Brendan Gill once wrote “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.”
The Kiwis were apparently paying attention.
New Zealanders are an irreverent bunch, playful, adventurous, and happy, quite possibly the happiest people I’ve ever known. Kiwis don’t just live life, they attack it, with a wink and a grin.
The approach to the world’s highest cliff jump has a couple of somber warnings for wary visitors, carefully placed along the gravely walkway.
This is not surprising, since one side of the walkway is a sheer cliff, off which you’d enjoy a 300-foot plummet before face-planting into the canyon below at 100 miles per hour.
What is surprising is that the signs neglect to mention the certain and painful death lurking mere inches away, instead alerting passersby to be on careful lookout for gnomes.
Life here is not real serious.
My favorite all-time Kiwi billboard was selling itself, and proudly proclaimed that it “Stands out like dog’s balls.”
I love Kiwis.
Before leaving Queenstown we all agreed that a ride on the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak was in order, and a visit to Fergberger a must.
So, still peeling so extravagantly from my Bora Bora sunburn that I looked like a leper begging for coins, we queued up for the five minute ride up the mountain. Though shedding skin in such profusion does garner you a great deal of personal space, the line was long, so Soo and I amused ourselves by peeling large flakes off my arm and depositing them at the feet of horrified tourists.
Once to the top we quickly forgot all thoughts of tormenting fellow travelers, so magnificent were the vistas on display as Queenstown spread out before us, enveloped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and kissing the shore of Lake Wakatipu.
It’s catch-your-breath beautiful, and we happily settled in at the bar at the Skyline restaurant to enjoy a drink while staring out the window. (The restaurant itself is a buffet, allegedly a really poor one, and costs a fortune. We failed to come up with any reason to eat there since lounging in the bar area afforded you the same views.)
That out of the way, our last Queenstown must-do was lunch at Fergberger. The hole-in-the-wall joint making the biggest, juciest burgers you’ve ever seen, started a decade ago because the owner, Ferg, believed that locals deserved a spot to eat when they were “drunk to hell.” Their website pleasantly notes that in the early days the restaurant was guilty of swapping “chips for tits.” Ah, Kiwis.
There’s always a line out the door, and once having ordered it takes 20 minutes to get your burger, but it’s mouth-watering oh-so-worth-it deliciousness. Among my favorite menu items are the Sweet Bambi, the Cockadoodle Oink, the Holier Than Thou, the Bun Laden (falafel, of course) and the Cock Cajun burger, which apparently has nothing to do with sex, though after eating one you’ll need a cigarette. I sure did.
We unhappily departed Queenstown on Air New Zealand. (Unhappily because we were leaving, not because we were on Air New Zealand. It is, in fact, one of the world’s top-rated airlines, winning the 2011 Air Transport World’s Airline of the Year award for the second time in three years, but one that, being Kiwi, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it’s perhaps the only airline on earth capable of convincing me to pay attention to the here’s how you fasten your seat belt, put on your life vest and find the emergency exit in the unlikely event of a water landing routine. Air New Zealand accomplished this by presenting the airline safety features in a video that incorporates Richard Simmons, 70s dance music, flight crew in nothing but body paint and the members of the national rugby team.)
It’s hysterical, completely endearing and utterly Kiwi.
The first few minutes of our flight, however, were less endearing.
My wonderful friend Jo is one of those people practiced at supervising everything around her, even those things that don’t really require supervision. The pilots on our flight unhelpfully declined to allow Jo to manage things from the cockpit, so she was left to fret about how they were doing in the back with the rest of us.
Regrettably, they gave us plenty to fret about for the first few minutes.
It was terribly turbulent upon takeoff, apparently not uncommon for this little corner of the world. (Airfare Watchdog’s list of The World’s Most Thrilling Airports puts Queenstown #2, noting that “Queenstown… lies below The Remarkables, a jagged mountain range seen in The Lord of the Rings. On descent, passengers may feel a sudden drop in altitude caused by strong downdrafts. Bird activity by the runway, as well as frequent bad weather and poor visibility, also make Queenstown Airport a real knee-knocker.”)
On takeoff, we got the sudden drop.
The pilot, to his credit, was racing for higher altitudes, trying to get us out of the chop. But before he could get there we hit one of those downdrafts, and the plane plummeted. Screams could be heard from passengers all around us, and poor Jo, who’d brought two of her daughters on the trip, but left her eldest, Amy, behind in Auckland due to work constraints, was utterly convinced we were all going to die. Jo touchingly and tragically later shared that her one thought in the panic of the drop was that she was heartbroken to leave Amy alone in the world.
As you will have deduced by the existence of this blog, the pilots recovered, and we made it to Auckland just fine. I do think they distributed a wee bit more alcohol on that flight than is usual, however.
Auckland, where I lived as a child, is probably my favorite city on earth. Not because it’s beautiful in the way Paris or Venice are beautiful, and not because it’s exciting in the way Queensland was. (It is beautiful, this city of sails, and of course has its own brand of excitement. But that’s not what you take away from Auckland. It’s the feel of the city, the very Kiwiness, that makes it my favorite.)
When we first lived here 30 years ago my father used to rail at the impossibility of finding decent Chinese food anywhere in Auckland. Now, half the restaurants in town are Asian, and they’re scrumptiously authentic.
The city has changed, but it’s still Auckland. There’s still a family-owned fish & chippery on every corner, still a quaint dairy for every neighborhood. (A dairy in NZ is part convenience store and part old rural country store from our parents‘ early years. And they always have fresh, delicious ice-cream.)
On a typical Sunday afternoon in Auckland, the shopping malls are empty, the harbor full of sails. The landscape is dotted with extinct volcanoes, everywhere you look people are smiling and laughing, and it just feels like… home.
It occurs to me that so much of who I am today was shaped by New Zealand. For the past three decades, most of which I spent living in America, I’ve been busily being Kiwi, though I’m not sure I ever realized it.
And that’s made my life ever so much more fun. I’m so grateful for that part of me that never stopped being Kiwi.