Monday, November 20, 2006

When in Rome...

Since I left the UK I've been trying to follow a policy of agreeing to do things that I would never consider back home. So when I arrived in Queenstown - NZ's playground and a backpacker mecca - the sky was the limit (literally). When I got to the hostel I asked the guy on reception to recommend a couple of options - and he obviously misjudged me for a different person entirely and signed me up for the most extreme of extreme sports.

Obviously this would include a bungee jump. Queenstown is the spiritual home of bungee jumps, so it had to be done really. Sadly my friend at the hostel signed me up for the biggest and most daunting option: the Nevis jump. A 134 metre (440 ft) dive off a rickety cable car/gondola, suspended high above a desolate canyon. It could have been the evil lair of a Bond Villain. While I had a few cold rushes the day before I was surprisingly calm during the build up to the jump. Right up to the moment that the rope was attached to my ankles, when I quite seriously thought about chickening out and would have embraced the easy option of derision from my fellow jumpers. Thankfully the staff keep things moving forward so quickly you don't get a chance to have second thoughts.

Somehow I dove (or fell forwards with my arms barely outstretched). You would not believe how fast you travel. You would not believe how long it feels (although it really takes only a few seconds). And you would not believe how loud I was roaring (there's no other word for it. I'm surprised you didn't hear it in the UK). I've had more fun doing other things on the trip, but this was uniquely memorable. I've never really been interested in this sort of thing before, but now I think it's definitely one of the highlights of the trip. (Pics below. I do have a dvd as well, but it's too big to upload, unless people have any suggestions) .

During this week of activity I also went kayaking around the fiords of Milton Sound and white-water rafting down the Shotover River (near Queenstown). I'd been relaxed about the rafting as my mind had been preoccupied by the bungee-jump. However, that soon changed on the bus ride to the river. The female guide was a Hitchcockian-expert in ratcheting up tension. "We cannot guarantee your safety, as this is not a Disney ride. We have lost people in the past, and it may happen today. Please fill in this 4-page indemnity form for our insurers. Remember if you fall in the river, which will happen, to not stand up in the water as your feet will get trapped in the rocks and the water will push you forward face down in the river so you drown. If you are lucky your legs will snap and you float onwards leaving your feet behind." And so on, during the one hour journey up the narrow, winding, miners pass.

I was actually getting freaked out by this well-honed pitch - not least as I can't really swim. In the end I really enjoyed rafting, no least as the power of the river carries you forward so you don't have to do so much of that tiring paddling. After about 5 minutes we had a moment of high drama when one of the other rafts capsized, and we had to rescue a body floating down the river. (There was much discussion as to whether it was a man or a woman. Personally I wasn't sure either way). Shortly after this I made some quip about how we would have better stories to tell if we capsized - a suggestion which didn't go down well with my team-mates.

Naturally enough, very shortly after this I fell out and had to be dragged back into the raft during the worst section of rapids. (I fell out at the 'Oh Shit' rapids, which as you know is in between the 'Toilet' and the 'Pinball'). Just before this there was a section where we had to 'Paddle Hard' for what seemed like an age, and as I was acting like someone who knew what they were doing I was perched up quite high on the side of the raft. Needless to say I lost my footing, started grabbing at thin air (as if in a Tom and Jerry cartoon) and slowly fell backwards into the torrential river. Thankfully I managed to grab onto a rope and got pulled unceremoniously back into the raft. I'm particularly proud of the fact that my sunglasses stayed on during the whole trip...

  • Cool, Calm and collected - or false bravado?
  • Now someone looks nervous. Perhaps it was false bravado.
  • A Prayer before Dying?
  • Yes - that it me at the end of the rope (made up of surprisingly small elastic bands).
  • Nearly safe (well relatively)


Tuesday, November 14, 2006


So I wanted to make a post about my car - and I'll upload a pic when I get round to it. It's a Mazda Familia, not too trendy, struggles up hills* and I'm not too sure he's economical either (but at circa 45p a litre that matters less here than in the UK). However, it takes me where I want to go and at NZ$ 23 a day, he's exactly what I wanted in a car: cheap. (roughly GBP 7-7.50).

However, it's fair to say we had a rocky start to our relationship. November 1st was the first day of the hire agreement, which is the day after my birthday. Naturally I had a stonking hangover, not least because the bar I persuaded people to visit was supposed to specialise in 'real ales from England'. Naturally they were nothing of the sort but were dark unpleasant heavy Porter-style beers which no-one in England actually drinks.

So I was half awake, possibly over the limit when we met, but to complicate matters it was an automatic. Which I don't think I've driven since I was in the USA 15 years ago. In particular my left foot didn't know what to do with itself, so every time we came to a junction it subconsciously pushed down on what it thought was the clutch, actually hit the brake pedal (which was really sensitive) so in effect at every junction I was slamming on the brakes, making it feel as if I had kangaroo petrol. It's a wonder no-one ploughed into the back of me.

After a couple of days we sorted that one out, but it was a bit of a farce when we first visited a petrol station. Out here they often hire teenagers to fill your tank for you (not that self-service is that complicated). Of course I couldn't work out why this guy was sidling up to me, so was 'Can I help you? Is something wrong?' while failing to open the petrol cap by forcing it with my key. And when that didn't work I went back to the driving seat to search round for the lever to pull, which was well-hidden and disguised as the symbol had worn off. Eventually I was on my way, feeling like a right twat as I often do round cars.

On the issue of driving I have to mention Opossums, as you wouldn't believe how much roadkill litter the roads round here (West Coast, South Island). They were introduced to NZ to be bred for the fur, but now most people in the countryside regard them as vermin. New Zealanders absolutely hate them, although in typical New Zealand entrepreneurial style they use the fur to make all sorts of crap to sell off to tourists. There is supposed to be a bar where you can get a free beer if you bring in an Opossum tail - but that might be an urban myth...

* I say hills, but in New Zealand I'm actually referring to ridiculously steep mountains. The farm tracks of mid-Wales have nothing on NZ's so-called highways.

Things I have learnt:
  • The two glaciers on the West Coast (Fox and Franz Joseph) are currently advancing (getting bigger). Which is pretty unusual for glaciers in the current context of global warming. They move forward a few feet every day, as there's more snow falling at the top of the mountain than can melt at the bottom - and having got caught in monsoon-type rain the other day, I can quite believe that.

  • Distance is an elastic term in NZ. If a walk is advertised at 3 hours, you can expect it to last 2 hours. If it's advertised at 6-8 hours, 5 hours will be the maximum time it will take. However, the reverse is true when driving. If the start of the trail is said to be 12kms west of a town, you'll probably find it after 20kms.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sunday the 12th

Having said I wasn't going to give a blow-by-blow account of what I did, I wanted to upload a few images from Sunday 12th as it was a pretty cool day. I started in the morning by strapping on some crampons to walk on the top of the Fox glacier, before driving down the coast in beautiful sunshine and heading inland and hitting the Southern Alps and Lake Wanaka. It was one of those journeys where you don't really know where you are going, and so have no expectations about what you will see and then getting blown away when you get there. Everybody had been on to me about how beautiful the South Island was, but having been here a week I hadn't seen anything to justify this. After this journey I'm beginning to get it...


So it's been a week since my last post (feels like longer), which is a bit remiss of me but things have been going really well. I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account of what I've been up to, as I find those blogs boring to read. But in shorthand, I've done various walks, visited numerous wineries, been kayaking in the Tasman Sea and generally been chilling out.

I've hired a car and am randomly hopping from hostel to hostel - often deciding to stay in whatever town I am in at 7pm or 8pm. Hostelling was a good choice I think - everyone's very friendly, especially if you are travelling on your own. Very often you keep bumping into people you've met at a previous hostel or at some sort of tour/activity you did the previous week. If I were in a campervan on my own, I'd probably barely get any human contact.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Tongariro Crossing

This time a five and a half hour hike over the Tongariro Crossing, often dubbed as the best one-day walk in New Zealand. Fantastic hike - going through volcanic craters, snowfields, glacial valleys, lush forest and over the tops of mountains. I can't recommend it enough and have uploaded a couple of pics.

The first pic was the steepest part of the hike - over the saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. You can see the track on the right of the pic, snaking up past the patch of ice. The pic doesn't do justice to the steepness of the climb, nor to the rocky trail - near the top it was as much as I could do to move my feet forward an inch at a time).

Me and a cheesy tourist shot in front of Mt Ngauruhoe. (NB - the cap helps to keep my head warm in the cold - not because I am frightened of sun-stroke).

A couple of shots of the Red Crater - truly breathtaking. On the second pic you can just see some people on the top of the crater, showing the trail takes you to the edge of the cliff.

Friday, November 03, 2006


As promised, I have uploaded some pics of my time in Rotorua. The first two are from Whakarewarewa (aka Whaka) where about 80 Maori still live in a thermal village amongst the bubbling mud pools and the boiling hot pools continually blanketing the village in steam (which are good for the pores apparently). Sadly there's also a stench of sulpher and rotten eggs - even worse than Middlesbrough.

The local villagers show you round in some sort of co-operative, so were telling us how they still use the hot water to cook and bathe even though they have cookers and showers in their houses. Some of the vents were boxed up, so you could steam meat and veg and there were muslin bags on the end of string in some of the pools, to boil veg, eggs or whatever. Apparently the whole village washes together, naked in the open air - I can't see that taking off in Bensham or Rhayader.

Also a pic of me in the Priest pool at the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua, overlooking the appropriately named Sulpher Bay. You can see that the Scottish lady who took the picture very cleverly made it look as if a seagull was landing on my head...

Things I have leant:

Quite a few New Zealand men have no problems in striking up a conversation if you stand next to them at a urinal in a pub.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Auckland - city of sails

Well I'm not going to write much about my 4 nights in overcast Auckland - it's not really why I came to NZ. What I will say is that I really like their Asian Foodcourts. You can get a huge plate of noodles, or Thai curry or whatever for only $8 - roughly 3 quid. You couldn't get a Boots egg mayo sandwich for three quid in Britain. You probably could get a fair bellyful of Gregg's pasties - but I think the noodles are nicer. And even if you prefer the pies, the noodles are better for you.

The only touristy thing I have done is go up the hideously ugly Sky Tower - which was pretty disappointing and pointless. Actually I really like going up tall buildings - it's usually the first thing I do on holiday. But the Sky Tower wasn't that tall, nor did they let you outside. It's always much more sexy if you can go outside to be buffeted in the wind.

Also I have bought a digital camera - so if I work out how I will soon start uploading pictures onto here. Next stop Rotorua (pronounced Roe-Toe-Rue-Ah) for the mineral bathing.

Things I have learnt:

New Zealand has only been populated for 1000 years - which is hardly anything if you think about it - there are trees older than that. Apparently birds were in charge up to that point.

Speaking of which, the Kiwi has the world's largest egg in relation to its body size. Seriously it's huge - it must be about half it's body size. At the museum, me and this NZ woman were looking at the exhibit at the same time and I went "surely not" and she went "how does that come out of that". And then she started giggling so I left her to it.