Monthly Archives: September 2015

It’s a long way from anywhere and has been for quite some time. [Hobbitton and Auckland]

A day in Hobbitton is a great time to talk a little about the illusion that is New Zealand. I mean first off let’s consider the undeniable reality that is forty-odd permanent hobbit holes in a dale in the middle of the North Island of a modern, developed, twenty-first century country. And look, the art department was *astonishingly* detailed: each fencepost was bathed in vinegar to look aged, then painted with a concoction of lichen, moss spores, and glue to give it accurate color and texture. At the Green Dragon Inn there is a real carved green dragon! And the nice tree Bilbo Baggins does his thinking under in the Hobbit is fake but the sixty-years-later one from Lord of the Rings was 100% real until it died from having been transplanted at the irresistable whim of Sir Peter Jackson. So I don’t want to come across as complaining, or trying to diminish it in any way. But superficially the Tourism Board portrays the archipelago as this unspoilt Utopia where kiwi frolic in native vegetation and, don’t worry, the Canterbury Plains have always been pastureland. But it is so interesting because almost nothing is how it was pre-1850, particularly in the lowlands but further west as well. It’s green, no doubt, but what grazing grasses would have been there before the introduction of sheep? Think about all the willows and poplars planted as wind cover for the stock animals. WIllows are from Assyria, for crying out loud, and poplars are 100% European. Those stands of white pine trees? Yeah, not a separate species. They were introduced and have since been killed as part of a back-to-nature campaign, the extent of which they hardly admit to themselves. Um, trout fishing in Lake Rotorua? Nice hobby; English introduction. Deer hunting and venison farming? No less delicious for being an English introduction. So I totally appreciate making the best of things, and making a bad situation your own, but just the *scale* of the changes are so astonishing that it boggles me. Again: is it pretty? Indubitably. Is it massively terraformed? Yeah, kind of. It’s not even almost pristine; it’s somewhere between brainwashing and a revisionist myth. It might have the same motivation as what manifests as compulsion to be hyperbolically unique to the point of absurdity: this building is “the most efficient milk powder production facility on the South Island”, and so on, which originally I had interpreted as a small-country inferiority complex but now I think is just finding facts to relieve the cognitive dissonance.

On the theme of revisionism: maybe you have been paying attention in the world news and maybe you haven’t, but New Zealand is currently undergoing a bit of an internal struggle about whether to change the national flag from a defaced Blue Ensign (Union Jack in the corner & Southern Cross on the field) to something else, maybe a fern or a map or some extra stars. Which is fine and it’s a free nation (*ahem* of the Commonwealth *ahem*) but if they’re going to try and erase their links with the Empire they’re going to need to, at minimum, (a) stop calling their capital city Wellington, ffs, and (b) stop sending all their teenagers to Britain for their gap year. After that do whatever you want. Look, it is great to acknowledge that the forces in your country’s past were not all white and male, that’s cool. But it seems like a big link to break. Anyway, not my business.

We spent our final 24 hours in Auckland, eating Indian food at Raviz near the Sky Tower, walking around the beautiful harbour in the sunny morning light, and eventually making our way up Wellesley Street past Albert Park to the campus of the University of Auckland and the Winter Garden with its Cool House and Tropical House. The thing that depressed me most about Albert Park was the slackliners and the thing I loved most was the butter chicken. We got upgraded to a SkyCouch row on the flight home, returning without incident to celebrate my birthday with saved wedding cake and leftover champagne.

The WinterGarden from the World Exhibition 1920 A hobbit hole!

In summary: I misread the itinerary so I brought the wrong guidebook, was a pair of socks short and overpacked my Tshirts, but the whole trip was otherwise A-OK except for a microscopic kerfuffle with the rental car company for the second leg. This is great because it means I still pack like a champion in less than an hour even post-wedding with a pregnant lady sleeping in my bedroom and the rest of the bridesmaids chilling downstairs. I did not see a real kiwi bird, nor did I purchase a jingly kiwi Christmas ornament, but I did get a greenstone necklace. I have what looks like about 700 pictures to whittle down to make these entries, after deleting the backs of people’s heads and the random plastic bags and so on. Overall a great trip, a fun country, a lot to do, a lot to like. Worth a visit.

Rugby is a wonderful show: dance, opera and, suddenly, the blood of a killing. [Rotorua and Waitomo]

Rotorua is where the book version of Once Were Warriors is set, but without the film version I wouldn’t have a crush on Temuera Morrison so it’s probably a wash. The lake smells like sulphur as a side effect of all the amazing thermal activity in the area: they have the world’s best Polynesian hot baths (as ranked by Condé Nast), where we chatted with a retired firefighter and a prison psychologist originally from Ventura County and now working for the Department of Corrections in Auckland. The natural hot springs are so alkaline that there is signage to warn bathers about their silver jewelry tarnishing, but I know for a fact that my adornments are from the platinum group metals, thank you (and the Rat is stainless steel; it’s fine).

We spent several great days in the area, visiting Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (their own personal Yellowstone) and a morning tubing through the Waitomo glowworm caves. We took daily morning walks along the lake front with the red-billed gulls and the black swans—this is really the town that will have cemented birdsong as one of my multi-sensory memories of the whole trip—and read the Central Otago Times (or the local equivalent) while drinking Earl Grey tea in colonial delight. Jose deeply resents the town for having 24 hour supermarkets when even Boston still doesn’t, and resents the country as a whole for lacking an ozone layer, poor thing. The best bookstore is McLeod’s, 1148 Pukuatua Street, and the best breakfast is the Li’l Miss Bene at the Relish Cafe: a single poached egg on a hash brown with bacon, wilted spinach, and a side of Hollandaise.

A long afternoon gently slides into sunset at the Polynesian baths Yes it is really that color

One evening we went to the Te Puia cultural experience with hangi dinner, where they taught the women and girls how to spin poi and the men and boys how to dance a haka. We elected a chief to represent us to the warrior offering and perform hongi with the members of the iwi. Dinner was great and cocktails were supporting: gin and taha, where taha is like an indigenous ginger beer. After dinner we had your average run-of-the-mill 35m geyser and story time on large rock terraces warmed by steam, and they sang all both songs that I know from Hayley Westenra: Pokare Kare Ana and Hine O Hine. It also turns out that the master carver on this particular marae carved the Queen K house on Oahu for the Polynesian Cultural Center there, so he was a Big Deal.

Sometimes in the evenings we have a choice on hotel TV of Sky News (all rugby, all the time) and Māori broadcasting networks. Dora says Kia Ora! in Dora Mātātoa, and you can guess most of what SpongeBob Tarau Porowhā is saying even though it doesn’t get any funnier when dubbed. We like the show Lady Who Teaches You Stuff, sort of a panel discussion or quiz show or something where a friendly lady and some teenagers try and practice grammar in the Māori and everyone fails but laughs. It also has the weather, which is more great than it sounds because it has all the indigenous names for places and not “Dunedin”. Finally it has rugby, which is the most Zen-like of the dubbed experiences. The reason it is mindbending is that I understand neither the commentary nor the content and can therefore make very few of my patented clever linguistic inferences. Also one morning there was a heartwarming human interest story about a dual-ethnicity girl of Hawaiian-Māori descent who just won some traditional boat race and was proud to represent her two cultures. Or something.

If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is. [Franz Josef Glacier to Christchurch]

It’s probably half a day’s drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef glacier on highway 6 via Haast Pass (looks like this) and the impossible rock fall and a traffic jam of dairy cows. It was remarkable to me how mobile they were, jogging like that down the side of the road after the milking tractor, udders swaying. We elected not to take the route through Wanaka due to misinformation from the Visitor Centre about the advisability of snow chains, and somewhere in the few hundred km of two-lane straightaway I learned how to overtake, although never on one of the absolutely *endless* string of one lane bridges. Give way, it says. Go to hell, I says, this trickle doesn’t deserve a name OR a bridge. The soundtrack to our long drive was the wedding playlist, delayed but otherwise as promised. In the city of Franz Josef there is basically one street (“Where is X hotel” “There’s a sign”) and we got our upgrade and reconfirmed our helihike and went to the pub to watch rugby. Again.

In the later afternoon and early morning I read my book (this time “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton) on the balcony and listened to all the helicopters in the distance, ferrying tourists from the pads in town to the glaciers above. It’s another example where oversaturated tourism can’t possibly be good for local wildlife, or quite frankly, even humans who care about noise pollution, but let me tell you it is incredible to go up there. The last glacier I was on was advancing to the sea, which is also cool but by definition a bit lower altitude, and glaciers are these dynamic beasts who change hour by hour and only stupid people can only see barren ice. Anyway if you’re going to insist on going up a mountain in a helicopter you may as well go with a professional, and by my count Franz Josef, as a town, probably has more helicopter operators than restaurants, and it *definitely* has more glacier guides than municipal buildings.

To relax after our adventure we had a way-intense American donut the size of two fists and stuffed with boysenberry jam and clotted cream from Picnics, then soaked at the private Glacier Hot Pools for a while and emerged in time for fine dining at the hotel.

Yes we are cute Dystopian wonderland

For train day we drove ourselves to Greymouth and provisioned at the supermarket where I learned that they have both beer and yogurt DIY kits on the shelves. The TraNZalpine to Christchurch is crazy scenic and has an outdoor car to take pictures from which is only closed through tunnels.

Canterbury is well on its way to rebuilding after the earthquakes and Christchurch is resilient and is coming back to life through sheer force of will. Our Novotel on Cathedral Square at least exists, unlike the (recently advertised) backpackers hostel that two girls who shared our shuttle from the train station were seeking. We ate dinner at a perfectly adequate intact Mexican restaurant surrounded by rubble and vacant lots, and breakfasted on New Regent Street across from a defunct jeweler and a craft brewery, est. 2014. In an ideal world I would have spent another day there, exploring what is left of the town centre and even using it as a home base to explore Akaroa, the French village just down the coast. Everyone go; spend money there.

It was rugged country in the West, with plenty of ways to die. [Mount Aspiring NP and Doubtful Sound]

You know what’s impressive about New Zealand landscapes? Basically everything. It’s a joy to visit a country where every township has a Department of Conservation outpost. To paraphrase noted philosopher Evangeline Lilly, it’s like taking the best parts of Canada and squishing them onto some islands the size of Hawaii. It’s that good. We can come back later to why a lot of it is an illusion but for now let’s just talk about the temperate rainforests in Fiordlands that are *just like* RMIV.5: Olympic NP: In Which It Rains On The Bogachiel River*. Let’s talk about driving south and west from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound as the land turns red with tussocks of snow-grass beneath the clear blue of a crisp late-winter sky. Let’s talk about the golf-course perfection of the green pastures on the deer farms and the clean white of the snow on the mountaintops contrasting with the off-beige of the Romney sheep in the vast fields.

We took a wildlife cruise by catamaran through Doubtful Sound, past the largest underground hydropower station on the South Island and under a mineral waterfall that is so clear you can drink from it. I can confirm that blue penguins are indeed blue and that the same lineage of seals that Captain Cook saw in 17-whatever still guard the rocks at the entrance to the harbor. In a classically uncriminal case of New Zealand graffitti, I saw a sign defaced to read “Danger: Mice”. I mean, it’s kind of appropriate, given the virulent and homicidal feelings most Kiwis have about the invasive species of ship rats, stoats, rabbits, and possums, even as they make the best of a bad situation and have invented a kind of blanket material called Possum Merino, which they sell at a markup and which justifies more trapping.

We spent a long day doing a self-drive around Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy past Kinloch and the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s Great Walks. I was grateful the whole time for the compulsive sense of precision that New Zealanders exhibit, from “Domestic Terminal: 680m / 7min30sec walking” to hotel soap expiring on March 15, 2016, all of which made the drive basically idiot-proof and obviated the need for Gigi outside of her roaming zone. I had become accustomed for several days already to driving on the wrong side of the road, but I still need the radio off in the presence of pedestrians and I still strongly believe that Coronet Peak needs more complete guardrail coverage (also I had never previously experienced a roundabout sign that warned of railroad tracks, but that is for another day).

Other days were foreshortened due to us sleeping 16 hours to catch up on jetlag and wedding deficit, but all days included wine. Sometimes mulled (mulled wine still graces the winter menu as long as the ski slopes are open) and always low-key and relatively good quality. They generally specialize in Pinot Noir, which I don’t typically love but have found and genuinely appreciate “From The Ashes” and “Peregrine”, both from Central Otago region. One time at Madam Woo’s, a dumpling house, I also found an inexpensive but grassy Dop Point Sauvignon Blanc that I liked a lot and they were happy to serve with pork siu mai. I hereby promise to be a total PITA about kiwi wine for the foreseeable future, yessir.

Doubtful Sound Mount Aspiring NP

*The observation isn’t wholly facetious, either: it’s actually the same latitude (45.4 S as opposed to 48.0 N) and both have an abundance of ferns and moss and dense beech slopes and downed conifers.

Kia Kaha, boys! [Queenstown and Arrowtown]

Hello! Jose and I took two glorious weeks to New Zealand on honeymoon. We did a thousand things and we saw a thousand more, most of them fun and all of them beautiful. As a preview, our modes of transportation were numerous and varied: plane, train, RAV-4, luge, helicopter, coach, catamaran, inner tube, gondola.

The paheka history of New Zealand begins as follows, although there are a few hundred unnoticed years before the 17th century where indigenous seafaring Polynesians had the run of the place and mostly did quite well for themselves, thankyouverymuch:

“The first European to find New Zealand was a Dutch sea-captain who was looking for something else. It takes its name from a province of Holland to which it does not bear the remotest likeness… Taken possession of by an English navigator, whose action was afterwards reversed by his country’s rulers, it was only annexed by the English Government which did not want it, to keep it from the French who did.”  

William Pember Reeves 1898

Anyway after that the lightning summary is: Great War, sheep, bungy jumping. Also if you think the Māori language sounds like Hawaiian it’s because it is.

We started our trip with most of a week in Queenstown, which is the size of State College and the adventure capital of the solar system. Flying down to Queenstown from Auckland we were treated to sunrise views over Mount Taranaki near the bottom of the North Island. It’s a nice mountainy mountain, you know, a good symmetric volcano cone, then the Caribbean blue of the Cook Straits and gorgeous glaciers all the way down to Fiordlands. Queenstown is like an Antipodean Austria, growing like a fungus ring around the banks of the splendid Lake Wakatipu and up the foothills of The Remarkables mountain range. It’s folksy and alpine and full of second floor restaurants with big windows for people watching, and basically any structure over 10m high has a launch pad, whether for snowboard tricks or bungy jumping or a luge. For our first meal we ate at world-famous Fergburger, which even in this shoulder season is bustling with queues out the door and juicy delicious steak creations worthy of a 7,000 mile journey. It also goes without saying that Fergburger sponsors a paragliding team (of course it does).

Within Queenstown proper are Botanical Gardens, which is right and proper, but within the Botanical Gardens one must take care not to be hit by a stray frisbee from people playing disc golf too enthusiastically. There’s also an *excellent* bookstore called Bound on Church Street where I bought Anna Smaill’s “The Chimes” on their recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One morning we woke up before sunrise and I went to fetch lamb pies at Fergbaker before our jet-boating reservation, queuing with half a dozen eager Queenstown residents: 26 year old ski instructors, lightly pierced and displaying gang symbols of the Patagonia and North Face factions. Fergbaker is an offshoot of Fergburger and serves lamb shank pies, lamb and kumara pies, venison pies, chorizon and prawn pies as the afternoon wears on…meat pies in the UK are dubious at best but here! Oh, here. Here they are happiness made flesh. Here Jose relents his traditional breakfast conservatism of eggs and potatoes and lets me go my non-traditional best: Chinese dumplings whene necessary, meat pies every other day. Mmm.

We are in cognito! Queenstown from above

Oh yes! Jet boating! Well. Jet boating is loud and can’t possibly be good for wildlife the whole 8km up and down the river, but spinning 360 degrees up and down Shotover Canyon just like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did on their tour last year is pretty great. Jose refuses to believe that I didn’t know before we arrived that it was the same activity, but you believe me, right? You don’t even get very splashed, although as the FAQ says “Will I get wet?” “It’s a boat”.

We spent a few hours in sleepy Arrowtown, a gold mining settlement from the late 19th century where some few hundred Chinese miners were conscripted and formed a settlement. Driving home without snow chains we were nevertheless brave enough to attempt Coronet Peak for the panoramas (wow, but little me just uses iPhoto and can’t stitch them together, so, sorry), rounding out an evening with a gondola ride up the mountains and a luge race down.