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Mike's Around-The-World Trip Update #19 - 8.19.2005
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i arrived in auckland, new zealand on may 28th. i didn't know what i wanted to do. i had no plans.

so i got a haircut and a shave, my first proper one in 15 months. it felt good. i looked less like a freak.

and looking less like a freak helps you meet other non-freaks. i didn't know anyone when i arrived in auckland, there at the top of the north island of new zealand, but just two days later i was at maui rentals at the airport picking up a four-person campervan to explore the north island with sharon and paul from england, and kerry from scotland. we met each other at the hostel and all had the same interests, so we put together some money and rented a van complete with a shower, a toilet, four beds, a microwave, a stove, a heating unit, running water, and a table with bench-seating; a rolling house. ten days of sleeping, eating, partying, and exploring with three perfect strangers in a very small space? yep. it's the only way to do it i tell you. think about it: could you do it with three close friends? no way. you'd be fighting on day two. we, however, had zero conflicts. none.

what we had was a fantastic time.

we drove to the very north of the north island and took a boat ride in the bay of islands. our boat chased dolphins through the sapphire blue water, around rocky, grassy islands, towards the hole-in-the-rock, a tight, rocky tunnel through an island. our large catamaran aimed it's bow at the middle of the hole and the captain gunned it through. he later came out on deck and said that he was scared and that he didn't think we were going to make it. probably says that every time but i still laughed. the captain was a maori.

maoris are the indigenous people of new zealand, or, as they call it, aotearoa. after spending three months in australia where the relationship between the white settlers and the aborigines is bad, i immediately noticed the significant role that maoris play in modern new zealand society. they hold professional jobs, maoris and whites hang out socially together, the new zealand national anthem is first sung in maori and then english, street signs are in maori and english, the world-famous rugby team, the all-blacks, performs the haka (a magnificent, stirring maori war-dance) before facing an opponent, and children learn to sing maori songs in school...it was refreshing to see especially having just come from oz and having grown up in america where our relationship with american indians sucks.

so, back to the campervan. the roads of new zealand, like oz, have rest stops in beautiful places where you can park your van for the night and sleep for free. we did this throughout the north island.

the atmosphere in the van was so fun. one person driving and one playing dj, while the other two sat at the table in the back listening to tunes, gazing out the windows at the stunning scenery rolling by. at night the girls would cook up big, hearty meals for us. i was so relaxed and happy, thoroughly enjoying the company of my new friends.

we drove to the 90-mile beach at the very top of the north island. we threw the aerobie around there for a while, on that totally flat, wild beach. cars drive on it like it's a road - the speed limit is 100 km/hr. we didn't drive on it though - we headed back down south to rotorua to luge.

luge?

the kiwis (new zealanders) thrive on extreme sports and luge is the first one i attempted. you ride a chairlift to the top of a mountain where you climb in a small cart and recklessly ride it at a frightening speed down a winding concrete track, avoiding (if you can) obstacles and each other. logs lay across the track in a few spots and i smashed into them, getting tossed right out of my ride twice. i crashed because i was going as fast as possible trying to beat paul to the bottom. paul and i raced each other four times, and, i hate to report, (especially to my best-friend back home), that i lost three out of four.

paul sends me e-mails to this day signed: Paul The Luge-King Of Rotorua.

speaking of athletic domination, every 12 years the british and irish put together an all-star rugby team to play the all-blacks in new zealand. the team, called the british and irish lions, along with just about every rugby fan from the u.k. and ireland, was there when i was, so the group of us watched the matches at the bar. the atmosphere was vibrant and exciting, with the kiwis and brits/irish hollering at the screen and taunting one another. the all-blacks demolished the lions, three games to zero.

i attribute the domination to two things: first, that rugby is religion in new zealand, and, second, that the opponent of the all-blacks has to witness the haka performance before each match. i mentioned earlier that the haka is a maori war dance, but i didn't mention that it is the most frightening, intimidating thing i have ever seen a sports team do to psyche-out a foe. chanting, flexing muscles, slapping at their thighs, screaming, making faces, all while the other team stands across from them sweating. i could watch the all-blacks perform the haka over and over.

when we weren't watching rugby, we were watching sharon sky-dive over lake taupo, or hiking to waterfalls, or driving past the lord of the rings scenery, and, of course, partying in the van.

after ten days together, we had to part ways. sharon and i headed towards the south island while kerry and paul drove back north in the campervan. so if they took the campervan, what did sharon and i do?

we hitchhiked.

we were dropped at the side of the road outside waganui and then got our thumbs out. sharon was a bit reluctant at first having never done it, but she was up for a new adventure so we made a sign and got a free ride about 300 kilometers south to wellington at the southern tip of the north island. it's the departure point for the ferries to the south island. we saved $90 each by hitching instead of taking a bus. and we met interesting people who shared stories about new zealand that we never would have heard otherwise. hitching is great.

so after a couple days we got on the ferry to the south island, where we hitchhiked down the east coast to christchurch to rent another campervan. we decided that campervanning was the best way to see new zealand so we made a reservation for one, this time for just the two of us.

the funniest part of hitching then was when we got picked up by a canadian couple, kelly and megan, in a campervan. they were on their way to christchurch to return their van, and we were on our way to christchurch to pick up a van. at the exact same place. so as they were returning theirs, we were picking ours up. they wanted to go to the west coast and, since that is where sharon and i were heading, they hopped in the back and came along for the ride! instant payback.

we crossed the middle of the south island and that's when the scenery raged; stunning mountains, deserted valleys, thundering rivers. amazing stuff.

sharon and i drove up and down the west coast of the south island, which is considered the most scenic part of new zealand. we camped on stunning rocky beaches, walked across canyons on dangling swing-bridges, ate meat-pies (the staple of the kiwi diet), marveled at golden lakes, dodged roads full of sheep, and were continually amazed by the hospitality and friendliness of the kiwis - some of the nicest people in the world. we happily made our way down the west coast, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the lack of a plan.

sharon and i arrived in the small, ramshackle town of franz josef (home of the franz josef glacier) where a few short buildings house glacier-guiding companies and helicopter tour companies, as well as a few restaurants, bars, and hostels. we took a full-day tour of the glacier the next day, hiking the rocky mountainside to the base of the glacier and then carefully following our guide over mountains of ice, through tight, frozen caves, and between narrow crevasses. the spa at our campsite felt amazing that night after 8 hours of walking the ice.

our next stop was wanaka where i planned to ski for the season at treble cone, the most popular commercial resort in new zealand. problem was that the resort wasn't open yet. a horrible winter for snowfall they said. the few resorts that were open were hardly covered. i decided to check out queenstown to see if their resorts were having a better season.

they weren't. so skiing for the season was out. i decided that the only way to cheer myself up was to throw myself off something high.

so i signed sharon and i up for the canyon swing. as we sat discussing what to do in queenstown she suggested it and, knowing that she might change her mind, i ran to the phone and booked us for the next day. i laughed at her when she expressed her apprehension but i wasn't laughing the next morning when they came to pick us up at 8:00 - my skin was crawling. we got in a small van where everyone sat silently, all quietly reflecting on what lay ahead.

when we arrived at the edge of the shotover canyon, we were ushered to the observation platform for a demonstration of the canyon swing. a man was hooked into the swing while sitting in a plastic chair, the back-legs of which rested on the lip of the canyon. our guide said "this is the chair-of-death, guys" as the man tilted back in the chair and plummeted towards the river at the bottom of the canyon. my heart fell into my shoes. i agreed to do this?

when it was my turn it took all the guts i had to jump, but when i did i loved it. i hollered and yelped like never before as i fell. at the bottom i felt bolts of electricity shooting through my forearms, a total adrenaline rush. what an amazing feeling. i did it twice. sharon did as well, the second time actually launching in the chair-of-death.

after queenstown, we journeyed to milford sound for a cruise through the fjords. despite the nasty weather we loved the towering cliffs and thundering waterfalls of the fjord.

a few days later we attended a rugby game, the british lions versus southland, a provincial rugby team. the lions played the provinces in between the test matches with the all-blacks, sorta as a warm-up for those big games. it was great to watch the game live for the first time in my life.

after two weeks of exploring the spectacular south island together we made our way back to christchurch where we returned the van and sharon caught a plane to fiji.

i was now in a similar position as when i first arrived in new zealand: i didn't know anyone and had nowhere in particular to go.

so i headed back to queenstown. on the bus down there i met pip (short for phillipa) from england. i hung out with her for the next two weeks, partying, snowboarding, skiing, watching rugby, hiking, luging, and celebrating queenstown's mardi gras.

mardi gras new zealand style. we swayed with the crowd outside in the cold, town square drinking beer and listening to great live music at the edge of lake wakatipu. we had heard that some people dress up in costumes for mardi gras, so our group of friends all rented ridiculous outfits for the party. i went as a woman (i'm trying to do it all out here.) about 8 of us dressed as freaks and ran wild through the streets of queenstown. the funniest part is that only when we got to the festival did we realize that it's basically only the people in the parade that dress up, so we stood out like baboons. we captured the attention of everyone around us though and i had one of the best nights of my long, long trip.

after a few days i fled from queenstown before i died. i took refuge in wanaka where i wrote stories for five days. i figured out that i write best when i am alone and on the move - i get ideas from movement. so i enjoyed my anti-social days of sitting alone in the hostel wearing headphones and composing stories. it was a nice break from the partying ways of queenstown, but after five days it was thankfully time to meet a friend again.

i climbed aboard a bus to christchurch to meet mary. mary is the australian who i met a year earlier in ireland and have met up with in many places during my journey. the last time we had hung out was in melbourne, australia where we had fun so she decided to come over to new zealand to hang with me for two weeks.

we spent two nights in christchurch and then proceeded to do everything in new zealand i hadn't yet done. we hitchhiked almost everywhere, covering about 1000 kilometers in other people's cars. we soaked in natural hots springs, visited the franz josef glacier, hiked through thick forests, chilled out in greymouth and wanaka, rode past the waterfall streaked cliffs outside haast, and eventually ended up back in queenstown.

all roads lead to queenstown. i visited it on three separate occasions while in new zealand.

but it's a great place to go back to so i had no complaints. plus i had two HUGE items left on my new zealand to-do list and both were in queenstown.

1. jetboating
2. bungy jumping

jetboating is when you strap a jet engine to the back of a normal speedboat and then race through canyon rivers coming as close to wrecking as possible. it's a great thrill and we thoroughly enjoyed the 25 minute rip through the shotover canyon on the shotover jet.

bungy jumping is when you strap a thin cord to your legs and chuck yourself off a bridge, a cliff, or a platform, whatever, just as long as it delivers the sensation that you are going to split your head open by hitting the ground face-first.

i signed myself up for "the thrillogy." all three bungy jumps in queenstown on the same day. i will admit right now that i was scared. i could not sleep at all the night before. even though i had done the canyon swing a few weeks earlier, the mystery of bungy (and the pure stupidity of it) had me really nervous.

but it was awesome. after i got that first jump out of the way, on the kawarau bridge, the site of the first commercial bungy jump in the world, i actually looked forward to the other two. the second jump was from "the nevis" which is the second highest bungy jump in the world at 134 meters (445 feet.) the last one, up on "the ledge" high above queenstown, was really fun too. bungy was a hell of a thrill and was really the last thing i can think of that i was scared to do, but i was glad when the day was done and i was still alive.

mary and i had one more stop before she returned home and i jetted off to south america: mount cook/aoraki. it was one of the few remaining places i had not seen yet in new zealand so we drove a rental car up there for a couple days. the scenery was just magnificent and, with nothing much to do, we just chilled out beneath the towering peaks and soaked in the magnificence of it.

and that was it for new zealand. i had an incredible time and met some fantastic people. i've seen a lot of places on this journey but i have to say that new zealand is a place i look forward to visiting again someday - i was thoroughly impressed by the people, the scenery, and the ridiculous adventure sports so unique to that south pacific island-nation.

have a look at the pictures which bring alive the words above. i took more photos in new zealand than in any other country, and once you see them you'll understand why.

chile here i come!

keep on keepin' on,
michael

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