V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Boarding in Kiwi-land

Published in The Toronto Star, November, 2004.

I peered over the edge of the sand dune, lying on my boogie board, trying desperately to recall what the tour guide said to do in case I veered off course.

Was I supposed to lift my left leg up if the board started to

I was staring down a 70 degree slope of an 85-kilometre sand dune with just a narrow piece of foam that lay between me and a gritty, episodic moment of humiliation in front of dozens of strangers and, oh, possible paralysis if I were to tumble the wrong way.


"You'll have to go sometime," one very unsympathetic and clearly annoyed backpacker said.

So, after telling the jerk vociferously to eat sand in my head, I pushed myself over the edge little by little, first with my big toe, then with my foot.

My view of the world suddenly took a nosedive, as the scene of waiting onlookers at the foot of the hill disappeared and all I saw was an endless vista of sand.

As the board quickly gained momentum, I saw and heard nothing, except for a blurry vision of beige and the whooshing sound of wind.

I was boogie boarding and loving it.

I'm not particularly adventurous. When I'm at one of my regular restaurants, for example, I'm usually the last to decide and make the server wait three minutes at the table before I end up ordering the same dish I always do.

But this trip to New Zealand was different. I was backpacking by

wheels for young, carefree travellers.

Equally notorious are the driver-guides, colourful characters who provide running commentary along the way. It's been said the guides have been known to romp with revellers more than once.

I had picked up the bus in Auckland at an insane hour on a Friday morning, where sleepy backpackers plopped themselves into a seat bank and promptly resumed their sleeping.

We drove to Paihia on the northern tip of the Bay of Islands, a favourite suntrap for Kiwis. It used to be called the "hell-hole of


Now, it's a picturesque town that offers an even balance of activities, ranging from swimming with dolphins, kayaking, diving, sailing and speed boating.

I chose to go speed boating, reeled in by its name, the Excitor. True to its name, the boat sped through the bay. We saw dolphins, swimming happily along the side of other boats, and cruised out to the Hole in the Rock, a cavernous rock with a hole big enough for two speed boats to pass through at a time.

From Paihia, we left for Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand, where waves of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea crash into each other, making for an impressive display of nature's brute force.

Though many of us had come on the trip alone, we were still timid with each other.

Backpacking can be a funny thing. Past experiences have taught me

click with other travellers, on other trips, we're content to be on our own.

This time, I had spoken politely to a few backpackers while on the trip, but hadn't really made the effort to be social.

girls swung open the doors to my cabin, throwing down their sleeping bags and rucksacks onto the beds, immediately primping and preening for a night out.

Thankfully, one of the girls I met on the bus, an American

She saved me from squealing, squeaky, plucky girls and for that I was grateful.

We exchanged individual tales of backpacking throughout Oceania


Though most of the trip was spent on the bus, whether it be a high-speed cruise along the 120-km beach looking for whale carcasses or driving through pristine tropical forests, the one ride I won't forget was one I wasn't looking for.

promised to be worth the trek. But my abominable sense of direction had me second guessing myself a few times, and I unabashedly pulled out my map on the side of the road, careful not to become road kill. When a vegetable van pulled up beside me, I ignored the driver.

"You're going to Harura Falls aren't you? I'll drive you," said a smiling man in his 50s.

I declined, but he insisted, saying it was a long walk he could shorten to minutes.

Though I would never accept a ride like that back home, something told me I'd be alright.

Indeed, he drove me to the falls without incident, telling me his daughter had worked for the Kiwi Experience tour bus and that he enjoyed helping young people out when he could.

I was so taken aback by the man's unsolicited kindness, I wrote about it in my journal as soon as I got to the falls.

"More than the falls, I'm marvelling at this man's generosity and the Kiwi spirit in general," I had written when he dropped me off. "Must shake big-city, Torontonian cynicism here and assume that everyone is friendly and honest rather than my customary suspicion."

As I peered over the falls, sitting on the rocks, thinking about how I was veered off course by a friendly Kiwi, I realized I was in New Zealand, and loving it.

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