sparred for a while, but the Dane layman was forced to concede. He seemed pleased: he had learned something new! He bounded happily off. His name was Nikolai.

One advantage of a steep slope made mostly of sand-sized materials: You can more or less ski down it with heavy bootsteps. At one point Nikolai got himself going too fast and started galloping, arms flailing. A horrible, tumbling face-plant seemed imminent. He kept the gallop going, though, all the way to the bottom of the volcano, in a third of the time it took us. By the bottom our legs were jello. We had completed 3 miles of the 12-mile trek.

As a reward we drained the last of our Powerade – the last of all liquids, in fact. “That’s OK,” I said, “there should be a water refill station.” “No,” Antje said, “I don’t remember that.” Uh oh?

From there it was flat, expansive South Crater, where they filmed the final, fatalistic charge of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. Then up to Red Crater, which erupted 14 years ago, and down to Emerald Lakes. We tried to eat, but were mostly thirsty. The sun was beating down, but the air was cold, and our legs were shot. When we got going again we saw a sign that said, 9km (5 1/2 miles). “Good,” I said. “there’s only 9k left.” It was the other way around. We’d completed 5 1/2 of 12 miles.

The trail passed a lake and then slalomed for miles downhill toward a hut where, I hoped, there’d be water. Nope. Just revolting toilets that said, “Keeping the flies away is as easy as closing the lid!” Other trekkers had full, 1.5-liter bottles of water in their packs; they didn’t have hostel owners who told untruths. My lips had dried out. The physical and psychological despair felt at this hut is comparable to a marathon at mile 19… only with the water-cup bearers, in this case, withdrawing whenever you approach.

“OK, let’s get this over with.”

It snaked torturously, and you could see the path twisting far below. Nikolai came bounding down. “Hey there!” He had also ascended Mt. Tongariro, which the leaflet had said was not possible to do without missing the buses. And yet he was jogging down the mountain to catch the early bus home. “Best of luck! Have a nice honeymoon!” He was a Great Dane.

The trail entered jungle, and next to it was a cold, rushing creek with signs that said, “Unfit for drinking.”

It flattened out. We were getting close. We turned the corner. Steps upward. The trail descended slowly again, then flattened out. One of Antje’s toenail was going, and she had four blisters. At some point I had remembered that on the bus-ride out there’d been a cooler with ice-cold Cokes for sale. Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola classic. Voices ahead, “I think we’re close.” Then… more steps upward. Oh god. Around every single corner was the parking lot. Things were getting sluggish, delirious. The creek looked delicious.

Finally, the unmistakable sound of the real parking lot. Trekkers were sprawled out everywhere, instantly asleep with open mouths. It looked like a refugee camp, with the first arrivers having taken the shady spots. I made directly for the bus-driver. “Do you know where I might buy something to drink?” The bus driver looked around. “You know, if your normal bus were here they’d have something. But they had to run off and pick someone up – someone got lost today. Sorry about that. Normally he’d be back by about 4:30 [45 minutes from now], but it’ll probably be 4:45, maybe a bit later.”

When the bus did come, it had no drinks for sale. Other red-faced Tongariro crossers piled in behind us.

Now, one sees (or hears) a lot of pick-up attempts in hostels around the world. But from the back of the bus came one that was truly unique:

English guy: “–subway.”

Swiss girl: “Really.”

At this point it seemed pretty clear that he was talking about transportation. He wasn’t.

“Yup. Subway, McDonalds, KFC, and then Burger King. Subway’s actually more popular than McDonalds, at least in England.”

“I never eat at Subway in Switzerland. Only when I am traveling. Then I like it.”

“How much does it cost in Switzerland?”

“I don’t know, maybe 10 francs. I don’t know how much in euros.”

“It’s about 1.3 francs to the euro.”



guy: “Is that a six-inch or a foot-long?”


“I was asking how much a foot-long costs. In francs.”

“I guess 20. In Switzerland a large french fries from McDonalds is the same size as a small french fries in America.”

“Mm. I’m not so sure about that. French fry sizes are the same across Europe. At least at McDonalds. In New Zealand the sizes are a bit bigger than the sizes in Europe, though.”


“Except for the Big Mac, that’s the same. And it’s not really a Big Mac, is it? More like a Small Mac.”


guy: “And in America you do have other options. You can order a double McRib there.”

“That’s interesting.”

The end.



December 12, 2011

Tongariro Crossing 1

Tongariro Crossing 1

It was 5:55AM, and according to the bus’s rearview mirror, a 40-year-old, female passenger now had her pointer-finger inside her nose.

It was deep.

When the desired article didn’t budge, she changed tactics: it was time to burrow in with the thumb. From the security of the outer nostril her pointer-finger provided extra leverage. The combined action brought her chin down to her chest.

Suddenly her eyes flicked up at the mirror.

Impossible! Eye contact happened. Shame! Double-shame, ugliness all around. Look away, never happened.

Our driver bounced along placidly, 100% grunge. As for his tourist bus, it was a pre-90′s relic. The shocks were gone, so he bobbed in front of a two gigantic glass panes – pure glass – probably not safe – so that it looked like he was playing a video-game in front of a screen, which maybe he was, in his mind. He turned the pre-6AM rock music down to normal volume.

“OK guys, hey – so you’ve gotta be finished by 4:30, OK? If you’re a minute later you’ll be waving at the back of the bus, right? And hey – no swimming in the lakes, absolutely not allowed. Everyone got it? Good, sweet as.”

[sweet as: meaning "sweet". Also known as "cool as", meaning "cool."]

Outside the windows, Mt. Doom, of Lord of the Rings fame, came into view. It was time for the extremely strenuous Tongariro crossing, and we felt like garbage.

The previous day we’d come into Taupo with a sore foot (Antje) and a sore knee (me), having jogged that morning. Besides the fact that these small injuries made us feel old, and therefore vaguely angry at something or someone, the jog itself was awful. The sulfur lake we ran by has huge flocks of seagulls that dive-bomb human joggers. They don’t actually rip flesh, a la Hitchock, but they get within a few feet and “SQUAAAAAAW!” loud enough that you’re sure an eye’s about to be clawed out. It’s completely intentional, what they do, even though there appears to be no purpose to it. So between the birds, the sulfur smell, the smell of a nearby compost plant, and the millions of hovering gnats, the jog was bullcrap. When I mentioned as much to Gerard, the hostel owner, he said, “Ah yeah, I know where you went. Terrible! Only the tourists run there.”

As a result, we opted to rent bicycles in the next town, Taupo, rather than walk the however many miles to Haku falls, a local attraction.

While the route was still road-side, a bungee jump into view, and a timid girl was led to the platform. The river she was about to bungee toward is what rivers hope to be: so clear and so blue that the geological formations at the bottom are visible from high above. As the girl plummeted she left behind that uniquely girly scream that sounds like a referee’s whistle, and when she popped back up her head was soaked with river water; apparently they’re that accurate now. We gave solace to her terror by eating our first Hokie Pokie ice cream bar, as recommended by our very first bus driver. And the feeling was… eh. Certainly delicious, but Magnums hold their own.

The trail went to dirt, then split for the walkers and the bikers. The assumption was that these two trails were roughly equal in length, with one being walkable and the other bike-able. Uh uh. It went up, it went down, it curved left, right, and left-right… it went anywhere but the falls, and then it went up up up up up. The mountain-bikes were great, but our mountain legs, not so. There were a few sections too steep to bike, and a few that we biked when we should have walked. By the halfway point sweat poured out of our helmets, and by the falls it was silently acknowledged that, leg-wise, things were slipping toward disaster.

At Huka Falls that same beautiful clear blue water rushes over a 28-foot drop at the rate of 120 cubic feet per second. If that doesn’t work for you, think of someone who’s six feet tall and who you don’t really care about and imagine three Safeco Field’s worth of that person going over a waterfall every second, sardine-style. Whoa!*

Impressively, or stupidly, or maybe amazingly, two kayakers were preparing to drop it. We ran to a nearby bridge, where a crowd was gathering. Antje asked a baby-boomer couple if the kayakers had already gone over.

“No, no, they haven’t gone yet,” the woman said.

“They are so crazy going down there!”

“They are. One of them’s my daughter.” The dad was silent and shivering.

Two minutes apart, both flew over, pierced the foam like a dart, and disappeared for about three seconds. Then, like a buoy, they surfaced. The crowd gave an ovation.

On the bike-ride home we passed one of those wonderful natural features that are commonplace in New Zealand. A hot water thermal spring pours directly into the river, creating a mixing zone where bathers can jimmy a little bit to the left or right to find exactly the right mix of hot and cold water.

At the hostel where we rented the bikes (not our own) I commented on how tough the ride had been. “Yeah,” the guy said, “we don’t usually tell people that, otherwise they wouldn’t rent bikes.”

Back at the hostel we ran into Andrew from Louisiana. He’d just finished the Tongariro Crossing and had made new friend in the process, a South Korean named Khan. Their eyes were bloodshot, their movements fatigued – the crossing had completely drained them. They hadn’t been able to add Mt. Doom to the trek because of the weather. “Still,” I said, “twelve miles is no joke.” Khan’s eyes went comically wide. “Twelve miles? Twelve miles! I think it is much more than twelve miles!” The only thing keeping them going at that point were a half-dozen NZ microbrews. We had a bottle of NZ pinot gris, and that might have been why the topic of international drinking games came up:

“We have one in Korea,” Khan said, “called ‘Bunny-Rabbit.’”

We all leaned in.

“I say, ‘Bunny bunny bunny’ to you [to me, in this case], and you [Conor] say ‘Bunny bunny bunny’ at the same time.” Yep. All clear. “The other two people have to say ‘Carrot carrot carrot’ at the same time.” Antje and Andrew practiced saying, “Carrot carrot carrot” simultaneously. “That’s the game,” Khan said. “It’s very easy.”

We tried it. Khan and I did “Bunny bunny bunny” and Antje and Andrew did “Carrot carrot carrot” at the same time. It tapered off.

“Like that,” Khan said. “And then sometimes I say ‘Bunny bunny bunny’ to him [Andrew] and you [Conor] say ‘Carrot carrot carrot.”

“To Antje,” I said.

“No. She does nothing.”


Andrew asked, “How do we know who should do what?”

“Ah yes, it’s very complicated,” Khan said. “It’s hard to explain.”

He tried his college best for ten minutes. There were a lot of bunnies in there, and a whole lotta carrots. But to tell you the truth, only Khan left that table with any knowledge of the “Bunny-Rabbit” drinking game.

Unexpectedly, our bottle of wine was empty. Also unexpectedly, it was 11PM. The bus arrived at 5:40AM.

[The more you know!]**

* This equation is not as easy as it seems. Remember, outside of Jerry Springer, no one on earth is a perfect 6′ x 6′ x 6′ cube. So I’ve assumed a height of 6′, a shoulder-to-shoulder width of 2′, and heel-to-toe thickness of 1′, thus resulting in 144,000 humans.

** Another Saturday morning cartoon reference


December 11, 2011




It was time for the next adventure, and at 12:30 a red bus with balded tires screeched around the corner toward our hostel. A big bearded Maori of the mountains yelled down at us. “YOU RAFTING?”

“Yeah, sledging.”




There were eight others on the bus, most of them German. Wind was blowing around everywhere. The driver turned around while driving.



The steep gravel drive leveled off sharply to a ramshackle building. Reggae music was blaring, and it was hot. The gear was handed out by one of our river-guides, whose smile showed a half-rainbow of knocked out teeth. “Don’t pee in your suits,” he laughed. “Really, don’t do that.”

When the group had been loaded into a cramped 12-seater, he was nowhere to be found. Other vans were peeling out of the parking lot, guides were jumping into them on the fly. The driver, who looked and behaved like a Kiwi Johnny Knoxville, finally found our guide talking to a delivery man.

“Hey, get in, we’re late.” [no response] “Hey, get in.” [no response] “Hey man!” [no response] Our driver turned to the group. “Does anyone have a gun?” [no response] “We can do that ‘you-shoot-me-I-shoot-you thing’. Or the other way around.” Our guide meandered toward the van, not a care in the world – then stopped. “Forgot my vest. Be right back.” The driver groaned… then chased the guide with the van before slamming the breaks and skidding. When the guide returned, the driver gunned the van at him, stopping just in time so that the sliding door nearly chopped his fingers off. “LET’S GO!” He gunned the van toward the sharply-angled lip of the driveway, and at the very last second, accelerated. We kind of caught air. At the two-lane highway he whipped it onto the shoulder, which angled up at about 10 degrees, and then accelerated down the beveled shoulder as he prepared to cross two lanes, one of them oncoming. As he whipped across, there was a moment when all thought it would tip. The guides laughed, and the one facing backwards explained the three rules of sledging:

Hold on to your sledge
Put your head down in the rapids
Don’t put your flippers on the ground

His speech was interrupted by a hailstorm from below. The road had turned to pea-gravel, and it was too loud to talk. Every pebble that touched a wheel was being rocketed into the wheel-wells and undercarriage. You could feel the vehicle being ruined. Our guide laughed. “Not our van, we don’t care.” The driver sped up and tailgated the car in front of us..

When it ended they parked, off-loaded, and the second of our guides, an athletic Maori guy with a shaved head, gave us further instructions.

No one heard them. We were lying on a lawn just before the trail to the river, but behind it was the road we’d come in on. Semi-trucks roared by, and, as the only native English speaker in the group of eight, not much was intelligible. We were supposed to have learned how to roll-turn and what to do if we were swept over by the water. We sort of learned it by watching him handle his sledge.

Sledges are like twice-thick boogie-boards made of plastic and filled with air, and with two handles. They weigh about 30 pounds, and they’re bulky. The hike to the river was hard.

At the river’s entrance our Maori river-guide reviewed what we had “learned”, went into the history of the area for a few minutes, and then informed us about the meaning of the Maori prayer he was about to say, which was meant as an appeal for mercy to the river. It was easy to think, ‘Here goes some tourist stuff,’ but it wasn’t. Or if it was, they fooled us. When he started, the other guide bowed his head and mouthed the prayer, word-for-word. Our third guide, a Kiwi who had joined us at some point, stopped his preparations, crossed his hands, and stared at the river. Our entry point was at the base of a 20-foot waterfall, a waterfall that rafts drop down daily, full of tourists. When they hit from that height, the entire raft and the passengers disappear under the churn. Antje did it four years ago. Up to eight years ago they used to let sledgers do it, too, but, lo and behold, someone died. According to the owner of our hostel, “It was bound to happen.”

One-by-one, we ventured in. The water was just cool enough, and after the first bend, our worries dissipated. Next was a the first rapid.

“Keep your heads down the whole time, got it? And stay to the left when you get through.”

Everyone got through, but not on their own volition. It just ended up that way. And the three guides helped. Even with fins, though, humans vs. water is a joke.

On the third set we were instructed to put our weight forward and plunge through one of the rapids, the idea being that we would pop up about 15-30 feet downstream. No one really liked that idea, and instead everyone got tossed over the top of it. One of the guys lost his bootie and flipper, and a guide came up with it. “Here you are, mate. Looks like you got the wrong sized foot.”

In giving it back, though, he’d forgotten his own sledge, and when he turned it was headed down a rapid. He dove after, managed to retrieve it, and for the next five minutes the group relaxed in an eddie, watching him rock climb back upstream in flippers while carrying a sledge. A German girl decided to tell a joke:

“What does a snail say when it’s riding a turtle?”
“Wahoooo!” [because it's so fast]

The guide with the knocked out teeth had his own to tell:
Q: How many Germans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Vat do you sink, only one! Vy vould zey need more zan one?

The Maori guide had one, too.
Q: What’s the difference between an orange and a…

The filthiness of the joke appalled everyone into silence – until the tour guides realized that no one in the group (save for the American) had understood. The fact that it hadn’t been understood was then funny. Then everyone could laugh. But the joke itself, oh brother. It had to do with pedophelia.

It was time to push off, and two large rapids ended the trip. The last we were allowed to kick back into a few times to practice “surfing” the sledges. Everyone was exhausted and happy at that point, and it was time to load up and go home. The exact same driver, in the exact same van, suddenly appeared. As we pulled out of the parking lot, one of the other guides halted his acceleration simply by walking in front of the moving van, not even looking. He smiled, tapped the hood, gave a little wave, and walked off. In another area of the parking lot a river-guide was assisting a senior citizen to his vehicle. Our driver rolled the van to a stop and lowered his window. “Woo hoo hooo! Look who’s got a DATE!” Another guide jumped in shotgun. “I’m an Amerrrrrrican,” he shouted, imitating the accent. “I’m a bloody Amerrrrrrican!” At that point the German girl who’d made the snail joke announced that we had to drive back to the site where we were first dropped off because she’d forgotten her sunscreen there. It was very important to her, the sunscreen. So we did that. Zipping by all the while were beautiful rolling hills with grazing sheep. “Ze Germans like ze sheep, ja?” our driver asked the German guys. “Ze Germans loooooove ze sheep!” Next came the pea-gravel, and this time he slalomed it at high speed until the back end slipped into a tiny fish-tail. That checked him, everyone had felt it, and the guide with the missing teeth laughed and opened up his window and shouted, “Wassup gangsta!” A young Maori boy with curly hair and an oversized red t-shirt looked back at him, confused. The guide nodded at him, turned back to the group, sang a few beats of a rap song, and then prepared everyone for clean-up.

“You’ll only take your suits off halfway, because otherwise you’ll end up stepping all over them, getting ‘em all dirty. We’ll help you with the pants, we’re good at that, it’s not easy, but we’ll get ‘em off you, won’t we boys. Hell, we even like it, we don’t even have to buy you a drink.” He smiled and looked around. Not one of the sledgers had understood, and the other guides were tired now. “No, no, I’m just kidding, we’re not like that, are we boys. What are we, Aussies?”

Back at the site, when everyone had de-geared, things devolved into a lot of standing around. Reggae music was still blasting, and rumor had it that they were going to show some action shots for sale before driving everyone home. A Slovakian girl walked up to the desk, and, in very labored, painful English, said, “Um, I am wondering… about… when we go….” The man who looked to be in charge leaned forward on his elbows, drew her in, and very seriously told her, “Tomorrow.” That joke didn’t really work either, and when he’d finally given her a real answer, I stepped up and bought a Coke. A few beats later I had one that said, “Not for individual sale.”

So the kids have taken over the camp here in Rotorua – or at least at this rafting/sledging outfit.

But it worked out this time, at least for us, and hopefully it keeps working out for them, too.

December 10, 2011



On the way out of the “Top 10 Holiday Park” in Waitomo – goodbye, quiet park! – around 30, 11-year-old boy-scouts were sitting at picnic tables. Two scout leaders stood in front.

“OK boys. Now, who can name three creatures that can be found in the caves?”

One boy raised his hand. “Glowworms?”

“Yes, that’s right. Glowworms. You’ll find lots of glowworms in there. What else?”

No one knew. The answer turned out to be eels and bugs. The boys filled in their pre-cave assignments.

“Next question, boys. And pay attention to this one. If you get lost in a cave, how can you find your way out?”

The boys droned in unison: “Follow the water.”

“That’s right. Follow the water. It’s gotta go somewhere. Now, I’ve given you all your chocolate bars, haven’t I. Which means you’re responsible for the rubbish, doesn’t it.” The boys nodded. “Good. Now, when you’re filling out your answers there, don’t just write ‘Visited the cave.’ That doesn’t tell us much, does it. Write something else. You can be a bit more explicit, you know.”

One of the boys, who had been making eye contact with the scout leader and absorbing every word, nodded intensely at the command. In front of him was a 16 oz. energy drink. It was 9:30AM, and for us, just about time for breakfast and a bus-ride.

This bus driver wasn’t quite as chirpy as the one before. What he did say came out in good-morning monotone through low-volume speakers:

“As you can see from the windscreen, we’ve got a bit of rain, some sun, about 21 degrees [70], pretty muggy out there, not the best weather. But the plants sure enjoy it. Usually what we find is that if something can grow somewhere else, we can grow it ourselves about half the time here in New Zealand. Take Pinus Radiana, a kind of pine tree. Some people call it ‘New Zealand’s biggest weed.’ Takes 16 years to mature in California, and we’ve found that they grow taller, stronger, and thicker here in about half the time. One of our biggest exports, Pinus Radiana, mostly to China now.”

He got going again as we passed an elementary school.

“Every village has got one of those, and the government makes sure each village has also got a school bus as well, to get their children to school. These schools are bi-cultural, and the high schools and universities are, too. When the students come out they’re fluent in the Maori language – they’re conversant in Maori culture.”

Only when bus drove across the top of a dam did his talk trickle into the personal. “New Zealand’s doing a lot of things with regenerative energies these days. Decomposing rubbish, collecting the methane gas. The other one we’re doing, and it’s a little controversial, is solar energy. We’ve installed a lot of them, but that white stuff over our heads [clouds] cuts out a lot of the sunshine. The average New Zealander thinks wind farms are a good idea. And they say, yep, we’d like some wind energy. But then when they go to set up a wind farm, no one wants it around. There’s a wind farm in my backyard, and it actually is very noisy. New Zealanders want to think we’re clean and green, and yep, we’re pretty good. But it’s not a 100%, but we’re getting better and better, we’re getting smarter and smarter. And hopefully for future generations, we’ll do everything with green energy.” A few seconds later, he added, “Of course, electricity – the main requirement for cities these days.”

The bus had been climbing for a while – we were crossing the north island’s spine from west to east – and abruptly it leveled off with a spectacular view of our destination, lake Rotorua, a New Zealand Tahoe.

As we coasted down, the smell of sulfur invaded the bus. Ah yes, the thermal pools – one of the main attractions. The bus dropped some of the passengers off at their respective hotels, and in doing so treated the other passengers to a de facto tour of the city. It was…


Every street is a grid, and within it there’s zero green space. Cars race by, as in they’re actually racing each other, and too many streets there’s no sidewalk and no visible crosswalk, either. The restaurants look have faded, low-quality pictures of their meals displayed in the windows (sushi in the shape of a “smiley face”), and every second business looks like it’s on the verge of bankruptcy; a shop that advertised “Jade. Beauty. Books.” comes to mind, or “Central Back Packers” (why break that word in half?). Groups of bored, not-really-dangerous-looking boys strut around: one group of three spent a good deal of time and energy trying to jump and touch a ceiling that seemed high to them. Their hair was gelled in the same style and one had a smartphone playing Eminem from his pocket. This reference won’t work for everyone, but it’s as if 15 square blocks of Auburn, WA were laid down next to a lake that, until recently, received all raw sewage from the city of 70,000.

As we walked to our hostel we passed the Central Mall, and ate lunch in the food court with Andrew from Louisiana. Dining with us were obese Maoris, the elderly, and packs of boys. The food was… mall food.

Still, even in the middle of hell there can be a sanctuary. And that little oasis, which also happened to be green, was called “Funky Green Backpackers.”

Antje and I immediately got along with the two owners, Anja from Germany, and Gerard from New Zealand. They have two cute little kids running around the hostel, a girl and a boy, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, as a hosteler there, you feel like an extension of that family.

On day two we’d planned to visit some thermal features (think “Yellowstone”) and to the owners’ surprise, the always-bookable bus had somehow filled up. So Gerard loaded us into his VW van with his little daughter and drove us out there, himself.

On the way out he told us about the 2011 rugby world cup that’d just been held in New Zealand. “Best seven weeks of my life. Had about 26 heart attacks, though.” He also pointed out a new trans-NZ bike-trail on the side of the road. “Anja and I are gonna do that. Look how small they built it, though. Should have been wider.”

Even more than Yellowstone, the thermal features feel absolutely alien, other-worldy, Martian, you name it. Collapsed yellow sulfur caves are surrounded by pockets of boiling water and thick black boiling mud. Everything’s steaming hot and rainbow-colored and stinky. There are signs all over not to touch anything, but of course, people have. Most recently, Gerard told us, a 12-year-old boy hopped over a fence and sank into something. The severely burned boy made it out and ran for help before collapsing. He later died.

Halfway through the loop a placard popped up with a list of the most common NZ birds. Our R2D2 bird was on it, and now it had a name – the Tui:

“The largest of our honey-eaters. Renowned for it’s warble song and iredescent plumage. Relatively common even within urban environments.”

We grabbed coffee milkshakes before leaving, and offered one to Gerard. “No thanks, I’m a tea man, myself. Coffee only came to New Zealand about 25 years ago, you know. We’re a tea nation. But we took to coffee like fish to water.”

Later that day we followed the guidebook’s recommended “walking tour.” What a mistake. It was hot, and I forgot to put sunscreen on my birkenstocked feet. The walk ended with very overpriced beers at an average bar.

Back at the hostel we drank a few normal-priced beers outside with other hostelers, including Daan from Holland and Tino from Germany. The lights flicked off and on – it was 11PM, and time for a good night’s sleep.

Because tomorrow?


December 9, 2011

Andrew from Lousiana

Andrew from Lousiana

When did you know you’d go?
About a year ago I told my boss I was quitting, at which point she said, “OK, well, thanks for telling me, and uh, you know, get back to me at some point when you know exactly when your last day’s gonna be.”

And uh, she came back to me a day later and said, “Well, what if we give you a promotion, so you don’t leave? Why don’t we make a team leader for software engineering for the Canada census?” And at that point I was like, well, I would’ve had another year before I could go. So I actually ended up staying for another year ‘cuz I figured I’d learn quite a bit, doing that job, sort of a leadership position. And at that point I decided – after a year I’d go. And there’s nothing else that would stop me at that point, even if they offered me another promotion, or whatever.

How long?
The plan is to go for about 7 months.

How long have you been going so far?
Uh, 4 days. So I’ve just started.

Booked or spontaneous?
It is… 95% spontaneous. Certainly, if you want to go to countries like India or Vietnam, you gotta have visas. And I just found it easier to do that ahead of time, so you don’t have to do it on the road. But other than that, it’s completely spontaneous. I don’t even know where I’m staying tonight. So yeah, it’s very spontaneous. And I sort of wanted to do it that way.

Where to?
I started in New Zealand and wanted to make my way back around the globe, back home, so I’ve certainly picked out countries along the way that I’ve wanted to see. Thailand is one of them. I guess I’ll go in order.

New Zealand, is first, then I’ll probably go to Australia for a week to see the reef. Then north to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, that area. Um, then over to India. Then over to Eastern Europe, quite a few countries over there, but probably start in the north and go south, or vice versa. Try to get something in Africa, maybe South Africa or something like Kenya to do a safari or something like that. And then head over to South America and go to Peru, probably hike Machu Picchu. Again that’s pretty far out, so I don’t know exactly what countries I’ll be in over there. But Peru is one that I sort of picked out to do. And then back up to Louisiana, back home, after seven months.

What’d you leave behind?
Friends, family. Everything I know, basically.

I think certainly it’s not just the people and your possessions, though. It’s really your entire lifestyle. Your’e sort of trading comfort and routine for a lot of uncomfortable things, I mean you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the place. You’re trading that for uncomfortableness and spontaneity, and I guess that’s probably the main thing.

Why now?
Why now? Uh, well, and I think it’s a mix of a whole bunch of things. It sort of just came together at this point. One, I just graduated from grad school, at Johns Hopkins. Two, my job, the project I was working on, kind of ended, so at that point I would have had to find a new job somewhere else, within the company of course, but a new job. Um, you know, I don’t have any kids, I don’t – I’m not married, I don’t have a girlfriend. So I think all of those forces combined gave me the opportunity to do it. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

How long had you been working there?
4 years. 4 1/2 years.

Yeah, so, I’ll tell you this. I certainly took a year leave of absence just as sort of a security type thing. Um, I don’t know if I’ll actually go back.

I sort of wanted to take this time to just reassess where I wanted to go… and where I wanted to go from here on out. Certainly I enjoyed the programming I was doing, but the idea of moving to California, doing something in Silicon Valley, where it’s sort of like the center of that, is certainly appealing.

Favorite place you’ve been?
Oh… that’s a tough one. New Zealand.

December 8, 2011

Into the deep

Into the deep

Just before 10AM the Black Water Rafting Co. van pulled up, driven by Niel, an Englishman from outside Manchester. He’s a good conversationalist and a calmly competent driver, but what really draws your attention at first is the fact that his entire body is tattooed, including his throat and the palm of his right hand.

After filling out the waivers we met our fellow cave-goers: Andrew from Louisiana, two conversation-resistant Danes (a couple), and three polite Singaporeans (two girls, one guy).
Next we were fitted with already-wet wetsuits, booties, helmets, harnesses, headlamps, and white boots that the staff had vandalized with Sharpies. One girl’s read: “Black Water Rafting Co. – keeping tour guides employed since 1985.”

At that point our second guide, Aaron, popped up, a little bit late and extremely relaxed given the fact that he was about to have an in-cave performance review by a superior.

That superior joined us at the cave’s entrance, where it began to drizzle, rain, rain harder, and then pour torrentially. It soaked through our neoprene. While practiced abseils (rappelling, basically), the superior crossed his arms and endured the downpour in a cotton t-shirt. He had a jacket around his waist.

We were ready. We had practiced our emergency arrest, and had even practiced screaming in case we lost control and went into free-fall. The females of the group had put on their balaclavas so that their hair wouldn’t be ripped out by the pulley system. lt was time for the 110-foot vertical drop into the cave.

If you balanced a beer bottle atop another, neck-to-neck, you’d have the approximate outline of this entrance. Its girth at the bottleneck point is about the same as a human being. We were advised to wriggle. Once through, everything goes dark.

The problem wasn’t free-fall. The rain had thickened the rope to the point that it had to be hand-fed through the pulley. That took time. Getting everyone down took about an hour, and it was cold and damp at the bottom. The Danes, who’d descended first, had gone from non-conversational to downright sullen.

“OK, guys, you all right? Everyone all right? Good, good. Everyone had a chance to see the glowworms?” Above us, hundreds of glowworms twinkled. “Good. So our next stop’s the flying fox. Turn on your headlamps and take care, all right?”

In between we learned about the cave, the stalactites and stalagmites. “They take 100 years to grow one cubic centimeter. 100 years. So don’t touch them, whatever you do.”

The walk to the flying fox (zip-line) was all of 100 feet… and then more waiting. We turned off our headlamps so that the zip-liners could fly through the blackness and see the glowworms. For 30 minutes we stood on a narrow grated platform that opened up to black empty nothingness below. And poor Aaron. Our second cave-guide was being reviewed the entire time, and his supervisor’s notepad had the word “Failed to….” written on it more than once.

“Dear Aaron,

You didn’t deserve it. You’re a good and friendly cave-guide.

Conor and Antje”

The zip-line ride lasted four seconds. Afterwards we were served hot chocolate and macadamia bars.

As Andrew from Louisiana later said, things were pretty disappointing at that point. Everything had taken too long, the adventure had been sort of fakey, we were cold for all the wrong reasons.

A pile of innertubes lay nearby, and we were told to grab them, step out onto the platform, and butt-flop six feet below into the water. That was fun for everyone – except one Singaporean girl.

Shivering, the group linked up and the headlamps went out. For a silent ninety seconds the chain of innertubes was pulled through the darkness of the cave.

The ceiling was covered in glowworms. It’s an underground Milky Way. Automatically your brain tries to find patterns in them, to look for the big dipper. And in the silence of the cave I had a moment of private philosophy: is there really a difference between us humans looking up at the stars and bugs in a cave looking up at glowworms? After two seconds this thought went into the scrapheap. Glowworms eat the bugs, whereas stars don’t eat humans, at least not on purpose. Plus, bugs hit the ceiling at some point. Also, they can leave the entire cave system if they want to. Goddamnit. Philosophy FAIL.

The innertubes were abandoned. It was time to fjord stuff.

“Everyone all right? Don’t cross your arms if you’re cold. Keep moving. Move your limbs. Dance a bit, there you go.”

The upstream trudge went from neck-deep to ankle-deep and back again – three times. We all kept slipping, nearly falling. It was fantastic. It was caving. There was a headfirst slide at one point – spelunk! Everyone was loving it. Everyone except…

… the Singaporean girl.

The Singaporean girl’s face had gone gray. Her mouth was slack, her glasses were fogged over. When she walked, the current splayed her boots open.

The change wasn’t physiological so much as psychological. The cave was beating her. The darkness, the wet, the cold – it was winning. She fell every fourth or fifth step, and when she didn’t fall, she prepared to. She clutched at the limestone walls. We took turns holding her other hand. She was trembling.

Next was “the re-birth,” a tiny round canal that had to be crawled through for about 7 feet. It was claustrophobia + aquaphobia + wet neoprene + a bulky helmet. Singaporean girl came out terrified.

We swam for a while. Singaporean girl couldn’t. She floated on her back, and someone pulled her feet. I helped her up a knee-high “waterfall,” and for the next 100 feet she didn’t let go.

Finally we came to a fork.

“All right. If you’re feeling adventurous, we’ll go this way.” Aaron pointed at a tiny crawl-space with water rushing out. “There are two waterfalls in there, and don’t be surprised if Neil’s yelling at you. It’s just because it’s noisy in there, with all the water. Anyone else can go that way, it’s much easier.” Singaporean girl went that way.

Waterfall was the wrong word. A waterfall implies a broad line of water. This was like standing inside an egg with a hole in the top and bottom, with water trying to fill it. Neil was yelling:


It was rock-climbing. It was rock-climbing inside a limestone egg, with water hitting your face.


It was one of those moments where you follow an order that you sense intuitively is wrong. But the knees, with their neoprene kneepads, held the limestone against the thigh-high rush of water.


I kept going, crawling, but it was intense enough that after a while I didn’t keep going. I doubled back to make sure Antje was OK. I was imagining yelling back at her, “GO BACK DOWN!”

By the time I go there she was yelling at Niel, “WHAT?!”






I yelled at her, “KNIE! KNIE! KNIE!”

She’d already understood. It was unnecessary, my yelling. But, at the moment, it had felt that serious.

Which is why, when we emerged ten minutes later, all of us agreed that the caving experience was one of the most intense of our lives, that it’d more than made up for the beginning.

On the way back to the van, Singaporean girl had to sit down. Fainting didn’t seem out of the question. Her friends helped her walk.

Back in Waitomo, above-ground life resumed. It was kite weather: gusty and warm with big white clouds. On the lawn, birds were snatching up mouthfuls of worms.

At the best restaurant in town (it’s a very small town), we ran into the Singaporean group again. They laughed and wished us well, even Singaporean girl.

December 7, 2011

Journeys and destinations

Journeys and destinations

The Intercity Bus pulled in to Auckland at 7:35 AM, twenty minutes late. When he’d loaded the bags into the hatches, our cheerful, white-bearded bus driver jumped inside.

“Sorry I’m late, everyone. Made a few mistakes this morning. First one was waking up (wink wink).”

As the bus pulled out, the microphone crackled on. “OK guys ["OK gwoys"], hope you’re settled in. Now I’ve just turned us onto Hobbson street, and it’s named after [x] Hobbson, an Aussie who bought the land in 1841 and made Auckland the capital – at least till 1865. He named it Auckland after the captain of the first ship he ever sailed on.”

Antje squeezed my shoulder. “They do this on every bus trip!”

As the north island narrowed briefly into an isthmus, he told us about the first European to lay eyes on New Zealand, a Dutchman, and the first to recognize its commercial potential, Captain James Cook.

Further south, our bus became the British Army marching on the Maori.

“Hey guys, we’ll be crossing over a river in just a minute. When the troops came up this river with their gunships and crossed over to the other side, the united Maori took that as an attack on their sovereign territory, and the New Zealand wars began.”

It drifted from history to anecdote. “Hamilton here’s the fourth biggest city in New Zealand, 200,000 people. I’ve had my own share in that – four daughters to my name, God bless ‘em.” One of his daughters’ husbands had gotten a ticket for speeding, and he’d had more than his fair share. “Police officer says to me, ‘Jimmy, if you get one more of these you’re gonna lose your driving license. Then what?” An ice cream factory passed by. “Best ice cream in New Zealand. They’ve got one called the Hokie Pokie with caramel inside. If you don’t eat it before you leave New Zealand, guys, you don’t like ice cream.” The landscape turned into what he called “hobby farms.” “Tax write-off for the business owners in Auckland,” he said. He wasn’t a big fan. “Needed more fresh water up there in Auckland, but they didn’t want ours. Well, city ran some tests, came out cleaner than theirs. Guess who ate a piece of humble pie?” He honked the horn. “There’s me mate, Mikey, just went by. ” Rugby was next. “Any Aussies on board?” A few guys made some noises. “Oh, sorry about that, fellas. No, I’m just joking, I mean that, guys. You guys’re our big brothers, you really are. Probably more Kiwis in Australia than there are here, anyway. Just a joke, guys, it really was. Good people there, over the ditch.” Toward the end he pointed out a method of hay storage called “silage.” He and a friend had gone out drinking way back when, and when they’d tried to remove the fermented hay the next day, they puked.

Our destination, Waitomo Township, resembles the miles-long road before the entrance to Mt. Rainier. Or rather, it probably resembles many roads that lead up to national parks. In Waitomo there’s one hostel, a few cafes, one bar, a restaurant, and our place.

Any doubts about “Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park” – and who couldn’t have them with a name like that? – disappeared upon check-in. The room wasn’t quite ready, and at nearby cafe we both ordered French Toast with bananas, the sweetness of which disgusted Antje. It disgusted me, too, when I also ate her portion.

As the “Waitomo Walkway” had been heartily recommended by our receptionist, we embarked – and New Zealand, my god you’re a lucky land. The path follows a river most of the way, and when it doesn’t it crests grassy hills with single pairs of trees and layered rocks poking out everywhere. One of the hills was topped by the lightning-struck shell of a tree – Sauron! In a very different tree, a crow-sized bird with white feathers sticking out of its chest whistled, clucked and warbled over the heads of some masticatin’ cows. A few seconds later, its partner did the same from across the valley. It sounded fake, like R2D2. At one point there’s a wooden fence that has to be crossed, and an older Irish couple laughed when they saw us taking a picture of it afterwards. “We’ve never seen anything like it, either,” the man said. The boards are slotted into the post, and you don’t climb over them; you push them down on one side. The other (weighted) side pops up. Then you step over your (now lower) end. The way you learn this is by trying to climb over and almost falling.

It’s hard to notice what’s not there on a hike, but garbage and mosquitoes weren’t there.

The trip out was supposed to take 1 1/4 hours. It took 2. Also, it was warm, and that meant 2 more warm hours back home. Somewhere in there an underestimation had happened, but that was OK. It was the journey, and not the destination, that mattered – even if the journey had effectively ended the day. But the destination was also important.

The turnaround point was the exit of Waitomo caves. By chance, as we passed, a group of cave-goers emerged, blinking in the sunlight. Their helmets were askew, their neoprene suits dripping, and their happy cave-guide told them to hug anyone they could grab. We pranced away.

When they’d left, we got a bit closer to the cave. It was cold, and, just like in the movies, wisps of vapor curled out of the darkness.

Only god, a few dozen cave-guides, and hundreds of thousands of tourists knew what were in those depths.

The next morning, we would find out.

[scary music!]

December 6, 2011

Rainy day Auckland

Rainy day Auckland

Auckland feels like Vancouver. There’s water all around, it’s very familiar somehow, but there’s still a good deal of dissociation in the details. It also gets 50ml of rain each December, according to our guidebook, and on Sunday a fair amount of that jar was filled. We jogged right through it, had a delicious breakfast right through it, read the newspaper right through it. One of the choicer quotes:

“A police staff member who made headlines for saving a teddy bear on the Auckland Harbour Bridge has been convicted of careless driving.”

Or, “Centipedes spawn fear and loathing in suburbs.”

Throughout the day we had to go shopping. The airport still hadn’t heard of my bag.

That evening, our last in Auckland, the hostel’s communal room filled up. There was a girl from Asia, an English woman, a German guy, two Israeli guys, and two girls from Hamburg. Antje and I were playing Scrabble. A 40′s-something man strode in, looking a bit like former Phillies pitcher Jon Kruk, but with longer hair. He made straight for the Asian girl.

“I thought I would come talk to you.”

The cadence of his speech was that of a beat poet. He’d also developed that expat style of highly enunciated English that made placing his accent, which was American, impossible.

“Actually I am busy. I am typing right now.”

“Oh really.”

“Yes, I am typing right now.”

“What are you typing?”

“I am typing, OK? I am busy typing.”

“OK, well, I guess that’s OK. Catch up with you later.”

He did a loop through the kitchen before repeating the act with the German girls. He was three feet away from the Asian girl.

“Hey, how you girls doing tonight.”


“Good, I’m doing alright. Some people here, they’re tired. They don’t have energy to talk. But me, I get excited. Talking gets me excited.”

He was excited. For the next thirty minutes he bombarded them with his opinions and life story. They hardly spoke a word.

I thought it was hilarious at first. As snippets floated across the room – the rest was drowned out – I wrote them down on our Scrabble scoresheet.

Here it is, in the anti-chronological order in which he told it:

“I think your people, they know the danger of electronics.”

“The European people, they know the history of Europe.”

“I also have some friends, some connections, in Paris.”

“Maybe I can do balloons, simple balloons, so I don’t need a big vocabulary.”

“The people of Ireland are very generous.”

“I think the English and the Germans, they’re very close. Germans are very consistent tippers. They don’t tip you too much, they don’t tip you too little.”

“I think Italians are full of attitude, what do you think?”

“Indian women are very generous to me. Indian men – bullshit.”

“Europe. I’ve never been to Europe. I want to go there. I know magicians who have had great success there.”

“It’s good Germany can be united again.”

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but… I’m not interested in concentration camps. I read about that stuff at school, I don’t need to see ‘em. I was talking to an older lady, a hypnotist in San Francisco, she said, ‘I didn’t wanna go to Alcatraz, but I went there. My friends were going so I went there.”

“What do you call a sword in German? ["Schwert."] I wanna go to Germany and do something with a sword, that’s part of your history.”

“I think it’d be easy to meet girls in Germany, because… I meet a lot of pretty girls.”

The girls from Hamburg were looking at the floor. They had had no exit strategy. Their chairs were against the wall. He kept going.

“I’m having a problem with the council in Wellington. Unfortunately I can’t take a bus right now. I’m not allowed.”

“That’s why we kicked the English out. We don’t need those councils.”

“I’m small fish in Auckland. The security guys know me.”

“…you learn that skill on the street.”

“I make a lotta jokes about alcoholism. Like, ‘Don’t mind him, he’s just an alcoholic… who everyone wants to be anonymous.”

“The police don’t bother me. They know I don’t drink, don’t do drugs.”

“There was a time, when I was sleeping in the parks, because… I was homeless. And I had this shiny aluminium knife, it was fake.”

“…this African-American, he was looking at me. So I just showed him my knife, my knife that was fake. Because criminals, they hate to work. They don’t want to work. So what you do is, you look at them.”

“I woke up in a park, and a skunk’s ass was in my face.”

“I’m very good at not escalating things.”

“In America, there’s too much begging. It’s obnoxious.”

At that he turned his chair 180-degrees to face our table. One of the two Israeli guys was sitting there, texting someone. He scooted toward him.

“So how you doing, man.”

“Good, good. Where are you from?”

“I’m initially from New York. But I lived in Seattle for about eight years, then in Portland, then in San Francisco. I’ve been here for 3 1/2 years now. I’m about to go on a world tour.”


“Yeah. So… I’m not really into these smartphones.”

We left.

Later in the night, when I went out to fill up my water bottle, he was lying sideways on the rug, head propped up in a hand, telling his stories to a Canadian girl on the sofa.

Which is why, in the end, I feel comfortable sharing them here. I almost threw them out, these notes. But I think he’d want you to know them, too.