Boarding in the Land of the Kiwis

The North Island
  |  Gorp.com

Kiwis are the friendliest people on the planet. Loopy as all get-out, but friendly.

I end up staying at Andrew's house, where his mom cooks up a smorgasbord—leg of lamb, seafood quiche, pudding for dessert. Before bed, I wander outside and gaze at the Southern Cross. I have zero clue what the next day will bring. This is a good thing. Mystery, after all, is the sweet essence of travel; it's what makes a trip worth taking.

A Peak at Ruapehu
The bus, I decide, is what I want. After breakfast, Andrew drives me to the station, and I grab a window seat, heading south. I want to take advantage of the miracle of the hemispheres: I came from summer and—shazam!—landed in winter. But after two hours' travel, there's not even a hint of snow, just a desert of scrub brush pushing through a mat of volcanic rock. Then the bus rounds a bend and there, huge against the horizon, gleaming white, is the progenitor of all this rock: Mount Ruapehu. It's a beast of a mountain—large enough to accommodate three separate ski areas—steep-sided and tree-bare, with a flattened, ragged top, like a broken-off beer bottle. Home to some serious terrain. At once, my deep-seated snowboard cravings come out of summer hibernation. My legs begin to bounce.

New Zealand public transportation isn't going to win any awards for thoroughness. It's 40 miles from the closest bus stop to the nearest of the ski hills, a decent-size place (11 lifts, 2,300 verts) called Turoa. The trip ends up requiring three hitches. First, a member of the New Zealand air force picks me up; then a talkative retiree; and finally a red minivan screeches to a halt. The side door slides open, revealing a pair of snowboards, and I know I've found the right people.

Shane and Jim, both in their mid-20s, are in the front seat. Jim's driving. He's a full-blooded Maori, a descendant of the original Polynesian settlers of New Zealand. His long, black hair is tied in an eloquent ponytail. He drives like a drunken cowboy. The music is loud and incomprehensible. Shane, who's white, puts a Frisbee on his lap and casually rolls a spliff. Simple as that, I've got my partners for the day.

Sloping toward Mayhem
I ride with first-day-of-the-season enthusiasm: giddy and passionate and not altogether coordinated. Shane and Jim, of course, are in late-season form; they're kind enough not to ditch me. The snow's chewed up and the lifts are crowded, but I'm in no position to complain. It's mid-September, dammit, and I'm on my board.

Turoa's an odd place: natural half-pipes formed by lava run-offs; runs as wide as Alaskan glaciers; the surrounding countryside midsummer green. Also, there's the matter of the smoke plumes rising from the summit. Mount Ruapehu, it turns out, is in the process of erupting. Jim blithely tells me that the last two ski seasons were cut short because the slopes were coated in ash.

It seems utterly New Zealandish to put not one but three resorts on a peak that's preparing to pull a Pompeii. All day I keep thinking, this sucker's gonna blow and 5,000 years from now I'll be in some museum, preserved in stone for all time, still strapped to my board. Of course, such thoughts do not for an instant deter me from riding until the last chair.

The night, no surprise, brings further debauchery. I hang with Shane and Jim, playing cutthroat on the pool table, loser buys the next round. These guys are sharks; not only do I purchase every round, I am very nearly indoctrinated into a Kiwi tradition called "down trou"—if your opponent sinks all his balls before you sink any of yours, you have to pull down your pants and run one lap around the barroom.

By the time I think about a place to crash, every hotel in the base village is packed. Shane and Jim plan to sleep in the van, and there isn't room for three. So I end up spending $7 for a spot on the floor of a squash court in the local gymnasium. I wake up with a stiff neck, not to mention a fog bank between my ears.


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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