Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2/12/2009 - Zod Joins the Family

I meet up early with the owner of the van again, around 9AM. We head to the repair shop, and the guys there do a once-over. It needs a new gasket, the left front bearing needs adjusting, and the fuel filter has to be cleaned and changed, but otherwise looks great. I'll bring it in tomorrow to get everything repaired - should be just $200, which is the difference between what I offered him and his asking price.

I withdraw the money and we get all the paperwork done. It takes remarkably little paperwork, actually. All of it is done through the post offices around here, and is very simple. Soon enough, I am driving my own van. For some reason, a name comes to mind. Zod. No idea why, but it seems to fit.


If you get that reference, you are truly a child of the '80s. The above picture is at our campsite.

Zod is actually pretty well off. Here are a few of the little "extras" that split this van from others in its class:

  • 1. Funky-patterned curtains - STANDARD!

  • 2.2 non-turbo, wheeze-inducing liters of diesel power - STANDARD!

  • No owner's manual - STANDARD!

  • Random dents and a broken facade in the back - STANDARD!

  • Faux-alloy wheels - STANDARD!

  • Weird interior used car smell - STANDARD!

  • Extra stickers on the side that (following Hot Wheels logic) make it go faster - STANDARD!

  • Name plate on the back that overdoes the adjectives for this van - STANDARD! (It is a "Super Extra" van. Makes it feel just that much more Japanese, really.)

  • Every printed instruction sticker in Japanese only - STANDARD!

Seriously, I think I picked well. It only has 174,000 kilometers on it (just over 100,000 miles) and the heads have recently been done, as well as the radiator. It is 4-wheel drive and is automatic. It has electromatronic windows and locks. The air conditioning and heat work, and even has rear A/C. It even has bright yellow driving lights on a brush bar in the front. Unusual for a Japanese car, it has plenty of headroom for me.

And it rolls on fourteens, so it is certain to impress my homeboys.

After taking Zod home to the campground, we come up with a basic plan for the next few days. Erik, Kris, and I will hop in Zod and head to Te Anau to check out some glowworm caves, then drive out to Milford Sound to cruise out into the sound, then head to Invercargill and bike to Bluff (basically considered the southernmost point in New Zealand), then off to Dunedin. From there we will part ways and I will head up along the east coast back to Masterton before heading off to Tazmania. Everybody got that?

Before long, though, three-o'clock comes along. Time to head out hang gliding.

I haven't spent much time discussing this. A bit of background first, then. I love to fly. Small planes, big planes, skydiving, bungy jumping, parasailing, it all brings a big, goofy smile to my face. I have never done hang gliding, though, and that is the closest thing to "real" flying. I mean, it is basically sticking wings on your back and hurtling yourself from high places. Luckily, the science has advanced since Da Vinci drawings convinced some future rock splotch to try to jump off a cliff with just some cloth attached to wood. No, the cloth is attached to ALUMINUM now. Much safer. Right?

I am assured that it is. I am doing a tandem flight, and Jim is my pilot. He is an American who quit his job programming in the States and now flies hang gliders full time, 6 months in Virginia and 6 months here in Queenstown. It is his passion, for sure. Also with us is Emma, a very nice Norwegian woman who does the driving between sites and assists with getting ready. She teaches and plays the violin back in Sweden, but is working and traveling at this point for fun.

It's a bit of a drive to the takeoff site. When we arrive, there are quite an assortment of hang gliders and parasailers assembled there. It's a flat bit of ground close to the top of one of the mountains and has a nice, steep hill coming off at several angles.

While I am getting into the harness and Jim is setting up the hang glider (which rolls into a long but compact bundle on the roof of the van), they explain how this goes. Basically, I am going to be to the left and behind Jim. We will both be face-forward in a total Superman position. However, I will be his Lois Lane, really, with my hands holding onto the built-in handles on his flight suit.

We practice the start. This is the most important part, as I understand it. Having just read about a hang glider ending up in the Dunedin hospital when he tripped starting off, I pay pretty rapt attention. We will take two large slow steps and break into a sprint. That's it. No jumping or launching, just running down a hill. Easy enough.

The actual start is a bit of a blur to me. Jim figures out which way the wind is going and faces into it. "Ready?" he says. "Yup," I return. At last, all those years of track pay off. Two coordinated, long steps turn into a sudden sprint forward and down. There is no no time to worry about what I'm doing. In literally seconds, I am Looney Tunes-ing it 50, then 70, then 100 feet over the ground. As soon as I realize we are off and I can put my feet on the trailing foot bar, it hits me.

This is the coolest thing ever.

We're flying.

Not a sitting-in-a-seat-in-a-vehicle flying. Not attached-to-the-land-by-a-cord flying. Not falling-type flying. It's just soaring comfortably in the exact same way most people dream it. Swooping, banking, rising, circling. The wind is cool against my face, but not stinging. It is quiet enough that Jim and I hold a conversation at normal volumes without problem. The air is fresh-smelling and I feel just the tug of the harness over my midsection with direction changes.

IMG_0002There's the goofy grin. Pure exhilaration, even while sort-of hugging another man.

I am loving it. As we continue, Jim offers the controls over to me. When I say "controls", I mean "an aluminum bar". In my head, I am sure that I am the ONLY person he has ever done this for. He probably recognized my natural skill and talent.

IMG_0008I am in control now, baby. Whoa - maybe not so much. This thing is moved just by shifting weight, and it is definitely not as easy as Jim makes it seem. The idea is that your hips will lead the glider, but your head has to stay in roughly the same place. With a lot of correction from Jim, I avoid ending up next to the 17-winged plane on a video of idiotic air crashes.

It is challenging but fun. We catch air currents and keep ascending rather than descending.

Soon enough, we have made our way about 4km and are over the landing field. Jim asks me if I want a relaxed landing or a more"exciting" landing.


He takes the controls and we spiral suddenly downward, catching ourselfs just in time to line up to land. I am laughing the whole way.

IMG_0014The Yanks have once again made aviation history.

Afterward, Jim tells me that it was a particularly good day, and we caught more thermals than usual.

The adrenaline still runs through my veins as I am dropped back by the holiday park. Relax for a bit, then get ready for dinner - Kris and Erik are making Thai food. It's vegetarian, but so far the samples I have tried are actually good. This is a new thing for me, and they are excited to have a chance to turn someone vegetarian.

IMGP1702.JPGThai sauce, rice, sauteed tofu, and a pepper/pineapple/onion mix. I am not convinced.

IMGP1703.JPGNow, I AM convinced. It's actually good. I eat enough to probably feed twenty Thai children without remorse.

So bravo, Kris and Erik. I don't hate vegetarian diets anymore. Especially ones with the amount of oil that's in that sauce.

As we are leaving tomorrow as soon as Zod is fixed up, I figure tonight is a good time to head up the gondola, as well. This was another thing that we did back in 1985 that I was hoping to relive.

The gondola runs up to a restaurant and luge area. Back then, we came up here for a celebratory dinner. I remember attempting to eat what I thought was pudding only to find, on my first big bite, that it was Thousand Island dressing. Ah, the memories. . .

NewZealand4056At the Gondola Restaurant back in '85. The dark blob on the left is my mom, Justin in on the right. Justin looks dangerously close to the wine. I always wondered what he did with his hours stuck in that bike trailer.

IMGP1711.JPGSame spot (roughly) now. Even the overcast looks the same.

IMGP1712.JPGQueenstown. For being the biggest tourist destination in New Zealand, it's not big. My tent is in that bunch of cars in the lower right. Interestingly, even at this altitude, we'd still have another 1,000 feet to the highest point I had just biked across Crown Range. Whew.

IMGP1722.JPGI would make some allusion to the fleeciness of clouds here, but I have been warned that I may have overindulged my 7th-grade creative writing skills in that area already.

I think that is enough for today. Tomorrow we head out of Queenstown in Zod. I am definitely excited to not have to worry about hills.

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