(Day 28) Thursday, September 29
Wellington – Auckland
I cannot believe my alarm is going off. I only feel like I have been in bed ten minutes. And how come none of my 19 roommates managed to wake me during the night with their banging, crashing and howling?
My Auckland bus leaves from outside the Wellington McDonalds, adjacent to my hostel. It is only 7.30, but suits are frantically pacing by me in their dozens, all around me, on their way to their office cages. I sit on my rucksack, balanced up against a wall, with a coffee in hand, taking it all in. It’s a gorgeous morning, but the sight of them all striding past me with their brief cases, Blackberry cell phones and takeaway breakfasts scares the hell out of me. It’s like that graffiti on the bunk bed in Kaikoura:
Even your worst day travelling is better than your best day at work
Well, that doesn’t always stand true, of course, but perched on my backpack with the morning sun occasionally blinding my eyes, watching them all scurry past, I have to say the coffee tastes especially good this morning.
This is my longest coach journey in New Zealand; almost twelve hours in total from the capital to the country’s most important city. Initially, there is plenty of attractive coast line, but after this it all looks a bit like Teletubby Land. After the South Island this is all rather boring and uninspiring, but it is still more beautiful than the most stunning parts of many countries around the world.
Once we hit the central plateau of the North Island, however, the countryside turns from pleasant but uninspiring to otherworldly. A snow-capped volcanic cone soars out of the flat countryside, not unlike Japan’s Mount Fuji, while the omnipresent forests and hills have been replaced by a rather surreal desert landscape. This incredible scene is further complimented by a second volcanic cone, this more dramatic and far more pronounced than the first. This is the Tongariro National Park, home to the mountain peaks Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. NZ’s largest lake, Taupo, itself the caldera of a gigantic volcano, can be found just beyond these. This whole area is one giant super volcano. If it ever blows again, like it did 26,000 years ago, much of New Zealand will be no more.
We pick up a load of stranded passengers from a Kiwi Experience bus that has broken down on the desert road. Amongst their number is Jeff, an English lad I had a pint with in Dunedin before the first match. Jeff was due to travel to NZ with his long-term girlfriend who he planned to propose to on the trip. He had apparently been planning the trip for 18 months but shortly before he was due to leave she paid a visit home to the Czech Republic and when she came back, a week later, she dumped him! Good on Jeff though, he says he is coping with it all and doesn’t think about it much. I am pleased for the lad but I don’t know how some people deal so easily with stuff sometimes.
Beyond Lake Taupo the countryside ‘returns to normal’ with ever increasing signs of urbanisation as we approach Hamilton, and Auckland beyond that. Once we hit the motorway leading into Auckland it is rather depressing to see the sea of concrete, soulless shopping malls and retail parks that greet you as they generally do when you approach big towns and cities in the western world.
Dropped off in the centre of Auckland I leg it to the nearest hostel I can find. With South Africa, England and Scotland in town, accommodation is tight. Without realising it as I book in, I am staying at Nomads. That is Nomads as in ‘CRAZY’ Nomads in Queenstown. I have managed to grab one of the last dorm beds but this place along with all the nearby hostels and hotels are completely full over the weekend. I will start worrying about that tomorrow though.
I go for a wander of night time Auckland and choose to avoid the hostel bar crawl, which numbers 40 blokes and 5 girls, all of them far too enthusiastic about life for my liking. Due to the large immigrant population here, Auckland boasts by far the cheapest food I have seen so far in New Zealand. Not so the pubs though where it is 9 dollars for less than a pint. I feel out of sorts again wandering around by myself. Aside from a chat with two Scottish girls in a pub near the wharf I spend the rest of my evening either staring at the bottom of a beer glass or strolling aimlessly around the Auckland streets, people watching outside takeaway restaurants and massage parlours. I think I better get myself home to bed.
Nelson – Picton - Wellington
(Day 27) Wednesday, September 28
I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get from Nelson to Picton in time for my ferry. I was thinking of hitching, until the Universe threw up Jackie, a biologist and rugby referee from California, whom I met in Punakaiki. She is staying at the Nelson hostel and kindly offers me a lift. She is, fortuitously booked onto the same 10.30am crossing of the Cook Straits, which makes life very easy for me.
Jackie’s hire car smells like a Speight’s brewery. She only got in at 4.30, and probably only got two hours’ sleep. Pulling out of the car park, the first thing she does is to start driving on the right hand side of the road, instead of the left. Thankfully, this appears to give her a jolt of reality, and she’s proficient as gold following this little driving misdemeanour.
Two hours of forest roads (that apparently look very similar to California) and good chat, and we arrive at Picton ferry terminal with half an hour to spare before our journey across the Cook Straits.
Time to leave the breathtaking scenery of New Zealand’s South Island behind me, most likely forever. This island is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have had the great fortune to see. At times, it is damn near perfect in fact. I thought it was going to be the place where I would ask someone to spend the rest of their life with me but, instead, it is where I began the next uncertain chapter of my life, alone. In this sense, I am pleased to leave the South Island, because the carefully planned daily itinerary I had devised here was not intended for a solo mission. The good news for me is that I had/have very little planned on the North Island, and so the travel companion ghosts and thoughts of what would have been will not be in anyway so vivid when I begin travelling there today.
It takes three hours to cross the Cook Straits, which is a little reminiscent of the Stockholm archipelago as you leave Picton. Copious amounts of travel and rugby are ahead of me, with three games in three days over this coming weekend. Part of me though still feels inclined to lock myself away in a dark room instead for a few days.
Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, comes into sight first as a dot on the landscape and then as a small, attractive city built on a series of hills. It’s an ideal size if you ask me, around 150,000 calling this home. Once in the city, Jackie, who has been great company, is off to the airport for her flight to Hamilton; while I book into the first backpackers I can find and get rewarded with a 24 dollar 20-bed dorm. Dread.
Wellington is regarded by many as this country’s top city but the downside here is that it tends to suffer from bad weather, especially gales blowing in off the Cook Straits. This fine Wednesday it is mild and sunny and ideal for a stroll along the attractive quay. It is a bit like a miniature version of Vancouver, especially given its proximity to sea, mountains and forests. Many quality of life reports list Vancouver as the most liveable city in the world but to me it is way too big to be considered that. Give me a city the same size as Wellington instead any time. There is a relaxed atmosphere here and even the suits look relatively unstressed; most of them minus their ties. I like how Wellington city planners have attempted to make much of the new architecture here look slightly dated, with something of a Colonial appearance. Highlight of the day is the Te Papa national museum of New Zealand. It is free, as I believe all national museums should be, and makes for a good couple of hours of exploration. I particularly like the small hut you can enter where the force of a 6.5 magnitude earthquake is available to experience minus the real dangers of falling debris. Leaning on the wall, it takes me unawares when it first starts which proves interesting for my heart rate.
Following on from my theft of a piece of bread the other morning, my crime spree continues as I bag a hostel towel after leaving mine somewhere a couple of days back. Bread, towels, whatever next? It seems like a life of crime for me from here on in. Needs must on this occasion.
I cook the biggest meal I have eaten since I was in England and collapse on a lounge sofa. I feel absolutely exhausted. All the delights of night time Wellington, which many travellers have raved about, are out there waiting for me to discover but I just feel so bloody tired. You wouldn’t think I would be really (after all, I am on holiday), but the constant moving about, early mornings and disturbed sleep in dorm rooms feel like they are taking their toll. I would just love to have a night to myself in my own hotel room but I can’t really justify all that cash, especially as I am well over budget at this stage in the tour.
Go out! Go out! The voices in my head are shouting. You only pass this way once in life!
Watching Georgia v Romania in the hostel bar, still torturing myself about going out when clearly I’m not up to it, I find that I have one eye closed and the other eye pretending to be awake. Even with the noisy delights of a 20-bed dorm, I am so knackered that I barely remember getting into bed before I am asleep.
(Day 26) Tuesday, September 27
Poor form from me. I should have learned from Franz Josef where I nearly missed out on the glacier hike by turning up in reception, shortly before it was due to depart, and finding it full. This time around, I am up at 8 and in reception trying to book on the half day tour of the beautiful Abel Tasman beaches and marine life by water taxi.
“Sorry, my friend. The last bus left at 7.45”
Coffee and back to bed it is then, where I lie in my bunk watching demons swooping low overhead, until they are chased away by the distraction of the Azuri boys getting up to begin their match day.
It’s festivaltastic in Nelson, but it is more village fete than Brazil carnival. And so, I decide to sidestep the jade and T-shirt sellers and sit in the sun by the quay, close to the port, where there isn’t another punter in sight. Miserable bugger.
Yeovil Floozy is, apparently, contemplating flashing her t#t# at tonight’s game and “posting the photos on Facebook”. I must confess that I am beginning to lose it with the Facebook generation. I use Facebook to try and drive traffic to this website but in many ways I wish I had never joined the bloody thing. It does my head in how people use it to show off about things and to try to cheat their partners. The number of stories I have heard of people I know of getting laid using it, and then getting caught and screwing it all up, must run to a dozen. Not only is Facebook a spying tool for governments all over the world but it is also a fantastic way for people to make a mess of their private lives with information and photos they really shouldn’t be sharing with Tom, Dick and Hans. Yes, I am writing very personal stuff and posting it here on More Than a Game, but the difference is that I have total control over content. There is no photo tagging – something that infuriates me – and if I regret writing something, as I have done on a couple of occasions recently, I can return to my blog and amend it accordingly.
There are more thoughts of ‘how did my life get to this point?’ as I stroll down the main street of Nelson to watch the USA v Italy at Trafalgar Park. The General Admissions is nothing more than a field behind the rugby posts where it can’t be much above five degrees, once the sun sets shortly before kick-off. What the hell are you doing here Justin? What set of circumstances and decisions in your life lead up to you being stood here, freezing your ##### off, watching the United States of America’s rugby(!) team play against Italy in New Zealand? Truthfully, and I haven’t admitted this before, I had never in my life paid to go and watch a professional rugby match before I came to New Zealand. Yes, I played and watched amateur rugby when I was at school, but England v Argentina was the first ‘proper’ rugby match I had attended in my life…and now, a couple of weeks on, I am watching a rugby team that is about the footballing equivalent of the Faroe Islands play against a bunch of overweight Italians.
I’m from Saudia Arabia, encourage the Italians
has to be the best supporter placard I’ve seen to date.
The US team puts in a decent first half performance and manages to level the match at 7-7 with a try of their own; the US number 1 doing a convincing impression of a human ox at times. 20-10 at half time, it is still game on, but the Italians grind out a solid defensive performance in the second half and shortly before the ref blows the final whistle at 27-10, I leg it for the warmth of the hostel.
While half of Nelson is out partying, I decide to have a quiet one at the hostel with my 6.30am start in mind. More good chat with some Argie lads staying in the room, I nip downstairs to finish off the remnants of my wine on the veranda. Just as I have my last swig, a young, face-painted American from Chicago stumbles back from town, off his head, and begins asking me all manner of inane questions:
“What is the unemployment like in new Zealand?”
“Why did the clocks change on Sunday?”
“Do you like peanut butter?”
I can sense some dorm-mented behaviour on the cards.
“What room are you staying in?”
“What room am I staying in?”
“Yessss” he slurs, stumbling forward towards me.
“I’m off to bed fella. If I was you, I would head back into town.”
“Yeah, I (burp) will. Good night” and with that he suddenly lurches towards me and tries to launch into a kiss.
Having hung out with a big selection of weirdoes these past few weeks I am fortunately prepared for any random piece of behaviour that might come my way from this lad and am on my toes ready to side step his advances. He could just as easily have swung a punch at me, thrown up over my jacket or suddenly decided to urinate close by. You just never know with the Dorm-mented Crew. FFS! Single for the first time in nearly seven years and the first person who tries to kiss me is a bloke. Talk about a low ebb.
No, I don’t decide to punch him. Instead, I dive for the back door of the hostel and lock it behind me before the Chicago Mincer gets the chance at another shot on goal.
Italy 27 USA 10
Monday, September 26 (Day 25)
“We got in at four. It all went a bit random. The only place we could find to drink was a strip club where drinks were cheaper than most of the pubs. We met a load of other people in the street looking for somewhere to drink and the manager let us all go in for free. The same girl was dancing for four hours.”
And there was me saying Jim and Sarah were on a hiding to nothing.
I give myself the lie in I didn’t have in Punakaiki and set off to explore Nelson. This is a decent town with lots of character by NZ standards. Don’t get me wrong, most towns and villages I have so far encountered here would make lovely places to live, it is just that most of them feel very ‘new world’ and lack charm and attractive architecture. As well as having both of these in some measure, Nelson is also a community influenced by artists. You occasionally find quirky little things here like colourful blankets wrapped around park benches, and psychedelically painted lamp posts. I take the long stroll up ‘to the centre of New Zealand’, which has commanding, uninterrupted views of the coast, town and mountains. Following on from my poor attempt at a jog in Wanaka, I find myself struggling a bit up the steep inclines. Not looking good for the football season when I get back to Europe.
Jim and Sarah’s parting gift to me was to tell me about a one-off Banksy exhibition being held in Nelson. It is a bit of a stroll out of town but what a piece of luck finding out about this! Many reading this will be well aware of the work of Banksy but, for those of you who haven’t heard of him, he is one of the world’s premier street artists, giving important social issues a real message and consciousness through his art.
The exhibition, entitled ‘Oi You!’, is donation-only and also includes the work of beautiful losers, David Choe, Faile, Antony Micallef, Adam Neate and Paul Insect, amongst others. I spend a good enjoyable hour at the exhibition. I will let the images do the talking:
Back at Accents on the Park, the Argies, Italians and Americans are arriving in town ahead of tomorrow evening’s match between Italy and the USA. Meanwhile, downstairs in our communal kitchen, another English blonde, working in Queenstown, is boasting to all and sundry about her having had it away with an England player last weekend. Like I mentioned before, if I were a tabloid journalist, I would have made myself very rich during my time here. It is OK though, I detest the tabloids and I would never spill the beans and potentially destroy a player’s career and/or marriage for the sake of a few coloured pieces of paper. I will talk in generalities though and, I am told by the other two Queenstown bar workers present, that fellow England players were downing treble Jack Daniels after their third match, a couple of days ago. One of the internationals in question also tried to take a girl back to Nomads, as I mentioned previously.
Not so much risk versus reward as just not caring as much as they probably should.
“You probably shouldn’t be telling these things to a journalist,” I tell the three of them.
The girl lets out an effected squeal, “Oh my God, oh my God, are you reeeeally a jour-na-list?”
Then, after a short pause, her eyes light up:
“Which newspaper do you write for?” asked in a strangely flirty, rather ugly way.
“None. Don’t worry.”
The Yeovil floozy looks bloody disappointed.
I watch 30 minutes of Wales v Namibia over a 6 dollar handle of beer (little more than a half pint) but it is one of those nights when I feel uncomfortable and downright lonely, sat in a bar, being Billy-no-mates, and beat a hasty retreat back to Accents on the Park, where I am very content instead to spend my beer money on a phone call to my lovely nan in England. Predictably, she tries to get me off the phone inside a minute, because she is worried about the cost for me. No matter that she gave me a hundred quid towards my trip a couple of days before I set off. I am sad that I won’t see her for another eight weeks.
Wales 81 Namibia 7
(Day 24) Sunday, September 25
Punikaiki – Nelson
Is there a more wonderful sound to hear upon waking, in those first few moments of consciousness in the morning, than that of the wild, untamed ocean crashing against the nearby shoreline? I guess if you have kids, then maybe the sound of their happy voices and laughter might beat it but, of all the myriad of sounds nature provides, this is surely one of the most special.
There are signs up in the showers and toilets reminding anyone staying here that in the early hours of this morning the clocks went forward one hour for daylight saving time. I thought my new-fangled phone would work that one out for me but, apparently not. It is therefore 11am, not 10am as I lazily get myself out of bed and make a pot of coffee to compliment the sea view on the veranda.
Another Californian, Jennie, was apparently staying here overnight, and she had also expected modern technology to automatically take an hour from her life at 2am. We are both consequently an hour late checking out but this isn’t the kind of hostel where they are going to get anal with you about such inconsequential details.
And so, winter in New Zealand turns to spring and, for me, three weeks on from England, summer (with a quick splash of winter in NZ) becomes spring. My body clock and hormones can’t know what has hit them. It will be rather depressing, I’d imagine, to return to Europe at the end of all this when it will be approaching mid-winter, in the same way as I never really adjusted to the depressingly grey winter of Argentina and Chile after leaving the almost white nights of northern Europe behind in late June.
I stick on some New Orleans old time jazz and enjoy this most chilled out of Sunday morning vibes. If I can change my bus ticket and postpone my journey to Nelson until tomorrow, I will do it. Sadly though I soon discover I can only alter my journey more than 24 hours in advance, and a new ticket will set me back around 60 dollars. Budgets dictate.
With time short, I stroll down the absolutely deserted black and grey sand beach to the narrow mouth of a river tributary, where a large sea stack is only twenty metres or so away from the shoreline, being pounded by surf. I love this place. The setting is a little like that in ‘The Beach’, except this is gritty, wild and ‘real’.
The half dozen or so houses that dot the sea shore have been swallowed up by the sheer limestone cliffs, rainforest and boundless ocean as I look back the kilometre or so I have strolled. You can hardly make them out at all. Nobody on earth can hear me here and I am not sure there is anybody who can see me either. The reason I say this is because I am suddenly taken by the idea of singing; of trying to make up a song. Sounds like I’ve really lost the plot this time, doesn’t it? But, this moment; place, is so inspiring and solitary that I genuinely feel inspired to try and create a tune and some words from absolutely nothing. It is not something I have ever done before or felt particularly inclined to. Almost instantly I find a tune and the words just fly out like they were always there, waiting. In fact, I am so taken by my little ditty that I am a little upset to lose those first initial lines and chorus to the crashing ocean. And so, I take out my digital camera, point it in the direction of the white-crested waves, and begin to sing again. Of course, now that I am in my own roofless recording studio, the tune and words don’t come nearly as easily to me. But, I do remember the original chorus, discovered ten minutes earlier. And, I will, at some point, try and put it all together and actually finish this song one day in the future, maybe on an equally deserted beach in the Pacific in October. The inspiration for this tune comes from my recent tumultuous life experiences, a song I recently heard for the first time by Avalanche City, and part of a stoned conversation I had with Californian Matt last night. It is called ‘Unconditional love’, and it will be released some time never.
Dare I say it, but I feel strangely emotional leaving the Beach Hostel, Californian Matt and Punakaiki behind. This kind of genuine peace is so hard to find in my personal world of 2011.
There is just time to explore the Punakaiki pancake rocks and sea stacks before the bus leaves. The full force of nature hits here with blowholes violently blasting the sea water high above the black cliffs into the heavens. It is kind of like Northern Ireland’s Giants’ Causeway gone vertical, instead of horizontal, and with thousands of wild flax and palm trees encroaching on the scene.
The coach departs the pancake rocks and passes the beachside community where I spent a happy 24 hours. Give it five years and this will either be a full-on hippie community or a regular stop on the Gap-year tour around New Zealand. Punakaiki is just too bloody special to be left alone and not spoiled eventually by the money-making potential of mass tourism.
One hour of stunning wild coast line and three additional hours of mountain roads and valleys later and we reach Nelson. I am going to base myself here for three nights so that I can watch the Italy v USA match on Tuesday evening, and to explore the Abel Tasman coastline, before catching the ferry to the North Island on Wednesday. After the serenity of the past few days, Nelson feels more like a huge city than the small town it actually is. In saying that though, its centre, where we get dropped off, feels like a ghost town; I’m almost expecting tumble weeds to put in an appearance as I search for an overnight backpackers with 20 year-old Sarah from England and young Jim from Galway, who were both working in Queenstown for several months and are now headed home via south east Asia.
‘Accents on the Park’ must be one of the world’s poshest backpackers. It is more like a decent hotel. My new friends, truthfully young enough to be my kids (!), very kindly sort me out with some spare beers and I go off in search of a local pub to watch Scotland v Argentina. ‘329’ is absurdly expensive, so I settle instead for the cosy ale house, just around the corner called ‘The Vic’. The quality of the rugby isn’t exactly top notch at times, but Scotland v Argentina is definitely the most exciting match of the tournament to date for the neutral. Scotland appear to have the five points in the bag until Gonzalez zig zags his way through their defence to score the try-of-the-tournament eight minutes from the end. It is hearts in the mouth stuff as Contepomi puts over the conversion and Argentina edge Scotland by one point. This sets it up very nicely for England v Scotland in Auckland next weekend.
I bump into my new Irish/English friends in the street on my way home, where it is blowing an icy gale. They are just on their way out at 11pm after drinking in the dorm to save cash before their trip to Indonesia next week, although I reckon they are on a hiding to nothing for their night out as Nelson seems absolutely dead.
Ireland 62 Russia 12
Argentina 13 Scotland 12
Fiji 7 Samoa 27
Saturday, September 24
(Day 23) Franz Josef – Pukekura –Greymouth - Punakaiki
A twenty-something French couple, who are waving their arms around so much they look like they are directing Paris traffic, are in the hostel kitchen demanding some fifty-something Dutch bloke gives them hard cash for the food he has allegedly stolen from their meagre supplies. Two of my eggs have also gone missing overnight but I have to say respect to Dutchie or whoever else for pulling off such a daring raid without getting nabbed. Out of supplies, I stole a slice of bread the other morning from someone’s almost-full loaf and I have to say my heart was absolutely pounding mid-crime. Risk versus reward.
The Inter City west coast special labours up through the steep mountain roads until it descends to the coast once again near Pukekura (New Zealand's smallest town with a population of '2'). The surf is literally pounding the shoreline and the rain is coming down horizontally as well as vertically. I think you could call it cats and dogs. Once we depart Greymouth, the most sizeable town in this part of New Zealand (population 10,000), the views of the Tasman Sea coast are transformed from four- to five-star. Thick, lush Rainforest, often clinging to cast mountains reminiscent of Vietnam and Thailand, rises high above the ocean below, which is littered with huge boulders and Sea Stacks.
I am the only punter on the bus to leave the west coast service at Punakaiki where it is a 400-metre downhill stroll to the simply but aptly named ‘Beach Hostel’. I had pencilled in three nights of chilling here but was convinced to stay longer in Franz Josef by the YHA receptionist there. Never trust a pretty girl; I am instantly regretting my decision. This place looks like chill out central, and by that I mean the kind of place where you can totally unwind without the unwanted presence of too many dorm-mented Gap year types.
The second-floor lounge has big wide windows opening out to the beach and pounding surf just metres away. I make a mug of coffee, grab my latest novel (which in truth I am struggling to get through) and snuggle up on the sofa, admiring the view between paragraphs about life in a South African shanty town and caffeine. I reckon it is about 10 minutes before the therapeutic sound of the crashing waves and the solitude of where I find myself sends me off into a deep, comfortable sleep.
The only other person staying at the hostel is Matt, a 24-year old lad from California. He had planned to stay here for a night or two but, like me, he found himself instantly taken by the simple pleasures of Punakaiki. He has sorted himself a nice little deal whereby he works two hours each morning cleaning up the dorms and the kitchen, and in return he can stay overnight free of charge. Frankly, if I had no rugby matches to get to next week and no real travel itinerary, I would do exactly what Matt is doing and stay here for a week or two. For reasons not entirely clear to me, Punakaiki is the place where I have found the most inner peace since I first left Europe at the end of June. I feel mellow, truly relaxed and relatively untroubled here.
I did have a ticket for tonight’s England match against Romania but, as you will have gathered, I offloaded it so that I could spend time travelling instead up the west coast of the South Island. As much as I would like to be in Dunedin again tonight, I definitely made the right decision with plan B heading up this way. There is a pub 100 metres away from the Beach Hostel. This also rates as my favourite pub of the tour to date. It is old school in all the good ways, with a friendly publican and staff and equally affable locals. The ale and grub also score highly. In Punakaiki you feel like you are staying on your own virtually undiscovered tiny island in the middle of the wild ocean.
England are vastly improved against Romania with Mark Cueto running in three early tries, and Chris Ashton looking more like his exciting self. Matt joins me for the New Zealand v France match that has the pub packed with half of the friendly Punakaiki community. The All Blacks are different class to a very decent French side and look to me to be the best team here.
Matt is one of the soundest people I have met on my tour so far. In some ways, he reminds me a bit of myself a few years back; or myself now minus all the baggage and demons. Beer, table football, a stroll along the beach in the rain, insightful chat and some happy smoke round off a truly chilled day; the crashing waves sending me off to sleep in seconds.
England 67 Romania 3
France 17 New Zealand 37
Friday, September 23
(Day 22) Franz Josef Glacier
I feel like crap; one drunken night of self-induced poor sleep followed by one hungover night of almost no sleep at all. Fortunately, I am doing the half-day glacier hike leaving at 10.30 and not the full day hike beginning at silly o’clock
The Franz Josef glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world offering guided walks to the general public. The Fox Glacier, 20 minutes away from here is another, and the truly spectacular Perito Moreno glacier, which I visited in August, is the other of the three. I missed the start of the glacier walk season by one day in Argentina and so I am determined to give Franz Josef a go.
Fully kitted out in hiking gear, our team of 12 hikes for 45 minutes along a flat river bed until we reach the terminal face of the glacier. This is where the glacier reaches sea level, after descending 1300 metres from the top of the mountain above us. It is a dramatic sight, with the snow-capped mountains giving way to the kilometres-long ice glacier, which in turn ends at a river bed surrounded by lush rain forest. The full day hike takes punters half way up the glacier, helicopters buzzing overhead, but I am content to simply experience the thrill of hiking on the glacier itself, exploring crevices and tiny hidden ice caves. I imagine walking in crampons will be tough but after ten minutes it feels completely natural to firmly stamp the metal spikes into the ice below as we descend into our first spectacular crevice. Hiking on a glacier, particularly in the tough-to-negotiate narrow bluey-white ice crevices, certainly provokes a sense of the unreal. It is a magical parallel universe that evokes all kinds of strange imaginings.
The best photo opportunity of the day is sliding head first through a 5-metre long ice tunnel. Too late to ask, I find the guide is there to make sure I don’t hurtle head first into the solid ice corridor below and an early grave.
Argentina’s Perito Morino is certainly the more beautiful and spectacular glacier, if you wish to compare two of the three places in the world where you can access a glacier in this way. Anyone visiting it will never forget the pulse-rate-quickening sight of huge blocks of ice breaking away from the glacier and collapsing into the glacial waters below, in turn causing a mini-Tsunami to race across the lake. But comparing the two isn’t like-for-like anyway. Perito Morino is advancing, while Franz Josef is, as is the case with most glaciers in the world, receding. And while Perito Moreno is in another league in many senses, Franz Josef does boast the unique setting of mountains, coast and rainforests adjacent to it, and so both of these wonderful places should be considered world class attractions.
Still buzzing from the hike, we return to Franz Josef town where a memorable day of adventure is topped off with two hours of 40 degrees water relaxation in three outdoor thermal baths. This comes as a nice bonus with the 120 dollar hike. The thermal baths are cut into the rainforest with huge ferns within touching distance of the steaming pools. The addition of heavy rainfall and the noise of some creature or other emanating from deep inside the rainforest add to the wonderfully chilled ambience.
After an early scare, Australia easily see off the USA on the big screen at the adjacent pub. I am so relaxed after my hike and spa that I can hardly keep my eyes open once the Aussies start to easily run the tries in.
Australia 67 USA 5
Thursday, September 22
(Day 21) Franz Josef Glacier
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too laid back in your planning. With a shocking hangover I eventually get myself out of bed and to the reception at 10am hoping to book on the day’s glacier walk. Clear skies are predicted, making it a perfect day to negotiate the world famous Franz Josef glacier. But, unfortunately for me, the trips are all fully booked, which means I will need to spend an extra night here if I am going to be able to do the hike. Louise, the Scottish girl working on reception, manages to book me onto a tour for the following day and also tells me that one of the places I was planning to stop off at after Franz Josef isn’t really worth bothering with, and that therefore an extra day in Franz Josef is no disaster.
With no trips booked I need no excuse to spend a lazy day doing nothing and sleeping off my red wine hangover in the Montrose Hostel across the road, which is one of the few places I have seen with free internet.
Rested, I bump into Tony who was one of the twelve in the ‘Dorm-mented’ room in Queenstown and also went down to Dunedin with me on the ‘rugby special’ along with Tim Nice But Dim and the English blamanchettes. He confirms that I wasn’t imagining it when I thought I saw another of the English lads in our crazy Queenstown dorm peeing into a water bottle in the middle of the night on my last night there, most of it missing the bottle and splashing all over his Welsh mate. I don’t know what it was about room 112 at Nomads but there was certainly some very odd night time behaviour from the Welsh and English boys. I even saw some suspiciously gay night time hugging going on in there in the dark.
South Africa look brilliant as they thrash Namibia 87-0. It is nearly five quid a pint down at the popular local, the Landing, so I make one Speights last me the game and allow myself a gulp every time South Africa score a try. I think I get ten swigs in total.
Thinking the worst of my dorm-mented days are now left behind me in Queenstown, I am awoken at 2am by the return home of the Swedish girl who is sharing the dorm and a very tall mystery bloke, who sounds, judging by his overuse of ‘sshh’, suspiciously Dutch. In and out of the room they walk several times until I am fully awake from the banging doors and the lights being switched on and off. And then the in and out becomes literal as they start to have sex on the blonde Svenska’s bed. I decide to let them get on with it without complaining and pull a pillow over my head, but I just can’t get to sleep. This is the same young lady who told me earlier in the day that she had agreed to meet this bloke but she ‘didn’t know why, because she wasn’t interested in him’. Women, hey!? I don’t know whether half of them are compulsive liars or just so mixed up in the head that they make it all up, according to their hormones, as they go along. Anyway, the slurping and vibrating bed frame noises continue for quite some time until both of them pay visits to the toilet and bang more doors. It is probably 5am by now, and I haven’t slept more than 30 minutes all night and have a glacier hike in the morning. Next, the sex is replaced by walrus-like snoring and I really can’t sleep at all. I am tempted to just bludgeon them both to death and be done with it. Finally at 6.30, the lad pops out to the toilet and comes back in ready for another session. It is now light and I am fuming. Maybe it’s a bit out of order on my part but I tell him, with a few choice expletives, that as he’s kept me awake all night, if I hear him again I will knock him into the middle of next week. He doesn’t say a word and sulks off home to his hostel shortly afterwards. I manage to get about 2 hours’ sleep before it is time to get up for my glacier walk.
This dorm-mented behaviour is doing my head in, but I don’t see that I really have any other option. It is too cold to camp on the South Island and motel rooms will set me back nearly 50 quid per night. I also can’t afford a camper van on my Todd, as they have jacked up the prices for the world cup well beyond my means.
After Argentina and New Zealand I hope I never see another youth hostel bunk bed again in my life.
South Africa 87 Namibia 0
It’s a 10am departure from my lie low in Wanaka and a spectacular 6-hour drive to Franz Josef on the west coast of the South Island. I am running out of superlatives for this island as we pass countless waterfalls, emerald lakes and stunning mountain scenery. Once we hit the west coast, the scenery completely changes as lush green rainforest tumbles down from cast hills to wild, deserted beaches. Dundee Amber is with me for most of the journey and makes excellent company before she jumps off at the Fox Glacier, where she is planning a helicopter ride onto the glacier the following day. As for me, it is another night at a YHA, this time with the remarkable backdrop of snow-covered mountains and rainforest encroaching as far as the back door of the hostel. The Cathay Pacific air stewardess and her mum from Shanghai, who I met in Wanaka, are also staying at the hostel and help me knock back a bottle of Hardys Shiraz as Tonga go head to head with Japan
I bump into Dundee Amber who is checked in to the Wanaka YHA after spending a couple of nights in Milford Sound. It was a wise move staying overnight on the fjord as she got to kayak in calm waters with sunny blue skies giving her a totally different perspective of the fjord from when I accompanied her on the cruise there the previous day, when it was stormy and snowy.
My main accomplishment of the day is going for my first jog since I was living in Europe in June. I can't imagine I will ever jog anywhere again quite as beautiful as the Wanaka lakeside setting, with glorious blue skies giving the scene a look of perfection. I struggle to complete my jog and take a sneaky break half way, sitting on the shoreline marveling at the view and contemplating my future.
The Russians run in their first ever try in Rugby World Cup history in the evening and add two more, but they are still comfortably beaten by the Italians.