Beer, Chocolate, Cheese and Birds

I had some unfinished business in Dunedin, my favorite Kiwi city, so a couple weeks ago I headed back there.

And by unfinished business I mean four things: Lush, beer, chocolate and albatrosses.

It’s funny how everybody’s got their somethin’ when it comes to must-haves when hiking. At the end of the day on the trail, at the campsite or in the hut, you see the things people have lugged along because they couldn’t bear to be parted from them, even out in the wild.

Hikers may agonize over grams and ounces when it comes to how many packs of two-minute noodles to bring, or whether they have room to spare for an extra pair of socks, but I’ve seen those same folks pull out of their packs bottles of  Jack Daniels, laptops, thick hardcover books… my must-have, weight be damned luxury in the wild is my Lush stuff. Moisturizers, powders to keep me from smelling like some of the wretches I’ve shared bunkrooms with*,
skin freshening spray made mostly from seawater…

*True story… on the Rees-Dart Trail, which I’ll post about shortly, I’d just put my moisturizer on for the night and put some jasmine-scented powder in my sleep socks when an older Australian man sharing the bunk room with me and seven others walked in. “You smell great!” he said, staring. His wife came in a moment later and he said “Smell her!” (possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever heard uttered in a bunkroom) She did, and pronounced me “absolutely lovely.” They sat next to me, very close, actually, that evening in the common room. I like to think my job in life may be to bring a little jasmine and lavender into places dominated by the thick stink of wet socks, sweat, greasy hair and feet.

I’d run out of a couple Lush items and Dunedin has the only store for hundreds of kilometers, so I swung by. Should I be concerned that they recognized me, greeted me by name and asked how my hiking was going? Hmm, I guess I do go there regularly. Karen the manager hooked me up with a bunch of free samples, too, so I was happy… almost happy enough to forgive them for discontinuing my two favorite moisturizers, Ultralight and Afterlife.

I also signed up for the “beer and chocolate” tour, a package deal where you get discounted tours of both the Cadbury factory and Speights brewery.

Cameras are not allowed on the Cadbury tour, which was disappointing. I have a few beefs with Cadbury to begin with, including their recent push to substitute cheap, disgusting and environmentally mean palm oil for actual cocoa butter in their chocolate. Jerks. But I figured it might be interesting from a professional view to check out the tour, even if only to compare it to the Hershey’s tour I took ages ago in Pennsylvania.

Well, yuck.

What a waste of a precious hour and change of my life, nevermind $18. Very dumbed-down and corporate and boring. The guide, who was nice enough, would “quiz” us immediately after telling us something and any monkey in our group who was able to remember what he’d said five seconds earlier got a free treat-size chocolate bar. I stopped answering when I realized he was only passing out Cadbury’s white chocolate, Dream, which to me tastes like sugar wax.

For those of you wondering what the hell I was doing in a chocolate factory since I don’t even like chocolate, again, it was a professional interest. The highlight of the tour was when we all got to break open our own cocoa beans and taste the cocoa nib inside. Everyone else on the tour spat theirs out. I took seconds. (I happen to love cocoa nibs. Must be the bitterness…)

I’m delighted to report the Speights tour was miles better than Crapbury. Our tour guide was a crusty, curmudgeonly old Southern Man sort and the cheesy “history of beer” hall included, among other things, a Viking in a horned helmet drinking mead out of the skull of a dead enemy.

Ah, anachronisms. Love ’em.

At the end of the tour, our guide (whose name, alas, I have forgotten) took us into the tasting room, gave us each a glass and said “enjoy yourselves”… and left us for half an hour for unlimited samples of six different beers on tap. We all got to pull our own, which I’d never done before.

I needed a lot of practice to get it right. Yeah, that’s it.

Actually, I didn’t drink that much, even though I was walking back to the holiday park and wouldn’t be driving. I tried each of the six (only about half a cup of each) and went back for seconds only of the porter, which was scrumptious, possibly the best I’ve ever tasted, but alas is not available in stores.

Should’ve had thirds.

I also checked out the annual Thieves Alley market, which was a disappointment. The weather was horrible, lashing rain and wind that pushed over many displays, and the goods were typical market fare, bead jewelry that looked like a child had made it, ceramics, cushions with cats on them, pickled things, etc.

Much better was the Dunedin Farmer’s Market, where the bad weather brought out the best in the vendors. It’s strictly controlled – to sell there, you have to sell only food, no frickin’ cat cushions, it has to be local and organic if possible. They had a great range of products, including fantastic cheese from Evansdale Cheese Company whose founder, Colin, sent me away with loads of free deliciousness. When I asked a cherry seller how much the fruit was (the sign had several numbers crossed out), she said “oh, just take them. They’re going one way or another.” Yes, the cherries were a little homely, but tasted delicious. I picked a bagful of them and had them for breakfast the next day.

I bought greengages, tiny green plums that taste like cherries, from one vendor after she encouraged me to have a free sample. The man next to her offered me a four kilo (nearly ten pounds) bag of apricots for $2. Two dollars!! Suspicious, I said “what’s wrong with them?” and he said “They came all the way from Roxburgh, where I live, and I’m not taking them back. No apricot should have to travel 250 kilometers.”

I bought them (with a sales pitch like that, how could I resist?) and yes, for the next week ate nothing but cheese and fruit.

Ah, the weekly farmer’s market. Another thing to love about Dunedin.

Before leaving the city, I journeyed out to the Otago Peninsula, past the place I first saw yellow-eyed penguins, to the Royal Albatross Centre, home to the only mainland nesting place of the Royal Albatross.

You have to take a tour to see anything, and it wasn’t cheap, but I decided it was one of those “once in a lifetime” things and went ahead. It was a cloudy day and, despite assurances that we’d see albatross chicks, the payoff wasn’t that exciting. Yes, there were two chicks, but each had a parent sitting on top of it and both were several meters from the observation room. It was a bit boring until SWOOOP! An albatross buzzed the observation room, circled back and did it again. And again. He circled four times at very close range, “unprecedented” according to our guide, who seemed a little unnerved. The albatross landed some ways away from its nest (the guide could identify the bird by the colored tags on its feet) and had to walk about ten meters, or 33 feet, uphill to his mate and chick.

And let me tell you, as majestic and awesome as the big birds are in the air, they walk like a fat man who’s had one or two or six too many. Supreme gliders, they are not designed for terrestrial movement at all. Their heartrate is the same at rest as when flying, believe it or not, but shoots up from 60bpm to about 240bpm when they walk.

I know the feeling.

From Dunedin I headed to a lunatic asylum. Really. Voluntarily, I might add. The grounds of the former Seacliff Lunatic Asylum are now home to a rather sad park and Asylum Lodge, a hostel that meets or exceeds every possible stereotype you could have about such an establishment… jazz and world music playing, check. Random drunk Germans sleeping off hangovers on couches, check. A friendly but slightly odd host that seemed a little out of it, check. Framed photos of aboriginal tribes from around the world hanging beside wildlife photos torn out of magazines and faded posters warning about the consequences of global warming, check.

The host gave me a deal on a single room, which was a nice treat after weeks of camping and bunking. One of those dumb ghosthunter-type shows had done a show on the surrounding grounds and claimed it was the most haunted place in New Zealand. Indeed, it has a tragic history… countless people were institutionalized there on the thinnest evidence of mental illness and subjected to the treatments of the day, including electric shock, and a fire in one of the buildings killed several dozen patients (burnt alive, if you believe the more lurid accounts).

If there were ghosts, either they stayed away from me or I slept through their hijinks. Walking around the old, crumbling buildings and the hostel owner’s creepy classic car collection (more than 50, in various states of decay), I had a sense of history and stories lost before they could be told, but nothing spectrally sinister. Certainly nothing as disturbing as, say, the sight of all the Cadbury workers in their standard issue, Oompa-Loompa-like pastel-colored overalls.


One thought on “Beer, Chocolate, Cheese and Birds

  1. Would have loved that market!
    And boo to Cadbury re: palm oil. WTF? I’d have taken the white chocolate though. Any chocolate is better than none in my book (well, except hershey’s).

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