Monday, February 6, 2017

Last Dispatch "from" (about) New Zealand

There's been so much good skiing - and socializing - in Utah lately that I've almost forgotten about the summertime adventures of December in New Zealand, but they were worthy.

Upon reaching the South Island I went straight to Nelson, where our great friends Andy and Megan Southwick moved to a year ago.  They had done a 3 year stint there while Andy did his residency, and then did another 6 months as a trade (or somesuch) a few years ago.   Andy's frustration with the American medical system (as a provider, which is discouraging; it's bad enough as a consumer) and the allure of the mellower pace and better lifestyle of a NZ doc in a place they'd grown to love was a strong enough combination that they were willing to leave their longtime home and go to NZ for good; a solid endorsement of the country!  So I had to go see what indeed they had.

Nelson is pretty idyllic; it's on the Tasman Bay and due to good geography apparently is a bit drier than the rest of the notoriously-rainy South Island (though it rained plenty while I was there).  I got to calling it "Santa Barbara South" for it's similar and very nice size, nice mountains that rise right out of the sea, is a big center for both fish and agriculture, and is far enough from any big cities that it's got a nice chill attitude.  It's also the gateway to plenty of great adventures that loom on the South Island.

Nelson is on the International Mountain Bike Association's list of Super Mega Awesome (or somesuch) mtb communities, and right away Megan showed me why:  just a few minutes' spin from town leads into a network of trails that rivals Park City's, but as I'd seen in Rotorua on the North Island, Kiwi mountain bikers tend to go big and there seem to be more pretty-burly trails.  They have a rating system of 1-6 for their trails, with 3 being a nice "average" singletrack, 4 being more challenging, and most of the 5's  -of which there was a lot - I could only ride a bit of, and I didn't even both looking at the uber-rad class 6 sickness.   Not that I'm any kind of a burl-hucker by any means, but I was impressed by the steepness, technicality, and objective hazards that were rife on those trails.
And the Kiwis' industrious nature when it comes to recreation showed itself when I asked at the shop if they had a map of the local trails and the guy said "If we made a map, it'd be obsolete in a couple of weeks because so many trails are being built so quickly!"
most of it was very rideable.  

two things NZ has a lot of:  fences for sheep and fog
But the trails are pretty conducive to moisture

The jungles include monster ferns, fragrant eucalyptus trees, and enormous California redwoods. 

Not sure if this is supposed to be rideable? 

the trails had a tendency to plunge into these canyons
Nelson is also the gateway to the most famous - because it's the easiest - multi-day trek in New Zealand, the Abel Tasman track.  It's about 20 miles long and rolls up into the headlands and down across tidal beaches, and in addition to being a multi-day backpack it's also the most famous of New Zealand's sea kayak areas due to beautiful hidden coves and beaches.

 Water taxis also ply the waters there, enabling folks to go one way and then taxi back the other way.  I decided to go run it in a day, and it worked out well; a fairly significant storm was moving in and because the trail is pretty rocky the rain didn't affect the trail at all; a nice change from the gumbo of rain-soaked trails in Utah.  The first drops fell right on cue with my first steps, and it pretty much poured the whole time, and I felt fortunate that I was able to go at a pace that kept me nice and warm as I ran past the many backpackers who looked miserably soaked.  And when the track went down to and across the tidal beaches (it was low tide; there were mostly alternate tracks around these bays) I happily splashed through the residue water and wet sand, since I was soaked anyway.
the orange post is a trail marker
I had made a reservation on a 3pm water taxi from "the end" (theoretically I could have gone farther, but the tide was coming in and the last section had no high tide alternative) back to the beginning of the track, but I knew that there was also one that I could get on at 1:30 if I hustled.  So I hammered the last bit and got there just in time to meet the taxi, which was dropping off some backpackers.  Due to the storm the waves in the normally-placid bay were pretty big and the boat couldn't land on the beach, so the captain anchored a ways off shore and his passengers had to jump into the surf.  Since I was soaked anyway I waded out and helped them unload, but with a strong wind I blowing, wet clothes, and an hour+ ride back in the boat I was a little worried about getting cold.  But soon enough I had plenty more to be worried about!

We headed out into the waves and I was quickly pretty intimidated:  the decent-sized boat was literally climbing vertically out of some waves and crashing straight through others; I had a panic bar in front of my seat and indeed my knuckles were white on it:
 with my body flying out of the seat and smashing back down. After a bit the pilot said "here, put this on" and handed me an inflatable life jacket; I said "hey, you got another one of those I can put on, and a flare gun as well?!"  He just laughed and as I looked into his face I realized that about 90% of the time he just noodled back and forth along the bay in flat water, and this smashing surf was as fun for him as it was scary for me, and he was pretty much havin' one.
cool as a Kiwi kukumber!
 So I relaxed (but snugged the pfd up tight!) and began to enjoy the harrowing ride as we went in and out of various bays "rescuing" soggy backpackers and sea kayakers who were bailing out of the storm to escape back to civilization.

The original impetus for me to go to New Zealand was to go paddle the legendary rivers that spill down the mountains on the West Coast, and I figured that if I was on the South Island I might as well try to give it a go, even though my good paddling pard Andy (Windle) was now hundreds of miles away.  Andy and Megan were kind enough to let me borrow their car - and assumed I would continue to be able to drive on the left side of the road and go the correct direction around the roundabouts - for me to drive south in search of rivers.

The most obvious destination was the mighty Buller river, which is the biggest river system in New Zealand with a dozen moderate runs within a half-hour radius of Murchison, a couple-hour drive south of Nelson.  On the banks of the Buller is the New Zealand Kayak School, which was founded and run by Mick Hopkinson, who is as close to a kayaking legend as any human; he pioneered most of the runs in New Zealand and for many years was one of the leading expeditioners in the world (in the guest lodge there's an old paddle above the fireplace that says "Paddle that Mick used on the first descent of the Blue Nile in 1972") so it was natural for me to go there to see if I could get some gear and get on a river via Mick's operation and community.  
Mick supervising the boat-unloading operation.  He's most definitely The Man
He doesn't mess around with his place; ship (boat) shape!
When I exchanged emails with his wife she suggested that I stay in the campground because that's where the kayakers who came to paddle typically congregated, but when I arrived there I saw only caravans full of German tourists.  I went into the vast metropolis of Murchison (pop 500) and found a pizza place; the owner was out of beer but said "you can't have pizza without beer!", disappeared, and came back with a big bottle, and as his place was connected to a hostel and it continued to rain it wasn't hard to easily forget about camping.

The next morning I realized that there were still no other folks to paddle with - and Mick wisely doesn't rent gear to solo paddlers - so I went to plan B....which I didn't really have.  But on doing a little research I found that the "Old Ghost Road" mountain bike route was not far away, and amongst the pile of rusted bikes under the steps of a hostel was one that actually fit me, had a chain that spun, and air in its tires, and the ever-so-kind hostel owner said "sure, take that bike, but don't pay me for it, just bring it back!" so off I went (and was able to change the brake cables around so the rear was appropriately on the right!  Tho I did forget to change it back, which has haunted me ever since; I hope no Kiwi has pitched over the bars when he grabbed a bunch of front brake!).  
it rolled, so it was all I needed
The Old Ghost Road was originally establish back in the gold rush days of 18-something when the hardy miners built one road into the mountains from the south and another from the north with the intention of connecting them, but the highest terrain was too steep and rugged.  But the routes still existed as trails, and fast-forwarding to 2009 a couple of guys had the vision to finally connect the trails and create an 85km/53mi route with 3 beautiful huts along the way that people could stay in.  It "opened" in 2015 and proved wildly popular immediately; the huts are already booked 9 months out, every night.  It's not a "bike packing" route per se; it appears that most folks just take their regular mountain bikes and medium-sized backpacks to carry 2-3 days worth of food and a sleeping bag, since the huts have everything else.
pretty big pack to ride with..
 I rode 30km up a steady climb to the first hut on  great singletrack

hung out at the hut for a bit with the volunteer hut keeper

 and zipped back down. There are a couple of "slips" that happened in a big earthquake in 2009:

shoring these things up and installing the cables after the earthquake must have been hard, harrowing work
While the story is inspiring to users, not all is rosy; the whole project ended up costing a fairly-ridiculous $7M, which will mean an awful lot of $30 per person/per nights in the huts, and this is a pretty significant chunk of the $50M that was allocated by the Prime Minister for a nation-long bike trail, which is indicative of how seriously NZ takes its "extreme" recreation industry.  But I  - and a couple of other Americans I met who were on a NZ mtb odyssey:
in lieu of using am expensive camper, these folks stuffed their gear and bikes into this tiny $13/day rental car and were Air BnB-ing their way around the country.  
 - certainly had a nice time on the expensive trail!
Some awesome boots from the mining era; these are over a hundred years old.  Goes to show the toughness and longevity of tanned leather.  
who needs crampons?

Teapots haven't changed much in 100 years.
The next morning I again faced a dearth of kayakers staying at the campground (but did meet this American raft guide, who gave Ash and I a shuttle on the Merced river in California back in May)

 but mid-morning as I was back at the hostel strategizing for my next move Mick came roaring up and said "we're on!" and an hour later we were heading for the Buller, and inexplicably it went from "no one is kayaking today" to a group of 8 - including "the other" NZ kayaking legend Peter Kettering - on a great,. beautiful, big water run with fun Grand Canyon-style rapids.  One of the guys I was on the river with had recently moved to Norfolk Island, which is an island in the middle of the Pacific that is all of 8km long and 5km wide, yet still has roads, cars, towns, and an airport!  I found it a bit hard to fathom, but he loves it, tho he admitted there aren't a lot of good rivers on a 3 by 5 mile island!

Satisfied that I had finally gotten at least a mild dousing of South Island rivers, I headed back to Nelson to spend a few more days slaying singletrack with Team Southwick.  On the way home I had to stop at this place:
On Andy's recommondation:  this country pub served up the best....Chinese food I've had in years!  General Tso's venison
I was happy to be there to partake in Nelson's Saturday market, and like markets around the globe, it had its share of characters:
This guy is actually from Georgia, and has been in the footwear business for....two months! 

But has already come up with rad designs like these.

this guy is 82 and makes beer-can planes

This guy's eyebrows were incredible enough - and emphasized by a pretty dramatic eye tic - that I had to buy some of his hazelnuts to take home; damn the US Customs! 

The purveyor of Knit Wit slippers; I'm wearing them now....

This guy actually also plays  - or played? - for the NZ national symphony
"Rocket Lettuce" - a far better name than "Arugula!"
Megan stoked to be in strawberry season
Megan and Andy were just in the process of buying a new (to them) house that is clearly a bit of a "project'.
New Zealand Gothic
They have Llamas for neighbors; I think these guys were a bit embarrassed by us laughing at their freshly-shorn look..
it also has orange and lemon trees in the yard....

and plenty of other important farm implements

This was interesting to me, because a common topic in NZ is the exorbitant cost of housing there; the median home price in Auckland is about $800k, and I read articles talking about....sub-prime loans that were quite prevalent.  Especially as I was coincidentally reading The Big Short, It was hard to not wonder if NZ is the 2007 Iceland or Ireland of today and could be the canary in the global real estate coal mine?

Regardless of that, New Zealand lived up to all the expectations that I had for it; great recreation, super nice people, great food and drink, beautiful, and an overall "chill" and humble attitude about their great country.
And can't forget the delectable custard squares:  one of the best things about Commonwealth countries!
Thanks again to Megan and Andy for their great hospitality!

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