When I get back, Natalie says, "Well?"
"I don't think I've gone to that much trouble to see a bra since I was 16," I tell her. "But yeah, it was worth it."
As soon as I get here, I start thinking up new slogans for New Zealand Tourism: "Just like Canada but after an incredibly long plane ride!" or "And now with extra sheep!"
The person dearest to me in the world comes to New Zealand two or three times a year. The landscape, the atmosphere simply makes sense to her. Before I go, she tells me about the ocean, the slope of the mountains, her time with the Maori. She had a shaman carve a necklace for me, which I do wear everywhere, but she forgot to write down its meaning, so neither of us know quite what it's about. She has a moku––a traditional tattoo––on her foot.
But as for me, by day two, I'm already thinking about tattooing "No, I've never seen the bloody hobbit movie" across my forehead. Apparently, the fact that I have long curly hair and don't like shoes means I look like whatshisname who directed the bloody hobbit movie, and people keep coming up to ask me if I know him. I never remember the guy's name between times, so each time somebody comes up and asks me "Do you know whatshisname?" I have to ask them again who he is, and they look at me as if I just said I've been doing rude things to koala bears in front of a kindergarten class.
Wellington's harbor stretches out wide and perfect, and I spend an extraordinarily happy morning ditching the planned program of the press trip I'm on. I take a ferry out to the island in the harbor's mouth and walk a loop trail, looking for tuatara, who have the sense not to show up. The tuatara looks like a lizard, like a sleepy iguana, but isn't a lizard at all, it's a tuatara, a dead end of taxonomy.
Either there aren't really any tuatara on this island––all I see is a skink––or they have the sense to stay out of the burning sun and hide in the low scrub that looks like it gave serious thought to growing up and becoming a bush, but maybe started smoking too young and ended up stunting its growth.
Everything is alarmingly beautiful. The women are pale and dazzling. The streets are clean, the money has pictures of moa––an extinct bird that, when alive, was roughly the size of a Volkswagen--everybody smiles, and once you get past the accent (my NZ roommate in Japan once sobbed into the phone, trying to make a long distance call, "foa, foa," until I took the receiver from her hand and said "four"), the country seems as organized as Singapore, but without the fascist police state vibe.
The vibe, in fact is, well, Canadian. With serious jetlag.
The South Island is ground zero for the white-bread tour of the adventure world, a place where the trees look like enormous clumps of broccoli, there are almost no native animals left at all ("Nibbled to stubs by imported deer!" the tourism brochures could claim), and yet it holds a powerful draw, like the face of a woman you fell in love with twenty years ago, and are genuinely surprised is still by your side.
The magazine I'm working for caters to a demographic that is not my own. "Figure they're going to spend $50,000 on their trip," the editor told me. I'm in a cheap room at the inn, only about $750 a night, but the restaurant menu has single bottles of wine that cost more than I'm being paid for writing my article, which will pimp up New Zealand as a honeymoon paradise.
I fill up the three sinks in the bathroom and watch the water spin down the drain to see if it really is going the wrong way. With what the room costs, I figure it's about five bucks worth of time each time I do this, and each time, I refuse to admit that I can't remember which way water swirls down the drain back home, so I have no idea if it's going the wrong way here or not. I also have to admit, I don't take the physics of the Coriolis effect, which governs rotational movement, that personally, either.
In my room is a minibar; downstairs is an open bar, to which I head, and as I fill my pockets, I think, people who stay in places like this find it easier to spend six bucks on a bottle of water than to walk down a flight of stairs.
Or maybe these rich folks just take the Coriolis effect very personally. Who knows. Any way you cut it, since I'm not sleeping at night––and have to be out working all day––the lodge is taking a serious hit in their Coke budget from me.
I drive south, stop to put on warmer clothes as I head into winter. Someone has written "Death to Hatboy" on the wall––like the real meaning of my shaman's necklace, who knows what that's all about––the road is full of squashed hawks of some sort, and the radio is playing songs that I truly and honestly thought had disappeared forever back in the days when people thought Farrah Fawcett's hairstyle was cool, the wax of the old 45s melted in sheer self-loathing.
Fun thing about press trips: they want you to stay amused. Fun thing about press trips arranged for people working for very swank magazines: they want you to stay highly amused in great comfort, and although I do pass out in the back of the van taking me from one winery to another––a really interesting side effect of mixing alcohol with antibiotics and the first decent sleep I get––I also end up watching glow worms, floating in hotel room bathtubs slightly larger than Cuba, and coming to terms with the whole concept of squab.
On a boat in Doubtful Sound, I walk out onto the deck at midnight. Everybody else is asleep, I have the deck to myself, and I do not recognize a single shape in the sky, except for the Southern Cross, which is way smaller than I'd thought it would be.
Other than that, the lack of constellations is very relaxing. I could be on a different planet, looking out. Or I could just be standing in a time when the world was still quite new and we hadn't gotten around to insulting the stars with our own insistence on pattern recognition.
But none of that is really the point.
The point is, the one thing I asked to do, the only think I asked to do, before I came on this trip.
"This is really where you want to go?" Natalie asks. I've moved from the $700 a night hotel room to a different lodge, closer to town, where my room is $1700 a night. But that does include dinner. After my first night here, the maids asked Natalie if anyone was actually staying in my room, because the bed hadn't been used. What would have been the point? Eight hours of tossing and turning.
"I saw this on your itinerary," she says, "but I thought it was a joke."
No, no joke.
"Okay. Drive through town, and when the road branches, go left." She pronounces "left" "lift," which makes me fall even more in love with her than the thong line on her white pants did. "It'll take a good 90 minutes to drive there."
New Zealand Tourism hadn't been all that happy that this was my one and only request. They offered glacier flights, hikes in the forests. They practically threw tickets to the opera and jet boat rides at me. And even though it was all marvelous, this was still what I wanted to do.
I head south of Queenstown, past the bungee jumping spots, out towards where the wineries begin. And then there's my fork in the road, and I go lift.
"Lift" might actually be the right word, because the road immediately starts uphill, on steep switchbacks, and if a car comes from the other direction, I'm screwed, because I keep forgetting that I'm supposed to drive on the left, and the corners are so tight the whole idea of lanes is kind of academic anyway.
The road disappears for a while into clouds, and when the clouds get bored and go away, the road spits out into a long, narrow valley, and there it is, on the right side of the road.
The Bra Fence.
The Bra Fence is just what it sounds like: a fence with maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty yards of the wire covered by bras. A to DDD. Everything from plain white cotton to pure expensive kink.
The bras stretch away towards a curve in the road, which somehow seems vastly appropriate, and I think of how every single woman I know hates bra shopping, where, they've always said, you end up spending a fortune on something that doesn't fit.
A sign, hand-lettered, hangs between a 34B and a 36D: "Bras only, please," which makes me wonder if somewhere in the country there's a knickers fence, a trouser fence, a sport shirt fence.
Could this all be a ploy simply to avoid hand washing, yet another victim to the fear of the Coriolis effect?
Lace, cotton, strapless, the now-unpopular-at-airport-security underwire. Something for all occasions.
Which brings up the question: What kind of person hangs a $100 bra on a fence in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand?
But that, really, isn't the big question. The big question is, why are more UFOs spotted here than anywhere else in the country?
Space voyages may be even longer and more difficult than we imagine, even worse and more wide awake than the plane ride to New Zealand.
Even though I don't think the country's tourism board will go for "Bring Extra Underwear!" or "Drop your top in NZ!" as new slogans, I am absurdly happy to be here.
I haven't gone through this much effort to see a country since I was 23 and withdrew my Peace Corps application.
But oh, yeah. It's worth it. Absolutely.
Edward Readicker-Henderson specializes in cold, damp places. He's currently writing a book about quiet.
Photos were supplied by Andrew Busst.
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