Journeys through the Rain

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The rain had followed me all the way down the North Island. It didn’t rain all day, all every day, but it did rain every day, and some days it rained all day. Then I got to Wellington and it stopped, and stayed stopped as I took the ferry across to Picton and buses on to Nelson and then to Christchurch.

But it was raining again as the TranzAlpine Express pulled out of the station. I wondered whether its promise of “the trip of a lifetime” was meant to apply in all weathers, but I had not read it literally in any case.  It depends on the rest of your lifetime, I guess.

The train spent the morning threading its way through an operatic landscape from east coast to west, from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the rain spoiled none of it: not the illimitable mountains, not the great swathes of forest with splashes of yellow and brown in amongst the dark green of the pines, not the fathomless gorges, not the fast-flowing rivers way down below. I would not think to call it a trip of a lifetime, but it was a nice way to spend a morning in New Zealand.

It was drizzling in Greymouth, which suited it. The girl on the desk cheerfully admitted that hardly anyone stayed there anymore. There was a For Sale sign outside the hostel. A German couple were the only other guests. “I love NZ but not Greymouth” someone had written on the wood of a bunk in the dorm room I had to myself.

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It stayed fine, for a change, the next morning, as the InterCity bus chugged down the coast road and stopped off in the little town of Hokitika for a lunch break.

It stopped outside the National Kiwi Centre, which in the happily small-town way of New Zealand is a modest clapboard building, next door to Jeff Evans Plumbing. They had New Zealand eels, which they told me were anything from 85 to 100 years old and a tuatara, which they called ‘the oldest living dinosaur,’ as well as the kiwis, which I never managed to pick out of the simulated darkness.

The rain started to slap against the windows as the bus continued south to Franz Josef, where I had a hostel booked. It felt like a ski resort with its log cabins, chalets and homely wood smoke. The air was mountain fresh.

There was an anonymous poem from the nineteenth century framed on the wall of the hostel. It was simply called The Rain:

It rained and rained and rained.

The average fall was well maintained 

And when the tracks were simple bogs 

It started raining cats and dogs. 

 

After a drought of half an hour 

We had a most refreshing shower 

And then most curious thing of all 

A gentle rain began to fall. 

 

Next day but one was fairly dry 

Save for one deluge from the sky 

Which wetted the party to the skin 

And then at last the rain set in.  

Franz Josef Glacier was hidden behind cloud, so there was nothing much to do but go to the Glacier Hot Pools. There are three pools in the middle of a rainforest with glacial water heated to 36, 38 and 40 degrees. It is open air, but with a canopy to keep out the rain.

I only had time, in the morning, to see the glacier from the bottom of the mountain, but it was still impressive from there: a bluey-white torrent of water, eight miles long, stopped and frozen, filling a crevice in the mountain like expanding foam.

I got back on the bus, then, for the last time, for a final dash south to Queenstown. It was an eight-and-a-half-hour run, but I had got used to spending all day on a bus by then.

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Needless to say, it was raining. But if it blurred the sky into a miserable smudge, it at least made the waterfalls dramatic. The driver stopped, briefly, to let us get out and scramble through the forest to go look at one.

The road twisted inland, past Mount Cook, and wound tightly round the mountains – sharp right, sharp right, sharp right, sharp left – and the driver kept the speed up, taking a racing line in the big old bus when he could see far enough in front.

In the late afternoon, we shot over the Shotover River and pulled into a car park in Queenstown.

© Richard Senior 2016

Why the Worst Hotels are the Best

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It was halfway down one of the quieter sois near Khao San Road. A leathery old expat was drinking beer on his own outside. A surly woman was behind the desk.

Do you have any rooms?”

She glared at me and said nothing, but got up slowly, grudgingly, and led me up a gloomy staircase with a collapsing banister, past crates of beer and a broken toilet. The room was next to the communal bathroom. That was obvious enough from the smell. There was a horrid alabaster parrot nailed to the wall and a naive oil of a Japanese garden. The curtains were the colour and material of a Paddy’s Day hat, and too small for the window. The bed was hard, a tap dripped, and the towels were filthy.

That’s fine,” I said, “I’ll take it.”

Two years later and back in Asia, I was woken at four in the morning by what sounded like the guy in the next room wrestling a step ladder. I worked out later that it was the aluminium fob of his key banging against the door as he tried to navigate the lock – never easy when you come in at four in the morning.

It was a no-star hotel in a seedy corner of Shinjuku. The room stank of stale smoke and the air con was broken. The toilet was crammed in so tightly that the flush handle fouled on the sink.  There were leaflets for adult channels in the room, and beer and whisky vending machines in the corridors. The guy on the front desk had obviously had a few.

But it was a roof and a bed.

Back when I was a lawyer, I occasionally stayed in five star hotels, but always felt an intruder. I was uncomfortable with all the synthetic creeping and crawling, and people darting out to perform little services which I would never even have thought of – like lifting my bag over a slight undulation in the carpet. No doubt the arms dealers and hedge funders who routinely stay in such places demand it.

I still stay in business hotels sometimes, if I get a good deal or think I deserve a night of relative luxury. But they can make you feel unwelcome if you are not wearing a suit. I paid hostel prices for a Japanese chain hotel in Kanazawa, but the WiFi did not really work in the room – a perennial problem in business hotels – and I had photos to upload and a post to write and new followers to follow and unfollowers to unfollow back, so I went out in the corridor to work.

But a businessman objected to that and went downstairs to complain. The receptionist came running up and chased me back into my room then bowed so cravenly to the businessman that I thought she would dissolve in a pool of obsequiousness. I lost all my work because of his insecurity. May his spreadsheets corrupt and his meetings drag on and the lapdancers overcharge him.

The staff in hostels are always friendly (except one near Hongik University in Seoul), and the WiFi always works, and you usually meet interesting people. But it soon becomes too much, on a long trip, to share a succession of rooms with a succession of strangers. There is always a good chance that at least one will snore, and if you are unlucky you get two heavy snorers calling to each other across the dorm like big ships in fog. Then there are dorms where someone is always trying to sleep, whatever time of day it is, and you have to creep round and use your torch in the middle of the afternoon. Or where people tumble in at three in the morning, trip over things, flick on the light, and talk as if they are still at the bar.

If I can get a room of my own for around the same money, I will. All I need is a bed and a door which locks and somewhere to dump my backpack.

All things considered, the worst hotels work out best.

© Richard Senior 2015  

A Hostel Environment

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I was woken at six by the sounds of five people simultaneously stripping beds, emptying lockers and stuffing things into backpacks. Zip – rustle – bang! – thwock – zip – rustle – zip – clang! – zip –  thump, thump! – crackle – zip. 

But they whispered so as not to disturb me.

I had the dorm to myself for most of the morning until a big scowling bloke burst through the door. “Hey, mate; how you doing?” I said, and he glared and said “all right, mate” in a sepulchral tone which made it sound like a threat. Then he collapsed on his bunk, groaned and muttered, jerked and bucked and I wondered if he was drunk, or insane.

I left him to it and he was asleep by the time I got back in the early evening, and I crept around the dorm to be quiet, but I was obviously not quiet enough. “Fuck! Fuck! Fucking-fuck!” he said, as the sleep began to wear off, Then he sprung upright in the bunk and said, “Fucking-fuck, mate! Fucking-fuck!” as if I had just crashed into his car. It was some of the most creative swearing I have heard since a farmer near the village in which I grew up paused to swear in the middle of saying the name of the nearest town.

So I left in a hurry again and went up to the roof terrace where they were having a barbecue and stayed up there until late. Then, at four in the morning, Fucking Fuck’s mobile rang at the volume of a fire alarm and he took the call, had a loud conversation, stumped out and slammed the door.

I went back to sleep for ten minutes or so until I was woken by urgent hammering. I guessed that Fucking Fuck had forgotten his fob – I had done it myself a few times – but it was another, much older guy, who might have been Fucking Fuck’s father. “Is Andrew up yet?” he asked loudly, as if it were quarter to ten. Then he invited himself in and shouted “Andrew! Andrew?” prompting groans and sighs and symbolic turning over from all around the room.

I told him that Andrew had left already and I never saw either of them again.

© Richard Senior 2015