(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cone soars out of the flat countryside, not unlike Japan’s Mount Fuji, while the omnipresent forests and hills have been replaced by a rather surreal desert landscape.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.
(Day 26) Tuesday, September 27
Poor form from me. I should have learned from Franz Josef where I nearly missed out on the glacier hike by turning up in reception, shortly before it was due to depart, and finding it full. This time around, I am up at 8 and in reception trying to book on the half day tour of the beautiful Abel Tasman beaches and marine life by water taxi.
“Sorry, my friend. The last bus left at 7.45”
Coffee and back to bed it is then, where I lie in my bunk watching demons swooping low overhead, until they are chased away by the distraction of the Azuri boys getting up to begin their match day.
It’s festivaltastic in Nelson, but it is more village fete than Brazil carnival. And so, I decide to sidestep the jade and T-shirt sellers and sit in the sun by the quay, close to the port, where there isn’t another punter in sight. Miserable bugger.
Yeovil Floozy is, apparently, contemplating flashing her t#t# at tonight’s game and “posting the photos on Facebook”. I must confess that I am beginning to lose it with the Facebook generation. I use Facebook to try and drive traffic to this website but in many ways I wish I had never joined the bloody thing. It does my head in how people use it to show off about things and to try to cheat their partners. The number of stories I have heard of people I know of getting laid using it, and then getting caught and screwing it all up, must run to a dozen. Not only is Facebook a spying tool for governments all over the world but it is also a fantastic way for people to make a mess of their private lives with information and photos they really shouldn’t be sharing with Tom, Dick and Hans. Yes, I am writing very personal stuff and posting it here on More Than a Game, but the difference is that I have total control over content. There is no photo tagging – something that infuriates me – and if I regret writing something, as I have done on a couple of occasions recently, I can return to my blog and amend it accordingly.
There are more thoughts of ‘how did my life get to this point?’ as I stroll down the main street of Nelson to watch the USA v Italy at Trafalgar Park. The General Admissions is nothing more than a field behind the rugby posts where it can’t be much above five degrees, once the sun sets shortly before kick-off. What the hell are you doing here Justin? What set of circumstances and decisions in your life lead up to you being stood here, freezing your ##### off, watching the United States of America’s rugby(!) team play against Italy in New Zealand? Truthfully, and I haven’t admitted this before, I had never in my life paid to go and watch a professional rugby match before I came to New Zealand. Yes, I played and watched amateur rugby when I was at school, but England v Argentina was the first ‘proper’ rugby match I had attended in my life…and now, a couple of weeks on, I am watching a rugby team that is about the footballing equivalent of the Faroe Islands play against a bunch of overweight Italians.
I’m from Saudia Arabia, encourage the Italians
has to be the best supporter placard I’ve seen to date.
The US team puts in a decent first half performance and manages to level the match at 7-7 with a try of their own; the US number 1 doing a convincing impression of a human ox at times. 20-10 at half time, it is still game on, but the Italians grind out a solid defensive performance in the second half and shortly before the ref blows the final whistle at 27-10, I leg it for the warmth of the hostel.
While half of Nelson is out partying, I decide to have a quiet one at the hostel with my 6.30am start in mind. More good chat with some Argie lads staying in the room, I nip downstairs to finish off the remnants of my wine on the veranda. Just as I have my last swig, a young, face-painted American from Chicago stumbles back from town, off his head, and begins asking me all manner of inane questions:
“What is the unemployment like in new Zealand?”
“Why did the clocks change on Sunday?”
“Do you like peanut butter?”
I can sense some dorm-mented behaviour on the cards.
“What room are you staying in?”
“What room am I staying in?”
“Yessss” he slurs, stumbling forward towards me.
“I’m off to bed fella. If I was you, I would head back into town.”
“Yeah, I (burp) will. Good night” and with that he suddenly lurches towards me and tries to launch into a kiss.
Having hung out with a big selection of weirdoes these past few weeks I am fortunately prepared for any random piece of behaviour that might come my way from this lad and am on my toes ready to side step his advances. He could just as easily have swung a punch at me, thrown up over my jacket or suddenly decided to urinate close by. You just never know with the Dorm-mented Crew. FFS! Single for the first time in nearly seven years and the first person who tries to kiss me is a bloke. Talk about a low ebb.
No, I don’t decide to punch him. Instead, I dive for the back door of the hostel and lock it behind me before the Chicago Mincer gets the chance at another shot on goal.
Italy 27 USA 10
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
This is the new dedicated home page for my 2011 Rugby World Cup blog.
If you want to read up about the end of my journey to Argentina & the Copa America, and see the latest photos I have uploaded, then please simply click on 'Copa America 2011' in the main menu at the top of this page. I will be adding photos and content to the Copa America blog in the coming weeks when internet speeds and time permit.
Thanks to those of you who followed More Than a Game's travels in South America.