(Day 28) Thursday, September 29
Wellington – Auckland
I cannot believe my alarm is going off. I only feel like I have been in bed ten minutes. And how come none of my 19 roommates managed to wake me during the night with their banging, crashing and howling?
My Auckland bus leaves from outside the Wellington McDonalds, adjacent to my hostel. It is only 7.30, but suits are frantically pacing by me in their dozens, all around me, on their way to their office cages. I sit on my rucksack, balanced up against a wall, with a coffee in hand, taking it all in. It’s a gorgeous morning, but the sight of them all striding past me with their brief cases, Blackberry cell phones and takeaway breakfasts scares the hell out of me. It’s like that graffiti on the bunk bed in Kaikoura:
Even your worst day travelling is better than your best day at work
Well, that doesn’t always stand true, of course, but perched on my backpack with the morning sun occasionally blinding my eyes, watching them all scurry past, I have to say the coffee tastes especially good this morning.
This is my longest coach journey in New Zealand; almost twelve hours in total from the capital to the country’s most important city. Initially, there is plenty of attractive coast line, but after this it all looks a bit like Teletubby Land. After the South Island this is all rather boring and uninspiring, but it is still more beautiful than the most stunning parts of many countries around the world.
Once we hit the central plateau of the North Island, however, the countryside turns from pleasant but uninspiring to otherworldly. A snow-capped volcanic cone soars out of the flat countryside, not unlike Japan’s Mount Fuji, while the omnipresent forests and hills have been replaced by a rather surreal desert landscape. This incredible scene is further complimented by a second volcanic cone, this more dramatic and far more pronounced than the first. This is the Tongariro National Park, home to the mountain peaks Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. NZ’s largest lake, Taupo, itself the caldera of a gigantic volcano, can be found just beyond these. This whole area is one giant super volcano. If it ever blows again, like it did 26,000 years ago, much of New Zealand will be no more.
We pick up a load of stranded passengers from a Kiwi Experience bus that has broken down on the desert road. Amongst their number is Jeff, an English lad I had a pint with in Dunedin before the first match. Jeff was due to travel to NZ with his long-term girlfriend who he planned to propose to on the trip. He had apparently been planning the trip for 18 months but shortly before he was due to leave she paid a visit home to the Czech Republic and when she came back, a week later, she dumped him! Good on Jeff though, he says he is coping with it all and doesn’t think about it much. I am pleased for the lad but I don’t know how some people deal so easily with stuff sometimes.
Beyond Lake Taupo the countryside ‘returns to normal’ with ever increasing signs of urbanisation as we approach Hamilton, and Auckland beyond that. Once we hit the motorway leading into Auckland it is rather depressing to see the sea of concrete, soulless shopping malls and retail parks that greet you as they generally do when you approach big towns and cities in the western world.
Dropped off in the centre of Auckland I leg it to the nearest hostel I can find. With South Africa, England and Scotland in town, accommodation is tight. Without realising it as I book in, I am staying at Nomads. That is Nomads as in ‘CRAZY’ Nomads in Queenstown. I have managed to grab one of the last dorm beds but this place along with all the nearby hostels and hotels are completely full over the weekend. I will start worrying about that tomorrow though.
I go for a wander of night time Auckland and choose to avoid the hostel bar crawl, which numbers 40 blokes and 5 girls, all of them far too enthusiastic about life for my liking. Due to the large immigrant population here, Auckland boasts by far the cheapest food I have seen so far in New Zealand. Not so the pubs though where it is 9 dollars for less than a pint. I feel out of sorts again wandering around by myself. Aside from a chat with two Scottish girls in a pub near the wharf I spend the rest of my evening either staring at the bottom of a beer glass or strolling aimlessly around the Auckland streets, people watching outside takeaway restaurants and massage parlours. I think I better get myself home to bed.
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
It's a lie low and time to catch up with my magazine work in the gorgeous lakeside town of Wanaka, a 90-minute drive north-west from Queenstown. I am booked into the YHA, which has to-die-for front lounge views of the lake and the countless mountain peaks that surround it on three sides.
RWC Daily September 19
Just like the England rugby team, I find myself hanging around with a load of dodgy birds in Queenstown.
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
A long night of drinking in Queenstown begins In Buffalo Bar with James, Ollie and the young English crew, watching the Kiwis thrash the Japanese with 13 tries. The Kiwis look fantastic but the locals fear they are not being tested and, when they do finally come up against a team that restricts their running rugby, they will come a cropper. But on the basis of the brilliant open rugby the New Zealanders have so far played, I don’t think anybody could possibly conclude that the Kiwis aren’t up to it.
Queenstown is a decent night out but it is very much a young Anglo-Saxon snowboarders and skiers resort that primarily attracts British gap-year students looking for a place to drink, get laid and find themselves. The setting though, with mountains all around and a gorgeous lake that wouldn’t be out of place in Switzerland, is certainly world class and is good enough justification for anybody to hang around here. The reason I mention the quality of the nights out is because, as you might have heard in the press, several rugby players have misbehaved during the few days I have been here. In fact, as well as getting drunk and trying to score some tries and touch downs with the local ladies, several international players have generally treated their time in Queenstown like they are on holiday, and not playing at the world cup finals. The Irish and some English players, I am told, even did a few stretches on the local bungee jump. All very well, until somebody gets injured or misses training…or gets caught in an uncompromising situation with a bar maid that is then splashed all over the Sun and the Daily Mail. Mike Tindall being case in point. This place is not exactly Kiev or Moscow. I have absolutely no idea why any married man or established international would risk his reputation or his world cup for the sake of a bunch of mediocre 22-year old British, Aussie and Irish girls that you would find on any night out in Bath or Leicester or Cork. Sometimes the risks simply aren’t nearly worth the rewards.
RWC Daily September 16
If I read another sign with the word ‘CRAZY’ in it, or here the dulcet tones of a visiting Aussie telling a group of pretending-to-be-impressed bystanders how ‘MAD’ and ‘RADICAL’ some activity is in Queenstown, I will do something…‘wrong’. Queenstown is indeed the adventure capital of New Zealand. The choice of adrenaline junkie activities here includes a 130-metre(!) bungee jump, white water rafting, skiing, luge, and helicopter rides. It is a bit like the opening scene of The Beach, when Dicaprio is offered the opportunity to drink snake’s blood in Bangkok on the first day of his world trip. Yeah, you can pretty much do anything you want here, as long as you have got bags of cash and the constitution for speed and heights. I, unfortunately, haven’t. And that is a great shame because I am sure jumping 130 metres from a crane to what must feel like your certain death probably brings you many insights in those few terrifying seconds as you hurtle towards the river bed below. But I personally get my adrenaline release from travelling to places that I perhaps shouldn’t like Tajikistan and Guatemala, as well as through playing and watching sport, and I guess if we were all the same in this regard, the world would be a boring place. But why, oh why, must they market this stuff like they are talking to a bunch of Bill and Ted type characters? ‘This is the most MAD experience you will ever have in your life, bro’ one poster reads. ‘Are you CRAZEEE enough to try the world’s most AWESOME skycar ride?’
And what is it with the girls here calling other girls ‘guys’? ‘You guys should try out the awesome bungee. It is mad, hey’, said by an Irish girl with an accent that betrays the fact that she has been here many months, to a bunch of girls from Brazil. They are not guys luv, they are girls. And, by the way, Galway mixed with Auckland just sounds wrong.
Queenstown is a gorgeous place, but everything is just so bloody mad, crazy and wooooo! here.
RWC Daily September 15
Logistically, I would call driving all the 180 kilometres of winding, hilly road back to Dunedin from the Catlins at 8 in the morning to return a car hire and then taking a bus 250 kilometres to get to a place that was only 150 kilometres away when you woke up, a bit of a cock up. When I hired the car I didn’t really have a game plan, which is a bit crap since if I had, I could have gone to watch Scotland v Georgia today for 20 quid in Invercargill as Alex is doing (Distance, 50 kilometres from the Catlins). But you live and learn and actually the drive, with the surf and cliffs bathed in stunningly beautiful early morning sunlight –the calm after the storm- is a fantastic solo experience in itself, particularly with only a handful of cars on the road.
Back in a very grey Dunedin, car hire returned, emails caught up with, Sunday night’s accommodation reserved and bus ticket booked, I join Essex James for the 4 hour coach journey up through more gorgeous countryside to Queenstown, the adventure capital and purportedly the most beautiful urban setting in the southern hemisphere. We roll in at around sunset and yes, it is a stunning location by any standards, reminiscent of Arctic Norway or a top ski resort in the Alps.
I book into Nomads Hostel, just 100 metres from the coach stop and am instantly taken back by the fact that, once inside, I feel like I am on board one of those huge cruise ships that travel between Sweden and Finland, full of alcoholic Scandinavians. The dorms are like ship’s cabins with key card doors and balconies, and there is a cinema, bar, sauna, 40-computer internet area and cruise liner type corridors to get completely lost in. Then somebody announces on the intercom: ‘Hey guys, drinks half price from 7’.
I shower up in the cruise ship communal bathrooms and then meet James and a group of young English rugby lads in ‘Base’, another hostel nearby that is complimented by a bar/club that is bigger than almost any you would find in a decent sized European city. If you are staying here and you have a key card, then drinks are 2-for-1. James has a key card and will serve as our entry into the world of New Zealand’s cheapest alcohol. Thus far on the trip I have been paying around 8 New Zealand dollars for a pint (around 4 pounds), but here it is 2 pints for 7 dollars.
We watch the gutsy Georgian pack give the Scots a bit of a scare and from then on in it is copious amounts of cheap but slightly dubious quality alcohol. I must confess though that being surrounded by hundreds of blokes, half a dozen rugby girls and listening to some awful R’n’B does lose its appeal after a couple of hours, regardless of how much cheap alcohol is on offer. At least the gargantuan Romanian rugby team livened things up with cameo in the club in the wee hours.Those blokes are absolutely enormous.
RWC Daily September 14