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
There's a 'rugby special' from Queenstown to Dunedin leaving in the morning and returning after the England v Georgia match. I have done this before with football, but I don't quite know what to expect with a rugby away day. Here are some of those who accompany me on the 10-hour round trip:
It takes 5 hours to reach Dunedin but two of those hours are spent stopping off in fields for toilet stops and in small rural villages for more beer, wine and whisky. Once in Dunedin, England appear to have taken the city over:
Down at the excellent Otago stadium we all await what we hope is going to be a better England performance than that against a decent Argentina side, a week earlier:
England run out 41-10 winners although, had the kicking of the Georgians been half as good as that of Toby Flood, the score would have been considerably closer. England run in the tries but it still isn't really convincing. Five points and a bonus point on the board it is time to track down the minibus back to Queenstown...
...the trip back is delayed as one lad on our bus is arrested at the game. I am not surprised because him and I nearly came to blows on the journey here. He is a #### by any standards and it turns out, according to the press the next day, that he was the only person out of 11 ejected from the ground to actually get arrested.
It is 2am before we are back in Queenstown, and ####-face is back off annoying punters in Queenstown high street.
RWC Daily September 18
There's a cracking atmosphere in Dunedin ahead of the England v Argentina clash, with thousands of fans travelling to New Zealand from both countries. Truthfully, the Argentines win the singing in the main square, the Octagon, where 'shall we sing a song for you?' gets lost in translation with the England fans who don't have a clue what the opposition fans are singing. If this were football and not rugby, the point at which a couple of dozen Puma fans jump up and down a metre away from a pub full of English, would be the point of no return with both sets of fans no doubt kicking off. But this is rugby, and despite some historical animosity between the two nations, the goading remains good spirited.
Strolling around the Octagon, taking the sights in, I suddenly bump into Argentine Alex, who I met on my first morning in New Zealand, shortly after arriving from South Korea, when we booked into the same airport motel in Auckland. Alex is a top lad and we had actually been in contact by email a couple of days earlier, planning to meet up just ahead of the match, but after downing half a bottle of Merlot I'd consequently forgotten all about ringing him.
It is a 25-minute stroll down to the Dunedin stadium, which is rated as one of the world's best rugby stadiums. It is a gorgeous stadium, which is covered to protect the 30,000 present from the worst of the cold, with temperatures down to around 4 degrees.
Argentina outclass England in the early exchanges and take a 6-3 interval lead, but there is little rugby being played by either side. It is all about penalty kicks and both sides are missing virtually everything. Argentina only make 3 out of 9 kicks count, while the normally reliable Johnny Wilkinson is woefully off target for most of the evening and only converts 2 out of 7 kicks himself.
The highlights of the evening are probably a streaker sprinting across the pitch, and the passionate singing of the thousands of Argentines present.
With Argentina going 9-3 up early in the second half and Wilkinson continuing to miss everything in front of the posts, it looks like Argentina might record a famous victory. But Youngs ghosts through for England 13 minutes from time for the game's only try, and despite Argentina almost stealing a try in the final minute, England hold on to take the 5 points.
Back in Dunedin city centre I am feeling ready to call it a night, but the atmosphere is so electric that I can't help taking a wander. Fortunately for me I get chatting to local girls, Meg and Mel, and end up having a top night out in Dunedin with the ladies in question, who take me to several of the best bars in town. There's a new year's eve buzz to the partying, with much of the drinking and celebrating in the streets, and when I do finally tip toe back into my dorm at 4am, I find that half of my room mates are still out.
England come from behind to narrowly beat Argentina 13-9 in Dunedin.
Just sat on a bus on the five-hour journey down to Dunedin from Christchurch, catching up with some writing, ahead of tonight’s opening match between England and Argentina. It is a funny scene really. The bus reminds me of the bus I used to go to school on when I was 12: a ‘Midland Red’, I think they used to be called. While millions of rugby fans back home will be waking up soon with a buzz of excitement that today is the day the world cup begins for England, I find myself accompanied by about 10 england fans, half a dozen Argentines, a couple of farmers, and a weirdo with a baby, on a journey which feels more akin to going off to watch another sheep shearing show.
RWC Daily September 10
I stop off in Christchurch for the night on my way down to Dunedin. It seems like as good a spot as any to watch the opening match of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in a pub full of Kiwis, and also to take in some of the sights of Christchurch. More than aware of the devastation that the city experienced, I am expecting to see a few abandoned buildings and large piles of rubble dotted around, as the city continues to attempt to rebuild. What I do not expect to find, however, is practically the entire city centre completely cordoned off and out of bounds to all but security and construction workers. When the second major earthquake struck here in February it left almost 200 people dead in its wake. Buildings that had become unstable after the September 2010 earthquake collapsed and buried those inside. To see an area comprising of eight city blocks by four, completely out of bounds to the outside world, is a rather unnerving experience. Flowers, poems and photos of those who tragically passed away are left tied to the security fences keeping us all out. Christchurch’s famous Cathedral Square is now nothing more than a macabre reminder of what happened here earlier this year. While those 250,000 who still remain here -80,000 having left- valiantly attempt to rebuild Christchurch, I get the sense that the job of reconstruction is almost too big, especially in the context of constant aftershocks still rattling the nerves of all those who reside here. My observation as somebody briefly passing through is that Christchurch will never quite be the same again. If it is to prosper again it will need months and years without significant earthquake activity. But if there are to be more major tremors, I think many of the 250,000 will also conclude that it is time to leave.
RWC daily September 9
Thursday, June 9 2011
Just three months today left until the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off in Auckland on September 9, with the match between the hosts and Tonga. England start their campaign the following day on the South Island in Dunedin, against Argentina.