Just a single night after returning to Sydney the unthinkable happened: it was time to leave. And, this time, for good. The atmosphere in the car was subdued as I was driven across town by my faithful chauffeur Dan. It was horribly early, my head was a little cloudy from the previous evening's exuberance and, frankly, I wasn't in the mood for talking. The only sound to be heard was the CD playing quietly in the background and the occasional screech of tyres as we sped through the empty streets. As we passed the familiar landmarks of Woolloomoolloo Naval Yard and Harry's Café de Wheels for the last time I had a lump in my throat. "I'm gonna miss this", I heard myself say as the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge slipped out of sight and we headed down into the Cross City Tunnel which would lead us out towards the airport. As we entered the darkness of the tunnel the reality of the situation became clear: three months after I arrived, my time in Australia was over. The CD changed to the next track: Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. Fitting.
Seven hours later, having endured a lengthy delay at Sydney Airport, I found myself with two new stamps in my passport: an Aussie exit stamp - which I could barely bring myself to look at - and a New Zealand entry stamp which left me feeling somewhat perkier. Who could feel bad about anything in life when they had just arrived to start a new adventure in The Land of the Long White Cloud? It offers some of the most spectacular landscape to be found anywhere on the planet and, largely thanks to the exposure from the Lord of the Rings movies, continues to explode onto the world scene as a ‘must visit' destination for the more adventurous traveller. The line for immigration had been proof positive that this tiny country, thousands of miles from anywhere in the middle of the Pacific, was bucking the recent trend of falling visitor numbers. Anywhere that can do that in the midst of the current world economy must have something going for it and I really couldn't wait to get out and see it for myself.
My passage through the airport wasn't as swift as I would have liked thanks to the stringent controls put in place by the snappily-titled ‘MAF Biosecurity New Zealand.' The authorities - as they will be known from here on in an effort to retain some degree of sanity - took a particular interest in my hiking boots and camping gear and spent almost an hour going through my luggage and checking that I wasn't bringing any unwanted friends with me. Initially it seemed a little excessive but after the agent explained the increasing threat posed to the extraordinarily diverse ecosystem - of which 80% of the flora and fauna are endemic - it seemed only fair. New Zealand has seen high rates of extinction as a result of inadvertently introduced pests and I am delighted that they are taking steps to preserve what they have left of the islands for the benefit of future generations. And, besides, they took my tent away and gave it a good scrub up - I hadn't seen it that clean since it came out of its bag for the first time - and, for that, I can forgive any delay!
My initial impression of New Zealand was of how friendly the local people were. I had looked at Australia as an amazingly friendly place but my first days in New Zealand suggested that the Kiwis were quite possibly - unbelievably - even friendlier. The girl who picked me up from the airport and took me to the car rental office was my best friend by the time that I'd wheelspinned off the forecourt... I hadn't driven a manual car since I backed my car into the garage back in April, after all! Neither had I driven without the aid of my satnav so making my way through the Christchurch rush hour - with map in hand and three pedals for my feet to play with - certainly proved a challenge. Soon enough though I found my hotel and set off on foot to have a look around the cold and windy town of Christchurch.
I'd been told that Christchurch was particularly ‘English' so I'd looked forward to seeing it for myself. Sure enough it had an English feel but I put that down to all the streets being named after English towns. There was no graffiti, vandalised phone boxes or drunk teenagers hanging around drinking Scrumpy Jack on street corners so it wasn't that English. Either way, whilst I'm not a massive city person, I liked Christchurch though that may have been because it didn't feel like a city at all - it really was just a large town.
After a good night's sleep I headed for the Banks Peninsular which - an hour or so south of Christchurch - was formed by two gigantic volcanic eruptions. I was soon clearing the outskirts of the city and was, very quickly, out into an area of outstanding rolling green hills which reminded me of home. Perhaps that is what they meant when they said that Christchurch was very English? Once I was off the main highway and onto the absurdly beautiful Summit Drive there was no question that I was in New Zealand: nowhere in the UK is that visually stunning. The Summit Drive actually followed the edge of the original crater and I couldn't resist exploring a number of side roads - the highlight was a hair-raising 12km gravel cliff-top road leading to Menzies Bay- but eventually I found myself at my destination: Akaroa.
James Cook sighted the peninsular in 1770 and, thinking it was an island, named it after the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks but it was the French who first claimed the peninsular as their own. Whaling captain, Jean Langlois, successfully negotiated to buy it from the local Maori in 1838 before returning home to raise funds to settle the area. He eventually returned two years later with 63 settlers but, unfortunately for him, was pipped to the post when, having signed the Treaty of Waitangi six-months previously, British officials got wind of the approaching ship and despatched HMS Britomart from the Bay of Islands to raise the Union Flag at Greens Point. Considering they had sailed, quite literally, halfway around the world to get there, the French accepted their fate in good spirits. Their land claim was later sold to the British in 1850 but a lot of French descendants remained resulting in a rivalry which continues to this day. Now, let me say now; if Christchurch is supposed to be an English town then there is no getting away from the fact that Akaroa - with its pavement cafes and Tricolours fluttering in the sea breeze - was truly a little piece of France transported to the South Pacific. I loved it!
It had now been a full day since I had said my goodbyes to Sydney but I hadn't seen the last of Dan. A text message announced his arrival on the South Island and I set off back toward downtown Christchurch to meet up with him. He was in town for a couple of days for work and had, rather kindly, agreed to let me to share his hotel room for the night. When I finally tracked down his hotel I was delighted to discover that they had upgraded him to a suite and I had been promoted from the floor to a second bedroom. Luxury and free: that's my idea of a good deal!
Once settled in to our new home for the night, we decided to head out towards the nearby port town of Lyttleton to put his rental car through its paces. There were two routes between the towns: a 1.9km long tunnel under the mountain and a far longer road that snaked its way spectacularly over the top. Naturally we opted for the latter and were rewarded with the stunning vista of Lyttleton Harbour - a flooded volcanic crater - to our right and the city of Christchurch - with the backdrop of the Southern Alps beyond - to our left. After a near-miss, having hit some loose gravel midway through a bend, we decided that it was time to head back to the safety of the city and made it back just in time to meet his work colleague for a meal and a few beers in town.
The following morning it was finally time to say goodbye to Dan when he headed north for work and I headed south to start my exploration of the fabled South Island. Up until now I'd heard the odd whisper of the unfolding economic doom and gloom at home but had largely been able to ignore it as something that I could worry about in the future. Now, as I set off on the last big adventure of my trip, the reality was starting to dawn on me: inside a month I would be back home and the idea of being unable to find work was starting to pray on my mind. Over time I had come to realise that there is one sure way to get something out of my head and that is to get in a car and drive it as quickly as it will go so. Inspired by our little run out the previous evening I headed back to the road that led over the mountains to Lyttleton and proceeded to give the car a thoroughly good thrashing. After so long in American cars it felt good to get back behind the wheel of a car that handled something like a car is supposed to handle and I was soon starting to relax.
The previous day I'd taken myself along to the local the i-Site (the excellent chain of visitor information centres operated by the NZ government) located in the shadows of Christchurch's cathedral to discuss the options for my stay in the country. It had been apparent from quite early on in our chat that I hadn't allowed enough time to do the place any justice in my exploration and, having slept on it, I had now decided to make a few changes to the final weeks of my trip. Initially I had allowed 18 days in NZ followed by stops in Hong Kong, Dubai and Cairo on my way back home for Christmas. Those final three stops were proving to be as troublesome to organise from the road as they were expensive so it made sense to can them and use the extra time to explore NZ before taking a flight from Auckland to Hong Kong and then another directly back to London. Whilst booking my original flight ticket, my travel agent had advised that any changes would be easy and, if I wanted to make a change, would entail a quick phone call to get me ticketed on another flight. When I finally found a pay phone which would accept coins it soon became apparent that it would not be so easy.
I'd been advised by said travel agent to speak to Cathay Pacific in Auckland but they insisted that I needed to speak to BA in London as it was a BA-issued ticket. BA in turn insisted that any amendments would need to be done by Qantas as their local agent. Although they knew there was a Qantas office in Christchurch they didn't know the address so, thinking on my feet, I found a local travel agent who furnished me not only with the address of the local Qantas office but also with directions. I made my way to where the office was supposed to be but, after 30 minutes of stomping up and down the street, I made enquires with another travel agent to discover that the office which I was looking for had closed six months previously. She gave me the direct number for Qantas and pointed me in the direction of another payphone. The only problem was that this office was in Perth - an eight-hour flight away on the other side of Australia - and they insisted that I returned the tickets in person for re-issue.
This farce would continue for more than a week before my travel agent back in London - the fantastic Katherine of Travelmood - kindly stepped in; banged some heads together and arranged for me to exchange my tickets for new ones at Auckland Airport. The new plan was to stay in NZ for 25 days before flying to Hong Kong where I would stay for four nights and then fly back to London on Christmas Eve.
Frustrated by the dramas involved in something seemingly so simple I left town and headed south. I made it as far as the seaside town of Timaru before feeling the urge to stop and, spying a nice hotel, checked myself in for the night. The view from the balcony was great and the en-suite Jacuzzi went some way to calming down my blood pressure but I was well aware that I couldn't afford to go on sleeping in hotels and decided that it was time to start camping once again.
Cutting back inland towards Mount Cook National Park I was instantly hit by the unprecedented scale of New Zealand's beauty and couldn't help myself. Every few kilometres I found myself stopping to take photos and to breathe in the crisp fresh air. The highlight of the drive was most definitely in the Lake Tekapo area where fields of colourful Lupins combined with the impossibly aqua blue waters of the lake and the mountains on the horizon to paint a picture which, if it had been committed to canvas, would have seemed almost too perfect. This one image alone was worth the cost of a flight and, as I sat on the bench alongside the Church of the Good Shepherd on the banks of the lake, I couldn't help but smile to myself as I tried to make sense of it all. I may have been counting down the days til I headed home, but scenes like this had to be savoured.
Refreshed and inspired, it was back into the car and onwards towards Mount Cook. Many breathtaking kilometres later I finally arrived and, well, what can I say? Somehow, despite the magnificence of the drive inland, New Zealand's highest mountain managed to eclipse everything that had gone before. In something of a daze I made a quick stop at the visitor centre before heading to the campground to pitch my tent for the night. The high snow covered mountains looming imposingly over the campground may have starved it of sun, the showers may have been out of service and the ground may have been - thanks to the debris left by receding glaciers -impossible to bang tent pegs into; but it was up there with the most scenic campgrounds to be found anywhere. It also had the added benefit of a cosy bar and restaurant - complete with internet access - a short walk away. I found that most agreeable.
Despite all the luxuries and easy day hikes, Mount Cook is a primarily a place for serious endeavours: something rammed home to me as I set off on a four hour hike (or tramp, as they seem to be referred to down here) along the Hooker Valley. Off to the left of the trail I saw something which had a strange draw: the Alpine Memorial. I couldn't help but stand and read all the memorials to the fallen climbers - I found it strangely fascinating. I couldn't explain why I felt this way but, as I would later discover, two climbers were at that very moment starting their ascent of Mount Cook and, days later, having been stranded on the mountain for days in terrible weather, just one of them would return. A week later another rescue mission was launched and another climber was dead.
My hike proved rewarding but, as I made my way back to the trailhead, I was looking forward to getting back to my tent for a rest. Unfortunately, as well as blocking out the sunlight, the high mountains had funnelled a storm straight through the campground and I returned to find that, much to the amusement of my neighbours, my tent had all but blown away. It took me some time to rebuild it - collecting a number of heavy rocks from the vicinity in an effort to increase the effectiveness of the guy ropes - but ultimately I would be wasting my time as I was woken numerous times in the night with the tent blown flat against my face. I would have relocated to the car but I was afraid that the tent would blow away without me in it.
It certainly was a slow burner to start off but, once lit, my love for the scenery of New Zealand burnt with an intense flame. Somehow though it still didn't burn quite as brightly as my love for Alaska; I am not sure why but I think it has something to do with the ‘adventure' of Alaska. NZ is just too accessible. And Alaska had the midnight sun. And wildlife. Yes, that's what was missing; where are the bears, wolves, crocodiles, snakes and deadly spiders to keep you awake at night? The only thing that's likely to kill you in NZ is the mass of ridiculous extreme sports. I mentioned this thought casually to a fellow camper as I surveyed the wreckage of my tent the following morning. "I hear where you're coming from but, well, have you seen any penguins on your travels yet?", before expanding, "You must visit the Otago Peninsula", giving me a knowing nod and heading back to his own tent. I had never heard of the Otago Peninsula but a quick check of my Lonely Planet confirmed that it was a short drive from my next destination - Dunedin - and, sure enough, was famous for its penguins. I am there!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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