Backpacker Cabaret at the Jugglers Rest Youth Hostel
Story and photos by Leif Pettersen

Leif Pettersen makes a pilgrimage to an unusual New Zealand youth hostel, a place where keeping his hands occupied with clubs and flaming objects is part of the draw.

Prudent back story: Before I was a bad–ass, hearth–throb, grammar–starved travel writer, I was a semi–professional juggler. I taught myself in the backyard with tennis balls at age 12 and, apart from several extended interruptions to engage in high school sports, college theatre, travel, and wooing bad girls, I have been juggling with various degrees of ferocity ever since.

Like cat owners and Mac users, jugglers are inordinately preoccupied with anything remotely related to their passion. Books with juggling, art featuring juggling, scientific theories that indisputably detail how jugglers are superior to mere mortals…Hell, a few seconds of Michael Mochen's hands performing crystal ball rolling tricks in front of David Bowie's face in the 1986 film "Labyrinth" still sparks online discussions. So when I heard about the Jugglers Rest Hostel in Picton, New Zealand, I was drawn there like I'm drawn to tall, voluptuous, long–tongued women. It was at the basic instinct level.

Juggler's Rest

The Jugglers Rest is the smallest hostel (15 beds, plus camping for four) in tiny Picton on New Zealand's south island, which acts as the main port for ferries arriving from Wellington on the north island. While Picton is a beautiful, serene destination with its own smattering of modest attractions, the fact is that most people get off the ferry and burn rubber straight out of town, heading for various adventure sports destinations further south. Those people don't know what they're missing. Jumping off a platform 43 meters (141 feet) above a river may seem like an adrenaline rush, but you don't know true fear until you've had an errant juggling club bean you in the head, two centimeters from your eyeball. To the extreme, dude.

I was in Picton specifically for a taste of said eyeball–threatening peril. I'd been on the road for 18 months by that point with nothing but a few non–lethal beanbags in my backpack. I was anxious to do a little death–defying club throwing.

The Jugglers Rest has been in existence since 1998, originally opened by two Kiwi jugglers. Before my arrival I'd found a few unsettling online reviews of the hostel, detailing the somewhat notorious, almost frighteningly inconsistent hospitality at the Jugglers Rest. Some raved about how it was the best hostel in the history of the universe, others reported being literally chased off the property by an ill–mannered grump.

This chapter of the Jugglers Rest is now history, boasting new management and accompanying renovations. The hostel has changed hands twice in the past few years. First liberated by American entrepreneur Will Varley and later usurped by Brit Nikki Henson, a regular guest who visited and worked at the hostel intermittently for three years, mercilessly pestering Will the entire time until, exasperated, he sold her the place just for some peace and quiet.

Whether you are a juggler, poi spinner, fire breather or innocent bystander just looking for an open bed, the chilled and friendly atmosphere at the Jugglers Rest is gratifying and infectious. Dinners are prepared and eaten in groups, games are played, Internet/WiFi is plundered, and books are read by the fireplace. When early evening arrives, everyone retires to the courtyard where beer bottles clink, wine corks pop, and props are plucked from racks hanging off the front of the house for the informal circus.

Housed in a converted residence in "suburban Picton" (approximately 500 meters from "central Picton"), the Jugglers Rest is a place you have to want to find. There is no pick–up van waiting at the ferry and no flashy billboard ads in the harbor. The 15–minute walk from the harbor to the hostel is admittedly a smidge draining at the end of a day of travel, but once a juggler has finally arrived, it's like coming home.

I staggered into the green, lush, enclosed front courtyard, adorned with various juggling–inspired decorations, where I was greeted and led to my bed in seconds. After a quick tour of the house and facilities, I headed right back out to the front courtyard to scrutinize the prop rack. The community juggling props have seen better days, the new unicycle notwithstanding, but nevertheless piles of beanbags, clubs, poi, devil sticks, staffs and various flaming incarnations of the lot are laid out for anyone to scoop up and play with.

I blew my juggler cover immediately, informing the staff that I had over 20 years of fit–and–start juggling under my belt. While there is a constant presence of jugglers/spinners at any given moment with a wide variety of talent in various disciplines, there were no "hardcore" players during my sojourn. When I warmed up with five balls, I had their undivided attention.

Shaking off the cobwebs of my 18 months without serious practice wasn't pretty, but the encouragement and genuine interest in sharing ideas shown by the group made the pressure to "perform" almost non–existent. Particularly after the third glass of wine.

My gratifying week at the hostel consisted of myself and the staff trading tips and tricks while a slow, steady smattering of international jugglers, attracted by the hostel's name, paraded in and out of this little performer's Mecca. A surprising proportion of residents arrive at the Jugglers Rest with some level of skill in a juggling–related discipline and are enthusiastically encouraged to play around the courtyard during the day or participate in the nightly cabaret. Even unsuspecting tourists who are thrust into the Jugglers Rest because there simply aren't any other beds available in Picton are often sucked into the lifestyle. Organized lessons aren't offered, but informal coaching is freely available day and night.

When the sun goes down in Picton, the kerosene comes out at the Jugglers Rest. Fire is a big feature at the hostel and you can count on someone setting something ablaze virtually every night. On one memorable night, we were treated to torch juggling by an up–and–coming American performer, inspired fire poi swinging by one of the clerks and fire staff spinning by a local kayak guide.

The hostel's non–juggling amenities include self–catering kitchen, fresh baked bread and homemade organic jam for breakfast, outdoor fire bath, veggie garden, complimentary "town bike," and bike hire for longer excursions.

Currently the hostel is open for business for six months during New Zealand's summer (November through April), but there are whispers of the possibility of keeping it open year–round, though the winter weather in Picton may thwart all but fire–related outdoor activities.

In 2003, Leif Pettersen's "unhinged contempt for reality" spurred him to abandon an idiot–proof career with the Federal Reserve and embark on an odyssey of homeless travel writing. See his regular rants at the Killing Batteries blog.

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