The closer I get to the end of my journey, the harder it is to write the blog entries. It’s not because I don’t want to share. I just don’t want to come back, and every time I write an entry it’s because I’ve visited another city, and each city brings me closer to my origin, which will at last become my point of departure. Traveling for me is an ecstatic experience, which now carries the connotation of joy or happiness; I mean ecstatic in the true sense of the word, from the Greek root ekstatikos, meaning unstable or as people in the 14th century regarded the word, mystically absorbed, stupefied, a description I find more accurate for my experiences. Whatever else travel has been, it has been a mystic experience, one of detachment from familiar people and places, relationships and obligations.
Travel is form of pure activity, where much of my time was spent on the basics of acquiring food and shelter. Pico Iyer says that traveling is like being in love: a state of exquisite vulnerability where every sense is heightened to receive and give to the loved one. And while I agree with that in principle, my experience has been more ethereal than any love I have experienced. Being away from my home and everything that is familiar to me is like being in space, as though I have two selves: one in suspended animation while the other gets to tramp around on the other side of the world, freaking out and crying and loving the veggie kebab wrap a the Sultan’s Table and laughing with delight at the Sydney New Year’s fireworks. I stay in touch or not – I have control over that, while I have little control over what happens on the ground over here.
In my One Hundred Years of Therapy, I have come to understand much about personality disorders and especially addiction. In 12 Step meetings, many people speak of how drinking was the perfect way to numb out, medicate themselves to where they didn’t feel anything. I experienced that. Since I have become a sober member of society, though, other addictions besides alcohol raised their heads – shopping, spending, sex, food, people. I am now convinced that when I overuse any substance, it is because I crave feeling something, anything rather than live in a state of nothingness and numbness and – worst of all – boredom. In travel, I leave my routine-bound, numb self behind while the other plunges into anxiety and excitement and delight and fear. In a life where I have spent so much time holding my breath and waiting for it to be over, travel is the way I have found to engage myself in the world. Restlessness might be hard-wired in my psyche. I am, after all, a descendant of Vikings.
And so I came to my almost last stop, Rotorua
, where the air smells of the fire and brimstone that lies bubbling, biding its time, under most of New Zealand. A couple years ago (200,000) a volcano blew and formed a caldera which filled with water and is now Lake Rotorua.
The story about Lake Taupo is much the same, as you’ll note from my previous entry. This is the heart of the Central Volcanic Region or Plateau, and it shows all around in the form of mountains, geysers (which the Kiwis charmingly pronounce “geezers”) bubbly mud pools, yellow sulfur deposits crusted around the lake shore, and, of course, the smell.
Rotorua is surrounded by the lush pastures and farms that are the heart of the cattle and sheep industries. It is also home of the Agrodome
, a sort of Atlantic City for sheep built by champion shearer GodfreyBowen
in the 1970s. I learned about the Agrodome while waiting at the Visitor Center for a shuttle that never showed up. Before I gave up and walked to the YHA hostel, I asked a nice person at the counter about the twice-daily sheep show. Yes, I could catch the 2 p.m. show and would have time to dump my bags, grab a quick lunch and hop on city bus #1. For the low, low price of $1.10, I could get out there – and for the same price, get back again.
I walked into the Agrodome auditorium – or theater, since it’s more on the scale of a Branson performance hall, though not as gilded – and was unaccountably nostalgic for something that I grew up hating – sheep. My brother had about 30 head (Suffolk, I think). They proved to be stupid, easily panicked, sometimes belligerent, and smelly. The lambs were cute enough, but then came the day that I was recruited to hold each two- week old, its back against my chest while I held front legs in left hand, and rear legs in my right while my brother crunched a tag through the ear, docked the wiggly tail and castrated the males, pulling the sacks out with his fingers, flinging the bits down where the dogs gobbled them up. He saturated any part that bled with a violet antiseptic spray. I put each down to stagger away crying for its mother. We describe my brother as being “good with animals.”
The stage was set up in tiers, each one labeled with a breed name. Then I saw the sheep in the wings, and started to understand that each one had its own little platform. I couldn’t believe that they were going to stay put up there, but then I saw the stainless steel feeders that look like old-fashioned ashtrays. After Terry, the master of ceremonies, fired up the crowd that was mostly made up of Asians, sitting with headsets plugged into the translators on the back of each seat, we started meeting the breeds that New Zealand produces and exports for fabric and barbecues. At the top of the heap was the Merino breed, prized for its fine, light wool.
According to Terry, in the middle of the 20th century, there were 20 sheep for every man, woman and child in New Zealand. Consider that every military uniform back then was made from wool, and there were just a couple wars going on. Wool production peaked out in the late 1950s, the U.S. contributing to that surge by stockpiling wool during the Korean War, but with the advent of petroleum-based fabrics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the demand for wool steadily decreased. Additionally, liberal governments removed agricultural subsidies, and the number of sheep per capita in New Zealand dropped to 10. Now, the number stands at seven, although there’s been recent growth in production.
In order to process wool, it first has to be separated from the sheep. Terry was kind enough to provide a shearing demonstration. A note: The clothing he’s wearing is typical of a shearer: the trousers are a tight canvas weave, lined to keep scratchy wool from irritating the skin. The singlet allows for unrestricted movement and air circulation. According to him, a full day of shearing is the equivalent to doing a triathlon. Once the critter was sheared, bits of the fluff were distributed to the audience for us to play with, roll between our hands, smell the lanolin, feel the scratchiness.
Where there are sheep, there are sheep dogs.
I was fully expecting to see Border Collies put through their paces, but was disappointed. Instead, these gangly, large, baying things showed up on stage. Turns out that the New Zealand Huntaway
was the showcased canine on call. Bred from Border Collie with other breeds including the Irish Setter, English Hound, Old English Sheepdog, and Blood Hounds, they bay incessantly at the sheep, typically directing them from behind. There are breeds that move animals with direct eye contact from the head of the herd – and those to work to push animals forward from the back. The Huntaway is one of the latter breeds.
Huntaways are not very attractive. They look like the mutts they are, with inconsistent coat characteristics and colorings showing up in the same litter. The breed is truly a working breed – not a pet, but an employee. In fact, Terry was telling me after the show that a dog does the work of five men on a sheep station. Now, I had a herding breed dog (a Corgi) and he was awfully cute. I love herding breeds – they know how to make decisions as well as obey commands. And while I loved my dog and respected his abilities, Corgis (especially Pembrokes) have been bred to be cute pets. Some do still work, but (in my opinion) they have become too short and too long. A quick look at the first Corgis shows that they were once working dogs, just like the Huntaways. With any luck, this relatively new breed will not become a cute pet.
I missed the herding demonstration outside after the stage show because I lingered around the sheep and wandered through the two souvenir stores that were full of over-priced merino wool yarn and sweaters, lanolin-based products combined with New Zealand manuka honey, sheep-skin rugs and every size of stuffed sheep toys imaginable. A vintage wool carding machine stool behind ropes in the corner, and we all looking on while she carded wool, and showed how to spin it into yarn.
The tour buses had departed and most of the audience was gone. I wandered out into the lot, over to a deserted building constructed of rough-cut lumber, a few rows of benches the width of the room in front of a stage that had a few set-ups that looked like the shearing platform where Terry had just denuded a ewe. The walls were lined with placards showing photos and information about the recent history of shearing in New Zealand.
was the father of the Bowen Shearing Technique in New Zealand. On the wall of the shearing shed was a copy of the four-page letter that Bowen sent to the New Zealand Wool Board in 1954 for sheep shearer training scheme. His point: tons of wool were lost each season because of inexpert shearing, some of it ended up as waste on the shed floor, some still on the sheep. Bowen knew what he was talking about; in 1953 at the age of 31, he fleeced 456 sheep in nine hours.
The Wool Board responded to his recommendation and formed a group who provided instruction to Kiwi farmers on how to get the most wool off of their animals, and, consequently, the most profit for themselves. Bowen became an unofficial spokesperson for the sheep growing industry in New Zealand, giving shearing demonstrations in Afghanistan, Scotland, Argentina, India, at the South Pole. He met Kruschev in 1961 and appeared with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1969. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip got a demonstration, too.
He held a record for speed shearing– one sheep in 14.6 seconds.
When he died in 1994 at the age of 72, Wool Report
magazine stated, “Even if Elvis had been a shearer, Godfrey would still be king.”
Although I found all sorts of sweaters in the souvenir shops and info about Bowen in the shearing shed, there was nothing about the dogs. On a sheep farm, a herding dog does the work of five men. But no book, no pedigree, no champions, no cuddly little plush Huntaway doggies for little girls and boys to take home with them. Really? This got me all fired up, of course, to write about the dogs and start providing a record about the pedigrees, the breeders, the history of herding dogs in New Zealand. I mean, if Bowen can start a shearing instructional board, well … Well, who knows. National Geographic had a dog on the cover recently – a Weimariner with red poodle curls. Why not a Huntaway?
I was so indignant that I went back into the souvenirs shops asking for information about the dog breeds of New Zealand. A book, a toy, a photograph of the dogs in action – a whistle! Perfect for the little ones to take home with them! Or a plush sheep dog to go with the sheep, which might have increased the sheep sales if someone wanted a whole herd for the dog. I asked the woman who had demonstrated the carding machine about any info on the dogs. I received the cocker spaniel look (head tilted, confused). “Well, everybody uses their own breed.” She said. “Yes,” I agreed, “but there’s not a book about all the different dog breeds in New Zealand? No information about the Huntaway’s origins?” Again, I was looking at a cocker spaniel.
I crossed the parking lot to the other souvenir shop. The two clerks there were a little more open:
“Huh. That’s kinda cool idea.”
But nothing again. Shameful considering that the name of that shop was The Dog and Whistle. One of the employees looked at me and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Yeah. He summoned Terry, the gentleman who em ceed the show. Terry seemed baffled about why I would be interested in the dogs. I barraged him with questions: Were the dogs pets, or employees? Did they become members of the family? What about starting a pedigree on the Huntaways? Are there breeders? What about the Border Collie – is that still a popular breed, or is it being replaced? How many different herding breeds are used in New Zealand? He seemed a little dazed. “You’ve thought about this.” Yeah. I have.
But he offered to take me out to the dogs kenneled around back of the auditorium. They heard us coming and we heard them long before we walked in the door. Terry and I shouted over the ruckus.
On the way out, I stopped at the colossus of sheep, a giant model of a Merino named Prince. Prince was pretty darn cool, although quiet, but was quite photogenic and didn’t have any problem standing still. I stood waiting for the bus as the driver had instructed me across the road by a paddock where horseback riders were practicing jumps, trucks pulling trailers passing me. Another wave of nostalgia. I still love the smell of horse.
So far I had managed to completely disregard the thing for which Rotorua is renowned: geothermal attractions. Spas and soaking pools abound in the area, and a person can spend just as much money as they want to swim around in hot acidic water or roll in mud. Geysers erupt regularly, and there is a Maori village where you can go and observe the customs of the native people and eat food that’s been cooked underground. I decided that after fighting a nasty virus for weeks and sleeping on a different bed every other night, it was time for a good long soak. One of my roommates at the hostel, Laavia (a Czech who moved to Canada and is now an Australian citizen) and I decided to go to the Polynesian Spa
mid-morning, when the pools were less crowded.
After switching from a pool that was hot to one that was hotter and then into the one that was hottest and back again, we showered, had lunch and then headed out to do more. I had planned to go to the Rotorua Museum, which was right around the corner, but Laavia wanted to rent a car and go to more of the attractions and not have to pay for a shuttle or a city bus. After checking a couple agencies, we finally gave up and accepted that there were no cars to be had for one day. Every time I mentioned the museum, Laavia changed the subject and finally decided she wanted to go to the Luge.
Being a native of the northern parts of the world where winters are cold and icy, I hear “luge” and think of those crazy people in Spandex hurtling down what look like frozen water slides. The temperature seemed a bit warm to do that, but I was curious about what the thing actually was. There was also the Kiwi Adventure, a place to see the endangered national bird in a controlled nocturnal environment, so I thought I could go there while Laavia did the hurtling.
During the next few hours, I came to understand why traveling alone is a good idea. Specifically, you get to do exactly what you want, when you want, how you want, where you want. No compromising, no discussing, no dancing around topics, no silent disappointment or deeply buried resentment. We checked out the Kiwi Adventure, but once we saw the admission price, we both said no. I had already paid $30 the day before to see sheep cavorting around on stage, and wasn’t game to pay another $25 to see a few birds skittering around a darkened enclosure. To the luge.
I don’t understand amusement parks – largely because I do not find them amusing. I don’t even find them interesting. The time for being flung around and feeling my stomach press against my kidneys which in turn press against the vinyl backrest which in turn exerts centrifugal force upon all of my organs is long past. Being dizzy and nauseous hasn’t been any fun at all since I stopped drinking. Taking rides up gondolas is nice, but I would much rather get to the top of a mountain by hiking it. And going in circles in a go-kart looks excruciatingly boring, and it is expensive. But I went along, because it was nice to at last have a travel companion who was not in her 20s, and because when I balked at paying $36 for a ride in a plexiglass bubble up a mountain and then roll down again at high speed, she paid half.
Once we got in the gondola, which was made for two or three people, Laavia confessed that part of the reason she wanted to do this so badly was because she was afraid of heights, and she thought this would start desensitizing her. This eased some of my disappointment about not going to the museum, but also put me in a position of having to be The Soothing Presence. I put on my patient hat and my big girl pants, set to endure half an hour of wasted money – just a quick ride up the hill, watching the town of Rotorua and the lake spread out below us, then a quick roll down the mountain, and we’re done and off to the museum.
Wrong. Up we went, and then stood in line with active children who looked like they were anywhere from eight to 18 years old. We dug in a bin of helmets for ones that sort of fit, then stood in line again to get our little cars. There were two lines, one for those who were on their first spin down the mountain, and one line for those who were doing it for a second time. Second time? Huh? Oh, yes. Lovely. Won’t that be fun. We get to ride back up a chair lift and then scoot down again, and then come up again, and then take the gondola back down again. Well, at least there was a lot of upping and downing for the money.
The carts were simple machines. To stop them, pull back – hard – on the handle. To go, let the handle go forward. Back, stop. Forward, go. I tucked my skirt up under me, put my messenger bag on my lap and straddled the handlebar. All the way down the mountain, five-year-olds screamed past me on a winding, narrow concrete path. Finally we were down, and got on the lift, where my toes hung on to my sandals to save them from a drop they might not survive. I did not rock the chair. I behaved myself well, even asked how Laavia was feeling – how was the challenge she posed herself? We hopped off and got in line for the second ride and found out – oh, shucks – that we didn’t get to go again. I paid for the gondola ride, she paid for both the gondola and the luge. I had taken Laavia’s second ride. We were on our way down again. Hurrah!
Since we were in the part of town that had all the more commercial attractions, I got Laavia to walk with me over to The Caterpillar Experience
. This is not about insects; rather, it is an attraction devoted to the history of the Caterpillar tractor and its roll in New Zealand agriculture and development. The CAT, as they’re called by those of us who are on affectionate terms with them, has been around since the early 20th century and has the same sort of continuous track as a tank. In fact, the mechanical engineering that was developed in the soft soil in the San Joaquin Valley around Stockton, California was the inspiration for the English tank, since these tractors were used to pull guns in the first world war.
During World War II, Caterpillar products found fame with the Seabees, Construction Battalions of the United States Navy, who built airfields in the South Pacific.
(Now, Caterpillar builds a complete line of defense products.)
When we walked into the Experience, I knew that Laavia didn’t get it, that she was humoring me just as I had humored her desire to ride the luge. I also knew that I couldn’t explain it to her, and that it would probably be more expensive than what I wanted to spend, but I had to go there and pay homage on behalf of my father, and in memory of all the times I climbed those tracks as though they were a little ladder made just for me, all the way up to the seat where I pulled the levers pretending to drive. I had to go there for all the times that I watched my brother out on our little yellow tractor, dozing snow on a minus-20 January afternoon, or silhouetted by the setting sun that day in August 1976, pushing the body of my pony into a hole after she lay down in the wheat stubble and would not get up again, dying of colic. And now I don’t understand why I didn’t tell Laavia to go catch the bus, that I was going through The Caterpillar Experience.
After dinner, I insisted on walking over to the Rotorua Museum
anyway, because I at least wanted to see the outside of it before I left in the morning. I rounded the corner and was immediately even more disappointed that I had spent the better part of my day alternately soaking in hot water and riding down a mountain. The Rotorua Museum is fabulous, and the gardens that surround it are lovely. In fact, I would much rather have gone to the spa and spent the rest of the day there.
I noticed that the door was open, and walked in, Laavia behind me. They were open for another hour. I paid and told Laavia I would see her later. She hesitated at the door. I could tell that she wanted me to go with her – to do what, I don’t know. But I just smiled and waved and went to watch the (excellent) movie about the last eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886
It was an hour well-spent. Not only did I watch the film re-enactment of the eruption, I did a fast pass through the Brian Brake “Lenson the World”
exhibit, developed and curated by Te Papa museum in Wellington. The big disappointment was not being able to spend any amount of time in the fabulous wing devoted to the native Arawa
people, who donated the 50 acres where the museum and government gardens stand. I did get to see a couple of the rooms that have been preserved from the days when the building was a bath house
– actually, the New Zealand government’s first foray into international tourism. The spa employed the latest methods for those who wanted to “take the cure” in the hot pools. Water from the lake and hot springs was pumped directly into sunken bath tubs where various methods of rehabilitation were employed. Now these chambers look like the anterooms to a mad scientist’s laboratory, but in the day, it was health technology. In fact, U.S. Nave Rear-Admiral Sperry happened to be there in 1908 for the grand opening. Creepy stairs led all the way up, through the attic up to the viewing platform where the lake was beautiful as the sun set over the gardens.
The next morning I was off at 7 a.m. on the last leg of the journey – a brief stop at the Waikoto Caves to see the glow worms, then back to Auckland where I would re-pack for the flight back to Los Angeles.