Wellington – harbour front (morning)
I am now writing retrospectively on New Zealand, fresh is best but I have kept in some of the drafts I wrote along the way and included a lot of the photos showing the stunning scenery in New Zealand. I was lucky that arriving in Spring time, October, it was mostly ‘just like Summer’, with the exception of only a few days, the most memorable being sitting watching the rain from the YHA in Wanaka, the intention being to cycle round the lake that day. Me and a fellow room-mate in the shared female dorm were entertained with live guitar music by a very friendly guy who was leading a group of youths round New Zealand.
So then, to pick up where I left off on last blog. I arrived in Taupo, happy to leave the tour bus, but worried about finding accommodation. In the end, I stayed in 3 different hostels over a period of a few days – it was New Zealand’s ‘Labour Day’ (Monday off) so pretty booked up everywhere. The hostels varied from what I can only describe as ‘teenage boys bedroom’ (pardon the sexist cliche), ie: messy and dark, to luxurious, with curtains you can draw across for privacy (Hakka Lodge) with the extra luxury and freedom of my being the only one in a four-bed dorm! Avoiding BASE (yes, indeed) accommodation, I found that YHAs offered clean, safe and friendly accommodation with everything organised pretty much the same with certain quirks, as in Picton where hot apple pie was on the menu every night at 8 pm!
At one of the hostels in Taupo, I decided to do one of the activities on offer, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (‘NZ’s Best One-Day Hike’), with its volcanic landscape, but after weather warnings of 100 km gales and snow falling on the mountains too, our early morning bus turned back and I was left to relax in the hostel, a little comatosed both from hostel living generally and the 5 am start.
I did get to do a beautiful day-hike along the Abel Tasman coast track (Abel Tasman National Park) in the North of the island, one of the nine ‘Great Walks’ of New Zealand. With others from my bus tour, I did a sea kayak with very friendly and genuine guides and then a 7.9 km coastal walk back along part of this track. In the quieter Spring time (not high season) we bumped into at least one person doing the whole 60 km, camping on the way.
Abel Tasman National Park – kayaking
Most of those on the tour bus are German with excellent English. When they do speak to each other in their native language, the only word I can make out is ‘skydive’. Many on the backpacking circuit are looking for adrenaline thrills: skydiving, helicopter rides over glaciers (‘an amazing experience’ I was told) and bungee jumping. An Austrian woman in her 30s who I kept bumping into going from hostel to hostel, said that she loved the skydive but the bungee was a waste. Two seconds after stepping off the platform her brain switched off and the next thing she remembered was her hair and hands skimming the water.
I give these death-defying feats secondhand as I do not plan on doing any of the jumping out of planes, falling backwards at great height – the canyon chair swing – and all the other exciting ventures/near-death experiences. One night I had the most vivid dream however of gliding down from a building towards the ground, so numerous have been the skydiving conversations.
I have been surprised by how touristy New Zealand is. Even though our tour bus promises ‘getting off the beaten track’ most towns I’ve seen are set up to offer ‘the best’ experience (this seems to be part of the lingo here as well as ‘sweet as’). Some of the activities are completely over-priced, a walking tour in Franz Josef costing 75 dollars (‘it wasn’t worth it’, someone told me later).
I ask the shop assistant how many people live here (Franz Josef): ‘around 500’ she says. It is totally geared towards tourism, hostel after hostel, hotels, a wildlife kiwi experience, a whole central point offering tours up to the glaciers. I am feeling that I prefer the small towns, Thames in the North and Picton and Arrowtown (near Queenstown) in the South Island. In Picton I took a cycle (free) from the hostel and pushed it up the steep hill through the trees/ bush towards the Bay and cycled back along the Waikawa – Picton track. A beautiful, clear and fresh sunny day.
After Picton (end of October) I stopped off at Nelson (on the way to Abel Tasman), with expectations of a seaside town with quaint cafes and art. I only spent a night here but found it to be from my perception, well, just an ordinary, small town. I did go to the local film festival ‘Top of the South’ which was, well, interesting/different, especially with the red carpet affair. But I got to talk to some local Kiwis and met a friendly Mexican woman, Gabriela, the next day going with her to a Mexican festival (‘Day of the Dead’) in the nearby Founders Heritage Park. Her boyfriend was playing there in the only Mariachi band in New Zealand.
Waikawa to Picton track
Three of the nine Great Walks, namely Milford, Kepler and Routeburn, are in the West of New Zealand in the Fiordland National Park. So too Te Anau which boasts of 200 day’s rain per year. Encouraged by everyone that the Milford Sound cruise is worth doing, not just another boat trip, we were told, ‘it’s actually better in the rain’. I wasn’t sure if this was just positive sales talk, but some local women I spoke to said you do get the waterfalls from the rocks on either side. The sun would have been nice too, but it was true that it was spectacular scenery, including the mountains on the way down, the Irish coach driver adding to the day, giving us a wry overview of the landscape. Most of us focused on the alpine parrots (Keas) as we stopped to take photos.
Milford Sound boat cruise
Intelligent Kea, alpine parrot
Stopping to take pictures on way to Milford Sound
Previous to Te Anau I had arrived in Queenstown. I actually stood in the street and felt I would cry, maybe hormones, not liking the hostel, or just feeling suddenly alone. Travelling brings up a whole host of emotions as someone said to me. Mostly I have found it has opened my heart in that it has taken me back to a time in my youth, the sense of freedom, positive new experiences, meeting new people and also enjoying my own company, and most especially being outdoors in nature. Having bumped into someone I knew and then meeting a fun couple from Mississippi, the deep South, who were getting married in New Zealand, having an incredible, vegetarian lunch, from a very friendly manager at Hebedes cafe, buying some new walking shoes (out with the old) from an ‘English’ sales assistant (who make up most of those in Queenstown), I suddenly felt more positive again.
Queuing for the famous ‘Fergburger’ in Queenstown
As well as taking in the beautiful, spacious, vast, expansive, huge vistas of New Zealand, I have met and chatted to some interesting people: a rather geeky and nice Amanda from America who I met in Picton, having arrived via ferry from Wellington in the North. I was impressed that she had trekked solo the length of the Queen Charlotte track (70 km) in the Marlborough Sounds, carrying a 20 kg rucksack staying in huts along the way. I’ve met a 30-year-old German woman in a cafe who was travelling with only a para-glider on her back and the clothes she stood up in and other adventurous types of all ages (including retired), awaiting news of the opening of Tracks after weather warnings.
Those I have met have been travelling for different reasons, whether to escape after the breakdown of a relationship, dissatisfied with life, a job, or like myself, for visa reasons – a happy opportunity for an adventure later in life. Most on the tour bus have been in their 20s but it was nice to meet up with some around the same age, including a lovely woman from Lithuania and another from Hungary. A few travellers’ have asked about Brexit: ‘did I vote for it? What do I think of it?’, including an English teacher from Germany, who had jacked it all in to travel round for a few months. I then ask her: ‘What do you think of us English, you must think we’re all crazy’? Apparently the most number of Google searches in Germany is ‘why are the English so strange’?
Diamond Bay – Banks Peninsula, Canterbury
My last experience of room-sharing was in Mount Cook, I was by then glad to be heading to Christchurch where I had booked in to do some volunteer work (‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, ‘Whoof-ing’ for short). This was in a small, beautiful seaside town called Sumner. Immediately throwing away my carry-around freezer bag for food (hostel living), I enjoyed settling in one place for a while. However kind the hosts, living in someone else’s house is only sustainable for so long. But I really enjoyed the gardening, as well as exploring nearby walking tracks, the beautiful Banks Peninsula, and swimming in the sea at Sumner, during my free time.
‘Saturn’ seen along Rail Trail
When my hosts drove to Alexandria, I was invited along and given the loan of a bike. From there (7 km from the start) I began my journey on the Otago Rail Trail, a 152 km cycle ride between Clyde and Middlemarch. In the hotel at Launder, one of the stops along the way, I ended up chatting to and having dinner with a young, friendly Irish couple who I then cycled with on and off along the Trail (over 3 days) surrounded by a landscape of wide open skies.
As well as the excitement, sense of freedom and adventure of travelling solo around New Zealand, there were also challenges: the hostel I walked out of in Wellington (after Taupo) was a little seedy (I then stayed in a lovely YHA hostel), the sharing of dorms is not always easy (but never as challenging as I imagined), the others on the tour bus were mostly younger than me (but not always).
Walk with local women – Te Anau
What is there not to like about New Zealand? With only 1 million or so people on South Island, it is isolated, from culture too (the latest theatre, music), especially outside the main cities. There is said to be a high rate of suicide, earthquakes are a reality, there are challenges in the Maori community – poverty, gangs – with a push all over New Zealand to teach the Maori language and culture. I noticed too that gender relations are more traditional in an outdoor but also more macho culture (gum boots, 4x4s, shooting). In all, however, I found New Zealanders (‘Kiwis’) to be open and friendly, including the welcoming group of women I joined for a walk in Te Anau on the day it snowed.
If you are an outdoors type, it is a paradise. In the sunshine especially, New Zealand is stunning – cool and fresh air, beautiful vistas, amazing light.
The Wharf, Thames, The Coromandel region
Reading: ‘The Luminaries’ by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton
Travel: I found InterCity buses comfortable and reasonably priced (especially if book early)
Hostels: YHA every time – non-profit making, friendly staff, clean, safe and organised
Hahei, Cathedral Cove (‘Narnia’ film)
Picton harbour, crossing Cook Strait from Wellington
Vibrant colours of Spring in Sumner, Christchurch