New Zealand: Where the Men are Men and the Sheep are Scared.
Yes there are more sheep in New Zealand than people. I think I saw all of them, except for maybe one or two. I actually had this fantasy of running naked in a grass field chasing hundreds of thousands of sheep totally freaked out and running every which way to escape my wrath. I didn’t end up doing it because I never quite found that perfect green pasture of my dreams. Or maybe I just wanted a reason to return.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, the reason I haven’t updated this blog for a while is because I have spent the past month in one of earth’s last pockets of paradise, New Zealand. Me, 3 adventurous friends from a small democracy in the Middle East, a 1991 Subaru Legacy with all time 4 wheel drive, a couple tents, sleeping bags, a blanket that has never seen the inside of a washing machine, a gas stove, a giant sack of rice, extra virgin olive oil, 1 kg of cheese that somehow never goes bad, Nutella, Marmite, Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, and enough tuna fish to re-stock the North Atlantic Ocean, traveled together through most of the South Island of New Zealand. It was the first time in years that I have traveled without a laptop, a cell phone, and a desire to make a video.
Perhaps it is because not much is really happening in the place. These were some of the headline stories during my month-long stay in New Zealand according to the Otago Times…A cat being rescued from trees, hikers barely escape flash flood, tourists escape death in glacier, a sheep thief on the loose (I’m not kidding).
The Kiwis (named after a nearly extinct dopey looking bird) have invented all kinds of wacky extreme sports to entertain themselves and make tons of money off tourists. The first commercial bungee jumping was launched in New Zealand, and they haven’t stopped inventing new ways to scare the shit out of people. This list is far from complete, but off the top of my head there is Fly by Wire, Sledge-it, whitewater rafting, blackwater rafting, canyoning, skydiving, bungee jumping, and jetboating. We did canyoning, which is my favorite of these activities. We also did jetboating, which is only offered in NZ. You go onto these special jet boats that squeeze through the canyons at ridiculous speeds. You really think you’re going straight into the rocks and you’re going to die, but then the boat turns at the last second and you’re relieved, temporarily. Here’s the video:
Assuming you survive all the extreme activities, New Zealand is probably one of the safest places in the world. There are no dangerous animals. There is almost no violent crime. There are few road accidents. The streets are empty and the stores are closed at 7PM. I came to the conclusion that if you die in New Zealand, you really only have yourself, or a bad bungee cord, to blame. We felt comfortable camping anywhere. The only risk was having an early wake up call by a friendly police officer for camping illegally. It felt really refreshing coming to a place like this.
The most dangerous encounter I had actually was with a Dutch woman. We were at one of the best preserved fossil forests in the world dating back to the Jurassic Era of 100 million years ago. It also happens to be a viewing area for the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. There is an elevated viewing platform where most of the tourists were standing, but you are also able to view the penguins and the forest from much closer. According to a sign posting, you are allowed to walk directly on the fossil forest and you are also allowed to approach the penguins up to a distance of 10 meters. So we came down and started snapping photos of the penguins, when this frantic woman suddenly bolted down from the viewing platform, screaming at the top of her lungs, “You’re scaring the penguins!!!” “The mothers are afraid to go back to their nests to feed their young!!!” “You’re penguin murderers!!!” This woman totally dispelled every notion I had of what a Dutch woman was supposed to act like. Meanwhile, the penguins were totally freaked out. They were no longer hopping around like miniature waiters in strait jackets, but were staring blankly at us ill-mannered humans. I reveled in the fact that I had been given the opportunity of reverting back to the smart-ass days of my youth. “ I am part-penguin and can communicate directly to them. Let’s ask the penguins who is in the right.” “I hear penguin eggs make delicious omelets. Have you tried one?” “I’m not here for the penguins, I’m here for the fossil forest. Whose idea was it to put them in the same place?” Realizing that I was not taking this ordeal seriously, the woman’s territorial bickering became subdued, but at this point it had become dark and we had lost all sight of the penguins.
But by far the most amazing thing about New Zealand is the sheer visual beauty of the place. It is stunning in an otherworldly sense, a landscape that has a physical power that you can actually feel. I often found myself staring at some natural wonder and thought to myself, “Is this real?” The amazing, but sad thing is that after a couple weeks I got used to the majestic alpine peaks, the turquoise streams, and the lush green valleys. The human mind is programmed for survival and therefore familiarizes itself with new surroundings, allowing you to perceive beauty or ugliness for so long, until it seems ordinary.
And then one day I received a lesson. It was a day where nothing seemed to go right. We woke up in this beachside oasis called Curio Bay and saw that we had a flat tire. Our spare was the wrong size wheel and wouldn’t fit. I went around frantically looking for a solution and finally found someone with an air pump. We filled up the tire and made it to the next town only to see that the tire was flat again. We filled up air again and tried to make it to a garage. The tire totally blew out 7 kilometers away from the garage. I had to hitchhike to the garage, buy a new tire, and hitchhike back. On the way back I found myself in the backseat with a boy who I learned was completely blind. I told him I was from Israel and he played me a perfect rendition of “Shalom Alechem” on his flute. I wondered if he had any idea how beautiful his country was. I wondered if he knew that people come from all over the world just to see the landscape that he probably will never see. It seemed to me the saddest thing in the world that he would never see the mountains I had begun to take for granted. I walked out of that car with a new tire and a new outlook on my surroundings. I was determined to fight my brain’s natural impulse to tell me that this was normal. This was not normal. I live in Tel Aviv and wake up to traffic jams out my window every morning. No, this was special. This I closed my eyes for a moment re-opened them, and saw New Zealand as if for the first time.
Routeburn Great Walk
Kepler Great Walk
Exploring a Cave
Franz Josef Glacier