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
┤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
"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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.