Day 306, Thur, March 8, 2001 – We slept in since we got up at 6:00 yesterday, had an excellent Thai lunch, then made plans at travel agents and adventure folks. The city is like a new, white bread version of Thamel in Katmandu – it caters to the hippie adrenalin junkie, but also the BMW crowd. The city is not only the adventure capital of NZ, but probably of the world. It’s not even ski season, and everything else you can think of is featured here – skydiving, hangliding, parasailing, white-water rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, jet-boating, rock climbing, river-surfing, and sledging. We could easily spend weeks here (not to mention hundreds of dollars), but we settled on just a couple things since our time and cash budget would not indulge all of our fantasies (although we discussed which friends of ours would enjoy which activities). Of course, the granddaddy and most famous activity of them all is the original New Zealand invention of bungy jumping! It all started when Kiwi A.J. Hackett saw a video of the islanders in Vanuatu throwing themselves off wooden towers with nothing more than vines tied to their feet. They had been doing it for centuries, but it took modern documentaries to bring the activity to the world. A.J. did some experiments with rubber cords to try to minimize the inevitable broken legs, cracked skulls and death factors, then made a dramatic leap himself from the Eiffel tower in 1987 to prove its viability. A year later, the world’s first permanent commercial bungee sight was opened on Kewaru bridge in Queenstown. Our appointment at Kewaru was for 4:00 (I don’t know why it was “our” appointment since Naomi sure as hell wasn’t going to jump).
We got there a little early to watch some jumps. Each time, the crowd let out a collective gasp, followed by the jumper’s scream echoing off the canyon walls. They even let a young Japanese couple go together, holding on to each other. I think it was the guy’s idea because he was laughing and waving to the camera while his partner screamed bloody murder the whole time. Naomi saw the light bulb go on over my head, but smacked it down right away. The bridge isn’t all that high – just 43 meters from the river, but it is the only place that actually gives you a “splashdown” dunk in the water, which is what I wanted to do. Since the bridge is right off a main road into town, it attracts a lot of spectators (and brake lights on the road). There’s a viewing platform at the top and at the bottom near the river. Naomi went to the platform to take photos while I did all the preparation. Before the jump, they weigh you – which is the embarrassing part as they write your total weight with indelible red ink on the back of your hand for everyone to see. Then you go the bridge and wait in line, getting a close-up view of the other jumpers as they get ready to take off. Seeing the fear in their faces makes some people back out at this point.
When it’s your turn, you sit on a small stool while they wrap a towel, rope and cord apparatus around your legs so there’s no going back. All the while, the guys are giving hearty encouragement and advice in the casual manner only Aussies and Kiwis can master. I decided to trust these college-age jock types with my life, even though the final link to the cord is what appears to be a much-too-tiny climbing hook that wouldn’t hold someone half my size. Once the cords are ready, you scoot out on the ledge, inching to a point where your toes are sticking out over it and you can see only air and water below them. When the handler lets go of the bungy cord to dangle under you, the weight of it tugs at your feet like a little dog. Your heart is racing a mile a minute and adrenalin is peaking your senses. Some people cope by not looking down at all and others stare at the river gurgling far below and wonder (out loud) “what the hell am I doing here!!??”. As they say at the top – “the first meter is the hardest”. The decision is then all yours, with a little psychological “help” when the guys start the crowd going on a hurried “5-4-3-2-1-Bungy!!” Many people are so fired up and ready to get it over with they are off the ledge by “3”, then the world becomes a blur. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of bungy jumping yet, it really is impossible to explain. Try having that stomach-gripping feeling you get from peering over the side of a canyon, bridge, gondola, or skyscraper; followed by that horrible falling feeling you have in nightmares that cause you to wake in a cold sweat with chest heaving and pulse racing; then the feeling of elation as your body is snatched from a messy splattering death by a giant rubber band, then the feeling of weightlessness as you bounce upward and finally the joy of swinging free with nothing but air and nature around you, waving to your friends and cheering strangers. All of this in 5 seconds, more or less. In the interests of promoting One World Foundation, I held our flag at the top of the jump for the photos and held on all the whole way down – although it got a bit tangled during the bouncing and spinning. I couldn’t see a thing since it was fluttering in my face the whole way down. I had asked the guys to dunk me about shoulder deep into the river, but apparently my swan dive was too far out, so the bungy caught early and I missed the water entirely. I was disappointed since that was the only reason I chose this one over the gnarliest, highest jump in town – the Nevis high-wire 134 meter jump. That one would have been even higher than the one I did over Victoria Falls in Zambia. It’s probably a good thing though since it was windy and cold on the bridge and the water was freezing. After bouncing up a few times, then dangling at the end of the cord, they lower you to a rubber raft standing by on the river. They guys in the raft pull you in like a dead tuna and untie the cord from your legs. Everyone who does this jump has a goofy grin as they walk up the stairs from the river to the viewing platform to try to expend their adrenalin with friends and family. On the way up, my rubbery legs weren’t functioning quite right and I tripped on one of the steps. Naomi thought it was a riot.
On the interview front, as expected, the people watching
and working there all said “enjoying life and being healthy and having fun”.
After the jump, we went on a jet boat ride in the Shotover River. This is
the most famous things to do in Queenstown (at least that’s what the photos of
in the office seem to convey). The
boats are amazing – they have some kind of special jet engine that allows them
to skim the surface of the water and make 360 degree turns on a dime.
They can also be steered so precisely; we come within inches of the
canyon walls, with everyone screaming in a splash.
guarantee you'll get wet, so they give you a rain jacket in addition to a life
vest. We sat in the front with the driver, who assured us that
he’s never had an accident (although another driver had a fatality once –
due of course to faulty equipment, not driving skill).
Sometimes, we just closed our eyes and hoped for the best. Back in
town we took in the sunset at the lake while watching little kids feed the
Day 307, Fri, March 9, 2001 – Today we decided to take in some of the beautiful natural scenery around Queenstown with a drive through rugged Skipper's canyon on a dirt road literally hugging the side of the canyon walls. There were several warning signs that the road is narrow and dangerous at points, but that made it all the more fun. Naomi thought the scenery was worth a few screams and close calls. We went out to the bridge where Pipeline does their bungy and where A.J. Hackett does special jumps, but they were deserted. The views were awesome – a sort of mini- Grand Canyon with High Sierras thrown in, but surrounded by sparkling silver shale stone all around. It was one of the most beautiful drives we’d ever been on – and we were virtually alone, except for a few hundred sheep, three sheep dogs and a surly herder who wasn’t pleased that I honked the horn coming around a curve in case there was a car coming.
At the bottom of the canyon, the river banks are full of multi-colored stones like a collection of dull, odd-sized marbles – green, red, gray, white, brown, black. We made a composition of rock and Naomi played Ellie-May Clampett on a nearby tractor. On the way back, we crossed paths with some buses pulling rafts that obviously couldn’t imagine that a little Mitsubishi rental car would be on that road. We came within a few meters before maneuvering around each other with a smile. The kiwis we’ve met seem to get a kick out everything – even close calls – confirming the fun-loving stereotype.
We eventually made it back alive and after a Subway lunch, we took the gondola ride to the top of Bob’s Peak high above the river. At the top they have a go-kart-like 3-wheeled luge ride which looks like a lame kiddy ride from the gondola, making you wonder why all the adults are laughing their asses off, until you find yourself screaming ten minutes later. They have an ingenious braking and steering mechanism you learn in about 5 seconds. We put on the goofy helmets and went down the scenic “beginners” track the first time, which still left us a little room to bump fenders down the straight-aways. Then we had a go at the “advanced” track with screeching hairpins, screaming hills and a jump on which Naomi caught some serious air. For some inexplicable reason I went down the gravity-based track a lot faster than Naomi, so there was no bumping each other this time. It was a lot different than a flat track with engines, but fun nonetheless. After the racing, I decided to take advantage of a volume discount offered by A.J. Hackett and jump from the platform they have high above the lake called “The Ledge”. The actual fall isn’t that far, but it appears much higher because you look down 800 meters all the way to the town and lake. It also is a different type of apparatus – attaching like a vest instead of at the ankles. For this one, I took a running leap from about ten feet back instead of the standard swan dive. It was great dangling above the city afterward. Naomi still couldn’t be talked into doing one – even a little thing called “The Swing” that just swings you out a little ways.
After jumping, we interviewed the jump crew, who had typically straightforward Kiwi answers:
When we took the gondola back down, we got a birds-eye vies of a guy doing a triple flip off the ledge – it was an awesome maneuver, drawing applause from the audience. Back in town, we got the car and left Queenstown. We had a great time here, and the locals are very friendly since they know that tourism drives the economy. We especially enjoyed the tour guide who signed us up for our next venture south to Te Anau. It’s funny how half the town names are English and half are Maori – sort of like New York and Massachusetts. The ride was through beautiful hilly country with plenty of sheep, as usual. After a while, the land flattened out a bit and started to look more like the US Midwest. We got flashbacks of Indiana – especially when we pulled into the trailer park we had arranged to stay in for the next two nights. It was a resort-like deal, on the lakefront with whirlpool bath and a sauna room. It was nice to have a good bath for a change and relax – especially after expending so much adrenalin the last couple days.
Day 308, Sat, Mar. 10, 2001 – Shopped for some supplies in Te Anau, a small town with just 2,000 people and a couple stoplights, then drove out to meet our boat for a cruise of Milford Sound. The Sound is actually a fjord in the midst of Fjordland National Park and is one of the top attractions of the South Island. We drove North – Milford is actually closer to Queensland than Te Anau as the crow flies, but we’re not crows. We were very lucky with the weather, as the clear blue sky contrasted nicely with gray mountains, mossy green trees, golden brown fields, and snowy white peaks in the distance. We stopped at some designated scenic and waterfall photo spots (all very organized in New Zealand) with hundreds of Asian tourists in dozens of buses – it was like we were back in Asia again, until we got back out to the road and the burly Kiwi driver was posing for pictures with the tiny tourists.
The road goes through a wildly steep 1.2 kilometer tunnel, emerging on the other side of a mountain range in a gorgeous canyon. We arrived in Milford just in time to board our boat – the Red Boat Cruiser – for the 3-hour cruise. The cruise goes through the fjord and out to the ocean to get a look at how original seamen like James Cook saw the fjord. On the way, we passed some fishing boats, crystal clear waterfalls that spray mist onto the deck, and seals swimming near us and sunning on rocks. Some of them surrounded a school of fish and fed, swimming through the middle of the circle. The seal fur trade brought many of the early settlers to the area, then they discovered the greenstone (jade) trade as well. One of the highlights of the cruise is Mitre Peak, apparently the highest sheer drop into water in the world. We also stopped at an underwater observatory called “Milford Deep”, which descends 10 meters under the surface to view the natural phenomenon known as deep-water emergence. Because there is always a layer of fresh water in the fjord due to extensive rain, the seawater below has the same conditions as the deep ocean, providing a unique environment for animals and plant species and the only place in the world visitors can see it. On the trip back to port, the captain commented how lucky we were as this is the sunniest day of the year. The Sound usually gets 6 meters of rain per year.
After we had docked back at port, we interviewed the captain"
"Staying above ground and enjoying life."
Back in Te Anau we went to our first rugby match.
The sport is more than a national pastime; it is a way of life bordering
on obsession. It is like
basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and celebrity watching all in one.
Kiwis can tell you all the major players, positions and statistics from
years back and where they were when championships were played.
The national team, the “All Blacks” is world famous and usually one
of the top teams in the world. They
play international matches at a stadium nicknamed “the House of Pain” and
try to intimidate opponents by doing a traditional Maori haka dance and war
chant, which includes muscle poses, punching movements and fierce faces
(ironically, the haka they chant is about a warrior who hid in a hole until his
enemies went away). The All Blacks won the first world cup in 1987, but
haven’t won it since – a source of deep national shame and mourning –
especially when their rivals the Aussies win, as in 1999.
The team’s name comes from their uniforms, not the ethnic mix, although
Maoris and Pacific Islanders have figured prominently on the team throughout its
history. At the local level, there
are 140,000 rugby club players, which feed into 26 regional teams in five
divisions based on population. Today’s
match was strictly a local club affair. It
looked like Little League Baseball in the US - there were cars parked along the
sidelines, and people were standing around, sitting on lawn chairs, or leaning
on their hoods drinking beer (the other New
Zealand national pastime). The
players looked like normal-sized guys – clerks, bartenders, and accountants
– but they went at each other like beasts. It was all pretty confusing,
Americans to understand. Near as we
can tell, the objective is to beat the crap out of guys on the other team with
elbows, knees, eye gouges, punches, etc. while pretending like you’re trying
to advance the ball with a series of runs and backward passes.
Once in a while, the sides will bow down and face each other
shoulder-to-shoulder in a scrum, which looks like guys wrapping around each
other and trying to shove their heads up a teammate’s hind side.
Once in a while, someone will kick the ball forward, and sometimes they
will toss it in from the side to teammates being hoisted up by their friends
grabbing their shorts and giving them an enormous wedgy.
Everybody on the sideline seemed to be a coach of one kind or another,
yelling encouragement or cursing at the other team, which was from another town.
asked some of the guys to explain the scoring, and they cleared up our confusion
a little bit – also pointing out that “our guys don’t wear no pads like
Yank sissies”. We changed the
subject to the All Black team, adding that we saw on the telly that their most
famous player, Jonah Lomu (a Tongan) had just signed to be some kind of movie
star. The sideline coaches were
dismissive saying he wasn’t too bright with his money.
We joked that maybe he’d taken too many head shots on the rugby field,
but one guy said “Nah, that’s a problem with his breed, isn’t it?”.
Maybe he’s the one with too many shots to the head.
After the game, we went to a lame Italian restaurant and
went the local pub, The Ranch, to see what kind of live band they had.
It was like walking into 1980’s Iowa – jeans, big hair, cowboy boots.
The band was doing covers, mocked by some huge Danish guys shooting pool.
Day 309, Sun, Mar. 11, 2001 – Checked out of our little motor home and started the “Southern Scenic Route” through mountains, rolling hills and farmland, visiting with thousands of lambs, hundreds of cows, a few horses and some deer creatures. There were even a couple hawks picking at some road kill. For entertainment, Naomi has taken to honking and waving to the livestock. We’ve found that cows respond much better than sheep, and horses don’t respond at all. Part of the scenic route is an old stone bridge which has since been replaced by a more modern, sturdy one. As we returned from taking a look at it, we realized we had locked our keys in the car. After trying our own lame methods, we stopped two fishermen coming up from the river. The laughed, then pulled out an enormous first-generation Motorola cell phone and called roadside service. They were great guys, but we could only understand about half of what they said as vowels smashed together and rolled over each other in a thick stew. About 20 minutes later a guy pulled up in a pickup truck with his family as if he was coming to picnic at the bridge. This was the service guy. It took him about 5 seconds to jimmy our lock and he was off - no paperwork, no handshake, no payment. It was a pretty weird experience all around.
We stopped in Invercargill for lunch. This Southern-most city in NZ has a reputation for being a bit backward, which has absolutely nothing to do with the concentration of Scottish descendents in the area. We could have taken a quick inland route, but decided to go with Lonely Planet’s recommendation to take the coastal route through the Catlins, a national park of scrubby sand dunes and forests. It’s amazing the different types of environments we’ve seen in just a few days. The route is slow, winding through the bottom of the island and up to Nugget Point, where an old lighthouse watches over jagged islands populated by sea lions, seals, and sea birds. The islands are surrounded by huge bladder kelp forests, some swirling in the tide pools like giant bowls of fettuccini. We watched with binoculars from the lighthouse, sharing the view with some French tourists before continuing on to Dunedin, the second largest city on the South Island. As befitting as its name (which is Celtic for Edinburgh), it is the center of Scottish New Zealand , complete with a whiskey distillery, haggis ceremonies, and a statue of Robert Burns in the city center. Come to think of it, the scrubby hills on the way did remind us of the hilly moors of Scotland. We checked into a central hotel, and I had the best lamb shank of my life. So that’s what happens to all those cute furry guys Naomi’s been talking to all week?
Day 310, Mon, Mar. 12, 2001 – Today we checked email, walked around the Victorian old town a bit, then drove around the Otago Peninsula, a sort of nature reserve jutting out into the Pacific. We stopped at a penguin reserve, but saw mostly seals and sea lions lounging on the rocks. There were about 40 of them, swimming, playing, sleeping – it was fun to watch them maneuver around the rugged landscape of the rocks - somehow walking, running and climbing with two flippers as arms, and their tail behaving like two feet tied together. One baby seal kept running around in a panic, whining as if he lost his mother. Another one climbed way up near to us, lifting his head to smell us, then croaking to his friends below.
We went to the Albatross colony to see some of the biggest birds in the world (with wingspans of 3 meters), but we only saw a few flying in the distance. Funny enough, we haven’t seen any of the namesake kiwi birds in New Zealand either. There were, however, a few of those deer critters outside the colony taking handouts from tourists.
The peninsula is also home to the gloomy Larnach Castle. As we drove up the hill toward it, a fog rolled in, casting an eerie cloud over the grounds. The mood fit the history of the place - rich people, lecherous old men, evil step moms quarrelling over inheritance and suicide– a regular “Dynasty” plot. The house didn’t seem too inviting, but they did have a beautiful garden.
Down the hill we stopped by a Maori Marea, or community center, but there was no one around. We were disappointed because we wanted to meet some Maori folks but haven’t seen many at all our whole time in New Zealand. After a great Indian dinner, we met a Servas host at his home high in the hills with beautiful views over the bay. He was nice to welcome us and share some information about his country, but he wasn’t too impressed with our home. It may have been his irreverent kiwi humor, but we recall he said something like “Los Angeles is the asshole of the world as far as I’m concerned”. When we asked him to elaborate, he mentioned the usual – crowds, traffic, smog, too big, too many posers, etc. Of course, we’d heard it all before and agree with some of it, but nothing along the lines of “asshole of the world” – especially after some of the places we’ve seen. Aside from being rude, our host was a bit shortsighted, failing to realize how easy it is to run a tiny country with no international importance and just half as many people as Los Angeles alone. He also pointed out some national issues that put the US behind the rest of civilization – the death penalty (outlawed in most countries), gun prevalence (the US sets the standard), and the metric system (we are the last holdouts due to sheer stubbornness). Of course we ran out of good reasons, so it was time to leave. We had planned to check out the famous Dunedin music scene anyway (it is, after all, the home of Neil Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House fame). The Arc Pub was having an acoustic night, so we stopped there, somehow avoiding the casino across the street at the Southern Cross Hotel.
Day 311, Tues, Mar. 13, 2001 – Left Dunedin after negotiating the “steepest street in the world” according to Guinness, and headed North back to Christchurch. On the way, we stopped at Moeraki to see the unusual stone boulders lying around the beach like marbles left by some giant. Maori legends say they are food baskets and sweet potatoes dropped by migratory canoes, but scientists call them sectarian concretions, whatever that means.
Further North is Timaru, birthplace of the famous racehorse Phar Lap, and home to Richard Pearse, who is claimed to have invented an airplane before the Wright Brothers did. We have trouble believing that one, but there’s no arguing the Kiwi’s invention of water sprinklers, child-proof bottles, Velcro, and (of course) bungy jumping. We arrived in Christchurch just in time for another incredible sunset over the city. We checked into the recently remodeled Stonehurst, a famous backpacker haunt with a room to fit every budget. We got a tiny en suite room, and then went to the movies again to see Quills, with incredible acting all around – not just Geoffrey Rush and his Oscar nomination. The film really makes one think of the power of literature (art?) to not only amuse and entertain, but also to stimulate, provoke, corrupt, and most importantly make one use his mind. No wonder Nazis burned books and despots trying to keep their subjects illiterate.
Day 312, Wed, Mar. 14, 2001
– Today we took the car back to Ray, who gave it the once over, then had
his friend give us a ride to the airport. We
had to fly back to Auckland first, and then wait for
three hours for our flight to Fiji. We
had a great time in New Zealand. The
scenery is stunning and unbelievably clean and organized.
We saw no trash or graffiti for three weeks. It was a nice change, but a bit of a shock to our system.
The people were very friendly, but tinged with a sort of arrogance.
We would probably get used to it if we spent more time here and it
won’t keep us from recommending the country to our friends, especially the
more adventurous outdoor types.
If you would like to follow our adventure in Fiji, please click here: Photojournal March 14 - 21, 2001
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