January 31, 2012
Super Bowl Sunday is coming up, and I’ve been asking local pubs here on the South Island of New Zealand if one might be able to catch the world’s biggest game on television.
But the national sport of New Zealand is rugby, and the Super Bowl is not an event that many locals make bowls of guacamole and invite friends over for. It sounds like football fans in Kiwi land could be hard-pressed to find venues showing the match. In the seaside town of Kaikoura, one bartender told me he didn’t plan on airing the game and said I’d probably be the only person in town looking to watch the Super Bowl. The bar manager at Strawberry Tree, a worn and salty old watering hole on Kaikoura’s main and only drag, said that American football is too slow-paced to watch on TV.
“Rugby is 80 minutes nonstop,” said Stephen Horton, who also plays lock and open-side on Kaikoura’s regional team. “And in football, you have two lines of players that switch at every play, right?”
Right—defense and offense. So, what are you saying, I asked Stephen—that football players are padded, coddled softies? Do you think they’re less durable than rugby players?
“Oh, yeah!” he laughed. “Those guys wouldn’t last 80 minutes in a rugby match!”
Andrew and I raised our beers to that, noting to Stephen that the big-bellied beasts called linemen who may, by some stroke of chance, find the ball in their hands and run it in for an 80-yard touchdown can require oxygen masks in order to recover. This got Stephen and another Kiwi at the bar laughing—and certainly didn’t win toughness points for American footballers.
And so our conversation quickly took the form of one of the endless topics in sports talk: Are rugby players as tough as football players? Consider this quote I found recently on an online discussion: “NFL players are bigger, stonger (sic), faster. Almost all of them have college educations. The average NFL player could pick up the average Super 14 player, turn him upside down, and shake him like a piggy bank.”
But Stephen, like many New Zealanders, feels otherwise. “I definitely think rugby is harder,” he said, “but football looks more fun. You wear all that padding and can hit each other as hard as you want. You get hurt in rugby. I’ve had three broken collar bones and been knocked out three times.”
Rugby players are trained gentlemen, too. In New Zealand, they start playing at as young as four years of age, and even in adult leagues, swearing is forbidden during practice and “joking around,” Stephen explained, is curtailed by the coaches. Nor do players perform sometimes classless celebrations after scores or victories, as we see in the NFL.
Later in the week, in Blenheim, I stopped at the Moa Brewing Company for a beer—and to egg on more conversation. Here I met Michael Miller, an American living in New Zealand and working with the brewery. In eight months here Michael has picked up on the subtleties of rugby that American football lacks. “I don’t mean to be derogatory toward anyone, but rugby is more intellectual,” he said, explaining that, since they lack protective gear, the players must combat each other with exceptional technique. He likens the sport to “guerrilla warfare,” whereas the face-off-and-charge approach of the NFL is more “like Civil War” battle style. “Rugby can also be quite brutal,” Michael said, “but it’s also more beautiful and elegant.” He noted that rugby players must be skilled in tackling, running and handling the ball—all aspects of the game—whereas football players are specialized to certain techniques, making them less rounded as tactical athletes.
Having seen both games up close, Michael also feels that American football, much more than rugby, “has been evolved for commercialization and television.” Which explains the three-hour games, endless breaks and timeouts and the huge advertising campaigns that climax on Super Bowl day.
And I asked that pivotal question: Of rugby players and NFL footballer, who’s tougher?
“It would have to be the rugby guys,” he said. “You have to run nonstop. You can’t be a huge tuna-fish linebacker and play rugby.”
Back in Kaikoura, I asked Stephen if he’d be watching the Super Bowl, but no: He’d rather be on the local pitch playing some rugby or diving for paua or lobster off the beach. And me? If my hometown 49ers had won their way into the battle, I’d be hunting for a television in Christchurch—but I think I’ll go fly fishing.
January 24, 2012
From the window of a moving car, the landscape passes by all too quickly—without smell, sound or sweat, without headwind, tailwind or even a breeze and with little sense of satisfaction upon reaching a high mountain pass or the day’s destination.
It’s a far cry from bicycle travel, and I’m a bit jealous of the dozens of cyclists we pass every day. New Zealand’s roadways are thick with cyclists, and the nation appears to be a bicycling paradise. The towering Remarkables as they rise over the Clutha River, the sprawling valleys and vineyards, the greenery of the West Coast rainforest, the cliffs along the sea—all must be especially spectacular when seen from the saddle of a bicycle.
But one cyclist I met camping at a small wilderness lake north of Queenstown has been cycling in New Zealand for more than three months. She is now three-fourths of her way into a two-year tour of the world, and Pauline Symaniak, of Scotland, says New Zealand is a notch below thrilling, lacking a blend of adventure and excitement that was never absent from the Americas and Europe.
“To be quite honest, New Zealand has been the least satisfying of all the places I’ve been,” she told me.
Pauline began her journey in 2010 in Edinburgh. After quitting a relatively lifeless job working for the government, she pedaled through France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. She hopped aboard a cargo ship that delivered her to Argentina, where a continent in the height of summer lay at her wheels. She crossed Patagonia and the Andes, and went north into Bolivia, to Lake Titicaca. Then she boxed up her bike—always a logistical pain for cyclists—and flew to Miami, took the Greyhound to Boston, and from here pedaled with an old college friend across America to Seattle. Time was unlimited, with money in the bank, and so she flew to Auckland.
And then her fast adventure slowed to a puzzlingly sluggish pace, and it took Pauline a few weeks of exploring to realize what was going on.
“Even in America, there is history and magic, in layers,” she said. “There’s culture.”
But New Zealand, it seemed to her, lacks something. This country has tremendous wilderness, vast and unexplored, with thrilling mountain ranges scraping the sky like looming murals and beautiful coastlines of cliff and sea—but it is also orderly, tidy and tame, clean, trim and polished. None of which is bad, exactly, but for a woman who has left her job and home to circle the world on a bike, New Zealand may be too cozy for comfort.
In Pauline’s words, “New Zealand is great if you want to be comfortable.”
Even from a moving car, I can see it: There seems to be no dirt or imperfection across the land. Almost every turn in the road is marked with a neat sign and labeled on the map. Fences demarcate the country like a checkerboard and line every roadside. There is meanwhile an overbearing tourism industry that keeps a wet blanket over the spirit of true adventure. We’ve seen this in towns like Te Anau, Wanaka, Franz Josef and Queenstown, which all somewhat resemble Aspen, Tahoe or many other squeaky clean tourist magnets. In places like these, nearly every conceivable travel experience has been snatched up, polished, packaged and marketed to tourists. In almost every coffee shop and campground office we see posters and pamphlets for guided wine-tasting tours, hiking and river rafting “safaris” and so much else for tourists unable to see that New Zealand is beautiful even without tour buses and guides. Other experiences have been invented from scratch and pumped full of adrenaline, like flying lessons, skydiving excursions, water skiing and heli-biking (for mountain bikers unwilling to fight gravity).
Pauline, like many cyclists, gets her thrills from simply watching landscapes come and go. Speaking of which, she soon leaves New Zealand and flies to Australia. After a brief tour of the Aussie East Coast, she will go to Istanbul, Turkey—where, as almost anyone who has been can attest, the thrills and beauty of discovery will resume. She rides west from there. As she goes, Pauline is blogging; follow her journey as she continues around the world.
Meanwhile, we have arrived in Kaikoura, a town flanked by sea to the east, flat green farmland to the west and staggering mountains to the north, and the beauty here has restored my faith in the possibilities of New Zealand. In fact, while my family is scheduled to go home, I have called the airline to extend my stay, and I’ll be reporting soon from the saddle of the sweetest vehicle and adventure-powerhouse I know: my bicycle.
January 19, 2012
We stomped through a boggy marsh on the shores of a small pond near Greymouth, in New Zealand’s West Coast region. This flat plain resembled a patchy blend of tundra, taiga and tropical savannah, backdropped by huge mountain slopes of steaming jungles and glaciers. I was barefooted, plunging through the mud puddles and manure, and Andrew stepped first over a rope fence strung across the road between two posts. I followed, and zzuuhhh-WHUMP! A severe jolt blasted through my body. I froze, felt myself lift in slow motion as the world around me went silent. The gray-green landscape turned an alien orange in a seemingly psychedelic out-of-body experience. Then I screamed and cartwheeled onto my back, landing in a mud puddle. Andrew rushed over as we both realized what had happened. I had learned the lesson that every sheep, cow and goat here learns young: Electric fences hurt. Almost incredibly, these live-wire barriers—which crisscross New Zealand—are almost never marked, and, like any good sheep here, I jump back now at the sight of any wire fence.
Meanwhile, we have finally had some consistent luck with the big brown trout. From the mud banks of the winding streams we can see them hunkering on the bottom, and so long as we keep our shadows onshore, they aren’t shy about dashing to the surface and attacking flies dropped upon them. Andrew and I spent an hour the other day with our poles doubled over, fish after fish sprinting upstream and down, thrashing at the surface and finally rolling over.
We are torn between keeping some to eat and letting them go. Catching and releasing is an honored way of life for many trout fishermen, who revere their favorite fish as something sacred. Without doubt, fishing is an effective means of bringing people to the water’s edge, their eyes open and hearts thumping, to admire the ecosystem and consider the value in preserving it. But at its worst, catch-and-release fly fishing becomes a wicked game of torment. The angler calls it a “sport” to fool a fish into inhaling a sinister steel hook. He or she whoops and hollers as the frightened fish panics, and, after a fight, lands it on the bank, takes measurements for bragging purposes, imagines there is negligible risk that the fish will die of injuries, lets it go and comes back as soon as possible to do it again. I have known noble old fishermen who smoke tobacco pipes while casting, and I would be surprised if there weren’t others who read lines from Walden on the bank between trout. I love fish, fishing and fishermen—often the most active of conservationists—but our hobby often smells of rank and prestige.
The antithesis to all this may be to visit the water, pull out a fish and go home for dinner. In other words, keeping it real. I often prefer that route—and we’ve found that brown trout fillets simmered in olive oil, or whole rainbows broiled in the oven, do just dandy with a New Zealand Pinot Noir carefully chosen from the bottom shelf at the supermarket.
Our latest day of fishing was the grandest; in a series of shallow ponds miles from the highway, we saw absurdly big trout cruising the shores, and a dry fly set quietly upon their noses seemed just the item they were hungry for. We met just one other fisherman on the bank.
“In California, we’ve grown up catching 10-inch fish,” I said to the man. “Where are the little trout here?”
“These are the little ones,” he answered with a slanted smile.
We’ve come over Arthur’s Pass. The rest of the party drove while I rode my bicycle to keep my legs in working order. We’d eaten trout and quinoa for breakfast, but I was running on empty after 30 miles. I stopped at Jackson’s Tavern, locally know for its game pies, to inquire about buying fruit. “I only have two dollars,” I said sheepishly. The lady of the place slugged me lightly in the shoulder for offering money and pushed four oranges at me.
I pulled myself up the 18-percent grades near the top—and here, at 3,025 feet (don’t smirk; that’s about the highest pass they’ve got here) I encountered one of the nation’s most celebrated wild creatures: the kea. This endangered parrot is so clever and mischievous that locals can’t decide whether to love the birds or hate them. Keas will tear windshield wipers from cars, shred unguarded clothing and backpacks and raid cabins. I have also heard reports that keas will lock or unlock doors, depending on which action most inconveniences the nearest person. I even heard tell of a woman who got locked from the outside into an outhouse by the parrots. The birds are even said to be deft at unscrewing bolts, and I’m sure they have no trouble with Allen heads.
We’re going trout fishing for perhaps the last time today, as we’re headed this afternoon for the East Coast—and we’re taking our credit cards and passports with us, in case some team of keas should break into our room with plans to make off with our identities.
January 17, 2012
“I am haunted by waters.”
Many fly fishermen spend their spare moments wishing they had been the first to say that, but Norman Maclean beat them to it, hammering home his trout fishing classic A River Runs Through It with that final thundering line. But it doesn’t matter who said it first, because we fishermen are haunted by waters: Precisely, I am haunted by the vision of a glassy emerald pool just below a fast run of rapids, back-dropped by pines and birch. Here, a feathery mayfly pattern falls and settles on the surface—a perfect cast—floats for two or three tense seconds, and finally vanishes in a forceful explosion of water, fins and the spotted green back of a rainbow trout.
That is the magic moment that has kept fishermen shuffling through waist-deep waters, rain or shine, dawn to dusk, for centuries. I can imagine the helpless longing that some early settler in New Zealand must have felt when he looked over a prime stretch of riffles bottoming out in a wide slow pool and grieved for the trout that could not be caught here—the trout he had left at home in the slow waters of England. When enough ex-anglers felt this same heartache, a decision, I suppose, was made: They called home, put in an order for some buckets of brown trout eggs on the next boat and so sealed history. The eggs were hatched in Tasmania, the fry sent to New Zealand and released in the Styx River. By the 1880s, New Zealand had become a trout fisherman’s paradise.
Somewhere in this glistening history, the first ring of a rising brown trout expanded across the glassy morning waters of Lake Wanaka, under the looming local peaks and, away in the northwest, the austere presence of Mount Aspiring. About a century after the trout, another nonnative species arrived in these quiet waters: the ski boat, so help us. Today, at almost any moment, dozens of these obscenities careen in perilous arcs through the bays and inlets of Wanaka’s lanky, long-armed figure. They send waves and screaming voices into the Zen-zone of the odd fisherman wading the shoreline, and the awful din of motors never ends. It drowns out the birds, the breeze, the sheep and the splashing of feeding trout, and these watercraft, in sum, have committed a serious offense in this would-be-sacred mountain hideaway: They have stolen the silence from Lake Wanaka.
But lakes and mountains have a patience that will transcend the human race, not to mention some festering little resort town and some clusters of RVs. So for now, Wanaka endures the boats wordlessly while Aspiring looks down in his expressionless way, a perfect geologic yogi. He does not frown upon us, for he knows that silence will return to his kingdom. We people may be a temporary mosquito bite on the Earth’s hide, while Mount Aspiring will keep on aspiring for ages. It’s true: Geologists say New Zealand’s Southern Alps—the most jagged range of summits I’ve ever seen—are still growing, and exceptionally quickly.
Over the past week, we went from Lake Wanaka south, past the Mavora Lakes and as far as Te Anau. We fished Lake Manapouri, Lake Te Anau, Gunn Lake, the Eglinton River and the Waiau River, the main drainage of Lake Te Anau. The Waiau is credited as hosting more trout per mile—about 400, according to a local man we met on the bank—than any river in the Southland. We were entirely alone there, standing waist-deep and throwing flies over the backs of dozens of monsters. Occasionally, one would lift off the bottom, grab an insect off the surface and drop back to its chosen holding spot. Our task was to determine what these fish were in the mood for, and we changed flies every five minutes. They ignored everything—our fluffy floating dry flies, our leach-like streamers and our sinking nymphs.
This stye of fishing is called “sight-casting”—the pursuit of fish plainly visible in the slow, still water. Andrew calls sight-casting “like walking through a petting zoo.” Big fish hold like sunken logs all across the stream, their noses aimed upstream, and we work on them one at a time. They rarely bat an eyelid at our offerings. Meanwhile, yin to the yang of sight-casting is “blind-casting,” in which the fisherman throws a fly into fast-moving or murky waters. As the fly line sweeps down-current, the tension is high, prone to being broken at any second by the explosion of a striking fish.
From New Zealand’s mountain country run fast-moving, blind-casting streams, but we’ve mostly been working the sluggish, clear streams of the lowlands, where we’ve spent day after day sight-casting at uninterested fish as large as pike. But we catch them sometimes. The other morning, Andrew caught and released a 24-inch brown that he had been working on since sunup. We had gotten to know it well over the hours, had named it Captain Cook, and didn’t have the heart to bonk our friend over the head. Cook still swims. But later that day, we were hungrier, and Andrew caught another big brown by the name of Captain Bligh. Bligh got braised that night with herbs de Provence and white wine. The next day, another monster the size of a poodle in the Waiau River would not bite. Andrew worked on him for a while with a streamer before waving me in to try with a dry fly. No luck—sight-casting at its most frustrating. “Oh, hell—let’s shoot him,” Andrew joked, both of us just 10 feet from that tedious old brown. That was Captain Tasman. Just to make sure he was alive we threw a cobblestone at him; he dashed downstream.
We’re back at Lake Wanaka now, on our way north. Andrew just came stomping in with wet feet—sullen, silent and soaked to the skin after spending eight hours in the rain standing in a river waving a stick. It’s been coming down all day, the first precipitation in two months here. Our socks, shoes, pants and rain gear are all soaked, our room smells like a swamp and we aren’t getting any drier. We’re headed next for the West Coast rainforest, and the forecast says rain for days. If this is what it means to be haunted by waters, then Norman Maclean can have his line back. We want sun.
January 12, 2012
It’s rare that a place is entirely worth visiting simply because it’s cheap. Consider the Republic of Georgia, where one could live on five bucks a day but where the mud streets, drab Soviet food and often bland villages may fall short of inspiring the traveler (though the tremendous hospitality and mountainous scenery can easily win hearts). Likewise, it may not be a winning scheme to entirely dodge a nation because prices there are through the roof. Consider New Zealand, where the superb landscape is like the backdrop of a fantasy filmmaker‘s dreams but where a quick stop at a grocery store can easily pull 50 bucks from your pocket. Yes: New Zealand is worth visiting. But I’ll be frank: I’m not sure how long I can keep traveling here and continue claiming to be “on the cheap.”
All of which has got me thinking: What are the world’s most expensive places? And which are the cheapest? Where should the frugal traveler go? And at what point is beauty simply not worth its price? And so I’ve spent a few hours between trout streams researching the matter, considering first-hand accounts, travel blogs, my own experience and a few critical criteria, like the retail cost of a cup of coffee, the cost of a pint of beer and the price of a hostel as indicators. And here they are, in no particular order, a few of the world’s most expensive travel destinations—plus a smattering of low-priced alternatives (all dollar prices are in $USD):
Japan. According to an August 2011 article in BootsnAll, “$60-$75 /day is about the bare minimum you’ll need to travel around Japan.” And that doesn’t include eating, sightseeing and living with some degree of comfort, which can all jack the cost up to an easy $100 per day. And this site tells us that traveling Japan can cost more than $200 per day.
Switzerland. Trim, tidy and exorbitant, Switzerland is home to rustic mountain hamlets as well as some of Europe’s slickest cities. Among them, Geneva and Zurich are said to be the most expensive in the world. BootsnAll reports that one “can spend $100-$125/day with relative ease in Switzerland.”
Iceland. Like many remote island nations largely incapable of growing much of their own food but intent on keeping pace with the modern world, Iceland is a real pocket picker. Travelers here can say goodbye to $100 to 120 per day if they choose to sleep indoors and eat well. What I think? Fishing for salmon and camping out among the ice, tundra and lava might help cut costs.
Norway. Another modern place in a sub-Arctic world, Norway is a land where people pay for their comforts, as do their visitors. One hundred dollars, according to BootsnAll, is said to be an average daily price of life. Just one latte, for instance, may cost $6.80.
Greenland. Far north, isolated and thirsty for the simple comforts we know, Greenlanders must pay more than seven pounds for a beer. That’s almost 11 bucks. Don’t forget to tip.
Moscow. This report may be dated, but in 2008, a cup of coffee here reportedly ran, on average, $10.19. At the same time, Parisian coffees were going $6.77 and Athenian coffees $6.62. (In Buenos Aires, coffee was going $2.03 per cup.)
New Zealand. I report this from my own experience. While this nation is not the most expensive on the list (my brother Andrew got by here last year on $60 per day), it is far from cheap. Today, for instance, our eyes bugged out at a roadside fruit stand where we found fresh apricots going for the equivalent of $14 per pound. And yesterday, I spent $15 on nine apples and a scraping of dried figs from the bulk section in a supermarket in Te Anau. What other groceries here will almost kill you? Garlic, which can run the equivalent of $10 or $12 per pound. And that oldest, most vulgar staple of the peasant, the onion, can run about $2 apiece. Yet avocados go as cheap as two for a buck, thanks to an industry on the North Island.
How to save money on the road? BootsnAll suggests using hostel kitchens to cook your own meals, taking advantage of free breakfasts and camping—but read between the lines! Some of these well-meant suggestions will work against you. The “free breakfast” offering? That requires a hotel room, the surest means of parting with your money. And hostels aren’t always particularly cheap, often running $30 or more. Camping? More my style, except that BootsnAll suggests sleeping in proper campgrounds, which as often as not resemble RV parks in places like Europe and New Zealand and which, in places like Croatia, can cost even a lone cyclist $25 for a patch of dust on which to lay a sleeping bag.
My own advice for nomads on the cheap: Ride a bicycle. Forage roadside fruit, which can be delicious and healthy while cushioning your wallet until suppertime. Sleep for free—though this specific activity was made illegal last year by the New Zealand government. Finally, avoid cars if possible. These grumbling thieves demand gas, insurance, parking and repairs. They cannot be stashed out of sight behind the raspberry bushes, and the easiest place to keep them, one finds, is often in a hotel parking lot. Ka-ching.
Want to skip the extreme frugality measures and still live cheaply? Then go see Cambodia, Peru, Nicaragua, India, Portugal, Bulgaria, Romania or Bolivia.