I hope you can forgive me, but I don’t want to talk about horses today. I haven’t been near the internet for a week; the only news that has filtered through to my holiday-addled brain, thanks to loyal blog reader Lita Dove, is that David Holmes was shown the door at FEI HQ due to ‘financial reasons’. What timing. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence, but in my last post I did mention a possible link between Dubai’s financial woes and the Sheikh’s considerable financial commitments to the FEI. Maybe they should have hung on to David just a wee bit longer, at least until Abu Dhabi had come through with the cash?

And World Wide Web notwithstanding, I’ve barely seen a horse since kissing my Theo goodbye last Wednesday. Of course NZL has plenty of horse flesh – much of it very high quality – but short of a few specimens standing in fields weighted down with the most famous waterproof horse wear to hit the market in the 70’s (remember NZL blankets?), I am operating in a world without DQs, without FEI HQ, and without the good-news bad-news seesaw of EC and DC. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to unload a few of my fond first impressions of the land where kiwis grow on trees.

Karen’s Reasons you should put NZL on your to-go list, in no particular order:

1. It’s just one plane ride away – well, from Vancouver anyway. As some of you may have noticed, I am not a fan of Canada’s millstone of a national airline – so imagine my delight when I discovered AC code shares with Air NZL and I would not be treated to 14 hours of ‘service’ from AC flight attendants whose best days are behind them. Yes, 14 hours is a long haul, but the bar service was quick, the flight crew had accents that made everyone feel like we were already there, and the meals actually resembled food. I even got some sleep. In fact, the only annoying thing on the plane was my husband, Jan. Suffering from a cold, nicotine withdrawal and aching knees from a hard day on the slopes the day before, Jan made sure everyone around suffered with him. Coughing, sniffing and reverse-horking wads of phlegm (it really is as disgusting as that), I’m sure he had all our neighbours worried about catching H1N1. In case the folks ahead of him were not noticing his struggles, he alternately pushed his knees or his head into the back of the seat in front of him, giving the woman sitting there a random, private turbulence session. After a couple of head-craning, withering looks that utterly failed to get the message across, the woman and her two companions good naturedly shared the burden, taking it in shifts to sit in that seat. When Jan ordered Scotch and coffee with his breakfast, the refreshingly masculine yet sweet tempered (male) crew member not only obliged with a smile; he went all the way forward to First Class and brought Jan a nice big plastic tumbler of Chivas. Despite Jan’s best efforts, I arrived feeling ready to tackle driving on the right hand side of the car and the left hand side of the road. We had departed on Wednesday night and arrived on Friday morning, having gained three extra hours of sleep time – though we did lose Thursday. That’s ok. We’ll get half of it back when we fly home.

2. Everyone wears shorts – can you imagine an English, American, Mexican or German farmer in shorts? Even the NZL farmers show a little leg in this ‘casual dress only’ culture. I’m sure folks get tarted up for a night out in Auckland, but the dress code in this country is decidedly relaxed.

3. It’s Home away from Home – I have never visited a place as far flung from Canada as NZL, which is literally at the other end of the world. On the one hand, it’s like no place I’ve ever seen, and yet it is constantly reminding me of almost everywhere I’ve been before. Just in the first week, I’ve been reminded of the following places: Canada (of course) for the space and empty roads – Costa Rica for the jungly sights and smells – Ireland for the greenness – England for the garden-like landscapes – the Caribbean for the turquoise water (actually I’ve never been to the Caribbean but I’ve seen pictures of the water and that’s what this looks like) – the Mediterranean for the sweeping views of the sea…you get my drift. I’m sure by the time I’ve been to the south I’ll have seen the volcanoes of Guatemala, the Swiss Alps, Napa vineyards, and Patagonia. I keep looking for all those millions of sheep NZL is famous for, but so far I’ve seen more cows.

4. The natives are friendly – honestly, I have NEVER met a more outgoing, hospitable culture in my life. We’ve been given freshly caught snapper fillets (Jan hadn’t caught anything), leftover bait fish (he still didn’t catch anything), we even had our garbage taken away from a no-garbage site by our neighbour yesterday. “I’ve got room in my bag” is what he said when he offered to relieve us of our smelly refuse. And they speak English, which just blows my mind over and over. We are so very far from home, all the signs are for weirdly named places like Whangaruru and Rotorua, and I am constantly having to remind myself that I don’t need to dig through my French or Spanish vocab or use elaborate hand signals to communicate. They have the humour down too. When I was in a crowded grocery store on our first day I got stuck in an aisle due to a woman chatting to someone and blocking my path. “Just run her over” was the politely whispered instruction I received from the nice man waiting behind me. They do have their plucky side too, though. I was told in no uncertain terms to “fag off” by a driver the other day when I tried to nose the camper out into traffic.

5. This is Campers Paradise – I love to camp. Whether it’s the Thomas and Mack parking lot or the beaches of Vancouver Island’s west coast, camping is my preferred state of homelessness. New Zealanders seem to agree. The campsites are everywhere, and unlike in most of the rest of the world, they usually occupy prime real estate with the best views. They are impeccably clean and tidy, and a good chunk of change cheaper than at home. And it’s not yet high season, so we have nearly had the places to ourselves. Except for friendly locals who give us fish and take away our trash, that is.

There are of course more than ten things that make NZL my latest idea of Heaven, but I’ll keep it to that number with a second round next week – after all, I am supposed to writing about the horse world. Actually, I have had a horse-related incident here, just yesterday in fact. Jan and I were visiting the world’s second largest Kauri tree (no photo can do even remote justice to the unbelievable girth of these rather stocky beauties) and I began to chat with the English couple who were the only other visitors. We got to talking about London 2012 and I mentioned that I was an equestrian journalist. An eyebrow went up and I was asked if I knew some of the horsey writing crowd in the UK. “You don’t by any chance know Grania Willis, do you?”

“Do I know Grania!?!” I replied. Grania needs no introduction to those in the equestrian writing world, but for those who haven’t had the good fortune to be acquainted, let’s just say that Grania is the type of woman most other women would love to hate. She’s beautiful, charming, clever and funny, but she’s also so damned straight-up nice that it’s impossible to not love her. Grania was the official press shepherdess in Hong Kong, putting us all to shame as we shambled and sweated around in the wilting heat while she pranced ahead of us in her stiletto heels and crisp suit. Grania has taken the credo ‘work hard play hard’ to new extremes. Don’t believe me? She was the first Irish woman to climb Everest. And I’m sure she out-partied everyone in her expedition when they celebrated at base camp afterward. According to the folks I met yesterday, she had told her dad she was going for a ‘walk in the Himalayas’ and informed him about Everest only after she had safely accomplished her mission. Oh yeah and she wrote a book about it. Yes, I know Grania. I would say the English couple and I were equally tickled by our ‘one degree of separation’ moment. We couldn’t have found a more inspiring person in common to chat about at the base of the Kauri tree at the bottom of the world.