My Kind of Crazy
When we booked our month in New Zealand the travel agent asked why we weren't going to Australia, as though New Zealand is somewhere you only go after you have 'done' Australia. I thought about being politically correct, I thought about how ignorant I can be about other cultures, and about my tendency to over-simplify. Then I thought about the Fosters adverts. "The people", I said. (When asked the same question in New Zealand I modified this to "The spiders", which is equally true for me: there are a lot of Australian tourists in New Zealand.)
Actually I was pleasantly surprised by the Kiwis, who I had (entirely unfairly) pegged as being only a couple of rungs up the culture ladder from the Aussies, though with better beer. I had no idea, did I? The beer is better. And the people are wonderful. Kiwi hospitality made me depressingly aware that a lot of Brits (or perhaps just the southern English) are unhelpful, irritable gits. By the end of the holiday I had taken to referring to my fellow countrymen as 'whingeing poms' and cheering on the All Blacks in the rugby (though that was really just a matter of survival, as the Kiwis take their rugby very seriously and we were a bit worried about having to fake Scottish accents and lie about our country of origin in the highly unlikely event that the All Blacks had lost to England while we were there).
As well as being friendly, helpful and open-minded, New Zealanders are also mad, in the best possible way. They have a fabulous country, and while during their serious moments they pass some remarkably sensible laws to keep it that way, they spend their time off thinking up new crazy ways to experience all that natural grandeur. Most of these ways involve some combination of freefalling, getting wet and being in a certain amount of physical danger.
Imagine, for instance, that you have a perfect U-shaped valley high in the mountains (and they have a lot of these). You string the strongest steel cable you can find between the two highest points on either side of said valley. Then you hang another cable from the middle. From the bottom of that cable you hang a six-foot long flat bit of metal with a hovercraft engine at the back and a pair of handlebars on the front, to control the angle of the engine. You lie face down on the bit of metal, strap yourself in and start the engine. Then you get them to winch you up the side of the valley, let go and before you can say "Ohhh shit" you're in a 500 foot high version of the toy-plane-on-a string that you may remember from your youth. They call it fly-by-wire and once you get the hang of the steering (rather like a Harley Davidson), it is jolly good fun. Provided, of course, that you don't get vertigo, and you manage to forget that only a thin steel cable saves you from becoming a brightly coloured splot on the pristine landscape below.
In and around Queenstown, the mad sports capital of the world, adrenalin is a way of life. On one day we took a four-wheel drive ride up Skippers canyon (an experience in itself -- the single track, unsealed road is carved into a near vertical cliff in places, and normal car insurance simply doesn't cover you on it) to go on the 'Flying Fox'. (Despite flying you face down over a 300 foot drop, this a variation on the bos'n's chair is considered quite 'tame' by Kiwi standards for the above reasons of not getting wet/being in freefall/risking death.)
Our journey was interrupted by a herd of several thousand sheep (a fairly common occurrence in the south island) and as we weren't going anywhere, the driver of our jeep got out for a chat with the farmer while the sheep milled past. Then we carried on to the narrowest point of the canyon, where Dave and I did our 'wussy' Flying Fox, and some of the others in the jeep meet up with the Shotover jetboat (jetboat=mad speed boat), or did the 'Pipeline' bungee jump. After a while I noticed that we had been joined by the farmer, plus a number of similarly weather-beaten younger chaps also wearing shorts, heavy boots and checked shirts. I said hello, because people do say hello to strangers in New Zealand. Then I noticed that a couple of the farmer types were going out onto the pipeline (actually a rather precarious suspended footbridge built over an old water pipe).
"Those some of your blokes?" I said to the farmer.
"That's right," he replied, "this is their first week working for me."
I looked puzzled.
He smiled, having realised that I'm not from round these parts. "Well, sometimes I buy a few beers for the new'uns, but this time of year we're up the top end of the canyon, and it's a long way into town. So I just buy 'em a bungee jump instead."
Even the food is mad. Actually it's fresh and tasty but there is a mad amount of it. It took me a while to work out that an added advantage of high-energy, high adrenalin sports lifestyle is that you can eat loads without getting fat: I never did see a fat New Zealander. I did see (and eat) geothermally cooked prawns, at a place with the fantastically tasteless byline of "Meet 'em, greet 'em and eat 'em", and lots of sushi, which is gloriously cheap there. I found, almost by instinct, a restaurant called 'Death by Chocolate' which lived up to it's name: in fact one of the most 'extreme' experiences of the holiday was our attempt to get through a selection plate of assorted chocolate puddings the size of a small rowing-boat. We probably shouldn't have had dinner first.
New Zealanders occasionally manage to combine mad food and mad sport. In my desire to try New Stuff I decided to order 'Sea egg' whilst in Napier (a lovely place which is rather like a English 1930s seaside town, but with better weather and terrifyingly unsafe beaches). I asked our waitress at the seaside café where we were dinning what a sea egg actually was. "Well," she admitted, "I've never actually eaten them, as I'm not really into seafood. But I have free-dived for them. They're about this big," she indicated something the size of a football, "and they're black and covered in spines." After that I just had to try it. It was as horrible as it sounded.
My last encounter with a Kiwi on their native soil was with a chap at Christchurch airport who asked how we had liked his country. We enthused at him about various things we had done.
"D'you do the bungee?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied proudly.
"Which one?" he asked.
"Kawarau bridge." I said, "the original one." (assuming, incorrectly, that being in his sixties he might not know this).
"What," says he, "the little one?" I nod, though a 140 foot drop into a fast flowing river did not seem all that little to me at the time. "You want to try Nevis. Highest jump in the country. I've done it twice."
Guess I'll have to do it too, next time.