Sunday, 25 March 2007
New Zealand: Land of Milky Grandeur...
You come halfway round the world, expecting everything to get rarer and more foreign and exotic the further you go… And what do you find? Wales! Or possibly Scotland.... Loads of green fields and hills and sheep and cows. And rain. And pubs (they even still call them taverns here) that have been almost emptied of people – what few there are anyway -- by the new smoking ban.
Not that a ban like that bothers folk like me and Alison of course. I’m now seven weeks past giving up and she's ten. We’re feeling fitter (if fatter) and all ready for trekking those high Andean passes after we fly from Auckland to Santiago tomorrow. A bit of a worry there though: my (fake-dvt) leg’s a lot better, but Alison’s now the one that’s hobbling after a small camping accident about ten days ago.
Yes, I said camping. Though as you can see from the strange vehicle above, it wasn’t quite your traditional boyscout stuff with tents and billycans. For our first week here, on the South Island, we hired New Zealand’s very latest kind of campervan, known as a Spaceship. Ours was called Milky but others went by funkier names like Obi or Sputnik or Galactica. As we drove round the wilds of Milford Sounds, the Fox Glacier and other remote scenic splendours, we’d pass a fellow alien ship from time to time and both would flash their lights and hoot and waggle their ears at each other in their excitement. Alright, no, they don’t have ears but they do have extendable bits for sleeping in and big windows at the top for seeing the stars and dvd players complete with big stereo systems you can plug your ipod into. And they give you free dvds and Frisbees!
To be frank we didn’t use the camping and cooking equipment (or cinematic and sporting for that matter) very often. And the one time we used our picnic table and chair we foolishly left them out in the dark, which was when Alison fell over them. During the first four days of unremitting rain (and even snow), we tended to go for renting a readymade motel room with bath rather than try to turn our spaceship into one. But after one particular Top Ten holiday camp chalet that smelt of vomit the van seemed like a palace.
As they do in Scotland, they tried to assure us that you have to see it all in the rain to appreciate the famous Misty Grandeur … but it sure did look better when finally the sun came out. Suddenly you could appreciate how incredibly clean and pristine everything is, with the streams and waterfalls a translucent green, the fjords sparkling black and the ferny, mossy rainforest every kind of green – along with the odd red hot poker and bright blue mushroom. And at night as the sheep grazed around us, and with no more clouds blocking the stars, we finally learned how to spot the Southern Cross.
Anyway, after a few weeks on our own, we proceeded by train and ferry to the North Island to meet some more old pals (not that we're not also meeting new ones of course,both local and foreign, in our various backpacker joints and so forth along the way). Awaiting us in Wellington, where he teaches Marketing and writes books on North Korea among other things, was a certain Dr Tim Beal, who I once spent 4 years studying Chinese with in Edinburgh.
In fact he wasn't exactly awaiting us as he hadn't heard from us for 20 years, but we phoned from the ferry and he looked out of his window and saw our boat and came to meet us for a drink, bringing along his very nice Sheffield-based Dutch partner, Ankie.
After a day or two in Wellington, teaching ourselves about Maoris at museums and stars at the observatory, we headed further north by bus... the only two trains available having run into each other the previous day. (Only tourists take trains in NZ). Twelve hours later, there to meet us at Hamilton was the latest in my list of much-loved former East Asia Today colleagues, Angie. We've just spent a fun couple of days with her (and husband David and children Lewis, 10 and Gilda, 7), swimming both in the wild South Pacific (or Coromandel Sea to be precise) and in some amazing hot thermal springs in our own forest glade near Rotorua.
So, it seems this is after all a bit more than just a pale imitation of Britain in the 50s, complete with lack of motorways, street violence, graffiti etc. The food’s a lot better for a start - I've asked Tim to put in a pic of his 'bacon & eggs' yesterday morning as an eg
- (and the wine – specially white Cab-Sav, as they call it, and red Pinot Noir).
And everyone’s incredibly friendly and laid-back. We're all much too hung up on work in the northern hemisphere, they say, whereas life for them is about leisure and above all sport. Mainly rugby but also extreme adventure type things ranging from bridge-bungying to canyoning to tower jumping. I think I'll stick to the snooker. (I was more tempted by the Extreme Sports - they got weirder all the time combining paragliding with white water rafting and water caving in inner tubes... Oh! And possums on the verandah of our tree-house hotel last night, scuttling about...A)