I've got to admit there have been times when I've wondered why I ever started writing a blog - it's hard to condense over a month's activities into a spare ten minutes every now and then. But there's something about travel that makes it easier to write and now I'm sitting on a two hour train from Sydney to Blue Mountains, I thought I'd give it a shot.
Where on earth to start? First stop, Christchurch. Jess and i set off on a 3 week trip which, i'm assured, many NZers never make - a camping trip around both islands. After dumping our tent gear in our rental Nissan Bluebird circa-god-knows-when, we hit the road into town. The beauty of NZ roads is that it's virtually impossible to get lost, even with me behind the map. We were once driving to see Jess' friends in Wellington and only had the suburb name, the street name and directions from the local firestation to guide us maplessly to their house, and we STILL got there easily. So you won't be surprised to hear that we were soon debackpacked and checking out the town. Made for tourists, with sightseeing tram, art galleries, cathedral (complete with Maori Lord's Prayer on the wall), flower shows and plenty of sun, Christchurch is lovely. Quaint's probably the right word. We ticked all the 'must see' boxes (none of them must see, but pleasant nonetheless) and head out to eat. Finding SoL Square, the latest venue of choice for hip young things such as we, we sat down to order in a restaurant overlooking a huge flatscreen blasting videos of hits from the 80s, 90s and today, but not many from today. Before we could even open our menus, the waitress had popped over to let us know that she'll need to have our order straight away, please, because they're shutting the kitchen in ten minutes. It's 7.10pm. Mildly worried that whatever i choose is going to be seriously underdone, i go for fish (always a fan of sushi). No doubt relieved at our lack of indecision, the waitress goes on to apologise for the quiet town. Apparently everyone's still recovering from a 'crazy' gig a couple of weekends ago. "We were swept off our feet that night", she says, handing us the bill with our food so she can go and clean the fridge. It wasn't a late night.
The next day dawned bright, and so did the road across Canterbury Plains to Waianakarua, and Moeraki boulders, a tourist site to which we were headed as an excuse to go to Fleurs, famous (if grammatically flawed) fish restaurant recommended by Rick Stein. Donning sunglasses, we hit the highway (of two lanes) and i got my first taste of what driving in the US must be like. Hours of driving along a vast, hypnotic landscape passed and I've got no clue how Jess managed to keep on it with no radio and my increasingly crap chat. Our first joint purchase was speakers for our ipods. We finally set up camp in the "Olive Grove Campsite" (comprising two stunted olive trees) and head off to Fleurs.
After a dinner worthy of the Steinian gold star, we wandered downstairs to find Fleur herself sat at the bar. After promising to sign her cookbook (a present for Jess' mum), we sat down to wait for her. And we waited. And we got a bit uncomfortable. When we'd just got to the point where we were beginning to think we'd cut our losses and head off, Fleur stirred. THen she came to life and thrust a letter in our hands. "it's from the Russian Ambassador. He brought some people here for lunch and now we're considering making fish baby food together." Apparently the Russians had drunk Fleur out of neat vodka, and by the time they'd started on the fennel cooking vodka, they were fast friends. If you're ever in Russia and pick up spiny dog fish food, it's probably from NZ. Leaving Fleur's slightly flushed from the intimacy of an intimate of Rick's, we settled in for the night in a field surrounded by indistinguishable cattle-type animals and for dreams of the next morning's boulder-watching.
I won't dwell on them too long, because surprisingly interesting as they were, they really were just round, smooth, naturally formed rocks on a beach, but the morning's trip to Moeraki beach is worthy of note. Even if most of the early morning tourists were checking out the shells , bored already with the boulders and half an hour still scheduled there. I've never been more glad not to be in a tour.
We set off back on the road, this time to Queenstown, and embarked on large scale fly massacre. The windscreen didn't know what had hit it, literally. Thankfully we could still see out of the side windows as we crossed cental Otago and its rolling hills - a relief after the flat plains of yesterday. We passed landscapes like Graham Sydney photographs - gold fields with hillocks of tussock grasses giving the hillside a worn velveteen jacket.
Queenstown is action capital of NZ. Or so the guidebooks claim, although it seems to me that most of the major cities in both islands are 'action capitals'. I think i was delirious from the long drive because when we stopped off at A.J.Hackett's original bungee site at Kawarau Bridge on the way into town, I signed up to do one. Within minutes I was trussed up by the ankles and edging towards the ledge. I think i leapt out to save face; there's a viewers' platform with smiling tourists poised for a shot of an idiot leaping to their possible death. And one of them was Jess, who could tell all my friends I'd pulled out. So I jumped.
We spent four days in Queenstown in the end, taking day trips to an animal feeding park on the mountainside with views far better than any you'd pay for on the tourist gondola, Milford Sound (technically a fiord, something to do with the way the rocks are formed) and Arrowtown, a beautifully restored gold mining village. The animals were hilarious, trained to come bounding at the sound of the food bucket in your hand. THe goats practically leapt into the car with us, which had us screaming and screeching away in a spray of gravel in the hope that the rental wasn't scratched (we got away with it). The alpaca were gentle and thoughtful of others; the deer regal and aloof. And the views were utterly incredible. So incredible, in fact, that every second turn was marked as having been filmed in Lord of the Rings. And they're not alone. Right at the top of the mountainside is an old Korean prison film set from some Disney effort that went straight to video. But it surprisingly doesn't look out of place - the landscape is malleable and stunning.
Milford Sound was equally stunning and thankfully free of the sandflies which have been merrily chomping their way through my ankles and which I was told would be prolific here. As a point of reference, it wasn't a million miles away in aspect to the Yangtze River, but seals replace the monkeys and the waterfalls are much more impressive. We sailed under one and i was drenched in the spray, taking photos of the ripple pattern as the huge volume of water hit the river.
The day that took us to Arrowtown was one of my favourites. Not only was the village lovely, and the museum with its replica village just the right level of informative and fun, but as we head home in the dying light of the afternoon, we came across the last of the vineyard musical festivals. Pulling up on the side of the road, we listened to the whole 90 minutes of Dave Dobbyn (Kiwi legend, with an extraordinary physical likeness to Mick Hucknell, poor man)'s set with perfect view of stage and hills behind, for free.
Moving on from Queenstown we began the drive up the West Coast of the south island to Fox Glacier, over Haast Pass (named after geologist Sir johann Franz julius von Haast, rhyming extraordinaire). Pulling up at the side of one bridge for a better view of the waterfalls below, jess gets ashed. Some poor dude was doing a bike tour of NZ with his dead kiwi father's ashes and just happened to pick the moment when she was behind him to release them to the wind. Not your usual Sunday afternoon, and one that would no doubt have made us both feel a bit odd, had our attention not entirely been taken up with the realisation that we'd (I'd) left the car door open and a literal SWARM of sandflies had taken up camp in there. Queue much swearing and swatting and an acute awareness of our very real aliveness. Bloody creatures.
We stayed in Fox Glacier two nights, thankfully not in the swamp where we originally set up tent too tired from the drive to look two metres to our left (where al the other tents were), finally deciding that moving to dryer ground would be worth it in the end (especially with the suspiciously hole-looking hole appearing in the bottom of the tent). Having met up with Jess' aunt and uncle who were visiting at the same time we ate well (at a restaurant! not a campsite!) and did a couple of walks of Lake Mathieson (with it's beautiful mirror lakes reflecting Mt Cook) and Fox Glacier (or Franz Josef as Fox was closed off from unsafe ice). It's so strange to see a real glacier in the bakingsun and although it has shrunk by far since it originally formed, it is apparently gaining ground recently. Nature's pretty amazing (so saith Attenborough-Caddy).
My strongest memory of Fox, however, is of leaping out of a plane from 12.000ft over Mt Cook and the snow capped mountain range around it. Thankfully my tandem man was a total dude and kept me entertained on the flight up with jokes worthy of Andy Fleming. Just before he opened the (suspiciously small) hatch he yelled in my ear, "If you can't breathe, don't panic, just breathe through your nose, you'll be fine." And we were gone, swept away into the whistling air. Well, I couldn't breathe, through my nose or anywhere, for what seemed like brain-killing minutes. It was terrifying, and completely distracted me from the fact that the REASON i couldn't breathe was because i was actually falling out of the sky. But then the cord was pulled and I got to enjoy NZ's highest peak from the best position possible. It was completely amazing and i would go up again in a second. With an aqualung and a neckbrace, that is.
Our trip to Nelson was marked by just one stop, at Pancake Rocks - layers of compressed limestonethat "scientists are still trying to explain." Strangely enough, they look like stacks of pancakes, but they draw the eager tourists all the same.
Then the rain came. It completely poured, in driving sheets that made us both utterly humourless (but not nearly as bad as the two delightful zombies we shared a dorm with that night, driven from our tents by the rain). We hibernated for 3 days, bailing on our action-filled plan to kayak in Abel Tasman, which was a shame, but gives us something to save for next time.
THe sun returned for our ferry journey to Wellington, the capital (despite the fact that over a quarter of the whole population of NZ lives in Auckland). We rode alongside cattle, watching the dolphins swimming by the side.
Our Welle stay was mostly made up of socialising with Jess' friends and (window!) shopping. We spent a whole day in Te Papa, the national museum, and saw barely two -thirds of it (although we did catch a viewing of the 'colossal' squid) but i did manage to get a wonderful book, a hitchiking tale of touring NZ by journalist Joe Bennett, called A Land of Two Halves. He's as funny as Bill Bryson and can describe the country much better than i can.
And so began the trek back to Auckland this time in the northern landscapes of the Colin McCahon mural, all muddy greens and black. We were keen to get back in the tent after having to hostel again in campsite free Welle and set up shope in a little place in central Taupo, where we spent most of the afternoon in the site's naturally heated spa pool. The next day saw us in the thermal town of Rotorua, which smells permenantly of dead eggs. It is also home to Hell's Gate, named by George Bernard Shaw on a random trip to NZ and another of my highlights. It's basically a small park of volcanic and sulphuric activity, great gaseous mud pools that bubble and spit and would burn your arm off if you fell in most of them. Each hole leads to the core of the earth, and you're suddenly acutely aware of the power below you. So, of course, there was nothing to do but to head to the nearest sulphur spa and chill out for the rest of the afternoon in naturally heated pools overlooking the lake, with retired englishmen who had just got engaged to 30-somethings. Nice work if you can get it.
Feeling years younger and with the softest skin (if mildly eggy!), we head back to Jess', with its promise of her 25th birthday party, loving family, soft beds and clean clothes. There's just one stop off to make at Waitomo Caves, home to hundreds of glow-worms. It was certainly worthy of the stop, but like so many of the towns we've driven through, Waitomo has created a whole tourist package out of the one attraction, and there's nothing more really to keep us there for another night. Auckland beckons, and after 2800km driven, and over 8 pages written describing this trip, it's time to listen.