When I flew through Los Angeles en route to New Zealand, I went through the usual security rigmarole: The wait, the strip, the disembowelment of the rucksack to get at the computer. Prior to our domestic flights in New Zealand, there was no security screening whatsoever. I did, however, pass a sign ordering me to "remove all obvious clumps of algae."
Every nation has its fears of foreign invaders, and New Zealand, it seemed, was in the midst of a didymo scare. Didymosphenia geminata, I learned from public service announcements and news stories, is a slimy, fast-growing freshwater algae and an unwanted alien. Long present in parts of the northern hemisphere—Canada is regarded with suspicion—didymo was first found clogging Kiwi waterways in 2004. Biosecurity New Zealand, which had posted the airport sign, was trying to stop its spread. The government agency also inspected my hiking boots and granola bars when I entered the country.
This eagle-eyed surveillance made me feel very safe. Not so much because someone was looking out for the birds and trees, but because it meant that there wasn't much else to worry about.
Sure, New Zealand has a big city, foreign trade, and lots of fiber-optic cable. But really I was in a far-away, windswept South Pacific idyll, where the headlines are as often as not about algae, troubled whales, and overturned sheep trucks. The news of the world resonates with a muffle. The country does have a few troops in Afghanistan, and Kiwi papers have reprinted the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons. But it's almost as though the editors of Wellington's Dominion Post, Christchurch's Press, and the Nelson Mail were just hungry for a little excitement. (They succeeded in inspiring a protest march in Auckland and upsetting meat and dairy exporters, who fear losing Iranian business.) In Auckland, police evacuated 70 people from the building that houses the Danish trade commission when it received two packages with Iranian postal marks. They turned out to contain chewing gum.
New Zealand is just too small and far away for a radical to bother with. It's such a pain to get to, in fact, that 10 years ago, when I lived and worked in Auckland for six months, there were no apparent restrictions on immigration. To get a job, all I needed was a bank account, and to get a bank account, all I needed was a passport. Apparently, there's more paperwork now, but still, in 2006, I had the feeling I was in a refuge. The only threat-level indicators I saw were there to monitor the likelihood of forest fires. It's no wonder that up and down the country you meet recent escapees: from London hassle, Johannesburg crime, Dutch ethnic tension, or, in the case of 3,000 Tuvaluans, a country that is sinking into the Pacific.
They come to a place that has recently played Middle-earth, Narnia, and Skull Island in Hollywood films with good reason: It embodies a primitive collective fantasy of the lush natural world. Seen from the air, New Zealand looks green but relatively normal to the American or European eye. Close up, though, things get really weird. Next to a perfectly ordinary pine tree, you'll find a palm that looks like it escaped from the tropics, or an enormous fan of spikes from some Jurassic dream. And then there are the tree ferns, 30-foot pongas and 65-foot mamukas, arching over your head like something out of Dr. Seuss. Just as you start to accept these hallucinations as reality, you'll see something normal again, like an apple tree. It's disorienting.
Meanwhile, wildly different terrain crowds side by side. We hiked the Tongariro Crossing, a path that climbs over the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. Starting out at about 3,600 feet, we climbed up a sloping valley floor formed by a lava flow, and then steeply up to 6,230 feet, where we perched on the rim of a still-active crater. Steam escaped from the ground and the air smelled like sulfur. Just over the summit, we passed a series of glowing-bright turquoise lakes. We descended through alpine grass and then finally ended up in a hardwood forest walking along a stream. Quite a lot of landscape for less than 11 miles.
Our last sporting jaunt was to Waiheke Island. Thirty-six square miles of woods, vineyards, farms, and inlets populated by artists and back-to-the-landers, Waiheke lies 35 minutes from downtown Auckland by passenger ferry. It's so close and so charming, in fact, that Waihekians worry about foreign invaders from Auckland, weekend escapees who are driving up the price of real estate.
Renting bicycles from a shack near the landing, we rode up and down hilly, narrow roads that were mostly car-free. At the bottom of many a hill there was a sandy beach, none so lovely as the mile-long stretch at Onetangi, which was fringed with red-flowered pohutukawa trees and discreet bungalows. As always in tranquil places, I wondered if the people who lived here were on to something that I was too blind to see, pursuing the very things that would bring me happiness if only I would let them: comfort. Nice views. Family. Leisure time and looking out for one's own. Minding the algae and the whales.
Nah. Nothing against whales, but I still wanted to swim in the currents of human chaos. I missed the friction. If civilization was going to go up in flames, I wanted to be there. A few days later I said goodbye to Biosecurity New Zealand and hello to subways and threat level yellow. Ah, the comforts of home.