Chapter 7: South Island, New Zealand

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I got to the Auckland airport around 7AM and after some finagling, managed to get on one of the six flights that left before mine did at noon. Despite having a population roughly the size of Fayetteville's, Christchurch has the look and feel of a major European city, with all the character missing from Auckland. Everything's built around Cathedral Square, which contains of all things, a church; you can climb to the top of the bell tower but this is no higher than the office buildings surrounding it, and thus, allows you to see absolutely nothing. There's a daily crafts market in the square as well as food carts, a giant chess board, and a crazy guy spouting religious rhetoric called "the Wizard" who has been there at least long enough to make it into my '95 guidebook. I happened to arrive just in time for the week-long "World Buskers Festival" which is an annual celebration where street performers from London to Tokyo come together to perform hour-long spots in public venues around town. There were a number of clowns, mimes, comics, musicians, human statues, as well as a one-woman Cirque du Soleil, a group that performed stunt water-skiing in a children's pool and a guy who drove around in a motorized toilet. Some of the more involved acts included the "Incredible Bull Circus" where two guys pretending to be Spanish matadors combined the arts of bull fighting and circus and drove a stuffed bull in an RC car through fiery hula hoops; another was "Mario, Queen of the Circus," which was a guy who juggled and did acrobatics to the music of Queen. Most of the acts were quite good and kept you entertained for the entire block, rather than just enticing you with one absurd grand-finale stunt; however, my all-time favorite busker is still London's "Crazy guy with the traffic cones" who sat on the ground and hummed Christmas songs through a traffic cone (and made a killing!). Besides all the busking craziness, the city has a number of attractions; the massive public botanical gardens offers a few hours of pleasant walks, the museum has many interesting exhibits on old stuff, and the art museum has the usual array of senseless crap including a giant bull made entirely of corned beef tins. The Avon River snakes through the city, lending patches of picturesque greenery among busy streets. I attempted to find someone to go in on a rental car with me, but this proved to be quite a challenge; though there were many other backpackers looking for the exact same thing, none of them had phones, so everyone simply posted their email addresses and room numbers but never checked their mail or spent any time in their dorms. I eventually decided to go with a bus pass that gave me a set number of hours (45), on the bus network. Had I bothered to do any calculations or investigations, I might have realized that not only were the hours completely arbitrarily (it's actually cheaper to buy a ticket for each town pair so you don't get charged for the toilet breaks) but trip-for-trip, the individual tickets cost less than the equivalent legs on the pass. The system actually seemed to charge more for each additional restriction; I paid about a hundred bucks extra to make my tickets non-refundable and only apply to certain times; if I had paid another $50, I could've gotten a pass that only allowed me to travel in one direction and stop in only a few select cities.

The first stop along the counter-clockwise circuit of the island was the "wildlife-lovers dream" of Kaikora, supposedly chock-full of five varieties of whales, seals, albatross, dolphins, sharks and a bunch of random bird species that I'm told I would care about if I were into that sort of thing. The town has a resident population of around 5000 and about 5 tourists for each man, woman, and child living there. This meant that each family was running a backpackers or bed-and-breakfast out of their retrofitted house and had some sort of animal-viewing business down the street. I stayed at a place advertising free internet, but since this consisted of the family's one PC on a 56K connection to be shared by the 50 guests, I probably would've been better off with the "free bikes" hostel. In a bit of bad luck, I shared my room with a very large man with a severe nasal condition and managed little productive sleep. In the morning, I did a long hike along the rocky coast to see the seals; for the most part, they were all on rocky shoals a hundred meters out, but I eventually came across one that was sitting right in the middle of the trail; when I tried to pass him, he bore his teeth and moved to strike; so I had to climb up the adjacent cliff on a narrow path that was clearly engineered by sheep and on which no human had ever set foot; with every step I met up with a new thorn bush and with each stab, I cursed the name of that seal (I didn't know its name so I made one up... it was Sammy). From the cliffs I could see a great kingdom of seals lying on the beach beyond that solitary gatekeeper; I found the main cliff track and returned to town along that route. I had booked a seal swimming session that morning, but when I returned to the dive shop, I found it had been cancelled because of rough seas that had caused everyone to puke on the morning trip; it's probably for the best, from my previous encounters with the critters, seals didn't seem all that friendly, and it would be quite annoying if the local sharks mistook me, clad from head to toe in black rubber, for their prey.

I grabbed a bus northward (which was incidentally not covered by my pass); in Picton, I expected a dirty port town since it had to deal with the wild, untamed masses from such exotic ports-of-call as Wellington, but like the previous South Island towns I had visited, it was actually quite stunning. Hoping to catch up on my sleep, I paid the dollar extra to get a bed in the 4-bed dorm rather than the 30-bed room; unfortunately, one of the three other people had a 5:30am boat to catch so I was up bright and early once again. It was here that I experienced my first theft of my travels; the guy stole one of my waterproof socks; I think this was purely accidental and due to poor placement of my sock rather than any malice, but it was quite destructive as it invalidated the entire pair. I decided to set out on a bush hike at 5am, believing that it would surely get light within the next few minutes; unfortunately, sunrise was not until six, so until then I had to navigate entirely by the light of the moon and my camera's lcd screen. In one spot, I nearly tripped over a little round ball in the path which turned out to be an exceedingly lazy hedgehog that only moved the few inches necessary to avoid getting stepped on; a little later, an opossum leaped onto the branch directly overhead; still later, I thought I heard a kiwi, but since I never actually saw it and have no idea what a kiwi sounds like, it was probably just a pigeon. Once it lit up I saw a bunch of rabbits and quail as well as an amazing collection of green, mountainous islands scattered around the pass. I hiked out to "the Snout" which is apparently named after some kind of earthworm. After five hours of walking, I returned just in time to grab free breakfast from my hostel and hop on the bus to Nelson.

I arrived just in time to miss the popular Saturday market but I did get to see the town's annual downhill derby which featured many very large, elaborate craft - some I suspect were justrepainted cars or jet aircraft. I then hiked to a particularly shameless tourist attraction - the geographic center of New Zealand, which was conveniently on the top of the highest mountain in town (perhaps I'm just bitter because my country's center is in the middle of the ocean). On the way, I ran across a sign for the "Kauri Trail;" remembering my guidebook's vivid descriptions of the amazing trees, I dashed down the path, only to find something that was little more than a twig, surrounded by a cast-iron fence to ensure that the careless tourist didn't knock it over. I had looked up my hostel in a guidebook (whose authors clearly had a car) and after booking, walked half an hour out into the boonies to find it. It turned out that the guy with the nasal problem had followed me from Kaikora and was again sharing a room with me. This time around, he woke up all 19 of the room's other residents and a group effort commenced to stop the snoring; we tried waking him up, rolling him over, burying him in blankets and pillows - each time he would simply start snoring again in a new and equally irritating way (he had quite a wide range). Around five, I gave up all hope of getting back to sleep and walked down to the bus stop.

The Department of Conservation has made a rather incredible effort to create a system of "Great Walks" where they have brought nature to the masses by creating trails, dozens of kilometers long, that roughly approximate sidewalks; also a series of huts and campgrounds with running water, electricity and full cooking facilities have been established to house the hordes that walk the multi-day tracks. The seldom disputed top track (often claimed to be the best in the world) is the Milford; however, since it is so popular, the huts are fully booked til April and a $200 fine is levied against anyone found staying at a hut without a reservation. For this reason, I had come to the conclusion that I had to traverse the 53km stretch in a single day; however, this is not really something I wanted to attempt untrained, so I would warm up on the many walks on the way down. The first of these was the Abel Tasman Track; this offered incredible coastal scenery with countless pristine beaches, rocky crags and undisturbed forested islands, and rather than being a gruelling trip over the scorching sand, it was a pleasant romp through the bush with plenty of shade, waterfalls, and crystal clear pools. The walk was well served by water taxis dumping people at various points along the way, so there was a constant stream of day-trippers to pass for the entire length; some carried hiking sticks and backpacks suited for a week-long expedition, and others went barefoot and wore bikinis; still others were running the course, and perhaps the most extreme was the couple that cooperatively struggled to lift their baby stroller over the boulders as I passed. I could always tell the nationality of the people I passed by their orientations on the path; the Germans naturally went to the left, the French continued straight down the middle, the kiwis tried to go right but quickly conceded to letting me take the bluff side, and the English politely excused themselves over the cliff. For all the work that went into the trail, there were 2kms that were on tidal flats and were underwater for 18 hours out of the day. When I reached the first section, it was mostly dry and I was only immersed up to my ankles in the frigid water; on the second stretch however, I had to hoist all my valuables over my head, and fixing my sights on a marker on the far shore, wade through the chest-deep water, perpendicular to a strong seaward current over a thousand sharp little shells; miraculously, the half-hour I spent in this cold, brackish water completely healed my barely usable tendons, sore knees, and aching feet, and invigorated me, relieving all the fatigue I had accumulated over the last 9 hours. Around 7PM, I reached Totarunoi, about 10 hours and 40 kms beyond where the bus had dropped me off in Marahou. I didn't have enough daylght to try for the next hut (which may or may not have accepted me) so I decided to follow the gravel road to the nearest significant town, Tanaka. Looking at a map, it seemed this place was about 30kms from my current location; since there was no way I could do a walk like this that late at night in my condition, I concluded that the map was erroneous and set off down the road. About 30 minutes later, I spotted the first car going in my direction; given the circumstances, I dispensed with the usual formalities of thumbing it down and simply jumped in front of it. The nice German lady understood my predicament and in another hour, we were in Tanaka. I grabbed the last bed in the local hostel (the 4th time in 5 nights - If I ever get a travelling companion, I'm going to need to start booking ahead). In the morning, I borrowed one of the hostel's bikes and pedalled out to the local cave; along the way I stopped off at "Labyrinth Rocks," a tourist trap featuring natural "maze-like" limestone formations; unfortunately it didn't open til noon and the entrance was sealed off by a piece of rope and guarded by a group of angry-looking cut-out dwarves. Rawhiti caves was reached after about an hour of riding through cow pastures and another 30 minutes of scrambling up a steep cliff. The entrance was simply incredible; thousands of frightening stalactites lined the gaping maws of the cave; I climbed down the slippery rocks into the deepest depths that were still illuminated by the sunlight. After this truly awe-inspiring (and free) experience, I returned to town and grabbed a bus back to Nelson.

The next morning, I woke up just in time to catch the day's only bus south. It was a 10-hour trip with around 5 "lunch stops"; commercial transport is apparently not too frequent along this route as the bus driver stopped in every little town to deliver mail, bread and other supplies. We had a long break at Punakaiki to hike down and see the world-famous "pancake rocks" which somehow resembled stacks of pancakes, and the "blowholes" which blasted water into the air. Our next stop was Hokitika which claimed to be the best place in the world to get carved jade; also on offer were opossum fur clothing and wild-west (from the American west) memorabilia. I witnessed a particularly sad casualty of the country's vicious claim-to-fame race in a shop that had constructed a massive teacup only to discover that a shop somewhere else had made a bigger one - it was forced to display the rather pitiful sign "See one of New Zealand's largest teacups."

We arrived at Franz Josef Glacier Village and I grabbed one of the last beds at the local YHA; this hostel believed itself to be some sort of luxury resort, charging $22 for a bed and including a clean hand towel with each set of linen. The tourism industry here insists that it's impossible to walk on the glacier outside of a guided tour; these $70 expeditions claim to use a "secret" track to access the ice; I don't really understand how they managed to keep it a secret while taking tens of thousands of tourists on it each year, but no one jumped at the chance to tell me about it, so I had to settle for a lookout. Reviewing the area's local walks, I settled on a 7-hour return trip up a rocky slope through dense bush. Since I only had 4 hours of daylight remaining, I was operating on the assumptions that 1. I could go twice as fast as the average person and 2. Since it was a return trip, I would have already seen everything on the first half and it wouldn't matter if it were pitch-black on the way back. It was a challenging trail that was made up entirely of slippery limestone and had several "swing bridges," one of which displayed the grim warning sign "maximum load: 1 person" - I decided to forego my usual practice of hopping up and down and swinging to and fro on this one. After an hour and a half with no glacier in sight, I began to suspect the day's hot temperatures had melted it, but shortly I reached an abrupt clearing. There I stood, sweating in shorts and a t-shirt, ooking out over a great river of ice... this place is nuts. The weather here was not quite what I had expected; it was the warmest I had encountered in either island and at 10PM, was comparable to any summer night in Sarasota. On the way back to the village, I had planned to take a challenging two-hour track, but this was cordoned off with the sign "Danger, track closed due to"; this was enough to convince me to take the road. In the morning, I did a 30-minute walk to the "sluice face"; I don't have any clue what a sluice is but it seemed to be a big pile of nondescript rocks; I headed back to town to catch another 8-hour bus to the "adventure capital of the world," Queenstown.

The 9 hour bus ride was somewhat ridiculous; inside of four hours, we stopped at 3 private cafes; despite the presence of several towns along the route, all of our food breaks were at exorbitantly priced joints out in the middle of nowhere that had negotiated some huge deal with the bus line... I feel I need to re-emphasize an important point - if you ever travel to New Zealand, NEVER use the national coach line service... there's no reason to ever take a bus, if you're on a budget, you can hitchhike anywhere with less than a 20-minute wait... if you're not, then grab a car; furthermore, if you ever run across a representative of the national coach line company, please kick him in the shins.

Queenstown is a picturesque mountain town filled with tons of Americans and other tourists with gobs of money to throw away on every ridiculous sport imaginable. There's not actually anything to do in the city itself, but in the surrounding area there are over 300 variations of rafting, sledging, jetboating, helihiking, heliskiing, heli-anything-else, zorbing, bungiing... and they cost an average of 200 bucks. If for some reason you don't feel like spending ever dime you have on a five-second freefall, I suggest seeking out adventure in West Virginia. My Queenstown hotel had zero air-conditioning so I was able to get all of 4 hours of sleep in the swamp-like climate before getting up at 6 to head out to the Routebourn track.

Like everything else in the city, transport to the track was highly over-priced so I headed out to the highway and threw my thumb to the breeze; 4 rides later, I arrived at the trailhead 40 minutes before the bus. The Routeburn is a 33km track that offers amazing alpine scenery, tons of waterfalls, and half a dozen types of forest. Despite the recommended timeframe of 3-4 days, I had no problem completing it in 7 hours. The track ended at a north-south road, and with no real inkling as to where I was, I started thumbing down cars in both directions and within 5 minutes got a ride 60km south to the midsized town of Te Anau.

Labelled "the walking capital of New Zealand," it's the starting point for four or five Great Walks. Even though my legs no longer actually worked, I was determined to do the 60km Kepler the following day. Once again my hostel was without AC, so rather than sleep, I went to the free wildlife center; this featured a wide variety of parrots and other rare birds, many of which were sleeping; I stood for several minutes peering into a cage hoping to catch a glimpse of a Pukekohe, only to have a pair of wild ones sneak up behind me; I got another 4 hours sleep before getting up at 4:30 and setting out through the dark bush for the start of the Kepler track. There is a time-trial called the "Kepler Challenge" where runners do the full thing in under 5 hours, but I decided to play it safe and give myself 16 hours of daylight. The first three hours were a rapid ascent from 200 to 1500 meters; I'm not really sure what a fiord is, but I think I could see one or two from the vantage point of Mt. Luxmore. The trail continued along a ridge offering impressive views of the surrounding snow-covered peaks, and then abruptly dropped back below the tree line to a few hundred meters; though this completely eliminated any scenery, it also blocked out the sweltering sun. Ten hours into the hke, my body had had its fill of walking, but through sheer will power, I was able to drive my buckling legs and carry my soured stomach (from two days of eating nothing but nuts and raisins) to do the last gruelling 6-hour stretch through multiple types of grassland, wetland and forest. I walked out to the road and within a minute, a nondescript white van had picked me up to carry me the last 20km back to Te Anau.

The famed Milford Track apparently requires not one, but two boat transfers and is therefore practically impossible to do in one day; I would have to settle for a cruise instead, and since this required virtually no use of my legs, I wasn't going to complain too much. Milford Sound is said by many to be the eighth wonder of the world (right up there with cheese in a can) so I decided I could shell out the $35 for the standard tourist cattle boat. The cheapest cruises were at 9 in the morning and since Milford was 2 hours away, I needed an early start. I navigated the dark streets at 6 in the morning until I found a streetlight on the road out of town and within 5 minutes grabbed a ride with one of the hundreds in the first tourist wave of the day. When we arrived, a dense fog hung over the fiord and it looked remarkably like Yosemite (or any other amazing natural wonder) does on a heavily overcast day. They cancelled the first boat as well as the second an hour later; this "town" was a terrible place to get stuck waiting since the entire place was essentially the boat terminal and there was a grand total of 20 minutes of walks, so when we finally departed at 11:30, I was well past the standard level of stir-craziness. The Sound was basically the most incredible thing I've ever seen; unfortunately, I used up the last of my camera's battery on 3 or 4 hundred less incredible things and didn't get a single picture of the area (One consequence of leaving all my stuff in Queenstown - another was that I was wearing the exact same clothes for 7 days and several hundred kilometers of walking). Towering mountains jutted abruptly out of the crystal blue sea. We passed by the world's highest sea cliff, at just over a mile, as well as the highest permanent waterfall in the country, and a variety of huge tree slides where earthquakes had disrupted the trees?? fragile grasp on the bluffs. As we exited out into the broader Tasman, we ran over a penguin, which was apparently quite rare in this area this time of year. The most amazing sight was a pod of around fifty dusky dolphins that swarmed and jumped all around our boat. As we accelerated, they kept pace and leaped high into the air to the sides of our bow. After 2 hours of utterly incredible views, we returned to dock and I caught a series of rides back to Te Anau.

From there, a skydiving pilot (who I interrogated on why South Island jumps cost twice as much as on the North Island) took me to Manipouri. This town has virtually nothing, its entire purpose being to serve as a gateway to the Doubtful Sound (which is supposedly even more amazing than the Milford but takes a minimum investment of $200). I got on the road heading south; it was here that for the first time I rejected a ride; it was a compact car with five half-naked high-school guys, each with beers in both hands (except for the driver of course - his were between his legs) they urged me to wedge into the backseat and grab a beer, but this just seemed like a bad idea on so many levels. I waited for a few minutes and got a ride from a technician at the famed underground power plant direct to Invercargill.

This place came as a bit of a shock; rather than one main drag as in every other NZ town, it was organized into an extensive grid, and at every block, I had not one but three options of where to go. Invercargill didn't offer any of the typical attractions you came to expect from all NZ towns (such as stinking pits of mud or oversized cutlery) but it did have a number of elaborate churches, public parks (one with a free zoo) and countless other mediocre sights. A front had moved through and the weather had turned chilly (not unexpected for one of the world's southernmost cities) but this didn't stop my dorm room from being right around 300 degrees.

In the morning, I grabbed a ride with some Bluff residents who explained that there wasn't much to their hometown besides the port and five pubs; I didn't spend a whole lot of time there. Hitching to Stewart Island was less than successful so I had to fall back on the high-priced ferry for the 1-hour crossing. There's not a whole lot to the island, just one tiny town and around 300km of walking trails. It is apparently home to a great number of birds including some 12,000 day-walking kiwis. I decided that my best chance for seeing one of the odd critters was to wander around their habitat for 8 hours. I started the 33km Rakiora Great Walk around noon; it wound up around a series of bays, crossed over bridges comprised only of a few strands of steel cable and a narrow layer of fencing, passed a beach where the skeletons of three beached whales sat on display, and then dropped into the bush not to emerge for the rest of the day. Someone had gone to huge lengths to build a wooden boardwalk along the entire length of the trail; I suppose it was done to preserve something but I'm not sure what. Neither I nor anyone I encountered along the way saw a kiwi; I tried making kiwi calls, assuming the disguise of a tasty grub, and other techniques, but it was all to no avail; those plump little birds just sat in their hiding places and chuckled at my wasted efforts. It then began to rain, which didn't do much to coax the birds out; my plans to seek out the nocturnal variety were killed off when a heavy downpour marked the first less-than-perfect weather I'd run into on the islands; on the bright side I'm no longer in the Cooks which just got hit by a category 5 cyclone. The next morning I took the early ferry off the island; someone pointed out to me that the Superbowl was at 8:30AM that Monday in Jacksonville; the game doesn't seem to have quite the same following over here; someone will have to let me know who was playing, who won, and how the commercials compared with previous years. My ride from Bluff dropped me off along the scenic route to the Caitlins in the hope that I could find a ride to the petrified forest, cathedral caves, and penguin viewpoints, but after an hour of virtually no one passing by, I decided to try going into town and heading north to Queenstown (they say no matter how bad you smell, you never notice your own stench, but after a week in the same outfit, my odor was offensive even to me, so I thought it might be time to go back for my stuff). The Invercargill-Queenstown route was another for which the bus company opted not to honor my pass.

So instead, I would go east to Dunedin; I decided as a courtesy to the people who'd be driving me there, I would pick up some new duds, and since the college town of Invercargill has about 15 thrift shops in a square mile, it wasn't hard to find a new outfit for around a buck fifty. Before leaving town, I stopped by the city museum and saw the only living Tuataras (similar in appearance but not related to lizards) in the main islands; neither of these animals batted an eye for the ten minutes I watched them, so I was a bit skeptical about how "living" they actually were. Another exhibit on Antarctic exploration was a bit like a theme park with a shifting deck that rocked with the waves and an animatronic seal that would pop out of a hole in the wall and growl whenever someone approached. They also had an extensive anti-nuclear display where they showed graphic images of the Hiroshima victims and gave sappy sentiments like "this young girl might have picked flowers with these hands (had the mean Americans not rendered them hideous, useless claws).

I found rides along the eastern route to Gore, but for some reason, couldn't seem to escape the "Brown Trout Capital of the World;" one lady took me 10K up the road to the tiny farming community of Pukera, but since no one seemed to be going east from there, I returned to Gore for dinner. I stayed at a backpackers located in an old fire station which housed the 4 tourists who had ended up in the town by some misfortune; the showers here were quite unique as their flow of hot water was on a 5-minute timer started by a switch in the common area of the bathroom - people randomly streaking across the room certainly made for an interesting communal living arrangement. In the morning, I visited the town's singular tourist attraction, the Moonshine Museum, and grabbed a bus through 150K of farmland. Our 30-minute morning stop at Peggydale sounded for once to be a legitimate town, but in actuality, was a cafe/gift shop run by Peggy.

Dunedin is the country's foremost college town, and this would have made it a lot more interesting for me had the semester started a month earlier. Like its comparables in the States, it has one main drag, lined with cheap ethnic food joints. To either side, the roads turn sharply upward to carry the residential districts into the hills. Impressive structures (of an architectural style I won't attempt to guess) house the railway station, a few dozen churches, the school's bell tower, and other random stuff. Parks appear sporadically throughout the hills with a maze of pedestrian bush walks connecting the twisting roads. Baldwin Street holds the record for the world's steepest street; it's hard for me to put into words the sheer steepness of this road, so try this exercise: imagine the steepest street you've ever come across... got it? Well this one's even steeper! I walked up the quarter kilometer stretch and jogged down, taking far longer than the 2-minute runs done by the winners of the annual race. The Chinese New Years Festival was a bit of a let-down after going to San Fran's the previous year; the advertised "parade" turned out to be periodic acts on a single stage; they only came up with around 10 amateur performers and so just kept calling back the same troupes repeatedly over the 5 hour stretch. After the lion dancers had strutted around for the sixth time and it seemed the crowd might be tiring of the puppets playful antics, the mayor tried to kill some time by singing Scottish folk songs and raffling off his t-shirt. There were several food and merchandise booths, but the vast majority, from kebabs, to samosas, to candy-floss, were not even remotely Chinese. To complete the image, teenagers (clearly of European descent) pedalled rickshaws around the plaza. I didn't make it to the midnight fireworks, but since my hostel was a hundred meters from the square, I was certainly awake to groggily say goodbye to the year of the monkey and welcome in the year of the rooster.

The next day, I went on a wildlife tour to the Otago Peninsula. It had a weak start as the guides had us hone our binocular skills on the swans in a roadside pond, but it soon took off when we arrived at the royal albatross center and birds with 3-meter wingspans came within a few dozen centimeters of our heads. Next, we walked through private farmland to a beach which was home to 150 sea lions (140 males, 10 females), 200 yellow-eyed penguins (the rarest in the world) and a few hundred blue penguins (the smallest in the world). At the time, there was a circle of adolescent sea lions sparring for dominance; the guide explained that the 400 kilo beasts could run at 20kph, had teeth that could bite through bone, and would kill us by repeatedly swinging us back and forth, bashing our bodies into the surrounding rocks, and so it was best to stay on their good side - he didn't explain how to do this, but claimed that he would stand his ground and defend us if one or more were to charge. We were also warned to keep our distance from the penguins; despite their cute and cuddly facades, they were actually natural-born killers with razor-sharp claws and beaks, and flippers that could effortlessly crush a man's hand. These were forest penguins, and when they returned from the ocean each day, they wold seek the privacy of the bush; to keep the local sheep from eating the penguin hideouts, the conservation group had to plant a native shrub that I fortunately never ran across in my varied walks - each leaf has enough poison to kill a dozen guinea pigs, and when a farmer once tripped and fell into such a plant, he was dead within three days. On another beach, we spied a colony of hundreds of fur seals which are apparently a favorite snack of the sea lions.

In the morning, I took a bus north to the city of Oomaru, known as the penguin capital of the country; besides a cheese factory and a bunch of old buildings, the birds were the town's only attraction, and since they didn't show up til late in the evening (well after I intended to leave) Oomaru had virtually nothing to offer me. Walking out to the main highway, I attempted to hitch south; unfortunately, as I was slowly discovering, it is nearly impossible to hitch on this, the country's main artery; there are far too many cars, and everyone assumes that someone else will stop - apparently a critical element of successful hitching is putting yourself in a seemingly hopeless situation. To this end, I turned off onto a small country road and was picked up within 30 seconds. The farmer gave me a ride in his tractor to a local hostel 15K down the road; I knocked on the door, but no one responded, so I was left on the coastal road in freezing, 100kph winds. Half an hour later, the first person to pass picked me up and took me to the next town down the road. The sole business in this town of Hampden was a Fish n' Chips shop, so I stopped in for a snack; here I met Gary: a middle-aged, toothless guy who was now a local chef, but had clearly been a carnie or con-man in a previous life; he offered to take me down the road to Moeraki and if I wanted, I could wait at his restaurant for a few hours and he would give me a place to stay. When we arrived at his workplace, his co-workers explained to me that Gary was crazy and that I was in grave danger; they formulated a plan to evacuate me. While Gary was preoccupied with using a pressure washer to clean his car, another of the cooks drove me out of town; this was a punk rocker girl who lived on a Maori burial ground; she was frequently visited by spirits that possessed her house and had just discovered a human bone in her backyard. She took me to the local tourist attraction, the Moeraki Boulders, which are huge, spherical rocks with an inexplicable origin; she then dropped me off in Palmerston where I was shortly picked up by a school inspector and taken back to Dunedin. That evening, I had the opportunity to experience yet another of the town's dining options; there are several places that offer a "student value meal" at $3.50; these are typically very small and predicable in shacks with no atmosphere, but one Phillipino place offered a huge, two-course meal in an elaborately decorated penthouse, and while you wait for your food, you have the opportunity to sing karaoke to any of your favorite hits; I tried "Come Sail Away" until another customer showed up and it became slightly awkward.

In my hostel, I noticed an ad for a free one-way car rental to Queenstown, so first thing in the morning, I went down to National to pick up the Holden Adventra LX-8, a luxury station-wagon/SUV with a V-8 engine and the fuel efficiency of a tank. Among other excess features, it had sensors to tell me when I was going to back over someone, beeped when I went more than 10 over the speed limit, and had leather, electrically-adjustable, climatized seats with 6-degrees of freedom. Apparently, when you pay nothing for a car, the renters don't feel particularly inclined to give you the best insurance policy, and so, I was cruising on the wrong side of the road with a $2000 deductible ($4000 if the accident didn't involve another vehicle). Fortunately, it was an automatic and I only had to adjust to the wheel being on the wrong side, but just like years ago, I found I had no feel for where the far edge of the car was an never knew when I would take out a mailbox or the roadside hitchhiker. I made a promise to myself to pick up any hitcher I came across, but luckily, the weather was abysmal and I never had to worry about letting one of those dirty vagrants into my car. I've never felt quite so much like an old, senile woman, as I did driving over those mountain roads, hands with white-knuckled death grip on the wheel, cruising at a consistent 20kph under the limit.

My first stop was Ranfurly; this town had suffered a devastating fire during the Art Deco period and all its buildings had been redone in this style; the tourist info lady sounded really excited when she told me about this, but upon seeing it for myself, it really wasn't even remotely interesting. Driving up the road, I encountered a fence covered in old shoes. Next, I headed to St. Bathan's which was a ghost town that dropped in population from 2000 to 13 in the years following the rush; this place had a great big lake where the mine had been and some old buildings, but nothing to warrant walking around in the rain. I was cruising back to the main highway at around 100kph when I noticed an inconspicuous, temporary sheep-crossing sign on the side of the road; I made a mental note to be ready to dodge the woolly critters and wondered whether a sheep counted as another vehicle in the terms of my deductible. In the next 100 meters, I came upon what might just be the craziest sight of any of my travels thus far: the road before me erupted into a tumultuous sea of sheep; hundreds upon hundreds of the confused creatures crowded the entire width of the street and flanking grass, and stretched for half a kilometer in front of my car; I watched as shepherd and around 7 dogs guided the hordes around oncoming traffic; after creeping along behind the flock for a few minutes, the farmer instructed me to just plow through, and so I gradually moved forward and the great bahhing mass parted before me. The next town along the "pig-route" (no idea) was Alexandra; for the last two weeks it had been consistently hovering around 42C here (107F), and so, when I arrived to the sight of pouring rain and 15C temperatures, the info ladies were elated by the weather and enthusiastically told me about all the outdoor activities the town had to offer. Moving on to Cromwell, I saw the biggest inflatable fruit I had ever come across. Arrowtown was a few miles later, and it was the typical mountain gold-rush tourist trap.

From there, I delivered the car to the Queenstown airport. Here, I found the tourist info center in an uproar; hordes of tourists were attempting to find accommodation but the town was "full-up" and the cheapest room was going for $300; furthermore, the spillover had filled all accommodation in all towns for 200K. The car rental place showed no appreciation for driving their guzzler (40 liters for 330K!!) and refused to give me a ride into town. Since it was only 7K away and I was in no hurry to begin my life on the streets, I took the leisurely stroll on the lakeside path... on the way in to center city, I stopped at a backpackers where I found that a few minutes earlier someone had made a cancellation and I got a bed for $14 with a free bowl of soup.

I took the 8AM bus to Mt. Cook; this place is completely owned by the Hermitage hotel with beds starting around $350; there is a backpackers but it was filled several days earlier. So, I was content to enjoy the views of the glacier during the bus's lunch stop and then head the rest of the way to Christchurch. The main city of the island was also completely booked, and so I resolved to take advantage of a 24-hour internet cafe's $7 "overnight deal"... this didn't start til 9, so I decided to kill time by wandering around town asking at random backpackers... the fifth place I tried actually had a lounge they weren't using and put a mattress in there for me and for $7 gave me all the amenities of staying there (including free breakfast)!

What a load of bull!

If I ever win the lottery, the first thing I'm gonna do is pick up a set of wheels like this guy's!

A blindfolded woman with bunny rabbit tail standing on top of a bald man while juggling three razor-sharp knives - now that's entertainment!

Buskers, for the most part, tend to be talented, hard-working people - human statues are the exception

Who would've thought you could be occupied for a full hour by three guys hitting drums and spouting incoherent gibberish?

As the only two black guys in the entire country, the LA act drew quite a crowd.

The tranquil Avon River

These guys had the best fake escalator sketch I've ever seen!

On exhibit in the Christchurch museum: A demon spawn from the deepest bowels of Hell

Sadly, a giant cow made of corned beef cans was the closest thing to art in the entire gallery.

If all these people weren't in the way, you could see that this was a picture of a nerd juggling torches while walking a tightrope

A human fountain (but not in the way you're thinking!)

A guy pretending to be Italian and doing circus acts to the music of queen?

It could only be: Mario Queen of the Circus!

The more athletic version of chess

I can't get enough of this guy - he's driving around in a giant, motorized toilet!

Stunt water-skiiers; the guy with the propeller on his butt is the boat driver

The town of Kaikoura

Wildlife... sort of

Man I love straddling electric fences!


Contrary to my previous belief that video games are 100% accurate, this was one slow little critter

It was pretty dark, but I think this was an opossum

The mighty Kauri tree


Get ready to be amazed - this is the actual geographic center of New Zealand!

Abel Tasman

Kawhiri Caves

What do ya know, more farms!

I'm not sure why but this ad really cracked me up

The famed Punakaiki Pancake Rocks


The World of Sheep

Swing bridges

The Franz Josef glacier

Possibly Wanaka...

Queenstown... I think

The Kepler track

Omarama - home to... this stone sheep

Mt. Cook


Life's a beach and so is this picture

Someone actually bought all the crap from an American dollar store, shipped it overseas, and threw on a 200% markup.

Not actually in New Zealand, but entertaining nonetheless