Friday, July 10, 2009

South America Calls...

South America. Long I have mused on how to write up this continent, leading to the significant delay since my last entry.

When I first planned this around the world trip, I had hoped to encounter multiple, completely unique continents; South America should be something with mystery and mystique unparalleled by other areas of the world.

Somewhere remote.

Somewhere with soul.

...or would it?

Arriving in Santiago with very little research under my hat, I was unsure what to expect. All I knew from multiple travellers met along the way was to be “on guard”.

Despite a serious lambasting Santiago (Chile) receives from multiple guidebooks, I decided to stay there for a couple of weeks whilst I researched what to do, undertaking some rather urgent Spanish classes.

During my time there, I came to enjoy its charm – not only did the people appear warm and friendly, but there was a vibrant buzz to the sprawling city. Each neighbourhood had its own appeal; distinct but somehow the same. By the time I had left Santiago, I felt they had made up for the initial transgression.

Time to rewind a little – “What ‘transgression’?” I hear you say.

Having been in Santiago for less than 24 hours I decided to go on one of the many different walks of the city which I undertake almost everywhere I arrive. At approximately 14:00 on a sunny weekday afternoon, I was no more than a few metres from the main hospital wearing my sunglasses when they were briskly whisked off my face by a bypassing cyclist. How un-gentlemanly of him!

These sunglasses were about four years old, made of plastic and had been scratched so badly after five months of travel and four years of sailing, that the coating had been entirely removed from the lenses, along with much of the paint-work. They were chosen for this trip because they were almost indestructible, and they were the most practical and unfashionable things you’ve ever seen. However, they were MY sunglasses – or were...

Welcome to South America.

South America seems to have systems that are a strange mix of European, combined with the laid-back ‘charm’ of South America. When I say ‘laid back’, I should really say lazy.

Stepping into a pharmacist to purchase some foot-deodorant (wearing the same shoes for five months is a seriously bad idea for those around you,) I selected my product and walked over to the till. Shortly after this, I was told that I could not just *pay* for the item I had selected. Instead, I must first get a ticket for it from the pharmacist, even though it wasn’t a pharmaceutical item.

I walked over to the pharmacist to receive the ticket, only to find out that the single pharmacist had a queue of over ten people – in contrast to the two people at the tills, and the two at the “help” desk, she was working by herself. She was doing ALL the work! Oh how I wish that were an isolated incident.

Travel does strange things to people. One of those things which seems to happen to everyone who travels for more than a month, is for the sense of time invested, compared to reward received, to be significantly warped. For example, one day when I really wasn’t feeling the vibe to learn some Spanish, some newly made friends and I decided to go on a road trip. Hearing of a hot spring at the end of a very long, dusty road, with amazing sights and no tourists, we decided to hire a car and investigate.

Three dusty hours later, we finally arrived in a valley very close to the Chile/Argentina boarder. Surrounded by mountains, the scenery was breathtaking. Not surrounded by tourists made it better still.

Standing there gazing at the myriad of colours on the mountain, we noticed a quarry rather high on the cliff. No sooner had we started to pull away, did a massive explosion let rip. The driver, seeing the cloud of dust behind us floored it (luckily!) as we made a closer escape than we would have liked.

Moving on from Santiago, I headed towards the coast, taking in the “arty” cities of Valpariso and Vina del Mar. Both were substantially average, although the former had some very interesting graffiti which inspired me to take pictures at a jaunty angle for a while.

That’s quite enough of that – I do consider myself a scientist after all!!

My search for inspiration sent me inland and across the Argentinean boarder, to one of the most vexing business models I have ever heard of. It was living proof that the Argentineans don’t like tourists...

In the city of Mendosa, I encountered a series of cottage industries that had been set up entirely to pander to those who wanted to visit the local vineyards for which that region of Argentina was famous. No big deal, one would think, until you realise what they are encouraging. Instead of riding a minibus from vineyard to vineyard, they rent you a bicycle and you ride from one to the other, all along pot-holed and narrow paths, strewn with trucks. You then proceed to get drunk on the wine offered with each “tasting session”.

Shockingly, you may be surprised to hear that there was a high accident rate along that road – who would have thought?

Luckily, the ice-cream parlour and fillet steaks within Mendosa, both for a fraction of the cost and double the quality of the UK, made this city very enjoyable. The wine was good too! Oh, and there was a horse thrown in for good measure for a bumpy sunset ride...

Rushing past the next couple of cities, which were only really included to break up the massive distances between Mendosa and San Pedro de Atacama, I would like to mention only one significant thing – I’m sorry. In fact, I’m very sorry. In the remaining photos I shall be wearing the world’s worst hair-cut. It was so bad, that I decided to take a photo of the person responsible. I don’t know what she has such a large smile on her face for, as she clearly doesn’t know how to cut hair. Amusingly, she probably thought that my request in Spanish for a haircut was strange, thinking that Europeans have very peculiar taste. Either way, I received a dire haircut – live with it, I had to.

Now it was onward, to the Bolivian boarder and the Atacama desert....

Until next time!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Northern Island culture & a "Gay night out" in Auckland

During our time in South Island, we were always told how much more superior to North Island the sights were. The hills were bigger, the nature remoter and people more friendly. Putting this down to inter-island rivalry, Alex and I ventured into the Northern Island with a good week to do it justice.

Stepping off the ferry, the change was noticeable - there was a highway. Yes, six whole lanes of traffic joy to cut our navigational teeth on.

Finding a place to park, we took the time for some cultural outings. The first museum in ages was to grace my intellectual pallet. Slowly taking in all the sights that the best museum in New Zealand had to offer, including a giant squid of daunting size, we felt our brain-power expanding after weeks of adrenaline travel.

Now it was time to continue our journey, doing as many people do and skipping almost all of the “dead” land mass between the south coast and Lake Rotarura. This, of course, meant another illegal night by the side of the road. But wow, what a view!

Arriving in Rotarura, it was time to partake in a very New Zealand pass-time. Fishing.

I'll admit this now, it's been a while since I last went fishing. In fact, usually I get rather lucky whilst fishing, much to the annoyance of everyone I'm with. Often, it seems, that I go with people who are usually far superior fishermen, but I somehow manage to fluke catching bigger fish in larger quantities. With the fishing on this lake being pumped up as some of the best in the southern hemisphere, I was looking forward to our early departure...

With the mist still low in the air, hanging over the lake like an insulating blanket from the warm sun, we headed off into the unknown, Alex and I peering through the fog for moored boats.
This was war.
It was time to do battle.

Trout were our enemy.

Armed to the teeth with a very outspoken local guide and his armoury of trout-killing dredging lines, battle was to commence at 07:00 hours. Manoeuvring the boat into position, we readied the lines and began the fishing experience. One hour later and with no fish to add to our tally, the guide let out the famous war cry “Common you f***ing fish”. To our amazement this seemed to work, as within five seconds of this sentiment being uttered, both lines went taught and fish were back on the menu.

With the feeble trout being no match for our superior strength, intellect and skill, Alex and I slowly reeled in the fruits of our labour. Trout followed trout, as the all clambered to get onto our boat. It was carnage; it would go down in trout history as the “massacre due to the shiny spinny things.”

Seven trout later, with a few being released as we were over-trouted, Alex and I decided to call it a day. The fishing really was excellent, and the trout would become the bane of our life for the next few days.

Now, seven trout varying in size from three to five pounds is quite a lot it turns out. Quite a lot indeed. In fact, I think one would be at risk from developing trout poisoning if you tried to ingest them all at the same week. To add insult to injury, the trout's only line of defence from fishermen is the bone. Or should I say bones.

Instead of being like normal, nice, fish, trout have developed a way to combat their natural tendency to jump onto fishing boats by the hundred. A set of really annoying bones which make their filleting a pain in the royal backside. Especially when one is armed only with a Leatherman “Swiss army knife”. What they did forget to do though, was broadcast this whilst we were catching the darn things.

With so many trout on the “to eat” list, we came up with the cunning plan of getting them smoked by a local fishmonger. Failing to find a fishmonger who wanted to smoke some trout, we drove to a local's house and managed to coerce him into smoking them for us, giving some money and a trout in exchange for the service. Whilst the trout were being smoked to give up the secrets of their annoying bony-ness, it was time for us to find what makes the North Island famous – the geothermal activity.

It turns out that whilst the South Island has superior mountains, there is something still murmuring under the soil of North Island and it wants to get out. The North Island is highly active, and they have done a great job in harnessing the geothermal activity with numerous power plants and tourist traps. Although they are all pretty good.

Taking in some of the sights (and smells) of the geothermal activity was very interesting with more than a few weird and wonderful colours on display on their passage from deep within the Earth.

Alex even managed to drag me off to a place where you cover yourself with mud and pay them for the pleasure. Apparently it's good for you?? Hummn... [No posing could make this look any better than this - sorry and please feel free to gouge your eyes our after/before viewing]

With this ticked off our list of things to do, it only left a few more “must see” sights of New Zealand before our imminent departure. Two of them being really, REALLY touristy!

I'm going to gloss over this, as I had been expecting to make friends with a typical Mauri and get them to show me something more authentic. However, with less than a couple of days left, it was becoming rather apparent that we needed to see the Hukka – or dance of the native Mauri. As you can imagine, this is going to involve mixing rather liberally with some other tourists. Yes, it was as bad as you can imagine and about as authentic as watching Neighbours to see how Australians live.

Moving swiftly on was another VERY touristy item on the tick-list. A sheep show.

Now, I know what you're thinking, I meant to say a sheep-DOG show. No. This was a show about sheep, and although there were sheepdogs, they weren't even involved for the vast majority of the show and were only brought out to really scare the living hell out of the sheep.

Being good touristy representatives, both Alex and I decided to go up to the stage – Alex to milk a cow (okay, so there were more than just sheep) and me to feed some lambs. This involved the usual piss-extraction from the guy demonstrating the show, by getting me to drink the lamb's milk for example, but was pretty whole-hearted “family fun”.

That's enough of that I would say.

Now it's time for some less “family” orientated fun.

At the beginning on the New Zealand section, I had mentioned that Alex was gay. Now, at some point during the trip, I had managed to get myself either drunk or very low on sleep, or a combination of both, agreeing to go to a gay club for one final “Big Gay Night Out” in Auckland.

Browsing through the wardrobe of permissible clothes, Alex decided to select the wonderful salmon pink silk shirt I purchased in China – despite pleas from me that it would give off the wrong signals to the other members of the club.

With this marking the one and only significant night out during our time in New Zealand, I decided it was time to take a “power nap” (read; old man's nap) at about 6pm. Luckily, as we had checked ourselves into a party hostel with this in mind, everyone else was doing the same. Correction, everyone else was *trying* to do the same. One wonderful person in the dorm of eight we had decided to sleep in had decided to set their alarm, proceeding to “sleep” the alarm every five minutes. As you can imagine, I was very pleased by this action and deemed it not selfish at all.

After the 7th snooze, I had had enough. I don't often get annoyed, and as it turns out, when I do, I get rather “British”. In fact, I become rather pompous and correct. Shouting across the room to get her attention, I stated in a very proper British accent “Excuse me inconsiderate person, but could you please turn that alarm off as it is rather annoying!” No kidding. Not a single swear-word was uttered – I was pissed off. I was a pissed off Brit.

With that minor incident out of the way, it was time for our gay night out. I was dressed in pink. I was scared.

Entering into a very gay pub, I did what all self-respecting straight people would do. I headed for a location where I could see all the exits and make a swift get-away. It was like I was under-age drinking again. I was petrified, but was trying to “play it cool”. To say that I was awkward would not even come close.

After a few minutes though I began to realise something really strange. Just like straight people, gay people are not going to try and hump you if you are sitting at a table. Wow. Amazing that!

Following a singing contest involving a man/woman thing in the worst drag outfit ever, I had to ask Alex (who had just won a signed copy of Kylie's new album, the jammy git) what etiquette demanded I call the “it” person.

A word for the wise – apparently you must call them by what they are trying to be. So, despite this person having a pencil thin moustache, and looking like a cross between a second world war air force colonel and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I should call it “Her”.

[All the photos of "her" didn't come out very well, so here's one of Alex on stage instead!]

The rest of the night went pretty well I must say, and towards the end I was really, really enjoying myself. The crowd were surprisingly normal, despite Dorothy, and most of them were pretty aware that I was straight, so I just concentrated on having a good time, instead of trying to look “cool” etc.

Dancing like a prat, I also realised that one thing about gay men isn't true. Not all gay men can dance. In fact, many of them don't have a clue!

At one stage, someone shouted in my ear that the lady (yes, there were a small splattering of straight people there too) I was dancing with was someone called “Anne Hathaway”. Answering “who?” the guy looked mortified, and three other people repeated this claim, saying that I was in fact dancing with Anne Hathaway, who apparently, is some kind of 'A' list actor. Well, whoever she was, Anne Hathaway or not, she danced pretty well, despite being rather desperate for attention.

All was going a little too smoothly until someone pinched my ass, before then feeling up my groin. The instinctive reaction was then to spin around, with combat in my mind. However, I quickly reminded myself that I was in an environment full of other gay people, wearing a pink shirt. Instead, I turned around and kindly waved at him, before shaking my head and hands indicating that I wasn't interested. Although great for my ego in retrospect, I think I could do without that kind of attention...

The big gay night out had been a success – and it was time to leave the company of Alex, to continue my travels alone.

With a few more days in Auckland to explore the city, I decided to check into a better hostel which wasn't known for being full of “inconsiderate people”. Here I met a fantastic crowd of three American lasses who were great to spend a few days with, exploring the city and doing some really silly stuff like playing on park benches and fox-lines at 2 in the morning. Unmissable! It was certainly nice to let my hair down before leaving to South America. I even managed to appear at the very back of an advert for some kind of soup which was being filmed whilst I was wondering around Auckland!

Now it was time for South America - could it live up to expectations?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ice Axe Joy

Heading further east across the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand, it was time to take a pleasurable cruise through one of the deep fjords which create a heaven for wildlife (and sandflies).

Getting to Doubtful sound is significantly harder than one might imagine. First, you must drive to the far edge of the NZ road system, board a boat to take you across a river, then take a bus which can never connect to the rest of NZ, finally boarding the vessel which will be your home away from home for the duration of the cruise.

Leaving Lucy, our campervan, by the side of the road yet again, we boarded a small boat which would take us to the beginning of our trip. Something wasn't quite right though. Both Alex and I looked in dismay at the fellow travellers. Expecting the usual mix of back-packers, perhaps with some locals thrown in for good measure, we were rather shocked to find that almost all of the people on the trip were over the age of 50. Welcome to SAGA holidays!

Arriving on our vessel for which we would spend the next few two days, we swiftly realised that the tour was all about enforced enjoyment. At every opportunity we were told what the most fun thing we could possibly do would be and were expected to partake. For example, it may be freezing cold outside, but “Right now the best place on the boat is on the bow enjoying the scenery...” Apparently, when you hit the age of fifty, you loose the ability to make decisions for yourself. You also forget things alot, which accounts for why we were told no less than thirty times how the banks of the shore contained no soil, but instead were built on "lichens, mosses and other dead matter".

What made this even more amusing was the way in which it was said – by an over-tired crew-member, who had long since had all forms of personal enjoyment removed from their lifeless cask of a body.

What was more amazing though, is that despite the lack-luster crew the voyage was thoroughly enjoyable! The scenery was fantastic. The nature was even better.

Following a few hours of motoring, we were to come across our first pod of dolphins. Never getting that close to these creatures before has meant that I have been deprived of their company for many years. Sitting on the front of the boat however, it was a truly amazing sight as the pod slowly came closer to the boat, playing on the bow wave as dusk began to fall.

[Dolphin Video to replace this picture if I get a fast connection!!]

Over the three days we saw fur seals, dolphins and also penguins, not to mention a large number of birds and a few million sandflies!

Over the next twenty four hours, we would encounter fur seals and also some very rare penguins – all of this in almost “perfect” conditions; for Doubtful Sound. Unfortunately, with the great nature and green hills comes a harsh price – over 300 days of rain per year. Luckily for us, we were there on one of the few days that it was not raining!!

Leaving the serenity of Doubtful Sounds behind us, we took Lucy off towards another first for myself – a glacier. On the way stopping by a rather old-fashioned, but very good fun museum which involved different types of optical illusions and puzzles. I'm sure it was the first time my brain had been worked out since trying to learn Mandarin in China!!

One of the best parts was a two story maze, which was made to infuriate! After about 45 minutes, both Alex and I had found three of the four towers, but despite running to find the fourth, Alex managed to get there first - well, almost, as I slid under one of the gates in a desperate (and rather blatent) attempt to cheat! I conceded victory - anything else would be rather "un-British".

Arriving on the Franz-Joseph glacier, I had managed to coerce Alex to do a day's ice climbing. My thought was that if we were going to do a trek on a glacier, why not make it a little more hard-core and actually have some serious fun as well!?

After sleeping on the side of the road, we arose at silly-o-clock in the morning to be given our equipment. Tooling up with crampons, ice-axes and harnesses, it was time to be off into the driving rain. At this point, about five of our group, myself included, noted that our boots were a really bad fit, but that it would be okay “as long as we didn't go walking for the next two hours”.

Two and a half hours of walking through jungle, scree and finally the glacier later, we arrived at the edge of our first wall, and were shown how best to ice-climb.

Crampons – they are amazing things really, the guide demonstrated how one could quite literally walk up a wall, as long as the technique was right and the ice firm enough. The axes just made it look more hard-core. As we climbed up the first slope, we soon realised why the axes were there, as often the footing may give way, or just due to human nature, one would require something to hold on to in order to provide balance.

Three attempts at the same 20m cliff, and we were all ready to go home. It was tiring stuff, and strangely more exhausting than normal climbing. When in normal climbing do you have to smack a hammer into a sheet of ice multiple times until you can get a good purchase??

A further hour's walk and the rain began to subside. As the clouds cleared from the glacier, the views were very impressive. From my perspective, I had never been on a glacier before, and had certainly never used crampons. I was loving it!

Arriving at a second sheet of sheer ice, this time with an overhang, we began to make the ascents. Each time or technique improved, and we could see that our skills were getting better. However, at the same time our physical stamina was waning. Making a crazy dash for the top on the first run proved very good, not only getting myself up there far faster than usual, but also preserving energy. However, when it came to the third attempt I was done for.

Dashing up the first 10m, I came to an overhang and just could not manage to bury the ice axe into the ice deep enough. Feeling like some feeble gerbil had swapped his muscles for mine, I tried to fling the ice axe at the edge, with no luck. Each time I tried, the axe would simply bounce off, or worse than that, not even make it to the ice surface. It was hilarious to watch, even from my perspective, as I had rarely encountered fatigue quite to this level!

Admitting defeat and descending back to the crowd, I was glad to see that almost everyone was having exactly the same issue. Often ascents were being called short, or axes or crampons would simply fall out of the ice just at the time of need. To all those ice-climbers out there – I'm impressed, you must have some serious upper body stamina to keep you going up any serious length edges!

Wrapping up the ice-climbing for the day with a three hour hike back, we released our feet from the confines of plastic hell which were our boots and wearily dragged ourselves back to the campervan. Forcing a late evening drive to push on to the north of the South Island, we arrived at a deserted lay-by next to a very under-used road just in time to see the sunset.

As the evening drew in, we both relaxed with a sense of accomplishment reinforced by the satisfying ache all over our bodies!

The next day it was time to explore Abel Tasman National Park.

With only a few hours to see the best of what it offered, we headed off for a three hour hike across the hills and to a secluded beach. After about one hour 45 minutes, we seemed to arrive and were constantly vexed by the signs which within a few hundred metres of each-other would vary the estimations of distance (measured by time!?) by half an hour or so!?

The beach was wonderful, although in a very depressing moment, Alex found out that not all beaches which look this good are actually hot. In fact, this beach was really, really cold. So much so that our legs were nub before we even had the opportunity to get deeper than knee depth. No wonder there were no swimmers!!

Taking a sea-taxi back, we left the secluded nature of South Island for the early morning ferry to North Island. With now three days of sleeping by the roadside, we were looking for a bit of civilisation. North Island was about to deliver!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rough Riding NZ...

With some of the very dubious “must do's” of the South Island of New Zealand under my belt, it was time to turn up the tempo a little. Undoubtedly, in a country like New Zealand where tourism has been one of the primary sources of income for the past few years (yes, we have the Lord of the Rings to thank for that...) everything could be achieved, but at a price.

Leaving Duneaden, we headed for the most southerly city in the world! (Except for those in South America.) This was a set of claims to fame which many different places we were to visit would tout at us. Never did they do the place justice.

Always the claim to fame went something like, the fourth highest/largest/longest/biggest/smallest place in the South Island/New Zealand/Australasia/Southern Hemisphere. If only we were left to just enjoy the vista, the superlatives would have flowed from our mouths – and they would be far more impressive.

On the way to our destination, we stopped by a small cove which was to prove one of the most beautiful sights on our journey. Reminding me very much of the home which I left almost five months before, we walked to the end of a steep pinnacled ridge, lighthouse adorning the top, to view a few hundred sea-lions and seals wallowing in the morning sun. It was a sight to behold, and now something which constitutes my netbook's wallpaper.

A few hours of driving further on, just before night-fall, we stumbled across a small sign leading us to a waterfall. Here in the late dusk we walked through dense woodland before coming across a surprisingly majestic waterfall, made better by a total lack of any tourists. The sun setting, we enjoyed some sporting photos before we headed off to our spot on the roadside where we were to make the final stride towards the “activity capital of the world”- Queenstown. First it was time to take a few hours to undertake some activities of our own – some DIY caving.

Parking Lucy on the side of the road to be taken advantage of by any passing motorist, we donned a jumper and grabbed a torch before heading off into the cave to locate some glow-worms. After a few minutes of tight squeezes, we came across a rather deep pool with only a fine ledge around the circumference. Time to get wet. Edging around the pool, I managed to make it to the other side, just in time to capture Alex falling in with my camera. Sorry Alex!

Queenstown has declared itself as the “Adventure Capital of the World”. With a title like that, both Alex and I were to see what it had in store for us. Splitting apart for the first time in over a week, we undertook our own separate activities. Alex did a [very high] bungee jump, whereas I decided to go jet-boating and then take an off-road motor-bike out for a spin.

Jet boats are a cunning invention, specifically designed to allow the boat to skim over only a few centimetres of water, floating on a “plane”. All the time they keep moving, they have incredible power and manoeuvrability through normally treacherous waterways. Couple this with a cunning design which gives the perception of the front being far further forward than it actually is, and what results is an excellent adrenaline filled ride – you just have to turn the scientific parts of your brain off!

Each edge is taken slightly closer than you would imagine is safe, but the drifts have been carefully choreographed to ensure that the driver is struggling to get closer to the cliff, with the power of the boat forcing it away from the hard granite edge. Still, there are no tracks under the water, no safety barriers on the rocks, and certainly a large amount of skill on the part of the drivers. Ours also had a well polished banter about being a novice, which went down well.

Finishing up with the jet boating, it was now time to put control in my own hands. I've never really been a fan of activities which one endures, far better are those which you can influence. Jet boating was thrilling, but you always know you will be safe, as you are in the hands of an expert. Give a 250cc scramble bike to a total novice and ask him to make jumps and ford rivers. Now that's a far more amusing adventure sport!

Despite the millions of companies within Queenstown which were happy to take the tourist dollar for anything from skydiving to white-water rafting, only one company actually allowed you to take your life in your own hands and ride a scramble bike. A few more offered quads, but with four wheels comes stability and safety. We don't want that now, do we!

Walking into the office, I did happen to catch a glimpse of the sign mentioning that you had to be an “experienced rider” to take their tours. Having ridden a motorbike pillion through India, I was very experienced – just not at driving. How hard could it be right???

Exaggerating my skills to the guy in the shop slightly, I managed to blag myself onto the tour. A short ride into the surrounding countryside later, and I was sitting astride the bike. Here I asked “just to be sure” what all the controls did, and received a very short answer. I also told them I was rather rusty, as it had been over 5 years since my last ride. This wasn't a lie, I had ridden one of these before, for about an hour, in my cousin's ranch in Australia. Time to learn, and fast.

Although the first half an hour of the session was certainly bumpy, with some very dodgy gear-changes and rather close slide-outs, I managed to hit the minimum standard, albeit just, was given a guide and sent off into the bush.

Being a keen mountain biker, I loved the feeling of whizzing over the rough ground. Power certainly gives you a warped sense of distance, with huge hills being just a thirty second activity, rather than the massive slog they would be with a mountain bike.

In a mother scaring moment, I want one of these bad-boys. Luckily, they are pointless in the UK, but if I move somewhere remote – watch out mum!

Wrapping it all up with numerous river crossings and a few baby jumps, it was time to end my activity filled day, dirt grinding against my teeth. Queenstown had done me proud. It was time for a more serene experience – the lost tranquillity of Doubtful Sound...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cruising around NZ

Before I arrived in New Zealand, my fellow travellers advised me not to expect too much civilisation, but instead to revel in the spectacular scenery. Arrival in Christchurch served to prove them right.

Christchurch, the largest of all the “cities” on the south island, was surprisingly small. With a population of just 600,000 – it was about the size of my home town in the UK. It had one high-street, a small square, and was almost totally closed down as I investigated it at 5 minutes past 5 on a dreary and cold Saturday afternoon.

The thing that Christchurch did have going for it though, was its charm. Everyone was smiling, people were waving at each other and even the tourists weren't hated as much as they are everywhere else in the world. New Zealanders aren't really internationally famed, but from my first impressions, I would put them up there as the “friendliest nation on earth”.

Shops were a time-warp of old English tradition, spliced with the Australian enthusiasm for the outdoor world. Although new goods, they were always serving them in an old fashioned way. For example, I went into an espresso bar, with Italian coffee maker at the centre and Kiwi greeting me with a wide smile, only to be asked if I wanted sugar with my latte – for it would be mixed in for me. On enquiring about where I could purchase some wool tops, instead of directing me approximately, I got directions based on people's names. “The fourth shop down is very good, as Ted sources the wool from the Walton's farm.”

To top it all off, I then went into a local bakery to try and pick up something to eat with my coffee, only to be told they were closing. However, instead of just leaving, they offered me a free scone!? If I hadn't had been so hungry, I would have taken a picture. Like all good fisherman's tales, I shall now say that it was huge. The best scone ever? Probably not, but good all the same!

Christchurch is tiny, but I don't care; it has the small town charm often lost by bigger cities. I hoped this would just get better as I move away from the “big smoke”.

Answering some adverts at the local backpacker hostel, I managed to locate a suitable travelling partner, with whom I would spend the next three weeks cruising around New Zealand in a camper. One, “speed questioning” interview later, and we had deemed each-other as suitable travel partners. Some hurried phone-calls to local renting agents ensued, and finally we had our own camper-van to travel the New Zealand islands with.

After five months on the road I finally had a home. “Lucy”.

She was a beaten up old pile of crap. But like a particularly ugly and lame puppy, we would love her anyway. Tough and high-revving love that is.

Now it was time to head south from Christchurch, taking in all of the spectacular scenery the South Island has to offer.

Our first night in the camper was on the shores of a lake, about 4 hours drive from Christchurch. Here, after stocking up with supplies from a local supermarket on the way out of Christchurch, we cooked our first meal, deep in the bowls of “Lucy – Protector from the evil sand-flies” as she shall now be known.

I'm going to admit this now, I was a little worried about the standards of cooking we would have to endure on this journey. I've seen what some people my age call food, and I must admit that the idea of eating that for three weeks was less than appealing. Consequently, I was very relieved when it turns out that my travel partner was actually a very good cook. Despite the limited resources in our cupboard, he always knew the best combinations and threw them together very well. He also didn't make it impossible to wash up the pan by encrusting the best bits of food onto the bottom – a definite benefit!

The next day we awoke and began to pack up the van. Starting at 8:15, with a 10:00 curfew, we thought we had loads of time. At 11:00 we decided to leave with it only partly completed; it was something we would need to improve in future attempts...

With a rather late start under our belts, it was time to head off to our first destination – the highest salmon farm in the world.

When I heard that, I had envisaged huge heights – perhaps 3000m higher than sea level, with snow cresting the sides of the farm. I had certainly hoped for more than the 800m height that we observed. Saying this, the scenery once again made up for it as we ate our freshly smoked salmon and blue cheese overlooking the vista. With a quick walk across the farm for DIY feeding time (don't you like those business models where tourists pay to do someone else's job?) it was great to feel like fish-god!

Following lunch, we headed off for Mt Cook – the highest point in NZ.

Unable to scale Mt Cook ourselves, as it requires mountaineering experience and much gear to get past the numerous glaciers, we had to be content with the view from the bottom.

Dropping the van off at the bottom of a valley split, we made the quick 90 minute walk to the front of the glacier, which was to mark our return point. Having never seen a glacier before I was struck by how cold it wasn't. Now, I know glaciers are made from ice, and ice is usually below freezing point, so, you can imagine my confusion when we reached the glacier and I was hot, whilst only wearing a very thin top. It must have been about 14 degrees – certainly no where near the 2-3 degrees I was expecting!?

Feeling a bit cheated, Alex decided to go in for a dip and claim first dibs on a large chunk of ice – just to check that it was actually cold and not some Star Trek polystyrene prop. The screams he made and the moaning after the event confirmed various reports I had heard that glacial melt-water is in fact very cold. Let's just say that no one wanted to go swimming in that lake.

Pressing on to our next port of call, we decided to camp by the side of the road and welcome in the evening (and the ever present sand-flies) by the shore of another lake. Although this wasn't strictly legal, no-one seemed to care, and it did mean we didn't have a working towel rail or microwave – two things I'm hardly going to cry over. Although it did also mean we were lacking in power to charge our MP3 player/ speaker combination (as the van's radio didn't work), and any electronic devices such as cameras or laptops.

What we were also lacking though, certainly made up for the rest... As we laid back in our beds, blinds open to the world gazing at the foreign southern sky constellations, we couldn't hear anyone getting drunk and partying, no children screaming, no generators humming. Silence. This is almost like camping. Almost.

The next day was to bring with it the iconic New Zealand moment. No, it wasn't the shamefully childish Maori art, nor some sandstone cliffs. It was being stopped in the middle of the road by a few million sheep. Welcome to New Zealand.

This was then topped off by some oversized Malteasers, which apparently draw tourists from miles around – even though there's only about ten left, and those which are left aren't even that round.

Oh, and the best name for a boat I've ever seen.

By now, we were towards the southern tip of the South Island – a place called Duneaden to be precise. Duneaden's claim to fame in the world is that it has the world's steepest road. I don't really know why, but we were rather amused by this concept and so decided to take a stroll up it. When I say take a stroll, this soon degraded into a slow-motion race up the hill. For those who haven't tried, don't. It makes you feel really pitiful, as you run at about 5 mph up the slope, no matter how hard you try! What was amusing though, was thinking of the poor residents who must suffer the daily trudge of tourists and cars who drive up the dead-end street, only to then drive back down again a few moments later.

So far it had all been well and good, a few minor sights here and there, and some other things to see and do along the way, but nothing really earth-shattering. What makes people fall in love in New Zealand? Well, I think I was about to find out...