Many thanks to Kym Masera Taborn for the transcript

The Austin American-Statesman
October 10, 1999

Brisket? We feed that to the dogs; Threadgill's Eddie Wilson traveled
[Eddie Wilson is Renee O'Connor's step father]

By: Eddie Wilson

Until a few years ago, my plan was to spend the rest of my days as a local curmudgeon, limited to a 100-mile radius of my beloved childhood in central Austin. But that plan has been thrown a mind-altering curve by my stepdaughter, Rene, who lives in New Zealand. She's the actress who plays Gabrielle on the TV show " Xena: Warrior Princess."

Two years ago, Rene invited her mom Sandra and me to visit during the New Year's holiday. She offered to give us a grand tour of the South Island, ending with a trek on the Milford Track -- known, I was told, as the finest walk in the world. Fly 7,000 miles to take a hike?

Even a curmudgeon should know when to say "thank you very much" and mean it.

Before leaving, I was told to expect the scenery to look like a tight mixture of Hawaii, Northern California, Ireland and the Swiss Alps. Then I read that nothing could prepare me for the visual splendor, so I tried to prepare myself instead for the longest flight and the longest walk I ever expect to make.

No need to worry about the 13-hour nonstop Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. It was nothing like entering a "Hands On A Hard Body" contest. Imagine taking your favorite easy chair to your favorite restaurant, watching first-run movies and having to deal with decisions about fresh-squeezed juice, champagne, fillet or dory, the wine list or stout, bitters, porters and ale. Life on the ground should be so good.

My preparation for the trek was worthwhile, however. The "finest walk in the world" includes three days that cover 33 miles, over a mountain pass and through a rainforest. On advice of counsel, Sandra and I shopped for good hiking boots, fitted for downhill walking, and took off across town from one Threadgill's to another. Six miles each way, but oh so flat. Royal-Memorial Stadium bleachers and ramps provided a needed bit of gravity for the training.

I'll admit to a gnawing of performance anxiety. Then I realized that this was more of an adventure than a vacation. This was a contest to see just how much fun I could have in "The Walking Capital of the World."

It was fun. We spent two entire weeks driving to, through and around every spectacular geological wonder within reach. From the gardens of Christchurch to the Franz Josef Glacier, from the pancake rocks and blow holes to the underwater aquarium in Milford Sound, we traversed the South Island more like triathletes in training than the senior citizen I had become. Gondola rides, boat tours, we tried to see it all.

Along the way, I began to plan for Trip II -- the lollygag and pub crawl. I was seriously hooked on this place and its people. It took a couple of days to get infected with it and it has gotten worse every day since.

Fast-talking mates

Everyone you meet in New Zealand -- on the streets, in cabs, in restaurants -- treats you like you're part of their lifeline just by being a tourist in their country. And all you have to do to expand that beyond any reasonable expectation is to say, when asked, is that you are from Texas. They all want to come here. And they all want you to tell them a story.

Although the people in New Zealand use fine English, my Texas ears cannot keep up. I have to ask my good friends to slow down and repeat things. One more time, please. They have dozens of quaint expressions. Long Black is a large black coffee. All Black is rugby. Long drop is an outdoor privy. Panel Beater is a body shop. Give Way means Yield.

Evidence of high levels of environmental awareness show up as soon as you land. "DO THE RIGHT THING!" adorns litter receptacles everywhere. Every hotel room we visited had doorknob hangers urging guests to use their towel several times to save tons of detergent and millions of gallons of water.

Trekking the Track

I can't begin to describe the Milford Track. I can't describe a glacier or a rain forest or a kea or a dolphin. If you want to look at the 700 photos we took you'll have to catch me during happy hour when I'm tending bar. I'll show and tell, but I'm not writer enough to try.

Remember, there are no snakes on either island. None, zero. And it changes the nature of a walk in the forest, knowing there are no snakes. Piece of heaven, or what? Ten miles a day on the Milford Track wouldn't take too long to hike if you didn't have to stop to take pictures every few minutes. We must've crossed 50 streams on swing bridges, seen a thousand waterfalls, spotted a dozen rare birds . . .

Say what you will about the wonders of life in the country, nothing stirs the imagination faster than a fine city. Auckland, home of more than a million people, is vibrant and beautiful, and in conflict with itself in ways so similar to Austin that it makes me smile and sympathize and feel kinda sorta right at home.

Familiar battles

The public transit moves smoothly around Auckland on five-minute intervals for a quarter. There are heated political struggles between the mass transit backers and the road builders, the developers and the preservationists, conservatives and labor, Maori and Kiwi. During our last visit, voters decided to allow New Zealand's 18-year-olds to purchase and consume alcohol. The legal age had been 20. Sandra and I disagreed on the subject. New Zealand's MADD is mad. Right at home.

When Rene went back to work, we visited the Xena set west of the city. I got to watch Rene and Lucy and a cast of dozens create make-believe for millions. On our second trip to New Zealand -- the recent lollygag, this summer -- Lucy had a party at her home and I missed a photo-op of a coffee cup balanced on her pregnant tummy. She showed me her Lyle Lovett collection and swears to know every word to every song on every CD! If you didn't know, the lady is a world-class vocalist.

On to the North Island

During our second visit to New Zealand, Rene's vacation got canceled and she had to go back to work. So we rented a car and set out to explore the North Island, heading north for the Bay of Islands with no guide.

Learning to drive on the left side of the road in the mountains was possible only because of the light traffic. Sandra screamed a lot and told me her view was stunning but please don't look now, watch the road. I had a tendency to overcompensate and move too far from the center stripe. That left Sandra riding directly over the shoulder, white knuckles gripping the dash. Needless to say, we didn't take so many photographs on the driving vacation. I'll do better next time.

In June, New Zealand begins its winter, and the natives apologize for lack of floral splendor. Poo. It was about 50 degrees and a million shades of green. This was the Irish look I'd heard about.

We ferried the car across the bay to Russell, a little fishing village that lays claim to the birthplace of New Zealand's human history. First the Maori Indians in their canoes a thousand years ago, and then the European whalers in the early 19th century.

We were among a very few guests at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. We had a full moon, a picture window, a bottle of wine. I began to think about a third trip. And maybe a job with the New Zealand Travel Bureau.

We lucked aboard a tour boat that cruised the Bay of Islands. There are 140 islands in the bay and lots of dolphin, seal and occasionally whales.

Along the way, we docked at a fishing camp built in 1926 by the American writer, Zane Grey -- whose "Tales of the Angler's Eldorado" describe his experiences as a fisherman in New Zealand. During the summer, families camp up and down the beaches, and the restaurant feeds 600 people a day. (The restau rant is closed in the winter, though).

Upon returning to Russell, we set out to find the Swordfish Club, a private fishing club that overlooks the bay. When we stuck our heads in the door, folks with pitchers and pints invited us inside for tours and toasts. We saw Zane Grey's boat, the Alma G, built in 1926, floating in the bay. A snapshot inside the Swordfish Club showed Grey with 10 swordfish -- one day's catch.

Lamb, fish and butter

I don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings about the cuisine, but there is a direct link to England in the history of Kiwi food. Bangers and mash, peas, pumpkin and a sweet potato called kumara are staples of Kiwi comfort food. Lots of pastries, meat pies, kidney and potato pie. . . .

New Zealand is the lamb capital of the globe -- there are more than 47 million sheep in the country. No heat from peppers is sought, evidently, by anyone but me. Capsicum in New Zealand is a bell pepper. They have a thing for little, tasteless British sausages. They butter their sandwich bread. Every breakfast I ate was served with broiled tomatoes.

The restaurant scene, however, is hot. New Age flair, continental, Pacific Rim and Asian, all the things that a tourist-seeking hotel industry would promote are in evidence in the cities, resorts and slick magazines. The booming wine business is a major factor in development of fine dining in the countryside. And the pork and beef entrees have noticeably improved in the four years Rene has lived there. I hear the secret to success in the better restaurants is that they butcher their own meat. Fish is plentiful, exotic and cheap. Mussels in the grocery cost less than a dollar a pound.

The grocery industry has made huge strides in Auckland, but it fails woefully at the butcher block. They don't butcher or cook beef with much interest. When Sandra helped Rene with a barbecue (a barbie, that is) on a trip previous to my first visit, the butcher couldn't believe she really wanted a brisket. Brisket is what they use for dog food.

The saddest thing about the evolution of eating in New Zealand is the proliferation of American fast food chains. Quick and greasy is appallingly appealing. I wonder if America will eventually cause a wave of couch potatoes to spread across the little piece of heaven in the South Pacific?

Next time: Windy Wellington and my first fishing trip.

Eddie Wilson runs Threadgill's restaurants in Austin. He's the author of "Threadgill's: The Cookbook."


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