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.
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