Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis

The South Island

Prevailing rumor holds that the North Island, where I've landed, has far less snow than the South Island. Also, I'm told that there are almost no crowds down there, and the terrain is infinitely better. I'm no fool. I pack my snowboard bag and promptly begin the long journey south. First, an eight-hour train ride. I watch the countryside slide by: farms and towns and rounded little hills, all perfectly arranged. There's not a bit of trash in New Zealand—even on the train each passenger is handed a personal litter bag—and not so much as a single dilapidated home or beater car. Everything has a weird fresh-paint shine, even the grass. It's as though I'm traveling through Legoland.

I spend the night in a cheap hostel in Wellington, then catch the morning's first ferry across the Cook Strait, which separates New Zealand's two major islands. On the boat, about six dozen people insist on telling me that I'm about to cross the "roughest stretch of ocean in the world." They regale me with unnecessarily vivid seasick stories. Waves might spill over the ship, I'm told. One woman hands me a barf bag . . . "just in case." So what happens? The ride turns out to be smooth as a Cadillac. "You're lucky," says the barf-bag lady. Truth is, though, I'm kind of disappointed. The ferry set me back 40 bucks. For that kind of cash I expect to be doubled over in the men's room.

A second eight-hour train ride takes me halfway down the South Island. There's a rugby team in my train car, and the players dedicate much of the journey to deciding who can produce the loudest flatulent noises by placing a hand under an armpit and pumping an elbow up and down. I spend the time counting sheep. Literally. New Zealand's human population is less than 4 million; its sheep population is more than 70 million. Some fields are so packed with mutton, the land at first glance appears to be snow-covered. And looming high over all these future lamb chops, bisecting the South Island like a spiked fence, are the Southern Alps, an enticingly mean-looking range, stacked with pinnacles that seem as though they could shrug you off with the merest hiccup.

The train pulls into Christchurch, a town whose name gives me the willies, and I haul my bag to another budget hostel. I ask the manager about nearby snowboarding opportunities. The good news: There are seven places not far from Christchurch. The bad news: Most of them are virtually unreachable by public transport. Then I notice a brochure tacked to the hostel bulletin board: Dirt Cheap Rental Cars. I call the place up and next thing I know, for about $25 a day, I'm the proud renter of a decade-old Nova, the only jalopy in all New Zealand.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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