I spent almost a month in New Zealand and realized, gosh, I hadn’t written much at all about this wonderful, magical place. Well, now that I’m back on dry land in Colombia, I have some time to finally catch up my blogging.
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.
Anyway, New Zealand. To say it is beautiful is to state the obvious. It is. Stunningly so. Almost every town on the South Island seems to have been carefully placed to be as charming as possible. Time and again, as I traveled around Middle-Earth, I mean, New Zealand, I found little villages nestled in the arms of hills and mountains and lapped by a roiling brook of clear water and bracing temperatures. Green grass would climb the flanks of the hills until the top was a challenging peak of rock and maybe a few tenacious pines. The whole effect is one of an England that’s better than the original: fresher, newer, more rugged and without such modern English accouterments as the M5 or towns named Slough. Instead, you have pleasantly winding highways that thread between mountain peaks that seem to look down benignly. Towns like Arthur’s Pass, Queenstown and the tongue-twisting Maori names all belie a place that appeals to the English, especially. From talking to many of the Brits I met, it’s almost as if they see New Zealand as England done properly.
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.
While in Dunedin, at Darren’s request, I gave a seminar at the university on “journalism and the war on terror.” I joked that it should have been “terror and the war on journalism” and it seemed like it caught on a bit.
The seminar was a middling success. I was ill-prepared, but the question and answer period was interesting. The first question, however, was from a local crank who wanted to know just how much of an inside job 9-11 was. Did the CIA actively participate or did it simply let it happen, he wanted to know.
This was maddening. I was used to conspiracy theories in the Muslim world, but I wasn’t prepared for how widespread the 9-11 conspiracies are in the rest of the world. I got a hint of it in Australia when Tony from Adelaide off-handedly said, “We all think you guys did it.” And just a couple of days previously, on my first day in Dunedin, a guy in a bar sitting next to Darren and I got into a conversation. His name is Ben Vidgeon, and he’s a local journalist with a radio show. You know the conversation is going down the rabbit hole when someone says, “I’m not saying 9-11 was a conspiracy, but … ”
So I got hit with the 9-11 conspiracy question right out of the gate. I said, “No,” and paused, drawing it out for several seconds. I was honestly considering whether to leave it at that and say, “next question,” but that struck me as a rather dick move, so I answered the guy’s question.
It’s an interesting thing to try to make these guys see reason. Error, random chance and sheer luck—good or bad—simply doesn’t exist in their world. Perhaps the element of randomness is just too unsettling for them to include in their life, or maybe they have such an inflated sense of themselves as having glimpsed the dark designs behind the curtain. I don’t know. But they’re damn annoying, especially in public forums.
For the most part, however, the questions were good and interesting. They seemed most interested in what everyday life was like in Iraq for a reporter. Again and again, people are surprised that we didn’t live in the Green Zone. Again and again, they’re surprised we went out as much as we did. And again and again, they are surprised that embeds were seen as relatively useful.
The Otago Daily Times did a small story on the seminar, prompting Radio New Zealand to pick up on me. I was now “World Famous in New Zealand!” as the old joke goes.
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.
But the sales pitch is an interesting one. Queenstown adventure hawkers have figured out that today’s tourists are looking for more than adrenaline-juiced bar stories. They’re selling personal moments of growth, a repudiation of the primitive parts of our mammalian brains. They’re selling, in short, the chance to be better. One brochure for skydiving, but a company called Nzone, was so over-the-top as to approach parody.
“The impact on your life that the act you are now contemplating will have cannot be overstated,” the brochure for one company, Nzone, gravely stated. “You must choose. To go through life able to say, ‘yes, I did it’, or go through life knowing that you had the opportunity, but you turned it down and walked away from becoming the complete person you could have been.”
Still, I was buying. I wanted to be a complete person. I suffer from what the French call l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void”. It’s that urge, the closer to the edge you get, to throw yourself off into the great beyond. It calls to me from the edge of cliffs, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and even while changing lightbulbs on high chairs. It’s a prickling feeling that starts in the pit of my stomach and spreads south. So far, I’ve managed to resist the Great Launch, as I’ve come to call it.
So I finally decided to stop resisting.
It didn’t hurt that I managed to secure a Wall Street Journal commission to do a story on skydiving in New Zealand. (Appearing soon!) 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. On Friday, March 22 I boarded the Bahia Grande and set sail across the Pacific. Three weeks and 12,451 km later, I washed up Cartagena, Colombia.
For those keeping count, a milage update: