(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