The first problem I have to tell you about is that I am using a French keyboard, which for some reason quite beyond me has all of the keys in the wrong places; they apparently don’t think that QWERTY is a sensible layout. As a result I am typing at the speed of someone who is scared of computers and taps away very slowly as if they are afraid the keyboard will give them an electric shock and a sharp slap and tell them they’re stupid.
My photos are much more up to date than this blog at the moment. I’ve been taking pictures but for a little while haven’t had the time to write, and wasn’t in the right frame of mind either, in fact for much of my time in New Zealand I went a bit potty. I’m not so sure that it has worn off yet. Bleep bleep.
So it’s back yet again to where I left off, with more digressing than Ronnie Corbett (in his big chair with his story about heh heh heh what the producer said to him) and Doubtful Sound. I took an overnight trip with Real Journeys, a pretty slick Kiwi tour operator, after deciding not to see Milford Sound, which is the big draw in New Zealand – a good reason not to go for fear of competing for space to enjoy the place with ten other boats and fifteen kayaking Kiwi Experience trippers barking woo and yay at each other with gay abandon. Doubtful Sound was named by our old mate Captain James ‘Imaginative Names’ Cook as exit from the waters of the sound was made doubtful by low winds. Judging by his previous efforts, Doubtful Sound could easily have been called ‘Not Totally Sure Sound’, ‘Unsound Sound’, or ‘Oooh I Just Don’t Know Really Why Don’t We Wait A Little While And See What The Wind Does Meanwhile Let’s Have A Nice Cup Of Tea Sound’. I realise that last name is a bit much.
Doubtful Sound is a very, very beautiful place. When all of the engines of our boat, the Fjordland Navigator, were turned off at night, we were able to stand on the bridge of the boat and listen to the perfect quietness, broken only by distant bird calls and the trickling of waterfalls from the previous day’s rainfall. The Fjords tower above you, somehow still shrouded in trees and greenery despite there being no soil on the rocks to support them. Whole clumps of trees occasionally fall from the faces of the fjords in giant ‘treevalanches’.
Ours was the only boat on the water, so we had the whole place to ourselves – sharing it only with the birds, a colony of dozing fur seals, and a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins that swam with the boat, leaping over the bow waves, until they got bored and left us alone, still going “oooooooh”, with big grins on our faces. Dolphins just seem to have that effect – pure, unadulterated, contagious joy. For all I know they were swimming with the boat to see if there was a way they could get an innocent tourist overboard to eat them or perform cruel experiments on them, but joy is how it came across.
About twelve people on the boat out of sixty or seventy were aged below sixty-five, and half of them were the crew. The rest were on the more mature side, a fearsome tour group of silver-haired troublemakers, recklessly emptying the tea urn, foolishly taunting the wildlife expert while he gave an excellent slide show, and impishly having sing-alongs with the piano. I know I’m being cheeky here, but in all seriousness, the elder tourist is amongst the worst behaved I’ve seen, particularly on airplanes, where they’re still deciding what seat to take and moving their bags while the plane is actually taking off, air stewardesses frantically trying to get them seated at high speeds on a forty degree angle.
From Doubtful Sound, I headed for Queenstown, the tourism capital of the South Island, and then left just as quickly as I got there after I realised that the place put me in a foul mood as soon as I arrived. Not being in the mood to jump off a bridge or out of a plane, and not being interested in sitting drinking overpriced designer fruit smoothies with a po-faced bunch of snowboarders in expensive sunglasses, the place had nothing to offer me. Luckily about an hour up the road I found the far friendlier and easier-going Wanaka, a toned-down version of Queenstown. The highlight of Wanaka for me had nothing to do with snow capped peaks – the superb Cinema Paradiso shows movies in a small theatre, where the seats are old sofas and armchairs, and even an old Morris Minor, where you crash out in the back seat and watch the movie through the windscreen. Great quality food is available to eat before, during or after the show with not one heat-lamp hot dog or greasy nacho in sight. It was like crashing out at home to watch a movie, only with a great big screen.
After Wanaka I stopped at the stunning Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, with blue ice creaking like a great living thing, then pootled up the lonely West Coast where endless stretches of rocky beaches are pummelled by the sea and perpetually shrouded in spray, and drove through Arthur’s Pass, back to Onuku Farm Hostel outside Akaroa. It was the first place I stayed at in New Zealand, and I’d been looking forward to getting back there. Driving around the South Island had been good fun, but often lonely, apart from meeting some cool people briefly along the way, and I was craving company. One thing this trip has taught me is that while I’m happy in my own company, I have my limits, and I need to be around people. A lot of time on my own in New Zealand gave me plenty of time for thought, a luxury I didn’t really have on this trip until that point, and it wasn’t such a good thing. I realised somewhere in the South Island that I felt absolutely exhausted – with traveling, with seeing new things, with being a stranger – and felt like quitting the trip and going home.
I stayed at Onuku for a week, doing a little work in exchange for a place to park the van, with the intention of staying there for the summer, leaving out South America and getting home via the US or back through Asia – then I changed my mind again and decided to carry on. I’ve done this since about five or ten times, so have been beating myself up for being a doddering indecisive berk. The time that I was at Onuku, again, was great – Steve, Erina, Tim, Babe the dog and two orphan lambs, amazing quiet and peace, and the chance to cook proper meals and feel at home, sleeping in the van at night under a sky groaning with stars. I was sad to leave, but the irony of it was that maybe stopping at Onuku allowed me to relax enough to feel ready to move on.
From Onuku, I made a beeline for the North Island, and I’d hardly set off before I started losing the plot again – recently my concentration span seems to make a goldfish look bookish and focused, and I have less patience than a small child in Asda. After an uneventful trip across the Cook Straits between the South and North Islands and a day out in Wellington, I drove to Worldwide Backpackers, which I’d booked by phone earlier that day, thinking I was being really organised. I wanted a private room after having been by myself in the van for five weeks and being unable to face the prospect of a dorm, what with all the conversation, snoring and waiting for the shower.
Having driven back and forth and round about Wellington’s one-way system for about forty minutes, thrashed the van to within an inch of its life, and finally managed to park on the one remotely nearby piece of available road at a one in two incline in a ropey area, I finally entered the backpackers so wound up my hands were shaking and I was looking slightly like the Hulk immediately before shirt-popping time. To top this off I was greeted by a girl with no discernible sense of humour and huge unblinking eyes, who told me I’d have to find somewhere else to park. When I decided I couldn’t be bothered I told her I’d just cancel the room if that was OK, to which the response was ‘vell, I vill charge you sixty dollars’ – damn fool, I gave them my credit card number when I booked. Relenting, I paid the girl for the room in cash, plus a twenty dollar key deposit, took the room key, and went to find somewhere else to park.
After getting lost in one-way streets, steep, steep hills and finally ending up on a motorway heading northwards out of Wellington with no way to turn around, I just kept going, finding a campsite in the arse end of nowhere and mailing the key back a day later. The rationale I employed when finding the campsite was a reflection of how buggered my mind was – I wouldn’t turn off to a place called Avalon because it was named after a Roxy Music song, but I did turn off at a place called Whitby because I went to Whitby on my holidays in the UK once and liked it.
The North Island of New Zealand didn’t do it for me as much as the South, but then I didn’t really give it a chance, concentrating on getting to the Far North to see Amy, a girl I met in Cambodia and spent time with in Vietnam, and get away from the heavily touristy areas. Brief stops at Waimangu and Lake Taupo were a good chance to explore areas of geothermal activity, fields that belched steam from between the tough gorse, where the smell of bad eggs hung in the air and the ground made noises like a hungry stomach.
Finally, I got to Monganui, and Amy’s parents’ cattle farm, where I spent a few days helping to move stock from field to field, riding around on the back of a quad bike, watching a calf being born, feeding thirsty calves and getting covered in slobber and cow shit out in the fresh air. It was superb, and Amy and her folks made me feel totally at home, even though her dad called me a ‘Dingle Pom’ because I couldn’t put string through a loop for an electric fence without getting confused – I guess I’m a clueless townie.
New Zealand was fantastic – diverse landscapes, beautiful wildlife and great people in a place that felt like home, but a greener, grander place. No wonder so many people are moving there.
So, after spending the last few weeks not being sure whether I want to call off the trip or keep going, I’m in Tahiti now, and flying to Easter Island tonight – keeping going out of curiosity, but feeling ready to go home, so it’s a good job I’m going in the right direction. Tahiti is very French, very hot and humid, and pretty expensive, but its been good for a few days, partly down to meeting some more cool people. They’re all surfing on Moorea now, I’m off to see big stone heads.