Rhymer┤s Travel Diary: Entry 31, October 18, 2002
NZ - South Island: Endemic Craziness, Tramps, 'Look at my stab wounds.'
Photos - Strewth: go down under   


New Zealand Whine

On a map, the sounds around Malborough look like they should be one of the most beautiful places on earth - all lacy coastline and indented coves but, on the ground, they're kind of disappointing, a bit like one of the more nondescript strectches of Scottish coast. And the little port of Picton is supposed to be rather twee, but from the deck of the ferry looks a bit like a smaller scrubbed-up (most of NZ is spotless) version of Calais.

Nor does it get much better when you enter the hinterland. A lot of NZ is fantastically bleak and this area has that deracinated, windblown look, common to much of the north island. Still, we were fairly chipper as we were driving into Marlborough, NZ's premiere wine growing region. I had visions of stopping in Blenheim, eating a huge bowl of freshly caught green-lipped and then maybe rounding the day off by wandering round a vineyard glugging NZ's fruity whites. But it was not to be.

Like many NZ town┤s Blenheim, dispite a lovely name and being new Zealand's vinicultural capital, looks like...you guessed it: an out of town strip mall. Indeed it is something of a feat that most of Malborough's wineries manage to be both small and charmless. There's no doubt they make great wine and everything but they look like small factories. It really can┤t be that hard - I mean, Napa Valley is in California for God's sake and that's delightful.

So we skipped Blenheim and pressed on and the bleakness continued: sometimes it was vaguely majestic, but most of the time, it was just, well, bleak. Then, as we neared, the little town of Kaikoura things started looking up. Five ks before town, we stopped to eat a lobster which we bought from an absurdly picturesque beachside caravan. It was just so damn cute, I couldn┤t have not eaten a lobster there, sitting on a trestle table by an artistically weatherbeaten boat in a bracing wind...even the lobster woman, Nin, seemed pretty enthused by the whole process: ┤You want a lobster - good on ya!┤she boomed. If I'd been Rick Stein I would have probably started crying or something.

Anyway, the lobster caravan was a sign of things to come. Kaikoura is stuck out on a peninsula and is rather sweet. It's not sweet in the way, that say, a cornish fishing is but, by NZ municipal standards, it┤s pretty good. Oh and also it says it has mountains down to the sea. Now, I've noticed a lot of places that claim to have mountains down to the sea just mean they have some pretty big hills within spitting distance of the coast. Not so in Kaikoura - they have the genuine article: massive snowcapped peaks pretty much hanging over the beach. And a very pleasant beach it was too: we'd come to Kaikoura to see the seals and there were plenty of them. I'd never really given seals much thought before, but basically being a seal seems to involve lying on your arse in the sun all day. The seals didn't seem to care about much and I guess Kaikoura is about as far from Norway as you can get. It's a fairly casual existence.

The Other Side

After Kaikoura, we got a taste of the other side (metaphorically, not geographically speaking) of the South Island. Planning our route to Greymouth, we started to realise quite how little there is in the place. First we consulted a bigger map: surely we though there must be some alternative routes. On the contrary - our crappy, free with the car map had every road, both sealed and unsealed marked. Unlike their English counterparts, the bits with no marked roads really do have no marked roads. Then we learned our next NZ lesson. If you have anything less than a full tank, for God's sake fill up: sheep don't need petrol stations. Indeed, at one point we practically embraced the owners of a rural petrol station, explaining to them that we were about 10kms away from running out. The scary thing is they found this as unhappened disaster as interesting as we did. Perhaps a little more so. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that our having almost run out of petrol was the most exciting thing that had happened to these folks for quite some time.

In fact Kaikoura to Greymouth is a lovely drive. But, to be honest, everywhere you go on south Island, except the far north east, you┤re pretty much guaranteed a lovely drive. Still, this lovely drive had the decency to differentiate itsself with a number of places named after bodily functions. We passed a Puke Street, drove over a Wee Creek and almost took a wrong turn into a Dump Road. Though, in all honesty, I suspect the latter led to a municipal rubbish tip.

In sharp contrast to the drive, Greymouth itself is not lovely at all. Although it has a few historic buildings (from its gold rush past) it's basically a rather drab little place whose name is fairly apt. It is also the biggest town on the west coast with a population of around 12,000 (!) and is one of the wettest places on earth. In fact Greymouth is sort of intereting precisely because its not a tourist town. Rather it feels like the end of the earth. I mean you can get a cappuccino and everything but the woman behind the counter will say something like: ┤Wow, you only like a little bit of milk. You know we had a fellah come in two weeks ago who likes his coffee just like that.┤ It┤s the kind of place where everybody knows your private life better than you do. And, you suspect, it┤s the kind of place which will one day be headline news when some gahstly ritual abuse cult comes to light.

Still, amazingly, we had a friend there. Or rather a friend of a friend, Nick, I┤d met a few times and when you┤re in places like Greymouth, you look friends of friends up. We┤d agreed to meet in a bar but I couldn┤t remember exactly what she looked like. 'How,' I asked her on the phone, 'will we recognise each other?'
'Will you be weaering wellies?,' she asked
┤No,┤I replied.
┤Then I┤ll recognise you,┤she said.

East End of the Earth

We arrived at the hotel bar - quite a cosy place actually - and I started looking around for Nick. There were all of about ten people there and my glance lingered on a woman with blonde hair (Nick is blonde) nursing a drink, ┤What┤ she demanded, giving me a "you ain┤t from these parts look." I apologised, explained I was meeting my blonde friend and the woman realised we were English.

┤What happens in East Enders┤she demanded.
"I don┤t know" I replied, ┤'I don't really watch it'
"What happens?" she looked at Jane, "You get it six months ahead of us."
"Err do we?" asked Jane.
"Yes, tell me what happens"
Jane explained that we had been out of the country for over six months and were probably at about the same point in the storyline as she was.
"But what happens" she demanded, staring at Jane
"We don┤t know"
"The black man - does he die?"
"We don┤t know!"
"Tell me wha..." At this point Nick made a timely entrance and managed to deftly steer us away from the woman with the minimum of offence. Nick works in mental health as an occupational therapist and once we were out of earshot said that she expected to be seeing the woman again soon in a professional capacity.

Nick had previously lived in Edinburgh and had relocated to Greymouth, though her job took her all over the sparsely populated west coast. Unsurprisingly for somewhere where it rains over 200 days a year (at one point last November, it managed 42 days in a row), where there┤s hardly anybody around and where the dairy industry is collapsing, there┤s a lot of work for her in these parts. The West Coast has plenty of people who live in mildewing bunglows, 20 kilometers up dirt traks who are going slowly crazy in the rain.

Greymouth probably would drive you to drink after a while. But what about the local kids? Well, they can┤t even get their hands on decent drugs (having presumably not yet discovered the joys of cattle tranquilisers) and amuse themselves by spilling diesel at the local roundabouts causing cars to crash and burn. Given all this, it comes as something of a surprise that most of the natives love it there. Indeed, many Greymouthians seem unhappy to spend a night away from their native town. Greymouth may be damp and crackers, but it┤s home.

Still, Greymouth has a curry house! Curry is the currently the brightest flower in NZ┤s culinary wasteland and, Nick said, a curry house had recently opened, transforming dining in Greymouth. So, we managed a pretty good evening, staying out drinking until 11pm, by which time everyone else in town was safely tucked up in bed, probably doing crazy things to each other.

Glacier Racing

The West Coast's unerdamp climate may result in plenty of nutters but it also results in some of the swishes temperate rainforests in the world. Stuff grows incredibly well if you water it 24-7. So we drove and drove and drove through largely unihabited and very wet but nonetheless spectacular scenerey. Huge old trees, turquoise lakes and fabulous glacial rivers. You also realise quite how uninhabited the west coast is when you get the bridges. No bridge is more than one lane and on many the train tracks share the carriageway with the road. I guess the bridges' builders figured that the neither the road or rail traffic merited separate bridges. Forty years on and they're still right.

Then we arrived at the town of Fox Glacier (Yes, just like the mints, but apparently a coincidence). Fox - and its sister Glacier town, Franz Joseph - are both famous for having some of the fastest glaciers in the world. The reason for this? Well, Fox and FJ are even wetter than Greymouth - an astounding 7.5 metres of rain per year - and when some of all that rain falls as snow in the mountains, it makes glaciers. As there┤s so much snow falling these glaciers are a) very speedy and b) come down way further than glaciers would otherwise do, on account of their speediness. So these towns exist for people who want to see glaciers without the hassle of going to the kind of hard to reach places where glaciers normally hang out.

It┤s all a bit organised and safe and jolly hockey sticks (very NZ, in fact), but the glacier walk is a pretty interesting. Although you have to bear in mind that all the photos in the glacier walk hut are taken in the four hours sunshine the Fox Glacier enjoys each year. Still, as standing on a big, rather dirty ice-cube in the rain goes, it's not a bad way to spend an afternoon. It's also quite cool the way the glacier goes right down into the middle of the forest. It's also one of the dampest, chilliest things I┤ve ever chosen to do, but I suppose if you were in a place which gets 7.5m of rain a year, you┤d be kind of disappointed if it was sunny.

Bungy Dumps

Queenstown is at the foot of the (well named remarakbles), a range of saw tooth mountains named for their unusual dead straight north south orientation. It also sits on a loch of remarkable beauty. Indeed, Queenstown may barber on endlessly about the perfection of its natural setting, but, in fairness, it's got a lot to go on about.

But...it is also NZ's extreme sports capital. Which is cool up to a point. It has great skiing and snowboarding, although nobody under the age of 50 (except me) skis these days. It has kayaking, skydiving, rafting, etc... all of which are very nice pastimes too. Oh, and it is the town that invented the bungee jump, which likes to sell itself as the king of extreme sports. Oh, please, come on. How can a bungy jump be a sport - I mean, what does it take to be a really, really good bungee jumper. 'Hey dude, you really stepped off that platform well...' Actually, when you think about it though, bungee jumping isn't a bad metaphor for the whole travelling experience. That is, it sounds terribly adventurous, dangerous and exciting. And. although it's a good laugh, it's about as safe, prepackaged and predictable as you can get.

Extreme sports (for good or ill) are also a draw for us travellers so it should come as no surprise that just about every neo Gen X travelling Brit winds up in Queenstown at some point or other. Someone told me that 85% of the Queenstown workforce is imported and I can believe it. All of which just about makes it the craziest, most bonkers place at this end of the earth. Actually I'm being a little unfair and we met some very nice people, not least Ian, an Irish bloke we'd travelled with for a few weeks in Sumatra. ă

But, back to unfairness and we met some utter hand-jobs as well. Way up there was Wack (short, perhaps, for Wack off), the most travellery traveler I've encountered in quite some time. Despite widespread derision Wack was prone to saying things like: 'The most amayyyzing thing in the world would be to be in the middle of nowhere, unable to speak the language, not having a f-king clue where you are.' Along with such musing, Wack was was also given to passionate diatribes against those who didn't try and do things differently, who didn't try and get off the beaten track. In his eight or nine months away from Blighty Wack had been to Thailand, Australia and NZ.

Similar joys are to be found in Queenstown's premier traveller bar/ club, part of a chain called Winnie Bagoes, the name, presumably a witty play on the trailer trash residence of choice. Anyhow, WBs has a great gimmick: it's cunningly cantivelered roof opens to the stars! You know this because everyone keeps telling you so. Every time you go to the bar someone will buttonhole you and say: 'You know this bar has a roof that opens.' To which you might reply 'Yes, it's terrific isn't it. I wonder why everyone doesn't have one.' To which they'll rejoin 'Yeah, you should be here when it snows. Then the snow's everywhere in the club. It┤s amayyyyzing.' But of course. What else would it be?

Waxing rather cynical about Winnie Bagoes, I had to wonder, was I feeling this way because I was, well, a bit old to be out amongst these crazy kids? But then I looked again. Rather than a crowd of just post-pubsecents a fair few of this lot had been pubic as long as I had, if not longer. No, my unchristian feelings towards WBs were because it is of 25-35 year olds behaving like they were in a student union. If English girls (even supposedly nice, middle class ones) ever wonder why they have a reputation as slags abroad, they should look no further than WBs. Even a leper could get laid there.

But Queenstown's flip side is the nearby Remarkables, one of NZ┤s premier ski areas. At the time of our visit it the best late season snow for a decade meaning I could easily forgive Queenstown noth Winnie Bagoes and Wack. Actually, although the Remarkables have some fine skiing and are full of alpine parrots which add an agreeably exotic touch, the truly remarkable thing is the access road. New Zealand's best known ski area is reached via the most terrifying road I have ever seen. It is a one and a half lane gravel track, prone to ice, that snakes up a 70 degree mountain face. There are no crash barriers and, for around 16km there is a sheer drop that varies between 100 and 500 metres. Almost everywhere along the road, one wrong mood and you would be somewhere between very dead and so dead it would be a closed casket funeral. Then you reach the thoroughly modern, swish-as you-like ski resort. Later, at the end of the day, you get in your car to drive back down a road that would be considered dangerous in Afghanistan. Locals do it at 70 kph, sometimes pissed.

Doing a tramp

When someone suggested I shouldn't leave NZ without doing at least 'a three day tramp', I though they were suggesting that I drink cider, vomit down my front and sleep in bus shelters for 72 hours (haha). But no, in NZ tramping means hiking. We┤d wanted to do the Milford Sound trek, but that was under 2m of snow. Our second choice was the Routeburn trek, but that was under 1.5m. (All the downside of great skiing), so we settled for the Cables and Greenstone track. Most of NZ's ubertramps are known as great walks. This however was an OK walk, with the occasional nice view, but it was mostly through chilly forest. The only real upside was that it all looked very Lord of the Rings. Speaking of which in NZ, you can actually buy an official Lord of the Rings Ring. This delightful item is made of Kiwi gold and costs several hundred pounds; it is avaialable from all good jewelers and would make a smashing gift for that special lady in your life. Assuming she hasn┤t grown out of Hobbits.

Anyhow, this being well-organised NZ, the DOC (department of conservation) provides you with huts which typically have 6-12 beds, a stove and a kitchen. We shared our first hut with what we thought were some frighteningly well prepared Dutch. As it turned out we were frighteningly ill prepared (the hut stoves will not boil water), so were it not for their stove we would have had raw pasta for dinner. Which was very kind of them, though something about their manner convinced me that prior to our arrival, the Dutch had been eagerly looking forward to an evening of vigourous group sex.

The Hitcher

As the Dutch had been so kind to us, we resolved that we would pick up hitchhikers on the isolated and rather splendid Queenstown - Dunedin drive. Stopping at the first normal looking bloke we saw, we found ourselves sharing a car with Jimmy, a Kiwi in his early 20s. Initially, I was pleased to be giving a local guy a lift, and this lasted until Jimmy started talking about tatoos, saying he normally did his own. He went on to describe the 'steak worm' he'd developed: as a normal Kiwi bloke Jimmy's meals went breakfast - steak and eggs, lunch - steak sandwich, dinner - steak and chips. Eventually the vast amount of red meat he ate had plugged up his digestive system, necessitating six weeks ultrasound to clear his plumbing. While we were still pondering the steakwom, he adroitly switched to homosexuality. When he'd been in hospital after a crash, he said, one of his friends had told him he way gay. Jimmy had taken this in his stride and even allowed that faggots are OK actually, though he concluded by saying 'Of course I've told them if they ever touch me, I'll rip their f-king throats out.' Still, by NZ standards this practically made him a new man.

By the time we were in Dunedin's hinterland, Jane and I were feeling a tad uneasy about our new pal. But Jimmy was just warming up: apropos of nothing we were talking about gang violence in Auckland, which was the perfect prompt for Jimmy to start showing me his (admittedly impressive) collection of scars he'd collected from various stabbings. As a final coup de grace, on the way into Dunedin we passed a traffic accident. Our boy immediately hit the decks in the back, yelling, 'Shit I'm wanted by the cops in Dudedin.'

Actually this wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. he hadn't shown up for a court appearance after the police had arrested him for drag racing down at the docks. Although a relatively minor crime, he still reckoned this was worth 30 days inside and told us he hoped to skip the country in the next couple of days. Five minutes later and with some relief that we dropped the most interesting (and dangerous) fellow we'd met for months just down the road from his trashed dragster. It would have been galling to have been through Indonesia and the Philippines only to die at the hands of a Kiwi psycho. Still whatever his anger managament issues, Jimmy was a gent to us. When we bade him farewell hand were shaken all round and we wished him luck in getting to Australia before the police got to him.

Penguins and more craziness

We spent the next afternoon in Dunedin on penguin safari, tracking the elusive yellow eyed penguin. This defintely falls into the category of things you do for your bird (Jane that is, not the penguin) but by the end of the day, I'd taken around 40 pictures of a pair who waddled around in an agreeably penguin-like fashion. Truly we were blessed in a marine bird kind of way. All this left was the drive up to Christchurch. This is the only flat part of the South Island and after a brief detour to see some impresively round boulders (much more stylish than they sound) we passed through a series of nowhere towns on the flat Canterbury Plain. Curiously, every single one of these had been comprehensively and imaginatively rebranded with civic sineage 'Rolleston - town of the future'; 'Acreville - aiming higher'; 'Lynmouth - striving for adequacy' etc.

Funnily enough, Christchurch itself, our last and briefest port of call in NZ was the only Kiwi city I really liked. Not only does it have decent restaurants and some sort of cosmopolitan feel, unlike its northen counterpart, it doesn't look like it was built out of MFI flatpacks. But we had a plane to catch and so we dumped our car and grabbed a cab. On the way there, our driver started gabbling about our Mayor being in town. I said 'What - Ken Livingstone's in town?' He said no and came out with another name. I said 'No, we're from London, Ken Livingston's our mayor'
Oh he replied uncertainly 'You mean you're not from San Diego'
'No' I said, 'We're from London'
'Oh' he said 'Well anyway, you're mayor's here for another few days'
Sometimes it pays to give up and we did. Fifteen minutes later, at Christchurch International, he dropped us off, still, enthusing about adopted mayor's visit. We bade him goodbye and thanked him, both rather pleased that the last person we met on the South Island - like so many of its inhabitants - was absolutely crackers.