One Last New Zealand Blast (Before Hitting the Road Again): My Top Seven Random Faves About Kiwi Culture

I’m never getting New Zealand out of my system, just so you know. But since the Mate and I are embarking on Road Trip VII next week, this will be my last post about all things Kiwi for now. Promise.

That said, here’s my Top Seven Random Favorite Aspects of Kiwi Culture:

1.TEA. Like the Brits whose Commonwealth they share, New Zealanders are a nation of tea-drinkers first. My tribe! This picture from our first night’s accommodation in Christchurch tells you everything you need to know: one tiny bit of crappy instant coffee, and several varieties of gourmet tea.

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

(That said, Starbucks culture has made huge inroads. Euro-style cafes are everywhere now, more ubiquitous than the old-fashioned “tearooms”, and you can now buy commuter mugs–unheard of, 20 years ago.)

2. Holiday parks. No, they aren’t amusement parks–they’re a super-efficient type of accommodation, offering, in one location, everything from a place to pitch your tent or park your camper to cabins to motel rooms, ranging from the suite-with-bathroom-and-full-kitchen to a space just big enough for a bed, and everything in between. Communal kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, wifi areas and kids’ playgrounds fill in all the in-between needs, and we’ve always found them friendly and orderly. What a great idea! Why don’t these exist in the U.S.?

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

3. Meat pies. How are these not a “thing” in the US? How, I ask you? And don’t give me that health-food-GF-DF-locavore-movement argument–people still eat KFC, don’t they? I don’t GET it.

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one's chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one’s chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

4. Multisport. I know, my last post was entirely devoted to this topic. But I still don’t get why Americans aren’t more into the idea of cross-country running-riding-paddling-or-swimming races, not as teams or as made-for-TV spectacles like The Amazing Race, but just…fun.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

5. Podocarps. OK, these aren’t exactly cultural aspects…they’re botanical. Trees, in fact. New Zealand has no native coniferous trees; they have podocarps. (The name means foot-seed in Greek, I guess from the shape of the seeds.) Evolutionarily, they are much older than conifers–and boy are they cool-looking. There are many varieties–totara, kahikatea, matai, kauri–but my favorite by far is the Rimu. Let me introduce you.

rimu branches--so graceful

rimu branches–so graceful

Towering above lesser trees...

Towering above lesser trees…

closeup of Kahikatea bark

closeup of Kahikatea bark

6. That accent. Ex-cent. It just gets me. In fact, I was forced to come up with seven (sivin) Faves because six would be pronounced “sex”, and I really didn’t want to go there. Stike poi for-ivah!

7. Tea again. After the Mate and I went for a paddle around beautiful Okarito Lagoon on the South Island’s west coast, the kayak rental company treated us to complementary tea…complete with china cup. My people!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

I hope everyone reading this gets a chance to find an equally “simpatico” spot for themselves outside of their own culture…and hopefully, not quite so far away!

The Longest Day: New Zealand’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship, Up Close & Personal

First thing I learned: don’t call it a triathlon. It’s multisport. And no offense, all you Ironmen out there–the Coast to Coast makes your race look pretty cushy.

Quick rehash: I went to New Zealand in part to witness this race up close by joining the crew of one of the competitors. I’m hatching a novel, set in New Zealand, in which this race plays an important role, and I needed to know what my characters are in for.

What I found out: I’m glad they’re the ones who have to do it, not me.

Here’s the race overview: a 2.2 kilometer run from the beach at Kumara Junction on the South Island’s west coast to the bikes. Then a 50k (31 mile) ride up into the mountains. Next, a 30k (20 mile) run through said mountains. A quick 15k (10 mile) bike ride down to the river is followed by a 70k (45 mile) kayak paddle. Finally, a 70k ride takes the athletes into Christchurch on the east coast.

Oh, is that all?

Most Coast-to-Coasters do the race in two days, or as part of a team, or both. The Longest Day competitors do it in…you guessed it: one LONG day. That’s what the athlete who invited me along was doing–Josie, 42, mum of two. 

Josie & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

Josie & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

Josie and I had only communicated via email when I met her the night before the race at a BnB in Hokitika, along with her support crew: Pete, her dad, an orchardist, and Sarah, another multisport athlete from Queenstown. Josie was going over her gear, incredibly organized into separate bins labeled “Bike 1 to Run,” “Bike 2 to Paddle,” etc), and boiling potatoes. These she buttered, salted, and put into baggies for the different bins. Apparently potatoes were her carb of choice (even the other Kiwis thought this was odd), along with bananas and energy bars. (For the kayak portion, she mashed the bars into lumps and stuck them onto her boat like putty. Kiwi ingenuity.)

Sarah prepping Josie's paddling food

Sarah prepping Josie’s paddling food

Over pizza, we got to know each other a bit, and I learned my assigned role–NOT, thank goodness, to be an assistant . Each athlete is only allowed two; these folks wore wristbands and carried very detailed instructions. Pete and Sarah played those roles, of course; my job was to take pictures with Josie’s phone. Great! (Except for the fact that I’m not familiar with smartphones and found myself tapping the wrong icon sometimes just at the wrong moment–no! No! I don’t want a selfie, damnit!)

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

Josie didn’t seem fussed about going to bed early, though she planned to be up at 3:45. I guess she didn’t sleep much anyway; too wired. We all shared one room with 4 separate beds, and all three of them seemed perfectly at ease with me and my odd reason for joining them. From what I’ve learned of New Zealanders, even if they thought it was strange, they wouldn’t have said so, even to each other. They are the least snarky, least judgmental nationality I’ve ever met.

At 4:45 next morning we left Josie to rack her bike up the road at Kumara Junction. She then walked the 2k back down to the start at the beach, while we drove ahead to the first Transition Area (TA) in the mountains. I commented on the relative calm of kayak-bedecked cars lined up along the road, and was told, “oh, this is nothing. You should have been here yesterday for the start of the 2-day and team events.” Apparently the Longest Day (which is the “Multisport World Championship”) only takes 150 competitors, but the 2-day takes 500. That must have been a zoo! But in the entire day I never saw a single race organizer missing from a spot where you’d want to see one, and I only saw one competitor lose his cool–and he was French. Even a guy who couldn’t find his support crew after his 70k paddle stint was just walking around, enquiring politely. I can’t see American athletes behaving so calmly.

Up in the mountains we assembled in a dark cow pasture, everyone headlamped. A local school was selling breakfast, and Pete shouted me to a whitebait patty sandwich (“sammie”; whitebait is a kind of tiny fish fried up whole). The wait was a bit chilly, but no one bitched. We were treated to the sight of sunshine working its way down the mountain peaks, but it still hadn’t reached us by the time Josie arrived, around 8, after a nice little 50k ride up the dark mountain road we’d just climbed. She was pumped; apparently on her first go 7 years ago (as part of a 2-day team) she’d taken a bike spill, so she was already enjoying herself “heaps” more.

The lead guy transitioned from bike to run in 3 seconds–I am not exaggerating. Still not sure how they managed that. Josie took a couple of minutes. From the start she’d made it clear she was not competing with the other 19 women in the field, but only hoping to come in as close to 15 hours as possible.

Off Josie ran, wearing her heavy pack (athletes are required to carry their own first aid kits, and then there was their nourishment for the 30k run.**) Water, at least, wasn’t an issue; everything there is drinkable so all they needed was a wee cup. One more reason multisport would be harder to pull off in the US.

**”run” in this case = scrambling over huge boulders, fording rivers, and finding one’s way through mostly un-tracked meadow and bush. I was told that about 10k of the way was simply “running” down river beds. Which is the #1 reason I would never be tempted by this race. What a risk to put your body in! How easy to screw up your whole career with one fall! But the athletes just shrug. No worries.

The next TA was in a sunny field next to one of the rivers they had to run. Lovely sun, pretty, dark beech trees.

2nd Transition Area--nice and warm, finally!

2nd Transition Area–nice and warm, finally!

We waited there around 5 hours, including an interval in which we drove the kayak down to the river TA, staged it there, then drove back to help Josie transition back to bike.

Kayak gear prep

Kayak gear prep

Watching the runners appear, it was obvious several had fallen. One woman had blood all over her face; with her pack and grim expression, she looked like a soldier. But, to quote Senator Mitchell, “nevertheless she persisted.”

Many rivers to cross...

Many rivers to cross…

But Josie? All smiles.

Here she comes!

Here she comes! (photo courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

Why not just have them run straight to the kayaks? I guess maybe even the crazy Kiwis think 45k of boulder-running is a bit much. So we had the excitement of getting Josie on her bike, and then racing the 15k to reach the river before she did. Since this was a fairly level ride, high up in the mountain valley with snowy peaks around, we didn’t beat her by much.

Not quite halfway through the race at this point...a mere 7 hours!

Not quite halfway through the race at this point…a mere 7 hours!

Did I mention the day was perfect? Blue sky, even brighter blue braided river. NZ on its best behavior.

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

 

“I’m having such a great day!” Josie enthused as she ran down the gravel road from bike rack to river, Sarah feeding her potatoes and bananas as they ran.

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

Gearheads, take note of Josie’s ingenious “drink-tube pack” constructed of bite-tubes and duct tape. One tube attached to a container of electrolytes, one to some other energy-drink, and the third went directly into the river. (Sorry, US. No rivers that pure in the Lower 48.)

Kiwi ingenuity again.

Kiwi ingenuity again.

Despite the sunshine, we could feel a wind developing as the day progressed, and sure enough, those kayakers got it full in the face as they travelled out of sight down their secluded valley.

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery...

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery…

Major “Aha” from this experience: the river makes all the difference. That is, one’s ability to read the river. All the former athletes I talked to said so. The lead guy had 13 minutes on racer #2 at the end of the run; after 70k of kayaking it was down to 3, and then the second guy caught him on the last bike leg and won by 8 minutes. Totally counter-intuitive; I would have thought the run made the difference. Also very useful info, thematically, for the book I’m contemplating. The river, not the runner. Or river-running, not running. I’m mulling the implications.

The wait by the river was long, as I’ve mentioned, but here at last it felt a bit more like an Event, due to the presence of a PA system, complete with cheery announcer and rock n roll. The other TAs had had only the volunteers and the food concessions. I had another sammie and tried to stay out of the ozone-holey sun, and cheered on the 2-day kayakers, then the elite 1-dayers, as they appeared. Lots of little kids, lots of dogs, all loving that swimming-pool-blue water.

When they helped Josie out of her boat 5 hours later, she admitted to being “knackered.”

I'd be more than a bit "knackered" at this point.

I’d be more than a bit “knackered” at this point.

And then she jogged back up the bank, got on her bike, and rode the last 70k to Christchurch, into a headwind.

Did I mention this race is not for me?

Once game ol’ Jos was safely back on the bike for the final stage, we had no more jobs to do, and headed for Josie’s sister’s house for beers and an enormous pile of fish & chips (“fushenchups”). Between the 7 of us (Josie’s dad, sis, stepmum, half brother, brother in law, Sarah, and me), the heap of chips that was unwrapped from newsprint was roughly 20″ by 10″, and 4″ high.

THIS.

THIS.

Proud to say we didn’t finish them; we told ourselves the rest were for Josie, though I’m sure that’s the last thing she’d have wanted after finishing.

The finish line scene was what you’d expect: big video screen, more rock n roll and enthusiastic announcer calling out folks’ names as they sprinted or staggered to the finish arch. A giant full moon rose, orange, over the beach. Josie finished at 9:02, almost cracking the 15-hour mark! And totally stoked to discover she was 7th woman.

Now THAT's a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Now THAT’s a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

But that’s the thing this country’s culture–its understatedness. Of course there are fierce competitors; both the top two men and women battled it out to the finish. But nobody bragged or ragged. And  the fact is, I got to sit in on the Coast to Coast, not the “Extreme Coast to Coast”–which you KNOW is what American race producers would call it.

The book I aim to write next is premised on that cultural difference, on the notion that you can have premier sport without premier ego. How un-American can you get?

Thanks to Josie, Sarah, Pete, and all those Coast to Coast athletes, supporters and organizers, when I’m ready to start writing, I’ll know a bit more whereof I write.

[And then there’s the GODZone…but even my fictional athlete isn’t that crazy.]

Milford Track-elogue: Walk With Me On “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”

“Tramp,” actually–not walk. Kiwis don’t hike trails, they tramp tracks. And we’re going to New Zealand now, where I’ve been for most of the past month, and still am, mentally, for the past week since coming home. This blog entry will allow me to stay a while longer. Thanks for that.

January 30, with our tidy, heavy backpacks, we hopped a bus in Te Anau (in Fiordland, on the southwest of the South Island) to a boat which took us to the top of (beautiful, 40-mile long, 1,200 ft-deep) Lake Te Anau  and dropped us off at the start of the track. I was filled with that childlike sense of “I can’t believe this is finally happening!”–a feeling which never wore off, as a matter of fact, during the whole five days. (That’s what you get for wanting to do something for 20 years, I guess. I’ve always enjoyed the extra boost of joy I get from anticipation, and this was extra-extra.)

Let's go let's go let's go!

Let’s go let’s go let’s go!

The boat dropped us off. Every tramper had to step carefully through a pair of tubs filled with bleach solution, to kill an invasive algae that’s plaguing NZ waters. Milford’s rivers are still blessedly pure.

After 20 years...we're on our way.

After 20 years…we’re on our way.

Off we tramped into mature beech forest, those giant Lord Of The Rings southern beeches with tiny, dark leaves and craggy, ferny, rainforesty trunks. Huge. Immersed in silence, with occasional blasts from tiny fantails and black robins with outsized voices, I could not wipe the smile off my face.

Imagine birdsong...

Imagine birdsong…

Mountain Beech

Mountain Beech

The first hut was only 5k away and the day was fine. (In NZ, food is “nice” and weather is “fine”–the opposite of how we say it.) So we took our time, stopping for lunch and photos. We both wished the first hut had been further in, making the next day shorter, but I guess the public huts are spaced carefully apart from the lodges of the paying trampers (who have their packs carried and meals prepared), and those lodges seem to have been built first.

The irony of this river's name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy's inauguration...

The irony of this river’s name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy’s inauguration…

At Clinton Hut (on the Clinton River) we had plenty of leisure time. I covered myself up from sandflies and found a mossy log to lounge upon and write in my journal, and a sweet little black robin came and sat on my feet! I think it was eating my sandflies. (No pictures of that–I didn’t want to scare the lil’ guy off.)

***Not pictured: black robin eating Gretchen’s sandflies***

That night it started to rain. We’d seen the weather reports; the next day looked horrible, and we fully expected to be hiking in torrential rain and wind. Our Hut Warden, Rose, warned us, “It’ll be like walking into the shower with the spray pointed at your face.”  But we took comfort in the hope that the following day would be clear to crest the pass.

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts...

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts…

Rain it did–where we were, yes, but even more above us, and on the other side of the pass. We apparently received 9 inches; I’m not sure what they got, but it was more. Which was a problem. That first morning, all packed up and ready to roll, we 40 trampers listened to Rose telling usthat the track would become impassible up ahead. (Neck-deep, in fact, is what it turned out to be on the other side of the pass!) So the 40 trampers in the next hut couldn’t move on, which meant that we couldn’t either. Having already spent a full afternoon in Clinton Hut, we were now officially forbidden to leave it for another 24 hours. (Rose actually put a rope across the track–never seen that before.)

Clinton Hut wasn't my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2--so happy to be there!

Clinton Hut wasn’t my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2–so happy to be there!

***Not pictured: rainy, rainy Clinton Hut***

As we were digesting this, feeling dismayed, it dawned on us that the hikers scheduled one day after us were having their entire trip CANCELLED. No way to double up folks in those huts, or at least no way the orderly Kiwis wanted to try. Wouldn’t that SUCK, to get all that way and have your tramp denied? So we counted our blessings: hey, an extra day on the Milford!

But hey, it's a RAINforest. It's just doing its job.

But hey, it’s a RAINforest. It’s just doing its job.

It was a long 24 hours, especially for the Mate, who hadn’t brought a book or cards, but all our fellow trampers were pleasant, so we got to know some folks from Israel, South Africa, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand… (Only one other American; nice.)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Our official Day 2 (actually Day 3) took us 8.5 miles, still only gently uphill, to Mintaro Hut in the fuchsia (kotukutuku) forest favored by bellbirds, so the birdsong got even better. The river valley narrowed there as we approached the river’s source, and of course there were waterfalls everywhere.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Day 4 was the highlight: MacKinnon Pass. It’s only about 3,500 ft, but considering that we started at sea level, we were not taking it lightly. To our pleasure, most of the climb was graded so gently that we made it much more easily than expected.

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

From beech/fuchsia to flax/shrub to red tussock grass/bare rock/tarns we climbed, more wildflowers and more interesting lichens at every switchback.

We've reached treeline!

We’ve reached treeline!

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Up on the pass, looking over the drop on the other side (typical lack of fence–New Zealand does not have tort law, thus doesn’t appear to share the US’s preoccupation with saving people from their own stupidity), my “hallelujah I’m really HERE” sense swelled almost to painful proportions.

almost...there...

almost…there…

It was cold up there, though, and the weather threatened a change as I guess it always does. So no lingering.

...except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

…except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

Gretchen in her happy place

Gretchen in her happy place

Of course there was a hut up there and of course it had a gas cooker, so of course I had a celebratory cuppa, then gave the Mate a head start for the “down” walk (he has a metal hip, so down is harder than up). I took a few more pictures.

But I don't WANNA go back down!

But I don’t WANNA go back down!

Then, OH so reluctantly, I headed after him. (What is it about high alpine that thrills me so? Must be a past life thing.)

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World's Best Latrine View?

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World’s Best Latrine View?

The ecozone was different enough on that side that I couldn’t stop taking pictures–look, tree ferns!! Blue waterfalls!–so I didn’t catch the Mate till nearly the bottom.

img_2796

I love me some tree ferns.

I love me some tree ferns.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

The trail down was way steeper than the climb, with a rough portion that required big, jolting steps, so the Mate was really feeling it. (Me too, but my legs are 15 years younger and contain no metal parts.) He rested a while, then headed down the last portion of the 10+ mile day; I took a brief, packless side trip to NZ’s highest permanent waterfall.

All you need to know...

All you need to know…

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

When I joined the Mate at the last hut (called, for some reason, Dumpling Hut), the sandflies were so thick there was no question of sitting outside. We pretty much ran from bunkhouse to loo or dining hut. Shades of things to come.

***Not pictured: sandflies (use your imagination)***

But the last night was still sweet. Everyone felt great about making those steep miles, especially us retired or less in-shape types (which was most everyone; the young Israeli guys, of course, could probably have done the whole 34 mile track in a day if allowed). Everyone had rationed their food enough to to make do even with the extra set of meals. (Actually, the Mate and I had been kinda hoping that we’d all end up with a big potluck on that last dinner, but nothing that organized needed to happen.) And everyone, even the Israelis, was SORE from that long downhill.

***also not pictured: interior of a hut. Imagine a Boy Scout Camp bunkroom.***

But not as sore as the next day. Which was the longest: 12+ miles. Gently downhill, so not a problem, but the sandflies were so thick one couldn’t stop without being swarmed. The only way to hike was to keep moving, exactly what our poor tired legs didn’t need. Once again I gave the Mate a head start, but I never caught him. For the most part I enjoyed the solitude, writing songs in my head and stopping as much as I could to take pictures…

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Giant's Gate Falls--and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

Giant’s Gate Falls–and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

But, man–I sure could’ve used his company for the last 3 miles or so. Uff da.  “When’s the last time we hiked 12 miles with packs?” we asked each other afterward. “Right.”

GIANT beech just off the track--redwood-sized.

GIANT beech just off the track–redwood-sized.

Despite sore legs and shoulders, though, I refused to wish the track to end. I soaked that last day up, sandflies and all. New sights: a huge black river eel, four feet long at least. A tui–my favorite NZ bird! A rimu, my favorite tree–just a small one, saying hi. It rained, and I said, “Oh, good, we’re in the rain forest, this is what’s supposed to happen,” and then it stopped raining and I said, “Oh, good, we can dry out now.” I drank from little waterfalls. (All the water’s drinkable there.) And yes, of course I cursed those little sandfly fuckers.

***not pictured: all my bites***

The pickup spot at the end of the track, where a boat whisks the trampers ten  minutes across what is suddenly salt water to Milford Sound village, is called Sandfly Point. The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that the shelter there had a door on it, and also the boat driver was a good guy and just kept picking folks up, regardless of reservation times, as fast as he could shuttle them. So we didn’t have long to suffer.

Hurry up, boat! (That's Milford Sound: suddenly, salt water!)

Hurry up, boat! 

Too bad we couldn’t stay longer in beautiful Milford Sound.

Iconic Mitre Peak--goodbye, Milford!

Iconic Mitre Peak–goodbye, Milford!

But the good news: a bus whisked us  back to Te Anau, so we were able to enjoy the still-just-as-jaw-dropping scenery.

***not pictured: scenery as seen from bus windows. But my jaw stayed dropped.***

I’m not much of a “bucket list” person. But this trip has been urging me along for 20 years. Was it as good as I’d been dreaming? No. It was better.

 

Return to Kiwiland, Final Installment: Why New Zealand? The Coast to Coast Triathlon

And finally…Reason #2 why I’m headed back to New Zealand after 20 years: for a triathlon.

Not to run. To observe. To take notes. The next novel I’m planning is set in New Zealand, and this triathlon plays a major role. Because this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Coast to Coast.

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Kiwis take the phrase "cross-country" literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

Kiwis take the phrase “cross-country” literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

This race spans the skinniest part of the South Island, Kumara to Christchurch–243 kilometers (about 180 miles) of running, biking, and–no, not swimming–whitewater kayaking. Here’s the course:

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Oh, did I forget to mention it crosses a mountain pass?

Thanks to Kiwi friends, I’ve been invited to “pit crew” for a woman who’s doing the triathlon. I’m going to grab her bike or hold her wetsuit or whatever she needs, all while soaking up the sights and sounds and scents and trying not to make a pest of myself.

For years, the race was sponsored by a beer company. Now its sponsor is Kathmandu, an outdoor gear company that seems much better suited. But notice how little else I know about the Coast to Coast! I’m excited to learn how much more I have to learn.

Like...how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Like…how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Also thrilled that I don’t have to run/ride/paddle the damn thing myself. The elites take about 13 hours to finish. The woman whose crew I’m joining expects to take 15-16 hours.

Funny story:  when I first chatted with “my” triathlete, she asked, “So, this American athlete and her coach…will they be joining you as well?”

It took me a moment to process this. Then: “Oh, no! They’re fictional. I mean, they’re what the book’s going to be about. So, no, they won’t be coming with me.”

Except they will, of course. In my head. Assessing their fictional future.

So if you’re reading this–cheers! The next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-February, when our Great Kiwi Re-adventure is behind us. Till then, keep reading and writing and running or whatever it is you do. Hug your family. Talk with a stranger. Be well.

 

 

Return to Kiwiland, Part IV: Why New Zealand? Take the Kiwi Kwiz

A fun highlight of visiting English-speaking countries is learning just how different a language English can become. We discovered this big-time in New Zealand in 1996. 

Just a coupla Kiwi Kids--or as they pronounced it in the South, "Kuds"

Just a coupla Kiwi Kids–or as they pronounced it in the South, “Kuds”

First, there were the words that sound exactly the same but mean something completely different. (If you’ve been to the UK, you’ll likely recognize these.) For example:

biscuit = cookie

tea = the drink; but also morning or afternoon tea, the break you take, like in England; but ALSO supper, so when someone invites you “for tea” you really have to nail ’em down

bench = counter (in a kitchen)

bonnet = hood of car

Then there are some which kinda-sorta sound like our terms, but still caught me off guard till I got used to them:

takeaway = take-out (food)

SO ubiquitous, I wanted to write a novel called "Tearooms and Takeaways"

SO ubiquitous, I wanted to write a novel called “Tearooms and Takeaways”

panel beater = body shop (for cars)

Guess that makes as much sense as "body shop"

Guess that makes as much sense as “body shop”

And then there was the accent.

Understand, we lived in the southern part of the South Island. That’s like someone from outside the US moving to, say, Alabama. Even the folks we met in Auckland, in the North, said, “Oh, Dunedin…they have queer ways down there” (which to me sounded like, “queeh wize dan theh”).

My favorite accent story involves Son One thinking someone at his school shared his name, when it turned out that the kid’s name only sounded the same due to the accent. But I can’t explain further without violating Son One’s privacy. 🙂

Son Two, at kindergarten (“Kindie”), had so much trouble understanding the other kids (“kuds”), that he gave up, poor kud, and spent playtime by himself.

So, I’ve just alluded to two components of the  Kiwi accent. One is the tendency to abbreviate everything. (Australians–Aussies–do this too.) Therefore,

kindergarten = kindie

biscuits = bickies

postman = postie

milkman = milkie

OK, Kiwi Kwiz time! You fill in the blanks:

sunnies =

mozzies =

The Kiwi Kwiz was something I developed for funsies, in weekly emails back home. (No Facebook or blogging back then.) To play, you need to know about the second component of the accent:  the Great Vowel Shift. You already know that “mate” becomes “mite” down there. But, in the South at least, short “i” turns into a short “u” sound–“kid” becomes “kud”–and the short “e” becomes a short “i”:  “fresh” becomes “frish.”

Thus, the brand new supermarket in town, Big Fresh, was pronounced Bug Frish. We loved this.

Other vowel shifts included “skeery” for “scary,” “stike” for “steak,” and “poi” for “pie.” So. Ready for another Kwiz? These are some phrases we heard:

What are “chicken formalities”? (Hint: it’s something they call you to the counter, I mean the bench–or the binch–to take care of at the airport.)

What is “cheetah chase”? (Hint: it’s good melted on bread.)

What is “Kevin sailing?” (Hint: it’s what you see when you’re in a cave and you look up.)

First one with the most correct Kwiz answers wins a prize! I mean a proize.

Next post (which will be the last one will I get back in February): Reason #2 for the Return to Kiwiland. But here’s a hint:

It has to do with running...mountains...and writing.

It has to do with running…mountains…and writing.

 

Return to Kiwiland, Part III: Why New Zealand? Memmmmorieeees….

I know I haven’t give Reason #2 for our Return to Kiwiland, but I’m saving that one for right before we leave. Turns out there’s a third reason I hadn’t even considered: Nostalgia. Looking through photos from our year in Dunedin 20 years ago, I was ambushed by memories. Thought I’d share.

First of all, some perspective. Here’s Dunedin:

Fun fact: same latitude (south) as our then-home, Tacoma (north). But climate's more than latitude.

Fun fact: same latitude (south) as our then-home, Tacoma (north). But climate’s more than latitude.

And here’s a view of the town and its harbor (or “harbour”), looking down from Flagstaff Hill:

See those clouds? Yeah, we did too. A LOT. Only had six FULLY sunny days in 8 months.

See those clouds? Yeah, we did too. A LOT. Only had six FULLY sunny days in 8 months.

Think I showed our house already, but here’s a look from the front:

I know. We couldn't believe it either. The whole third floor was locked up for our stay, and we still felt lost in that house. Great for hide & seek, though!

I know. We couldn’t believe it either. The whole third floor was locked up for our stay, and we still felt lost in that house. Great for hide & seek, though!

Any stay in another country requires getting used to what one thinks as “weirdness,” which the locals call “normal life.” Here are a few examples.

1. “Burn time.” That was something they’d announce on the weather report, as in “this is how many minutes you can be out in the sun without getting bright red.” NZ sits directly under the hole in the ozone layer, we learned. (I’m assuming that hole hasn’t gotten any smaller, 20 years on.) So KIDS WORE HATS. Always.

Son One on a beach field trip with his First Form class.

Son One on a beach field trip with his First Form class.

2. Kiwis–the namesake of not only New Zealanders themselves, but also their money–are not only ridiculously rare, they’re also nocturnal. I got to see one on a tour on Stewart Island, at midnight, but our kids couldn’t stay up that long.

The only kiwi the boys got to see. (Wellington Zoo)

The only kiwi the boys got to see. (Wellington Zoo)

3. Aside from 70 billion sheep–OK, it was “only” 45 million, but then there weren’t quite 4 million PEOPLE in NZ at that time–Kiwis also raised elk for, of all things, the velvet from their antlers, which apparently fetched (still fetches? don’t know) a high price in some Asian countries. So weird to see elk penned up like cattle! Even weirder: they called them “Wapiti,” which is a northwestern Native American word.

Wapiti! Up in Marlborough Sound. The meat is sold too, of course.

Wapiti! Up in Marlborough Sound. The meat is sold too, of course.

4. Christmas falls in summer. At that latitude, it doesn’t get dark till around 10. So why bother with Christmas lights? They’d barely show. This might have changed, but back then, we saw hardly any. Took me a long time to notice what was missing.

But who needs lights when you have the Pohutakawa--the "New Zealand Christmas Tree"?

But who needs lights when you have the Pohutakawa–the “New Zealand Christmas Tree”?

5. New Zealand is officially bilingual. Here are signs from Otago University, in English and Maori:

"Wh" is pronounced like "f."

“Wh” is pronounced like “f.”

…and speaking of language…oh boy. Language. Don’t get me started. That’ll have to wait till next post. Till then, haere ra!

Return to Kiwiland, Part II: Why New Zealand? 2 Words: Milford Track

Kia ora! (Gotta start practicing my Maori for Pakehas–that is, white folks. I just said hello.)

Last post I promised TWO REASONS why the Mate and I are heading back to New Zealand 20 years after spending a year there.

Here goes reason #1: the Milford Track.

But before that makes sense, a little background. As I mentioned, when we lived in Dunedin in the mid-90s, our kids were small. Or, as the Kiwis put it, “wee.” Six and four. Therefore, our experience of NZ’s wonders was somewhat skewed.

For example, if you google Oamaru (the closest town of any size to Dunedin, where we lived), you’ll quickly learn that it’s home to a colony of Blue Penguins, the world’s smallest. I’m sure our boys remember the penguins–but not as well as they remember Oamaru’s AWESOME town playground, which featured a slide in the shape of a life-sized elephant.

Penguins, shmenguins.

Penguins, shmenguins.

We saw a lot of playgrounds in NZ. The Mate and I joked that we should write the kid version of Lonely Planet when we got home.

We also, of course, did a lot of hiking–what the Kiwis call tramping. Ready for some pics?

We tramped in native bush...(here, on the Abel Tasman Track)

We tramped in native bush…(here, on the Abel Tasman Track)

...and bush that had been pushed back for sheep...MILLIONS of sheep.

…and bush that had been pushed back for sheep…MILLIONS of sheep.

We tramped down south in the Gold Country (near Queenstown)...

We tramped down south in the Gold Country (near Queenstown)…

...and up on the North Island, in Rotorua (their version of Yellowstone's thermal areas)

…and up on the North Island, in Rotorua (their version of Yellowstone’s thermal areas)

We tramped up mountains--little ones like Mt. Cargill, Dunedin's high point

We tramped up mountains–little ones like Mt. Cargill, Dunedin’s high point

...and around the feet of Mt. Cook, NZ's highest peak. (Saw wild parrots here!)

…and around the feet of Mt. Cook, NZ’s highest peak. (Saw wild parrots here!)

We tramped through forests...

We tramped through forests…

...across beaches...

…across beaches…

...and across some pretty iffy bridges. (I had to piggyback the boys across; they didn't like the bouncing.)

…and across some pretty iffy bridges. (I had to piggyback the boys across; they didn’t like the bouncing.)

Most of these tramps, however, were short day hikes–normal kid fare. We only went on one multi-day tramp when my parents were visiting, so we’d have an extra set of arms to help carry gear or pooped-out kids. Tramping the famous Routeburn Track was not only once-in-a-lifetime memorable, it was also, turns out, a bit of a preview of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Son Two enters Mirkwood. Right?!

Son Two enters Mirkwood. Right?!

Which brings me back to Reason #1. We only managed part of the Routeburn (including walking behind a waterfall, so no one complained). We did not even attempt the Milford Track.

The Milford is considered one of the World’s Great Walks. You hike from hut to hut, no tenting, and you have to make reservations about nine months in advance to tramp in summer. This, of course, limits the number of people on the track (the Kiwi word for trail, in case you hadn’t figured that out). We probably couldn’t have gotten reservations even if we’d tried, that year. But we didn’t try. Because the distances between huts ranged from a few miles to twelve. Our kids were up for about five miles; the Mate and I were not up for carrying them, along with packs, for the remaining seven.

So I don’t have pictures of the Milford–yet. But I promised myself, when we left Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”–NZ’s Maori name) un-Milford-tracked, that if I could manage it in our lifetime, We Would Be Back.

So that’s Reason #1. Pictures to follow–in a couple of months, probably. For now, here’s a teaser, courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons:

Thanks, AlasdairW! Can't wait to follow in your footsteps.

Thanks, AlasdairW! Can’t wait to follow in your footsteps.

Return to Kiwiland, Part I: Why New Zealand?

No, that’s not the title of my next book. But this post does have something to do with my next book. And New Zealand. And returning.

See, in a few weeks, Wing’s World will morph back to its occasional Travel Blog form. But only after I’ve returned from New Zealand; I won’t be blogging from Godzone.* So I thought I’d better use a few posts to explain the journey. There are TWO REASONS we’re going back.

*Godzone = God’s Own Country (Kiwis are rarely boastful, but this boast makes sense once you’ve been there)

Twenty years ago, the Mate had a sabbatical and we four Wings spent nine months in New Zealand. Specifically, in the college town of Dunedin—way down at the south end of the South Island. Sons One and Two were six and four. The idea was to go somewhere

a) safe

b) gorgeous

c) with a law school to host the Mate

d) English-speaking (although, in retrospect, that southern Kiwi accent was a pretty good linguistic challenge)

Plus– New Zealand?! Who DOESN’T want to go? And this was even BEFORE the Lord of the Rings movies.

The law school at University of Otago could not have been more accommodating. Here’s the mansion they found for us to house-sit during our stay:

[Disclaimer: these are uploaded from 20 year-old digitized slides. Sorry about the quality.]

Large house, wee son. (Boy, was that house COLD! No central heating.)

Large house, wee son. (Boy, was that house COLD! No central heating.)

The scenery could not have been more stunning. If you’ve seen the LOTR movies, you know. But just in case…

Near Arthur's Pass

Near Arthur’s Pass

The wild west coast, near Greymouth

The wild west coast, near Greymouth

One of the western glaciers--Fox or Franz-Joseph, don't remember

One of the western glaciers–Fox or Franz-Joseph, don’t remember

Near Haas (giant trout in there!)

Near Haas (giant trout in there!)

Along the Routeburn Track

Along the Routeburn Track

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

OK, OK, we get it, Gretchen–New Zealand’s gorgeous. What’s your point? 

Well–remember when I said we’re going back to New Zealand for two reasons?  That last photo is Clue #1. I’ll hint annoyingly about Clue #2 in my next post.

Till then–enjoy the changing of the year, and I’ll see you in 2017!

All I Want For Christmas: Hope, Very Simply

This is my symbol for my Merry Christmas wish:

img_2673

It’s a piece of soap. It makes dirty things clean, and makes them smell like lavender.

It was made by me and a child, for fun.

It reminds me of those models of cells biology teachers assign in high school. (See the nucleus? “Life finds a way.”)

It’s green. We all need more green.

It’s backlit by a Christmas light. We all need more light too.

Merry Christmas, everyone, if that means something to you. And if it doesn’t–here’s to green, and light, and children, and sweetness.

Resisting the Tyranny of Christmas Materialism…Or Not

Diamonds = true love. Therefore, lack of diamonds means…?

Owning a home = success. So renting means…?

Top-end equipment = mastery of craft. So crappy stuff means…?

We’ve probably all struggled against these Western constructs at some point. Maybe we’ve found comfortable alignment, maybe we’ve rejected the whole shebang; probably somewhere in between. But nothing raises my love-hate complex with materialism more than Christmas.

I had it all down this year. For my Mate and Sons One and Two: a special book, or an article of clothing I’ve heard them wish for. Everyone else: homemade granola.

Christmas list? Checked off. Christmas shopping? Done. Y’all can fight over my parking space at the mall.

The Mate and I have talked; he feels the same. I wasn’t expecting any gifts less modest than what I’m giving him.

And then my electric mixer broke.

You have to understand something about mixers. There are KitchenAids, which START at $250, and then there are the cheap, hand-held kind–$25. I got a cheapie as a wedding present 29 years ago. It worked fine, but I always told myself, “When this one breaks, I’ll get a KitchenAid. I’m a great baker. I should have great gear.” It lasted 16 years, but when that cheap mixer broke (in the middle of a cake), I zipped out and got a new one…for $25.

“It’s good enough,” I told myself. “Why spend ten times that much? And I’m in a hurry. A KitchenAid…that’s a commitment. I’m not ready.”

“Y’know, REAL bakers have a KitchenAid.”

“I’m a real baker! I’m a big girl! Just look at all the incredible pies and cakes I’ve made over the years with my cheap-ass hand-held.”

“Right. So don’t you deserve the good stuff now?”

“I’m not buying into your materialistic orthodoxy! Good enough is good enough!”

“Oookay…But you could have a blue one. Or purple. Just sayin.”

Fast-forward nine years. It’s Christmas season, and Cheap Mixer #2 breaks–again. In the middle of a cake. I’ve just congratulated myself on successfully fighting off the Demons of  Buy-Buy-Buy. But I have a choice to make.

This time, I caved. Or triumphed. Whichever way you choose to look at it. But from the pride with which I’m now displaying these photos, I guess you know which way I’m looking.

Who's a big girl now? I'm a big girl now!

Who’s a big girl now? I’m a big girl now!

Lesson? I’m going to try and be less judgy about materialism. If something new and expensive makes me or someone else feel fulfilled…I’m going to consider why. That might be enough.

ka