Understated Kiwis

andrea-bridge-360After she reached the Travers River Bridge, Andrea took one horrified look up at the featureless rocky bowl that towered above–no real trail, just orange poles every few hundred yards to mark the way–and asked our Kiwi guide, Gary, “Just what are my options at this point?”

“Well, you could walk back down to the van, but it’s about five hours away, and there’s nobody there. I could give you the keys, but you’d be on your own for the best part of two days. So I think you’d better marshal on. It’s not that far to the Angelus Hut. It’s just over that ridge.” He pointed to a lip of rock that looked like it was a few thousand feet above.


“I really was exhausted at this point. Couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look down. Where the heck is the trail? I was afraid for my life. Now I am pleased with the accomplishment and wonder how I did it.”
~ Andrea Halligan


Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.
Photo courtesy Gary Roberts.

So, given her options she indeed marshaled on. There were a few tears, a few words you wouldn’t hear in church, but she did make it to the hut in time for dinner and we staked out a place on the thin mattresses in one of the sleeping halls.

Angelus Hut. Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.

Like many mountain huts from the Italian Alps to here on the South Island, the Angelus is a plain and rustic hut with 14 of your new closest friends sleeping shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in one large room. I slept better than I’d hoped.

The next day was to take us back down to Lake Rotoiti. I say “down” reservedly. Gary gathered our little Canadian and American group outside the hut in the morning and pointed up into the mist above us. “You’re heading down today, but first you’ll climb that ridge up there. Actually a couple of ridges. Oh well, maybe three or four. And there are a few little rocky bits along the way. But then mostly easy down to the lake maybe seven miles away.”

I don’t own a pedometer or a Fitbit, but I think I would have recorded, oh, 70 miles or so of rocky bits if I’d had the technology. Okay, maybe it just seemed that way.

Here’s what one of the rocky bits looked like, and we had miles of terrain like this. And the ridge above? In the photo on the right we are heading up one of three.
Here’s what one of the rocky bits looked like, and we had miles of terrain like this. And the ridge above? In the photo on the right we are heading up one of three.

Understand: I’m not exactly complaining. It was a lovely day once we climbed down out of the clouds. Seeing Lake Rotoiti, its shimmering blue water stretched out below us when we reached a jutted overlook made for a memorable and special moment.

But, “You’ll have a little ridge to climb over.” And, “There are a few little rocky bits,” stuck in my brain like a bad recording. This kind of talk may have just been Gary’s way. But I thought there might be something particularly New Zealand, precisely Kiwi about this. When I got back home and had reliable internet access, I Googled Kiwi Understatement. It turns out that Kiwis, especially Kiwi men, are famous for this. I got nearly 100,000 results.

The travel site Interlopers.com had the following to say:

Kiwi web site — “Enjoy a tube trip through underground caves.”
Reality — Class five rapids in the dark with multiple waterfalls off which you will have to jump backwards.

Kiwi web site — “The roads are a bit challenging.”
Reality — Four hours of zigzagging mountain roads, covered with ice and grit and seemingly endless single lane, two direction bridges.

I don’t think their understatements are intentional, New Zealanders are just used to the extreme nature of their country and assume everyone else is as well.

But there is more to it. Many New Zealand greats from Sir Edmund Hillary to race driver and designer Bruce McLaren, Sir Peter Blake (in his lifetime, the greatest sailor in the world) and rugby superstar (‘goddam genius athlete king’ according to the New Zealand Herald) Richie McCaw are reputed to have been rather laconic, always letting their actions speak for themselves. “(U)nderstatement is key among the Kiwi man.” (New Zealand Herald, Dec. 13,2012)

Richie McCaw—the look on his face is enough.
Richie McCaw—the look on his face is enough.

In business matters, the Kiwi tradition of understatement is the rule. New Zealand management expert and consultant Tony Smale puts it this way: “Americans…overstate that is Amplify their stories. They don’t mind standing out from the crowd and are much more confident and assertive than Kiwis. By contrast, because we want to avoid causing offense and looking “big headed”, and because we aren’t assertive, we understate or discount our messages, play down our accomplishments…

“When people receive a message…their ‘software of the mind’ moderated by their national culture, automatically decodes the message…To us, Americans can seem loud, excitable, exaggerating and direct to the point of rudeness. That’s because even though the message is already overstated, we amplify it even further in our minds as if receiving it from an understating Kiwi.”

Now there’s a brilliant insight.

So, in true Kiwi fashion we simply climbed a little ridge, had a few rocky bits and then a nice easy downhill to the switchbacks above Lake Rotoiti. Nothing of the dramatic at all.

Lake Rotoiti from above.
Dr. William Halligan in New Zealand. Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.
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