When people ask what parts of New Zealand I’ve visited, I’m tempted to channel my inner Johnny Cash and respond: “I’ve been everywhere, man… Raglan, Mourea, Whakahoro, National Park, Wellington, Marahau, Aniwhenua, Westport, Franz Josef, Wanaka, Queenstown, Gunn’s Camp, Invercargill, Queenstown (again), Mt. Cook, Rangitata, Kaikoura, Picton. I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere.” And those are just the overnight stops one one of the bus trips I’ve been on!
In truth I haven’t been “everywhere” but I do think I’ve seen more than your average tourist in New Zealand. I’ve taken two 12-hour trips on an inter-city buses, a 10-hour train ride, a one-week road trip with my nephew, the better part of a week on my own in both Auckland and Wellington, and a total of 29 days with Stray (a hop-on, hop-off “backpacker” style bus). I’ve divided my time between the north and south islands, urban and rural areas, beaches and glaciers, moon-like mountain passes and wind-swept sand dunes, lush rainforests and petrified forests. There aren’t many countries with as varied a landscape as New Zealand.
I’ve enjoyed all of the stops but two in particular stand out. Stray promised to take us “off the beaten track” and I feel they lived up to that claim with stops like Dan Steele’s Blue Duck Station near Owhango and Gunn’s Camp in the Hollyford Valley near Milford Sound. Neither offered much in the way of luxury but for me that was a big part of their appeal.
On my last Saturday with Stray we left a very nice backpacker’s lodge at the base of Mt. Cook and drove four hours through ‘Lord of the Rings’ scenery in the Southern Alps. Our ultimate destination was the Rangitata Rafting Base located between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo.
Unfortunately the skies soon became overcast and it threatened rain all day long. Only four of the 40 people on the bus signed up for white water rafting. I would have gone had I known before it was too late that wet suits and fleece jackets were provided. Nobody explained that one!
With rafting out, I put on my raincoat and set out on a 90-minute hike to what was billed as a picturesque gorge. Only one other girl chose to come with me. The others stayed close to the wood stove at the base and watched the lone DVD that had been left behind.
They were a subdued group when we left for our walk and looked even sadder when we got back. It was Valentine’s Day and I suspect most of the girls would rather have been at the premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey than watching The Dukes of Hazzard movie.
I didn’t catch Johnny’s last name but when I asked how much land he farmed, he replied: “Far as you can see.” He was more specific on the number of cattle in his heard. “We’ve got 400 heifers in total. They’re just about ready to go to dairy farms. The steers went to auction last month.”
Johnny explained that cattle are a very small part of his business. “We’re mostly into beetroot and venison.”
“Yep. We got about 6000 head in total. Half are females. We raise them under contract for a slaughterhouse in Germany. We ship the girls, keep the boys and once a year we harvest antlers.”
I wondered how many antler chandeliers or coat hooks the world really needed. Thankfully Johnny saved me the embarrassment of asking that question when he explained that he cuts the antlers into small pieces with a bandsaw and ships them to China where they’re coveted for their medicinal qualities.
When I got back to the base I found that people had been talking about me. Earlier in the day I had mentioned to a seatmate that I had worked in the horse racing industry in Canada. Apparently the news had spread. One girl asked if I knew Skye Chernetz who had been on the Stray bus that came through here last week. I knew that Skye had won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s Top Apprentice Jockey in 2013 but I had to admit that we had never met. (I worked on harness racing broadcasts and had minimal interaction with the thoroughbred jockeys.)
When one of the Dutch girls heard me talking about horse racing, she mentioned that she had a racing story of her own. A few months earlier Reinke was in Australia when people from her hostel asked if she wanted to join them for an afternoon at the track. She didn’t have a lot of money and knew nothing about horse racing but she went anyway. By the last race she was down to her last $6 so she bet it all on a three-horse Trifecta box. Her friends didn’t mind waiting long after the last race while the Mutual Manager verified the ticket and cut a cheque for $34,000. Reinke’s 90 day trip has since been extended to a full year.
After Reinke told this story another girl asked if I knew a guy named Bill Fines.
“Only since 1980,” I said. Bill was a judge at Barrie Raceway when I charted my first race and he and my late business partner Gord Irwin Jr. were the best of friends.
It turned out that Jennifer grew up in Orangeville, Ontario and knows Bill and Cindy’s daughter. She’s currently on leave from her job as a Funeral Director at Dods & McNair in Orangeville. If you think of Funeral Directors as pale, thin, elderly men with receding hairlines, think again. Jennifer is an athletic looking 25-year-old and in her spare time she’s a blocker with the Orangeville Roller Girls. She’ll compete in a roller derby tournament when she gets to Australia next month.
Six of us stayed up way too late playing some word game at which I really sucked. My best score was 14. Jennifer scored in the mid 20s, but it was the lone American girl on the bus who cleaned up with a best score of 38. I’m pretty sure the scores accurate as they were verified by Reinke. She’s well versed in counting.