Sunday 30 January 2011

New Zealand - South Island

So much time, so little to do. Oh wait, no, it's the other way round...

Trying to fit the world in a year is hard enough, squeezing New Zealand into three weeks even harder. The South Island into eleven days? Almost impossible. I didn't have a clue where to start until Hugh kindly scribbled some notes on my map and sent me on my way. I felt sure I'd skip the section of east coast where he'd written "Shithole" and keen to visit the bit on the west marked "Nice bush".

I knew I wouldn't be able to see everything, my only criteria were not to waste time and to try and hike for at least two hours a day. The whole place is ridiculously stunning; every moment, every mile, another gasp of awe. The landscape changes so much; vineyards on the mountain slopes, bush of ferns and palms, rugged coastline, temperate rainforest, glaciers, volcanic peaks, vast turquoise lakes, rolling green fields of grazing sheep and cows that feel like home.

Travelling is not so much about the dots as the joining of them. A road trip more so - it's what you see from the car that makes it, not where you stop. The big things; the memories, the places, the photographs; they're important. But the subtle things, harder to write about or recall, are the soul of the journey.

Here then are the dots from my camera; the pillars of my final trip. If your imagination can trace the lines between them, you might see beneath their surface, where words would only fail. I've been privileged - sensing the heart of the island not standing at lookouts or lakesides, but tramping through her countryside, alone and free.

Lake Rotoroa

West Coast

Greymouth Beach

Franz Josef Glacier

Lake Wanaka


Lake Wakatipu

Lake Takepo

Rakaia Gorge

East Coast

The Road

Saturday 29 January 2011


I've said before that it's much easier to write about the places you don't like than the ones you do. Wanaka for instance, where I jumped out of a plane the other day, is a beautiful, tranquil little spot. It's probably the first place in New Zealand where I got out of the car and felt like I could stay there for good.

Wanaka from Mt Iron

Queenstown, on the other hand, is sure to be the kind of place I despise. Billed as The adventure capital of the world, you can almost guarantee it will be a massive idiot magnet. The streets will be teeming with vomiting Brits and bogans; trousers hanging round their knees, baseball caps on sideways and stupid hair. Bars will be spilling shot filled punters onto the sidewalk, bragging about the "sickest" thing they've done. Canyon swinging. Bungee fishing. Para-handstanding.

Not for the first time this year, I arrive to find my preconceptions pretty wide of the mark; Queenstown is actually a rather nice little place. There are more blue rinsed pensioners than bleached blonde teens, and the only baseball caps are on the coach loads of Japanese tourists. The town tumbles down the surrounding hills to the lakeside in a beautiful, picture postcard scene.

I'm feeling all adventured out after the skydive, so leave the crazy activities for another day. I do take on the Shotover River Jet Boat though. In driving rain it feels like a billion needles being flung in your face for twenty minutes, with the occasional distraction of assuming you are about to meet your maker by crashing into the canyon walls. It was raining too much for photos, but I nicked this one off their website. You get the idea...

It's a far cry from kayaking on the gentle waters of Lake Wanaka, that's for sure. It might have been a nice surprise to find Queenstown so likeable, and I even stayed three days, but I think I know how I'd rather see out my days.

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Jump

I've been thinking for a while now that I'd quite like to do something big and bold at the end of this trip to remember for ever. One fat, sweet cherry on top of the rich, sickly cake. As the end drew closer, I realised I didn't need to make that kind of gesture; the adventure itself has been enough. The journey, the people, the places, they don't need some cheap gimmick to make them memorable or special.

But I did it anyway.

It was only ever going to be one thing really: jumping out of an aeroplane. It's something I've always wanted to do, but doubted I ever would. And mainly, because when push comes to shove, when the chips are down, the fat lady sings, at the end of the day, when all the cliches have run out, I am a giant, incurable chicken.

So for years the seed lay dormant in my mind. A few months ago, when I started thinking about the gesture, it began to germinate. It would have to be New Zealand, I figured. As it got closer, I started to talk myself out of it, but as I got further south I realised it might just happen. This morning I woke in Wanaka (emphasis on the second "a"), opened the curtains and thought today was probably as good a day as any.

Later, over breakfast, I began talking myself out of it. There are some lovely hikes round here. Apparently Queenstown is a better place for it. You need a few more clouds. What a load of bollocks. I knew deep down it was today, or never.

Strangely, I became less scared once I'd decided to do it. The ball was rolling. The seed had sprouted and was soaring sunwards. I went for a walk, ate, steadied myself. The drive out to the airport; getting ready; the reading and signing the waiver; the notes about gas expanding at altitude; the extra, precautionary visit to the bathroom; the jumpsuit, the locker. The harness. All that was just a blur.

Thumbs up = still not soiled myself

The guy making the DVD sticks the camera in your face and asks stupid questions, and on reflection, I look surprisingly composed, and like my answers: "I'm more worried about shitting myself than jumping out of the plane," before reminding my mum where I left the will. At 12,000 feet a few cheapskates jump out, and we keep going, with oxygen masks to help. At 15,000, people shuffle along the rails to the open door, and plunge, one by one, into the sky. I can't believe I'm not nervous, but really, it is a fait accompli by now, and there is nothing to be gained by fear.

Out, and a twist

The shock as you fall out, twist over and plummet is immense. But it's not scary, just exhilarating. The sixty seconds of freefall, when you drop 10,000 feet (1.9 miles) is insane but strangely serene. When the chute opens and you feel like you're being yanked up, a new, settling sensation replaces it, and you pop your ears, do a few tricks, and drift slowly down to the ground, which you meet by skidding along it on your arse.

Don't ask. He does this ten times a day...

The view from above

Landing. That's me with the pink chute...

I'm writing this and I still feel slightly desensitised. It was, or at least should have been, scary. And I should have shat myself with fear. But I didn't. Something in me enclosed the whole experience, cocooned it with some withdrawal of emotion. Shortly, I think I will come out of that mode, and in the brief moments, now even, when I think about it, I kind of want to clench my fists, shout "Yeah" and "Awesome" and "Whoooohoooooo FUCK YEAAAAAHHHH," but to be honest, I think I probably did enough of that earlier.

I was right you know - I didn't need to do it. But I'm bloody glad I did.

Prancing on Ice

Pretty much the only item of warm clothing I've had with me on this trip is my North Face Glacier Fleece. I decided to reward its faithful body warming by taking it up onto its first ever glacier. And if you're going to treat your clothes to days out, you might as well do it in style. So we went up by helicopter.

The Franz Josef glacier is 12km long and stretches down towards the Tasman Sea on New Zealand's spectacular west coast. It exhibits a classic glacial cycle of advance and retreat, and is actually currently growing, despite the best efforts of global warming (discuss).

Getting kitted up for this involves putting on an enormous pair of boots and wearing an oversized bum bag (fanny pack to my American friends). Shortly after strapping the boots on I found myself absent mindedly whistling Walking on the Moon by The Police.

After a short but spectacular ride up in the helicopter we landed about halfway up the glacier, wedged in the valley. The landscape is eerie and other worldly; the ice raw, craggy and blue.

Ice from above

After a quick skid across from the helicopter, we put on our crampons with varying degrees of difficulty. Split into groups of ten or so, we head off our separate ways to hike across the ice and look for strange little caves and formations. Unfortunately for me, our group is headed up by a five year old Chinese girl who is edging her tiny feet worriedly across the surface. "Walk like a dinosaur!" encourages Ned, our cheery and very Kiwi guide, but to no avail.

Moonboots avec crampons

"Walk like a dinosaur"

Meanwhile, out the back, and I am really digging the crampons. Forget moonboots, I feel like I could walk vertically in these things, and decide to test their reliability by disappearing on all sorts of tangents rather than partake in the world's slowest ever Conga. Doing so, I got that feeling of being a trespasser again; a landscape so alien and foreign to everywhere else I've been, that you just have to wonder whether we should really be here.

Not just because of the boots, it got me thinking about Moon Dust that I read a few months back. About what it must have been like to have stood on the moon; to feel so remote and detached from the world that we live in and are part of. Whilst the icescape had a similar feel and effect, it was obviously diluted by the hordes of other punters who'd been flown up here to tramp around like morons, so the moment quickly passed. By the time some idiot asks if the water is safe to drink, I've already consumed pints of the stuff. Cold, crisp and delicious; as pure as the driven snow.

Bloody tourists

Tiny tunnels and caves are formed as the trickling water cuts its way through the ice. Moulins, where it spirals down and drills out a swirling bore hole. Narrow slot canyons, just like those through the sandstone back in Arizona. The difference here is the timescale; these are created and destroyed over days and weeks, not millions of years. The giant glacier, advancing and retreating through the more permanent landscape, shifts, changes and contorts itself as well. From afar, a great block of ice; up close, a twitching, living thing in constant flux.

Le Moulin Bleu

Friday 21 January 2011

Turning over an old leaf

I like walking. When I walk, I think. And walking alone through stunning landscapes, valleys and forests, that thinking can have a wonderfully cathartic effect.

With this kind of freedom, just surrounded by nature, the mind picks all kinds of things to think about. Little nuggets that got lodged out of sight suddenly come loose and you find yourself raking them over, resolving them and letting them go. It's purgative; a kind of mental colonic irrigation.

I think about a lot of current things too, even the future, every now and then. But mostly I just let my mind wander and see where I end up. The other day I was hiking a trail through temperate rainforest up to some waterfall or other in the Nelson Lakes National Park, when I got thinking about perspective again.

As I walked I was looking around and noticed one of the ferns appeared more delicate and fragile than the others.

I kind of nonchalantly ran my hand through them, plucked a leaf here and there, and only stopped when I turned one over. Underneath were tiny yellow spores, and it struck me as being exceptionally beautiful, and impossible to see from a distance. Impossible to see from an inch away even, without the curiosity to look underneath.

I kept walking, looking for more of them, when I realised I couldn't see them because they were everywhere.

I smiled when I thought to myself that we talk about "turning over a new leaf" when it would probably be simpler and a lot more rewarding to just flip over an old one.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Ghost town

On 3rd February 1931, an earthquake razed the town of Napier to the ground. Since Art Deco was in vogue at the time, it was rebuilt in such a style and is today regarded as the finest exposition of that architecture in the world. Which should make it a nice little place to stop for the night, and a great spot for photos.

The hotel I found myself definitely had a thirties feel to it. I'm guessing it hasn't been redecorated since. Wandering out into town around 8pm, I wondered if I hadn't missed a warning or something, as I appeared to be the only human being present in the "city centre". When I did finally see another person it was a little old granny hobbling along with her stick, which did little to assuage my fears.

The emptiness was perfect for taking pictures, though it was a cloudy night and the town wasn't looking too bright. Not only that, but I had forgotten the first rule of photography: To take a great photograph, you need a camera in your hand. Never mind, thought I, there's always the morning. I finally found a few people in the only restaurant that was a) open and b) not a kebab house: a steak joint inadvertently running a bit of a seventies theme.

Come the morning it was pissing with rain and still gloomy. No time to mince around unfortunately, with a four hour drive to Wellington on the cards and a bit of cricket I wouldn't mind watching. I walked around for about five minutes with my camera under my shirt, half heartedly grabbing a couple of crap pictures just to prove I'd been there.

Reminds me of Worthing...

Believe it or not, this is the Cathedral...

Luckily I managed to outrun the rain on the drive south, and found myself a nice spot on the grass at the Basin Reserve to watch the last session of the cricket. Compared to the Sydney Cricket Ground it's a bit like watching a couple of old codgers looping pedestrian leg breaks on Wisborough Green, but that kind of made it the perfect place for me at the end of another long day.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Making time

One thing I've tried to avoid over the last year is just writing accounts of my days: I did this, then I went there, then I ate this. I've read a lot of travel blogs and the ones like this are unutterably shit. So I've tried to be different; draw out themes and ideas that my travels present to me and that maybe mean a little bit more.

But that takes time and effort, and with my blog now about four days behind me, I'm going back to Plan A to make up time. Here's what you could have been reading for the last twelve months:

I left Hugh, Indri and Genghis on Sunday afternoon and drove south, planning to stop at Rotorua for lunch, on to Taupo and then across to Napier. Which was a stupid plan. With about four and a half hours' driving, and a couple of stops, I would see next to nothing along the way and arrive too late.

The stop in Rotorua was brief. It was always going to be, but about ten seconds after getting out of the car and inhaling the dense sulphuric air emanating from the all the hot springs in the area, I got back in and drove off. I don't have time to stop everywhere or see every place I want to see, which means you have to go with your instincts a lot of the time. And I instinctively don't want to eat lunch in a town that smells like a stink bomb factory.

Taupo seems nice, and a couple of friends will be arriving around 8pm, which is enough to get me on the phone to the ferry company, kick my crossing back a day and spend the night. I reward myself with a long hike up the river into the middle of nowhere, even breaking into a canter at times.

In the morning I decide I have time to take in the scenic volcanic loop drive around Tongariro National Park and go for a bit of a hike in the middle. The scenery is stunning of course.

Taranaki Falls, Tongariro Nat. Pk.

Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro Nat. Pk.

However long it looks like a drive in New Zealand might take, double it, they say. Hmmm. Halfway through the park and I'm thinking I don't even know what a New Zealand police car looks like, when I realise I do. There's one heading towards me about a quarter of a mile away.

Another one bites the dust

She's very nice, hands me my $170 ticket with a smile and an "awesome" (not what I was thinking) and I carry on at 100kph, a ridiculous speed for a long open stretch of road with nothing else on it.

This unexpected drop in velocity means it's gone 6pm when I finally get to Napier. The drive was stunning; winding through valleys and over mountains, stopping just the once for a powernap, as deep as it was brief, before I careered off the highway. With the mountains behind me, the vineyards of the Hawke Bay region begin, and it's a gentle, scenic cruise into town.

Boring wasn't it?

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Social network

I've just watched The Social Network, and what a nice bloke that Mark Zuckerberg is. Really lovely guy.

Loathe him or merely hate him, without facebook I wouldn't have been heading from Auckland to Waihi Beach, where my old friend Hugh lives. We hadn't seen each other for twelve years, and would surely never have done so again were it not for that geeky little twat and his creation.

We headed north up the Coromandel Peninsula for a couple of days, driving the scenic roads in the inadequate Ford Focus I'd rented. We hiked to remote beaches, and finally wound up in Whitianga (Wh is pronounced as F in New Zealand, which will take some getting used to but could be a useful way of writing swear words).

With twelve years to catch up on, we got amongst the beers. It's reassuring to realise that for all the things that happen to us throughout our twenties, all the changes that take place, nothing really changes. Except perhaps that the hangovers get a bit more brutal as the years run out.

Cathedral Cove

Orokawa Bay

I spent a few nights just chilling out back in Waihi Beach with Hugh, his lovely wife Indri and their friendly but psychotic dog Genghis. We swam, ate, watched DVDs (two series of The Inbetweeners exposing a gaping chasm between Indri's sense of humour and ours) and successfully chased Genghis around the neighbourhood before he managed to kill any other dogs or children after I unwittingly let him escape.

I could have spent the next couple of weeks doing the same, but this is meant to be a road trip. One last adventure, one more journey of discovery, as far away from home as it is possible to be. There'll be no slouching for the next couple of weeks, I thought, as I got behind the wheel of the Ford whucking Focus and took to the highway for one last time.

Monday 17 January 2011

Auckland: the view from the top

Everyone slags off Auckland. Get out as quick as you can, they say. Shithole. Dump. Worst place in New Zealand. I'm not in a position to judge that last bit just yet, but I really can't see what the place could have done to deserve this kind of vilification.

It's a city, so I'll apply the cake metaphor. It's probably a cupcake. Nice sponge, not a lot in it, no unexpected bursts of flavour, though neatly iced and fairly tasty. Won't make anyone's top ten cakes in the universe, but if you had to eat it every day, it wouldn't kill you.

It's not Auckland's fault but it feels like a sort of no-man's land to me. I've left Australia, but haven't begun the chronically under-planned Kiwi road trip that will fill up my final weeks. There's not a massive amount to distract the passing nomad, so I ride up the Sky Tower to take a look over the city.

The next day I received an email from my big sister. We'd been talking about travelling, the possibility of me continuing to do so, and the absence of structure and routine in my life. She remarked that from her experience of reading travel literature;

People were always climbing hills, searching for vantage points, as if somehow there would be a place from which to see life with greater clarity, as if perspective were the key

Sunday 16 January 2011


Cities, I've been thinking, are a bit like cakes. They all look different, taste different and have different things in them. They're iced differently, or not at all. But for all their dissimilarities, they're still all cakes. Same basic ingredients, same process, same result. Cake.

Melbourne is different. It's more of a kitchen sink cookie of a place; a little bit of everything. Aussies slate it for the weather, but being English, that's never bothered me. Beneath the ever-changing skies, it is an edgy, arty and interesting city that is constantly reinventing itself.

The centre of town is a grid of big streets, but in between them are the famous laneways; gritty alleys where tiny cafes, bars and shops hide among the rubbish bins of the big chainstores. And I think this might be why I love Melbourne so much; because most of what is so great about it is obscured. It hides in dark corners while the bits of the city that resemble all others bathe in light.

It's not a naturally beautiful place like Sydney, so it is made great by the people in it and the things they have created. It's busy, like all cities, but if you look carefully you find moments of calm and stillness that seem missing in other cakes.

Rings of suburbs orbit the nucleus of the CBD, each with their own character; each vibrant, dynamic and unique. Not unlike a miniature London, smaller and more compact yet with more space, and never claustrophobic.

The food in Melbourne is incredible; cared for, thought through and loved. From the little lunch joints wedged down Centre Place to the three hat restaurants, Melbourne eateries are outstanding. Coffee is the source of great pride, and much squabbling over who's turning out the best cup. It doesn't matter - you might get the odd dud, but on the whole the coffee is life changing, and unquestionably the best I've had in anywhere in the world.

All this means I'd been anticipating my return to Melbourne for much of the year. It's been hovering just above the horizon, a shimmering sun. I've forced it to the back of my mind most of the time, because arriving will also herald the end. Back in amongst it this time (I lived there for five months in 2009) I somehow feel like a bit of an intruder. It's a city made for living in more than visiting - the sadness of your impending departure will always cloud a short visit.

And that's how it felt this time, like I kept myself back to save myself from getting hurt. I rolled around a few old haunts: Section 8, the bar in the middle of town consisting of some wooden crates and a couple of old shipping containers all fenced in by chainlink; MoVida, the best tapas restaurant outside Spain; New Gold Mountain, a slick, stylish and brilliant cocktail bar lurking behind an unmarked door.

This post has been sitting undrafted for a while now. I'll never be happy with it because I can't convey in words how amazing Melbourne is. Many things I've deliberated and pondered over have held me back from writing more as I move, so I'm posting it anyway, and moving on. It's not going anywhere, after all, and knowing it's there is somehow reassuring.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Quite frankly, it's piss poor. This is supposed to be a travelogue, blog, log, whatever, and yet I have only posted two things in the last month; one saying I need a holiday, and the other that I have decided to do fu*k all for the next however long. As far as retaining what lingering reader interest may have survived the last year's laborious nonsense goes, this must surely be the death knell.

Or is it? Maybe I wasn't sleeping, but waiting. Poised menacingly like a tightly coiled and pissed off cobra, waiting to explode in a fury of travelling, eating, cooking, photographing and writing brilliance the like of which the world had never seen. But no. I've just been watching cricket.

Many years ago I was an angry ant of a teenage England football supporter. Spilling beer, shouting and chanting mildly offensive drivel. Around that time I worked with an absolute gent (who was probably only 25 himself) called Danno, who once confided in me that he would rather see England win the Ashes (Cricket - England v Australia) than the World Cup (Football, Soccer). I smiled politely and secretly worried about him.

It might have been the eight years as a bookie, when my patriotism yielded to fiscal pragmatism, but I ended up wanting England to lose things, football especially. When I stopped being a bookie, I assumed my patriotism would return, but it didn't. And it didn't because in order to be patriotic, you need to feel pride, and eleven cashed up bogans strutting around a football pitch failing to replicate the form they show for their paymasters whilst carrying on the pretence of representing their country provokes anger and resentment, not pride.

Cricket is different though. Test cricket is the quintessence of a sporting contest; endurance, technique, consistency, teamwork, planning and execution. The Ashes, to an Englishman or Australian, are the pinnacle of that most refined of sports. And the Boxing Day test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is the highlight of that.

Two Englishmen, a Frenchman and an Australian....

If you are interested in cricket, you know what happened, if you're not I won't bore you; suffice it to say that we utterly destroyed them. It was very special indeed. So special that, after two days at the MCG I decided to shelve a few plans and spend the first week of 2011 in Sydney watching the final match of the series.

Day 4 at the Sydney Cricket Ground

Five consecutive days of test cricket is an epic thing to watch. Even more so thanks to the demolition of Australian cricket engineered on the field, a rotation of great company in the stands, and the effervescent humour of England's travelling supporters, the Barmy Army.

Nic and I looking smug on the final day at the SCG

By the final day there were no Aussies left, just a large, vocal contingent of English people there to watch the denouement; the final decapitation of the old foe coming just a few minutes before lunch. Amidst the celebrations though, came a slight shuddering twinge. England's victory arrived courtesy of the brilliant execution of a masterful plan; Australia's demise the result of hubris. Greatness never resides long in the same place; those which were great once are small today, and those which were small have become great.