Posted by: thezedword | October 23, 2008

Things to do in New Zealand when you’re bored

The other day while riding on the bus, I had an epiphany. I realized you should never let yourself get so excited about figuring out the bus routes, thus ensuring you’ll make it to your job interview, without first learning the return routes. This is an important part of the overall “trip” and thankfully Stacy was there to help me navigate back home, which she did by asking the driver, “Do you stop in the city?”

While on that return trip I got to thinking about the earthquakes here (namely, would we be able to feel them on a bus) and I’ve come up with a hypothesis. It goes like this: New Zealand doesn’t get much action by way of wars (until the Sheep Revolution), it’s got pleasant weather, the economy is stable, and it mostly escapes natural disasters, with the exception of earthquakes. There have been a few big ones in its history, however those are few and far between. Knock on wood. And that’s an easy thing to do here as so many houses are made of wood because a) they’re old and cozy and b) they’re safe in earthquakes because the wood gives a bit and doesn’t crumble and topple over like concrete. So with the promise of mostly everlasting peace, prosperity and safety, Kiwis need to spice up their life a little. Enter: Extreme sports.

In the six weeks we've been here, this was the only time I've seen someone use this Bungy Chair. Probably because the wind's will blow you to Fiji once you reach the top of the ride.

In the six weeks we've been here, this was the only time I've seen someone use this Bungy Chair. Probably because the winds will blow you to Fiji once you reach the top of the ride.

And what better way to escape the doldrums by jumping off a perfectly safe bridge, plunging head first to the ground, getting yanked up by a rope, then plunging down a few more times at the will of gravity. Legend has it that in the ’80s, two Kiwis invented bungee jumping after watching a video from Oxford University’s Dangerous Sports Club. (Can you imagine if that caught on and we called them Dangerous Sports instead of Extreme Sports? The Dangerous Games just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) The founding company, AJ Hackett, still operates here in New Zealand and recently introduced a new jump site — the tallest in the country — that allows you to do a 440-foot free fall from a gondola hanging over a canyon. Stacy and I would like to go, probably not to that new one, more like a bunny hill version of a bungee jump. As anyone who was at the Rapid’s Water Park in West Palm Beach, Florida on June 30 of this past summer knows, I scream like a little girl when dropped from high altitudes at rapid speeds because keeping my mouth open equalizes my body pressure to keep my stomach from coming out my ass… or something like that.

Naturally, as there are plenty of mountains around, there are ski and snowboard locations as well. Here in the North Island, there’s the active volcano, Mt. Ruapehu. They offer midweek passes and a location that puts it within a six-hour drive to from Wellington and Auckland. Plus, parts of Lord of the Rings was filmed there, so it’s some kind of national monument. Every few years the volcano still shows some activity, most recently in 2007, when a small eruption caused a mudslide that injured someone studying the volcano. If that’s not “extreme” enough for you, there are some two-dozen other resorts you can visit, including HeliPark New Zealand, which flies you up to the top of one of three peaks in a helicopter, then lets you sort out your own run down the mountain.

When it comes to water sports, anything is extreme in this part of the world. The water temperature ranges from 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, to 72 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. That is cold. Wetsuits are required. Kiwis have grown accustomed to it, though, and sail, dive, kayak and surf their little hearts out. Head down to the harbour on a nice Sunday and it will look like the entire navy has taken the day off to go sailing, yellow kayaks will dot the horizon, rowing teams will practice while a man on the shore yells at them with a megaphone, and you’ll even see the occasional adventurer who gets out of his or her car in a full wet suit, puts on a swim cap, runs towards the beach, swims away and returns long after Stacy and I decide it’s too cold and windy to watch the water anymore.

We’ll get in too eventually. There’s a surf school that, for the low price of $120, will take you on a 8-9 hour beach excursion that includes a three-hour surf lesson, complete with a board and wet suit. There’s another school near Auckland in a city called Raglan and is based out of the Karioi Lodge, a “eco surf retreat.” Just an hour north of Auckland, there’s Goat Island, where you can dive or snorkel, and there are dozens of other diving spots throughout the country where you can dress up to look like a seal and increase you chances of getting eaten by a great white.

Plus, there’s rugby, the popularity of which, according to the father of our polite friend Max, leads to little kids punching each other. New Zealand’s national sport very well could be the most violent on the planet. It takes the endurance of soccer players, the strength of footballers, the intensity of UFC fighters, and no pads whatsoever. Just watch the All Blacks haka. It alone will inspire you to go out and punch someone on the playground.

My hypothesis, however, fails to explain the popularity of netball. Our second week here, the Silver Ferns won an intense international tournament with Australia. As far as I could tell, the internationality of the competition did not extend beyond Australia and New Zealand, though this week the Silver Ferns are playing England and Wikipedia says the sport is played in a whopping 70 countries, so maybe it’s a monthly thing. No matter how many miles the team travels, the sport still baffles me. Originally developed in the U.S. as women’s basketball, it combines the finesse of basketball with athleticism of Ultimate Frisbee, producing one of the dumbest sports conceived. Granted, it takes the backboard off a hoop, making the shooting part a little more difficult. But before you take a shot, if a player has the ball, she cannot dribble, or move with it for that matter, and if she wants to pass she has to do so in the air. Just watch this video and see for yourself.

If you ever talk basketball with someone who knows about the sport (as in not me) they’ll throw out numbers between one and five. As in, “Well, if Ray Allen plays the two, who will play the one?” (I have no idea which guard position Allen plays, so please forgive the previous statement if I’m way off.) They’re not talking bingo. These numbers and positions have meaning, if only to provide some sense of order when the players are running willy nilly all over the court between offense, defense, etc. Fans know the numbers, the positions, what they all do, and they know it off the top of their heads. Netball isn’t quite so challenging to understand. Each player has Velcro strips on their jerseys and on these strips, they firmly attach a piece of cloth with two letters, indicating the player’s positions on them. Needless to say, the sport is decidedly unextreme.

And then there’s marching. Like netball, it’s a women’s sport, though it stretches the definition of the word “sport.” As you can probably deduce, it involves marching. At Te Papa, the enormous museum in Wellington, there was an exhibit that briefly touched on the history of marching in New Zealand. They compared it to “American cheerleading,” despite the obvious lack of spirit fingers, and it began during the Great Depression as a way for offices and factories to keep their female employees “fit and healthy.” This Web site dedicated to the sport says that teams grew and began interhouse competitions. After WWII, veterans returned and restructured the sport “based on rigid military style.” In 1990, it was officially recognized as a Kiwi sport and teams compete in international competitions.

So even if you’re very easily amused or have a serious adrenaline deficiency that needs some boosting, the Kiwis have found a sport to entertain you. At least, until this happens:

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