New Zealand Is Trying to Kill Me

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

Kiwi idea of an easy hike

I am writing this essay during my ninth trip to New Zealand, a country that I love dearly and that is also trying to kill me. The first time I nearly died here was 21 years ago, and it’s been happening with a fair degree of regularity ever since. In 2001 my Kiwi spouse was required, by the terms of his student visa, to return home for two years, so we relocated to Aotearoa for what we thought would be a lengthy sojourn.[1] We arrived at his mum’s house in the middle of the North Island in the middle of the night and in the middle of the winter, emotionally battered, drained from 24 hours of plane travel, and with a crippling case of jet lag. For days my lovely mother-in-law took great and tender care of us, refusing to let us to go to sleep at 5:00 p.m. when our bodies were screaming for bed—unfortunately, she tried to keep us awake with episodes of “Monarch of the Glen” and “Coronation Street,” literally the two most soporific television programs ever devised by the mind of man. So many solicitous cups of tea! So many somnambulist games of Scrabble! So many furzy Scottish landscapes melting drowsily into cobblestoned Mancunian streets![2] Her ministrations were kindly meant, if largely inefficacious.

But that is not how I almost died. Just a couple of days into our sleep-deprivation program, my sister-in-law M. decided it would be an excellent idea to take us caving. Clearly my brain was not working properly from lack of rest, so I agreed to this plan and a day later we all piled into her car for the first, and not least hazardous, part of the expedition: the trip from the Bay of Plenty to Waitomo, which was my first experience of cross-country travel in my newly adopted homeland. For Americans used to interstate highway travel, the process of getting from Point A to Point B in New Zealand by car can seem daunting and even surreal.

There are no major motorways in the country (there is a bit of expressway around Auckland and Wellington, but it mostly serves to move local traffic around bypasses), and the national highways are what Americans would consider back roads: single lane each way with occasional passing areas, windy and twisty, dotted with traffic lights as they cut straight through small rural towns. (My spouse’s favorite illustration of the nature of New Zealand roads is the juncture on State Highway 2—“The second most important motorway in the country!” he loves to point out—where the road narrows to a single lane crossing a bridge, forcing cars to alternate in each direction. This same bridge also carries train traffic.) Kiwis love to hurtle across this network of upgraded carriage tracks at death-defying speeds, clinging to the edges of steep gorges and drop-offs and overtaking lumbering trucks in narrow passing bays. They also love to do so drunk and without wearing seat belts: from 1917 until 1967 pubs closed at 6 p.m., so the tradition of men binge-drinking for an hour after work (the “six o’clock swill”) caused huge surges in both domestic violence and road accidents.

Before I go any further in my description of our death-defying caving trip and the expedition to get there, let me pause to explain that I love traveling by car in New Zealand. The countryside is—in case you hadn’t heard—breathtakingly beautiful, and the slower pace of car travel means that you actually get to appreciate all that natural splendor from the road. When it’s time to stop for a meal or a coffee, instead of exiting an interstate and choosing from a horrifying smorgasbord of fast-food options at a gasoline-soaked rest area, you simply pull over at a homey café in one of the towns you’re passing through—or even, increasingly, by the side of the road in a rural area. The food in New Zealand is properly the topic of another essay, but I will say that I don’t think Kiwis fully understand how staggeringly lucky they are when it comes to the whole eating situation. The entire countryside is basically divided between growing gorgeous fruits and vegetables (some of which, like feijoas and kumara, are available nowhere else) and producing delectable grass-fed dairy products.[3] Your café meal will thus involve some combination of a beautiful sandwich with beautiful cheese, a beautiful meat or vegetable pie, a beautiful salad, and a beautiful flat white coffee, all of which you will consume in a beautiful garden courtyard while beautiful birds serenade you. The Hamburglar weeps.

But back to our murky netherworld adventure. M. had organized an expedition with some colleagues from her large-animal veterinary practice to some “lightly explored” caves on the property of a local farmer. After an hour on twisty roads that would make an astronaut car-sick, we arrived at a big empty barn in the middle of nowhere, where we all piled out of our various cow-poo-covered vehicles and went inside to change into polypropylene longjohns, overalls, gumboots, helmets, and headlights. (The tactical gear really should have been my first clue that this was not going to be like visiting the handrailed pathways of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.) Then we piled back into the cow-poo-covered vehicles to embark on what turned out to be the most terrifying part of the whole trip: a couple of miles across the farmer’s fields, on rutted tracks snaking along switchbacks dropping hundreds of meters into ravines on either side. There was, at a generous estimate, about a yard on either side of the road before the drop-off. It was rainy, and the ruts were full of mud, and the truck we were in was actually fishtailing along the tracks. Finally we arrived at some pre-determined destination, stopped, and piled out of the cow-poo-covered vehicles straight into The Piano. We trekked through a couple of hundred yards of dense rain forest, complete with knee-deep mud, in order to get to the mouth of the cave. Right before we got to the cave entrance, we had to ford a deep stream. Being American and therefore genetically gumboot-less, I had borrowed a pair of M.’s old ones, which were a couple of sizes too large (this becomes important later) and only ankle-high. I was standing contemplatively in front of the stream when all of sudden a strapping polypropylene-clad large-animal vet named Jo crouched down right in front of me and said she’d carry me across piggy-back; even though she probably weighed only about 10 pounds more than me she practically ran through the water as if I was a light knapsack. (I later found out that among Jo’s many strapping skills was the ability to assemble a machine gun in the dark. She seemed remarkable to me at the time, but I have since learned that this represents a fairly standard suite of accomplishments for any self-respecting Kiwi lass.)

After we entered the mouth of the cave there were a few smallish scrambles and some streams to wade through, and then the path we were following was to take us to the upper, “dry” part of the system. In order to get up, we had to climb, one at a time, on a rope, up a 30-foot rock face with water coursing down it, while everyone who hadn’t gone before stood below staring at our butts and commenting on our climbing skills. My scramble up that wet rock face was powered by pure shame, and represents the one and only time in my entire life I have ever managed to haul my body up an edifice using a rope. At the other end of the climb were some spectacular limestone formations and some gentle educational tidbits on the part of our guide, but for the most part the entire enterprise was about the various challenges involved in getting in, out, and around. There was climbing; there was scrambling; there was balancing precariously on the edges of ravines on very slippery mud in (v. supra) two-sizes-too-large gumboots; there was crawling on hands and knees through narrow passages; there was lots of slipping and falling into lots and lots of muddy water. My favorite part was a bit that involved all of these things combined: crawling through a tight passage with a stream in the bottom of it, then twisting around just as your body emerged and descending a rock face on a rope while suspended above a precipice dropping down into who-knows-where. The entire two hours we were in the cave, my stomach was churning and I felt vaguely like I would faint—but that was probably the jet lag.

Finally we emerged back into the rain forest and traveled back along the switchbacks, which were now even more muddy and treacherous, in our cow-poo-covered vehicles. (It turned out that the heroism of strapping Jo was for naught in the end, since my legs were soaked up to the thigh in water by the time it was all over. When we got back to the barn, I took off my boots and literally tipped them upside down to pour the water out, just like in a Warner Bros. cartoon.) Then came a big dinner in the barn while listening to a couple of the vets tell hilarious animal-husbandry-gone-awry stories. My tail bone was twanging where I landed on it hard, my knees were covered in huge purple-and-red bruises, and the skin was rubbed off my palms from gripping sandpapery limestone hand-holds. Later we looked at glow-worms in a grotto and they shone like a thousand stars.

Remutaka hill road

This was an absolutely typical New Zealand experience; if there are any Kiwis reading this essay, they are probably wondering why I even bothered to relate such an unremarkable tale. I have described it at length, largely for the edification of North Americans, because it was my introduction to the lunacy of my spouse’s compatriots and has been repeated, with variations, multiple times in the past 20 years. Since I started visiting this country regularly I have been hauled across more gorges and ravines, through more mud and water, and up and down more miles of steep track than any novel-reading, tea-drinking, cat-loving, bespectacled nerd has the right to expect from a single lifetime. Even something as mundane as driving from the city of Wellington to our friends’ farm in the Wairarapa valley requires navigating terrifying roads across the Remutaka mountain range—huge drop-offs into a steep gorge with no guardrails—that perfectly sane Kiwis consider a normal commute. Less than a week ago some friends organized a day hike that was carefully vetted for scary heights for my benefit—my vertigo is considered an amusing quirk but kindly indulged nonetheless—that turned out to involve intensely arduous negotiation of slippery mud, roots, and drop-offs on a barely discernible track for nearly six hours. It’s not that Americans don’t do this kind of thing all the time, of course, because we do—it’s just that for Kiwis this sort of hike is considered a gentle post-prandial stroll suitable for the whole family. Half our party did it in tennis shoes.

Even Kiwi dogs are intrepid

I have spent a lot of time over the years pondering the difference between Americans’ (okay, my) boundaries around physical safety and those of New Zealanders. While people the world over love dangerous adventuring—indeed, many of them travel to New Zealand specifically to bungy jump, heli-ski, abseil, jetboat, glacier hike, and sky dive to their hearts’ content—I contend that the average Kiwi is more cavalier about physical danger than the citizens of any other land.[4] Partly this has to do with the fact that Pākehā (White) New Zealanders are largely descended from a mass migration of Scottish Highlanders in the mid-nineteenth century who had to figure out how to run sheep farms on an island in the middle of nowhere.[5] (And by “run sheep farms” I mean, of course, clear-cut land that had been seized from indigenous Māori. In that regard our two countries are very much the same.) “Kiwi ingenuity” is the ubiquitous self-description for the resulting settler-colonial culture of rural self-sufficiency, and usually refers to the ability to fix anything with a bit of Number 8 wire (kind of like a New Zealand version of duct tape)—there’s even a beer named after it. The deeply internalized idea that you should be able to—and therefore can—fix anything through sheer resourcefulness perhaps means that on some level, you are not afraid to die.[6] Indeed, Kiwi parenting is very much about inculcating physical fearlessness in children. It amazes me to watch the kinds of adventures that parents allow children to undertake, physically risky (and fun!) activities like go carts, rope swings, and flying foxes that the American parents I know would find too dangerous, and yet still form the texture of Kiwi childhood. The unofficial national motto is “She’ll be right.”

So New Zealand is trying to kill me. Of course you know this is a joke, born of deep affection for this country and some serious love for many Kiwis who regularly drag me across gorges and through ankle-deep mud. New Zealand is trying to kill me with adventure, with camaraderie, with breathtaking natural beauty. My own country, which swaddles its citizens and tourists with handrails and lighted pathways, with health and safety regulations and torts litigation, with helicopter parenting and moral panics over kidnapping, is actually trying to kill me with guns. After the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019, New Zealand immediately (within six days) announced a ban on semi-automatic weapons and a nationwide gun buy-back program. Within days of the [insert most recent mass shooting as of the time you read this] tragedy in the United States, my government has done [nothing/insert wholly inadequate response here]. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know why this is. As a country we are founded on, soaked in, defined by, originary violence and mass murder—but so are New Zealand and Canada (my other homeland), which has just frozen handgun sales and initiated a rifle buyback program. I don’t know why the United States of America wants its people to die—first its Indigenous hosts, then its enslaved Black people, then its immigrant workers, and now its schoolchildren.[7] Nothing seems to explain the absolute contempt for, hatred of, human life that characterizes my country at its core. I think most of us don’t even notice the water we’re swimming in.

What does it mean to be safe? Does it mean having a government entity regulating your food, your water, your workplace, your medicines, your caves? Or does it mean trusting your own ingenuity and resources in an extremity? Maybe it simply means the feeling of having a beloved person looking after you. Of course, in the end, all safety is an illusion: we are all fragile creatures marked for death. Our bones are brittle and frail, our integuments easily punctured, and our hearts eventually tire and fail. Being a fearful American, as opposed to an intrepid Kiwi, perhaps means that I am simply more alive to all the ways that death can happen at any moment—in a cave, over a gorge, off a cliff, in a first-grade classroom. Maybe it’s just our national character. Or maybe it’s because of the fucking guns.

[1] He miraculously received a waiver of the home return requirement—an event so improbable that a lawyer refused to take our case because it would have been unethical—through the intercession of one of our Senators or Congresspeople at the time. Due to the closed-door nature of the proceedings, we will never know if we were rescued by Jeff Sessions or Trent Lott. I know, I know.

[2] Yes, I realize that “Coronation Street” is actually set in the fictional town of Weatherfield, but according to Wikipedia the setting is based on a real-life area of Manchester, so in the spirit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Milton-Northern I will continue to think of it as Manchester.

[3] I am duty-bound to acknowledge that the dairy industry in New Zealand has become an environmental catastrophe. So while I am not advocating the practices of NZ big dairy in the past few decades, I am simply acknowledging that the milk and cheese and butter produced by year-round grass feeding is absolutely delicious. As an environmentalist I am appalled; as a consumer of yogurt and buttered toast I am in heaven.

[4] With the possible exception of Australians. It’s amusing to listen to Kiwis discuss, in awestruck terms, the dangerous fauna of Oz; New Zealand has no indigenous mammals other than a few small bats, no snakes, and no dangerous spiders. If there is one way in which Kiwis can be impressed by danger, it’s in contemplating animal attacks.

[5] Most New Zealand houses still lack central heating, even in the frigid South Island, a situation that never ceases to amaze me. It is winter here right now and I am, as usual, spending much of my trip huddled over various wood fires and space heaters, seeking out sources of warmth like an abandoned kitten. An alternative title for this essay was “New Zealand Is Trying to Freeze Me to Death.”

[6] This relatively cavalier attitude does lead to tragedy on occasion, such as the deaths of 22 tourists after the eruption of the White Island volcano in 2019; tour operators had ignored signs of seismic activity in the weeks leading up to the disaster.

[7] Not to mention its citizens experiencing unwanted pregnancy, but that is the subject of another essay.