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New Zealand: KEAS ARE EATING MY WINDSHIELD WIPERS

for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine

by Stephan Wilkinson

TREES AND BIRDS are the first hints that the ordinariness of New Zealand, a land that sometimes looks like an expanded, scrubbed Vermont, sometimes like Marin County without people, is not what it seems. That you are standing on strange ground farther from any other than any nation on earth, amid a land so unremittingly ocean-girt that until perhaps as late as the 19th century, house-high birds with gryphons' feet and no wings still stomped through the bush.

Evergreens have leaves. Deciduous trees wear needles, or so it seems. Some trees have feathers, and there are ferns as big as palm trees. And the birds seem never to have learned how to make proper bird sounds. They grunt, bark, oink and clack, and the kiwi, which looks like a schmoo spitting out a pencil, sounds like a poodle being beaten.

Admittedly my introduction to New Zealand birds takes place at Kiwi House, an aviary full of oddballs in Otorohanga, some 120 miles south of Auckland. But the trees, and a strong sense of dislocation, of upside-downness, are all around. This will be a trip full of utterly new highway experiences--of railway bridges you drive across as long as a train isn't in sight, of one-lane tunnels bored through rock so you have to hope no traffic is coming--and one of them is upon me now: For half a mile ahead, the main road from Auckland to New Plymouth is a sea of sheep.

Oh, you've seen it in cute travel posters, but until you've been there, you forget that you don't know what to do next. Do you stop? Blow your horn, perhaps starting a stubby stampede? Plunge ahead, risking turning mutton to macadam sauce? As traffic backs up behind me, commonsense implores that I keep inching along, and the wooly waters part reluctantly and as quickly close behind the small white BMW 325i sedan as though the car were nothing more than an unusually large alpha ram.

MOST OF THE world believes New Zealand to be part of Australia, and the rest thinks the country is somewhere in Michener's South Pacific. It's in fact about as close to Australia as Manhattan is to Dallas, and the chill rain I'm driving through on the way from New Plymouth to Wellington--it's December, the beginning of summer here--dims any vision of Bali H'ai. (And if that doesn't, the occasional "Slippery When Frosty" sign certainly does.) This could be Scotland with ferns, though the greens of the lime-y soil are at times so vivid they're almost fluorescent.

One of the most charming things about traveling through New Zealand is the naive seriousness with which "tourist attractions"-- glow-worm caves, whale-watching jaunts, sheep-shearing exhibitions--are run. Having yet to conjure up its own Crocodile Dundee, New Zealand is undertouristed, and nobody is jaded by the business of displaying their wares. Nigel Ogle, for one, unassumingly runs one of the most amazing institutions you'll ever see, in a set of former dairy buildings hidden several miles off the main road at Hawera.

His Tawiri Museum is a tromp d'oeil as startling as Madame Tussaud's, as illusory as the New York Museum of Natural History's famous taxidermy dioramas and as enchanting as a toy store: everything from lifesize stage sets and figurines of Smithsonian quality and accuracy to a remarkable 1/64th scale model railway and harbor scene. All are reconstructions of New Zealand history from Maori-settlement times to post-World War II pioneering, when ex-ANZAC farmers converted armored military lorries to spin fearsome rotary flails that gnawed the gnarly boxthorn hedges.

Ogle, a short, ruddy-faced schoolteacher with a bushy beard and the pleasantly impatient manner of a man who has lots left to do, has himself crafted or directed friends at creating them all. "I've been slowly building it up," he says. "I particularly love the scale modeling--the ability to hold in a small space a moment of time forever. This still operates as a hobby, but I hope it soon becomes a business my wife and I can run together. That would suit us down to the ground."

"THIS IS THE first time I've been across in 18 years," the wat- tled old lady says. She is blind in one eye, carries a cane and sits heavily in a lounge aboard the deepwater ferry that is carrying us--and, on a car deck far below, the patient BMW--across the Cook Strait from New Zealand's North Island to the South. "Oh, yes, it was different then," she laughs. "No movies, for one thing." (The ship's theater is showing Thelma and Louise during the three-hour crossing.) "And it could get rough. They say this is the windiest ocean strait in the world." I've already noticed that numerous bulkhead racks hold barf bags--and not wimpy little airliner sacks but satchels fit for a sheepfarmer's dinner.

Can there be another such country split into rivalrous, entirely separate halves by a major body of water? "Aucklanders think New Zealand ends 50 miles south of the city," a South Islander will tell me. "We consider ourselves 'the main island,' because we're bigger." And that's about it for the differences between the islands, though northerners shun the south because they consider it too cold and southerners are liable to think the North Island vastly more cosmopolitan because it contains New Zealand's only two real cities, Auckland and Wellington. (Christchurch, on the South Island, fancies itself a city but really isn't.)

The South Island has New Zealand's Alps and famous fiords, and the North Island's uppermost cape lunges South Pacificward like a pretend Polynesia, but the cultural and geographic gaps that exist between Oregon and Southern California--about the same distance that New Zealand extends--are far greater.

For New Zealand, insulated in many ways from Northern Hemisphere realities, magnifies its difficulties and differences. Refueling the BMW at a Mobil station in Picton, just off the ferry, the gas-station owner says he was in New York "just last month. Toured Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston too. I was shocked. Shocked. I thought we had it bad down here, but our economy's nothing as bad as yours." (Unemployment and economic difficulties have battered New Zealand badly enough that the cover story of a recent Pacific edition of Time Magazine suggested that New Zealand will soon recede to Third World status.)

Parts of the South Island could turn a fee by posing as Wyoming or Montana for Hollywood Westerns, as long as viewers don't notice that some of the trees have feathers. The BMW is humming along a deserted, big-sky two-lane that parallels the Wairau River, and without much effort, we're soon doing an indicated 145 mph. Knowledgeable BMW enthusiasts have called this new 325i the best BMW ever built, and I'm ready to agree.

BMW invented the sports sedan--the small, utilitarian yet exciting four-seater that could perform fully as well as just about any dedicated two-seat roadster or coupe. The world shamelessly imitated BMW's concept, even though sometimes the best the pretenders could advertise was, "almost as good as a BMW," or "a lot like a BMW but cheaper."

Until now, many BMW enthusiasts would have insisted that the 2002tii was the best BMW ever to leave the factory. It was a boxy, arrogant little two-door with a rorty four-cylinder engine and superb handling, and it lingered in memory while the company moved upscale, making larger and more expensive cars in an attempt to become a sporty Daimler-Benz. BMW's smallest cars--now the "Three-Series," in Bimmertalk--were always nice pieces, but the cheapest (318s) had disappointing performance and the strongest (325s) were tarred by the brush of yuppieness: along with Filofaxes and small, ugly dogs, they were too readily consigned to the trash-tip of conspicuous consumption, symbols of a dead age.

The new six-cylinder, dual-overhead-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder 325i, however, may be the most neutral-handling production sedan in the world. Largely because of its rear-set engine and body--viewed from the side, the 325i has less front overhang than any car I can think of-- it achieves a remarkable number for a four-door sedan: 50-50 weight distribution, front and rear. Given half a chance, it'll carry even a dunce of a driver safely around any bend or corner on earth at any speed less than openly suicidal.

The road along the Buller River is sports-sedan heaven--fast enough to be fun, seasoned with sweeping bends without demanding the endless wheel-winding of a mountain road. Everybody who is serious about driving a fast car well ought once in their lives to have a chance to run an untrafficked, unpatrolled road like this. The Buller Gorge, a vast, vertical cleft feathered with other-worldly trees and ferns, is a living Jurassic Park. At times, the picture out my windshield mocks Chinese paintings of vertical Yangtze vistas--tendrils of mist, strange subtropic vegetation, delicate waterfall spumes, and at the base of it all, the elemental green river flowing strongly to the sea.

Berlin's Hotel, a solitary structure at a wide spot in the road, is barely a roadhouse, but the red 1942 Indian motorcycle parked out front draws me in. A walleyed, unshaven biker, several locals and a dizzy girl featuring a missing tooth and a tattoo hold up the bar at two on a Saturday afternoon. On one wall, a sign announces, "Sexual harassment in this area will not be reported. However it will be graded."

"We could make a lot of money if I could fit that scoot into my luggage and sell it back in the States," I tell the biker.

"Could you take Brendan with it?" the girl laughs. Okay, they're harmless. Soon I ask the bartender my standard start-a-discussion question: what about race relations between the Maoris and pakehas-- white New Zealanders? Jack introduces me to two people at the bar who I'd assumed to be white and tells me they're Maoris. "We call them blackass and they call us honkies, but it's all done with good spirits."

Many New Zealanders feel the country has a serious race problem, for young Maori activists are increasingly vocal, but few have a clue what real racial inequality is. To a New Yorker, Maori-pakeha strife seems no worse than the animus between Baptists and Episcopalians, though doubtless the roots go deeper than that. Yet intermarriage is so much the norm that mutual forbearance and respect are evident everywhere.

For New Zealanders have an advantage over South Africans, Australians, Japanese or New Yorkers: the racial competitors happen to bear physical features perfectly acceptable to each others' eyes and loins, and racism in New Zealand, though it exists, is mitigated by assimilation. "CAUTION PENGUINS CROSSING Next Five Miles" the roadsign says. On the way south along the rugged, barely populated west coast, I've picked up a pair of backpacking teenage hitchhikers, a Maori boy and a pakeha blonde. They mutter incomprehensible answers to my questions in thick New Zealand accents, an odd English in which vowels are squashed flatter than even the Australians manage. Reckless comes out rickliss, down is day-in, yes is yis, electric ah-licktrick. The boy answers "arickin" a lot, which I finally realize is "I reckon."

The coast is gaunt, rocky and nearly beachless except for the occasional crescent of gray sand in a cove. Rugged pinnacles stand offshore, rock sentinels peering across the Tasman Sea toward Australia. To imagine coming upon this utterly remote coast in a 17th century sailing ship with a strong following wind gives you enormous respect for the explorers of Abel Tasman's day. "Oh yis, when a boat is in trouble off this shore, forget it," says a New Zealander parked at an overlook. "There are only two small harbors on the whole coast, and the fishermen sometimes can't go out for weeks as a time when there are strong onshore winds. You get huge waves."

Franz Joseph Glacier is an enormous, high-speed earth-engine. In geological nanoseconds--a mere several centuries, in fact--it has moved back and forth miles, scraping hillsides bare, vomiting a vast bed of ice-ruminated rocks and gravel, forming its own slab-sided mountain chute. "Moving as slowly as a glacier" turns out to be an inappropriate metaphor, for this colossus virtually vibrates with power. Even on a sunless day like this--a steady drizzle is falling as I slog along the streambed to the glacier's terminal--a blue fire glows here and there through the dirty face of the ice.

A whiny lady from Chicago has deserted the small tour group that is making its way up the ice-steps that a guide is chopping in the glacier face above us. She's staying on the flat, soloing back to the group's van. Her boots are too heavy, it's too slippery, she can't see through her watersoaked glasses...when she tells me she'd also only walked half the Milford Track--New Zealand's most famous hike--I was about to mark her down as a wuss. Until she mentioned that she'd also thoroughly enjoyed bungee-jumping, at Queensland.

When I get back to the parking area, keas--New Zealand parrots with all the grace, coloration and manners of junkyard dogs--are eating my windshield wipers.

FROM THE WEST coast to Christchurch, across New Zealand's Alps, my choice is the longer and supposedly more spectacular route through Lewis Pass or a smaller, more convenient road via Arthur's Pass. The man who pumps the BMW full of gas at Franz Joseph--there are no service stations in the interior--makes up my mind. "I've lived here 20 years and never been over the Lewis Pass, but I can't imagine anything more magnificent than the Arthur," he says.

The road is yet another BMW-tempter. It is a curving two-lane that follows a glacier-carved valley of surprising flatness, mountains off to either side, until suddenly it enters the Otira Gorge, where rain forest rises from the verge almost vertically. Soon Provincial Route 73 is corkscrewing up and over the South Island's spine and then down to the broad tableland of the Canterbury Plains.

In a roadside "hotel" in Springfield--in New Zealand generally a saloon with a short-order kitchen and a few rooms up-stairs--an elderly ex-seaman pulls up a barstool and tells me, "I was in New York in 1938, on leave from the merchant marine. Saw Joe Louis fight the Welshman at Madison Square Garden. What do New Zealanders worry about? We're too complacent. Too many of us have never been outside the country so we think our way of life is the only way there is. Me, I've been around the world a few times. I know there's more out there."

Ask a sophisticate--worse, an Australian--about New Zealand, and they'll likely say, "Beautiful country, but boring. The people are such conservative dullards. The best of them all move overseas." (Or, perhaps, join the merchant marine.) Maybe it's true, but it too often sounds like the condescension afforded Canada.

Hugh and Belinda Vavasour, worldly sheep farmers with whom I'll overnight...Nicholas and Susan Bray, at whose charming B&B, Riverview House, I'll spend this evening in Christchurch...my friend Syd Jensen, one of New Zealand's notable ex-grand prix drivers--and the country has produced many, including Chris Amon and world champion Bruce McLaren...Peter and Lavinia Dyer, a lively couple I'll visit at Syd's urging in Lake Taupo.... They all stayed behind--or in Nick Bray's case moved to New Zealand from England--and all are delightful.

"LIFE'S A BEACH and then you fry," the whale-watcher's teeshirt reads. In New Zealand, all too close to the Antarctic's ozone-layer hole, it's not a joke. For me, hatless and pale as a Northern Hemisphere December, Chernyobl is an afternoon spent in the Pacific off Kaikoura, aboard one of Kaikoura Tours' whale-watching launches, but it's worth the sunburn. A dozen of us watch five sperm whales broach, and then hyperventilate like marathoners on the starting line, filling every air-bearing cell with oxygen, before they gulp and sound again.

The whales look as long as tennis courts from the froggy little boats, and one comes to within 15 feet of us, wheezing like Darth Vader with a head cold. "We're not supposed to go closer than 100 meters," Richard, the boatman, admits, "but if they come toward us, we don't have to back off. This is as close as you'll ever get to a sperm whale."

After this surfeit of cetaceans, Richard firewalls the twin-engine, 280-hp launch and we plunge off, whacking from wavetop to wavetop like a runaway carnival ride, to sport with an enormous pod of 200 prancing, porpoising dolphins. Our Maori guide, a statuesque woman with a thick mane of black hair and the incongruous name Lorraine, says dolphins have been known to save drowning swimmers by nuzzling them toward shore. I can't help mentioning to her the words of one dolphin expert who recently pointed out that we never hear from the drowning swimmers that dolphins nuzzle away from shore.

The Vavasours' Ugbrooke House, on a splendid sweep of land rolling down toward Cloudy Bay, south of Blenheim, is a combination of tin-roof-and-verandah Sadie Thompson and red-brick English country manor, with a grand colonnaded front opening onto one of those crunchy white- gravel drives that should always have an Aston Martin--or in this case a BMW--parked somewhere upon it. Inside, the long halls are dim, high- ceilinged and carpeted, and the door to my room is the size and heft of a small pool table. It's like being inside a lifesize game of Clue.

The Vavasours are my hosts not because I'm visiting royalty but because they are listed as participants in New Zealand's farm- and home-stay program. They take a few boarders, simple as that. I'll have drinks with Hugh in his study--he turns out to be a fellow pilot, and the Vavasours' 14-year-old daughter Alice, home for the holidays from boarding school, sneaks out, groaning, "Mum, they're talking about airplanes again"--followed by an excellent New Zealand lamb dinner with wine, after-dinner drinks and chat, breakfast in the kitchen with Hugh and Alice the next morning and finally a tour of the 850-acre Vavasour farm in their arthritic Nissan pickup. The lot will cost NZ$70--less than $40 U. S. It's so much like staying with friends, I feel I should make the bed before leaving.

I'VE COME TO ROTORUA, back on the North Island, with a sedanful of cynicism, for this is New Zealand's touristic hot center--literally. The lake resort steams and bubbles with boiling springs, volcanic vents, stinking fumeroles, geysers and bus tours. Maoriworld, volcanoworld, sheepworld, jet-boatworld, model-trainworld, putt-putt golfworld...there's at least one of each, but most are so charming, fascinating or forthright that only the most dyspeptic traveler can stifle grins.

Take sheepworld, for example--the Agrodome. If you've ever foolishly thought a sheep is just a goat with a coat, tell it to the 19 varieties of ram that come trotting out to take their places on the pyramidal dais, gently emitting methane and peering emptily out at an audience largely composed of Japanese tourists listening to the herder's translated narration through headsets. Cheviet, Corriedale, Border Leicester, Poll Dorset, Black Romney...I search fruitlessly for Turtleneck, Cardigan and Short-sleeve but am soon distracted by acrobatic sheepdogs, a monomaniacal border collie herding ducks, and the shearing exhibition. Did you know a sheep's pelt comes off like one big bathmat, not a barber's-chair collection of ringlets? No? Don't miss the Agrodome.

Nor should you miss the Muriaroha Lodge. It's my last night in New Zealand, and never have I experienced such gentle luxury as this intimate house and its small staff afford. The lodge, a sprawling clapboard structure and outbuildings on two acres of cozily gardened grounds, was recently bought by a wealthy Japanese family. They are in residence with their grandchildren, but off on a trip to the South Island. I am the only guest. (The lodge accommodates perhaps 30 when the owners are away.)

Would I like a drink before dinner? Scotch would be nice. Keri, the hostess, brings me not just scotch but a 10-year-old single-malt. Canapes? Caviar and smoked New Zealand salmon. Dinner, while I chat with Bruce, the chef, across the serving counter, begins with slices of cold minted smoked lamb, a superb cream of walnut soup followed by greenlip mussels in a sour cream sauce, then breast of chicken filled with wild mushrooms in a red wine demiglace. Wine? Here's a nice bottle of the local product, from a South Island vineyard.

All of this--plus a late-night dip in the steaming, volcanically heated little pool; breakfast the next morning; and such classy touches as a superbly furnished room that not only provides toothpaste but boxed brushes, a free minibar and a splendid selection of local fruit-- cost $185 U. S.

But best of all, this is a country with a sense of humor that quite contradicts the cliched image of Scots-emigrant sobriety, and it accompanied even my first steps on New Zealand soil. As the 747 parked at Auckland at dawn, after the long flight from Los Angeles, the steward's PAed voice announced, "It is a long-standing Air New Zealand tradition that passengers reciprocate the cabin crew's efforts. So will the last passenger off the aircraft please do the dishes, wash the windows and turn off the lights?"

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