Before we get to our amazing “South Island” adventure, there is somebody you need to know. His name is something I’m sure very friendly, but Erin and I only know him as the “Hipster Host of Morning New Zealand.” And yes, behind the beard and pulled back hair is a small man bun. Now, mind you, this is the host of New Zealand’s equivalent of the Today Show or Good Morning America. They do feature stories and trivial socialite stuff, but this bearded bro also asks hard-hitting questions about the state of affairs in the country and Trump’s latest ridiculousness. Last week, he rated the current Labor / Green / NZ First coalition government a 6/10 for its first year, which is fairly strong for a coalition system. And make no mistake – as two people who would probably register as Labour in New Zealand, Erin and I certainly are rooting for young late-30-something Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to thrive.
We close our New Zealand adventure in what we have quickly come to realize is the “Aspen, CO” of New Zealand – Queenstown. As we flew into the city, we could see through our airplane windows snow-capped mountains and a very green valley and calm lakes below. Given it is spring here, the many ski-rental shops in town aren’t busy, but as the country readies itself for summer, the mountain gear, climbing, and outdoor hiking and biking shops are hitting their early runs. The in-town clothing and souvenir shops, along with many restaurants, bars, and even a casino, line about 4 – 5 square city blocks of Queenstown’s city center. They are all very well designed and cozily placed along narrow streets reminiscent of Aspen and many an American ski town. We can see how this small town, however, transitions well to the summer season, attracting thousands of visitors for attractive mountain biking, hiking, bungy-jumping, paragliding, and lake sports activities.
On Sunday, October 28, we opted to walk into town along a beautiful lakeside trail rather than take the hotel shuttle. The payoff was spectacular views of the clean, clear lake, and plenty of families with dogs ready to say hello and visit with along the way. The trail left us off in Queenstown Gardens, a serene setting replete with frisbee golf, walkover creek bridges, and beautiful garden tulips, among other beautiful growth.
Once in town, we enjoyed a ski-lift Gondola ride all the way up the mountain overlooking the city and lakes the provided spectacular views of this Colorado-esque landscape. At the peak of the mountain, gondola riders are offered “Luge rides” on a well-designed track for the speedy 3-wheeled version of the popular Olympic sport (you see here me and Erin in our helmets on the life up to the Luge Track). It was a cross between skate boarding and go-carting down the mountainside as a benefit for making it to the top. The spectacular views of the town below only made us feel smaller, and yet more appreciative, of the small-town experience we were enjoying. We rewarded our mountain adventure endurance activities with some Japanese food for lunch, Erin and I both enjoying brothy ramen dishes and hydration from Hikari Japanese restaurant. From there, it was time to shop for gifts in the dozens of gift shops in town, varying from the low-end dives to the nicer fair style shops.
We took the full evening to rest at the Oaks Shores Hotel we chose as home here in Queenstown. The cozy “lodge-like” hotel was perfectly designed for both winter and summer season guests. One trend we have neglected until now to mention is just how many people who have served us in New Zealand this week … aren’t New Zealanders. From hotel front desk crews to waiters to my wife’s bartenders, almost all have exclusively been work-visa employees from any number of nations. The staff we’ve interacted with throughout the week in New Zealand have hailed from England (Grace, our Napier pal), the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, England, and China among others. Many see New Zealand as a friendly place for seasonal immigrants to labor and escape what – through many conversations, we learned – they perceive as sketchy to non-existent opportunities in their home countries.
On Monday, our last day in Queenstown and New Zealand, Erin shopped in town while I took to The Kiwi Birdlife Park, a private conservation area a prominent family launched in 1986 on the grounds of an old rubber and tire junkyard. The Kiwi Birdlife Park’s mission is to introduce some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable and endangered species of birds and plants, along with some Maori traditions, to area visitors. Though a bit “small time” by most museum or nature reserve standards, I found the audio tour very informative and well-produced. And as you see, I met several of New Zealand’s finest endangered and/or protected species. Just pointing out a few, here you’ll see the Kea, a parrot that looks more like a bird of prey given its size. They are a “cheeky,” mischievous bird who likes to swoop in and take small or shiny objects out of the hands of unwitting admirers. Look at the way she eyes me sideways, as if to say “Your cell phone isn’t safe!” Also seen here are the New Zealand Falcon and the yellow-crowned parakeet, the latter of which seemed to enjoy my voice enough to exit his birdhouse toward me as I took this shot.
What you WON’T see here are any photos of Kiwis. What I did not realize this entire trip until today is that Kiwis are NOCTURNAL birds. No wonder we’ve seen so many sheep and yet NO Kiwis! But today, in a dedicated exhibit lighted only be red-light, I saw a naturalist do a noon feeding of a male and female Kiwi. They are larger than I thought – as big as large chickens – and they move quickly, often pacing back and forth to keep moving should there be any predators about. Of course, predators are not the largest danger faced by the native Kiwi or most of the species you see pictured here. Instead, it is of course environmental factors and the loss of forested areas to development that threaten them the most. To learn more, I hope you will visit www.kiwibird.co.nz .
Finally, the Dodgers lost the World Series tonight to the hated Red Sox, a fan-base for which many of us could sympathize 15 years ago, but who have squandered that sympathy with arrogance and a continued sense of victimization despite all evidence to the contrary. Don’t think for one minute I have left home completely without an eye on the Fall Classic. I want to thank the Dodgers for another great season, and hope that we keep the core of this deep-bench of talent together to contend again next year. Something’s gotta give, I’m sure of it.