I forgot to mention something about Stu, our English friend, in the last post. He cheats at pool. That’s right: He’s a stand-up guy in every other way that I can tell, but he’s a dirty stinking brazen pool cheat and I want him to know that I know it.

Our last night in Raglan, we played a little stick in the town’s chief watering hole. Halfway through the first game, Stu starts in with these crazy European rules that he pretends to assume I know. Such as: after a scratch, the other player gets two shots. If he makes the first he still gets two more! If a player misses the ball he’s shooting at, his opponent gets two shots for that, too! But that wasn’t the worst of it: Stu also insisted, all the more forcefully in the face of my incredulity, that slop counts! In other words, as long as he hits the ball he’s aiming for, he gets another turn in the event that any one of his balls is pocketed.

“That’s the way they play all over the world, my friend,” Stu insisted smarmily. “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of it.”

“You swine! Can’t stand losing to an American, huh? A little national inferiority complex, eh? You think just because of that accent of yours, I’ll buy any ridiculous lie you tell.” I bought it. (There’s something about that accent.) But the joke was on him: I still won.

Stu, you should know, America always wins. USA! USA!


But enough jingoism. In Rotorua I looked up international pool rules and found out Stu wasn’t cheating. I would have emailed him an apology but my eyes were constantly watering from all the sulfur in the air.

Rotorua is one of the country’s most active thermal areas and the smell of escaping gas is a continuous olfactory reminder. Hot springs and pools are everywhere. Geysers (pronounced geezers by these strange people) are very active here too. Many spas in this area are internationally renowned for their use of the waters and mud: Lisa visited perhaps the most famous, the Polynesian Spa, for a little well-deserved pampering. We also went to a Maori concert and two days later the performers went on strike. They were good; I say give them a raise.

After a couple days in beautiful Rotorua we headed south, with a brief stopover at Craters of the Moon, another quite active thermal area that doesn’t strain under the heavy visitation of so many other sites on the North Island’s chief travel corridors.

Craters of the Moon was a revelation. Everywhere, like a battlefield, tendrils of mist rose like smoke out of vents in the fern and bramble. Occasional sprigs and branches and whole plants were bleached white by the poison their roots had tapped. Craters and fumaroles hissed and spit boiling water and steam; in one noisy spot a huge rent in the hillside belched with the sound of a jet: the sound of massively displaced air: a constant sibilance. The smell of sulfur pervaded the whole rolling plain.

Always there is not enough time. We rush through the park and move on to Taupo, where we find that the hike we’d planned, through the Tongariro wilderness, is impossible without crampons and ice picks because of a recent cold snap. So we drive instead down to Napier, “the art deco capital of New Zealand,” to wrap up work on the first installment of our worldwide project (of which more later). And then on to Wellington, the capital, to polish up and email the damn thing.


“How easily a habit in strange surroundings takes on the character of a magical charm. Against what? Melancholy perhaps or ennui.” – Graham Greene

In our last few days on the North Island, Lisa and I compiled some observations about this trip, general thoughts on long-term travel and specific thoughts about wonderful, perplexing New Zealand.

The biggest difficulty in this kind of travel is not the regular encounters with the strange and new. After the first few days you settle into that as a kind of peculiar normalcy. To adapt you establish routines: morning coffee, followed by journal notes, a long drive, an afternoon walk or hike, wine with dinner, a long read before bed. The difficulty comes when the routine is interrupted, even by scheduled events: long-planned hikes, unexpectedly finding television coverage of the baseball playoffs, icy paths in the mountains impassable to all but the doughty hikers with crampons and picks. When routine amid the alien is defenestrated you are doubly adrift. “The wings of melancholia flick at me … ” Depression can set in. The limbs become unaccountably weary. A curious phenomenon that must be rode out.

After six weeks we’re starting to get the hang of this. But even the worst travel malaise couldn’t detract or wholly distract from our enjoyment of this beautiful, somewhat odd country. A million little details flash by every day, every hour, sometimes completely foreign, more often just different enough from our realm of experience to seize our attention, to prompt a constant, a habitual focusing and re-focusing. Like the fact that groups of teenagers here can be seen gathered on street corners, not smoking cigarettes and spray-painting walls, but feverishly playing yo-yo. This country is in the grip of a love affair with rugby that’s akin to our love of football, only more rabid – the most placid retiree is not immune to Rugby Fever – and yet less so, less serious, gentler. All the bars are (mercifully) non-smoking, and many (most) contain slot machines: but gambling isn’t considered a social disease, or maybe they just don’t worry about it as much as we do in the States. Here they call slot machines “pokies” – because you poke dollar coins into them. Clever, huh. There are no dollar bills, only dollar coins. They also have two-dollar coins. Nice and weighty. The Queen adorns both: a younger version going back to 1990: the older face, with sagging jowls, starting sometime in the late ‘90s.

Kiwis are not a litigious people. They bungy, they sky-dive, they jet-boat against the current on whitewater rapids: they risk life and limb as a matter of course and never require the signing of a waiver. They laugh at Americans’ inclination to sue. Differences are physical, too. We’ve gotten adept at spotting the locals – the Kiwi face, gait, mode of dress (chiefly black and pink in the cities) – and distinguishing them from the Brits, Aussies and other Americans. (Of the international set, Germans are the most obvious.) Kiwis always smile. I don’t think we’ve met a single grumpy one.

It may also interest you to know that the myth of the toilet water flushing in the other direction is, as far as New Zealand is concerned, just that: a myth. Toilet water doesn’t flush in the other direction: it goes straight down.

I could go on. I think I will. Despite voluminous reports to the contrary, New Zealand is a nation with a proud tradition not just of excellent wine but of fine, hoppy beer also. Speight’s is the best example, an instant favorite. Monteith’s (Black or Original) and Tui are good brews, too. Of course the wine is good, even great: we’ve experimented with several vintages from the Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay areas and found that while the chardonnays and sauvignon blancs are justly renowned, the pinots noir and cabs are surprisingly consistently strong. Which brings us, naturally, to the food. Though New Zealand’s climate is suggestive of a sunnier Ireland, the former’s cuisine thankfully bears little similarity to the latter’s. I think the soil must be better here, or at least they’ve learned the virtues of salt. In one way they’ve borrowed from Eire’s national menu, but even that the Kiwis have improved: the Big Breakfast: still two sunnyside eggs, toast, sliced tomato, huge slabs of bacon and a thick tube of dubious sausage. But here it all boasts real flavor, tasting as good as it looks, unlike its forerunner. The Irish – I love them, but they manage somehow to make bacon bland. Also Kiwis forego the baked beans, which frankly (ha) have no place at the breakfast table anyway.

To what else can I apply my culinary prejudices? NZ needs to work on its candy bars. Snickers is widely available but in some narrow, nougat-less form I find distressingly inadequate. (I was therefore drawn to, but subsequently disappointed by, the “Nougat Honey Log.” Likewise the “Peanut Slab”.) Kiwis seem determined to wrap most of their chocolate in fruit, or vice versa, or else dilute it into milky, air-filled bite-size bon bons. Awful. Same with the tendency, adopted from the Brits and Irish, to substitute black currants for grapes in jam and candy. I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but black currant sucks. Gimme grape anyday. (Grapes at the grocers’ cost NZ$8.99 per kg or more. A travesty. I suppose they’re all needed for wine production.) I will reserve some praise for New Zealand’s coffee, which is redolent of the Turkish: every café and bakery offers “short blacks” (two shots of thick, creamy espresso), “long blacks” (same, with hot water), and “flat whites” (cappuccino, basically), all of which are strong and delicious.

As you can see, we’re acclimatizing in these adverse conditions. It could be worse: they could, like Fiji, not allow beer on the ferries. Not sure how I survived that trip.

Anyway now it’s on to nature. You’re getting all this rambling longwinded-ness because it will be some time before we write again, and then mostly to describe flowers and grains of sand and that sort of hogwash.

We’re leaving the citified north to spend our time hiking in New Zealand’s remote areas, taking helicopters to the tops of glaciers, and jumping out of airplanes.

Ha! Just kidding, parental types. We’re not going to do that much hiking.