Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Picton, New Zealand

Posted on January 15th, 2005

View from the top of the Tirohanga Track.

If you haven’t spent 25 hours reading this entire web site (and if not, why exactly?) you may not be aware that I have been a juggler of varying levels of dedication for over 22 years. Since I started traveling, my opportunities to juggle have been limited to a few encounters with other jugglers on the road, a couple meager, solo practice sessions and the precious few times I have been home in Minneapolis and attended the Neverthriving Juggling Club on Monday nights. In a nut, I am sorely out of shape. So it was with no small amount of eagerness that I fell of the ferry in Picton and made the 15 minute grueling hike across town to the Juggler’s Rest Hostel. I had read some great things about this place in online hostel reviews, but equally there were some unsettling things about the unpredictable hospitality of the hostel’s owners. I later learned that the Juggler’s Rest is enjoying a new beginning, with new management, a new coat of paint and a more consistent disposition in regards to hospitality.

The Juggler’s Rest (JR) is in “suburban Picton” (about 500 meters from “downtown Picton”). The walk from the harbor to the hostel is a tad wearing at the end of a day of travel, particularly as you pass a half dozen flashy, beckoning hostels on the way, but it’s entirely worth the effort. I arrived to discover the friendliest group of hostel clerks I have ever met, kicking back out in the lush, green, enclosed front courtyard of the JR. Despite the palpable, cross-eyed air of idleness, one of the clerks was on her feet in a heartbeat, welcoming me and quickly leading me to my bed. After a swift, but comprehensive tour of the house and its faculties, I headed directly back out to the inviting courtyard to admire the pleasing assortment of juggling decorations and inspect the racks of juggling equipment hanging off the front of the house. The community props had seen better days, but nevertheless, there was a delectable assortment of beanbags, clubs, devil sticks, poi and flammable versions of the bunch all sitting out, begging to be played with. I blew my juggler cover immediately by warming up with five balls. I was a hit.

The staff at JR are the usual, young, easygoing, rotating bunch of young travelers who are taking time out to rest, enjoy free accommodations and maybe earn some money doing hostel work. The difference here is that, by virtue of the JR theme, all of these people have some level of skill at juggling, poi swinging or what have you. Even having each other as entertainment, in addition to the steady rotation of juggle-minded people that blow through the hostel, I was clearly one of the more technically gifted people to arrive since the hostel’s reopening in November (2004), though actual physical proof of this was sketchy with the level of rust that my limbs and muscles had acquired. When I wasn’t cursing my non-responsive, out-of-practice hands I was wowing the staff and residents with five and seven balls and my shaky three, four and five club work. I ended up spending a fair amount of time trading tips with people, teaching, learning and watching the nightly cabaret in the JR courtyard.

While socializing, practicing and general screwing around is the order of the day in JR, in the evening, when the post-dinner beer, wine and Jose Cuervo come out, so does the kerosene. Virtually every night, something is set ablaze, then thrown, spun or whipped around for the benefit of the collected staff and guests. It was great fun and, it almost goes without saying, this was by far the best nightlife to be found in Picton.

Sadly, it wasn’t an all-juggling, alcohol-bathed visit for me. As per usual, I was sorely behind in my journal, sweating over nagging personal projects and fielding time-sucking, but high-paying new assignments. As if that weren’t enough, in an early moment of JR giddiness I pitched a pro bono article to Juggle Magazine about the Juggler’s Rest, a move that I regretted almost immediately with my workload already weighing on me, but I was so completely enamored with the JR that I was happy to do my part in getting the word out. So, with an assload of work on my plate and the dampening effects of untold liters of cider on my overall wit and genius slowing me down, I spent the better part of five days behind the laptop, casting occasional longing glances out the window at the people enjoying themselves out in the courtyard.

Heading up the Tirohanga Track.

I was drawn out each night for good company, drinking and juggling of course, but I also managed to squeeze in some time for walks around beautiful Picton. The town is surrounded by low mountains, thickly wallpapered in trees and greenery with scattered hiking trails winding up and around them. I took the Tirohanga Track that went practically straight up and straight down a narrow path that had been transformed into a precarious mud slide from three days of rain. Being almost completely enshrouded in foliage, there was little scenery to be had during the hikes up and down, but the much appreciated bench at the top afforded a stunning view of the entirely of Picton, the harbor and nearby bays. If the mountains had been higher, I would have likened the surroundings to a Norwegian fjord scene. I also made the run along the coastal path to the modestly named Bob’s Bay (a name which, after a good snicker, was actually a joy in its simplicity after trying to wrap my tongue around Maori language place names all over the rest of NZ).

My last outing was an unexpectedly punishing, full-day sea kayaking tour with Sounds Wild. Sounds Wild’s current operators Jackie and Ant, an Aussie/Kiwi couple, cum business team, invited me out with the intention of filling an open double kayak seat. I was very, very excited about this. I had been sea kayaking once before in Seattle that I thoroughly enjoyed and my top heavy, juggler physique made me something of an instant kayaking prodigy. Additionally, New Zealand’s scenery had already earned a top spot in my Favorite Picturesque Destinations of All Time list and doing a little water-perspective touring, with the potential to see some funky sea-life, was pure icing.

This upbeat attitude disappeared like a cat in a squirt gun testing lab when I got a look at my kayak partner. A 4’-11”, 80 lb. Japanese woman, with arms the thickness of chopsticks, who complained of being tired seven minutes into the first leg of the tour. I more or less hauled that walking and talking dead weight around all day. During the scant few instances when she was actually giving a determined go at productive paddling, her poor form and paddle dexterity resulted in her taking useless knife strokes through the water as often as effective strokes. Her over-sized sunhat was a constant source of distraction, particularly during the times when we were powering into a serious headwind, where I really could have used her feeble assistance. To make matters worse, I had juggled harder in the two pervious days than I had in a year and my hands and arms were already feeling a bit kinky before we even pushed off. After a full day of motoring a double kayak around with 80 pounds of chattering ballast in the front, my hands were rigor mortised into permanent, painful claws and my arm muscles were little more than a string of golf ball-dense knots. However, it could have been much worse. As we were preparing to leave the boat launch in the morning, the Japanese girl moved to take the rear seat, therefore putting herself in charge of the steering pedals. Ant swooped in and gently suggested that she allow me to take that spot. If not for his timely interference, we might still be out there. My tiresome complaints aside, the day was beautiful, the scenery was amazing, I chased an anti-social penguin that was out for a swim, we ogled various native birds, stingray and I got to play with a jellyfish without having searing pain accompany the experience.

As I alluded to earlier, while in Picton I received yet another semi-last minute assignment from Global Traveler for their “Kicking Back” section. I sold them on the idea of a piece on Kaikoura, my next destination. I did this not only for the novelty of Kaikoura being the dolphin swimming/whale watching capitol of New Zealand, but I was hoping to get a few nights of comped, upscale accommodations out of the deal.

After an unprecedented 10 days at the Juggler’s Rest (the longest, uninterrupted stay in any one place I have done in all my travels), I caught a Sunday afternoon bus to nearby Kaikoura under the auspices of a GT assignment letter giving me the perfect excuse to pursue the best dolphin swimming tour available.

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