Saturday, January 25, 2014

New Zealand part1

Things got weird before we even reached our next destination. Somewhere between Fiji and New Zealand we crossed the International Date Line. This effectively meant that we lost a day of our lives. I can't actually remember the date but it was somewhere around the end of October 1992. My diary for that day read: today did not happen. Of course I knew about the concept of the date line but experiencing it for myself was an entirely different prospect.

Our trip to New Zealand was only ever going to be a short one. Just a two week peek at the North Island to get a taste of what the country was all about. I knew for a fact that I would return as soon as I had finished my year in Australia. Ian had similar plans, but as things were to pan out he left Australia far earlier than he expected and therefore he never ended up returning. There's a lesson to be learnt there people. Do stuff while you have the chance. Carpe Diem and all that.

During my stay on Crane Lake Camp I'd made friends with some of the camp counsellors whose job it was to look after the kids. Basically these were the ones that were working around the clock while us kitchen staff drank our way through the summer. The counsellors were mainly from America but there were also a few from different parts of the English speaking world. One of the counsellors was Glenn from Auckland, New Zealand. We hadn't actually spoken much on the camp but one drunken night I had told him of my plans to go to New Zealand when the camp was over. Quick as a flash, Glenn had given me the address of his parent's house and insisted that I must give them a ring as soon as I got there. Looking back on this I am not too sure how much of it was the alcohol talking, but the offer was out there and we were travellers trying to live as cheap an existence as we possibly could. We were not going to look this gift horse in the mouth.

From the airport we caught a bus to the city centre and booked in at the Queens Street Backpackers. The hostel was bang in the thriving heart of Auckland and made exploration of the city really easy. I was immediately struck by how cold the city was. This being the end of October it was Spring in New Zealand therefore it probably wasn't that bad but we'd been in hot places since the beginning of June and it seemed freezing to us. The fact that the hostel had not yet started to use their central heating accentuated our acclimatisation problem. Within a day we were on the phone to Glenn's mum.

The conversation went as follows:

ME: Hi there, not sure if you know about us but my name's Andy and my friend is Ian and we know your son Glenn. We met him on the camp in America. We've just arrived in Auckland and he said that we should ring you.

GLENN'S MUM: Do you want to speak to him dear he's right here next to me?

This clearly wasn't in the script. Glenn was supposed to still be travelling. He must have come back early. It was indeed a stroke of luck and removed some of the awkwardness from the situation. I spoke to Glenn and he was only too pleased to help us out. He sounded a little surprised to hear from us but his offer still stood

The following day Glenn's mum drove down to Queen Street to pick us up and so began her wonderful generosity. Ian and I were to spend the best part of a week at Glenn's house which was up in the hilly suburbs in a place called Massey. The few times that we were to go into the city on our own we could only navigate our way back to the house because there was an enormous radio mast with a red light shining at the top of it right next to the house. If it wasn't for this mast I would have probably still been lost now.

During the day time his mum would drive us around in her car and give us a running commentary on many of Auckland's sights. She also told us some of the history of the Maori conflicts with the British and how the Maoris had traded land for guns and citizenship. His mum always seemed to get quite agitated when she spoke about the Maoris though so I tried to steer her away from any political conversation. This suited me fine because politics bores the shit out of me. As far as I was concerned the Maoris were there first and therefore it was theirs - end of discussion. I don't understand all this Captain Cook discovered this, Abel Tasman discovered that lark, if there were people already there than how can they have discovered it? It seems like a ridiculous argument to me.

In the evenings we sat and talked to the family who were only too happy to hear our travel tales. His dad Peter was a keen traveller and shared his experiences of his travels through China and Tibet. They'd make a barbie and we would be fed the most wonderful food and plied with alcohol. This was a giant stroke of luck for two travellers that had spent so many nights sleeping rough. The only downside of my time there was the fact that I had a major allergy to something in my bedroom and I spent the nights sneezing, rubbing my eyes and generally feeling like shit. As soon as his mum heard about my allergy she jumped into action to help find me a solution. The only tablets that she could find however were over three years old. Of course I took them anyway and I was treated to something quite magical. The out of date tablets made me as high as a kite. At that point in my life I hadn't yet discovered the drug ecstasy, but when I did a few years later I recognised the effects as the feelings that I had experienced on the out of date antihistamine tablets that Glenn's mum found for me. She gave me ten in total which I used sparingly over the next 18 months of travel.

As much as we would have liked to stay at the house and chill we both knew that we should see some more of the North Island of New Zealand before we flew to Australia. Glenn's mum suggested that we head up North first to the Bay of Islands. With its amazing beaches and marked increase in temperature this made a refreshing change from Auckland although we had spent so much time in Auckland that we didn't really have time to experience the area to the full. We managed a quick look around Paiha and then we darted off to Waitangi to see where the most historic of New Zealand's treaties was signed.

The treaty of Waitangi is considered to be the founding document of New Zealand as a nation and was signed on the 6th of February 1840 by representatives of the British crown and various Maori chiefs (although lots refused to sign it.) Naturally the Brits shafted the Maoris on the treaty with the British version of the treaty not being identical to the Maori version. This has been a contentious issue ever since and led to various land wars which took place between 1845 and 1872. On February 6th every year (Waitangi day) the prime minister and officials of the crown go to the original meeting house to honour the treaty. They are generally pelted with eggs.

The rest of our day was spent immersing ourselves in the Maori culture and generally feeling ashamed to be British. I don't recall where we stayed in the Bay of Islands nor do I recall how we got to our next destination of Rotorua. But somehow we got there. Mind you Rotorua is not a hard place to find, being famed for it's geothermal activity you can literally smell the place a mile off. The city is also known as Sulphur city, because of all the hydrogen sulphur emissions which ensure that the city smells like rotten eggs.

For pragmatic reasons we hired bikes in Rotorua, there was a lot to see in a short period of time. The bikes suited us fine although as ever when I ride a bike I realised that I had far more enthusiasm going down the hills than I had going back up them. As I toiled up each hill I vowed that I should aim to gain a greater level of fitness in the future, only to forget my promise as soon as I went back down the other side. We rode all over the place checking out geysers, bubbling hot mud pools and geothermal springs, whilst all the time trying to hold our breaths. By the time we left the next day I was more than a little happy to leave the place. My lungs could take no more.

We'd met a Norwegian guy (can't remember his name) in Rotorua and the three of us decided that we would hitch hike to our next destination of Waitomo. We estimated that this was around a two hour drive away so hitching shouldn't be too difficult. New Zealand was famed for its safety and was somewhat of a hitch hiker's paradise. And what better way to do it than make a race out of it. The fastest person to hitch to Waitomo would be the winner. We arranged a finish point at the youth hostel there and the race was on.

I'd only been stood on the side of the road for 10 minutes when a big old car came screeching to a halt next to me. The warning signs were there from the start. The car was some kind of monster like something from The Dukes of Hazard and the manner that it as being driven was not too dissimilar from the Dukes of Hazard either (if you don't know this show please take some time to Google it.) The occupants of the car could only be described as hill billies. Four guys who looked like they had one brain cell between them and would not be out of place in the deep south of America hunting gators. The back door was flung open and I got in.

"Where you going bud?", the chief hilly billy and driver asked me, to which I replied "Waitomo". At least that's what I tried to reply but my voice was shaking so badly that I am surprised they understood me at all. As the car shot off with the wheels spinning I wasn't altogether sure if they had or not. I was now at their disposal and I was beginning to fear the worst. My fears were certainly not allayed by their drinking habits. Each one of them had a large bottle of beer in their hand including the driver. Their conversation was non-existent, so god only knows which one of them made the decision to drive off road and along a dirt track which appeared to be heading for a small wood. By now I feared for my life. I was going to get murdered for sure. They would drive me into the forest, where they would all have their way with me and then dispose of me never to be seen again. I was so convinced of this scenario that in my head I was willing them to kill me quickly, the words "please don't rape me" were forming somewhere in the back of my throat but not actually exiting my mouth. This was going to be an end of some description for sure, if not the end of my life the ending of my anal virginity.

All of a sudden a farm house appeared prompting the car to come to a stop. The two guys in the front seat jumped out while the two in the back stayed in the car with me. I was sure that they were keeping guard while the other two went inside to bring a torture device. In my head I was planning my escape. Imagine my relief when they returned with a crate of beer and thrust a beer into everybody's hand, including my own. Once again the car revved up and screeched off down the dirt track and back to the main road from where we had just come. I'd lived to tell the tale.

The guys dropped me off in Waitomo. I wasn't fully convinced that this was their intended destination or they just didn't have any better ideas of how to spend their time. The area was so deeply rural that there didn't seem to be many better time killing options. One thing was for sure though; the guys had driven there at such high speed that I was convinced that I had won the race. Imagine my disappointment when we turned the corner and Ian was already there. His lift turned out to be equally as interesting as my own. The guy was a pilot and had offered Ian a flight in his plane, talk about cheating. Our trilogy of exciting lifts was completed when the Norwegian guy turned up around half an hour later. We saw the ice cream van come around the corner but never in our wildest dreams did we expect him to be in it. He'd spent the last 40 minutes of his trip in the back of the van helping the guy to sell his ice creams.

It was only early afternoon when we booked in at the hostel but a party was just about to begin. As a veteran of the hostel scene I can tell you that some hostels are like that, every day is a party. I liked this hostel a lot, the rooms were clean, the atmosphere convivial and it had a pet lamb. I know that it sounds kind of clich d this being New Zealand and all but it doesn't get cooler than having a pet lamb. As we all danced the afternoon and the night away the lamb wandered in and out of the hostel at its leisure mingling with us.

What better way to shake off your hangovers than to immerse yourself in freezing cold water way beneath the surface of the earth. So this is exactly what we did. By 8 o'clock the next morning Ian and I were kitted out in wet suits and miners lamps and we were being lowered into the earth's core. This is what the Kiwi's call black water rafting. Basically you are given a large rubber inner tube which should stay with you at all times and then you drop through a hole in to underground caves which are very wet, dark and cold. A group of six of us were then lead through a subterranean landscape whilst we tried to stay close together and not get lost. Thankfully we had powerful head lamps which helped to illuminate the way as we clambered over rocky outcrops and floated on our tubes down the river. The highlight was something that the guide referred to as the leap of faith. This involved jumping around 15 feet in total pitch dark (lights off) from an elevated rock into a dark cold pool. Our trust was in our leaders hands. Great way to kill somebody if you're that way inclined. When we eventually popped out into daylight about a mile downstream I must admit that I was quite disappointed. I was just getting used to my new environment. It all felt very Tom Sawyer down there.

From Waitomo it was back up to Auckland and our little journey was over. New Zealand had been good to me, I liked it a lot. I also liked the fact that I would be returning there within the year. It made my departure so much more bearable. One thing that struck me about New Zealand was its striking resemblance to the UK. I had flown just about as far away from my homeland as I could possibly get and yet it was so unbelievably similar in every way. The Britain of yesteryear though not the one of the present (1992). A place that was as safe as it was green, a place where people spoke to you without wanting something from you and a place where you could leave your doors open at night without the fear of burglary, rape or murder. Needless to say I looked forward to New Zealand part two immensely.
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