I’ve spent the last three days touring the top part of New Zealand’s south island, from Picton (where the ferry lands) over the scenic highway to Nelson, down the even more scenic west coast road to Greymouth, and across the spectacularly scenic Arthurs Pass to Christchurch on the east. It hasn’t been like a US roadtrip at all. The distances aren’t great, I’ve been going slowly in order to better enjoy the narrow twisty roads and ubiquitous one-lane bridges, and I’ve been stopping often to hike in the native forest or climb partway up a mountain. If you wanted to get a taste of this place and happened to only have a handful of days in which to do it, you could do worse to follow this itinerary.
Notwithstanding my rationalization the other day, you’ll certainly want to bring your camera. You might reasonably opt to leave your laptop home, though, because Internet access from hotels here is a comedy of errors. The most absurd moment came last night when I checked into a hotel in Christchurch. I bought an access card for the WiFi service for $10, scratched it to reveal the access code, and…it smudged completely! I could not believe it! This card has only one purpose in life — to reveal a string of hex digits — and it cannot even manage to do that. Incredible!
It wasn’t a fluke, either. I showed it to the hotel clerk and he tried another card. Same result, except almost legible this time. We debated whether a digit was a 5 or an S, and whether another was an S or a 3, and in the end I had to try about a half-dozen variations. They had that access point locked down pretty well, too. The code was a dozen hex digits, and I felt like I was burgling Fort Knox. Finally I cracked the code, checked email, called the person I was meeting for dinner, and headed out, 10 minutes into the two-hour session I’d bought. Later I powered up to continue the session and…you guessed it…token expired. Aaarrggghhh! The future is not yet evenly distributed.
So anyway, Internet cafes are the ticket here, and I’ve seen quite a variety of them. Most notable was the McDonalds in Greymouth. That town, like a lot of the towns around here, caters to backpackers. I bought an access card along with my coffee — in this case, one that revealed legible digits when scratched — and sat down at a PC equipped with a camera and a headset. I didn’t see any backpackers videoconferencing, but it was interesting to see that the capability is part of the standard kit rolled out to these locations.
Even more interesting was the list of applications installed on the machine. It included Internet Explorer, Firefox, Microsoft Office, various instant messaging clients including Skype and…wait for it…SSH. If you’re technically inclined, you’ll probably laugh at that. If not, here’s why it’s funny. SSH stands for secure shell, and it’s used to open up a command-line session with a remote computer — typically a Linux or Unix server, although Windows servers can receive SSH connections as well (mine do). You might SSH into a remote machine in order to read mail in a terminal-oriented mail reader, or to perform administrative tasks on a remote system, but these are fairly esoteric activities. You wouldn’t think there are enough backpackers wanting to do these things to warrant making SSH part of the standard setup. Who knew?