Central Otago

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flat white coffee

New Zealand’s favorite coffee drinks: a long black (top) and a flat white. Photo by David Lansing.

One of the things that has really surprised me about New Zealand is just how serious Kiwis are about their coffee. You can go to some tiny little café in the middle of the wop wops and almost invariably you’ll get a most excellent cup of coffee.

You see the photo up above? At the top is a long black and at the bottom is a flat white. This is pretty much what everyone in New Zealand orders. A long black is easy. It’s just a double shot of espresso topped with about four or five ounces of hot water (in other words, it’s like an Americano only stronger).

A flat white is a little more complicated. It’s related to the cappuccino and similar to a latte, but different. In general, a cappuccino is a single shot of espresso topped with very foamy milk. I’m not a big fan. I hate getting that mouthful of foamy nothingness before you get to the coffee (also, they’re usually served lukewarm, which I hate).

A latte can either be a single shot of espresso or a double but just to make the comparison with a flat white easier, let’s say it’s a double. So you pull a double shot and then you aerate your milk, making it not as foamy as you would for a cappuccino, and you pour that on top of the espresso shots. So you still need to sip through the milk foam to get to the espresso but there aren’t as many bubbles.

A flat white, on the other hand, is meant to integrate the shots of espresso with the hot milk. The key to making a great flat white is, one, stretch the milk with no bubbles and, two, integrate the stretched milk in to the espresso shots while keeping the crema on top. What you need to do is hold the coffee cup with the two shots of espresso at a slight angle while you gently pour the stretched milk on to the side of the cup. You want the milk to go under the crema but mix in with the coffee. You do this slowly and when the mixed coffee-hot milk mixture is almost to the top of the cup, you layer on the thick, smooth stretched milk cream on the very top. Now, when you take a sip, what you’re going to get is a nicely blended cup of espresso mixed in with the stretched milk. The perfect flat white.

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The group at Carrick Winery. We don’t look like we’re in a hurry, do we? Photo by David Lansing.

We’ve got a 4:30 flight from Queenstown and it’s already 3 but Justin and Casey want to make a quick stop at a winery nearby that they’ve heard about, Carrick. “Just five or ten minutes,” Justin says.

I don’t know. I’ve been to a hundred wineries and never got out of one yet in less than half an hour. Especially if you’re going to do a tasting, which we are. But what the hell. Adriena doesn’t seem worried and she’s in charge here.

And it is a joy to visit New Zealand wineries. Unlike their counterparts in California, which I’m most familiar with, you’ll seldom come across more than one or two other visitors anyplace you go. Carrick is no exception. In fact, except for the guy behind the bar, who we seem to have interrupted reading a book, we’re the only ones here.

We sample the pinot gris, the sauvignon blanc, and the chardonnay. I’m enjoying them very much but I’m also aware that it’s now 3:30 and, according to Adriena, it will take us at least half an hour to get to the airport, leaving us about 30 minutes to catch our flight. If we leave right this minute.

Which, of course, we don’t. Because we still have two wonderful pinot noirs to sample. Fifteen minutes later, we hustle to the car. But there is a lot of highway construction along the route. Someone states the obvious: “We’re never going to make it.”

Adriena makes a call. She tells someone at the airport to go over to the counter and tell them we’re running a little late but will be there shortly. We try not to laugh. I mean, it’s 4:20 now and we’re still not at the airport. And we have bags to check. For a 4:30 flight. Is she crazy?

But when we dash in to the terminal, the baggage handlers are ready for us. In two minutes everything is tagged and thrown on carts. Our tickets, already printed, are handed to us and we’re escorted through security. As I hurriedly rush up the stairs and on to the plane, a pretty flight attendant says, “We’ve been waiting for you.” Seems they actually did hold the flight.

Only in New Zealand.

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The Highlands Taxi ride


There are car guys and then there’s me. I know nothing about cars. Not even the ones I own. My car has four doors and a pretty good radio and never seems to break down. That’s about all I can tell you about it.

So when Adriena told us we were going to stop off at the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell to have a look at the cars in their museum and maybe take a spin in one of their high-powered vehicles—well, let’s just say I was the wrong audience. But, you know, when you’re with a group, you sometimes just have to go with the flow.

About this motorsport park: It’s like a Formula One track for amateurs. A 4.5km circuit full of hairpin turns, blah, blah, blah. I’m sure if you’re in to that sort of thing, you’d want to know all about it. But all I was wondering is when we were going to have lunch.

So we walk around the auto museum where, I’m sure, they had some neat cars, although I couldn’t tell you what they were, and then we all got to give their little go-kart track a spin, and finally they handed us serious race car helmets and took me and Michael and Paul for a ride in what they call their Highlands Taxi. Sounds innocuous enough, right? Except this “taxi” is a Porsche Cayenne Turbo (I only know that because I wrote it down) driven by a 19-year-old going 200kph.

Sound like fun? It wasn’t. To be honest, I thought I was going to throw up. And 200kph (about 120mph) isn’t all that fast in the race world. But I don’t think I’ve ever been in a car going over 80mph. And this one is being driven by a kid. Who keeps being asked questions by Michael, who was sitting up front. Michael wants to know if the car can roll (sure), if they’ve ever had an accident (not yet), and what would happen if a tire blew (let’s not talk about it).

Finally, I tell Michael to please stop asking the kid questions and just let him drive the damn car. Which he does. For maybe another five or six minutes. Which seemed like the longest five minutes of my life.

When we finally stopped, Justin and Casey were standing there smiling, waiting to go next. Casey, like me, is not a big car fan and hates things that go fast. So she was hesitant about even doing this. But she trusts me. “How was it?” she asked before getting in.

“It goes pretty fast,” I told her. And I wasn’t lying.

When she got out of the car at the end of her ride, the first thing she did was walk up to me and punch me in the arm. Hard. I suppose I deserved that.


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End of the Ride

Below, the view of the Clutha River with the bridge in to Alexandra in the background. Above, Justin riding through the fall trees. Photo by Casey Hatfield-Chiotti.


Here’s what I knew for certain about today’s ride: There were going to be some serious climbs up a very narrow trail built in to the cliffs of the Roxburgh Gorge and that I was, without doubt, the weakest rider in our group. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to get back to the meeting point in Alexandra and then have to sit around for half an hour or longer waiting for me to show up.

So I figured I needed to come up with a riding strategy. Which was this: Go like hell early and for as long as I could, hoping I could get a big enough lead on the rest of the pack that they wouldn’t catch me until about half way through the ride, thus cutting down on the wait time at the end of the trail.

So bam, I flew. Which in a way was kind of pathetic because the scenery riding along the Clutha River, particularly when you did a thousand feet of switch-backs to get to the top, was spectacular. Normally I’d be stopping every ten minutes to take some photos (and I assumed, rightly, that the rest of the pack behind me would be doing the same), but today I just kept moving at as quick of a pace as I could.

As Nev said, it was kind of a hairy trail. There were spots when I had to get off my bike and walk it over a sheer-drop trail, no more than two feet wide, while hugging the rock wall. But every time I summited, I’d look back down at the switch-backs, expecting to see the pack advancing on me, but they were nowhere in sight. In fact, the only rider to eventually catch me was Nev, who was in a hurry for his own reasons: he had a slow leak in his back tire and was trying to race ahead before it gave out on him. He almost made it. The tire finally went completely flat just as we were both approaching the Alexandra bridge.

“I’ll walk it in,” he said. “Why don’t you go ahead. We’ll see you back at the van.” So I did the final mile or so of the trail back to Alexandra and then sat on the edge of the river watching as the others slowly cycled over the bridge. Our ride over the Central Otago Rail Trail was over. But what an experience.

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Left, a gold miner’s rock shelter as seen from the river; right, Casey contemplates going inside one of the ghostly abodes. Photos by David Lansing.

We take our time moving up the Clutha River with Laurence zig-zagging from one side of the river to the other to point out the primitive rock shelters built in to the schist cliffs of the Roxburgh Gorge. This is where Chinese and Scottish miners lived in the 1880s as they tried to make their fortunes panning for gold.

As cold as we are—wearing our polartec jackets and gloves and woolen caps—it’s stunning to think how difficult life must have been for the men who, with few supplies, spent their winters living in rocks caves with little food and nothing to sleep on but a small cot with a few blankets. And the thing is, there aren’t just one or two of these rock shelters along the river—they’re everywhere. We see a new one every few minutes. And so you begin to get the idea of the desperate nature of these people, living by themselves in the most primitive of conditions, no doubt suspicious and guarded of their neighbor down the river who may or may not cut their throat at night to claim their turf.

At one point Laurence runs the boat up on shore and we hike up the gorge a short distance to have a closer look at one of the shacks. There’s not much to see. A single room, maybe eight by eight feet, with a small fireplace for cooking and heat and a rock shelf built in to one of the wall where a miner would carefully stack everything he owned—matches, a tin cup and a plate, maybe a knife and fork.

One by one we enter the shelter, have a quick look around, and leave. There’s a spookiness to the place, and a sadness, that makes you want to quickly get back out in to the daylight.

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