Saturday, December 13, 2008

24 Hours of Mental Adventure

Its funny how fast things happen after you push the 'travel' button. I'd just left Sydney Airport and the Air New Zealand people were suggesting that in the event of a crash, we put our heads between our knees. I'm pretty bendy, but the seats were so tightly packed, all I'd get was a rub on my forehead. I looked at the guy next to me, a stout 60ish fellow and asked if he could bend that far.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "If we wreck, your head might stop, but your guts will keep going." He motioned with his hands the spillover effect that I could expect. Thus began a fine two hour talk. Ray "You can find me at Berkers pub in Taranaki" is a Vietnam Vet, a Kiwi, living in a solar-powered community in the hills outside Byron Bay where he grows a few plants to complement the medical marijuana certificate he holds.

That little story took a while to tease out. Meanwhile, I learned he'd spent 16 years running one of Australia's largest sheep shearing operations which he finished with a two-year stint in prison for evading millions of taxes.
"I made a lot of money there," he said.
"In prison?"
"It's not like America.," he said. "I'd never survive in an American prison. It's easy here. They gave me hard plastic carving tools. I worked leather and turned out saddle bags for Harley Davidsons." He supplemented his income playing cards for cigarettes which he didn't smoke.

Ray's not a fan of authority. Though he went to Vietnam and cleared bodies from post-napalmed tunnels, he came back with a good dose of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He medicated with booze and began his recovery in the 70s via electroshock therapy. His vet friends are still killing themselves, two just last year. And he's back drinking, saying that it doesn't bother him to put down a six-pack. "It's that light beer," he said.

Ray though, is surviving and along the way, he raised six kids, all of whom are successful. His daughter is a champion sheep shearer. A son is a physician. Another son is a champion at some non-olympic-obscure-I-forget-what. But they're all doing well.

Having suggested that I look him up at the bar, I may just do so. He promised to take me to places that no tourists go. Or maybe go fishing. Yeah, I'm thinking, booze on a boat with an angry vet. Sounds like a real adventure.

The Thinker

My best conversation of the month came when I met Renata at the youth hostel. Her orange hair contrasted with her oilskin coat and her skin shows the maturity of a wise woman, but she was having poached salmon, wine wrapped in a paper bag and raspberries for dessert. We got chatting and I learned she's written a book about Thinking. About how culture affects thinking and how thinking affects culture. Her thesis is, roughly, that we've reached the point of no return, we in Western Culture that is, and there's really no hope for us. The planet, the species, the whole lot. We've failed to use our brains, most of us mistake mental busyness with thinking and so do precious little of the latter and thus, we're gonna crash and burn. It's only a matter of time. I'd love to tell you more, but was too engaged to use my long term memory. Instead, you'll have to wait for the book, titled simply "Thinking."

"It's never a good idea to talk about politics," she warned me. "But what about Obama?" Her point being that while he has energized a huge political force, the centralized money and power people aren't likely to change course and isn't it a bit disingenuous of him to raise our hopes only to have to settle for incremental change.

I suggested she listen to him now. Having promised hope, he is lowering expectations with his "it's gonna get worse before it gets better" message. I explained the difficult compromise of giving people hope enough for someone to get into office but then having to ask them to swallow the bitter pill of economic difficulties and higher taxes.

"I admire Gerhard Schroder," she said. He's the former German Chancellor who opposed the war in Iraq and is now sitting on the sidelines. "He was brave enough to be honest, inspite of the cost."

Renata checked out today. I'd love to a chance to finish our conversation, but perhaps another time.

The Survivors

I left Renata to finish dinner as I booked on a night-time walking tour of the Karori Sanctuary. It's just a few ks from the Wellington CBD, the site of the former water supply for the city. Because of its former role, the bush was more intact and 10 years ago, the area was surrounded with rodent-proof fence. All the possums, mice, rats and other invasive creatures were offed, buried in a large mass grave and are now pushing up green grass. In their stead, the organization has reintroduced nearly extinct specimens of native Kiwi, Hihi, Kaka, Tuatara and Weta which are, in order, a flightless bird with a four inch nose, the technical nest making stitchbird, a supersmart parrot a 200-million year old lizardy species all to itself and a big fat cricket-like bug that was nearly decimated by rats. All these animals were moved out to tiny islands many years ago and lived out there, waiting perhaps, and now for the first time in decades, are back populating their original home. We heard the kiwis but didn't see any. So while Renata figures it is all over, my guides John and Ben, two bird nerds, are hopeful that they can repopulate Wellington with some native animals. So far, it seems to be working. Check them out at

The Colossus

For those who have travelled in Australia, you'll know it is the land of the Large Object. Along the roads there are perhaps a hundred tourist draws, mostly fiberglass. There's the giant prawn, the pineapples, a banana. You get the picture. Today though, I collected the Colossal Squid and it was for real. Eighteen feet of pure squid, caught in 2007 by a longliner pulling up toothfish in Antarctica. At 450 kilos, it weighs about as much as a cow moose. It was just unveiled at Te Papa, Wellington's top museum draw.

There are only three specimens on display in the world and this is the best. It's a cool beast, with tentacles lined with suckers and rotating hooks that will hold a toothfish. It lives down around 3000 feet under the sea, a kilometer or so, and has eyes the size of soccer balls. Add to that a 20 gram brain and luminescent flesh around its eyes that help it see and you have a feeding machine. Once the fishermen had it on board, they froze it in a cube which took three days to thaw. In April, the BBC said it was the most reported story that week. And I just got to see it in all it's well-preserved state. Much more interesting than Grant's Tomb, that's for sure.

Please, though, don't confuse this guy with the Giant Squid. They only go 250 kilos. Based on the beaks found in the stomachs of Sperm whales which eat these gargantuan calamari, scientists reckon Colossals might weigh in at a full ton. They're hoping to confirm that sometime soon. And maybe find a male, no one has snagged any of those. Until then, Colossal Squid sex remains a matter of pure conjecture. It's taste, however, does not. While free of the ammonia flavor of the Giant, the researchers who tasted it say the Colossal flesh quality is a bit like jello. Anyone for aspic?

The Confusion
Now, last thing, this conversation with the customs woman who had just run my bag through the xray, looking for biosecurity violations. I'd already surrendered my nuts, er, the cashews I had and I'd tossed away the apple.

"Sir, do you have a tint?
"A tint. Do you have a tint in your bag."
"Um, ah, I don't think...Sorry. I don't understand."
"The tint. For camping."
"Oh, the tent. Yes. I have a tent."
"You didn't to declare it. It is a biosecurity hazard."
"Oh, sorry."
"Has it been used?"
"No, it's brand new."
"Please declare it next time."
"Yeah, sorry. Didn't think about it."
"You can go now."

Jeeze. Tint terror. I'll remember that if I go fushing with Ray.


  1. hi
    sounds like a great start to your holiday
    what fascinating travel partners!
    love that octopus - any photos? - definatley belongs in Kablookey, doesn't sound like she comes from this planet.