Thursday, 18 August 2011

New Zealand

View over Lake Wanaka from Treble Cone.
I looked down from the plane across the magnificent Southern Alps cutting a rift along the length of New Zealand’s South Island and thought, I’m going to enjoy this country.

The mountains gave way to a perfectly flat plain of farms and there, in the distance, was the Pacific, putting New Zealand in context: tiny islands in the middle of a very big ocean. We landed in Christchurch on a cold, crisp afternoon and I found my way to Jail House hostel – a surprisingly comfortable converted prison. Fortunately I was able to shower alone and I didn’t have to do any favours for the long-termers.

Christchurch is a city which has had its soul ripped out – almost literally. On September 4th 2010 an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale hit the area in the middle of the night. But it was the one on February 22nd 2011 that did the most harm. It was less powerful (6.3) but shallower and closer to the city and, worst of all, took place at lunchtime when thousands of people were out in the streets, unable to escape from the collapsing buildings. Some 181 people were killed. The very centre is now cordoned off and a walk around it, glimpsing the half-remains of churches, offices and houses, reveals the sobering power of nature. I spoke briefly with a guard at one of the works entrances into the CBD; she choked down tears as she described the events.

New Zealand doesn’t have many trains but the few that exist must rank amongst the best in the world. I took the TranzAlpine from Christchurch across the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the west coast, through valleys, past rivers and lakes, stopping for a plod about on Arthur’s Pass. Snow again! I hadn’t seen it since Tibet and I’d missed it. One of my aims on this trip was to follow winter around the world but crossing the tropics made that a bit difficult. I was glad to be back in proper weather, where the lovely white stuff coats everything like icing on a cake; everything looks better with snow on it. Despite what people will tell you, there are NO downsides to snow.

The TranzAlpine train from east coast to west. Here at Arthur's Pass.
I hitched my way north of Greymouth to the tiny village of Rapahoe where I stayed with a kooky family of six plus a talented rat-catching cat that was very fond of my Siberian hat. The father, originally from England, has never quite gotten over his travelling days and he told me stories from every corner of the world interspersed with musings on all things scientific. Somehow, tucked away from the rest of civilisation, he’s concocted a theory of humanity and the universe based loosely on nuclear energy, magnetism and philosophy. Our ponderings were interrupted by the sweet smell of steaming stew prepared by his wife, a welcome meal on such a cold night. I looked around the table at the family and smiled. We didn’t know each other at all, we come from rather different backgrounds, yet here I was in their home, sharing a small part of their life with them and being welcomed into it.

It was a long day of hitching south along the wild west coast. After four short rides, miles of walking out of towns and being ignored by enough people to last a lifetime, I was all but ready to call it a day in the small village of Ross. But at the last moment I was saved by a trio of tourists who took me on to Franz Joseph, a township nestled amongst the mountains, existing only as a base from which to explore the mighty glacier hanging above it. I spent the following day climbing up along the edge of it, since it’s rather expensive to walk on it. (New Zealand in general, is very expensive, especially for a weak-pound-bearing tourist such as myself. I understand that it forms a large part of their economy, but it’s a shame that one is prevented from attempting so many things – walks, climbs, etc. – by oneself, forced instead to pay for an expensive guide. Maybe it stops the stupid people going off and getting into trouble, but it certainly takes the fun out of it!) Still, I reckon I got a better view of the rippled, blue-white ice belt than those close up to it. It stretches from the top of the mountain down to the valley floor as if the mountain is extending a tongue, licking at the surging river below. But the river is rushing away from it and the tongue is receding; as temperatures increase it will recoil further until there’s nothing left but another deep valley, gorged like so many others by the incredible power of millions of tons of ice and a lot of time.

Franz Joseph glacier up close.
Acting as the three tourists’ official photographer, I continued with them down the windswept, craggy coast, then inland to Lake Wanaka. I don’t know whether this is a persistent feature of this town, but it possessed the single best sunset of my life so far. There’s nothing else I want to say about the town except that it was busy with all the winter alpinists, us adding to them. We hired gear and set off the next day for Treble Cone, one of New Zealand’s premier ski resorts. I bit my tongue when I saw the price of the lift pass and how few lifts there were (we’re spoilt in Europe!) but the snow was good, the runs fast and the views over the twisted Lake Wanaka astounding.

Sunset over Lake Wanaka
We arrived that night in Queenstown and I spent another couple of hours trying to find a hostel with a free bed. I found one in a packed place full of drunken 18 year olds; earplugs are a godsend. Queenstown spreads itself along one end of Wakitipu, a lake designed to inspire with its picture-perfect mountains framing the backdrop against gently lapped shores. One can only imagine what the colonial explorers – and their Maori predecessors before them – thought when they happened across a place such as this. I’m certain they would have said, “This is alright. Let’s stay here.”

The problem with hitchhiking is that it often involves a long walk out of the town. It’s nigh impossible to get a lift in a very built-up area, so you have to get to the outskirts somehow; the quieter the place the better. I think people just feel sorrier for you there. Getting out of Queenstown was typical, involving a couple of hours of walking. I gave up and stood at a bus stop, much to the amusement of the queue. But I was the one laughing when I got picked up by a truck and they were left standing in the cold. However, my driver only took me as far as the outside of the city. Lots of traffic was passing here but almost all were headed to the ski slopes so my next ride dropped me on a deserted road with maybe one car every five minutes passing me. Eventually a man took me to an even more deserted spot: he was a skydiving instructor and told me at least I’d have something to look at while I waited. Four hours in and I’d only got 15 km. But then I was saved by a woman who took me all the way to Te Anau, from where I easily caught a lift with a couple of Belgian tourists to Milford Sound. Success.

Hitching through typical New Zealand landscapes.
Milford Sound is somewhere everyone who’s been to New Zealand always says you should visit, for very good reason. The settlement is tiny (I mean just a couple of buildings) and sits at the end of a long fiord which twists its way out to the Tasman Sea. A cruise is a must. It took me between all the imposing peaks, past sheer cliff faces and out to the sea, pointing out the seals, birds and deceptively huge waterfalls on the way. As there are few features by which to gauge distance, things appear to be close when they’re actually very far away. The atmosphere is one of being a long way from reality, floating serenely in the middle of a beautiful chasm, cut off from everything, seals and penguins the only company. (Except for the captain. And the Malaysian tourists.)

Cruising on Milford Sound.
I stayed in a cosy wooden hostel for the night, in a lakeside forest where the darkness was penetrated only by the glow-worms crawling over the rocks. The next morning, with ominous weather looming, I hitched my way back to Te Anau. The Taiwanese girl who took me dropped me at the edge of town and said goodbye – she needed to do some things in town for a few hours. I was still standing in the same spot those few hours later when she came past again, I having failed to convince anyone else to pick me up despite the cold. She laughed and took me on as far as she could before she turned off to head north; she reluctantly deposited me in the middle of nowhere. I waited and waited, getting angry and a tad worried, but it must have been my begging smile and mouthing of the word ‘please’ that caused a local farmer to slam his brakes on and come back for me. He took me as far as Gore, somewhere in the middle of the South Island.

The only hostel in town is an old firestation. On the door was a hand written note: “For entry, go to petrol station.” At the petrol station a woman gave me the code to get in. “Is someone in?” I asked her. “No idea,” was her reply. It was empty and cold inside. A sign on the wall read “Choose a bed and put your name on the board. Leave money under the door when you leave.” I did as I was told, marking my name up on a whiteboard grid of the bed numbers and prices. As it turns out, I was far from alone: a troupe of figure skaters was in town for a competition. The evening’s conversation was surprisingly informative, involving a lot of words I’d never heard before.

One of the figure-skating families gave me a lift on to the east coast town of Dunedin the next day, through the snow that had fallen overnight. The outskirts of the city were carnage due to the fact that Dunedin is rather hilly, and hills and snow and cars don’t mix. I walked the rest of the way to a hostel, an old converted house with only one warm room in it in which everyone sat huddled for warmth. The city itself is like an old English city, except not as old. It has stone churches, steep lanes and a Cadbury’s factory.

Cold, snowy Dunedin.
I tried to leave the next day, walking all the way out to the highway only to discover it was closed due to snow, making my chances of hitching rather slim. Instead, I spent the day skating around the city and trying again the next day. I made it to Timaru in two easy rides and met up with old uni friend. Together we ate pie and drove out to lake Tekapo, which couldn’t be more picture-perfect if it tried. In fact, someone has tried because there’s a church placed on hill jutting out into the lake as if begging to be photographed against a backdrop of sparkling blue water, towering snow-capped mountains, dark green pine forests and startling yellow fields tinted by the low sun.

Lake Tekapo
The hitch up to Kaikoura was relatively easy. I say relative because I spent the first half standing near and getting dropped off at the same places as another hitcher until I got picked up by a lorry. I’d thought it impossible that a lorry driver would stop (due to insurance and the impracticality of halting one of those machines) but this driver hit his brakes and brought traffic to a standstill to welcome me aboard. He was nice enough, but spent the majority of the journey explaining to me how he had only hit his current girlfriend once, and that he was quite sorry about it but she had really wound him up.

Hitching on a road train along the east coast towards Kaikoura.
Kaikoura is a small town on a windy stretch of beach on the east coast, famous for its whales and dolphins (neither of which I saw). Still, there’s nothing like a stroll along a beach in the winter to get the air into the lungs. And this would be my last look east across the sea for a while. I had a fun evening listening to a girl in the hostel explain how she’s often visited by spirits (always in the night) who stroke her face or tell her things like her grandma will die soon. Her grandma is actually dead now, though by her own admission, “They got the wrong one.” Her boyfriend summed it up by saying, “Next time a spirit tells you something like that, tell me before the person dies.”

From Kaikoura I caught my second best lift ever (after the amazing Australian experience). A South African commercial diver took me in his pick-up all the way to Wellington on the North Island in one go. Best of all, I didn’t have to pay for a ferry ticket! When we got to the terminal he whispered to me, “Stay in the truck and don’t say anything.” I was officially a stowaway. I even got a driver’s meal to boot. The three-hour trip between the islands was memorable indeed, the boat weaving its way between the lush green hills popping out of the water under the pristine sky.

Wellington is very windy. This is the overriding memory I have of it. I walked up its hills for views over the compact, pretty, buzzing city and I lost myself in the huge Botanic Gardens. I explored a funicular railway museum and learnt only that I am very uninterested in funicular railways. Fortunately I escaped my unnecessarily dirty hostel for the cold but pretty hilltop home of a backpacker I’d met in Bosnia. She took me out to sample the local cocktails and pie. Brilliantly, there is a pie shop, Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, selling tasty pies of all varieties until the small hours of the morning.

I took the train out the next morning as far as Waikanae, from where I got a lift to Foxton. When I opened the door of the car I saw a man who I have to admit I judged to be exactly the kind of person people said I shouldn’t hitchhike with. He was big, dishevelled, wearing a vest top exposing his numerous, angry-looking tattoos. I got in. But, as is so often the case with prejudice, I was far from right in my snap assessment. He was, as it turned out, an ex-con of the most ex-violent variety, having served a long sentence for crimes related to involvement with various gangs and organised bad stuff. But he was evidence that prison does sometimes work, having repented, turned to Christianity and now in a desperate stage of making up for everything he’d done. Picking up hitchers was just one of those ways. He told me everything about himself, everything he’d done, and then drove me down a back road to show me a windmill (having learnt that my mother is Dutch).

The best thing about hitching is the cross-section of people you come across. All are, of course, friendly – they’re giving me something for free, after all – but they seem to cover the full range of backgrounds. I’ve been picked up my barefooted hippies, right-wing racists, farmers, divers, ex-prisoners, immigrants, people who’ve never left the country; but all have something to say and want to say it. I adore the way people will open up their entire life history to you, possibly because they’re sure they won’t see you again. It’s a fascinating way to get a real feel for the diversity of a population. I feel humbled to have experienced so much warmth and help. As one driver told me, ”There’s one big pool of kindness. Sometimes you put into it, and sometimes you take out.” Hitching shows that doing something for each other doesn’t have to mean a one-on-one exchange.

A young girl took me on to Taupo, another astonishingly beautiful lake. All laked out, I spent a couple of days exploring the nearby Huka Falls (big and wet) and the weird, steaming ‘Craters of the Moon’. They’re not much like the moon, there being far too much water and green stuff around, but the smoking holes and bubbling mud sure make for an otherworldly experience. Finally, I and a few others whiled away a whole day bathing in the almost too-warm water of the local springs, showering under a hot waterfall. Perfect!

'Craters of the Moon' near Taupo.
Leaving Taupo, my penultimate Kiwi lift took me all the way to the northern outskirts of Aukland from where another guy took me right to the door of my final hosts in Waimauku. I stayed there for the last two nights, climbing Mount Eden (if you can call it a mount) for a vista across the volcano-punctuated city of Auckland. On the last day I was taken for a walk along the beautiful, rocky, Garnet-populated cliffs and beach of Muriwai, complete with a final serving of fish and chips to remind me of home. Needless to say, I was shown sincere hospitality by a family that didn’t know me at all, friends of my Timaru-based friend.

The Garnet colony of Muriwai.
And then it was goodbye to the friendly islanders and diverse landscapes of New Zealand. I found, as predicted, the inhabitants to be friendly and welcoming, though I detected a certain initial reticence and anxiety amongst the south islanders. I wonder if this is to with the recent horrific events. In the north, by comparison, people were generally exceedingly happy and trusting. And so it was I waved goodbye to Australasia as a whole and indeed goodbye to the eastern hemisphere. I feel like I’ve spent the last seven months aiming for this point, fulfilling a romantic idea of a journey from home to as far away as possible, seeing the countries, lands and peoples change on the way. But where one adventure ends, a new one waits just around the corner. The corner, on this occasion, is the Pacific Ocean, and the adventure is South America.


  1. read it, loved it and wow! what a country and sights!

  2. Wow, you and I have done nearly the same trip except mine was not in winter. Lake Wanaka is one of the spots I found most appealing.