27 September 2010
Crossing the ferry at the Dawn of Crack is a great experience; one of those I won’t forget for some time. Passing through a police breath test and “Coantin fram one toi fiyv”, it’s a warning for those having some beers the nights before transit. Queuing in lane 5 and switching the engine off, looking up I see the monstrous ship awaiting its passengers to load up. It’s large enough that you’ll need to drive over the boarding ramp and up a further steep corrugated ramp, before arriving on the 2nd deck for cars. The numerous reflective-coat outfitted attendents are well mannered and efficient at directing the cargo; to give an idea of size, I had to loop around the stern and back again before eventually putting it in P.
Apart from the scrambled eggs, the full English on level 8 was a great start to the day. Head to one of the many observation decks for a view from stern, starboard or port side; or up to the top to get a feel for the weather. And it’s a strange kind of weather here; like most islands it’s changeable with windy, sunny and all the rest within a few hours, let alone four seasons in one day.
Three hours of gentle rocking and the bar has numerous souls asleep; I preferred to watch Federer crash out of the US Open and discuss with randoms his performance. Or lack of. A largely enjoyable start to the day, especially as the south island comes in to view and the ferry slows from a 30km/h cruising speed to 18; in order to navigate the numerous spots of land. Incredible scenery it is, and whilst the remainder of the south island goes on to woo and wow your eyes with its fabulous collection of structures that nature has carved, eroded and exploded in to view; tis rather nippy here. My fake Columbia jacket from Yangshuo is dong the trick relatively well, but I do wish the technical clothing here was somewhat cheaper considering the sheer amount imported.
Disembarking on arrival and it’s a relatively short drive to Nelson for a few nights. Cruise control in the Camry really does burn through fuel; it aggressively maintains the set speed with the 2.4 litre automatic engine – so it’s best to go easy on the inclines and naughtily drop in to neutral on the slopes, relying on brakes. That way I manage around 800km to a tank, which costs a hundred dollars to fill.
Scenic drives are surely the highlight here, with not only weather changing erratically, but the surroundings too – from jutting 30m tall trees to an open expanse of rolling hills sprinkled with sheep; from a windy road on hillside with views of thrashing waves against the beach to small towns offering B&B in the utter middle of nowhere. Driving becomes relaxing, enjoyable and absolutely necessary in order to see the country. Kiwi Experience, tour buses and all the rest should be ignored and shunned – if you want to visit, you must rent a car.
From Nelson and some eccentric attractions, on to Westport to break up the driving. The coastal town is sublime if you’re lucky enough to have a plot of land overlooking the coast; and enough funds remaining for the heating bill each month. On to Franz Josef and again another memorable cruise, though heed my advice and ensure your tank is so full it spills on to the forecourt; the petrol here is 27 cents a litre more than elsewhere, adding another 13 dollars to a tank. I’m over a barrel (as usual), so I calculate what I’ll need in order to get to my next destination and add a ten percent contingency. The town of Franz Josef is possibly the smallest I’ve ever seen; anywhere. A total population of 300 (boosted by the Northern British working just about everywhere someone can possibly work), means there’s very little to do if you’re not planning on tackling the rather large block of ice a dozen kilometres away. My most expensive jaunt in New Zealand and $160 is value for money; we covered 11k hiking, spent a good 3 hours on the ice, burned 1300 calories and climbed 500m in altitude. The end of the day and I’m ready to eat a good five of the goats that graze either side of the glacier. With the only supermarket offering a red pepper at $3.49, I take the $5.25 small pizza option.
Ensure you are well layered as most hostels turn the heating off at night and offer the bare minimum bed clothing to keep you warm. Alternatively there’s always the local hot spring to soak in, which is an interesting experience if you happen to turn up when it’s raining through the covers. Three pools of 36, 38 and 40 celcius meas it’s really only for big girl’s blouses; Japan and Taiwan start at the latter and go on to reach close to 50. I expected Kiwis to have done something special – gone “all-out” – but it’s an expensive soak in purified mineral water and lacks everything an onsen should have. No bubble jets or high-pressure water for massaging, lack of minerals to give aroma and a cleansing sensation and it makes me both reminisce and miss Asia.
Departing en route to Wanaka and increasing a few hundred metres in altitude means sudden onslaughts of snow are to be expected. Rent snow chaing. Get a demonstration of how to fit them. Do it yourself. Twice. Then remind yourself later on. It’s also an idea to consider driving at half the speed limit, as should you comes across said white stuff, it may be almost impossible to slow your vehicle. Dangers and increased heart rate due to impending doom aside, my fishtailing rear-end and juddering ABS somehow brought me to a stop, passed the stopped cars and just prior to the one-lane bridge. No damage done (a potential miracle), but lessons learned the hard way (the only way, really).
Arriving at Wanaka and befriending yet more Germans, it transpires the town is more of a haven for Boardies and Skiers, with little else; though just down the road at the airport, one of the most intriguing, eccentric, crazy, esoteric and downright British spectacles absolutely must be seen. Step in to see a few toys for sale, pay ludicrously cheap ten dollar entrance fee and take your time to absorb and behold the collections of completely random tat that adorn the three converted aircraft hangers. One man now of 75 has spent the last half-century collecting – well, anything actually all on his tod. The majority is indeed toys and vehicles and hence the name of “Toy and Transport Museum” is justified; but it’s something to really marvel at. And absolutely bloody magnificent. The stand-out randomness for me has to be a behemoth Japanese fire truck all the way from Fukuoka, a set of aircraft boarding steps used as access to living quarters, a petrol engine-equipped wheelbarrow and an old manually operated telephone exchange switch.
Closer to town and Puzzling World (everything here seems to have the latter word used in it’s title), is sadly broken down in to a simple maze (am I really the only person in the world to have ever heard of the left-rule?), and some holograms. The remaining attractions require little time to visit and take stock shot of, though what puzzles me far more is how many Brits are working in this town. It’s become both sides of the Pennines and no wonder that everyone can maintain accents. On to Queenstown.
Through winding gritty roads and an increase in altitude of 500m, suddenly the snow-covered mountains that once were only visible from the lake are now standing tall flanking either side of the road. As the grit ricochets from the tires, bouncing around inside the wheel arches, it’s a good idea to slow down and enjoy the scenery, before winding down a zig-zag finale in to the outskirts of Queenstown. Passing by numerous bridges, it seems the obsessive compulsive disorder of bridge-naming lunatics means that every single bridge has a name. From “Paganini Creek”, to “Kiwi Jack’s Creek” and on to “Random Creek”, or “Stinky Creek”; every single part of the road that can be classed a bridge (some completely hidden from view), has been Christened and given a numeric designation also. Should parents with little ones take a long drive, I’m sure there’s a game to keep them occupied in there somewhere.
But wait what’s this – do my eyes deceive me – was that a pair of Type Is I just passed? The town is flooded with Brits that have taken just about every job they can, in order to fund a lifestyle of random crazy activities – or simply to get away from their homeland. It’d difficult to lay any blame with such views from the top of the Gondola (cable-car), as these and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. To top it off and keep the punters happy are two Casinos, where I checked out of the cash Hold’em game with enough to pay for a few drinks and a burger (it’s practice for Vegas). Speaking of which, the rumours are true; Fergburger serves possibly the best monstrosities I’ve yet devoured. 11k by the lake with light snow and fantastic views of the nearby mountains, and a “Big Al” is easy work, though otherwise it would easily make do for two meals.
It’s not all good, however, and having found hostel car park it took just an hour for the Scottish girl working in reception to back in to my rental car. That’s the afternoon gone getting everything organised then, and had I not paid the additional 10 dollars each day; another $1500 out of my own pocket on the excess. There’s no legal requirement to hold insurance, though there is such strict attention paid to the age of drinking (following the US-preferred name of liquor here), that you should expect to show passport at any given opportunity. And again lies the problem in New Zealand that we suffer in the UK also – namely the entire city closes at 6pm. That leaves only several mundane repetitive options to occupy the evening; eat at a restaurant, watch a film in the cinema or drink in the bar. The latter the obvious choice – especially come the weekend. With most Kiwis demonstrating clique mentality, however, it’s much like drinking in London and somewhat bloody dull. The Germans bolstering the population are thankfully far more extrovert and able to handle booze without making complete fools of themselves.
On to Dunedin (pronounced Dunn-ee-dan), it’s clear to see where this lot originated; they “like to get full value from their vowels”. And with some rolling their “Rs”, it’s a like little Scotland. I think I meant to write “wee” Scotland. Robert Burns statues (come on he wasn’t that great, let’s be honest), Whisky and Beer breweries combined with the student drunkenness make it a fun town. As the second largest in the Sith Island, a hundred thousand is possibly bustling, but more like a small Surrey suburb for us Brits. Visiting the Cadbury factory (it’s another “world" of course), and the Speight’s brewery tour it seems the cast majority of visitors are Australian, judging from the guest books.
As chips on shoulders go, Aussies are pretty good for being born with one; much like the British. Thankfully the Kiwi settlers were of a different class, bringing with them a hunger for middle-class activities and hence peering down on their convict neighbours. The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand can reach ludicrous levels; with either side claiming a victory for themselves. In the World Cup, the Australian press reported that “Australasia” was still in the tournament after Australia were knocked out and New Zealand remained, causing weeks of outraged backlash from the Kiwi press. Anything involving kiwi-born Russell Crowe is engineered to suit the context of his actionsl being a naturalised Australian now. It’s an interesting political dilemma, raised every so often by the New Zealand government, though it makes sense financially. Selling their soul to Australia would enable both to compliment each other. For the moment however, the freedom of either nationality to work in the other simply means it’s one-way traffic; all Kiwis escape the low salaries and relative high cost of living and force the government to rely on immigration – the Japanese and Koreans seemingly filling the void.
With new car and having removed roof racks, I’ve put exactly enough fuel in to drop it off empty; so on to my final destination – the earthquake-scarred city of Christchurch. The 360km drive is predominantly perfectly straight; and hence difficult to maintain both interest and eyes from rolling dangerously close to shut. The highway agency has subsidised the occasional café to provide “driver reviver”, which is a welcome break. Driving along winding roads is more interesting and ensures your brain is kept occupied, although the open straight road does offer temptation for sticking the hammer down and watching the fuel gauge visibly move.
With just two nights left, my last hostel completes the cycle by too having a Hoch Deutsche speaker present and accounted for. Out in the CBD and there are few signs that a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit; except for the odd roof, wall or brick missing from churches, which is of course welcomed. As cities go, it’s pretty small and sparsely populated, with even the majority of bars empty on a Friday night. Worryingly for such a city built with the ideal of “English paradise” and so many churches and cathedrals present, is the amount of prostitutes lurking on street corners. Some can barely manage to stand without swaying, others beckon you to stop car and occasionally one will look like a rabid dog, but in all honesty they all share one commonality; you wouldn’t touch any one of them with a very long pointy stick from a great distance. Police patrol regularly and with so many of their parked cars around (some within 50 metres of these walking disease-ridden hags), I wonder if it’s them that keep these “women” in business.
Wrapping up my double-time tour of New Zealand and I begrudgingly drop the car and await shuttle bus collection for the airport. It’s been an interesting visit and plain to see the attraction of these masochistic islands in the arse-end of nowhere. I’ve come away with several thoughts: 1) Crazy activities are fundamentally necessary in order to keep the locals sane, 2) Escaping here to get away from it all will only be a temporary effect, 3) If something isn’t done about the population, the Maori will simply have to demonstrate some patience and can reclaim their land peacefully, 4) The youth of this country is disillusioned and understandably weary of the isolation, and 5) It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.