Third Letter from New Zealand

February 14-15, 2007

After a major full-calorie-load English breakfast (two fried eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms and fried tomatoes, plus toast with butter and marmalade – MOO!) we started driving on down the west coast of the South Island. There’s really only one basic two-lane road south and most of the many, many bridges over all the wide, gravel-bedded rivers coming down from the mountains are narrow one-lane affairs. In fact, we crossed one one-lane bridge where a sign noted that the traffic going south had the right of way, but the trains that shared the same bridge – the tracks ran right down the middle of the lane – weren’t subject to the rules. Kind of made you look over your shoulder before proceeding!

The sun is hot and dangerous. There’s a major hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand so everyone wears a hat and slathers on the sun block. The air is cool and dry though, so it’s comfortable in the shade; it cools off nicely in the evening, too, for sleeping.

The scenery is spectacular with the snow-capped Southern Alps on our left and the Tasman Sea on our right. It’s a little reminiscent of California’s Pacific Coast Highway and every bit as beautiful. There’s an old joke about how Wales would be bigger than China if you ironed out all the hills. Well, this would be a very long road if you straightened out all the curves and switchbacks. It’s challenging driving, especially with all the RV’s on the road. And of course every time I go to use the turn signal, I turn on the windshield wipers instead, because remember everything is reversed – or didn’t I mention that you drive on the left in NZ, like Britain?

The vegetation is unusually varied – tall, cedar-like trees, lush ground ferns, tree ferns, bushy palms, cacti – a cross between desert and forest plants. It is arid right now, but of course they have a lot snow in the winter in the South Island – this is where the Australians come to ski. Look at a globe and you may be surprised at how far south it actually is. We were, although I did vaguely remember come to think of it that NZ is the launching point for Antarctic exploration.

We stopped next at a cute little place named Hokitika where we got a room upstairs over a downtown corner pub – Spartan, but en suite. The town has sort of a two-story frontier aspect to it (this whole part of the country went virtually overnight from bush to bustling during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800’s), but it has some startlingly incongruous structures, like a massive gray stone Victorian Carnegie Public Library and a much too pretentious government office building next door to a souvenir shop that you enter by going between the legs of an enormous plaster sheep! We saw our first live kiwis in a surprisingly good little indoor habitat zoo behind a non-descript storefront a block off the main street. They’re strange brown birds, about the size of a chicken. (Perhaps they’re not completely birds; they have some mammalian features, like fur.) They have pointed beaks they use to dig for insects and they’re nocturnal. (The exhibit was very dim.) They’re also nearly extinct. They exist in nature only on a couple of remote islands now. They were wiped out by non-native animals introduced by European colonists, like shrews. A lot of unique New Zealand species suffered a similar fate, especially all the other flightless birds like the moa. They had no natural defenses and no fear, because they developed over eons in a place where there were no predators. The way the storytellers describe it now, this was a sort of an Eden where the animals lived in peace with one another and ate fruit and nuts. Then the humans came, first the Polynesians and then the Europeans, and Paradise was lost.

There is no more gold in practical deposits (although the tourists can pan for it at a couple of old mining villages), but there are a lot of other valuable minerals, especially jade (which the New Zealanders call greenstone). Maoris used it both for tools because it’s hard and jewelry because it’s beautiful. It’s for sale everywhere.

A different kind of deposit Sylv and I found fascinating was an immense collection of driftwood on the beach. Maybe trees wash down the river when it’s in flood and are bounced back in to shore over the rocks by the sea. Whatever, we’ve never seen so much in one place. In fact, they had recently held an annual competition in Hokitika for driftwood sculpture. We collected a few bits we may bring back. (It’s one of those things that you plan to bring home until you face the reality of packing.)

I also tried a New Zealand delicacy called “whitebait.” I knew it was some kind of a fish, probably small based on its name, so when I saw a whitebait omelet on the menu I went for it. Strange. They’re apparently tiny translucent things and they taste sweetish, not fishy at all. There’s another NZ fish called groper that we think might be like a grouper, but we haven’t had that yet, and another called hoki that we think might be hake.

One fish we did try though is blue cod, a staple of the ubiquitous fish ‘n chips shops. Delicious. They do fish and chips really well here – a very light probably beer batter, quickly fried crisp in hot oil so there’s a minimum of grease. (We’re trying to persuade ourselves that it’s actually good for us!)

All the New Zealanders we’ve met have been unbelievably friendly. In the afternoon in Hokitika I found a little used book shop in what used to be a gas station and asked the young lady who seemed to be in charge to recommend a prototypical New Zealand author. She said one of her favorites was Paul Thomas, but the only book of his they had in stock, she had at home. She’d bring it in in the morning however, if we were still going to be in town. OK, I said. We were a little late getting it together the next day, so I didn’t get there ‘til after noon. Sure enough, she’d brought the book in with a little note for me. She’d had to run an errand, but her parents were so pleased I showed up; she’d told them she was sure I would. While they were at it, they recommended another NZ author named Keri Hulme, winner of the Booker Prize a few years ago. They charged me $3 for the Hulme book and $5 for the Thomas – total, about $6 U.S – so it sure wasn’t about the money!

The reason we were delayed was that we’d stumbled across an unprepossessing storefront wildlife exhibit that turned out to be terrific, especially because we got to see a real, live kiwi! They’re almost extinct, wiped out by animals introduced by first the Polynesians and then the Europeans. There’s a carefully monitored colony of survivors on a remote island someplace. This little zoolet had three of them, kept in a dimly lit natural environment – the birds are nocturnal. They’re odd little creatures, flightless birds, which of course was their Achilles’ heel. Two of the birds are a couple, and the exhibit has hopes they’ll get romantic. Here’s hoping.

We finally got away in mid-afternoon and headed on south through more spectacular scenery on the way to the glaciers. We stopped to see an unusual coastal formation called pancake rocks, fascinating geological formation, layer upon layer of thin stone, blasted into even stranger formations by the waves.

We didn’t get to the Franz Josef Glacier until about 5:30, but it was still very light (February is August in New Zealand, remember). We drove as close as they let you get and hiked in about a half-mile farther and got a pretty good look at it. It was interesting to see the blue end of this ice river that filled the valley between two mountains. I hope the picture comes out!

OK, we’d done the glacier and that’s all that this town and the next (Fox Glacier) are about, so we decided to push on. Uh-oh. No room at the inns for the next many, many kilometers and now it’s getting dark. The next wide spot in the road masquerading as a town on the map was Haast and we thought we might get lucky there. Yes and no. We tried a motel even though it had a No Vacancy sign and the lady kindly phoned around for us, luckily finding a B&B a few miles down the road. It was expensive – $200 – but we didn’t have much choice. The landlady told us we’d better get ourselves an evening meal before we came down there, though, so we drove back up to the crossroads and had some bread and thick homemade soup. And a beer, although that wasn’t responsible for what happened next. We came out and headed happily down the road for the 12 kilometers we were told we needed to go. At 24 kilometers, we began to suspect something had gone wrong. At 36, we pulled over and took another look at the little map the motel lady had given us. Ummmm…it seems there was this other dead end road branching off way back at the intersection that we should have taken instead of continuing on down the main road south. Dilemma. If we went back, it’d be about 11:30 at least before we got to the B&B and the lady would surely have given up on us and gone to bed by then. On the other hand, we seemed to be in the middle of the mountains, forest all around and no sign of civilization for miles. Eventually, we came to a park campground called Pleasant Flats, turned in, found a spot near the bathrooms (which blessedly had running water), pulled in within sight of two dark RV’s for safety and tried to sleep in the car. Actually, I got about six hours, though Sylv didn’t fare as well. In the morning, we discovered that we were in the middle of Mt. Aspiring National Park and after we cleaned up and got back on the road, we were treated to a spectacular view of the mountain at dawn as we crossed a river bridge.

Not too many kilometers farther, we found a backpacker lodge where we could’ve at least had a bed, but who knew? We did appreciate the hearty English breakfast we got there at least.

We finally learned our lesson, I think. From now on, we WILL book in someplace early!

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