001

Table of Contents
 
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Your Ticket to New Zealand
 
SECTION 1 - The Far End of the Earth
 
Chapter 1 - Travel without Reservations
Chapter 2 - Across the Ocean from the South Pole
 
SECTION 2 - The South Island
Chapter 3 - The Wrong Side of the Road
Chapter 4 - Penguins, Pints and Pioneers
Chapter 5 - A Hot Tub for Sea Lions
Chapter 6 - Stern Scotch Presbyterians
Chapter 7 - Ski Trails above the Clouds
Chapter 8 - Extreme Sports
Chapter 9 - Skid and Tow
Chapter 10 - Paddling under the Glaciers
Chapter 11 - Crampons and Crevasses
Chapter 12 - Across the Southern Alps
Chapter 13 - Heli-skiing? Heli-no!
Chapter 14 - Mountain Rescue
Chapter 15 - The Country of Second Sons
Chapter 16 - A Flying Shepherd
Chapter 17 - Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience
Chapter 18 - Bad Girls’ Guide to Wine
Chapter 19 - Meeting Captain Cook
Chapter 20 - Above Murderers’ Bay
Chapter 21 - The Emperor of New Zealand
Chapter 22 - The Cat across Cook Strait
Chapter 23 - Once-in-2,000-Years Earthquake
Chapter 24 - Sherry with a Painter
 
SECTION 3 - Australia
Chapter 25 - Swim in an Anti-Shark Cage
Chapter 26 - Parfume Downwind
Chapter 27 - An Esky Party
Chapter 28 - The Stolen Generation
Chapter 29 - Directions for a Hanging
Chapter 30 - I’ll be Buggered
Chapter 31 - The Best Brains of All Fish
 
SECTION 4 - The North Island
Chapter 32 - Prawn Sambal from KL
Chapter 33 - 81 Sheep an Hour
Chapter 34 - Biblical High Tech
Chapter 35 - The Maori and the Mongrel Mob
Chapter 36 - A Knife for a Captain Cooker
Chapter 37 - The Rules for Whale Encounters
Chapter 38 - Fight or Be Cooked
Chapter 39 - Between the Dolphins and the Gannets
Chapter 40 - Thrown Out for Misconduct
Chapter 41 - A Blue Electric Charge
Chapter 42 - A Farmer and a Scholar
Chapter 43 - Where the Queen of England Goes to Fish
Chapter 44 - The Polynesian Spa
Chapter 45 - How to Catch a Barracuda
Chapter 46 - Stud Lambs Get Crotchety
Chapter 47 - The City of Sails
Chapter 48 - A Stack of Sheepskins
Chapter 49 - A Tunnel through a Fishtank
 
SECTION 5 - Cook Islands Goodbye New Zealand
Chapter 50 - Writing in Rarotonga
Chapter 51 - Goodbye New Zealand
 
SECTION 6
Acknowledgments

001

The only sure voyage of discovery would not be to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the Universe through the eyes of another.
—Marcel Proust
 
 
 
 
 
To my favorite fellow travelers—Miriam, Nika, and Danny

Each number on this map identifies the location for the relevant chapter of the book.
002

Your Ticket to New Zealand
It is time to fly to New Zealand again. I planned this roadtrip from the bluffs at its southern tip to the cape at its northern end, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into the Tasman Sea. I’ll be on the road for two months, taking quick side trips to Australia and the Cook Islands. My friends are waiting, their houses open to me.
I discovered New Zealand in the mid-1990s, around the time of my divorce, and this affair has been going on ever since. I had been telling my children and friends about New Zealand for so long, it became almost inevitable I should write this book. Straying from the Flock has helped me weave together all the strands of knowledge about New Zealand—its history and geography, sport and travel, business and culture, and above all its people with their quirky ways of life on faraway islands in the midst of the great ocean.
The land area of New Zealand is roughly equal to that of Italy or England, but while those countries have over 50 million people each, there are only about three million souls in New Zealand. There are more sheep running free on green pastures than there are people. It was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. It is a sportsman’s paradise where you can ski down the side of a volcano in August, swim in the South Pacific surf in January, and hike, fish, and hunt throughout the year.
But this book is not only about a country. It is also about the life and times of an aging baby boomer, single again after a lifetime of marriage, professionally established, with grown children, free to travel, and intensely curious about the life around him.
Now, as I go through my to-do list before the trip, I turn to you and say, “Come! I have enough frequent flyer miles for another business class ticket. There is a car waiting, a country road, people to meet, sights to see. I was going to fly there alone. Let’s go together! Will you come with me?”
 
Dr. Alexander Elder
New York, 2004

SECTION 1
The Far End of the Earth
As the plane took off from Los Angeles and headed west over the Pacific, I leaned back in a comfortable seat and ordered the first glass of wine. My thoughts drifted back to the final days of my previous visit to New Zealand—it was March, an early autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Auckland’s harbor was dotted with islands where the ancient Maori built their fortified settlements on high volcanic hills. I had taken a high-speed catamaran to Waiheke Island, which used to be home to counterculture types who moved there to get away from it all and perhaps grow a little grass, but in recent years has emerged as one of the great wine centers in New Zealand. The island has 29 vineyards, and I was surprised to learn that the minimum size for a commercial vineyard is only five acres, although many are much larger.
I hopped off the ferry on a dazzling day—a hot sun in a cloudless sky, clean green water under the pier, blue water with whitecaps in the distance, groves of trees running up the hills, flags and canopies flapping in the breeze. A sleek blue motorcycle stood at the foot of the pier. I had to have it! I rented it and rode up the hill to the information center. A clerk booked me into a lodge in a vineyard whose restaurant was recommended by a friend.
The lodge crowned a hill in the middle of a vineyard, with panoramic views across rows of vines and spits of land interlaced by bays, all the way back to Auckland. The dining room was dominated by a table that could be set for ten—the maximum of four guest couples plus the owners. The pair that owned the lodge came out laughing, greeting me as I parked my motorcycle amidst expensive cars. Since a pickup at the ferry was included in the rate, I asked them to send a driver to pick up my flight bag at the motorcycle rental place and, while at it, bring an extra helmet—I was expecting a guest. I called Phyllis, my best friend in Auckland, and told her the place was exquisite: “Come, hop over for dinner.”
I rode cautiously down the gravel driveway, gunning the engine on the asphalt. The little Japanese engine, running at high RPMs, sounded like a sewing machine gone mad. Riding on Waiheke was a joy. The roads were narrow and twisty, but well marked. The vineyards gave way to sheep grazing on hillsides and instead of asphalt there were smooth dirt roads, with gates between stations (ranches). I would ride up to a gate, hop off the motorcycle, open the gate, ride through, get off to close the gate, then continue to ride. Returning to the lodge in late afternoon, I sat on the terrace and read, listening to jazz, then drove down to meet the Auckland ferry.
Phyllis had recently celebrated her 71st birthday, but was so full of energy, curiosity, and laughter, that I often thought “If this is what 71 is like, take me there fast!” She stood on the front deck, craning her neck like a teenager. We hugged, and she pulled a helmet over her grey curls. I helped her buckle her helmet and rode to the lodge, leaning deep into the curves and tapping her knee to point out the views.
At the lodge, the owner opened a bottle of local Obsidian red and we drank it on the terrace, as we watched the setting sun. He emerged regally from the kitchen to report on his work in progress and served a plate of grilled mussels to tide us over. The four-course dinner, with more wine and cognac, was a poem. Halfway through the meal Phyllis leaned over to me and whispered, “May I come again tomorrow?” She went back to the ferry in a taxi, since the curves of the mountain road had grown much too sharp for motorcycle riding after we shared all that wine.
The next morning it rained, and after breakfast I listened to music in the library, leafing through an illustrated book on geography. I went for a jog, soaked in the hot tub, and went back to the library. The rain ended half an hour before Phyllis’ ferry arrived. I gave the road 15 minutes to dry, took the second helmet and shot down to the pier. “I was so happy to see you standing there with the helmets,” she said, clinging to me as we went through hairpin turns. “Riding is so much more fun than taking a taxi.” After a gourmet dinner we lingered over cognac, and Phyllis had to tear herself away from the chocolate cake with berries when a taxi arrived to take her to the last ferry.
The next morning the sun was out. There was an amazing breakfast of fruits, jams, homemade cereals and breads, eggs, coffee, and tea. I ate more than I should have, but this was my last breakfast in the country. I had just enough time to ride to the far end of the island and walk through the World War II naval gun tunnels. Phyllis picked me up at the pier in Auckland. “I had breakfast with my granddaughter” she said. “When I told her about our dinners and the motorcycle, she said she envied me.” I told her “Any time a teenage granddaughter envies you, it’s a sign you’re not living a bad life.” I picked up my luggage at Phyllis’ house, and she drove me to the airport.

1
Travel without Reservations
That spring I felt at loose ends. My latest book had gone to the printer, and I felt happy but also blue—that project, the new life which occupied most of my waking hours for the past three years—was out of my hands. The days felt mushy, melting into one another. I missed writing. On a flight home from a conference in New Zealand, I thought: “Let me fly back, drive from one end of the country to the other, and write a book about it.” A few weeks later I called United to buy a ticket to Invercargill, the southernmost city in New Zealand, and a return ticket eight weeks later from Auckland in the north.
New Zealand lies in the South Pacific. Its shape and size are like those of Italy, only the boot is turned upside down and broken into two islands, with a three-hour boat crossing between them. The distance from the Bluff to the Cape—from the southern tip of the South Island to the northern tip of the North Island is under 1,300 miles, but because the country is so narrow, almost any point is within 40 miles of the sea. Since it lies in the Southern Hemisphere, the south is cold (closer to the Antarctic) and the north warm (closer to the equator). A northern exposure gets the sun, a southern exposure the cold wind. The seasons are reversed—July and August are the winter months, January and February the height of summer. The school year starts in February and ends in December.
When I told my friends in New Zealand that I was going to come in mid-July and stay through early September, several said it was crazy to come in winter. I persisted, and that decision worked out extremely well. The winters are very mild in New Zealand, and some days were so sunny and warm that I could wear a shirt outdoors, adding a sweater in the evening. Most tourist attractions were empty, and I found myself alone in stunning national parks that are filled in the summer.
In the middle of July, as a heat wave hit New York, I packed ski clothes and took a taxi to Kennedy airport. In Los Angeles I changed planes and flew for 12 hours across the Pacific to Auckland. Changing to Air New Zealand, I flew down to the colder South, where I could do a bit of skiing before driving up north. A year earlier I had returned from New Zealand only about 30 hours before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This time I wanted to return to New York in time for the observance of the first anniversary.
I spent only one night in a hotel in New Zealand, using instead its excellent system of farmstays and homestays. Staying in locals’ homes helped put me on the inside track. I had booked only my first night’s stay in advance and improvised the rest of the trip, making up plans as I went. Most places are empty in winter, so locals are happy to see a rare visitor and show him or her around. In summer, good places get booked early. One homestay owner told me he earned 90 percent of his rental income in just three months, December through February.
Independent travel demands taking care of many practical details—tickets, accommodations, meals, cars, sightseeing, all with enormous ranges of options. A section in the back of this book, “The Practical Traveler,” lists some of my favorite choices. I didn’t tell any of the commercial operators I was writing a book, and they treated me just like anyone else. I traveled just like any other single traveler, but kept my eyes open and noted everything I saw.

2
Across the Ocean from the South Pole
On the flight from Los Angeles to Auckland I was reminded that the population of New Zealand is surprisingly small for such a large country. Its land area equals that of England, but while the UK is home to 55 million people, New Zealand has just three million. Whenever you talk with someone, you often find mutual acquaintances. My seat mate insisted on telling me his life story (born poor in England, got lucky, made quite a bit of money, quit while he was ahead, moved to New Zealand). Enjoying the anonymity of two strangers on a plane, he complained about his wife and kept talking about his transoceanic extramarital affair, which made him into a very frequent flyer. He even offered to fix me up with his girlfriend’s girlfriend. When he went to the bathroom I turned off my reading light and put on noise-suppression earphones. When I woke up before landing in Auckland we talked again, and he asked whom I was going to see in New Zealand. Imagine his shock when he realized that one of my friends in a small New Zealand town was his neighbor! He blanched, then turned red, and swore me to eternal secrecy.
A sign at passport control in Auckland—“To deliver the best customs greeting experience in the Pacific”—plunges the visitor into the essential niceness of the country. A yellow line is painted on the floor at a distance of two feet from the luggage carousel, asking visitors to stand beyond it so that everyone can clearly see his or her luggage. New Zealanders’ practicality and willingness to cooperate are apparent within your first minutes in the country. Phyllis was waiting for me at the gate—she came to say hello and take some of my luggage. We hugged, she loaned me a cell phone for the trip and drove me to the domestic terminal. Having a cappuccino with biscotti, I watched high dark windows light up as the sun rose across the green expanse of the fields. Seeing the blue bay beyond the runway, I finally knew I was in New Zealand.
Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, is near the top of the North Island, and it took two Air New Zealand flights to get to Invercargill at the bottom tip of the South Island. Above South Island, the larger and less populous of the two, the pilot turned slightly to the left, showing a magnificent panorama of the Southern Alps on the right. Row after row of snow-covered peaks rose up from green valleys towards the sky. As the plane descended, I kept trying to see Mt. Hutt, where I had skied with my son on his first trip to New Zealand eight years ago, but couldn’t make out the ski fields.
In the domestic terminals a rack of fresh magazines stood by each gate, allowing you to take what journals you liked and leave them on your seat upon arrival, where flight attendants collected them and put them back on the racks. I could not imagine such a system working in too many other parts of the world, where stealing freebies is the norm. The farther I got from New York, the smaller the planes were and the more homey the announcements. In a twin turboprop from Christchurch to Invercargill the captain announced “Hello, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. A few words about safety, and then enjoy snack service from Gary and Jimmy.” In the Invercargill airport I stopped in front of a sign that was a clear indicator I was near the edge of civilization: “Four minutes to the world’s most southern McDonald’s.”
My fifth and last flight of the day took me to Stewart Island, a speck of land occupied by a national park off the southern tip of South Island. There was no security gate and I sat next to the pilot. We flew south across the Foveaux Straight which eagle-eyed Captain Cook, making his first circumnavigation of New Zealand, had missed in bad weather, thinking Stewart Island was a peninsula. A grass airstrip was cut into the hillside, where small planes land uphill, shortening their run, and take off downhill, with heavier loads. At the bottom of the strip sat an empty shipping container that served as a waiting area in bad weather. The pilot unloaded our luggage and a waiting van took us into town, past a sign reading “Oban, population 350.” With seven passengers on the flight, our arrival had just increased the population by two percent. I was as far away from New York as I was going to get. A huge rubber band was stretched to the max. My journey through New Zealand had begun.
Doug, the lodge owner, waited for me in the car. Throughout this book I use real names, except for descriptions of two visits. Most people in New Zealand are on a first-name basis—young and old, high and low. A respectful friendly informality is the mode of the land. When Helen Clark, New Zealand’s prime minister, visited Stewart Island, she was introduced at a public meeting as Helen: “Good to have Helen here . . . And now Helen will tell us . . .” When one of her handlers chided the introducer that he should have used the last name, it was seen as uppity and out of touch.
Stewart Island was the only place on my journey where I made an advance reservation from New York. I had several preferences during this trip. I preferred farmstays to homestays, small places to large, and also any place whose write-up mentioned its owner’s local knowledge or interest in history. All factors being equal, I chose more upscale places. On Stewart Island I wanted to stay at a one-room homestay run by the captain of a local water taxi, a fifth-generation islander. I found him on the Internet and called, but he and his wife were off the island until mid-August, taking advantage of the slow season. As a backup, I made a reservation at the best lodge on the island, which had six rooms and a Web site with beautiful photos.
Oban, the only settlement on Stewart Island, appeared dowdy—cheap construction, mounds of trash, dead motor vehicles by the sides of houses. The locals walked around with vacant faces, and when they recognized each other they made little hand signs, moving only their wrists. An outsider might as well be made of glass. We climbed to the lodge past its own trash heap. The rooms were small, with cheap plastic fixtures. This aloof island was absolutely unlike the New Zealand I knew from all my previous visits. The lodge had looked quite different on the Internet—whoever built Doug’s Web site must have had a great way with Photoshop. I told him my plans had changed and I would be staying for only one night instead of two. The ability to make quick decisions is essential for independent travel. I did not regret starting on Stewart Island, but was not going to linger there.
Doug sat me on the couch and spread a worn map on the coffee table to review the island’s history and geography. First came the sealers, then the gold diggers, then the lumbermen. The government planned to subdivide the island into lots of 80 to 100 acres to sell as farms, but the rugged nature held back development until finally the island was made into a national park. The village of Oban was zoned at a quarter acre per house, but some rare birds in the park required 100 acres each to survive. I started asking questions, but Doug told me not to interrupt since he was a person of vast knowledge. His lecture, interspersed with island jokes, sounded very well rehearsed.
I put on sneakers, grabbed a map, and went for a hike, stopping for a bite at the town hotel, which locals called “The place of culture and entertainment.” The menu was limited to beer, chips, and nuts, and I hit the trail without lunch. Small islands tend to go seedy all across the globe, with piles of cannibalized motor vehicles parked years ago by thrifty locals who use them for spare parts. Even in Singapore, so clean you could eat from the floor of the subway, there are abandoned vehicles on the tiny offshore island of Pulan Ubin. They rust, lying on their roofs, only a few miles from the streets where jaywalking could get you arrested. Stewart Island was no exception, and the yards and roadsides of Oban held large collections of long-dead cars and boats.
The trail was well maintained, signposted, and absolutely empty. Everything was green, but in the shade a white coating of frost covered green leaves. The day was windless, empty motor boats bobbed in quiet, sunny harbors. As the trail climbed into the hills, I stopped, feeling something strange. I realized that for the first time in months I was surrounded by total silence, except for the occasional cries of birds and the pulsing in my ears from a hard walk uphill. Strange plants surrounded the trail. One had the trunk of a small palm, ending in a flat, broad, translucent canopy like a green disk, so sensitive it trembled even in the still air, while thick long straw sprouted from the center and hung all around the trunk. Coming down on the other side of the hill I could hear the surf, and soon faced the ocean. In the yards of houses lay batteries of lobster traps that looked like big black boxsprings.
Two girls coming up from the beach stopped to chat for a minute, unafraid of a stranger. The surf was loud, the tide was coming in. The waves, at the end of a long run from the Antarctic, hit the beach and broke into sheets of fine mist which drifted inland, lit by the setting sun. Rock pools had great piles of kelp, a brown leathery seaweed with green-yellow stalks as thick as arms. The Maori, the native islanders who arrived here before the Europeans, used to make pouches from dried kelp. On the walk back to Oban I passed an all-terrain vehicle with a helmet in the basket and a wetsuit on the handlebars, the owner nowhere in sight. Coming from New York, I was paying attention to such things. You see something like this and know you’re not in a high-crime area. Doug told me the only reason to lock a house on the island was to protect the liquor cabinet.
The lodge looked like a $30-a-night motel in Alabama, but it was at the top of every tourist book, which could happen only on Stewart Island. Doug put on a big smile but had a mean streak. A kaka bird that looked like a parakeet twitted about his terrace. Doug said it was endangered, and when I said it looked pretty happy to me, he drawled, “It’ll quickly become endangered if it starts picking on my furniture.” I worked on a computer in the lounge and watched the setting sun when Doug brought in his second guest—Gerd, a German professor. Doug sat him down, spread out his map on the coffee table, and lectured him on the island, repeating word for word what he had told me earlier that day. Gerd tried to ask questions, but Doug jerked his leash. It sounded like he was playing a tape, with the same jokes in the same places.
Facing the audience of two, Doug told us that he was an intellectual with a great sense of humor, while his wife was an esthetician. Margaret was a quiet, mousy woman who rarely left the kitchen. I knew that Oscar Wilde was an esthete and I used to be friendly with a professor of esthetics at the university, but I never met an esthetician. Doug explained that an esthetician was a person who made others beautiful—cut their hair and did their nails. I could not resist the temptation to ask Doug several questions about his background, pulling out of him that he used to be a butcher and failed at farming. Here was an Archie Bunker trying to impersonate Masterpiece Theater. Doug offered us drinks before dinner, and this was my one and only time in New Zealand I could not finish a glass of wine; it was so sour that I switched to beer, a more reliable beverage in the Archie Bunker household. I wolfed down a seafood medley with sides of snow peas, baked tomato slices, and kumara, a sweet potato. It was 7 PM and I had had nothing to eat since an omelet on United at 5 AM and a cup of coffee in the Auckland airport.
I had great company. Gerd, a professor of near Earth space physics from Bonn, was a great lover of birds who had come to Stewart Island to photograph them. He looked like an exotic bird himself—long-legged and long-armed, with a beaky nose. He had many interests and passions. We spoke about space physics, and he told me that the Earth was not quite spherical, but 21 km shorter along the polar axis, wider at the equator because of its rotation. We talked about our children. We talked about his father whom he never met, killed in 1942 in Russia. He told me about the logistics of climbing Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, where I thought of going next winter with my kids. Meeting people like Gerd is one of the great attractions of travel. We never could have met in our everyday lives, but here, in a lodge at the southern tip of New Zealand, with nothing but the ocean between us and the South Pole, we were enjoying each other’s company.

SECTION 2
The South Island

3
The Wrong Side of the Road
The next morning I watched an explosive red sunrise, then walked down to the harbor with Gerd. We had chartered a fishing boat for half a day. Gerd wanted to photograph sea birds; I came along for the ride and to split the NZ$200 bill.1 The wooden boat was boxy, with a coal-fired stove, and its fast-talking captain told us to call him Squisy. Short for Exquisite, must have been a local name. The sky became overcast and the waters turned choppy as we chugged out into the Foveaux Straight between the South Island and Stewart Island. Squisy loaned me a warm jacket and I stood right behind him, near a coal stove, peering at the horizon to prevent seasickness. Gerd went back to the open deck, snapping away at seabirds with his telephoto lens.
Squisy turned on the fish finder, a great device owned by most commercial fishermen in New Zealand. He stopped the engine, pulled out a deep plastic dish with pieces of fish and baited his hooks. He would throw a line overboard and immediately pull it back with one or two fish. Seagulls began to gather, and a few albatross flew in. They were a joy to behold—hovering above the whitecaps, diving and rising, hardly ever flapping their wings, just catching the air this way and that. Soaring, the albatross could easily chase the boat at 30 miles per hour but flapping their wings they could overtake it. They glided at an angle, the lower wing just a few inches above the water, but no matter how choppy the waves, that wing always stayed a few inches above the foam. Their reflexes were amazing. As they soared, their wings, many feet wide, swung right and left, but their bodies always stayed vertical, bellies pointing towards the water.
Squisy started throwing the fish he caught to the birds, who pirouetted, screamed, and fought. He was really a good charter boat operator. Gerd went into high gear clicking away; I took a few snapshots and wondered who had more fun—the birds with their fish or Gerd with his camera. I enjoyed the show but kept glancing at the horizon to keep myself in balance. By and by Gerd grew pale, asked me to tell Squisy to turn back early, then asked me to hold his camera. He got seasick and recovered only after we tied up at the pier.
We found the island abuzz—two cops had flown in from Invercargill and were writing tickets. Doug’s daughter got a $75 fine for not wearing a seatbelt and $200 for an expired registration. Since none of Doug’s cars were registered, he was grounded. The island had its own cop, but he never wrote tickets. “He’s got to live there,” said Doug with a nasty grin. Since the lodge was cold, Gerd and I went to the museum—two rooms of local memorabilia—and then found a bar that served lunch. The cops from Invercargill ate at the next table with local officials. The mood in the room was not happy. I tried to talk Gerd into joining me on the trip for the next few days, but he had his own plans. He was going to try to photograph the kiwi bird.
America has its bald eagle and New Zealand has its kiwi, a flightless brown bird. Some locals are as enthusiastic about kiwi as rugby, which is practically a national religion. The kiwi had been brought to the edge of extinction by an A-to-Z list of introduced predators, from domestic cats to weasels. A young kiwi can protect itself only by hiding, and when it grows to about twice the size of a chicken it can also run. There is something touching in this love for a flightless nocturnal bird (Stewart Island is the only place where kiwis may be seen during the day). New Zealanders track kiwis from the air, protect their habitat, kill their predators, and slap their image on every imaginable consumer item. I told Gerd that I had already seen a dozen kiwis the day before—on airport mugs, T-shirts, postcards, books, towels, clocks, pendants, you name it. I was not going to stay at Doug’s lodge and hike for hours for an off-chance of seeing another one. Gerd walked me to the ferry, we shook hands and promised to stay in touch. From the deck I could see him walking down the trail, hunching slightly under his day pack, headed towards the birds at the waterline.
Many ferry passengers were returning fishermen, and when two fisheries officers came to distribute stickers for measuring legal fish length, I asked for one for my kitchen. The Foveaux Straight Express was a serious little boat, propelled by two 700 horsepower V8 engines. The chop was so strong I couldn’t read during the crossing and watched the horizon again to avoid seasickness. We pulled into Bluff, a town at the southern tip of the South Island and the home to Bluff oysters, one of New Zealand’s great delicacies. I planned to stay there since it looked beautiful on the Internet, but an object came into view that no Web site showed—a huge aluminum smelter whose towering smoke-stack dominated the landscape for miles. I changed my plans, caught a shuttle to the Invercargill airport, and rented the largest car I could get on short notice, a Toyota Corolla with a stick shift.
Most American rental car companies push optional insurance, which can easily add 50 percent to the rental price. The agents are trained to scare people into buying it despite the fact that most credit cards provide excess insurance at no cost. Here, in New Zealand, the sales pitch was mild and almost apologetic, and the Avis agent drove me back to the terminal to pick up some brochures and maps. It was getting dark, I wanted to hit the road, but did a quick spin through the few lit blocks of Invercargill’s downtown. Its main attraction was a three-story former water tower. For a dollar you could get a key from a store next door and climb to the top. The town was essentially a supply depot for the surrounding farms. Its population was dropping when the city council came up with an ingenious scheme to pull in young people—by offering to pay the fees of any student who came to the local branch of the university.
I hit the road to the Catlins, New Zealand’s newest national park, between Invercargill and Dunedin. The little Toyota handled like a dream, steering like a bicycle, but when I hit the brakes they gripped and all the brochures on the passenger seat flew to the floor. The passenger seat, of course, was on the left, the steering wheel on the right. Most of the Pacific drives on the left, which does not take long to learn. I had avoided driving on the left for years, until one night in Singapore a good friend, an old Chinese gentleman, picked me up at the hotel and drove us to dinner with his daughter at the Marine Parade. His night vision was terrible—he kept missing turns and hitting the curbs. It was so painful to watch him drive that I offered to take the wheel, and have been driving on the left ever since. Driving on the left is easy when you go with traffic—the left lane is slow and you pass on the right. Even intersections are easy, as long as you follow other cars. Difficulties arise when you drive up to an intersection alone at night and must think where to turn. The worst challenge is pulling out of gas stations or driveways. After doing it automatically for years, you must concentrate and think how not to turn against the traffic in a left-driving country.
I called the Catlins Farmstay on the cell phone after picking up the car. Murray told me his wife was out for the evening, but I could come; they were completely vacant. He asked for my name and gave me directions. It took some getting used to the fact that in New Zealand they never ask you for a credit card to hold a reservation. After getting lost a few times in the dark I found myself on a dirt road with herds of sheep behind wire fences and brown cows chewing cud. Whenever a high beam of light hit a flock of sheep, it looked like a small blue lake, the light reflecting in sheep’s eyes.
The farmhouse was comfortable and neat. As a child in Russia I learned to expect poverty on farms, but here in New Zealand farmers lived very well. Murray was a stocky man in his sixties, with a friendly smile but few words. He showed me to a cozy room and turned on the space heater and an electric blanket. On my entire journey through New Zealand, staying in places that ranged from baronial to spartan, I never saw a house with central heating. The winters were so short and mild that central heating made no sense.
Murray’s living room was lined with comfortable couches, family photographs were everywhere, a fire blazed at one end of the room, and a large TV played quietly in the other. Murray explained that his wife was away in Dunedin and offered me a beer or a cup of tea, but I just wanted to sit back and warm up. I drank in the warmth after Stewart Island, the boats, the drive in the dark. Murray went into the kitchen to make himself dinner and asked whether I wanted venison or lamb, but I was not hungry. We sank into comfortable couches, Murray with a plate of food on his lap watching the TV, me with a laptop near the fire.
There was the sound of car tires on a gravel driveway and Murray’s wife and daughter-in-law came in. After another friendly offer of a drink, I got a cup of tea, and the four of us sat between the fire and the TV. I finished working on the computer, they caught up on family affairs and we chatted—about the history of their farm, their daughter-in-law’s forthcoming trip to Germany, my plans to see the countryside. An easy companionable feeling hung about the room, hospitable and genuine. They asked me about my previous night’s stay, and I told them of Archie Bunker with his esthetician wife. It turned out that Murray had gone to elementary school with Doug—New Zealand was indeed a small country!

4
Penguins, Pints and Pioneers
I woke up under a fluffy comforter and watched the sun hit the canopy of the forest on the hill across the road. Murray had been shifting cattle for several hours, but came to join me for breakfast. June’s freshly baked blueberry muffins were the best I had tasted in my life—small, crunchy on the outside, with pools of moist, rich blueberries near the bottom. I was planning to shoot straight to Dunedin, but liked it here and asked June whether I could stay an extra day. By the time I finished working on my computer and checking e-mails the day had turned grey and cool. June marked up my map with places to see, gave me a banana, and I hit the road. The first stop she recommended was just a couple of miles away, at the neighbor’s wool shed, where a traveling team was ultrasounding the sheep.
Raising sheep for wool, meat, or both is a major industry in New Zealand. The animals are raised in a natural environment, and most mountainsides have been turned into pastures. The lives of sheep farmers are dominated by the annual cycle of shearing, lambing, and weaning. A ewe (female sheep) normally carries one or two lambs, with twins requiring more food. If you put all ewes into a paddock whose rich grass is good enough for twins, those with single lambs will get big and fat without any return to the farmer. If you put all ewes into a more rocky, poorer paddock, perfectly sufficient for the those with single lambs, the twins will be born small and weak. To use pastures more efficiently, it pays to know which ewes carry a single lamb and which carry twins, and put them on different pastures.
Years ago farm service people began setting up ultrasound stations for sheep. A pulse of sound, harmless to the sheep and its fetus, is sent into the sheep’s belly and a trained eye can tell from its reflection on the computer screen whether the ewe has one or two lambs. Pregnant women go to doctors’ offices for an ultrasound, but pregnant sheep get house calls. A team comes to the farm with all its equipment in a pickup truck. The service is impersonal and rushed, but it cost only 50 cents per ewe (less than 25 U.S. cents). With thousands of sheep, the total bill can be high, but the farmer saves money by giving less feed to the ewes with single lambs and more efficiently managing his pastures.
Four guys were standing in the mud by the truck, drinking tea. I told them I was a physician from New York, and asked to see their operation. I told them the last time I saw ultrasound in action was when my ex-wife was pregnant. They invited me into the paddock, where two of them funneled the herd down a narrow chute. The ultrasound operator sat at the far end under a tarp protecting his machine from the drizzle. The fourth guy stood opposite him with a can of orange spray. Each ewe running past the operator was momentarily locked in a pen and a hand-held scanner shoved under its udder. The operator glanced at the image on his screen and called out a number. “One” meant the sheep could be released. “Two” or “three” got the ewe an orange dot sprayed on her back, while a barren ewe got orange spray on her muzzle. Afterwards the farmer could separate his ewes into two mobs (herds). Those carrying a single lamb were sent to poorer pastures, while those with twins or triplets got better feed. Those who were dry (not pregnant) went on the truck—a farming euphemism for being shipped to the slaughterhouse.
The young man with the scanner told me he had been doing this for two years and could scan over 200 sheep an hour with only a 2 percent error rate. He was in awe of his boss, who had been scanning for 10 years and could process 600 sheep an hour. A few weeks earlier the two of them, working two stations, had scanned 8,500 sheep in one day. The shape of New Zealand, narrow and long, stretching from north to south, lends itself well to this type of work. The teams start working in the warmer north where ewes get pregnant earlier in the year, and move south with the weather. The southern end of the South Island was still cold, and pregnant ewes had several months to go before giving birth, while in the far North the lambing season was about to begin.
The herd owner drove up on his mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle, like a quad bike with fat wheels, several dogs barking from the luggage rack. I recognized Peter, the man who helped me find the farmstay the night before. “It is a numbers game,” he grinned, explaining how he sorted his sheep into two mobs. “Sheep farming is all about maximizing assets.” Each sheep farmer had several dogs, essential for moving large herds. There were two types of dogs—“hunt-away” dogs barked and chased the sheep, while smaller “eye dogs” gave the sheep such an evil eye that they started running in the opposite direction. With an eye dog working the front and the hunt-away dog raging in the back, the sheep could be compressed into a tight flock and moved in response to the farmer’s commands. Farmers controlled their dogs by special whistles, but a very good dog could be let alone into a mile-square paddock, assemble all the sheep into a mob, and move them near the gate. I mentioned to Peter that one of his sheep-herding dogs was not much of a runner, with only three legs, even though it was a prodigious barker. He laughed and said that the young dog was so hyper, he stuck one of its front paws into its collar to slow it down, an old herder’s trick. My camera warning light came on, and I returned to my farmstay to recharge the battery. June offered me tea with one of her heavenly blueberry muffins and played a few riffs on her accordion.
The history of Murray’s farm was typical of pioneer farming. When he got his land almost 40 years ago, it was covered with virgin bush that he cleared for pasture. Some old tree stumps could still be seen on the slopes—they took over 20 years to rot. The timber industry came to virgin land, and then moved on. I remembered the photographs of a “timber railroad” on Stewart Island, with rails made of wood, and bullock teams hauling large trunks on carts. Camera battery recharged, I drove off to McLean Falls—a fun drive on a twisty road, shifting gears, gravel flying from under the wheels. There were three cars in the parking lot and a sign: “Lock your car, including the boot [trunk]; hide your valuables.” I knew I was not in New York, where a busted trunk was a common occurrence. The trail, built by local high school kids, had informational plaques by many trees; it ended near a cascading waterfall with reddish water, full of sediment from the mountains.
June had promised to take me to watch the penguins when they came out of the water at 4:40 PM. Her timing was so exact that I asked whether she called them for information. I used the free time to drive to the nearest tavern, over 10 miles away, to buy wine for dinner. The place was lively on an early Friday afternoon, with people hovering at the bar and sitting at the tables, while a woman read a book by an open fire. Most locals took their beer in two-pint carafes with a little glass on the side. I ordered a pint and was immediately drawn into conversation with a few regulars, eager to compare the relative merits of the Southland (the southern area of the South Island), New Zealand as a whole, and the United States. We agreed that the Southland was the best part of New Zealand, that local beer was very satisfying, while most American beers were thin and sadly lacking in punch and flavor. We agreed that breathing was easier in the open spaces of the Southland, but that New York was not bad either, benefiting from its ocean breezes. I was getting ready to leave after the second pint, when a big fisherman with huge, tattooed forearms stood me a third beer, pushing my consumption way above my norm. After some more free-ranging conversation I reciprocated with a pint, declined the offer of a fourth, and made for the door, trying to walk straight and feeling sorry to leave this warm place.
Back on the farm, June knew the name of every person I saw in the tavern. She ushered me into her Saab and we drove to the Petrified Forest—a beach littered with petrified remains of prehistoric trees. There was a sign “These trees have been here for 185 million years—let’s keep them this way.” The flat, wide beach, all rocks and petrified trees, bordered on a broad, blue, cold ocean. As the surf hit the rocks, plumes of white foam lingered in the air, and a tangle of black and brown kelp bobbed at the water’s edge. It was windy and very cold. Out of the surf emerged a pair of small grey penguins who ambled towards the rocks. Upon sighting two humans, they froze in place and stood staring at us until we finally left. Penguins can die of stress if a human or a dog comes near them, a sign warned. Those mutt-sized critters needed their privacy, their space.
We climbed back to the parking area on a cliff above the beach, and June drove to her son’s beachfront house. He farmed rented land, while her daughter-in-law, whom I had met the night before, ran a backpackers’ hostel. No one was home—June’s son was practicing for the marathon—and she showed the place to two young backpackers who had just arrived—one woman from Switzerland and another from Britain. It cost just $18 (less than nine U.S. dollars) to stay in a bunk bed, with five bunks to a room. On this winter afternoon, they were to have the beach and the house all to themselves. Before we left, June and I took the laundry off the lines and brought it to the covered porch in case it rained.
A neighbor had invited Murray and June for dinner and told them to bring me along. A farmer, another marathon runner, cooked up a simple meal that we ate in the kitchen, washing it down with two bottles of red. Talk centered on farming and there was a wonderful sense of neighborliness and trust. After we had an apple pie baked by June and coffee, we moved to the living room, where I dozed off on a couch near the fire until Murray and June woke me up to drive home.

5
A Hot Tub for Sea Lions
Murray and June were surprised when I asked for Vegemite at breakfast. Throughout this journey people told me I was their first American guest to ask for it. My friend Tony had introduced me to this pungent, black, salty spread years ago in Sydney. It was invented by beer brewers looking for ways to sell the thick black goo left at the bottom of their tanks after the brewing process was finished. Scientists found it contained no alcohol but was rich with minerals and vitamins, and they made it into a spread called Vegemite. Generations of local kids grew up smearing it on their toast. I kept a jar of Vegemite in New York, but it tasted better in the Southern Hemisphere where it felt like such a local food. When I spread jelly on top of Vegemite my hosts jumped for the second time because no locals did it, and I introduced them to the American invention of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
My next stop was to be in Dunedin, a city founded by Scottish immigrants in 1848, the home of New Zealand’s oldest university. At the time of the Otago gold rush in the nineteenth century Dunedin had briefly become the richest city in the country. I asked June to recommend where to stay. It was a mistake I repeated several times before learning that the recommended places were never as good as those I left. None of my favorite hosts sent me to a place that was better or equal, only worse. I kept repeating this mistake—stepping on the same rake, as they say in Russia—until I finally learned I had to do my own research on the Internet or use guide books and follow up with a phone call.
I hit the road, stopping for a minute to say goodbye to Peter, who was working near the wool shed, separating his color-coded sheep into three mobs. Tall, craggy, with a white beard, surrounded by sheep and dogs amidst the mountains, he looked like a biblical prophet.
I kept stopping for short hikes along the road to Dunedin. There are very few roads in New Zealand that would be called highways in the United States, cordoned off from the surrounding countryside, with limited entries and exits. The main north-south arteries, well paved and with reflectors down the median, usually have just one lane in each direction, with an occasional passing lane. All traffic slows down whenever a road passes through some small town, becoming its main street for a few hundred yards. You can pull off wherever you like, and since the country is very mountainous each turn opens a new vista of mountain peaks, the ocean, and paddocks with cattle, sheep, or deer grazing on the hillsides. Driving in New Zealand is more fun than going to the movies.
Trails for hikers began at the roadside and led into the wilderness. Their approach was announced on the road signs, and when you pulled into a parking area, there was another sign, describing each trail and estimating how long it would take to hike. New Zealand is a walker’s paradise. A 10-minute hike to Lake Wilkie went along a narrow wooden boardwalk that jutted into the lake, just a few inches above the water. The observation platform was flooded by an inch of water, and I was glad to be wearing waterproof hiking boots. It felt odd to be standing there in bright sunlight, surrounded by nothing but water, without a human being in sight, just a few days out of the bustle of New York. It would have been a perfect scene for a crime, I thought, but this was New Zealand, and it was very safe.
At another stop I walked through a 900-foot-long, dark, abandoned railroad tunnel. It took 70 men two years to build it, using shovels and wheelbarrows at the end of the nineteenth century. They were local farmers who lived in the wilderness and needed a cash income. The project cost 9,300 pounds sterling, slightly over budget, but then sawmills moved on and the railroad closed the line.