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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 30, October 10, 2002
NZ - North Island: Bungalows, Fart City, Kiwi Fruitcakes
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Custom(er) Satisfaction

Unlike Sydney, Auckland puts its best foot forward. In Sydney, customs involves getting roughed up by grunting blokes who (in the local parlance) have that slightly 'feral' look about them. Kiwi customs, by contrast, have a mission statement - they want to give you the 'best customs experience in the South Pacific' no less. To this end, you are provided with free tea and coffee while you wait and even the sniffer dogs are adorable. Interestingly, these snaffling puppies are not so much after drugs, but things like packets of ham and fresh vegetables. If the Syndeysiders are a little worried about 'biosecurity', the Kiwis are practically freaking out over it. Arrive in an Osama Bin Laden T-shirt with a suitcase plastered with radiation symbols and nobody gives you a second glance, but try and secrete a lettuce in your luggage and its the full cavity search for you.

Sadly Auckland's customs are something of a high point. Having found Sydney - suburbs and all - to be a silver city set in a shining sea, I was expecting something similar of Auckland. Or, given the more maritime climate, at least a sort of Antipodean Seattle or San Francisco. Not a bit of it. New Zealand is very much a rural nation and and they don't really seem to 'do' towns. As a result much of central Auckland (which is actually a pretty big city) seems to resemble a 1980s trading estate. The one landmark building is the Sky Tower, built five years ago. It's not actually that great but it fulfils the rule (BT Tower, London, Transamerica Pyramid, SF, etc.) that all cities must have at least one stupid building that looks like something from 'The Jetsons.'

Bungalists

What's more, if the Australians have a certain weakness for bungalows, the Kiwis positively adorethem. Auckland goes straight from high-rise to no-rise and second storeys are as hens' teeth. True, some of the older bungalows are nice enough in a Cape Cod sort of way, but most of the modern ones look a bit like the municipal toilet blocks found on windswept recreation areas. Nor are these even well-built bungalows: for the first week of my stay the news was dominated by the leaky homes scandal (which should give you an idea of what the NZ media is like). Tens of thousands of bungalows were poorly constructed with substandard wood and are now rotting away. Bungalows built by bungling bungalists.

To be fair Auckland isn't exactly a terrible place and and it probably didn't help that it was pissing down for most of my stay there. But anywhere that manages to combine the world's largest concentration of bungalows and LA-style Samoan gang violence (!) is definitely somewhere you pass through on the way to other, better places.

I was staying with my old friend Jo McIntyre Brown, who lives in one of the city's nicer suburbs in an old, rather pretty bungalow, which she shares with four Kiwis. Meeting New Zealanders is a strange experience: they all do something useful. For instance, two of them worked in stone masonry. How many stone masons do you know? Other people I spoke to ran plumbing businesses or farmed or, shock horror, actually made things for a living. I felt a little taken aback by all this usefulness. I mean, most of the people I know could advise you on a really great media strategy or help you leverage the knowledge economy to your advantage, but they couldn't actually make anything.

This said, there is a downside to all this utility and can-do. It has bred a thoroughly pubbish blokey culture (or some might say lack of culture). NZ is a beautiful country but it is probably not the place to come if you are a luvvie. It is a nation that produced Jane Campion but prefers Vin Diesel.

Are you Experienced?

While I was waiting for Jane, with Jo and mates, I went out to Great Barrier Island, somewhere that advertises itself as a place to experience the 'Old New Zealand.' I'm not so sure about this, but it was certainly a cute little isle, covered in NZ's indigenous vegetation, most of which looks like something out of Jurassic park. A couple of days later, I took a bus (as my driving license was with Jane, back in Devon) down to Rotorua, NZ's thermal capital.

Generally New Zealanders are pretty good on race relations - although quite a few of them bandy the word 'faggot' about with a frequency that would make Eminem blush - but the taxi driver I took to the bus terminal was a highly vocal exception. He kicked off our journey saying something or other about the blacks, which I more or less ignored until he asked me: 'Do you have a lot of blacks in England.' I replied that our biggest minority was probably Indian, adding (hoping change the subject) that this was why England had such great Indian food. He replied, 'Well, they're blacks too aren't they?' Silly me. Resisting the urge to call him a racist prong and get out or ask him when his family came over from China (which he definitely wouldn't have understood) I told myself that the bus station was only five minutes away, he was bigger than me and that meeting an irredeemably bigoted taxi driver was an essential part of any urban experience.

Speaking of experiences, I presume everyone has heard of 'The Kiwi Experience.' Naturally, knowing very little about transport in NZ, I looked into this. What it offers you is the chance to travel around all NZ's traveller hell-holes on a coach full of cretinous pissed-up 18-24 year olds. Sounds irresistible eh? Obviously it is irresistible to certain types, but you really need the kind of mentality that you sometimes find in sales teams to enjoy it; in fact, anyone who enjoys playing organized drinking games with near strangers - that kind of willed raucousness you sometimes get at company beanos - would probably quite like it. Still, I figured there must be some redeeming feature - perhaps it was incredibly cheap. But no - if you are by yourself it works out at around NZ$40 a day and you can rent a car for NZ$32; if there's two of you a car is half the price. Why anyone (or anyone who can drive a car at least) would possibly use the 'Kiwi Experience' is beyond me. Indeed, in my experience, any experience that uses the word 'Experience' in it is an experience best left inexperienced.

Anyway, I got on my experience free coach to find a mixture of New Zealanders and traveling types: eager young Germans, a few Kiwis, a couple of younger Brits and a pair of older, common-as-muck Brits, one of whom was on a mobile phone, loudly telling a UK relative (and the rest of the coach) about her strikingly pedestrian experiences. She really should have been on a bus with the word 'Experience' on it.

Laid over this self-regarding monologue, we had another: a touristastic bus driver who felt obliged to describe everything from the mildly interesting - we were heading towards the most geothermally active area in the world - to the exoricatingly dull. Did you know that, in addition to the four coal fired power stations on NZ's biggest river, there are also 12 hydroelectric plants? Neither did I. After sharing this nugget with his passengers, he added with a note of genuine regret that we would be unable to visit any of the hydroelectric plants as they were much further upriver. Then he lapsed into a description of the local vineyards, which he personalised by telling us how he started drinking wine as an altar boy. Fascinating as this anecdote may sound, he still managed to make it tedious.

Getting out of Auckland, which makes up for in sprawl what it lacks in charm, you quickly realize what the real NZ is about. And it's about there being absolutely nobody there. NZ is a country a little bigger than the UK with about 1/15 of the population or about 4 million people. What's more, of this 4 million about three million live on the smaller north Island. Even that feels like there's no-one there. Once I'd cleared the 'Big City', I'd been expecting the NZ of postcards and the Lord of the Rings. But almost all of this is all on the South Island. Much of the North Island is one big farm and looks like Perthshire - and when was the last time you visited Perthshire?

Fart Blanche

Rotorua itself is famed as a spa town. Which immediately made me think of something cute like Badgastein in Austria. But this is NZ and, as I said earlier, they don't really do urban so most of it resembles a suburban strip mall - that ubiquitous, US style commercial squalor. However, the architecture isn't really the point; it's the smell. Rotorua is known as 'Sulphur City' and my God, does it honk. Indeed, it is renowned as a place you can let rip with impunity as the whole town smells pretty much like a fart anyway. Whiffiness aside, it is actually quite interesting. As you drive into the town, you can see huge clouds of steam drifting up from the various fumaroles and mud pools, while down at the lakeshore boiling water bubbles out of the ground and huge sulphur mounds dot the beach.

Best of all is the park. This is the one bit that doesn't look American. Rather, with its oh-so-twee flower borders and playing fields it has a kind of Frinton Upon Sea feel about it. Except every fifty metres or so there's a sulphur streaked geothermal vent or a huge pool full of bubbling, chocolaty mud. I guess what really surprised me is that all the other geothermal activity I've seen has been in appropriately dramatic settings - i.e. on the sides of volcanoes, etc. There is something pleasingly incongruous about finding a scatological smelling steam vent at the side of a cricket pitch or a plopping pool of steaming mud which has been lovingly landscaped with grandmotherly flowers.

Peeling Good

There really isn't that much to do in Rotorua other than hang around in thermal spas, so that's what I did, down at 'The Polynesian Spa' which offers a selection of natural pools of varying temperatures and aromas. It's interesting to note that only in Britain and the US is it considered a poofy activity to lounge around in steaming pools. Everywhere else, everyone does it. So, rather than just women with the odd GBF, the Polynesian spa's customers were a mixed bunch. Indeed, as I slouched in the steam a cross-section of NZ society, including a frightening male Maori rugby team paraded through the pungent pools. And (again this is very un-British) spas are highly social places.

While in the hottest and most sulphuric pool, I started chatting to a 67-year-old woman, who was interested in trying Zorbing - the bizarre and perhaps rather silly Rotoruan sport where you roll down hills in giant inflatable spheres. In the UK, this would be an odd conversation to have with a sexagenarian, but this is something you notice about most NZ grannies - they're all terribly knowledgeable about adrenaline sports. You'll say, 'I'm going to Queenstown' and the granny will say: 'Oooh, now you must try a bungy. I recommend the 150 metre death-dive, you break the sound barrier going down, you know.' Anyhow, the extreme oldster and I got on so well that I was in my sulphur pool for 45 minutes, not the recommended 15 and effectively gave myself an acid-peel from the neck down. The granny, however, seemed to have no such problems, her skin doubtless toughened by years of shark-wrestling.

The day I returned from Rotorua, Jane arrived. She was understandably tired having just flown from London to NZ direct, mostly on Garuda Indonesia. Domestically we had found this to be a fine airline, but on international routes, she said, the combination of low, low prices and the freedom to smoke makes it the sex tourists' airline of choice. Once she' got over 12 hours in the company of these fine fellows we hired a car. This seemed like a nice enough car, although its squeakings and out of line bonnet suggested that it may once have been two cars - still what do you expect for a tenner a day. We then drove beyond Rotorua to Taupo, New Zealand's great lake and itself a massive volcanic crater (600 sq km) dating from a cataclysmic event that killed everything on the North Island, 15,000 years ago. Despite it's vulcan origins a lovely place and not unlike Lake Tahoe, though it is a shame, that here, of all places, bungalow architecture has enjoyed perhaps its greatest flowering. There's not a great deal to be said about the lake except that it has some exceptionally stylish thermal vents nearby and is a charming place to go for walks. On one of these we saw a (perfectly able bodied) man taking his dog for a walk by driving around a field while pooch scampered. I was impressed: I always am when people put real effort into their laziness.

Ski Resorts and unseemly paternal yearnings

After Taupo, we headed down to Mt Ruapehu, the far end of the geothermal area and NZ's biggest volcano, for a spot of volcano skiing. Actually this sounds terribly extreme, but, of course, it's exactly like normal skiing. Well, almost. There are a few big differences. The first is that the volcano occasionally erupts (as it did back in 1996) and wrecks the ski season. The second is that when you ski on conventional mountains, you're in the middle of a load of other mountains so you're surrounded by slopes covered in white stuff and it all looks very alpine. But volcanoes can exist individually (or it this case, in groups of three) so on Rupehu everywhere you look 'off mountain' there's flat brown ground which is so low that snow never falls. Except when you gaze north, where you can see Mt Ngauruhoe. This is a young volcano, less than 2500 years old and is still a perfect cone. With it's winter snow cap and filigree frost trailing down its sides, it looks a bit like Mt Fuji in Japan and is enough to make a man come over all poetic...speaking of language, the other cool thing about Ruapehu (and I mean, really cool) is the actual resort is called Whakapapa, pronounced F**k a papa (and, presumably, twinned with Ishaggedyermum).

From our incestuous-sounding ski resort, we set off east, to Napier, which bandies itself about as the world's finest Art Deco city. Largely because it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 30s and rebuilt when art deco was considered quite the thing. Well, it's OK, but you'd have to be uber-keen on deco to get that excited about it, mainly because, while the tops of the buildings retain their 30s charm, the bottoms have all been remodeled in strip mall look that the Kiwis are so fond of. Still, I suppose it was nice to see somewhere in New Zealand where there is some sort of architectural awareness and the buildings have more than one floor. A few kilomtres down the road is rather less famous (and therefore much better preserved) town of Hastings which is far nicer and the kind of place a true 30s aficionado could get a big old deco chubby over.

After Hastings we passed through the sweet little town of Clive. I only mention this because it's a cool name for a town and many NZ towns have blokish names like Bob, Gary and Keith. It also had a store selling 'pre-loved furniture.' You see signs for this all over the North Island, but I have to wonder...I mean, while a pre-loved chair or footstool sounds fine, I for one would be decidedly uncomfortable with a 'pre-loved' bed. God knows what you'd find under the mattress.

Kiwi fruitcakes.

From Clive, we drove in continuous rain to Wellington, the capital. Hemmed in by mountains on all sides and thus starved of land, Wellington is much nicer (and considerably less bungalist) than Auckland, though it's still hardly a 'destination city'. But, though the city was hardly memorable our B&B more than made up for this. I knew that the owner, a little guy called Alan in his 60s, was supposed to be a 'loveable eccentric' but we were hardly prepared for how crackers he really was. I said to him, 'Hi - you must be Alan.' He replied, 'Well today, I'm an evil bastard called Saddam Hussein, but Alan will be back tomorrow.'

As promised, Alan was back at breakfast the next day serving porridge, fresh carrots, 'for your miserable flagging, shrivelled libidos' and toasted sandwiches with heart shapes cut out of the tops. The removed toast hearts were later served when we were instructed to 'thank the Lord for your mothers.' Breakfast continued in this vein for quite some time and I was starting to wonder if we'd stumbled into the B&B California. But I needn't have worried: Alan may have been nuts, but he was happy to let us leave, once we'd paid. And in many ways he was a taster of things to come. On the relatively populous North Island, people are generally pretty sane, but across the water on its depopulated southern sister, it's a different story. That's where the real Kiwi fruitcakes are.