Monday, 22 February 2010

New beginnings

I was going to call this post "All good things must come to an end" as I'm feeling pretty bereft this evening, but having gone out for a walk to Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula, I got a bit of a positive groove back and I'm choosing to think of the remainder of my Flying Kiwi tour as an opportunity... You see, nearly all of that fabulous group of people I've been hanging out with got off this morning, and we had a very emotional farewell on the pavements of Auckland. Even John (60 years old, and seemingly a very no-nonsense fellow) had a bit of a sob, so you can imagine what I was like! There's something about a tour that throws people together far more quickly than real life, and it feels like you've made great, great friends in a very short time - but in this case I think it really can translate to the UK too.

Our last week has been jam-packed - too packed to write about it all. However, there have been stand-out highlights. Most of these came in the Bay of Islands, where on the first day Werner, Gillean and I made up for having missed a heli-hike to the top of Franz Josef Glacier (the weather was too dodgy) by taking a helicopter ride over the bay, all on the spur of the moment. It was awesome - there were just us three and the pilot, and we flew over the wonderful clear blue waters right the way to the outskirts of the bay and back, feeling very adventurous as we did so. The next highlight was actually all the next day, when we stayed a full day in the same place and 14 of us (mostly the old crew with a few additions) chartered a yacht for the day and pottered about the bay, waiting to catch the wind and soaking up the rays when it died down. It was amazing not to be subject to the tyranny of an organised tour - a few minutes extra for a swim at lunchtime met with no drama! - and it was super-cool to be sailing rather than following a fixed course with the motor on. I even took the helm for a while, with June and John giving me encouragement (well, June was; John was mostly taking the piss!), so now I can also say I've sailed a yacht.

That evening we headed out to the Treaty House at Waitangi, the site of the place where the Maori chiefs signed a document that effectively gave Queen Victoria sovereignty (not that they thought they were doing that - there's still controversy to this day about whether or not they were cheated out of their land). The show was very touristy, but actually pretty cool - particularly when we all headed for the whare, and three people had to represent our chiefs, facing down the warriors challenging them. It raised hairs on the back of my neck as it was - the real experience must have been terrifying. The Maori history we gleaned from the show was also very interesting - though I'd love to have looked at the museum during the day; sadly we ran out of time. History aside, the absolute highlight of the show were three of the actors - mostly running about in loincloths and not a lot else, and slapping themselves on their perfectly formed pecs and generally showing themselves to advantage. The ladies in our party were beside themselves! We were going to kidnap them for the bus, but reluctantly decided against...

I also managed to catch up with Catriona, who's doing a bone-carving course in this tiny town called Opononi on the west coast of the north island. Sadly (the tyranny of the schedule again) it wasn't for long, but I was able to pop in to the place where she's staying, and meet her teacher, Jim, and see some of his and her work. His wife Charlotte - a wonderful, welcoming woman - weaves flax, and his aunties make feather cloaks for dolls, and ceramics. Basically, their whole family seems to be obscenely talented! As, of course, does Treenie. There's something very special about meeting a friend from home all the way over here - I was terribly sad I couldn't stay for a few days; as well as the luxury of spending some time with Catriona, it seems like a wonderful place to relax and contemplate life over the gorgeous views of the bay. But a little visit is better than nothing!

My other highlights of the last week also revolve around friends, new ones this time. Painting Auckland red to say goodbye to half the crew, and last night having a party on the beach under the stars to wave off the rest, are evenings I'll always remember. This whole post has been very sentimental, I realise, but that's how I'm feeling today! I still have some great activities lined up, however, from the Tongariro Crossing (an alpine walk through volcanic scenery) to the mud pools of Rotorua. Onward and upward - with only a little glance back...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Goodbye, sandfly...

... and hello geysers. Today I start the North Island part of my tour, and will shortly be disappearing into the bowels of New Zealand (perhaps a little too literally, given what tour veterans have said about the smell of the hot pools!). We had an awesome few days at Abel Tasman - I took a water taxi out for one of them deep into the park, and hiked along the coastal trail for about four hours, past glorious emerald green water (something to do with the tannin, I believe), and through rimu forest, with the frantic sounds of nature getting it on all around me (the cicadas making their mating calls were deafening).

The other full day we had there I went horse-riding again, on a nice chap called Lightning Jack. I say nice, but stubborn might be a better word - he was really a little too overqualified for an amateur like me, and fought me every step of the way because he could sense that I wasn't in charge. After a few hours of tugging at his bridle I was a little tired - he was definitely the winner in our battle of wills. However, we did get to ride along the beach, and I even cantered a couple of times - definitely more than I thought I could manage! The man who owns the horses was a treat all on his own - he's called Harmony, and is an American hippie who's somehow ended up on a horse farm in the middle of nowhere in NZ; most excitingly, a couple of his horses appeared in Lord of the Rings, and he himself was a Rider of Rohan. I know you can't throw a bale of hay around here without hitting someone who was an extra, but it thrilled me all the same...

Which just leaves the Valentine's Day party. We'd all been given "secret Santa" Valentine's, and a $5 limit to get them a present, and there were some fantastic gifts - from possum fur nipple-warmers to beautifully penned poems. I'd drawn the guide, Mike, out of the hat, and found him a lovely pink wand and hairband, which turned out to be extremely apt, as he'd come to the fancy dress party wearing fairy wings! We'd all been given strict instructions to turn up in pink or red, and though Frans (an older gentleman from Holland) was a strong contender for first prize with his op shop pink dressing gown, accessorised with pink flags, the winner was Werner (from the Austrian part of Italy, and seemingly very straight-laced... until he'd had a few beers): "Dancing Queen" came on the stereo, and suddenly he was dancing on the table in a lovely pair of women's pink pants, with his chest hair shaved into a heart. Outright winner.

Sadly we're losing a lot of the crew in two days when we hit Auckland, but I think there are six of us staying, and I'm sure the next lot will be just as good. We'll soon get them in shape if not. But before we get back on the bus and all the tour madness starts again, I'm heading out to look at Wellington's architecture and be a grown-up for a few hours! I'll be signing in again when I can, and in the meantime love to you all! [NB I don't think I mentioned that the worst thing about the South Island is the sandflies, hence the title of this post; most of us look like plague victims right now, and we're overjoyed to be leaving them behind!]

Saturday, 13 February 2010

We're in the Wild West, baby

And it's the reason for my radio silence over the last week (no internet or mobile reception). I've rejoined Flying Kiwi and have been cruising up the west coast of the South Island, where men are men, and sheep are nervous. There are few specific sights, as it's the least touristy part (of the South Island at least), but there have been some highlights - greatest of which is the group of people I'm travelling with, who are awesome. From dressing-up days when we're doing a long drive, to bus bowling (it's a long story), and karaoke nights by camp fires on the beach, they're all up for having a giggle. I realise it sounds pretty naff when I write it down, but it's great when you're out there under the stars, beer in hand and singing along to Queen!

Other than that, we went to the Bushman's Museum, run by a man called Peter who has no truck with mealy-mouthed PCism. He was one of the guys who started out in the venison industry, which has a long and adventurous history. Years ago, the English (I know, we do all the bad stuff) introduced deer to hunt, and their population boomed. In the Thirties, the government sanctioned hunters to track them down, but they weren't making enough of a dent. Eventually someone came up with the bright idea of hunting from helicopters. This, however, worked too well, and they were running out of deer to sell to the venison industry. But one enterprising man had the solution: they would capture live deer, and ship them off to farms, tied to the bottom of helicopters... As Peter put it, jumping off the skids of a helicopter and wrestling a deer to the ground "makes bungy jumping look like a pastime for fairies". The museum celebrated all these men, and also talked frankly about the difficulties in living off the wild west coast. Eccentric and fabulous - though judging by some of the outraged letters of complaint (pasted up around the place) not everyone shared Peter's sense of humour!

Other than that, we've been on coastal walks, seen the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, passed swiftly through the jade factories of Hokitika, and are gearing up for a big Valentine's Day party this evening (we all had to pick a name out of a hat and buy that person a Valentine's gift; I got the guide, Mike, and I've bought him some lovely pink fairy wings - thankfully I suspect he'll find it funny!). We've now made it as far as Abel Tasman, and I'm about to catch a water taxi deep into the National Park to spend the day hiking over limpid pools and through cool beech forests. Oh, and I should be able to eat my lunch on the beach. Wonderful.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Fjord of the rings

Well, technically not - Fjordland seems to be one of the few places Peter Jackson didn't film, though it can't have been because it lacks the requisite beauty.  According to Maori legend, demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the fjords out of the coastline with his adze, with the northernmost fjord (Milford Sound) being the summit of his art.  However, when the goddess of death saw the glory of what he had made, she was afraid that visitors would never leave, and so created sandflies as the price of all that perfection.

I've now cruised up both Milford and Doubtful Sounds (geographers will know that these aren't sounds, but fjords - the distinction was lost on me!).  V- or U-shaped lakes aside, they are as wonderful as the legend has it (even with the sandflies!), and not one of my pictures can do them justice - as always in New Zealand it's beauty on a heroic scale.  

Milford Sound was fantastic, but the real experience for me was my overnight stay last night on Doubtful Sound.  Because it's so hard to get to (you need to drive from Te Anau to Manapouri Lake, then take a one-hour boat trip across the water, then another 45 minutes on a gravel road down to the fjord's edge) there are few tourists there, so on the Navigator we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  The boat was a palace of luxury (well, for a backpacker, anyway!), with old-fashioned bunkrooms below and a mini-stateroom to eat all the wonderful food they kept dishing up.  And in between times, you could wander out on deck and stare at the mountainous hillsides, decked out in myriad shades of green except where there had been a tree avalanche and the vertiginous slope was scarred white (the trees have no taproots - the entire forest clings to the side of the mountain by intertwining their roots like velcro; when one goes, a great swathe goes with it).

We even had the best of the weather - Fjordland is notoriously wet (they have in excess of 3 metres of rain a year, and only 50 days without a drop), but yesterday we had blazing sunshine throughout, and the views were spectacular.  And this morning we woke to a world of grey mist, through which the boat drifted, muffled - amazingly atmospheric.  Across the far side of the sound we saw bottlenose dolphins playing about the bows of another boat, and fur seals lounging on rocks right at the edge of the Tasman Sea.  And for a glorious 10 minutes we stopped, switched off the engines and just listened to the birds in the forest, while the water mirrored the trees around us.  A definite highlight of the trip.

And now I've got one more day in Te Anau, before I head back to Queenstown and rejoin the bus tour madness, after which blogs will be in short supply for a couple of weeks - we'll be mostly bush camping, with very little internet access.  I'll try to post when I can, but won't be online very often till 28 February.  If anyone is wondering why I'm not replying to emails/Facebook, that's why.  Normal service will be resumed as soon as...  Au revoir!

Friday, 5 February 2010


I've got so used to being on the road that for much of the time I forget how utterly remarkable it is that I'm here, in New Zealand, and not back at my desk in the UK.  But every so often there's a moment when the total unlikeliness of it all hits me, and I had one of those today when my bus was driving past "the Lake that Breathes" (Lake Wakatipu, an 80km-long pool of limpid blue water, which, through some geological quirk, rises and falls by 3 inches every 15 minutes).  With the sun shining, and the mountains rising up in the distance, it was all so amazingly beautiful that I was struck yet again by how lucky I am that I - of all people! - am on such a wonderful adventure.  Just in case you thought I might be getting jaded - no, not at all!  

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


So much to say! After a quiet few days down in Fjordland, which was all about cruising gently through the scenery, it's been adrenalin all the way.  I've now followed up hang-gliding in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, with strapping myself to a beautiful stranger and throwing myself out of a perfectly good aeroplane at 15,000ft in Wanaka!  

The one-minute-long freefall was truly awesome - after what seemed like a long, long wait on the way up the cool air was beautiful, and the rushing wind and feeling of freedom remarkable.  I'd asked my tandem instructor to keep it gentle, so there were no somersaults during freefall, or heady spins when the parachute opened, but I think I got the better deal by going down slowly - plenty of time to admire the views of Lake Wanaka, the Clutha river, and in the distance Aoraki Mount Cook.  And that's it, I promise - I think I've done all the adventure activities that appeal, and I'm certainly never doing a bungy jump!

There have been quieter pursuits in Wanaka, too, while I take a break from the Flying Kiwi bus.  First up was the cinema - no one on the bus could quite believe that I'd travel all that way just to visit a cool cinema, but I'm sure all of you can!  And having watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in the Cinema Paradiso yesterday, I can confirm that it was worth the journey: it's a tiny place, with comfy sofas and sagging armchairs for seating - and an old Morris Minor in the corner for those seeking a real change!  There's an intermission, during which you can scoff home-made cookies and ice-cream, and old-fashioned tear-off tickets.  All in all, it's about as far as you can get from your usual multiplex, and totally appropriate for watching a Terry Gilliam extravaganza.  Glorious.

It's back to Queenstown tomorrow, and then a return to Te Anau and Fjordland, for some (different) scenery - and a two-day boat cruise into the wilds of Doubtful Sound.  The adventure continues, but without the screaming!  However, I'll just leave you with this...

Monday, 1 February 2010

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No! It's me, hang-gliding - and it was awesome! I was feeling pretty sick with nerves beforehand (the take-off video is a treat - I'm practically green!), but once we were in the skies and I'd settled into my harness I was all smiles - air, not water, is definitely my element. The cool dude you see steering the glider, wearing sandals and a T-shirt 700m up, is Neil, who dreamed of hang-gliding from a very early age (he even built himself a glider aged 15; luckily he didn't try to fly it!). Anyway, see the picture and judge for yourself - it's the nearest I'll ever come to feeling like a bird in flight...