Journeys in the Sun

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It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.

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A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.

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I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Picton Picked On

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I spent the night in Picton because that was where the ferry docked.

It is on the same sort of scale as the arse-end-of-nowhere village I grew up in, with about half a dozen streets and a harbour. Notable people who have lived there are said to include the 37th-to-last man to be hanged in New Zealand. It has at least one heritage building, and Katherine Mansfield wrote a short story, The Voyage, about people leaving it for Wellington.

My hostel had the air of a seafront hotel in winter. I had a four-bed dorm to myself. A clock ticked oppressively in the communal room. A Japanese guy, sitting alone, was working his way through a big box of beers and there were two rows of empties on the table. There was a European guy at the other side of the room, ignoring him. He mimed deep concentration on his book as I walked in, so he could get away without saying hello. The Japanese guy was too distracted by the beer. We three seemed to be the only guests.

It felt wrong, somehow, to make noise in the kitchen, so I cooked as if someone were sleeping nearby, ate quickly and had an early night; I was asleep well before ten.

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I was full of energy and cheer in the morning, then, and went for a run around Picton. It did not take long. Once I had showered and changed and tidied my backpack to kill some more time, there was nothing to do but check out and walk slowly to the bus interchange. There was still plenty of time to see the hulk of the tall ship, Edwin Fox, before I caught my bus.

It was built in Calcutta in 1853 (Edwin Fox, that is, not the bus) and took troops to the Crimea, convicts to Australia and migrants to New Zealand before it was retired and used as a bunker for coal. It was left to rot on a beach for decades and it is in a shocking state now. But that makes it more interesting, to my mind, than a carefully-restored ship on which the only original thing is the name.

It is claimed as the Oldest Merchant Sailing Ship in the World and the Ninth Oldest Ship Afloat, but I find it hard to believe assertions like that because they rarely turn out to be true.

I was bored enough to check the point, this time, and sure enough a quick Google search threw up a merchant sailing ship named Charles W Morgan which was built twelve years before Edwin Fox and still sails around New England. Edwin Fox, moreover, is in a dry dock, so it is not afloat at all, let alone the ninth oldest ship afloat.

But none of that matters much. It is an interesting old ship, and they ought just to leave it that.

© Richard Senior 2015

Losing Momentum in Auckland

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The rain cascaded off the awnings, bounced off the pavement, puddled in the street. I squinted through the rain-spattered window as the suburbs rolled endlessly by; and the bus stopped and the driver switched off the ignition and I realised that the last ten minutes of suburb had actually been the city centre.

I stayed on the bus and took it back up the hill and splashed through the puddles to my hostel. It was a few doors from a liquor store across from a strip club which was next to a brothel which was next to the Salvation Army. An old man tried to pick fights with passing cars as he shuffled up the street, swiping at them with his umbrella and shouting in Drunk English, “ay, yafaggincan-yafagger;fagarff!” But it was New Zealand, so there was none of the edginess which all of that implies.

I had been travelling for four months by the time I reached Auckland: two continents, four time zones, six countries, a dozen cities, twice as many towns, and more planes, trains, boats, buses, minibuses, taxis, tuk-tuks, songthaews, xe-oms and cyclos than I had kept count of. I had sustained the momentum until then but lost it as surely and rapidly as a car suddenly out of fuel. The rain did not help enthuse me.

I could hardly be bothered to explore the city, let alone work out where to go from there. Instead I skulked in the hostel reading, listening to music, doing laundry and non-jobs like tidying out my backpack: all the things you travel 11,000 miles for.

I tagged along with Fred from Brazil on one of his cost-cutting missions to the Countdown supermarket for the cut-price end-of-the-day sandwiches and a few cans of whatever beer was on offer, went drinking with Ernst from Germany to a bar called Cassette Nine, where – reckoned my guidebook – “Auckland’s most out there hipsters” go and the beer was on $5 a glass promotion and neither of us was fit to drive or operate machinery next day. It was still raining in any case.

Ernst and his hangover left for Coromandel and a Chinese guy moved in and told us we stank and opened a window, and found out our names, and where we were from, and what we did – or had done – for a living, and where we were going and where we had been, and sidestepped our questions of him. I never even caught his name. He told Fred that his English would improve if he stayed longer in New Zealand and me that I did not speak English in the way that most Englishmen do. Then, when he had insulted everyone, he said something about having work to finish off, left and never came back.

Pablo from Argentina moved into the dorm in his place at three in the morning, unzipped his bag, took out his laptop and tap-ta-tap-tapped for an hour. He turned out to be a nice enough guy, although his English was limited and my Spanish is pitiful so conversation was difficult.

Fred left and an English couple moved in; Pablo left and a Japanese guy replaced him. I carried on skulking in the hostel for a couple more days but eventually managed to come up with a plan and got the momentum back. It was still raining when I caught the Inter City bus to Rotorua.

© Richard Senior 2015

Queenstown in May

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It was off-season in Queenstown. The sun had apparently been packed away for winter. The mountains were hidden under cloudy drapes. The glorious colours I had seen on the postcards had been taken off display. Tarpaulins were roped across the decks of the sailing boats at anchor on the lake. They had not been touched for months. Even the notorious bars were quiet. I had no winter clothes, so wore everything I had at once, and sat with my back to storage heaters while I was in the hostel.

The jet boats were still taking groups out, and I heard there was whitewater rafting nearby; but it was unthinkable, at that time of year, to do anything which soaked you through. There was bungee as well, but I am too cowardly for that. I took the cable car up Ben Lomond to ride the Luge instead.

The track winds steeply around the mountain and propels you through tunnels and over humps and round banked corners as you barrel along it in a three-wheeled cart. There is a ski lift, then, to take you back to the top so you can do it again and again. There had been a frost in the night and whenever I approached a corner too fast – which I usually did – I went round it sideways and careered into the buffers around the edge, then wobbled back onto the track.

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The clouds began to peel away as I waited for the cable car down. It exposed the creases and folds of the mountains and the glorious pallet of colours in the landscape: the dark, dark green of the pine forests, the vivid blue of the lake; the burgundy and green of the heathers; the purple-grey Remarkable Mountains with their white heads stuck in the residual clouds; the wine red leaves, the raspberry leaves, the yellows and oranges, and bronzes and tans; the lime green lawns and the yellow wild grasses. A steamship eased itself across the lake, a stroke of white on a canvas of blue, with a curl of black smoke trailing like a streamer from its funnel.

TSS Earnslaw was built in Dunedin in 1912 and has worked Lake Wakatipi ever since. In the early days, it carried sheep to remote farms which had yet to be connected by road. Now it carries tourists.

You can go stand in the engine room and get in the crew’s way if you like. (They will just shove past you.) The ship was built a long time before health and safety was invented, and the space is crammed with exposed parts which are hot, or sharp or moving. There are big brass gauges and oversize bolts and levers which need swinging on to move. A stoker humps coal into the belly of the engine, while another walks round with an oilcan and squirts everything which he sees to stop it from seizing up. He turns wheels, opens vents, throws levers, and – after a busy five minutes – the engine begins to chuff and snort and shake. The engineer calls in to look important, wearing white overalls to prove that he that never has to do the grunt work himself. He points and gives orders and then flicks the telegraph to full ahead and the ship powers across the lake at four knots.

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The sun stayed out but the temperature never crept much above seven degrees. The cold seared into my bones. It is a beautiful place, but I was rather glad when I ran out of time and had to head back up to Auckland.

© Richard Senior 2015

Travelling by Tube in New Zealand

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There were six of us in the minibus on the way to the Waitomo Caves, all looking ridiculous in wetsuits, ankle-length wellingtons and miners’ helmets, each clutching an inflated inner tube out of a tractor tyre.

We squeezed through a gash in the side of the mountain and climbed down into a chamber, stooping and huddling together to fit. I was nearest to the crevice which led further in, so the guide sent me on ahead and told me to stop when I heard a roaring sound. I inched along between the walls, splashing through water, seeing what little the lamp on my helmet cared to light up, and listened for a roaring sound. I realised what it was when I heard it.

All I had to do, the guide said when the others caught up, was to approach the waterfall backwards, stand on the edge, hold the inner tube up to my bum as if suffering with haemorrhoids and leap backwards into the water.

The sensible part of my brain warned me sternly against it, as if I were five and it were my father grabbing hold of my arm to stop me running into the road. (Fair enough, as I never got round to learning to swim.) But if I listened to the sensible part of my brain, I would still be at my desk in London, alternately stressed and bored. I would be on the Tube, instead of on a tube.

I backed up to the edge and jumped, ducked under and swallowed a mouthful of nasty water, then bobbed back up on my tube with the endorphin rush you always get when your brain says no and you go ahead anyway and come out of it okay.

We reclined on our tubes and floated along the underground river which led through a passage with stalactites bearing down on us, until we got to another waterfall, twice the height of the first. I stood back and let the others go first – “no, no, after you,” I said with the pantomime politeness of the British, and nothing to do with being scared – then jumped and sank deeper and ingested more water and came up choking and spitting, but felt fantastic as soon as I could breathe again.

We switched off our lamps as we came out in a cavern and stared up at a roof which was speckled with glow worms and looked like a diorama of space. There were thousands, no tens of thousands, an uncountable number of blue-white dots of effulgence stretching as far as I could see.

We slid silently through the darkness and the LED’s on the backs of the helmets advanced in a line and wound round the corners and the glow worms winked above us until the river burst out above ground through a fissure in the rock and we came out squinting into the afternoon sunlight.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: “Cathedral in Waitomo Cave” By Karora (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Going for a Spin in Rotorua

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The landscape was Jurassic, all ferns and sulphurous pools. Smoke issued from every pore in the ground. Mud pots belched and cauldrons bubbled, as if hard-boiling the eggs whose smell hung over the town.

The trees were wearing their autumn clothes in reds and greens, yellows and browns, and the leaves were beginning to carpet the ground. The air was fresh and the silence was perfect, except for the squawk of the gulls and the honk of black swans; and the lake was still and reflected the mountains and trees and strips of blue sky in its surface. Seaplanes stood idle while geese moved out in a convoy, and spindly-legged, red-beaked, blue-chested pukekos tottered on the grass and immaculate gulls glided expertly in to land.

Such a sleepy town. Yet it was here, in Rotorua, that New Zealand’s second craziest adrenaline sport began. The original Zorb company is still doing business on the outskirts of town; but I booked with Ogo, the rival outfit, run by the ball’s inventor. The name is different but the idea is the same: a big rubber ball suspended inside a bigger rubber ball, with an aperture in the side.

They drove me up to the top of a long, steep hill with a track carved into it, and tipped a bucketful of warm water into the Ogo ball; I dived through the aperture, Superman style, and they zipped me in and shoved me down the hill. I tried to stay upright but fell down straight away and slithered about in the water as the ball picked up speed as it careered down the hill. I was laughing hard all the way down and carried on laughing when I got to the bottom and stopped with a bump, rolled back and landed upside down in a jumble of arms and legs.

Then I moved onto the Fishpipe, which is an Ogo ball fitted with a seat and a six-point harness and attached to a frame which allows it to spin like the rig on which astronauts train. The operator dialled up the speed, by turns, until I was tumbling like washing in the machine and laughing again, until the coins worked themselves out of my pockets and pelted me as I spun.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Christchurch: Wrecking Balls, Rubble and Ruined Churches

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I’ve put you in what we used to call a city view room,” said the receptionist at one of two surviving hotels in the centre. The view, now, is of endless car parks where office blocks and shops used to be: big open spaces right in the middle of town.

Christchurch was a lovely city before the earthquake. Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco buildings; heritage trams clanging through the streets, punts creeping along the Avon. But you can rip a few pages from any guidebook written before 2011, because much of the heritage is history now.

The tracks which meander round the town are filled with moss, because the trams no longer run. The Guthrey Centre, Manchester Courts, the Press Building, the Civic, all gone: crushed to rubble and cleared into piles. The tremors pushed over the cathedral’s tower, knocked Scott of the Antarctic’s statue from its plinth, ripped away walls to make public the private, tumbled whole rows. It killed 185 people.

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Hardly anything taller than three or four storeys remains. Much of the rest is in ruins. Collapsed roofs, crumpled facades, smashed windows; the floors of the multi-storey car park concertinaed, cellars exposed and filling with water. Dozens of lip glosses litter the floor of a ruined shop. Dummies have been flung in a mass grave.

There are old adverts for staff in the windows of bars which will never open again. The mannequins in Just Jeans are still dressed in the fashions of early 2011. Dusty posters pretend that an Art Deco block will still sell by private treaty, that a tenant is still wanted for a showroom in a “prime corner location” which stands on its own at the end of a street full of wreckage.  Traffic lights pointlessly change where no cars go anymore.

Historic facades balance precariously, propped up with old containers. The buildings behind them have been flattened. A row of Edwardian shops along High Street seems barely damaged at the front, but it is a bombsite at the rear. “Please save High Street,” reads a grubby banner flapping in the wind.  But it looks doubtful whether much of old Christchurch will still be there when the demolition is done. Everywhere you go, you hear the sickening crunch of masonry under the wrecking ball. Even the cathedral is being demolished.

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Quotidian life goes on. Businesses have moved to the inner suburbs. Shops have opened in a pop-up mall built from containers stacked and painted in defiantly cheery colours. But the post-apocalyptic pall will hang over the city for years ahead.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014