We’re having some beers with a group of Kiwi guys and their Australian friend at the campground in Wanaka.
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you this,” says one of the guys. People are never sorry when they say that. “But, in IQ tests of all the people in the world, Americans consistently score near the bottom. That’s just a fact.”
Before that, he’d just finished explaining how New Zealand was going to hell because it was copying America.
“So we’re the dumbest people in the world, and you imitate us? So what does that make you?” I say.
“Ah. Right. Actually I quite like that. But you know, you Americans—” he starts again.
This is a pretty regular conversation, and one that I have fun with now- it’s all good humored shit-talking (taking the piss here). After a couple beers, a Kiwi guy tries to explain to me what’s wrong with America, and all the things that Americans do wrong. His opinions are usually based on TV and that one time he was in LAX for a few hours.
I try to explain that it’s a little more complicated than that, it’s a big diverse country, I’ve lived in America my whole life and I’m not close to understanding it, and all this national-character talk is bullshit anyway.
But if that argument doesn’t work, and I keep getting needled for being American, I’ll take the other tack and remind him that his country is small and on the bottom of the world, and nobody cares that the sheep are the nicest and fluffiest. That seems to really hit his main insecurity, and he’ll bring the argument back around to how Americans are dumb. And on we go.
“Hey come on now Matthew, leave these two alone. Only three percent of Americans have passports, these two at least have that, they must be alright,” one of the other guys interrupts (in the interest of accuracy, there are actually 131,841,062 US passports as of last year- which more than ten times three percent, but I’m not a math guy). “How have you liked New Zealand?”
“It’s been nice, up North was cool, but so far the South Island seems like it’s better for mountain biking.”
“Oh yee, gotta be careful up North, lotsa Marys,” says another guy.
“Lots of Marys to watch out for up there. Never been to the North Island myself, but I hear there’s lots of Mary gangs. Gotta be careful.”
“Marys?” it takes me a second to realize what he’s saying (beers make a strong accent extra hard to understand), I’m thinking that maybe a Mary is an insult for a city person that lives in Auckland, then I finally get it, Maoris to watch out for. Christsake. “No man, there were lots of logging trucks to watch out for. Everybody was really nice.”
So even nice people in this nice little country do the casual racism thing, are afraid of people they’ve never met. I don’t know what that proves, other than that the world is a little sad, and that people should make an effort to get out and talk to their neighbors more.
Later after one of the campground people asks us to quiet down, because it’s past nine, we move into the guy’s camper. One of the other guys is trying to open a beer bottle with another bottle. The first bottle breaks, and he cuts his thumb in half, spraying blood all over the floor of the camper.
“Ron, you’ve really sliced yourself up there mate.”
“No!” he yells. His hand pours blood. No? Doesn’t look like no. “I had a blood blister on this hand. It’s jeest popped,” he says, waving his hand spraying more blood around. He slams the broken bottle into a tiny camper trash can.
“Right, well we’ve got no more beer, I think it’s time we went to the pub. Get something on that,” says one of the other guys.
He keeps grumbling about the blood blister, and puts a tiny bandaid on his thumb.
I go to the pub with them, a cricket game is on. I try to get an explanation— it’s not the first time I’ve tried.
“Cricket!” says the Australian guy, his eyes bugging out of his head. He’s the embodiment of the classic Australian stereotype— big loud aggressive drunk guy. “Cricket is an excuse to start drinking at 10 in the morning, and to ignore your family for five days! A test lasts five days, because it’s a test— of character!”
“But what’s the point of the game?” Also, I like hanging out with this dude, but I’m sure glad he’s not in my family.
“You bat until you run out of wickets,” somebody else starts.
“What’s a wicket?”
“Boobs!” yells somebody else, and points to the lower level of the bar, where a girl is leaning over to take a shot at the pool table. Conversation derailed. I guess I’ll just have to read about cricket on Wikipedia.
The bar closes at midnight, the guys head off to find somewhere that’s still open, and I sneak away back to the tent.
The next morning Colleen and I cruise around town, and find a spot to camp in the driftwood by the side of the lake, where we can get a real night’s sleep. Then back into the mountains, which feels extra good after almost two weeks of pavement down the coast.
Colleen’s main vice- fancy hippy food stores.
Long climb up from 1200 feet to 6000 to get across the Pisa Range, the highest we’ve been on this trip. We share a hut with an American couple, Chris and Jess from Jackson via Rhode Island, who do pretty much the same seasonal work, travel, outdoor sporty thing we do. Since we have so much in common, we don’t have to have any deep political discussions. Which is nice.
We finish climbing the range the next morning, and then make the mistake of believing a Department of Conservation sign that says “Highway Access”, and seems like it should point to a shortcut. We descend 1500 feet. Locked gate, trail continues along fence line. Damnit. Drag bikes through the spiky agave-looking things, or go back up. We try the spiky path for a while, then go back up.
We drop into Cromwell for a night, which I like because it has a big thing.
Otago is the best area of the country for camping and riding so far (since we don’t have much of the country left to see, I think it might just be the best place), dry, quiet, and not overflowing with vans and busses full of other tourists.
We start the Nevis Crossing the next morning, a real insanely steep 4000 foot climb, sweat dripping into my eyes. I have to take my helmet off, sun bakes the top of my head. Side note about the sun— I’ve been hearing for months about how New Zealand has the strongest sun in the world, because there’s a hole in the ozone layer over the country. Not entirely true— there is an ozone hole near the country, and NZ does have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, but that’s because it has the world’s high concentration of pasty white people in a place with strong sun.
Set up camp in the tussock grass. It feels like there should be coyotes yip-yapping, but only sheep bleat around here. This is the kind of place where giant ostrich-like moa (12 feet tall and 510 pounds) and Haast’s eagles would have lived.
New Zealand’s most inland village! Oh, the thrill.
Riding along the bike path to Lompoc, a bunch of cute little sheep run beside us.
Then they funnel out of the fence and stampede in front of us. Nuts. Somebody didn’t close a gate. We can’t get around the sheep, I check the GPS, we’ll herd them right onto the highway if we don’t stop riding behind them. We hop two locked gates (which is a real pain in the ass with a loaded bike), cross a field, get on the highway, sprint to get in front of the sheep, and sure enough the gates at the other end of the trail aren’t shut either. The sheep are just walking towards the road now, with nothing chasing them. We shut both gates so that they won’t cross.
In Lompoc, we try to decide what we’re going to do with the last month of this trip. We could go over towards Milford and Doubtful Sound, but then we’ll be back on the bus, tourist, sandfly trail. Pictures of those places look incredible, but really, I’m not sure how worthwhile it is to go over there where we’ll have to jostle through a herd of other people just to get a clean, selfie-stick free line of sight.
Please remove muddy footwear. There’s always a pair of empty gum boots outside the stores in the country.
Or we could go down to Invercargill for a few days, where no scenic helicopter flights are offered, see Burt Monroe’s motorcycle, and then head up to Gore- when we were in Wellington, Gore was described to us, with horror, as the “country and western capital of New Zealand,” I’ve been talking about going there ever since. Colleen’ll ride there just to shut me up.
Heavily leaning toward Gore.