land of the long drop – New Zealand

rick_mugMarch 23, 2003

Kiwis have a great affection for lakes. But it would take one filled with beer to much interest a Canadian.

For me the unreported yet pre-eminent highlight of New Zealand are the many varied and fantastic waterfalls. These are the long drops of which I speak — though long drop is also Kiwi slang for a toilet in the wilderness.

waterfallPride of place goes to Sutherland Falls, near Milford, the highest and most hyped waterfall in New Zealand. The water pounds down with unbelievable force. I tried to walk behind the watery curtain but was driven back by the wind generated by the Falls.

125sutherland3Sutherland was a Scot, the first white man to settle permanently in remote, wet Milford Sound. Alone but for his dog Groatie; he was known as The Hermit of Milford. He discovered and named the falls asserting they were the world’s highest — 5000 feet. Tourists began to flock to Milford the following year though the falls were eventually measured to be only 1904 feet over 3 leaps.

Scots like Sutherland were bred to migrate to the cold, wet, dark extremes of the world. They had the wrathful Hellfire of a vengeful Presbyterian God to keep them warm.

The south of the south island in New Zealand is Scotish. Reminders of Scottish heritage are everywhere though the only whiskey distiller recently went bust.

The largest southern city is Dunedin, Celtic for Edinburgh. A statue of Robbie Burns welcomes sons of Scotland to the town centre.

I, gone south to hike the southern alps, lucked into a spot on the coveted Milford Track — the finest walk in the world, as it is called. This sobriquet is much mocked by hikers, each listing better Tracks. (The West Coast Trail, for example.)

The controversy began in 1908 when a London Spectator editor changed the title of an article on the New Zealand track from the author’s A Notable Walk to The Finest Walk in the World. The appellation stuck.

Yet, as one hiker rationalized, Travelling New Zealand and missing the Milford Track would be like travelling to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower.

Fact is the Milford is a fantastic hike unfairly diminished by detractors most of whom have not hiked it. It is particularly fantastic in good weather — I had perfect weather. Endless highs, man.

The highlight of the trip for me was the stunning Mackinnon Pass. Vistas in every direction. I scrambled part way up a peak adjacent to the alpine saddle.

My friend RC contends I hike mainly so I can dangle my feet off cliff ledges. He’s right. I was told it would take me about 12 seconds to reach the hut 800m below this sign on Mackinnon Pass.

078keaProviding much entertainment for hikers is another outlandish bird, the Kea, the only alpine parrot. This one did a proficient job of unzipping my pack!

Huge blunder on the Milford; I forgot my long pants in the van. There are two spots called Sandfly Point in New Zealand — you pass both on the Milford Track! Fjordland and the West Coast are notorious for these sneaky, blood-sucking vampire bugs.

Most National Parks are places where you cannot step off the trail lest you bruise lichen — but where fish can be hooked, suffocated, bludgeoned and devoured. Such are the inconsistencies in a world where Tequila is legal, Peyote not.


040trout2lunker Rainbow and Brown trout thrive in the incredibly clear Clinton

Milford is different. All mammals (except bats and hikers) are fair game. If you have a license you can shoot anything you want — but at least 1 km. off the track please.

For many years I went slackjawed at photos of Milford Sound and dreamed of visiting. It is a classic Fijord with vertical walls. The famous photo is The Mitre, reputed to be the second highest mountain (after Hawaii) that rises directly from the sea.

159kayak5I signed on for a kayak tour with Rosco’s, a great outfit with a bit of a scandalous reputation. The comic guides paddle and entertain every day of the year from the wettest settlement in New Zealand. (9m of rain in 1988)

I am not sure the guides are actually paid — as the main remuneration seemed to be picking-up tourist chicks.

No doubt that Queenstown resort in the Remarkables is the four-season adventure capital of the world. What other destination might be a contender? Chamonix?

Bungie jumping was first popularized in Queenstown and the world’s highest tourist jump is here; a 134m platform suspended by cables over the Nevis River.

Queenstown is the draw but ET prefers Wanaka, the mellower, secondary adventure capital. My favourite activity in Wanaka, actually, was taking in a film in the retro theatre there now called Cinema Paradiso. It is filled with old sofas, pillows, even a Morris Minor. Patrons lounge where they like. At intermission you are offered fresh cookies, coffee, or can pre-order dinner to enjoy during the second half of the movie. Brilliant.

I also golfed in Wanaka. Leave it to Kiwis to cross golf with rugby, creating a football-shaped golf ball. No putting — instead you birdie by landing the ball in a net target.

golf_crossDriving in this country is the biggest adventure thrill ride of them all. Of course it is dangerous — the number of traffic fatalities almost equals the number of deaths from teen suicide!

Still some of my best moments have been driving narrow (one way) winding scenic minor highways. Paradise, near Glenorchy, lived up to its name.

I had hoped to sell my beloved van for close to what I paid for it — unfortunately I had to sell at half the purchase price. That was the biggest downer of my Kiwi travels by far.

Only about 20,000 people live on the magnificent west coast of the south island. Why? Rain and sandflies drive normal people insane. Westcoasters pride themselves on being rogues and outsiders.

West coast precipitation (similar to S.E. Alaska and Patagonia) heaps snow in massive quantities on coastal mountains. Gravity pushes the resulting glaciers towards the sea while warm (tourist!) temperatures at lower altitudes melt them.

foxI hiked atop Fox Glacier with guide Shells (she had seashells in her dreadlocks) enjoying a most entertaining day. Finally, after many attempts, I saw the oft-clouded top of Mt. Cook and equally impressive Mt. Tasman.

Delightfully unpretentious, the Wildfoods Festival in west coast Hokitoka was a hoot. A crapulous block party with 22,000 drinkers, wild food is also available; westcargots (snails), beer-flavoured ice cream, wallaby, horse, wild goat, offal, mountain oysters, chamois, grasshoppper, meal worm, salmon with sandfly sauce, seagull, scorpion, eel and more. I stayed away from the bull penis sausage but sampled bambi burger, paua pattie, ostrich pie and managed a swallow of chocolate hoohoo grub, a West Coast favourite.

The primo west coast feed is whitebait and locally brewed Monteith’s beer. White bait is fish, each less than 2 cm long, caught by hand net and usually fried into a patty. Mmmm.

The entertainment is gleefully bad. (ie Elvis impersonators, men dressed as naughty nuns, droll British colonial administrators giving folks stick, etc.)

313bullsbull’s penis sausage

My last day of travel started with Wild Foods and finished at Castle Hill in the alps, scrambling limestone boulders and sloshing an hour through an underground river. A superb and appropriate last day.

New Zealand is magic. Photos do not do it justice — excepting those of Ted Scott, the Kiwi photo laureate.


endless highs – New Zealand

I remember once asking an American hiker the weather forecast;

Endless highs, man, endless highs.


rick_mugA camper van in New Zealand in their summer? What could be grander?

depart when you want

make decisions on-the-go depending on whim and weather

stop at every amazing waterfall

exit to a beach when you get a tad warm

scramble any interesting roadside boulder

sleep where and when you want

Yet after ET shouted seafood dinner at Mission Bay her last night in New Zealand, I strangely felt uneasy travelling the north island on my own. Perhaps I got civilized working with people 7 days a week in a busy gym this year. Maybe I grew used to the domestic chaos of travelling with a family in a van for a month. Odd.

auckland-harbourIt helped that I was hosted in Auckland by Kiwi Dave Phillips, 2000 Olympian gymnast who had trained in Saskatoon for a season. Dave is now a busy personal fitness trainer and seriously into outdoor pursuits. He organized some friends, ET and myself to kayak the harbour in heavy swells. Great fun though scary at times. Waiting for me as I struggled to keep up, Dave was the only one to dump (as he experimented with a bracing manoeuvre). The highlight of the trip was that ET and I were able to assist in his rescue.

pihaDave also took us to hip black sand Piha beach north of Auckland close to where The Piano was filmed. Ya, I’m a surfie now. I stood up. Twice!

Later I checked the surf south of Raglan, at Manu Bay, famous from the 1966 surf classic Endless Summer; purported the world’s longest left hand break.

I was also hosted in Auckland by Canuck Jeff Thompson and family. We explored beaches and a few of the 48 volcanic hills which make up this pretty and energetic city. Thompsons and I took in the Edmund Hillary 50th anniversary of Everest exhibit — the first time Ed has displayed his tent, clothing and such.

Jeff took me wall climbing and inspired a trip down to the climbing Mecca of South Wharepapa not yet discovered by backpackers. My first morning I flipped a mountain bike playing on the BSX (Bicycle Super Cross) course. I assumed I was incompetent until I learned that at least 2 others crashed at that same spot that day! Safety standards here are not nearly what they are in Canada — the charm of New Zealand is just how undeveloped and unregulated things are. O.S.H. (Occupational Safety and Health) is a government department much reviled by Kiwis.

FroggattFree standing Ignimbrite at Frogatt, South Wharepapa

Eventually I started to enjoy solo travel again. In fact, by the time I did a 5-day solo kayak journey down the Whanganui River gorge it was with a twinge of regret when I saw other (inevitably German or Israeli) paddlers on the water. I normally had the campgrounds to myself and was happy sharing the river only with wild goats and water birds.

BridgeThe Bridge to Nowhere

A failed attempt at farming and developing the Whanganui River wilderness.

I went back to climb Mount Doom (Ngauruhoe). After an epic backsliding scramble up scoria, I finally reached the smoking summit. This classic volcano is almost extinct by New Zealand standards — it only erupts every 5-8 years. (Mount St. Helen’s blasts every 700 years, by comparison.)

Fantastic vistas in every direction. A perfect day. Endless highs.

Oh no! Atop Mount Doom and I had forgotten The Ring!

What would you do in this situation?

I urinated.

Suddenly it struck me. I did have The Ring! The One Ring which binds the Suunto compass/thermometer to the pack! It joined many other rings in the cone.

We celebrated Waitangi Day here — the National holiday commemorating the anniversary some of the Maori chiefs signed over the country to the Brits. Needless to say, the celebration is controversial. The chiefs only agreed because they feared the French might take over instead. The British were clearly the lesser of evils.

whalerider_posterI quite like the Maori people though I cannot say I got to know any as well as I would of liked. Many around the world will learn of the culture through the touching film The Whale Rider, a People’s Choice winner. The book and movie are set in (the author’s home town) the tiny settlement of Whangara. When I toured the neglected, mellow, mostly Maori East Cape the look and feel of that movie rang true.

Sunrise at East Cape lighthouse, the most easterly point, was a highlight.

Did you hear about the cowardly Terrorist Attack in New Zealand? Is no place safe?

Bombers posing as tourists in a van picked up explosives delivered by submarine to the remote north. They drove to Auckland and blew up a ship killing one man.

The terrorists were agents of a foreign government known to have weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. This nation has a history of talking tough but collapsing quickly when it comes to battle.

Two of the saboteurs were caught, others never brought to justice.

More farce than justice, the guilty bombers were detained on a gorgeous French Pacific island — and returned home 2 years later (far sooner than their sentence) to a hero’s welcome in Paris.

The French, the French,
They are a curious race …

The skeletal remains of the ship, The Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior were moved and sunk as a scuba diving attraction.

The future of backpacking adventure tourism?

New Zealand I think leads the way in the evolution of travel.

competition for the backpacker dollar will increase

e.g. ratings systems to compare hostels

quality of accommodation will continue to improve

packaged fun, convenient tourist experiences will continue to be invented

zorb (roll down a hill in a clear plastic bubble)

fly-by-wire (fly a jet attached by tether cable)

zorbTHE ROCK in the Bay of Islands is terrific example. ET and I felt we got great value paying about C$100 each for a 24 hour ship cruise; visiting 4 islands, 2 great meals, kayaking, fishing, hiking, snorkeling, target shooting off the back of the boat, eating Kina / Sea Hedgehog (sea urchin), and more.

Non-stop action on a floating bar with pool table, great music. Marketed to backpacking young people, the brochure sold me stating, no demanding upmarket suitcase tourists.

– Kiwi Rick

P.S. Perfect tourist weather (i.e. drought) continued. No pesky ozone to filter the healthful rays! Melanoma scars and leathery skin are a small price to pay for a fleeting glow.

Next episode; south island, Wild Food Festival, perfect weather on the Milford Track.

dopes on ropes – New Zealand

Jan 25, 2003


If you are one of the disadvantaged who (like Tolkien) have not traveled to New Zealand you must listen attentively while those who have rave on. Here are a few titbits to keep you in the conversation:

Lonely Planet recently ranked New Zealand the #1 travel destination in the world

Russell Crowe was born in New Zealand not Australia

Australian possums are the biggest pest

Canadian moose were once released here but are no longer pests

NZ won the past two America’s Cup yacht races

coolest place on the south island = Queenstown

coolest place on the north island = Taupo

Rick LEAP New ZealandQueenstown and Taupo are parties central for young people at New Years. They are also the centres of crazy Kiwi adventure tourism.

Adrenalin-pumping adventure activities punctuate travel in New Zealand. You can conveniently jetboat, white-water sledge, raft, boogie board, canoe, kayak, surf, snorkel, ski, bungee, skydive, abseil, tramp, bike, climb and cave — on the same day if you hurry.

We came to Taupo for the high ropes course where we could confront fear of heights; walking cables, rickety bridges, logs, leaping for a trapeze — 150 feet high. (At least it feels like 150 feet high!)

The only problem I had was the GIANT SWING; free fall from a HIGH platform praying that the pendulum of your swing will clear the ground. Is it what!

Of course we have plenty of footage for our Cirque du Soleil audition video. Our act is called dopes on ropes.

P1010470_dopesI had never heard of Taupo before coming to New Zealand. I should have. Taupo is a large lake created by a stupendous volcanic eruption 25,000 years ago. A smaller Taupo volcanic eruption AD 181 is still the most powerful eruption in historical times — there were dark skies and strange sunsets in Rome.

AD 181 … , ancient history. Right?

But on a Friday afternoon January 2001 an explosion beside the Rotorua hospital covered much of the city central park with boiling mud. Amazingly no one was killed or injured. Many downplayed the seriousness of this event as Rotorua (near Taupo) is the #1 tourist destination on the North Island — also known as Roto-Vegas.

A year later we wandered that park and found the devastation astonishing. Children still play near boiling sink holes.

Rotorua stinks. It reeks of sulphur from steam escaping from gaps in the pavement, school yards, church courtyards, everywhere. At any time the sidewalk might collapse.

Despite the Taupo region being the land of Mordor, I love the steaming volcanic weird and twisted landscape. Cool as.

We booked at a holiday camp boasting the world’s only thermally heated tent sites. Mud bubbled near the tents. The last tourist who stepped close (to retrieve his hat) was hospitalized with burns.

We used thermal steam to cook our corn, potatoes and eggs. We bathed in a scorching hot river at Kerosene Falls.

P1010014_waterfallLater we dug holes at Hot Water Beach — personal hot tubs in the sand with the ocean waves to cool you. Choice!

The highlight of the Taupo Volcanic Zone for me was the Tongariro Crossing — called the finest one-day hike in New Zealand. Up and in-between two huge volcanoes with amazing vistas all day long. Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) looms.

lavaspikeET and I did the Crossing and climbed Tongariro. Neither of us could name a better hike anywhere.

spider_woman_smIn Waitomo we did the very popular Rap, Raft and Rock trip through the glow-worm caves.

In 1985 for ET the trip was an elderly Maori lady leading a few people at a time through the main grotto. ET returned in 2003 for an adventure!

Raft the underground river on an inner tube

Rock climb narrow tunnels and back out of the cavern
It was unique — floating silently watching a glow-worm galaxy of tiny living lights on the cave roof.

The dopes (the Fellowship of the Swing) have disbanded. ET returned to frozen Saskatoon; GC and family gone on to scorched Aussie for a few months in the sun.

minus_33Still … the dopes could re-unite if called by the Cirque.

– Kiwi Rick now flying solo

Once Were PARTYers – New Zealand

Dec. 31, 2002

I was never a partyer. I have always been more of a party watcher.

High School house parties I vividly recall (soundtrack Isn’t Life Strange, by the Moody Blues) convinced me that drunken gatherings merely accelerate and amplify the rhythms of regular life. Alcohol makes you less inhibited (stupider) and more vocal (stupider yet).

I was never a partyer. But GC was. For GC a night out was 6 beer and a 40 ouncer. GC travelled and drank his way down under 20 years ago. Now he is back with his family, me and ET touring New Zealand in a grey van called Thomas the Toyota.


GC cannot remember much from his youth binge to New Zealand — for young backpackers travel is a non-stop party.

Christmas Eve we oldsters were all asleep by 10:30 pm. Santa DOES come to the Abel Tasman Track as tiny stockings were hung by the hut chimney in the morning. Lollies for all!

Christmas Day hiking we came to a risky short cut; 20 minutes downhill via the only pub on the Abel Tasman … or 90 minutes of slogging steep up and downs with heavy packs to get to our destination. GC and I took the shortcut while the women and children sensibly went the long way around.


Merry Christmas to the boys with the handles!

ET was passed out exhausted by the time we sloshed into the hut. She could not even respond to the pity beer we brought her. ET had travelled New Zealand 15 years ago and is thrilled to be back for more … except for missing the pub shortcut.

The Abel Tasman hike is great.

photos of our 4 day gorgeous tropical beach walk from my digital camcorder.
more photos from GC’s digital camera.


New Years found us in funky Wellington at the terrific Cambridge Hotel Backpackers across the street from the home theatre of Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson promised to bring the World Premier here for #3 in 2003. We watched Lord of the Rings 1 on DVD on 30 December then Lord of the Rings 2 at the gorgeous old theatre on New Years Eve.

Good film, fantastic New Zealand scenery.

Were we old folk asleep before midnight? No way! We took in the dry outdoor family New Years concert in the town square. The band played cheesy cover versions of 70s tunes by Donna Summers, Doobies, Average White Band … stuff parents would remember from their party days.

Some of us once were partyers. 🙂

New Years eve we managed to stay awake until 1:30 AM. I hid my cheap wine in the bushes to avoid confiscation by the man.


Happy 2003!

– Kiwi Rick seeking Shags, Kakas, and Moreporks.