Friday, September 01, 2006

From Middle Earth to Down Under

Or, From the Land of Flightless Birds and No Predators to the Land Where Every Dangerous Animal Known to Humans Dwells and Even the Giant Earthworms Can Kill

Many of you know how much I LOVE to fly, so the thought of taking a total of eight airplanes for the upcoming New Zealand/Australia trip terrified me. In the end everything was fine, but my nerves were definitely shot by then, as well as Duke’s circulation in his hands. The trip started off on an exciting note when we landed in Auckland in fog and rain so chowda thick that you could not see the runway until the wheels touched down. And they don’t call NZ the Roaring 40s in terms of wind patterns for nothing, no sir. Yes, flying in and out of NZ was, as Larry David would say, pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty turbulent.

Let’s move along. When we arrived to Queenstown via Auckland, we expected Prime Minister Helen Clark herself to greet all tourists arriving at the airport. You know, like Blair does in the Simpsons episode when they go to Merry Old England? Sadly, no there was no Ms. Clark welcoming us to her country, but we did see some hobbits. I don’t know how those nasty barefoot hobbits could take the weather—we went from 35 to 5 degrees Celsius (figure it out, I’m too lazy to convert) in 10 hours. Definitely not Shire weather.

In Queenstown, dubbed the Adventure Capital of the World for its, well, adventure tourism, we engaged in such dangerous activities as watching skydivers and bungee jumpers and feeling even colder, taking in the local (VERY local…as in “Yeah, and John Smith just added 10 new sheep to his herd, yeah, yeah”) news on TV, and going on a wine tour. After a few days there, we headed to Te Anau where we spent three days touring a glowworm cave and two amazing sounds in Fiordland National Park. We saw things we had never seen before—rainforests co-existing with glaciers (apparently, NZ and Chile are the only two places in the world where you find that), fiordland crested penguins, fur seals, people actually from Wyoming, and a mail system where you need only write a person’s first name on the envelope.

From Te Anau on the west coast of the South Island, we headed to Dunedin on the southeast coast, a city whose name reflects its Scottish founders. We arrived late and found ourselves in a hotel room that was a bit smokier than we wanted. We simply couldn’t say no to the hotel manager, however—he was about 5 feet tall (not a hobbit, don’t worry, I checked his papers) and went out of his way to answer any questions we asked. He reminded me of a man whom my sister and I met in Ireland called “Little John.” Little John had a wooden-leg, he did, and was about 4.5 feet tall. He almost drowned when he was a child and remained little ever since, he did, or so the story went at the pub. Anyway, meeting the hotel manager reminded me of my Irish friend, he did, so we simply had to stay at that hotel, smoking room and all. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy the Cadbury Factory, as there was a snowstorm expected to hit that area and close all the roads. Instead, we got an early start and headed up to Christchurch further up the eastern coast. Just as well, we didn’t want to be tripping on chocolate, like the Simpson children parodying Trainspotting, while driving.

In Christchurch, we learned about Antarctic exploration history, glugged NZ’s microbrews, caught a glimpse of the famously shy kiwi birds, and took in some Maori history. In fact, Duke was chosen as the “Chief” of our tourist group, which meant that he had to negotiate peace with the Maori tribe that we would be meeting that evening. Luckily, Duke hongi-ed (the traditional Maori greeting where they touch noses) correctly and our fate did not go the way of some of Captain Cook's men. Later in the evening, all of the men learned how to do the haka. You might know it as the dance where Maori men grimace fiercely with their tongues elongated and show the whites of their eyes. It’s also the All Blacks national rugby team’s pre-match intimidation/motivation routine. Duke definitely needs to work on his haka moves before joining the rugby team, though.

The rest of the trip was filled with more glaciers (at Mt. Cook, where they filmed the final scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie), gold-mining history, some great hikes, more wine with red meat, and cold, but beautiful runs.

We met some interesting people along the way, besides the hobbits. During our Fiordland cruises, we met an American from Virginia who had moved to NZ to be a vet. In Christchurch, we met a Swissman who had been living in NZ for 20 years running his own café. He was very Swiss and very Old World—no credit cards, only cash, even if it meant losing customers, and he complained that NZ/Aussie/British backpackers drank too much and the NZ women looked “jez like ze men; zey are too manly.” We also met many people working in the NZ tourism industry from all over the world. NZ has been experiencing a large increase in tourism, but still has a significant labor shortage. Young foreigners are taking advantage of the country’s liberal “working-holiday” visa program, so we saw more nametags with “Roma,” “Masa,” and “Ali” than “John” or “Kylie.” We had some great conversations about living overseas.

After 11 days in NZ, we flew on to Sydney. We did all of the touristy things there—the Opera House, the bridge, the Botanical Gardens, the aquarium. Although disappointed with not meeting Helen Clark in NZ, we were delighted when Howard came through for us. We were out for a run early Sunday morning and saw Prime Minister Howard himself out for a brisk walk—well, okay, I actually noticed the large, fit bodyguards surrounding him, while Duke noticed the Prime Minister. I was too busy wondering why anyone would wear such a loud green and yellow tracksuit to pay attention to who was actually wearing it. Too busy pondering his sartorial taste, I missed my chance to say g’day, but Duke was ready and got his “Hi, Prime Minister Howard!” in.

If you were hoping to hear stories about our adventures with dingoes, crocs, vegemite sandwiches, Mordor, the ghosts of Shackleton’s men, or fistfights with Russell Crowe and "Tugga", you’ll be sorely disappointed, readers. This was a pretty tame trip—we’re saving the adventures for our next trip there, which will probably involve even more planes.


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