Koror, Palau Finishing Up New Zealand

I’ve finally got some quiet time to finish off New Zealand. I’m in a $30 a night hotel in Palau. It’s dirty. Lots of geckos, ants, and cockroaches. But it has a bed, a toilet, and a power outlet and that’s all I really need these days.

This is another exceedingly long one. And if I may self-criticize for a moment, it’s not all that interesting. So don’t go thinking I consider it a towering achievement in journalistic prose. I fully endorse skimming. It’s just that I did a lot of stuff that I wanted to report for posterity, and I don’t have an editor on staff.

Windows XP has a very nice tool for setting the clock. It shows a map with all the time zones and lists the major cities. I’m in GMT +9:00, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo.

I come from GMT -5:00, Eastern Time (US & Canada).

Everyone is watching GMT +3:00, Baghdad.

I miss people in GMT +10:00, Brisbane.

I’m on my way to GMT -8:00, Pacific Time (US & Canada), Tijuana.

My laptop is indispensable. It’s my alarm clock, diary, photo album, record collection, and DVD player.

After the Milford Trek, I spent a day kayaking through Doubtful Sound. That’s the one Cap’n Jimmy Cook named. He was wrong about it being a sound. It’s actually a fiord. The way you tell the difference is that a fiord has steeper mountains on the side and the water is much deeper. That’s cause it was carved out by a glacier. A sound is just a body of water that juts inland from an ocean or sea.

I don’t hold it against Jimmy for not knowing the difference. It’s a pretty subtle distinction.

So the glacier slides along, scraping off huge pieces of rock as it melts and depositing them at land’s end. Once it’s done, you’ve got trenches that go down over a thousand feet within the fiord, and a ridge along the entrance that’s less than 100 feet deep. The ridge keeps whales out.

The surface of Doubtful Sound is freshwater. But a few feet down it’s saltwater filled with ocean life. You get stuff that usually exists much deeper in the ocean. Something about the conditions tricks them into thinking they’re at a greater depth.

I’m told fiords only exist in three places on Earth; New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Alaska.

As far as I can tell, the spellings “fiord” and “fjord” are interchangeable.

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I’m about as good at kayaking as I am at driving — which is not very good. Things like rhythm, form, consistency, and control are not qualities that come easily to me. My co-kayaker, Gauke, found this frustrating.

Gauke is a nice guy, even though his name has more vowels than consonants. I generally don’t trust people like that. He is from Holland. Incidentally, EVERY tourist in New Zealandis from Holland.

To pronounce Gauke’s name, clear your throat, then add a “ke” sound at the end. That’s all I was doing, and he said I was the only English speaker he’d met who could say it right.

Gauke is an urban planner. He plays a lot of SimCity.

We paddled about 13 kilometers over the course of the day. It didn’t feel like all that much. You go amazingly fast in a two-person kayak. I mean like motorboat fast. It’s uncanny.

Our guide was from the area, but he divided his time between kayaking in Fiordland, Austria, and India. What a life, huh?

He got dysentery in India. He said not to eat the meat. I’ll keep that in mind.

At lunch, the guide and I had a long conversation about the indigenous Maori culture. Land rights are a big deal for the Maori. After a long struggle, they managed to retain a lot of them, and of course their value is immense. But he claimed the land rights don’t actually belong to the Maori. They really belong to the Moriori, who came first but were killed off when the Maori arrived. The Moriori came from Asia
and had an agricultural background. The Maori came from Tahiti and were fierce warriors. The last remaining Moriori live in the Chatham Islands, right next to the international dateline. The Maori chased them there after getting them off the mainland, but stopped just short of wiping them out entirely. Anyway, he says the handful of Moriori left are the ones who should really own the land in New Zealand.

Later on I looked into what he was saying. Apparently the Moriori theory is over a hundred years old and was debunked a long time ago. They are on the Chatham islands and were attacked by the Maori, but there’s nothing to prove that they were ever on the mainland before the Maori got there. The book said that some people in New Zealand are still crowing about it. So much for that lecture.

The story of our collective migration from Africa is really fascinating and I keep wanting to learn more about it, but there seems to be so little we can be certain about that it’s impossible to get it straight. And the stuff we know anything at all about is just the surface story. There are whole cultures we’ll never find out about. Histories spanning thousands of years that got erased. And all these dots that can’t be connected.

I mean, there are people on these islands. They’re alive today and speaking prehistoric languages. But we can’t ask them how they got there. They don’t know. Was it Japan, Indonesia, Hawaii? How could the Maori have come from Tahiti? How does that work? I have no idea.

And then you’ve got that Thor Heyerdhal fella saying some of the islanders came from South America. It’s those damn Incas. They wandered all the way around the world, from Africa up through Asia, across the Bering Strait, down North America, through Central America, into South America, and then after all that they said, “Nah. It’s too hilly. Let’s make some canoes and see if we can find ourselves a nice island.”

It’s never good enough for the Incas.

They got what was coming to them on Easter Island.

Meanwhile, we were in Europe making bigger boats and learning about gunpowder. All things considered, probably time better spent.

The guide showed us a plant species that was 450 million years old. That’s twice as old as the dinosaurs. It was a simple moss. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it to look at it. But clearly it was doing something right. They only knew of about 200 samples of it in Fiordland, and that’s the only place it exists.

I didn’t think to take a picture of it. It really wasn’t all that exciting to look at.

I got the biggest laugh of my trip so far when we stopped to get water from a tiny waterfall. The guide would stick his bottle out and hold it while it filled. After he finished, Gauke and I moved in to do the same. I was in back, steering, and as Gauke neared the waterfall and reached his hand out, I neglected to stop us. He drifted directly under it. He was screaming as the whole waterfall poured down on him, and for a few seconds all I could do was laugh. It still cracks me up thinking about it. The poor guy.

Here’s a view looking into Doubtful Sound from the end of one of its branches. This is pretty much the area we covered.

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After the kayaking, I high-tailed it to Invercargill. I wrote an update from there about the days leading up to the trek.

I really liked Invercargill and the surrounding area. It was in the deep south of New Zealand
, a bit off the merry-go-round. People actually lived there. Scottish people. They came in 12 boatloads starting in the early 19th century. They went there to fish and hunt. That’s what they’re s till doing. First they went af ter the seals, but they killed them off pretty quick. So they moved on to whales, but that petered out once they got too good at it. For a while in the 1840s though, it was all the rage.

I went to the nearby town of Riverton. It was one of the first European settlements in New Zealand. It’s where they released the possums.

For those who don’t know, New Zealandhas a bit of a possum problem. They brought a couple dozen over from Australia and let them loose so the colonists would have something to hunt. With no natural predators, that couple dozen has ballooned to about 70 million. It’s an ecological disaster. They’ve wiped out tons of birds and plant life that existed nowhere else on Earth. The roads are now strewn with possum corpses, but it’s hardly a dent in the outrageously overblown population.

Chalk up another one for stupid white people.

I checked out the town museum in Riverton. It was a lot of old junk — corkscrews, typewriters, and stuff like that. They had chunks of the Parthenon, which struck me as odd. They also had rocks from the temples of Zeus and Apollo, the Oracle at Delphi, the pyramids at Luxor, and a number of other great ancient structures.

…in Riverton, New Zealand.

I moved on to Bluff. Another old whaling town with a nice little museum. They had a sperm whale jaw hanging from the ceiling and a skull from an unidentified whale species.

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I read some old newspaper clippings from the 19th century. They didn’t actually catch that many whales in the early days. Five or six was a good year. Humpbacks were the most common and the least prized. Sperm whales had some stuff in their blowholes that was really good for making hair curlers or something — I can’t remember — so they were super valuable. They were also the most combative. They do, after all, eat giant squid for breakfast…literally.

There’s no humane way to kill a whale. You can’t gas them. You have to stick harpoons in them until they either bleed to death or weaken to the point where they can’t stay on the surface. If it’s the latter, you let them sink, then drag them along the ocean floor until they suffocate. Both methods are exceedingly long and unpleasant.

I grew up thinking whales were super-intelligent. You know, there’s the whole “dolphins are smart” thing, and then you look at whales and they’re a thousand times bigger. They’ve got these huge noggins and solemn, contemplative eyes. So you assume there’s a lot going on in there. But I’m beginning to think they’re actually kind of stupid. I don’t know, maybe they’re too busy proving Fermat’s last theorem or solving for i, but they don’t seem to be making any progress on this whole beaching thing. And they never worked out how to avoid getting harpooned. I think it’s possible they only look smart, but really they’re just floating cows.

The town of Bluff was having a big fishing festival when I passed through. It was the third festival I’d seen on my trip. Kiwis are festival-mad.

I didn’t have time to head across to Stewart Island. I decided to do my laundry instead. So the southernmost point I’ve ever been to is on the far tip of Bluff. They had this handy sign.

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I was going dolphin swimming the day after next, which I had to book two weeks in advance. It was a long way to Kaikora and it was getting late, so I headed out. I only made it to Dunedin before getting tired, so I spent the night there.

Dunedin is a cool little college town. I liked the vibe there.

They had a grand old theatre (I’ll cave to the English and spell it thus), and guess what it was playing; not Shakespeare, not Chekhov, not even Batman the Musical. No, what the citizens of Dunedin demanded was:

A Tribute to Queen Extravaganza. They had a guy who looked just liked Freddie Mercury put on elaborate costumes and dance badly, recreating the authentic feel of a live Queen show.

Okay, seriously. What is the deal with Queen and New Zealand? I want to understand this.

The next day was the big driving day. I pretty much had to make my way up the whole south island. Didn’t have time for much, but there was one thing I had to see before I left:

Baldwin Street, Dunedin, New Zealand. The world’s steepest street.

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It was a 27 degree incline. Pretty steep. It didn’t seem like the steepest in the world. I’m sure there’s a street somewhere that’s steeper. There are a whole lot of streets out there, and a lot of them are very steep. But evidently no one else has bothered to get it confirmed by Guinness yet.

One time I visited my friend, Aaron Donovan, in Washington D.C. We couldn’t think of anything to do until Aaron mentioned that the D.C. subway had the longest escalator in the world at the exit to Wheaton station. It was way down toward the end of the line in Maryland. We made a night of it. We rode up and down that escalator eight times. We counted steps. We passed each other going in opposite directions. We contemplated trying to run down the up escalator, or getting really ambitious and running up the down escalator. But the threat of getting strange looks from people was too great.

Now that was a long escalator. Clearly deserving of its title. I can’t imagine anyone building a longer one for any reason. There comes a point where you’ve just gotta make an elevator.

After leaving Dunedin, I only made one other stop at a town called Timaru. I wanted to see if I could find a thing I’d read about.

In 1936, Timaru native Jack Lovelock…

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…broke the world record for the 1500 meter dash at the Berlin Olympic Games. It was the same Olympics where Jesse Owens humiliated the nazis by kicking whitey’s ass. Eager to make a big deal over any pseudo-Aryan achievement, they symbolically gave Lovelock the seed to this oak tree:

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The seed was presented by this guy:

Hitler

The tree was planted in the boy’s school that Lovelock attended in Timaru. I imagine they weren’t showing it off much once the war started, but PR not being as big of an issue back then, they never chopped it down. I guess they decided it wasn’t the tree’s fault that Hitler was a jerk. Either way, it’s still there to this day. The Hitler tree.

And dammit, I was there.

I made it to Kaikoura, which is one of the main tourist spots on the south island because of its plus-size marine life. They’ve got whale watching, albatross watching, dolphin swimming, shark cage diving, seal viewing, you name it.

I had a spot on one of the whale watch trips, but when I was standing in line to check in, I got spooked. There were old people with butt packs a ll over the place and a distinctly herd-like atmosphere permeating the room. I’d had enough of that kind of stuff, so I took off. I’m glad I did, too. Everyone I talked to said it was no big deal, and I’m quite certain it couldn’t hold a candle to the one I went on with Soph in Hervey Bay, Australia.

So then I went on the dolphin dive.

My coworker, Alex, went on it when he was in New Zealand, and he warned me that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. His experience was jumping in the water, having the dolphins swim around for a few seconds, then watching them get bored and take off.

Well, I had only a slightly better experience. The first encounter was identical to the above. Five seconds, then back on the boat to chase after them. When we got in again it was much better. They stuck around for a while and it was really neat. They’d circle around you to see how fast you could spin to follow them. If you could keep up, they seemed to get a kick out of it. But eventually they’d get bored again and take off.

Ultimately, it felt kind of lame. You’re in freezing cold water, so you’re bundled from head to toe in a thick, constricting wet suit. They tell you to make noises to attract the dolphins, so you’re surrounded by a dozen other people all hooting and cawing like idiots. It’s definitely for the butt-pack set.

Riding on the boat with them was a little more fun. They get more playful with the boat. I sat down on the bow and had a few of them swimming under my feet.

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They were doing lots of somersaults, which is amazing to see, but really difficult to photograph. I didn’t get any pictures of dolphins breaching, but I was lucky enough to snap this rare photograph of Celine Dion breaching.

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I went to the town museum to see some more whaling artifacts. They didn’t have much, but I was amused to find this pile of whale bones lying in the sun like garbage on pick-up day.

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A lot of people had them on their lawns and stuff. Some were from the whaling days, others just washed up on shore. Folks would haul them down to the museum, but the museum didn’t really have any place to put them, so they’re just in a pile out back.

I got directions to one of the old whaling stations. It was long since dismantled. It wasn’t on any maps, there weren’t any signs, and there was no road to it. I walked through someone’s farm to get to it.

The place had the stink of death to it. And I’m not just being a new age hippy tree-hugger when I say that. I mean there were actual dead things everywhere. I don’t know what happened to this sheep, but it didn’t leave much of a corpse.

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I found this jaw bone. I was excited when I thought it came from a dolphin, but I eventually realized it was from another sheep.

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There were dead birds all over the place, which is weird, cause you usually don’t see that.

I don’t know. It just felt like a place where things died. It was not cheerful.

The next day I was supposed to go diving with seals, but they cancelled it due to poor visibility. And as I found out, it wasn’t diving with seals anyway. It was just a boring old regular dive.

Instead of diving, they offered to take me out kayaking with the dolphins. I’d already swum with them, so I wasn’t all that excited, but I had nothing else to do.

This turned out to be the best thing I did the whole time I was in New Zealand. It was absolutely amazing. I still can’t get over it. Five of us went out there, and we wound up in the middle of a dolphin pod of around three hundred. They were all around us, leaping and flipping and splashing, swimming around the kayak, swimming under it, alongside it. It was crazy.

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I guess they’re a lot more at ease with people when they’re above water. Since it’s a kayak and not a boat, you’re within arm’s reach of them at all times. And since kayaks can go very fast, you can actually keep up with them as they move. They love it when you do that. They crowd around the boat and try to race you, they get in your wake and jump around in it, it’s the funnest thing in the world for everyone involved.

I was too busy paddling to take many pictures. The camera I’m borrowing (thanks Eric) does take movies, though, and I got a couple short ones that are pretty good. They’re too big to fit on a floppy disk, but I’ll upload them once I’m at Andy’s in a few days. When I do, I’ll post them right here:

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Dolphin Video (2.5MB)

I recommend kayaking with dolphins to everyone. It’s a rare and incredible experience. I don’t think it’s available in many places in the world, and it’s very uncommon that there are that many dolphins so close to shore. They only offer it in Kaikoura for two months out of the year, as it’s impossible any other time.

And that was New Zealand. It ended on a high note, but overall the trip was not a life-changing experience. It’s Disneyland. I’ve already been to Disneyland. I wanted something different.

In Micronesia, I found exactly what I was looking for.

I went back to Christchurch that night for my flight out. The war started the next day. And the rest, quite literally, is history.