Deep in the lush, dripping rainforest of New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsular, surrounded by teeming wildlife and vigorous vegetation, I was fixated on one unexplained phenomenon: Kiwi Dundee’s bare legs.
I, of course, turned up for a day’s trekking with the country’s most celebrated guide in a sensible outfit covering as much of me as possible with creepie-crawlie-proof material. Full-length trousers were firmly tucked into the chunkiest socks known to man. No evil stinging beast would catch me unawares.
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Yet right in front of me, stomping through the thick jungle, was a man in a t-shirt and shorts. Kiwi Dundee’s tree-trunk legs seemed to cut a swathe through the forest. I could imagine creatures of all shapes and sizes saying “Oh no, he’s coming, run for cover!”. At one point this craggy guide turned and grinned. “This is the greatest bloody country in the world, isn’t it mate?” And it’s hard to disagree with someone whose face looks like it has been carved from concrete. Kiwi slapped my shoulder with a blow like a wrecking ball and we continued along the beautiful gorge, between shiny exotic plants dripping with humidity and colourful birds fluttering overhead.
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New Zealanders like to out-do anything Australia does. A national poll tried to find the best Kiwi retort to Australian comic Paul Hogan’s famous fictional role ‘Crocodile Dundee’. Out of hundreds of hardcore local entries, environmental campaigner and tourist guide Doug ‘Kiwi’ Johansen was the clear winner – because he is the real deal. Raised by Maoris, he was already famous for rescuing people from a flash flood by swimming across a ferocious river… twice. He’d also carried a dozen injured people one-by-one out of the bush to safety, ridden on the back of a hammerhead shark, and survived falling 45 feet out of a tree.
So now Doug is known as Kiwi Dundee and takes small groups of intrepid tourists on adventurous tours wherever they want in New Zealand. He’s like the personification of the county: welcoming and environmentally considerate but tough as his old gnarled boots. Kiwi lives near Coromandel in a ramshackle cabin with fellow guide Jan Poole. She has tamed an eel known as ‘Pirahna’ because it nips people’s toes. Locals say that her party trick is to surprise tour parties by suddenly jumping from a rock into a small cold pool far below. They seem a well-matched couple. I was staying at the five-star Puka Park Lodge in the upmarket North Island resort of Pauanui. Puka is a fantasy hotel – a series of wooden cabins on stilts above mountainous rainforest overlooking a gorgeous sandy beach. Wooden walkways link individual bedrooms to a central luxurious bar, pool and restaurant.
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The previous evening I had a superb meal and went back to my treehouse bedroom thinking New Zealand is more sophisticated than I’d expected. The feeling didn’t last long. In the morning I met an old concrete face. Kiwi’s handshake would uproot a medium sized tree. Forget hotel breakfast, Doug’s Maori upbringing taught him to survive by eating what you can find in the bush. Sadly it’s not as picturesque as foraging berries and nuts in a British hedgerow. Instead he gobbled things that you wouldn’t want to find on the sole of your shoe.At one point he seemed delighted by some really disgusting looking growths under a tree. He ate the lot, then washed the slime from his hands using a leaf that acts as a natural soap.
It’s all so entertaining that Kiwi has become a tourist attraction in his own right. Fodor’s Guide tells visitors: “A trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without a Kiwi Dundee adventure.” He has been given the Queen’s Medal for tourism services and voted the country’s Guide of the Year. Meeting him was the highlight of my trip to New Zealand. And with a country boasting so many sights and experiences, that’s really saying something. What other tour guide would lead a walk, singing at the top of his voice, battering his way through vegetation, then suddenly shout: “Hey, look at this mate… The air’s so clean here you can’t bloody well see it.” There would be a moment’s silence then a huge smile, a wallop on your shoulder and off you go again.
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At another point Kiwi abruptly halted the tour, pulled apart the leaves of a giant Kauri fern as if he was unveiling a plaque and revealed a spectacular vista: rows of jagged volcanic peaks sailing in a lacy white sea of mist. Kiwi pointed at the scariest mountain. “I know a path up that one, if you fancy it mate,” he said. “Umm, maybe if there’s time later,” I replied. Like all of New Zealand, Coromandel boasts fantastic scenery but it is constantly under threat from prospective open cast gold mines. “The real treasure here is the nature not the gold,” was Kiwi’s verdict. To cleverly emphasise the point, my day’s adventure ended at a deserted mine dating from a Victorian gold rush. My guide was cleverly showing the temporary gain of mining versus the timeless beauty of nature.
Kiwi persuaded me into an old tunnel. When the torches were turned off I saw we were surrounded by millions of glow-worms. It was a lovely moment, like being in space surrounded by stars. After that, I willingly squeezed into a smaller tunnel. Kiwi explained that it was difficult for the miners to sleep in tiny tunnels like this. I asked why. “Because of these…” said Kiwi, turning his torch onto the roof above my head. The whole ceiling seethed with shiny insects, like CD-sized cockroaches. “These beauties are Giant Wettas,” explained Kiwi. “The world’s biggest, heaviest insects. You wouldn’t sleep here because they always drop off the roof onto people.” I immediately dashed out of the cave while Kiwi just chuckled. “Don’t worry, they’re harmless,” he smiled. Nevertheless, I started hiking back to the hotel immediately. I didn’t want to hang around. Kiwi might get peckish – and start nibbling on some Wettas.