With an endless amount of time to myself to think, I must admit I have indulged in several contemplations of the bizarre and surreal these past few days. One subject I sat pondering on the beach the other morning was how many people from all over the world are predicting some kind of global catastrophe in the next year or two. The Mayans, of course, lead the way with their ‘world ends on December 21, 2012’, which to be fair to them they predicted in their calendar many centuries ago. What occurred to me on the beach, while others I know don’t have the luxury of such time wasting activities, was that it is actually technically impossible to have a calendar date for the end of the world. 11 hours ahead of the UK down here in New Zealand, I have started to get used to the idea that when I am going to bed, my friends and family in Europe are just getting up. And when I am sat having breakfast admiring the natural beauty of New Zealand’s south island, nearly all the people I love or consider important to me in this world, are just going to bed.
So you see, if the world ends while I have eggs on toast and a cup of coffee at 7am on September 12, 2011, then the world also ends at 8pm on September 11, 2011 in England as my mum is enjoying a glass of Chardonny and tucking into her evening casserole.
Like I said, a bit too much time to think, but I think have debunked the idea that the world will end on any given day, any time soon. So maybe the world will end on December 21 and December 20, 2012…
What is New Zealand most famous for? Rugby? Wine? The Maori? The country’s stunning natural beauty? Or its sheep? One thing I have quickly got used to in opening conversations with locals is them proudly quoting how many sheep live in New Zealand. Already, in the space of a week or so, I have been told that between 30 and 100 million white fluffy things call New Zealand home. As it is lambing season, this number will no doubt be factored up further in coming conversations about all things sheep. Perhaps because of this I found myself strangely drawn to a sheep shearing show at a local farm on the Kaikoura peninsula, fortunate to still be alive after Welsh Jennifer almost piloted us into a local roadside shop as she fast forwarded past a Neil Diamond track she didn’t like on hers and Rebecca’s Sunny Nissan hire car. Yes, almost killed because of Neil Diamond on the way to a sheep shearing show! Truthfully though, I greatly enjoy the family farm experience: I get to hold a one-day old lamb and feel the delicate little creature’s heart violently pounding through its rib cage, while his mum stamps the grass nearby in anger. And then I get to see Ramman the Ram have his impressive winter coat reduced to a large pile of wool on the wooden stage by one of the district’s finest sheep shearers. It is fair to say the lad looked five years younger after his full body cut. Sheep shearing shows having been added to my list of life’s experiences, I am not sure what should be next. I guess it is finally time for some rugby and we will see where it goes from there.
RWC daily September 8
The world is full of special places as it is full of hell holes where life is one constant struggle. My New Zealand odyssey has begun in a place called Kaikoura on the north east coast of the country’s south island. Logistically, this seemed like the perfect place to spend a few days ahead of the first matches in the rugby world cup, but it is also the place I most wanted to see here. I have no idea quite how beautiful the rest of New Zealand is but Kaikoura rates highly anywhere in the world.
Green pastures full of grazing cows and bleating lambs are surrounded by dozens of snow-capped mountains that tumble into the sea. This is one of the few locations on the planet where you can surf and then snowboard a little over an hour later. You can also watch whales, hike along coastal paths and observe sea lion and seal colonies. And best of all, perhaps, you can swim with dolphins.
I have just got back to the gorgeous Dusky Lodge backpackers having experienced one of the most amazing mornings of my life. I was going to enjoy a long stroll along the coast but Welsh Jenny and English Rebecca convinced me at breakfast to join them on a dolphin swimming trip. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time but, to be honest, I am such an appallingly bad swimmer that I have always bottled out of the prospect of swimming in open ocean.
Anyway, I just thought ‘what the hell’ and decided to go; I could always change my mind and not swim once I was out in the Pacific. The warm waters of the Pacific and the cold currents of the Antarctic meet here, just off the coast of Kaikoura. The result is mineral and sea life rich waters that attract whales, dolphins and many other sea creatures.
Once out in the open sea, the captain of our catamaran gets word from a fishing vessel of a large pod of dolphins to the south. It takes us 30 minutes to track them down, but once we near the pod we spot 200 dolphins. It is a truly wonderful sight with an unreal almost cartoon-like backdrop of snow-capped mountains and the incredible albatross swooping above our boat with its 3.5 metre wing span. But it gets better still. The captain cuts the engines and one by one we begin to dive into the ocean. As bad a swimmer as I am, the buoyancy of my wet suit makes it almost impossible for me to drown and despite some swell, I start to get some confidence. Another few minutes of choking on sea water, as I struggle to get used to my snorkel, and finally I get the hang of swimming in the open sea with my head below the waves.
And then the most incredible thing happens. First one, then three, then seven or eight dolphins begin to swim around me, the more inquisitive almost touching the glass of my mask with their cute noses. The guides encourage us to sing to the dolphins to attract their company. Don’t ask me why but I am taken by the idea of singing the 80’s band Bros’s ‘when will I be famous’. I just get the feeling that it is a song that will work well under water and appeal to dolphins (clearly mental issues). The dolphins keep coming and I have to surface as an over enthusiastic ‘Oh my God’ causes me to swallow a load of sea water that stings my throat and comes up through my nose.
I am not sure how long this experience even goes on for as I get lost in the moment.
As the catamaran speeds back to land, leapfrogging the waves, and we all strip out of our wetsuits, I sit with a cup of hot chocolate and cookies, warming up and taking in the remarkable sight of the 200-strong pod putting on a show for us all with their backflips and twizzles. We all know that these creatures are incredibly intelligent and friendly but it is only when you are privileged to do something like this that you truly realise just how wonderful they are.
Strangely, while a good half dozen of the others on the trip are sea sick and many more are shivering and struggling to keep warm, I feel fantastic. It was just 10 degrees in the water but I actually felt warm in the suit. Maybe I was so distracted with the idea of whether I could actually manage to swim in the open ocean that my mind freed me of any other potential stress.
Now back at the hostel I sit in an armchair on the open terrace, drink some coffee and reflect upon one of the most amazing experiences of my life. This is a very special place.
My favourite tune of the moment is by a New Zealand band I had never previously heard of until 3 days ago.
The band is called Avalanche City, and the song is called, 'Ends in the ocean'.
Click here to visit the band's homepage.
September 5th, 2011
It is a 70-minute Jet Star flight from the north island to Christchurch with cloud-free truly spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains in the north of the south island.
Yesterday, it was exactly one year on from the Christchurch earthquake that killed nearly 200 people. Clearly the city is still struggling to recover with countless aftershocks still rattling the nerves of locals. On the airport bus in I see three churches that lie almost completely destroyed and dozens of cordoned off empty plots of land where buildings once stood. I am only in Christchurch briefly to take the Inter City coach service a couple of hours north to Kaikoura but even the former bus station is out of bounds; a small shack and a roadside stop now the place where the buses run from. Originally England’s opening matches were due to be played here but the city simply isn’t deemed safe enough to host the games and no longer has the basic infrastructure needed, so they have subsequently been moved 5 hours south to Dunedin. Rebuilding Christchurch is no simple task; many parts of the city are only just being considered safe to live in once more and many months if not years of reconstruction await. Meanwhile, the earthquakes continue with some fearing an even bigger tremor is on the cards. I am told 80,000 residents have left the city already fearing the worst.
It is truly pristine countryside on the journey up to Kaikoura although with the jet lag kicking in, 6pm feels more like 6am to me and I find myself nodding off to sleep and waking with a start on several occasions. Once we hit the ocean road around sunset the views are truly stunning: a wild surf crashes against the rock-strewn shoreline with cliffs soaring vertically into the heavens and a sea mist obscuring the distant horizon and road ahead.
We arrive in Kaikoura in darkness and I track down Dusky Lodge backpackers. It is always a relief to find that you are the only person in your dormitory. I hate staying in dorms but at 14 quid a night, you cannot complain. Especially if you have got the room all to yourself and the night sky looks as magical as it does here from the rooftop veranda.