January 12, 2013

(Posted by Kristin — this post is way overdue!)

As we talk to more and more tourists along the way, I have discovered what I call the “Lonely Planet effect” or in NZ, the “i-Site effect” (the i-Site is a fabulous information booth in almost every town that advises you on what to see and do, and also helps book said adventures). As we tour the islands, we are all seeing basically the same sites, even in a similar order . What differentiates these experiences is the weather and the people — both the people we are and the people we meet.

Then there is the wild card: arriving somewhere when a special event is in town. And the triple crown: when someone you meet tells you about a special event — and the weather is great! That is how our day at the races began.

If you recall back to the Milford Sound post, we had had a good experience thus far following the advice of Bruce, our guide. The one other thing he had told us about on the tour was how lucky we were to be in town for the annual Te Anau Harness Street Races, to be held the following day. After chatting a little more with our new friends at the Te Anau Club, we also learned that Bruce would be the main announcer for the event. Having spent a day with him in the bus with all his bad jokes (ok, most of them were actually pretty funny), we knew we were in for a treat.

The next day we were off to the races! It was a beautiful sunny day, so we checked out of our campground and headed into town to see what this was all about. The town closes down one street for the day and “paves” it with a nice layer of sand. The course is fenced off on either side, protecting spectators and competitors from one another. You can cross from one side of the street to the other at certain intervals as long as there are no racers on the course. By the time we got there a few races had already been run, and all the townspeople were settled in along the sidewalk and in their front yards, in tents, on chairs, and on the grass. Vendors and betting booths (for charity, and with funny money, of course) were stationed in various areas — and the beer cart went up and down the street.

We decided to go down one side and up the other so that we could get the complete picture, all the while trying to spot our friends in the crowd. We could hear Bruce on the PA system and finally spotted him on the other side of the street. We continued down our side, planning to catch up with him on our way back up. We were almost at the starting line at the end of the street, when we heard Bruce calling us out: “Well, I haven’t seen our friends from Baltimore yet” he says. Uh oh. We are here! We are here! We decided to watch our first race before heading off to check in with Bruce. Xavier stopped to ask some of the locals a few questions, when they exclaim, “are you the ones from Baltimore”? Apparently we were now local celebrities (somewhat redeemed since we were indeed here.)

Each race pits a “red” horse and rider (in a trotter) against a “blue” one. Our friends assured us these were genuine racehorses and riders, although perhaps not the best of the best, who come to Te Anau for this special event. They went up and down the track a few times for a warm up, then they were off! An announcer (I think Bruce had help with this) informed the crowd of their progress as they made their way down the track — after all, a lot of money (not ours) was riding on red or blue! I was rooting for blue, Xavier was rooting for red — and red won the first race that we saw.

With the first race under our belt, we trundled across the street to find Bruce and the gang. We finally found them; it turns out none of them was doing very well at the betting booth. Based on the races we watched they should have bet red-blue-red-blue, etc. We hung out for a little while, even learning a bit about sheep ultrasounds from Phil. Bruce even called over his friend Russell so we could take a picture of him in his magnificent tartans.

Our wonderful day eventually had to come to an end, so we bid farewell to our new friends and hit the open road with fond memories of a special day with theTe Anau community — and an experience that wasn’t to be found in Lonely Planet.