All this way, and I end up back where I started!

Have you ever played one of those old computer racing car games? The sort they had in arcades in the eighties where you moved your ‘car’ side to side at the bottom of the screen to miss (or overtake) the other racers. They tried to make it more interesting by making a telegraph pole go by every now and then to give the impression of racing down a road. Well, imagine doing that for real, only without the other racing cars on a never ending arrow straight and level gravel track. On your right are the telegraph poles, next to a railway line. On your left is a never ending stretch of farmers’ fields, all growing the same crop. You have thirty miles to cover, enjoy!

Nestled in the foothills just before the Southern Alps, just before you start the Lewis Pass toward Nelson and the west coast, is the small town of Hanmer Springs. I tried to pronounce this name, and I’ve listened to other people say it, but it always sounds like ‘Hamner.’ Anyway, this is a proper little alpine town. When I was in Franz Joseph it felt as if the whole place was geared up toward flogging you various modes of transport up to the glaciers. There were many pubs and restaurants and ample places to spend the night but I always got the impression that it was always just a one horse town. If it hadn’t been for the glaciers, it didn’t seem as if there would have been much point having a town there at all. Whilst people must have lived there in their own houses, I can’t remember seeing a building that didn’t advertise itself as either a boarding house or in some way connected to the tourist trade. Hanmer Springs though has many feathers in it’s cap. You can do all the usual things like Bungee jumping, Jet boating and Rafting, and in winter Skiing, but the town itself is also worth visiting in it’s own right. The main street and town centre is a picturesque mix of park land, green trees and small independent shops selling everything from trinkets to groceries. There are many small cafes tailored for those who just want a bacon sandwich up to those who prefer to eat things drizzled in jus. The buildings are small and reminiscent of those found in the ski resorts of Europe, wooden structures with large windows and triangular pointed roofs. But the thing Hanmer is famous for, the reason there’s the word ‘Springs’ in the name, is because like Rotoroa the town sits on top of natural hot springs. Unlike Rotoroa the place doesn’t stink to high heaven of rotten eggs, though. As you’d expect, there is a spa and unlike the one in Franz Joseph it is actually worth visiting, especially if you have small children. You don’t just sit in a warm pool of water looking at dense forest foliage, you can sit in streams (not natural ones though) or sample pools of differing levels of mineral enriched water. For the kids is a recreation area with water cannons and slides. All this whilst looking around at the pine covered hills dotted by secluded houses. It’s an alpine town that doesn’t ram itself down your neck and is not too commercialised.

I spent three nights in Hanmer Springs, trying in some way to get the town name to live up to a title for a blog I had in my head, ‘Hanmer Horror.’ Other than the agony of cycling up the hills on the way there, which I’ve already written about, I couldn’t think of anything that suited. The campsite I was in was next to a huge pine forest that stretched over the hills toward the Alps proper. Once or twice at night time it sounded like a woodland critter of some kind was snarling and snuffling around outside my tent, but I’d hardly call that horrifying. The only thing I that was scary was the prices of the pubs and cafes, but again nothing I’ve not written about before. The thought of continuing over the Lewis Pass, with 800 metre climbs in places, on a bike that if it was any heavier I’d need a special license to ride, that was horrifying. I sometimes set myself challenges, do things that I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to do or be too chicken to try. I did think about doing the pass, but the distance involved and lack of any shops along the way that I could call into for a sausage roll, meant I would’ve had to carry three or more days of supplies with me. I elected to go back the way I’d come, back toward the east coast and then head south. I packed up (which takes a full hour to do, making sure nothing is going to fall off) and headed back out of Hanmer. The weather was good, warm. The road wound along the between the high hills and overlooked the pebble strewn banks of the Waiau River. The traffic on the road was minimal, and the music playing through my headphones gave me a moment of near perfection. I was on a flat part, peddling along at a good pace. Sat on a fence by the side of the road was a large bird of prey, I don’t know what sort but it had a sharp beak and talons. As I neared it leapt into the air and took off, pounding mighty wings. At that moment, Joe Cocker came in with the chorus of ‘Where we belong,’ that bit where the lyrics go ‘…where the eagles cry, over mountain high.’ Wow. It was all there, the song could have been set in that spot. Up until that point I’d been sniggering that he sounds like he’s singing ‘The lift goes up where we belong…’ yeah, the lifts go up were we are too, Joe.

I made excellent progress toward where I had stayed a few nights before, Balmoral Forest. So good in fact, that I decided to keep going. Going up into the hills is hard, but coming down again is easy and it had taken me over an hour less time to do the same distance back. It could only go down hill toward the sea, couldn’t it?

Three hours later and I arrived as a sweaty aching mess back at Leithfield Beach. Six whole hours in the saddle and over 58 miles (94 km)! I was quite pleased with myself.

The problem is though, there is nothing to do in Leithfield Beach. I spent the next day looking at the road map, where to next? As I scanned the pages, my eyes came across a very familiar name.  There was also the symbol of a campsite nearby. What the hell, I’ll head for there. On the bike and off I went. I’d seen villages who had English counterparts before (Rotherham, Oxford, Stavely to name a few) but I couldn’t miss this one. I had to visit the New Zealand version of Sheffield!

On the way there it wasn’t so bad. Flat and straight roads dotted with towns. I stopped for a rest in one town and told someone who asked where I was heading, he said it was a good 30 or 40 kilometres away. I checked my map, that said Twenty. I got there much sooner than I thought, it didn’t feel like twenty at all (although I did pass a sign that said three kilometres to Sheffield, then 200 yards later pass one that said 5 km…) I had been told not to expect much, but I wasn’t bothered. Sheffield was a village with the three main things a village should have. A pub, a school, and a pie shop. The railway ran through the middle of it, there were a few houses, and that was it. I called into the pie shop (the pub was closed, and unless it was boarded up, that is something you wouldn’t expect at lunch time back home) and mentioned I was from Sheffield in England, sort of expecting a free pie maybe or a cheer at least. “Yeah, we get a few people coming through saying that…” was the response from the woman behind the counter. Ho hum. I’d made good progress again and had noticed a second campsite closer toward Christchurch near a town called Rolleston. Also as luck would have it, the railway ran directly there and there was a road that ran alongside the tracks. It was off the main highway, so it would be quiet…

The tarmac quickly gave way to gravel and the road became pitted and pot holed, just like home. I saw something, a shape or a tree out of place in the far distance and I prayed it would be something to mark the end the road. When I got there, I saw only the same thing again, far ahead like a mirage. Mile after mile. In places I rode on the wrong side of the road, sometimes because it was smoother and sometimes for something to do. I was on a never ending treadmill were the scenery never changed…. Never had I been so bored when out riding my bike. When I got to my campsite, I’d covered in around eight hours from Leithfield almost 71 miles (114 km). I’m not going to be moving for a few days, methinks!

Mini Count :- 46 The only thing of interest in Leithfield Beach.

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Beware of the Cows

If you think about it, you’d be highly suspicious if you past a field full of people who stopped what they were doing and stared at you silently as you went by. You’d at least feel uneasy that you in particular had been of such interest, especially if you were just going by minding your own business. It would be something you’d mention when you got home. You’d want to know why they all looked at you, why they were in the field in the first place and you’d wander whether or not you should tell the authorities. Yet if you pass a field of cows doing the same thing you would not think anything of it. I think the cows are up to something, I think they’re planning to take over the world…

In the map, the area around Christchurch is called the Canterbury Plains. A flat, vast expanse of mostly farmland where the road stretches ahead for miles without a bend or bump. Ideal for those who are on bicycles, like me. Before I left Christchurch I’d made sure everything was strapped down and balanced as well as I could get it. I deemed my efforts good enough for the roads of Sheffield, so the earthquake damaged roads of Christchurch should be no problem – at least they had been designed flat and smooth before the ‘quake hit. I enjoy cycling and do a lot of mountain biking back home, but I’ve never carried anything heavier than a small bag before and even then only for a short distance. Now though, I had everything with me and I quickly discovered something that all the scientists in the whole of history have so far failed to mention. Bikes have their own gravitational pull, making even the lightest of objects weigh more than they would do normally. The bag my tent comes in says that it weighs three kilos, on a bike that translates into the weight of a small cottage. My clothing; just a few teeshirts and shorts, a weight a child could easily carry, on a bike weigh more than one days entire output of an Indian sweatshop. This computer, whilst I’m using it now is light and easily portable. On a bike it’s the same weight as the WWII Colossus decoding computer. As I cycled along it soon became obvious that anything steeper than going up a kerb would mean getting off and pushing, even the bridges over some rivers were like tackling a mountain. But never the less, once I got up to speed and got a good rhythm going progress was good. On the first day I covered about fifty kilometres (which sounded good until I converted it into miles) and found myself at a campsite by Leighfield Beach. I was done for, exhausted, knackered and hungry. The last thing I wanted to do was build a tent but it had to be done. I promised myself that once that was up, I’d have a shower and something to eat and finally relax. The problem was that I’d never built this tent before and it wasn’t designed like any other tent I’d ever used. It took me two hours of swearing and throwing it around, phoning for help, and sitting staring at it before it was finally put up with the help of a man on the next pitch. All my problems came because I’d got the only two poles the wrong way around. I spent the next day trying not to move at all and I toyed with the idea of just staying in the same place for two weeks, I couldn’t face getting back on the bike.

Boredom, though, is a good motivator. I managed to pack everything so I didn’t have to carry anything on my back, which meant I was glancing over my shoulder every two seconds to make sure my computer hadn’t fallen off. There was no point in continuing to follow State Highway One, I had driven it loads and knew that the next big town was Kaikoura, and I’d already been there. I decided to turn inland and head for Hamner Springs, with a stop over in a place called Balmoral Forest. Before I had been listening to music as I cycled, but I decided to switch it off to save the battery for another time. Following the road ever onwards without music clouding your thoughts means you don’t half think of some weird stuff.

Why do kilometres lie? One sign says one distance and when you think you’ve covered it you find you’re only half way, everything seems further away. Miles are far easier to gauge. How come the Maori name for things, when translated, always mean something like ‘good fishing spot’ or ‘tall mountain’? Never anything like Leeds, or Everest. How come other people on biking holidays make it look so easy, seemingly zooming up the hills? Why are some cows black and white? It serves no purpose. Sheep never look at you as you go by, they have big woolly coats to protect them against the weather and can hide in snow. Cows have no camouflage, how did they evade predators in times past? Maybe they’re not originally of this planet. They stand staring at things for hours to work out what it does and how works and then, when the time is right, they’ll rebel against humankind. It doesn’t matter if we eat a few of them because there will always be more, they’ve even begun to be popular in China. Their numbers are growing. Maybe they’re psychic somehow, that’s why they all look at you at exactly the same time. Its to make sure you haven’t sussed them out yet. That’s why you always hear of people being trampled, the cows judge that their secret is out and decide to stomp the problem.

Next time, I’m going to make sure my batteries are charged up on my music player. Inside my head is too strange a place to be in for long…

Mini Count :- 45 Can we get to fifty before home time?

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A Pain in the Packing, Part Two: I need a Skateboard, Bungee Cables and a Schoolboy’s Satchel…

With only about three weeks left of this adventure, and money beginning to get to a point that even a boa constrictor would consider tight, I decided to return to the South Island. I bid farewell to all the folks I’d enjoyed meeting over the past week at the campsite I’d been using as a base for exploring Auckland, and headed for the airport. This being Waitangi Day, (a bank holiday in New Zealand, the anniversary of the signing of the Waitangi Treaty between the British and the Maori. Very basically, it gave the Maoris the protection of the Crown and New Zealand became ‘officially’ under British control.) no public transport was running so I was very grateful for the lift from one of the camp residents. (Cheers, Lesley! Sorry if that’s not how you spell your name…) I found it bizarre that the check in and waiting around at the airport took longer than the flight itself, but an hour and twenty minutes after leaving Auckland I touched down for the second time in Christchurch. After a second lift from the my mate I’d spent Christmas with, I was back at their house in Mount Pleasant and had a problem. What to do next? Sensing that they didn’t particularly want people staying too long in their quake damaged home, (with over a quarter of the floor space unusable and the five of them relying on a chemical toilet, I wouldn’t want people over for too long) I had to make skedaddle plans. Herein lay the problem, skedaddle how? I’d sold the van, I couldn’t afford to jump on the South Island Kiwi bus, the tent and equipment I’d used on the North Island were all borrowed and I’d given them back. Hiring a car would have meant selling a lung and as for a camper van, pah ha hah hah! It was fleetingly suggested that I gave hitchhiking a go, but I thought that would be ever so slightly hypocritical of me, I could just about hear the yokels tuning up their banjos. So what about hiring a bike then?

A quick check on t’web narrowed the search for a hire shop down to two that didn’t ask for the deeds to your body after you’d snuffed it as payment. One of these was soon off the list as they didn’t have a bike spare so it was in the last shop my hopes lay. It was a second hand bicycle store that advertised itself as in the business of hiring, selling and buying used bikes. I explained that I needed a bike for three weeks, including a pannier, helmet and bike lock. He showed me a selection of bright and shiny mountain and touring bikes, seemingly fresh out of the box. I showed him the moths that were chewing holes in my pockets, he nodded sagely and beckoned me into a dimly lit attic above the shop. Up here, under a single unshielded lightbulb and behind a curtain of cobwebs was stock that had not managed to find a place with the ‘cool’ bikes downstairs. There were almost a hundred of them, stacked for storage and not display. I could see where some of the hostels had bought their own ‘sit up and beg’ bikes. In the dim recesses of the room I fancied that I could make out the outline of a Penny Farthing. The shopkeeper searched amongst his stock, glancing up occasionally to check how tall I was. Eventually, he pulled one out that to me looked fairly modern, I was fearing something that looked like what a post mistress would use. It was a steel frame, 21 geared, Raleigh Amazon, made in Nottingham. I guessed it was somewhere between twenty and thirty years old, but not being in the know about these things I could be wrong. It was coloured with blue / green paint with glitter mixed in. With choice being the luxury of those with more cash, I bought that one with the agreement that the shop would buy it back from me when I returned in a few weeks. He assured me it would be ready at four, after it had been given a thorough check and a pannier fitted.

In the time before picking it up, and with suggestions being made of where I should head to, I picked up a few vital odds and sods from the supermarket. It depressed me to think that I had already owned most of this stuff just a month or so ago, a camping stove, air bed and pump, cup and bowl, knife and fork. It had all being sold with the van (my air bed had a leak and I left it in Auckland). Thankfully, I could once more borrow a small tent. Time ticked buy, I emptied my backpack and tried to arrange everything so it all – tent, sleeping bag, everything – fit into one bag. Did I need jeans? No, they got left behind as did my shirts and best shoes. I only took a few pairs of shorts and teeshirts, jacket and raincoat. I managed to cram it all, including the tent, into the pack. I decided I needed to keep my computer safe, so that went into an old satchel that previously had been used as a school bag before the lad moved into high school. This also carried my wallet, camera and a bag of sweets.

With timing that would impress the military, and reasoning that the shop could be done before four o’clock, I was bustled into the car and whisked back to the bike shop before the kids needed picking up from school. I waved bye bye as mum on a mission dropped me off and vanished in a cloud of tyre smoke. As with all these things though, the shop wasn’t ready at four. The manager had failed to tell his staff that the bike needed preparing, and when they did begin they found a whole load of other problems. I breathed a sigh of relief as they told me it wouldn’t cost me any more, and that some of the things going on were brand new, but it wouldn’t be ready until the next day. As I walked back to the house, I began to feel a bit bad in having to tell them that the bike wasn’t ready.

The next day came and the bike was sorted. After rummaging around in the garage we found an old wheelless skateboard that I strapped to the pannier rack with bungee cables to act as a support for the backpack. More bungees and extra straps made sure everything stayed in one place. Flinging the satchel onto my back and selecting ‘Road to Nowhere’ for riding music, I headed off north – destination unknown…

Mini Count :- 44, there isn’t one for ages then four crop up in one day!

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Auckland Calling….Auckland Calling….

The sun streamed in through the window, it was another hot day in Auckland. I flopped down onto the sofa and propped my feet up on the coffee table, flicking on the telly. The news was mentioning something about a child being born in one of the hospitals, bringing the population of Auckland City up to one million five hundred thousand. I let my eyes close as I listened, they’d been on about this since this morning, it must be a slow news day. I opened my eyes again suddenly, as the room trembled to the latest of a series of minor earthquakes that had rocked the city in recent days. Nothing to worry about, I thought, chuckling as the woman reading the news caught the shock seconds later. At least you can tell it was live, that way. I hauled myself to the kitchen and retrieved a chilled beer from the fridge, then slumped back into my previous position. Something was different. It took me a second to work it out, out the window, there was a low cloud over Waitemata Harbour that hadn’t been there seconds earlier. The ground shook again, a little more violently this time. I got up and stared out of the window at the harbour, noticing the boats were moving quicker than their usual sedate pace, the harbour police will have words to say when those sailors dock. The cloud was growing over the water, that was odd, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. In the distance; across the bay, a tendril of smoke curled out of the top of Rangitoto, the dormant volcano that made up the island that side of the bay before the sea. The change in tone of the news readers voice brought my attention back to the television, there was breaking news. Someone was streaming live footage of the harbour, of the sea boiling in the bay. I turned back to the window; more smoke – black this time – was billowing out of the top of Rangitoto. The news people had noticed too, a camera had zoomed in to watch the peak, filming a small number of sparks seen shooting out the top. Another violent tremor knocked the power out, shutting off the telly and the light of the tropical fish tank. I saw it happen a fraction of a second before I felt it, even at this distance. The whole of the top of the volcano exploded, and I was knocked to the ground as the shock wave hit…

The last time I was in Auckland I paid scant attention to the things around me. My pressing concern was selling my van, then organising money and transport to continue my travels. I had heard from other people I had met that they had tried to spend as little time in Auckland as possible. Even the driver of the Kiwi Experience Bus, the very first thing she mentioned to us when she had navigated onto the motorway leaving the city, was that this was the best thing about it. The road leaving the city was the best thing in the city? Surely not? We weren’t in Bradford after all. Since this was the last stop for me on the Kiwi bus, I having completed my tour with them, I was determined to give Auckland a second chance. I would be looking at the city as a typical tourist would, relaxed and having all the time in the world to take in the surroundings. With my camera charged, sunglasses on and hat on head, I stepped off the train into the main station terminal, the Brittomart. So far, nothing to be disappointed about. The shining metal domes in the ceiling and coloured lighting behind more chromed wall panels reminded me of a picture I had once seen of a vision of the future. It was a nineteen fifties vision of the future, but I still liked it. Out onto the street, I found myself amongst the throngs of people going about their day to day activities. This place instantly felt like a busy metropolitan city with street cafes, tall gleaming buildings with the names of banks on them and street buskers here and there. I began to just wander, have a look around. With the commercial harbour (this part occupied with the business of cargo and haulage) directly behind you and the Sky Tower almost always visible above the surrounding buildings, (at 1076ft, or 328m high it was hard to miss) you could keep your bearings easily enough. I soon found myself on Queen Street, what I had been told was one of the main roads going through the city. It was certainly this road that all of the hostels had advertised themselves as either on or nearby, and I soon saw the familiar red cross logo of Base hostels. Even though the sun was shining in the busy road, I had to remove my sun glasses because of the shadow caused by the store canopies. After some time passing the usual fast food places, department stores, small newspaper stands etc, I came to a pedestrian crossing over the road. We all stood staring at the signal opposite, waiting for the little green man to tell us when to cross. When he did, everyone set off at the same pace and I realised to my horror that I had stopped walking and had begun trudging. Must do something different, I thought quickly. I had noticed as I had my eyes on the ground as I trudged up the hill that I had walked over some square plaques set into the pavement. The next one I saw, I stopped and read it. It described the building I was standing next to, something called the Vulcan Building. Today it was just another department store, one of thousands around the globe, but the building it was in… I looked up, only to have my view cut off by the overhanging canopy. I crossed the road and looked back. At last, I could see the reason for the plaque, it was an old building that spoke of industry and a bygone age. All the way down the street between the high rise buildings could be seen structures that were built before Auckland was even a hundred years old. I even found one buildings plaque which said that it was rumoured to be a secret military base for conducting operations during the Second World War.

   I had been told that the War Memorial Museum was worth a visit, so I headed there. When I found the place (impressive since there are no signposts saying which way it is until you are actually on top of it) I spent a good twenty minutes walking around the outside of it before I even went in. Okay, so it wasn’t open when I got there, but even the outside of the building was enough to keep me occupied until the doors opened. It was huge, built of white stone with vast columns reminding me of the US Congress building and Roman / Greek amphitheatres (and Sheffield City Hall…). At the front was the Cenotaph, flanked by two field guns from the war and over the windows of the main building were the names of the battles and places that New Zealand forces played a role in. The area the museum stood on had been a large campground used to house US troops during WWII. Since I wasn’t a resident of Auckland, I had to pay to get in, thankfully not much otherwise I’d have been forced to miss out on the feast for the mind inside. There was the entire history of New Zealand. Everything from Natural history displaying examples of birds and fish past and present, Maori history, Local history (who came over on what boat, many pictures of Auckland before the modern high rise buildings went up, etc) and vast rooms displaying weapons and artefacts from both world wars (one display of an airship commander was particularly interesting…). The were even full size examples of a Spitfire, a Japanese Zero warplane and a German V1 flying bomb.

I’d spent hours on my feet and was about to leave when I noticed something in the Natural history section I’d missed the first time around. It was a replica of the outside of a modern house, by the door a sign advised that what was about to be displayed may upset those of a sensitive nature. I couldn’t miss that, could I? When I went in there was a sitting room with two sofas in front of a television, and a window showing a stunning view of Waitemata Harbour, Auckland’s seafront. In the distance you could just see Rangitoto, the dormant volcano in the middle of the bay. I collapsed into the sofa, thankful to take the weight off my feet and propping them up on the coffee table. I was just in time, the news was just coming on. I sat back and enjoyed the simulation of what would happen when – not if – the volcano erupted. After being thrown around by real earthquakes this simulation, with motors used to move the building to replicate the shock waves, was very impressive.

I left the museum and walked all the way back through the park, passing large trees with thick twisting roots. Along the way back to Queen Street I found a small brick structure that I had originally taken for an air vent of some kind. The small plaque told me it was a replica of part of a furnace that workmen had recently unearthed whilst constructing nearby buildings. This area was once covered in industry, now long since demolished. Back on Queen Street I had a glance at the newspapers, the population of the city was now 1.5million with the birth of a baby boy. In a country where the population is only four million, that meant over a third of the people lived in one city. When you live in one place, especially a big city, you tend to stop looking around you and concentrate on your own goals. It’s easy to forget that there’s history and heritage all around, you’ve just got to look. Yes yes, in Britain we have buildings that are older than New Zealand itself, and so these on Queen Street may not impress British or European tourists as such, but it annoys me when Kiwis say they have hardly any heritage of their own. It’s all around, if they took away the canopies in front of the shops, or replaced them with something transparent, then you’d be better able to see the buildings thousands of people pass each day without noticing.

I made my way back toward the railway station. In the harbour in the distance sat the cone of Rangitoto, and I remembered the buildings destroyed by the earthquakes in Christchurch. Auckland may not be as picturesque as Christchurch once was, but it does have a history that is ignored by many. With a volcano set to burst in the future and maybe destroy everything, perhaps it’d be a good idea to go out and enjoy the city. Whilst there is still a city…

Mini Count :- 37.

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Give it some Welly!

Well, it had to happen eventually. I’d asked and there was no other choice, I’d have to stay in a hostel for the night. It was the last stop before the bus turned around and followed the same route back to Auckland. Many of the people on board would be catching the boat to Picton in the morning and continuing their own adventure on the South Island, but I would be headed north again. We had arrived in the capital city of New Zealand, the southern most capital city in the world, Wellington. I really like that places in New Zealand are named after British heroes or great battles. You’ve got Wellington here, Nelson, Marlborough, Blenheim, etc. It gives a real sense of belonging, somehow.

During ‘Operation Auckland,’ I’d driven through Wellington as I headed for the motorway out of it, deciding that I’d have a better look when I returned. On the bus, the driver pointed out where Peter Jackson (Director of ‘Lord of the Rings’) worked, what the Maori called certain hills and how the place was built on a tectonic fault line, similar to Christchurch. In New Zealand, Wellington is called the ‘Windy City’, because wind off the Pacific Ocean funnels itself between the North and South Islands through the Cook Straits. As we rounded the harbour he pointed out a flat spot between two hills, explaining that that was Wellington airport and pilots landing there had to have passed a special simulator test before flying in. It’s not uncommon because of the regular gales, for aeroplanes flying in to come in sideways, and have to abort the landing and have another go. The last time the driver flew into Wellington, the jet he was on had to abort three times before landing. Like Sydney in Australia, Auckland is often mistaken as the capital. The thing is, Auckland once was the capital of New Zealand. In the mid 1800’s the people on the South Island threatened to form their own country because Auckland was so far away. Fearing the break up of New Zealand, the politicians moved the capital to Wellington, which has a more central position and disaster was averted.

I’d been booked into the Base hostel, a chain that I likened to McDonald’s, full of promise and looks good in the pictures but reality is a big let down (as an example, the Base in Taupo is above a nightclub, so the people whose beds are on the first floor have to wait for the nightclub to close before being able to sleep). As we filed through the main door, (everyone with backpacks but only me with backpack, tent, air bed, cooking stove, sleeping bag and bag of food) I noticed on the foundation stone that the building had been converted from the old Post Office HQ building. As such, the main reception area was large and spacious with plenty of light coming in from the ceiling to floor windows. The queue was what you would expect at a Post Office, too. We were processed and designated to a dorm, no choice who you got put with, and asked whether we’d like to buy a padlock for the metal boxes under our beds – to put valuables in. I said no, I had one already. My dorm was on the third floor, and turned out to be a room no larger than the inside of a camper van. There were three bunk beds crammed in and all but one was taken, happily it was a bottom bunk. The others occupants were two French blokes and three Dutch girls. I stashed my stuff, locked my security box with my tiny padlock and went to explore the city. It wasn’t windy at all, hardly a breath in fact.

As with all modern major cities, Wellington has it’s share of high rise buildings, housing banks and major department stores. There are the usual chains, Burger King, Subway, etc scattered all around. By the harbour, the civil servants of the Parliament building (the ‘Beehive’) relax in the many bars and restaurants along the waterfront. This is the only city I’ve seen in New Zealand where the people are dressed formally, wearing shirts and ties instead of sandals and shorts. As befitting a capital city with business links, I suppose. Street art and sculptures are all around, the major (and heritage) buildings are tastefully illuminated. The whole area gives a mixture of relaxed formality, unhurried business. Yes, you can enjoy looking at the buildings, but stay off the grass, we like to keep it green. They’d even managed to put the ‘Occupy Wellington’ camp of protestors in an area that could be easily ignored, I barely noticed it was there. The other big thing that I noticed was how quiet it all was. It was a week day evening and there was hardly anyone around. In any other capital city the flow of people is a constant stream, regardless of whether it was day or night. Here, I could walk down the centre of the road without fear of being mown down. In some places I was the only thing moving in the street. Weird.

Before heading back to the hostel, I called in to an absolute gem of a place. I’d been in Irish bars before (they’re ten a penny in most tourist places) and English theme pubs (they never look right) but I had never been in a Welsh pub before. I don’t think I’ve even been to Wales before, just driven past it. Housed in an old public convenience; really, don’t laugh, it advertises itself as the only Welsh pub in the southern hemisphere. The Welsh Dragon. It even felt like a pub and not a bar. The music playing was Welsh, the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Tom ‘God’ Jones, and the like and all the walls were covered in pictures of the old country. Even the barman was Welsh. Unfortunately I could’t order a pint of Brains because the Welsh Rugby team had drunk them dry during the world cup, but I could order a shot of Welsh whisky if I wanted. I settled on a single pint of Speights, then a second as I tried to leave it as long as possible before having to return to the hostel.

It was no good, I had to return. I bid the barman good night and walked back across the road to the hostel. The bar in the basement was in full swing, I had a quick peep but didn’t have the cash. I ate my tea in the telly room, where a group of twenty or so were sitting watching one of the Harry Potter films. Wow. It was late, I’d been up early because that was when the bus had wanted to go, and I had to rise early because the bus was once more leaving Wellington early. I decided it was time for bed. When I got there, the dorm was empty so I quickly washed and changed and jumped into bed. Then I got out again and folded my pillow in two, because it was as thin as the meat in a McD’s cheeseburger. I tried a third time but that was uncomfortable. The mattress wasn’t much better, I could feel the springs jabbing my back. Then one of my roommates returned and switched on the light. Then she had a discussion with her friend in the doorway, then went away again. Then, next door decided to host a drinking competition, (despite lots of signs threatening eviction if found drinking in rooms) the other room started playing music and the floor above were having a rave. I couldn’t help thinking I was missing out somehow? Am I at the age where non stop drinking until I’m blind just doesn’t appeal anymore or am I a boring git? Possibly both. The others eventually did return, one by one, and mostly sober. Each time was the same drill, door open, light on, talk on phone or to friend for an eternity then make a noise whilst changing for bed like furniture removal men do when clearing a stately home. Then have one of their friends try to sleep in our room because her’s was hosting a Russian Roulette party with vodka. I imagined many ways of killing everyone in the place for a good nights’ sleep (I’ve noticed I do this quite often, maybe I should see someone about it, a gun dealer for instance?) before eventually, mercifully all went quiet and I fell asleep. A nanosecond my alarm went off and it was time to jump back on the bus!

Mini Count :- 36. I’ve a feeling it’s gonna be a long haul to 40.

Rubbish library connection again, sorry no pics!

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Go Mad! Nanny isn’t Looking!

I looked at my mobile in surprise, I’d been assured there was no signal all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, or ‘River Valley’ as the sign over the entrance read. But still, the small glowing screen had lit up, proclaiming that I had a new text message. Maybe this new phone was better than everyone else’s, regardless of the fact that it was the cheapest one the shop had?

When I was on the Milford Sounds; camping on Aussie Bay, I had the opportunity to go out onto the flat sea in a kayak. I was given a life jacket, paddle and a beer, then asked if I needed a push into the water. When I’d gone out a few yards I noticed that my way of paddling meant I’d be going around in circles if I didn’t hit shore first, so I decided that I would try to turn. I put the oar into the sea, gave it a pull and ended up capsizing, losing the beer. I dragged the kayak back to dry land after only five minutes of being on the water, gave back the things and told the owner that I thought it may be best if I wait until daylight before giving it another go. He said fine, jumped into the boat himself and paddled off into the dark. His kids the next day looked like they were born on boats, with twists and turns and not once capsizing like the stupid Pom. They were amazed I’d never been in a kayak before, it was one of the things they were taught at school.

Back home, I live near a country park that was originally built to provide the surrounding villages with a flood defence from the river. Over the years it has developed into a nature reserve, fishing area and the large manmade lake is a good venue for water sports. You can camp by it, have barbecues and generally enjoy the open space. But the one thing you’re not allowed to do is swim in the lake. There are signs all around declaring this activity to be prohibited and the rangers patrol the lake on speedboats, ready to pounce on those who are even paddling in the edge. On a hot summers’ day, when your ice lolly turns to steam the moment it’s out of the wrapper and your flip flops stick to the tarmac, to have all that water and not be able to cool off in it is tantamount to torture. The school I attended was heavy on the dangers of the countryside but said almost nothing on how to enjoy it, certainly not teaching us how to kayak despite the lake being in easy walking distance.

In New Zealand I’ve noticed they have a different approach. They teach their children from an early age that if they want to go swimming or boating etc, in the lakes or rivers then there are certain things to look out for and equipment to use. The adverts over here tell you to go out and enjoy countryside, swim in the lakes, surf in the sea. If an accident does occur, it’s usually because of stupidity but rarely because of ignorance, as was in my case.

This reliance on common sense is strangely refreshing. My next stop after Rotorua was Taupo, which is the North Island’s equivalent of Queenstown, all the activities such as sky diving and white water rafting can be accessed here too. Like Queenstown, Taupo is situated on the shore of a lake, from which the town takes it’s name. The lake itself is the largest in New Zealand and was formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption, one that scientists think was the largest the world had ever seen. Whilst Queenstown is surrounded by mountains created by tectonic drift, Taupo is surrounded (albeit at a further distance) by mountains created by volcanos, the last one of which (Mount Ruapehu) erupted only in 2007. On really clear days, you can see all the way into Middle Earth and the sinister cone of Orodruin, better known as Mount Doom! (Also known as Mount Ngauruhoe.)

Due to all this still bubbling volcanic activity, some of the streams that spring from the ground are hot. The nearest one by my campsite is only a twenty minute walk through an area called the ‘Thermal Park.’ You follow a path through playing fields that brings you to the edge of Haast River, that flows from Lake Taupo. Into the river a stream falls over rocks to form a waterfall and it is here that people enjoy the hot water of the stream. Seriously hot water, hotter than your average shower at home. The only clue as to the temperature, as you walk toward it, is there is steam raising from the long grass around the water (and the fact the area has ‘thermal’ in the name). There are no signs warning you of hot water, no cordoned off area and no ranger shouting at you for enjoying the free natural wonder. When you get to the waters’ edge, the only way you can tell where the really hot stuff is, is the fact that people avoid a seemingly prime sitting area. Back home we’d be lucky if it hadn’t been built on by the leisure industry, trying to profit from something they got for free or the power industry doing likewise. It certainly wouldn’t be left untouched for the free enjoyment of the masses. Lake Taupo itself has artificial beaches, something I’d kill for after a long hot bike ride around Ladybower reservoir.

   The stream with the hot water was populated by twenty or so people, mostly tourists judging by the number of cameras I saw. I placed my own things (towel, phone, teeshirt, shoes) in a neat pile on a rock away from the water and went for a dip. The further away from the stream you swam, the colder it got, but you could find a spot somewhere between having your bits frozen off or being boiled like a lobster. I chose a temperature about that at which a hot shower was taken, and sat back to watch the folk around. A small waterfall also provided a perfect hot water massage, but this part was the hottest of all and I only managed a few seconds before needing to cool down. After a while, I took a quick swim in the cold bit, and went back to my things. It wasn’t there, my mobile phone. I hadn’t noticed anyone dodgy hanging around – but you can never tell these days – and besides there were far better pickings all around, a nearby iPhone, my camera was still there. A small voice came up from the water “Is this your phone? I found it in the stream, it must have slipped in.” A group of boys; about ten years old, all looked up at me shouting ‘I didn’t do it!’ with their eyes. I thanked the lad who handed me back my now waterlogged phone and smiled “Did someone knock it in?” I asked. All eyes flashed to the lad who ‘found’ it, I shook my head, “It’s okay, don’t worry, accidents happen.” and walked away. A quick walk into town with the rescued sim card and I found a dirt cheap replacement.

Leaving behind Taupo, the bus wound along roads between the sleeping volcanoes toward River Valley. Cries of dismay could be heard on the bus as one by one the last flickering bar that showed signal strength on our mobile phones died. I had to suppress a chuckle when I realised that to many on board, they had just lost hundreds of Facebook friends. The situation was grim, if you don’t update every two minutes you were classed as officially dead. When asked if the hostel had a signal, the driver who came up to collect our bags before we walked down to the place just laughed. I liked him instantly.

River Valley lodge reminded me of an old hunting lodge, with a great big fireplace in the middle of the dining room. On the walls were hung pictures of the white water rafting and horse trekking that were the available activities. I was reminded of the Neptune hostel I’d stayed at in Greymouth, the feeling that it wasn’t quite ‘done’ yet. This place was; I sat back in one of the sofas, and imagined…. It’s winter, a storm blowing outside. The fireplace roared with huge logs burning as fuel. A real Christmas tree sparkled all the way up to the mezzanine and standing by the polished bar, guests dressed in their finery await to be seated for dinner. A piano is being played somewhere. On a wall opposite is an oil portrait of a familiar person, I can’t quite place who. I ask one of the uniformed waiters, “Why, that’s the original owner sir. The man who founded River Lodge. If I may say so, sir, the family resemblance is striking.” Resemblance? “Yes sir, he is your great grandfather, after all. Such a tragedy… River Lodge has been in your family ever since, you are the current owner, are you not sir?” I smile, taking a sip of champagne.

“Remind me again, Grady, what happened?” I ask.

“Why, he became tired of certain guests complaining when they discovered the lodge wasn’t connected to telephone system yet. It was on a night like this… all they found the next morning were drag marks in the snow leading to the swollen river and seven empty beds. The woodsman commented that his axe had never been as sharp before, it was as if a mad man had worked relentlessly on the blade. May I offer you another drink sir?”

I’m the only one with a tent on the bus, so I have the camping ground to myself. It’s half price and I still get to use all the facilities, spa pool, sauna that sort of thing. It’s even better when I hear that the beds in the dorms are so close to each other that you can roll from one to the other, they’re really packed in. At night time the Waikato River provides me with a not – too – loud backing noise, accompanied by the occasional rain fall. I’m just falling asleep when my text alert goes off, what could it be? Am I the only one with a signal? I open the message “You have one new voicemail message.” I try to call, but there is no signal. D’oh!

Mini Count :- 36. They are very few and far between around here.

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Gentlemen, Lets Broaden Our Minds!

“So, why do you guys keep saying you’re from different countries all the time?” I looked at the Canadian girl who’d just asked me where I was from, sat opposite me in Curly’s Bar in Waitomo. She sipped her Bacardi and cola though a straw with an expectant look on her face. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, you just said you were from Great Britain, that guy just said ‘The UK’, and someone told me they were from England. How come you’re all from different places when it’s all the same island?” I tried to explain that it was just easier than saying ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ that Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales. She tried following me for half of the sentence when she said “So, England is a state in the UK, why isn’t Northern Ireland?”

“No, England is a country, we don’t have states.”

“But you just said it was part of the United Kingdom, so doesn’t that mean it’s a state? And where is Great Britain?”

“It’s the same island, it’s what we call England, Scotland and Wales collectively.” She thought of this for a moment, it was probably the longest her brain had concentrated on something since the last time she had bought shoes.

“Why not Northern Ireland, what’s a matter with those guys?” There the fuse burst, it no longer interested her “You should just settle on one name, like Canada or the States. It’s just bullshit calling it all those different names. Confusing.” I nodded sagely at her, but couldn’t let it finish there.

“You know the Queen, that lady on the front of your money? She’s your head of state. She’s English and she lives in England. That means technically, we run your country.”

So far, that is the dumbest person I’ve met. Everyone else has had some degree of education, including the one and only American I met in Franz Joseph. I was impressed by him, he could get his head around a point of view that was completely alien to what even he said was unthinkable to the average American, that one of the reasons their revolution was successful was because we had bigger problems with France at the same time. I wonder why I’ve not met many Americans, I have heard they travel around in groups so maybe I just haven’t been in the same hostel, bar etc.

In New Zealand there are many museums, usually telling the story of the town in which it is situated. There are loads of car shows, boat shows, cinemas, theatres and libraries. I knew that the first people to arrive on New Zealand were the Maori, and that all of the place names have a Maori equivalent. School children are taught how to do the Haka, (you’ll know it as that strange dance the All Blacks perform before a Rugby match) and learn the stories those people. They are believed to have descended from the peoples of Polynesian Islands, but their real homeland has been forgotten in the mists of time. They came to New Zealand around six to seven hundred years before Captain Cook, but had no written language to make note of the date. Their stories were past down the generations by word of mouth only, much of it told by their music. Other than the odd one or two people I’ve seen walking around with elaborate facial tattoos, I haven’t come across any of the Maori people in the South Island and very few in the North. Until the bus pulled up in Rotorua, that is.

Situated on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and part of an area known as the Bay of Plenty, this town is regarded as the cultural capital of New Zealand. As you head into town, regardless of your mode of transport, the first thing that springs to mind is ‘Who farted?’ This is because Rotorua is a sulphurous geothermal hotspot, all of the springs, ponds and even the swimming pool in the hostel I was camping at, are heated by hot water bubbling from the ground. Like at Hot Water Beach, the town is surrounded by volcanos, the last one of which to erupt was Mount Tarawera on the 10th June 1886. The atmosphere has a background whiff of rotten eggs, but you soon get used to it and hardly even notice after a while. The driver of the Kiwi Experience bus took us on a brief tour of the town, pointing out the steaming pools, the lake front, and the many spas in the area. He also pointed out the main museum, a converted health resort for the Victorian elite, and handed out leaflets for a trip to a Maori village. Since the only history I had seen so far was of the British and European kind, I thought it would be a good idea to see how the natives lived. (www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz)

It was also an excuse to dress smartly, time to stick on the shirt and trousers and have a shave. It was a Saturday night after all and included in the (not cheap) tour was a sit down meal, so I thought it would have people thinking the same way and attempt to dress slightly smarter than they did. Ho-hum. The bus to the village was bang on time, the driver greeted me with a big Kia Ora (Hello & Good bye) and from here on in the words get complicated for my spell checker, so I’m switching it off. As we were driven on the waka (any mode of transport) towards the marae (village) the korotiwaka (driver, or guide) asked us to choose a chief from among us to represent our group during the powhiri (formal welcome). We were instructed that during this part of the ceremony it was important not to smile, laugh or stick out your tongue (look serious in the face of possible hilarity). The marae was fortified using large logs taken from the local trees (if I was storming the place, a chainsaw or heavy calibre machine gun would be in order) and we were guided in to a courtyard at the entrance. Our chiefs (three buses, so three chiefs) were invited to step forward, and from the gate to the marae a tattooed warrior appeared holding a taiaha (spear – like weapon). He performed an impressive display of weapon skills, much twirling and jumping around (no smiling) as he went through the Te Wero (the challenge of peace, and no thinking of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark were Indy just shoots the bloke with the sword, and for god’s sake, no smiling). When the teka (peace offering, a frond of leaves) was accepted and the hongi (pressing of noses, a welcome gesture for the chiefs only) was performed, we were allowed to smile again. After the karanga (welcome call) echoed through the trees, we entered their village through one of three entrances. I asked one of the locals why they had three entrances, to be told that it was for the sacred art of getting more people into the village. Inside the marae, the people of the Ngati Tama (name of the tribe) were displaying wood work skills, dancing, games and many things in the same sort of fashion as you’d find at a medieval re-enactment. The people were friendly, funny and informative, trying to teach us the haka and the words that go with it. Soon though, my stomach reminded me that I had not eaten since mid-day and it came time for the hangi (feast, earth oven). We were shown toward a mound of earth and our chiefs were each given a spade so they could dig up our dinner from the ground. Chicken, Lamb, Fish (including Mussels), vegetables and sweet potatoes were on the menu tonight. This was all whisked away to be prepared whilst we were taken through to the wharenui (the big house) and more stories and dancing were performed. It was all good, but I was really getting hungry (bloody starvin’ mate) and by the end of it I was ready to eat the small child who had been wailing all through the performance next to me. Finally, we were shepherded through to the wharekai (the food house) and when the food was blessed with a karakia (prayer), the host asked if there were any English, Scottish, Welsh or Australians amongst their manuhiri (us, the guests). There was, and we were told that the bar (a simple word meaning a place were delightful beverages containing ingredients such as water, hops, yeast and barley could be purchased for amounts ranging from reasonable to gob smackingly expensive) was over in the corner. What was he trying to suggest? I bought my beer, the Germans and Dutch on my table settled with the water provided free. Their loss, I don’t mind re-enforcing a stereotype if it means I can enjoy the meal better. It was an all you can eat buffet and the last time I had stuffed my cake hole that much was at Christmas, the meat fell off the bone and melted in the mouth with the flavours infused by the earth oven. It was poles apart from the canned stuff I’d been living on for the past few weeks, real meat for a change.

As the night came to an end, the tribe finished with the poroporaki (closing ceremony) which involved waiata (songs) and the closing whaikorero (speeches) wishing us a safe journey home. We jumped back on the waka and were driven home happy; stuffed and in my case, tired (knackered). Previous to this the only things I knew of the Maori were from what I’d been told by the people I’ve met and things I read in the newspapers. They’ve been painted as lazy, drunken (a great road safety advert about drink driving uses Maori actors), money grabbing (if a water demon is seen on land that is about to be developed, a payment of up to ten thousand dollars to the local tribe leader will make it go away) and always complaining they are not being represented (even though they have a set number of parliamentary seats reserved only for people of Maori heritage). These things are all probably true, but then all cultures at some point can be accused of the same things. I visited the museum the next day to find there was a Maori regiment of the kiwi army fighting for King and Country during both world wars, and many other details of the history including the ‘Musket Wars.’ This was a period where, simply put, one tribe bought a load of muskets from the European settlers and went on to massacre another tribe. You can draw parallels between Maori history and the history of countries all over the world.

Whenever I enter a museum, I always want to stop in the doorway and say “Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds, Lawrence!” upon which the hoodlum with stereo on his shoulder switches on the music and we begin to trash the place. Those who don’t know the reference, it’s how the Joker enters the Gotham City museum in the Batman film starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Whilst I agree it would be great fun doing that, I can’t help but think that people like the Canadian girl I met in Waitomo should be strapped to a chair and have her eyes forced open in a style similar to that in A Clockwork Orange. Then she can be wheeled about the place and maybe learn something.

Mini Count :- 35 not many spotted on the North Island.

Sorry, Google Earth has stopped putting the longitude and latitude of what you’re looking at. Until I can find them again, you’ll just have to look up the town.

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