New Zealand


Milford to Invercargill: 280 kilometers (173.9 miles)

Invercargill to Dunedin: 217 km (134.75)

Dunedin to Christchurch: 360 km (223.56)         

Christchurch to Kaikoura: 187 km (116.13)

Kaikoura to Blenheim: 132 km (82) 

We stayed two days in Milford, preparing for what should have been Part Two of our Fiordland Adventure. Unfortunately we were disappointed. The Routeburn Track’s highest point, the Harris Saddle, was closed because of avalanche danger and a complete through-hike was not possible.

 

We decided to use the time for other activities and caught a shuttle back to Te Anau. The driver, Simon, gave us a detailed history of the serpentine road from Milford – “Great for skateboarding at night,” he said, “when there’s no traffic” – and the tunnel built in the 1950s that spared hikers having to return on the Milford Track the way they’d come.

 

The 2-kilometer tunnel – still jagged-walled, only recently paved – is subject to occasional closure due to seismic discontent. And avalanches, etc. Vagaries of the regional geology.

 

All Kiwis seem to know in detail the natural and cultural history of their little island paradise. Simon, his curly grey-flecked hair untamed by an orange bandanna, was no different. Once at a roadside café I asked the lady behind the counter the name of a flower I’d seen in many places along the road. I didn’t really expect her to know but got a very exact reply, almost down to the genus. That encounter has been repeated several times.

 

Rescuing Melba from the car park in Te Anau, we headed for the southern coast. The Catlins awaited.

Day Three, October 29

Today the real test: Mackinnon Pass, named for its founder, 1,154 meters, more than 550 meters in elevation up from Mintaro. Two miles by the twisting path.

Heavy downpour in the gloomy morning. Ranger tells us to expect same all day. Let’s go climb a mountain.

In the night the naughty keas have apparently stolen a pair of rain pants left hanging to dry on the covered porch. Someone’s in for a miserable day.

We set off, once again Lisa, myself and Kathrin, up through the jungle. Watch as the trees perceptibly get smaller and doughtier and then disappear altogether. Soon nothing but grasses and hardscrabble bushes: snow tussock, sprigs of pineapple scrub, the occasional blossom of mountain daisy or Mount Cook buttercup.

Hard wind, and the rain turns to snow. We reach the pass. Wind here not as bad as we were led to expect: it has been known to blow hikers down, or over the side. This is merely barely tolerable. Exposed skin quickly numbed. My hands, clutching the cork handles of the trekking poles, are numb and wet, a dull throbbing pain reaching up my wrists.

We stop at the memorial to Mackinnon, who discovered this pass in 1888.

Soaked to the bone after the ascent. Grandeur of the saddle, with views for miles even in the fog and wet snow, and the imagination makes up for the rest. One misstep and a long screaming slippery drop to certain doom. We eat a hurried lunch in the frigid Pass Hut as the others straggle in, steaming water vapor, shaking off the rain and cold.

Strange how the strangers have become friends in such a short time. The brotherhood of struggle.

Flock of cawing keas like vultures watching from a rocky crag some distance away.

Down the other side: a much steeper walk: more than 900 meters, often precipitous, occasionally dangerous. Fellow tramper: “Now the hard part begins.” The snow turns back to rain, rain slackens and stops. But water runs everywhere and the stones are slick.

Treacherous, slow going. After just half an hour we’re detoured to the “Emergency Track” by avalanche danger, and this is even steeper, tiny switchbacks gushing with water. Every step a hazard.

Descending is harder on the knees, and the feet, than climbing. Going up tests the lungs and the leg muscles – exhilarating next to the tortured, measured progress of descent.

Water uses the rocky trail, the quickest route, to run down the mountain. We’ve never hiked waterfalls before.

Back into the jungle we step down into the “Enchanted Forest.” Green, green everywhere. Green on green. Spanish moss again, reaching for our heads, an impossible-to-describe fecundity. Terre-verte green and lime green and olive green. An indescribably vast array of verdure.

Water swirling, seeping, rushing, roaring, spraying. Freshets and streamlets and rivers of it. Frequent pauses to rest aching knees and take in the awesome sweep of nature.

At the bottom an hour’s walk through gently undulating hills. At Dumpling Hut, the final overnight stay, I look around to locate the vile stench and realize it’s me. Sweating is one thing: sweating when you’re encased in rain gear, a layer of plastic, creates a sharp piercing foulness I have no way of describing. We all must get used to it.

Above in the twilight the ridges sleep in the mist.

October 30

Some general anxiety if the weather will cooperate on our final day. Last night the ranger, Ross, offered sympathy: “If you want the weather report, look for Dumpling Hill in the morning. If you see it, it’s going to rain. If not, it’s already raining.”

Milford is in fact one of the wettest places on earth. Annually the region receives between seven and nine meters of rain: last year was a “dry” year with only six. (Six meters is 19.685 feet.) Recently in one seven-day period Milford got 39 inches of rain – 30 inches in 36 hours. So really, Ross says, we’ve been lucky. When that kind of rain occurs the only way out is by helicopter.

Ross is tall, whitehaired, angular, laconic like so many Kiwis. On my way to Dumpling I pass him heading the other way, axe in one hand, shovel in the other: the shovel to create small ditches off the trail to direct the water, which he does with one fluid flick of the wrist – the soil being loosened by so much rain; the axe to remove a fallen tree. Such are the happy duties of a Milford ranger. The chief concern for rangers these days involves the Fiordland stoat management program. Stoats, small weasels introduced by overzealous farmers in the 19th century, have flourished and over the years ravaged the native bird population – especially kiwis, flightless and defenseless, and blue ducks, or whio, an extremely rare species. Whio are now being reintroduced and Ross and other rangers have high hopes for the struggling bird. They’ve had success with stoat traps in side canyons and valleys using a method called pre-baiting: the boxes – small, oblong, wooden, with caged ends – are baited but the trap mechanisms are not set, encouraging stoats to become accustomed to the availability of the new food source. Ross re-baits a trap as many as two or three times before setting it. “We get 90 percent of the stoat population this way,” he says. “It really works.”

Ross, wearing what I take to be a customary half-smile, is pleased to drawl the news to the drowsy diners this morning: Expect sun, he says, all day long. What the working folk of Milford like to call “becoming fine.”

Finally. “Today a rare sun of spring.” Donleavy, the born-again Irishman, would approve of this climate. Just as in Washington state, where we lived for a year, the rare and unexpected day of sun is more appreciated after days and weeks of enduring gloom.

So we dally, sore and not needing to reach the finish until well into the afternoon to catch our ferry to the town of Milford, where further transport will be arranged. We see more this way. Wekas, rooster-sized forest floor-denizens with curious bobbing heads, foraging trailside. Twin horns of the great Mount Ada cirque glaring in the sunlight, unencumbered by fog. Roaring Mackay Falls, where I valiantly recover Lisa’s sun hat that had blown off her head to the lip of the swirling torrent. Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic. The strangely hollow Bell Rock. Tomtits fluttering in the slender branches.

Sense of birdlife emerging, awakening after the inundation. Wrens and yellowheads and rifleman flitting among the beech trees. New life after the flood.

We amble down through the marshland abutting the lazy green Arthur River. As much as our packs are light (no tent) and made lighter by eating they feel heavy now as fatigue sets in. Cactus Ed Abbey would have eschewed all this gear: just some vittles and a greasy fartsack, he’d say, are all you need. But we’re victims of our times. Can’t go anywhere these days without rain gear, cookware, water filter, mummy bag, headlamp, first aid kit, all manner of other doodads and gadgets. And I wouldn’t want to. They make life a little easier but the weight adds up.

The final leg takes us past the Arthur to chilly blue Lake Ada, past Giant’s Gate, a thunderous waterfall exploding out of a rocky enclosure into a tree-penned pool. Down a flat lane to well-named Sandfly Point. Where we patiently await the last boat of the day.

We chat with the other stragglers, a trio of greybeard academics – a chemist, statistician and high school teacher, friends since college. In their sixties and still filled with glee at the world’s marvels. All the way the assortment of wonders never lets up. Thirty-three-point-five miles, and a wonder for every inch.

Blistered feet, big smiles. And a serene boat ride beneath the daunting horn of Mitre Peak – one of the world’s most vertiginous eminences, we are told – and the snowy glare of Mount Pembroke.

Deep black waters of Milford Sound, where Quintin Mackinnon took a breath, turned around and started for home. Back the way he came.

In our continuing series on Adventure Sports, we recently plunked down for a jet boat ride on Lake Wanaka near the South Island’s West Coast. Wanaka is perhaps second only to Queenstown for adventure activities in the south.Jet boating is not exactly a life-and-limb pursuit. But, like the para-gliding we did in Queenstown, it’s a whole lot of fun.

As we learned from our boat pilot, a lean, soul-patch-sporting Kiwi named Craig, an average jet boat can do 0 to 80 kilometers in five seconds. The standard, no-frills six-seaters operate with about 340 horsepower. “That’s nothing, really,” Craig said. “There’s boats around here with 1,100 horsepower. They can do 0 to 90 miles per hour in about two seconds.”

Craig’s been doing this “all my life,” he said, “but commercially for the past 10 years.” He’s trying to convince his boss to spring for a more powerful boat, something along the lines of the 1,100-hp rocket ships. Buzzing down Lake Wanaka – a family of four stuffed uneasily in back, Lisa and myself sharing the front seat – he showed us how a shortened steering fulcrum makes a huge difference in a jet-powered boat: when he takes his foot off the gas the wheel loosens, with lots of give to either side … but when he punches the accelerator the wheel tightens up, making possible the sharpest turns imaginable on water.

Right away we got a demonstration. Barely 5 km out from the dock Craig veered for a buoy, a floating traffic sign – Wanaka is a busy lake. At full speed with about 20 meters to go he tilted the wheel to miss the buoy – then veered back sharply to aim directly for it again. Lisa let out an involuntary cry as Craig, going about 70 kph, gave the wheel two more turns to miss the buoy by inches.

Everyone cheered. “You could have gotten closer,” I said.

“Is that right?” Craig asked, good-naturedly. “We’ll have to do a better job on the way back then.”

We motored up the Clutha River, pausing to do several “Hamiltons” – the equivalent of donuts on an icy road – which sent spray foaming into the back seat. Squeals of delight. The little girl was angry because she had to sit in the middle and couldn’t see anything. But we saw plenty – maybe too much. The mighty Clutha is New Zealand’s second-longest river, with its share of rapids and rocky obstructions, and Craig seemed to aim deliberately for every one.

Not to worry, he said: without a propeller or rudder, and with five inches of industrial-strength aluminum for a hull, we were all but disaster-proof. Strange to me, a canoeist going back to childhood, to intentionally hit boulders and snags I’ve painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) learned to avoid.

On the return trip, true to his word, Craig steered us toward the bobbing traffic sign. “I believe something was said about getting closer.” He winked back at the squirming kids, the boy and his sister, and aimed the prow squarely at the target.

Again he veered away with a safe distance to go. Again he expertly manipulated the wheel to send the speeding boat back at the buoy.

But this time, instead of two last-second changes of direction, Craig swerved a third time. Impact seemed unavoidable. We careened past the buoy with a flourish that nearly took the red paint off the gleaming prow.

Robust cheers all round. Craig cracked a vulpine smile.

“I apologize for my first effort.”

Long before we left the States we made reservations to hike the Milford Track. Of New Zealand’s several “Great Walks” Milford is the most renowned for its singular beauty. It was one of our chief destinations of all the many we have in the world.

Milford, part of Fiordland National Park and a World Heritage Area, is so popular camping is not allowed. Only so many hikers per day are permitted, and these groups walk, sleep and eat together for four days at designated stopping points along the track.

Climatically Milford is a volatile region year round but especially so in spring, which is one reason the track was not fully booked during our hike.

We were subsequently to begin the nearby Routeburn Track, another Great Walk, two days after completing Milford. But closures due to avalanche danger precluded that hike.

Day One, October 27

Today a boat ride and short hike to Clinton Hut. Base camp of sorts for longer days ahead.

We came into Te Anau, at the southern end of Lake Te Anau, a day early to prepare our gear and get our paperwork in order. The tiny town squats happily beneath the blue-and-white spine of the Kepler Mountains that fill the horizon like an enormous mandible. Here the Department of Conservation clerk issued our tickets – necessary at each hut – and informed us that Routeburn was closed, indefinitely.

On the day of departure a short shuttle ride takes us north to Te Anau Downs, midway up the lake, where we board our ferry. Cold, black water of the lake rippled by sprinkling rain. Warm coffee in the cabin, where the majority huddle, listening to the mumbled narration of the captain.

Our group is small for Milford, because the season is young. Weather unpredictable, but forecast – they always try – grim. Rain, rain, more rain. The usual for this place. Possibility of sun on the fourth and final day … too far ahead to expect meteorological accuracy.

The ferry takes us past the rocky point where Quintin Mackinnon, first white trailblazer of Milford, drowned in 1892.

Great wooden cross in the rocks, lapped by cold waves.

October 28

Sunless dawn on day two. Kiwi wailing in the moss. Fluorescent, cartoonish green integument on every side, up every tree, over every rock. Threat – promise – of hard rain, and some small anxiety whether our gear is adequate to the task. Only one way to find out.

Spurred by worry over the impending deluge we got an early start and put nearly half the day’s march behind us – more than 8 kilometers – before pausing even for a drink of water. But we didn’t fail to appreciate our isolation in the vast virtually unknown swath of forest and mountain.

Nor the incredible scenery and diversity and caprice of our surroundings. The narrow valley of moss-covered beech trees, a fantasy-land of ferns, epiphytes, lichens, grasses, hanging growths. The unexpected weather patterns amid these prodigious green mounds that rise, parabolic as roller coasters, on both sides of us. Lined with falling water, and at their summit grey rock and white ice.

The preponderance of Spanish moss or its New Zealand equivalent.

Pungent stink of rotting vegetation. Ribbons of white water wending down the mountainsides. Some permanent waterfalls are as high as 300, 400, 500 meters. Waterfalls everywhere splash and spray and send mist rising all around.

Growing things are ubiquitous. Once I leaned against a rock wall for balance and went elbow deep into soft dripping moss.

Lisa and I and a German woman, Kathrin, are in the vanguard. To our right all day is the emerald Clinton River, by turns docile and mighty; at left, a gurgling trailside stream.

We pass many places where the path has been washed out and detoured, other spots where, in high water, the way goes directly through a rocky watercourse. Fortunately there are no impassable points, yet.

Sense of water, of wetness, everywhere.

The foaming whitewater like splayed hands reaching across quartz-flecked rock faces. Intricate as a spider’s web.

We reach Mintaro Hut, our destination for the day, in just over five hours, well ahead of the rest of the troop. Warm and dry inside, and our reward is first choice of bunks.

A warning from the ranger: keas – mountain parrots – like to snatch small items and poke holes in boots with their sharp curved beaks. Keep all belongings indoors. Curious birds these keas: big as turkeys, mischievous as monkeys. One takes up residence on the hut veranda, cocking its head at every passing human. Stories of lost cameras, torn tents, sundered sleeping bags.

Half an hour after our arrival the hard, lashing rain starts and doesn’t stop all night or into the next morning. Most of the group wet, miserable, querulous.

Ululating melody of bell birds in the trees, and the crackle of smoldering charcoal in the stove.

Gruel for dinner never tasted so good.

Moving south along the Wild Coast, we saw the famous Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, a curious limestone formation, and moved on toward Fiordland National Park for our scheduled walks in Milford Sound and Routeburn.

The Wild Coast must have been named for the size and ferocity of its waves. All up and down the coast seems like a surfer’s paradise, if not for the deadly rocks and breakers that litter the water to the horizon. (Who knows, maybe it is anyway. But we’re here in the off-season.) Waves coming in rows like battalions six or seven deep, six, seven, eight feet high, crashing into the rocky shore, sometimes right along the road, so that it seems stormy and dangerous on even the most peaceful days. It’s spring here, yes, but the beaches still seem strangely deserted.

This place resembles nothing so much as Washington State, or some parts of British Columbia, with obvious differences in flora and fauna. Imagine the San Juans with palmettos … or the Hoh Rainforest with parrots … and better, longer beaches.

Along the way south we stopped in Franz Josef Glacier, a tiny hamlet at the base of – you guessed it – the Franz Josef Glacier, but insistent rain precluded any hikes. Later we spent my birthday on a heli-hike at nearby Fox Glacier, which is far less visited but just as amazing.

The two glaciers sit near the west coast halfway down the South Island and are the only glaciers in the world that are advancing: As global warming worsens, all the rest, all over the planet, continue to recede. Fox, where we spent half a day clambering clumsily around the ice dunes, advances about a meter a day but loses 80 centimeters of that, making its total gain miniscule, negligible. Effectively a standstill. It is between 135 and 350 meters deep and 13 kilometers long.

I’d never been in a helicopter before, and I’d never been on a glacier, so it seemed like a decent way to spend my birthday. As many of you know, I just turned 25. It was of course very costly – the equivalent of US$200 for each of us. I’ve been called a cheapskate and I don’t mind, because for that kind of money I like to know I’m getting good value. Some gold soup, or a bionic limb. Or a good old-fashioned human hunt – something like that. But in the end I had no complaints.

They have 200 wet days a year at Fox Glacier – “like England, only wetter,” according to one of our guides – and this is the wet season, so it was extremely fortunate that we got a good, mostly clear, day to go up. Our chopper pilot was a bit of a showoff, zooming close to the canyon walls that enclose the glacier, giving us a close-up of a fleeing chamois  (mountain goat, introduced in 1908 and flourishing) and dive-bombing the spectacular Victoria Falls that empties into the glacier’s northern edge. Okay, I thought, there’s my money’s worth.

We landed on a “helipad” amid the moulins and pillows and spires and plinths of ice and were given crampons and hiking sticks. Our lead guide, Andy, has been doing this sort of thing five days a week for three years, so we were in good hands. Before that he worked as a guide on nearby Cook Mountain, New Zealand’s highest. He led us around several cracks and crevasses of deep turquoise that streaked the endless ice, through a couple ice caves shaded a similar greenish-blue hue, and to Victoria Falls, where snowmelt from the high rock wall that makes up the glacier’s northern enclosure pours over a bed of scree onto, and under, the ice. Great ramparts of ice on the edge of the falls are constantly breaking loose and crashing fantastically into the rocks. Red rata trees and a mantle of temperate-rainforest scrub cover the steep-sided walls that have been scooped out by the glacier; a seasonal curtain of fog hangs over the top of the cliffs, hemming us in like a blanket, obscuring views of the snowy peaks beyond.

The only sound besides our panting: the trickle of melting ice as rivulets and streams and waterfalls fill pools of turquoise crevasses. Glacial water is of course the purest on earth: we had many mouthfuls as we went along.

***

Never enough time. Before we knew it we were back on the road, zooming across yawning pastoral valleys, past muddy furrows of farmland, homestays and farmsteads and coffled cattle, sheep, deer, horses, goats, more sheep, chugging uphill under the shadow of cloud-shrouded Mount Tasman. Through tiny townlets like Haast, Makarora and Maungawera, curving along highlands roads, Trey on guitar, one Scenic Reserve after another. Past vast sweeps of beech, oceans of kiekie, glacial rivers light blue like swimming pool water, soaring kea, swooping tui, the singsong trill of invisible birds, galumphing in poor groaning Melba across plenteous one-lane bridges and whining uphill again. And just around the next bend will be a placid icy mountain lake just like – and totally unlike – all the ones we’ve seen before.

We think of the people on those “Kiwi Experience” buses and have a good, long laugh.

CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK

 

“Go away, possum!” Lisa clapped her hands emphatically. “Go ‘way!”

 

It was late – I don’t know how late. The birds were silent. We were alone in the campground. We’d gone to sleep soon after dusk, crawling, sorely, into our one-and-a-half-man tent following a long day’s hike. After the customary tossing, turning and grumbling, we’d fallen into the usual uneasy slumber.

 

It was soon disturbed. In the vestibule outside Lisa’s door, where we’d stashed our food and garbage, there came a rustling – at first tentative, then more deliberate. It woke Lisa. She waited for the sound to repeat. It might have been the wind. It repeated. It wasn’t the wind. She clapped her hands as she would when addressing a dog and shouted:

 

“Go ‘way, possum!”

 

Her shout had one immediate effect: it cleared the drowse from my head instantly. It did not, however, disturb in the slightest the snooping of our marsupial marauder.

 

Then, on my side of the tent (where there was no food) came a brushing sound, much like a hairy rodent moving past the rain-fly. Very much like it. And another. And, at our feet, another.

 

We were surrounded.

 

It was a Blair Witch moment. All our food was imperiled. We were alone, the sole target of a hungry possum army. We had to save the victuals. (All that oatmeal, that precious, precious oatmeal … ) And stop our garbage from being spread all over the campground. But that meant leaving the safety of the tent.

 

Before the full weight of our situation had sunk in, Lisa had unzipped her mummy bag, unzipped her door and pulled the food inside. But the garbage had been seized.

 

I barely had a chance to register what was happening and she was gone. Then I heard the screams.

 

“What is it?”

 

No answer.

 

“Are you all right?”

 

Another scream. Or rather, a startledcry. “Oh!”

 

Lisa had gathered up our garbage, which was strewn about the camp, bits of banana peel, a salmon tin, crumpled noodle packages and granola bar wrappers. She scared the chief offender up a tree. Then she turned around.

 

Beady red eyes stared at her out of the darkness. Two, four, six, eight of them, shining menacingly in the dim light of her headlamp. Suddenly one of the fuzzy reprobates charged. Really it was just going for a stray wrapper, but it looked like a charge. And Lisa yelped.

 

Before I could get out of my sleeping bag she was back in the tent, panting, her face pale in the faint moonlight. “They’re everywhere,” she confirmed. “Possums everywhere. Big as cats.”

 

“If they try to take the tent, we’re doomed,” I said, marshaling my thoughts for a plan of action. None emerged. (I have no head for strategy.) All we could do was wait out the night, hoping these nocturnal nasties weren’t advanced enough to attack en masse.

 

It was the least restful night of our hike, possibly of our trip so far. A few hours before dawn we lapsed into sleep. By 7:30 we had to be up to prepare breakfast, pack up and hit the trail: We had to reach our first tidal crossing by low tide, at 9 a.m.

 

On our way out of the Bark Bay camp we ran into Lew one last time. I mentioned our experience of the night before, expecting some sort of surprise, as there were no signs warning campers to protect their food from four-legged bandits.

 

“Oh sure,” Lew said matter-of-factly. “Possums. You would see lots of them hereabouts. Lots of possum trouble around here.” He gave us a big toothy smile to send us on our way.

 

***

 

The rest of our hike was blessed by unseasonably warm weather, without a drop of rain. Not until we were in the process of boarding the water taxi that took us back to Melba at the trailhead in Marahau did we see any kind of inclemency, any high winds, any dark clouds. It was a perfect hike.

 

We were lucky in more than just the weather. Our third night, at the campground in Awaroa, was also spent in uninterrupted privacy – besides the nonstop pelt of sandflies on our tent roof, a sound like sprinkling rain. We had no further possum trouble after our Bark Bay night of terror.

 

Our last tidal crossing, at the often-tricky Awaroa Inlet, went flawlessly. We tramped over muddy forest tracks and serene beaches, beaches without footprints beside sun-smeared bays, twinkling with whitecaps, sprays of mist hovering across the water’s surface. (Greene, describing Africa: “The long fingers of the palm leaves quite still which in the smallest suspicion of a breeze begin to play like fingers on a piano.” Here it was the same, until the last day, when the winds picked up, threatening gale.) Then, suddenly, we were done. Totaranui loomed up abruptly, just as we got into the Day Four rhythm.

 

A day after we left the track the big storm came down off the highlands and lashed the coast with whipping curtains of rain.

 

So ended the first of our three Great Walks. Up next, after some 10 days moving south along the west coast of the South Island: the Milford and Routeburn tracks, back-to-back. Eight days of cold, probably wet, wilderness, some of the best in the world. It will be early in the season. We can hardly expect the kind of good fortune we had on Abel Tasman.

Abel Tasman was a Dutchman, an explorer and the first white man to see New Zealand. Zeeland is one of the old names for Holland. Abel Tasman never set foot on the soil here. His ship, anchored off the northern coast of the South Island, was approached by curious Maori in December of 1642, and after some predictable miscommunication and misunderstanding, there was even more predictable bloodshed. Abel Tasman sailed away never to return.

Tasman also discovered Fiji. He didn’t get off the ship there, either.

The part of New Zealand that Tasman saw but didn’t touch is where we recently spent four days. It’s hard to imagine seeing this coastline and not feeling compelled to reach it. These days it’s one of the most popular hikes in the country, a “Great Walk” that stretches some 51 kilometers northward from Maranau to Wainui Bay. While North Korea was being rebuked by the world and the Tigers were shelling Oakland to move closer to their first World Series in 22 years, we threw 35 pounds of camping gear and food on our backs and headed for the woods. It was the right decision.

Abel Tasman National Park comprises 15,000 hectares (one hectare = 2.47 acres) of second-growth forest that has been a protected area since 1942, the 300th anniversary of Tasman’s abbreviated visit. Before that it was the province of the timber conglomerate. Had it not been for the work of one woman, Perrine Moncrieff, the park may never have been established, and one of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – best places would likely have become just another denuded monument to industry rapine.

Every step we took in the park made us gladder for Moncrieff’s efforts. We are not alone in our views. It’s obvious, when you first step foot on the track here, that this is a well-visited place – the country’s most-visited park, according to the literature. The path is smooth (we hiked ¾ of it in sandals), the signage ample, and even at the end of the supposedly slow season (mid-October) we saw plenty of visitors. The campgrounds are staffed and well-groomed –grass cut, leaves raked, no sign of garbage. The toilets even have little magnetic counters on the doors to determine when they’ve serviced enough trampers and need to be refurbished.

All very British, really. Efficient. Orderly.

Abel Tasman did not entirely escape what’s known as “the milling era.” Many acres were lost: most of the park is second-growth, with very few large, old trees remaining: kiekie, supplejack, black and hard beech predominate, and some old stands of kanuka and manuka remain. (I don’t know these trees by sight, aside from the beech and kiekie, but the guidebook is very detailed. Admit it, for a second there you were impressed.) I can say firsthand that the terrain is unpredictable, ranging from subtropical to desertine. Long precipitous ravines of vine-wrapped forest – dark, wet and cool – give way starkly to coarse scrub and an almost western-U.S. dryness: hot, sandy, knuckles of thorny root reaching up from the loamy soil: a profusion of sunlight baking fields of thorny brush. Great outcroppings of lichen-covered granite jut into the trail, which winds in places like a terrace around mountainous humps, before leading steeply down the rolling rock to secluded beaches.

The fauna is equally diverse: The birdcalls were beyond us but on our own we were able to identify wood pigeons, kingfishers and quail, of course tui (very common: resembles a magpie but trills sweetly), and what I’m pretty sure was a New Zealand falcon. As well as gannets and seagulls on the beaches. And ducks, lots of ducks.

Seals – big, brown, blubbery seals – cavorted in estuaries and rivers in several areas of the park. They tell you to stay at least 20 meters from seals when they’re on land, because it’s not their natural environment and they get jittery and may charge. A charging seal is more problematic than it sounds. In water, though, they’re always playful. Lisa, standing on a suspension footbridge 30 meters overhead, recorded a group (pack? herd?) as they sunned their sleek fat bodies on the rocks. For a while they seemed to play a game with the falling leaves, batting at them with their rubbery flippers. Seal language sounds like angry coughing.

They say there are no native predators in New Zealand, but they’re wrong. They lie. I speak here of the dreaded sand fly. It didn’t take long for us to get acquainted with this evil bug.

No more ravenous creature exists under the sun or moon. On this hike we actually longed for mosquitoes (mozzies, in the local parlance), we were so weary of the ubiquitous sand fly. Mosquito bites, after all, stop itching after a few minutes. A sand fly can bite you and you’ll be scratching the same red welt two weeks later. They look harmless, about a quarter the size of a normal housefly, but sand flies attack in swarms and are undeterred by all but the most potent bug sprays. They are near impossible to kill by swatting. I got lucky and killed a few of them with point-blank shots of repellent. I enjoyed watching the little bloodsuckers writhe in agony before expiring: payment, in part, for the sins of their cousins. I wish I’d killed more, and I’m not sorry.

Ask a ranger and he or she will tell you the biggest problem in New Zealand’s parks is not sand flies, but possums. All along the track we spotted small, oblong cages marked “Predator Control” and designed to capture the possum, an invasive rodent much villainized by Kiwis. Seems they raid nests and garbage cans, and deprive birds of food. Some Aussie is said to have illegally imported them in 1837 or thereabouts, and now they number in the millions and can’t be eradicated. Even as New Zealand tries, they celebrate the effort by putting possums on postcards.

No word on the success of the effort, but none of the boxes we saw was occupied.

Later, we learned firsthand just how big the possum problem is in this country.

In the meantime, we thought we’d discovered a bigger problem. Our first night we camped at Anchorage, the park’s largest campground, and were quickly surrounded by a group of twenty kayaking Americans who stayed up late into the night, drinking and talking and seemingly encouraged in their rowdiness by their guide, a young Kiwi woman with a voice like a rooster. She spoke only in capital letters. I used to live with a guy like that, in college. Exclamation points at the end of every sentence: I WENT TO THE STORE AND BOUGHT SOME MILK! RIGHT ON!

Not good. But we weren’t going to be killjoys. It happens, we said, no big deal. Let it slide. But we were a little worried that it be the norm on this trip.

Our second night couldn’t have been more different. At a place called Bark Bay we were all alone. Campsites for eighty and we had the place to ourselves.

I asked Bark Bay’s ranger (they may call them something else here, don’t know) if it was unusual to have so much elbow room.

“Nothing’s unusual,” he said with the air of a country philosopher. His name was Lew. “It’s early in the season.”

“I only ask because last night we were at Anchorage and we had a large party of kayakers and they were up late – ”

“How late were they up?” he asked pointedly.

“Oh, only till about 10:30, 11 – ”

“And they were noisy?”

“Yes.”

“And they kept you awake?”

“For a while, yes, but – ”

“Were they on a guided tour?”

“Yes. But ” – I laughed a bit, nervously – “she, the guide that is, was the loudest one.”

He fixed me with a hard, inquisitive look. “Young woman? Short, lots of pep?”

“That’s the one.” I noticed suddenly that he was writing all this down. “But listen, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – ”

“No trouble. But we’ve had this problem with them before. I know just who you’re talking about.” Lew finished his note-taking. “Now listen” – and he looked very seriously at me – “people come out here to get away from that sort of thing. I want you to have a nice, quiet night tonight. Sleep well. All right? Cheers.”

And off he went to make sure the bathrooms were well-stocked with toilet paper. I never got to tell him before we left in the morning that we would have slept perfectly well – if not for trouble of an altogether inhuman nature. Trouble that as much as he might like to, Lew couldn’t have done much to help us with.

Trouble the whole nation of New Zealand has struggled with.

Possum trouble.

TO BE CONTINUED

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.

So I’ve given up waiting for Lisa to post. Too many things going on, and soon (again) we’ll be in the Wilderness.

We arrived in Auckland nearly three weeks ago now. Auckland is much like Ann Arbor rolled into Seattle. It has AA’s youthful feel and café culture and Seattle’s crisp, wet weather (at least in spring). We took to it immediately.

It took us a couple days to settle in and find the best restaurants, the best ways around the city, the best shops and bars. Of the latter, we very early on discovered a nice Irish pub on Vulcan Street – the Kiwi equivalent of Pearl Street, for you Boulderites – where the bartender had an actual brogue and the crowd was just the right mix of docile and volatile, and we’d just taken our first sips of Speight’s – a fine New Zealand brew from the South Island – when the jukebox shattered our reverie in the cruelest way: by playing “Freebird.” Of our regular readers (ha!) only Jake Sherlock and Dustin Bleizeffer, probably, can understand the exquisite agony of that moment.

We’d gone halfway around the world to sit in the Buckhorn.

Fortunately, the next track was “Like a Rolling Stone,” at least partially rescuing the evening. And that’s for the best, because Auckland deserves better in this blog. It’s a great city. For one, I’ve never heard The White Stripes in a bank. I’ve never seen so many cafes crammed into one city block. I love how the traffic lights allow pedestrians to go diagonally. The whole town is young and hip, energetic and upbeat. They’re also very pale, they need to get some more sun. I worry for these Kiwis.

But our chief object in Auckland was not to admire its young people, adorable as they are. In fact we had very material needs. We needed a car. Specifically, a van. So on our second day we headed for the Backpackers’ Car Market, where hippies unload their crappy vehicles on each other, and after two days of negotiations and inspections came away with our prize: Melba.

Melba is a 1989 Mitsubishi Sportpac. She has almost 300,000 kilometers under her belt. She looks like a big, grey toaster with wheels (hence the name). She doesn’t have much on the hills but I got her up to 113 kph on the Auckland Motorway before she started to come apart. We love Melba, and fervently hope she holds out two more months before we unload her on some dumb hippie.

So we got our van, hooked up the iPod, cranked up the Dead and hit the road screaming. No – literally, screaming. Nobody told these people you’re supposed to drive on the right side of the road. Also someone screwed up and put the steering wheel on the wrong side of the van. Miraculously I didn’t hit anyone or thing, even though I kept mistaking the windshield wipers for the turn signal.

Once free of the city we had few problems. Apparently nobody lives in the countryside of New Zealand. Four million Kiwis and they’re all crammed into Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and a few other towns. Our first visit was to the Kauri forests on the west coast of the North Island, which took us about two hours to reach. We’ve been told it’s possible to cover the distance from Cape Reinga at the very north of the North to Wellington in under eight hours. Good news: less driving means more hiking, etc.

The Kauri trees once covered all of New Zealand but are now confined to a few copses here and there, and one large forest in the west, our destination. They are impressive. We saw a couple that were 2,000 years old, wide around as a redwood, with springs of gummy sap and broccoli-shaped crowns. On a four-hour hike into the heart of the forest we met only a handful of people.

From there we headed north to the Bay of Islands and the town of Paihia. To get around we hired passage on The Excitor, a superspeed boat that got up to 45 knots (whatever that means), but all I remember of the trip was the loss of sensation in my face from the cold. Not to complain: When we stopped, the views were stunning. It was a beautiful day, sunny and unseasonably warm (as we were repeatedly told). We had a few hours’ layover on tiny, green Urupukapuka Island, the top of which we summited for a complete command of Otahei Bay and the surrounding 50 miles. At the island’s resort – named for Zane Grey, writer of Riders of the Purple Sage, who once visited there – they served cold Speight’s, a just reward for our labors.

Not satisfied that we had fully tested poor Melba, we then drove some 350 km down to the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island’s eastern side. We had mostly gloomy weather but got in a good daylong hike at Cathedral Cove near Hot Water Beach, a place where, at low tide, you can dig your own hot tub in the sand and relax in the thermally heated water that seeps in.

Continuing our zig-zag pattern, we left Coromandel (too soon) to visit Raglan, a small surfing community on the western coast, where we stayed with Stu and Becks, a lovely English couple we’d met in Fiji. She’s a doctor and he’s a layabout. They’ve relocated to Raglan for six months while she works in the hospital there. After haranguing them for two days about their silly quirks of language (programme; colour; cosy; “zed”; connexion; draught; naming people Nigel or Neville), we took pity and left them to head for Rotorua, the adventure capital of New Zealand – and perhaps the world. Which is the reason for the Reader Poll that was mostly ignored by our imaginary readers: Rotorua is where they perfected bungy and concrete luge and all the crazy things that have caused apoplexy in our relatives at the prospect of us doing. But the Reader Poll did not garner much interest, so we’re not sure whether we have to honor (I mean, honour) it.

We’ll leave you now so you can regret not voting in it. I hope you’re happy.

Everyone,

Please answer the following poll about what dangerous, high-adrenalin adventure sport you’d like us to participate in. We’ll do the top vote-getter. Please only one vote per person, but feel free to forward this to anyone who hasn’t subscribed or been active on this site.

1. Zorbing.

2. Tandem sky-diving.

3. Jet-boating up whitewater rapids.

4. Bungy.

5. Absailing into a water-filled cavern and riding a tube into the depths of the earth, e.g. blackwater rafting.

6. Luge. No snow involved.

Please put your responses in the Comments section for this post. Thank you, and thank god for health insurance.

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