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