Return to Kiwiland, Part VI: Middle-Agers + 20Something = A Trip

When we spent a sabbatical year in New Zealand back in the ’90s, we spent it with Sons One and Two. On this most recent return, we invited Son Two to join us, and, being between jobs, he eagerly accepted. But for him, this trip wasn’t really a “return,” because on his first visit, he looked like this:

on the golden sands of Abel Tasman NP, 1997

He was four then. He remembers NOTHING. Clean slate. When we traveled around, we generally went from playground to playground.

Every little town had one–still does!

And when we hiked, we couldn’t go very far.

Back then I had to carry the boys over the swinging bridges–they didn’t like the bouncing.

Now, having grown up in the family Church of the Great Outdoors, Son Two knew he was up for a lot of hiking on this trip. Not the kind of thrill-adventure New Zealand’s become known for. (After all, Kiwis did invent bungee-jumping, or “bungy” as they spell it.) He likes to hike.

Even in the rain (on the Routeburn, one of NZ’s Great Walks)

But I think we were all relieved when he managed to peel off and enjoy some good 20something-style touring on his own. Not rafting, though we were all tempted…

Ooh! We would have done that. But this trip was for research, not adventure.

As it happens, our good friends Nancy and Graeme live near Queenstown, NZ’s crown jewel of adventure touring. Their house is right above the Shotover River, where jetboats filled with screaming tourists roar up and down throughout the day. But Son Two didn’t need to pay for a jetboat ride…because Graeme has his own! A true Kiwi.

They really were just a blur.

Son Two also rode the lift up above Q-town for a glimpse of the whole spectacle…

Lake Wakatipu in the background

and spent a late night on the town with Graeme, capturing a scene I missed by going sensibly to bed.

It’s high summer, so this is around 9 pm.

But his true millennial attributes came to life when he announced he wanted to bungee-jump. Since he was paying for it himself, we had nothing to say on the matter (Graeme did use to work for A.J.Hackett, the bungee-inventor himself, but no more–so no discounts, sorry).

Bungee bathroom

Yes, I have a video of the actual jump. But no–I didn’t want to upload it to YouTube just for the purposes of imbedding it in this blog. I’ll only go so far to violate my sons’ privacy. ūüôā These stills will have to do.

Kawarau Gorge Bridge, site of the World’s First Bungy Enterprise

Just in case you need some…

Ready for the plunge!

Good news: he didn’t break his neck. Nor barf (“chunder”) after his night out with Graeme. Phew.

After that, it was back to hiking.

Copland Track, west coast–another Great Walk

Hokitika Gorge, west coast. “Hm, good spot for bungee…”

Heaphy Track, west coast (up north). Notice he no longer needs to be carried over swinging bridges!

But up north, in Abel Tasman National Park, I think we finally impressed him.

This is the same beach he ran on in 1997!

Blue water and sun, in January? Yes please!

Maybe a little less sun for us oldsters.

Cleopatra’s Pool

Tramping around an inlet along the coastal track

Happy to embrace his Hiking Heritage

Giving our sore feet a rest after all that hiking (tramping), we did some paddling in Marlborough Sound (Totaranui).

The Mate, enjoying the lack of mosquitos.

Yeah, this’ll do.

That won the Official 20something Seal of Approval.

Pun intended

But when we got back to town, the lil’ tyke showed he can still enjoy a good playground.

in Motueka

Do I recommend middle-agers traveling with their 20somethings? If you have one like ours–absolutely. Would Son Two recommend to his cohorts traveling with their middle-aged parents? We can only hope.

Return To Kiwiland, Part V: In the High Country, Better Sheepish Than Cowed

My first research stop on our just-completed journey back to New Zealand was a sheep station. Previous stays in New Zealand had involved mostly towns or national parks. I needed to learn more about the rural life. And although NZ has huge (and growing) beef and dairy sectors, I needed the good ol’ pastoral life of sheep.

And I did learn a LOT–not without a bit of sheepishness myself.

An internet search turned up the perfect solution for my research needs: a farmstay at Dunstan Downs High Country Sheep Station: nearest town, Omarama, itself not too far from Aoraki/Mt. Cook, in the middle of the South Island.

Home, home on the range

Sheepish Realization #1: “Upcountry” sheep farming among 6,000-ft. mountains is very different from “downcountry,” on the east coast. Where my novel is set. So I’d more or less taken myself to Montana to learn about farming in, say, Arkansas. Oh. But the east coast is…right over there!! Who knew such a small country could contain such contrast?

I also learned that the live-action version of “Mulan” had just been filmed right here.

Sheepish Realization #2: Having scheduled this trip based on my own free time, I hadn’t bothered to learn what would be going on at the sheep station in mid-January. Turns out: nothing. Lambing was long past, as was mustering; shearing hadn’t started yet. Oh.

Well, never mind. The Innes family, who runs Dunstan Downs, was absolutely delightful, taking the time (which they actually had in this lull) to drive me around their enormous holdings, answering every one of my naive questions, plus those I hadn’t even thought to ask, like, how do you muster by helicopter?

Two generations of the Innes family, plus other guests on their deck

So I learned a ton. Like this terminology:

mustering = round-up (and yes, they have sometimes used helicopters to drop shepherds off onto mountaintops, and even to help herd)

mob = flock

crutching = shearing the dags off a sheep

dags = the nasty, crusty wool around the sheep’s bum

strong-eye = what a good sheepdog has, the ability to mesmerize the sheep into doing its will

The stay itself was a real home stay. Meals were with the family, full-on Kiwi roast, pavalova, the works. (Sorry, no food pictures–didn’t want to be obnoxious.) And my bed had belonged to one of the Innes children.

Just as cozy as it looks

Also not pictured: sheep. I mean, come ON. You know what sheep look like! But I did learn why merino is marketed as a separate brand from other wool…and that sheep farmers consider merinos pitiful when it comes to hardiness: “They’re dreadful mums. They’ll just walk away from the lambs.”

But my biggest set of Sheepish Realizations came on the second evening of my stay. After being toured around a bit, I left Tim & Geva alone to get their hospitality chores done–one of their lodging options includes this adorable wagon:

Available for booking now!

and got some writing done at the edge of their river.

I know, right? If you book a stay in that wagon, this spot could be yours.

In order for me to experience a fuller extent of their lands, and get my exercise,Tim arranged to drop me a few miles down the road so I could hike home. So around 5, with the summer sun still high, off I set into the hills, with Tim’s instructions rattling vaguely in my head, something about following the creek till I hit the track (track = trail). Last thing I remember him saying: “From the top, just follow your nose downhill and she’ll be right.” And maybe something about a fence.

I followed the creek, hopping over it a couple of times, stopping to drink out of as Tim assured me I safely could. (Tim, if you’re reading this…so far, so good. No giardia yet.) All was well, if a bit scratchy…till the creek disappeared into a mess of matagouri. I was swearing too much to take a picture, but…

THIS bloody stuff. (Photo credit: Taranaki Educational Resource)

No way was I pushing through that. The trail must be elsewhere. Feeling fit and confident, I decided to go straight up the hill and spot the trail from there. And I do mean STRAIGHT UP.

What followed was 40 minutes of all-fours scramble, using tough tussock grass for handholds, trying to avoid taking an unintentional ride on the flinty scree Tim calls “mountain taxis.”

Impossible to capture the steepness of this slope in a picture. Let’s just say I ALMOST said farewell to my water bottle.

Stopping to ease my shaky legs, I looked down to see–oh yeah, there’s the trail all right: on the other side of a cliff and a ravine from here.

Oh great–alpine plants. Did I mention I was up near 5,000 feet?

There was nothing to do but continue up, praying that I would eventually meet up with the trail at the top.

Spoiler alert: I did.

Ah, the top at last. Now, what was that about a fence? Follow it? OK, but first I’m crossing over to where the track looks flatter. I’ve HAD IT with climbing. In the local parlance, my legs are “knackered.”

Ah, the fleeting bliss of being up top. Okay…down we go.

You can probably guess what happened next. The fence led me, in fact, away from Dunstan Downs, and by the time I realized it and cut across the tussock, lo and behold: another thorn-filled ravine separated me from the ridge I should have walked.

By now I’d been gone a good two hours, maybe more. Determined not to embarrass myself by being late to dinner (planned for 8:30), I decided just to head STRAIGHT DOWN, damnit, and walk home on the road.

At least the view was nice. Too bad I had to keep eyes down to watch my footing.

Did I mention the matagouri? It grows in great big bushes, yes–but the smaller version also awaited my every footfall, disguising itself in the lengthening shadows. Trying not to trip on rocks–every good hiker knows going down’s when you have to pay attention–I bulled my way instead through the thorns. And tripped anyway.

When I finally reached the road, legs bleeding, there was Tim in his Land Rover, out scanning for me with binoculars. It was 8:40. Had I not turned on the radio he’d given me? he wondered. Oh. Forgot about that. (Truthfully: didn’t want to worry my lovely hosts.) And what about the fence–hadn’t I kept it on my right?

Oh, so that was the thing about the fence. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d lost the trail at the very beginning.

For dinner Geva served venison Tim had shot, and warm raspberry-chocolate brownies with ice cream. I would say it all tasted like humble pie to me, but it was too delicious…and my Kiwi hosts were much too nice to tease me.¬†

So if you happen to travel to central Otago, remember: Dunstan Downs High Country Sheep Station. And keep the fence on your right.

Return To Kiwiland, Take 2: Author’s Cut

A quick catch-up: twenty-two years ago, my family spent an academic year in southern New Zealand.

Two years ago, the Mate and I returned, with two objectives: 1) tramp (hike) the Milford Track (Trail); 2) learn about the Coast to Coast cross-country multisport race for a novel I’m writing.

Objective #2 was mine, not the Mate’s. And this time, the purpose of this trip is ENTIRELY due to the demands of my book. But lucky me, the Mate’s coming along anyway, and so is Wing Son Two, who can keep him company when I’m off learning about sheep farming and Maori culture.

There will always be sheep.

Will this trip feature some adventures? Of COURSE–this is NEW ZEALAND we’re talking about.

Rugged rivers? High probability.

Aoraki (Mt. Cook)? Could be!

Tree ferns there WILL be. (I love me some tree ferns.)

But when I return, will my accounts of New Zealand be travelogue, or Author’s Notes? Stay tuned. Ta for now.

Family Pranking: Fun New Resolution for 2018?

Meet Ali the Gator:

“Could someone lick me clean, please?

Oh, why’s he covered in whipped cream and jam? Therein lies a tale. Allow me.

Ali joined our family a couple of years ago when the Mate was out doing yardwork. Spotting a lizard near the compost bin, he decided to catch it, in honor of Wing Son One, who does such things. So he stalked it, for several minutes, before realizing…

a) it was plastic

b) it was an alligator, not a common lizard,

c) it was missing two of its feet (likely a lawn-mower accident)

So he brought it inside. Of course I decided to place it under Son One’s pillow the next time he visited. (Gratifying yell of surprise.) Ali then showed up successively in…

a) the soap dish in the shower

b) my tin of Earl Grey

c) the Mate’s tin of coffee beans

d) my hiking boot

The hiking boot prank was especially good, because I was putting on that boot at the visitor center of Haleakala on Maui, last winter. So I sent Son One this photo of “Ali in Paradise”:

Later, he took a hula class and attended a luau.

From Maui we continued our Epic Journey to New Zealand, so there I took another photo of “Ali with Kiwi Mate”:

“Hey, it’s OK–I can’t fly either, mate.”

This past summer, both sons + Mate gathered in Vermont for a construction blitz on our cousins’ “new” old house. Ali flew there in a care package of cookies, to make a legendary appearance inside an ear of corn the Mate was shucking. (Sadly, no picture of that.)

Don’t know how Ali made it back to the Wet Coast, but he reappeared this past month, folded inside the ferry commuter ticket in our glove box. I decided Ali must have a special Christmas. So I stuffed him inside the yule log cake (Buche de Noel) I was creating.

In you go, lil’ guy!

Don’t eat too much whipped cream in there!

Of course I made sure that one of our sons got the “special” piece of cake. (Son One got the honor.)

Alligator? What alligator? Have a slice of Yule Log! Merry Christmas!

We actually borrowed this idea of family pranking from our Vermont cousins. They did the same thing with an evil-looking doll they called “Malice.” The idea of finding a creepy doll inside, say, one’s freezer, veers too close to heart-attack-land for my taste.

But a cute little alligator? All he does is make us laugh, and think of how much we enoy each other. 

Anyone else out there have an ongoing family prank to share? Anyone want to start 2018 with a new tradition? Be sure to take pictures!

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. ūüôā

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!