After a three day crossing from Melbourne on the Bahia Negro, I landed on Feb 23 in the pretty harbor town of Port Chalmers, which is right next to Dunedin, the “Austin of New Zealand” as I was told by a friendly barista at a local coffee shop. (There are dozens of them, and they’re all pretty good. Dunedinistas like their caffeine.)
Darren Atkinson, an affable Brit doing his PhD on post-conflict reconstruction political party development in post-communist Afghanistan at the University of Otago here, was kind enough to take me in via Couchsurfing. And it was a bromance made in heaven. His own experiences in Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan made he and I a great duo for the week that I spent with him. Also crashing with Darren were Louise G., her brother Paul and his girlfriend Chelsea.
And the South Island is veddy, veddy British in many ways. Especially in the far south. Dunedin is a nice little university town with excellent coffee and a good music scene. The University of Otago give the whole town a youthful buzz. It’s the kind of place where you go to the bandshell on the weekends in the botanical gardens and listen to the local brass band resolutely huff and puff their way through Sousa and Dion alike while the sun shines down and you feel the grass between your toes.
But it was finally time to head out to Queenstown, and on Thursday, Feb 28 we headed out with Darren’s friend Chris through Central Otago to Queenstown. It’s lovely drive, once you get out of Dunedin, full of mountain roads, crystal streams and mirror-smooth glacial lakes. Eventually, with Chris as acting as tour guide, we made it to Queenstown.
Queenstown is the exception to South Island’s Britishness. It bills itself as the “Adventure Capital of the World” and it pretty much is. Every corner bursts with posters calling for you to hurl yourself from a bridge, a mountain or launch yourself into a canyon of glacial runoff, all for a rather hefty price. This is not a place for cheap backpackers, unless they’re willing to make Queenstown their sole splurge on their entire trip.
And so, after a few expensive days and nights in Queenstown, Darren and I parted ways and I headed up to Franz Josef Township to take my 19,500-foot step into the void. New Zealand became a capital for skydiving because of several factors. The landscape is stunning, Kiwis are a daring lot by nature and about 10 years ago, a price war broke out among the various companies making the sport more affordable to consumers. It was often cheaper to skydive than make a bungie jump or a white-water rafting trip. Once the price war was over—the remaining companies are fairly large and were able to withstand the cut in profits—prices inched back up and companies like Nzone seeking to distinguish themselves by marketing the experience as a character-building exercise. I won’t go too much into the experience here, as I will let the story tell most of it, but I screamed, I wailed and when I landed I wanted to do it again. I said “fuck” a lot as the shakes from the adrenaline wore off. Damned if the marketers weren’t at least a little bit right. My fear of heights lay naked and beaten at my feet, at least for the moment.
After that, I headed north to Arthur’s Pass to meet up with Anna H, a Swedish woman who had invited me to come hiking with her on the Grand Walk in Tasman National Park, a three-day ordeal. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite up to the hike and it showed. Huffing and puffing, I stumbled into camp at the end of each day and was promptly pretty useless. But the hike was magic, rippling mountain trails punctuated by beach walks and wades through tidal estuaries.
By now, my time in the South Island was coming to a close so Anna and I headed over to Renwick in the Marlborough region to sample some of the wines. It was a magnificent afternoon, perhaps one of the best ones I’ve had in years. Drinking wine and having perfectly matched cheeses in perfect weather in what could be the perfect landscape. It’s hard to beat that. Anna even said so herself. But too soon, it had to end. I had to catch the ferry to Wellington the next day and she was off down toward Christchurch.
After I left the South Island, the fight seemed to go out of me a bit. After only one night in Wellington, marked by dodging soused cricket fans and would-be Irishmen (an English-New Zealand cricket match and St Patrick’s Day are a perfect storm of English lousiness and public drunkenness. I find it all embarrassing), I headed to Rotorua for a stab at Maori culture. I found the performance a bit lame and sad: a great people reduced to putting themselves in theme park villages for the sake of curious tourists. Fat British tourists made up the bulk of the crowd, and the fidgeted through the cultural performance, eager to tuck into the buffet provided. I left early, having no stomach for this.
But it wasn’t just a disgust at the zoo-like atmosphere of Rotorua. The town itself is depressing, with many shops closed. The only ones that seem to be thriving are rent-to-own shops, gambling dens and bars. The local Maoris wander the streets looking fierce and menacing. And like most other native populations that have been displaced by euro-settlers, they’re not doing at all as well (4.9MB PDF) in the various social development indicators. But at least the Maori aren’t invisible like the Australian Aborigines. They’re much more integrated into the social fabric of New Zealand, but still.
By now, however, flu and general exhaustion were catching up. I made my way in Auckland after a few days in Rotorua. I have no great impression of Auckland other than it’s a nice enough place. The Central Business District reminds me a bit of Soho in NYC in some places, but it’s still a small place