Sunday, February 04, 2007

Blog 31 - Round New Zealand in a Van

When you buy a round the world ticket, you have to say where you want to fly to and from and on what dates. Well that just about summed up the full extent of my trip planning. What I would do when I got to those places and where I would stay was completely in the lap of the gods. Or to be more precise, a local taxi driver. Which is a bit risky to say the least. I'm not too worried about getting ripped off. I mean most cabby's I think will have at some time or other gone via the scenic route. But its not like the fare, instead of being $20 is suddenly $200. I can cope with ten bucks more or less. You can always ask how much into town and you will be roughly there. The problem is that being a naive Englishman, brought up on the notion of cabby's being the proud possessors of 'the knowledge', you automatically assume they are 'local lads' who are street wise in the broadest sense. Therefore, if one was to assume in ones' innocence that they will be able to guide you to the object of your desire without the necessity to engage your own brain... then one is in for a big disappointment. I should have learnt my lesson from Sydney. I can't remember how many times I had jumped in a cab saying take me to Cuba only for the driver to say, 'where is that'. On more than one occasion the bloke had the street map open on his lap as he was driving!!!

Now don't get the wrong idea now with what I'm about to say. This is just a scientific or sociological observation. There is no racist implication here whatsoever. But you never,ever get what you might call a 'local' driver. Or to be more precise a 'native of the region'. So far I've found Korean, Italian, Portuguese, French, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Hungarian would you believe and others who couldn't tell me where they were from because they couldn't speak English. I let them off with that one in Thailand. But Australia, New Zealand and now Canada (I've got a bit behind), you expect a bit of English.

Anyway, the Indian guy in New Zealand obviously thought the question, 'can you take me to a cheapish hotel in the town centre', was too much and had to phone a friend. Well I don't suppose he wanted to lose a life :-) The friend came through with the goods. So I suppose my philosophy of winging it was still intact. My travelling roll of the dice came up trumps once more. He found me a half decent hotel right in the middle of town and it was certainly cheap. I seemed to be the only non-Chinese person staying so that probably explains the reasonable price.

I know it sounds like I'm totally averse to planning of any sort. But when you think about it. Planning to stay somewhere usually starts with a serendipitous shot in the dark. If you do a web search or ask at a tourist information counter, look at a brochure or 'phone a friend', the chances of hitting the jackpot or ending up with the booby prize are still evens at best. The place I'm staying in now is a classy hostel in a good part of town with friendly helpful staff, but there was still dried snot on the bed sheet. I'd slept there two nights before I noticed. Sods law it wasn't at the feet end I don't thiiiink it was mine. I'm a pick and flick sort of guy more than the poke and stroke variety. All I can say is that you get used to taking the rough with the smooth. Not knowing how things will turn out is part of the adventure.

Sooooo... New Zealand. Well I can honestly say, at the risk of offending my Aussie mates and family, that NZ is just the best place I've been so far. You have to take this in the context of my own personal likes and dislikes. No snakes or killer spiders for starters. Sand flies though, that's a black mark, more on them later. If you like mountains wall to wall, grass (the soft green variety and not the pan scrubber stuff they have in Oz), rivers, lakes, lovely eccentric, friendly people, the smell of wood fires even in the city, good food, wine and beer (well the beer is okay - am a bit fussy about my pint)... then New Zealand is definitely the place to go. Its everything the Lord of the Rings promises it to be, without the orcs. Just a wonderful place really. Its too hard to describe it. You will have to go there for yourselves.

After being cooped up on the boat for so long I was gagging to get out in the country. Do a bit of hill walking or tramping as the Kiwi's call it. Camping and all that. Get away from hostels and the city for a while. So I hired a camper van. Or should I say a little palace on wheels. It even had a DVD player, microwave and luxury of luxuries..... a toaster. You did have to be hooked up to an external power supply for all the fancy stuff though. I wasn't too bothered about them. I mixed it up a bit. Sometimes just pulling off the road at a quiet spot or staying at a campground. It usually depended on how much I needed a shower. That cleanliness thing is over rated don't you think?

Camp sites do have the added advantage of providing a little amusement. I was in the shower block cleaning my teeth one night at a lovely site in Te Anau, when this middle aged sensible looking guy comes in to pee in pale blue pyjamas covered in teddy bears!! I nearly choked on my toothpaste. He shot me a dirty look. I think he may have been German. Hilarious. Do the boys down the Hofbrauhaus know that's what he wears for bed. I'm assuming he was wearing them to bed. He could have been heading out on the town for all I knew. There are all sorts of weirdo's about.

Guys on their own are generally thrown into this classification whether they deserve it or not. At least in NZ I didn't get refused entry to any camp grounds on the grounds of being a middle aged guy on his own. It happened to me in Cornwall once. You can see the woman at the reservations counter surreptitiously eyeballing the list of undesirables who shall be denied admission - Rapist, Child Molester, Peeping Tom, Flasher, Drug Addict, Potential Suicide - all of the above can be encapsulated into one entry... middle aged guy on his own. Haven't these people heard of mid life crises. They are completely ubiquitous among the male population. Okay I'm making mine last until I'm good and done. But we all have the need to escape now and again. You know, get a little cave time to mull over life's imponderables in a damp field somewhere. I did manage to persuade the said keeper of the list that I was just a normal geezer and no threat to the wider population. Not without feeling as if I had somehow 'got away with it' and that my place should have been on that list somewhere. I remember the stay well. There was a family at the bottom of the pretty empty field. Loads of noisy kids and a loud wife. The man of this canvas house had trudged disconsolately past my tent a few times as I was lounging lugubriously with mug of tea and good book (not 'The' good book - or I definitely would have been on the list... forgot that one 'Religious Maniac'). Finally he plucked up the courage to speak, 'You're on your own aren't you?'. 'Yes' I replied. 'Lucky Bastard'.... that was all he said as he plodded back to his corner of marital bliss. Being on your own sometimes isn't all that bad.

All sorts of self revelations make themselves apparent on a trip like this. For instance, I've discovered that I can only go so long without Scouse. That may make me a walking Liverpudlian cliche but its true. I had to make it for the family in Australia and now I was getting the urge again. You can't beat it really. Cooking in the open air just makes it all the better. I do admit though that by the third day of warmed up Scouse I'm ready for a cheese butty. Just typing this is beginning to make me slobber on the keyboard. I must be due another 'fix'.

Cooking implies washing-up of course. But its amazing how quickly you drop into 'can't be arsed mode' when camping solo. After licking the plate and the pan the out of tongue-reach bits can be sorted with some bog paper. Its a bit of a problem though with this sanitized stuff that seems compulsory these days. The dishes were taking on a sort of urinal block flavour after a couple of days. Why do they have to infuse bog roll with that fucking awful 'you won't be able to smell the shit because this smells worse' stuff. I'm not an advocate of the terrible austere, sadomasochistic (you get more hits if you include words like that) Izal, greaseproof paper that haunted the toilets of my youth. This particular roll had a lovely pattern of sea shells painted on it! That's got to be a Friday afternoon marketing department committee idea. 'What can we print on the paper to give it the subliminal impression of being soft and absorbent?'..... 'Well how about sea shells?'....Brilliant.

I can't make a blog entry without some sort of mention of toilets or the lack thereof in this case. You know you are getting back to nature when the only facilities are a nearby bush. I had hoped to avoid too many expeditions into quiet corners armed only with a bog roll. Some of the Department of Conservation camp grounds are pretty basic though. Staying on one such place outside Queenstown, there were only a few camper vans dotted around this huge scrubby, wasteland sort of site. So I didn't expect a queue for the one corrugated iron dunny. Getting impatient I decided to try my luck au naturel. To be honest there were some massive Maori Bluebottles staking out the bog, with very aggressive buzzing. I had a mental image of them performing the Hakka as I dropped my kecks. Sticking out their three foot long tongues and rolling their sixteen eyes. No, the bushes were a much better option. That is of course until you nudge the branch that a moment before had seemed such a convenient loo roll holder and witness it disappearing down the slope back into open ground in full view of the rest of the site. Or for that matter the swarms of rapacious Sand Flies that had been lurking under the bush just waiting for me. I think the Bluebottles tipped them off. The nasty little bastards bite like crazy. What was evolution thinking of when it came up with these useless tormentors. I mean the countryside is largely devoid of any prey for them. What do they eat when they can't get tasty human. My shins looked like the raw beef I'd used in the scouse.

You can't visit New Zealand without checking out the adventure/adrenaline stuff. Even if you only get as far as gazing idly over the brochures that inhabit every shop, hotel and pub. I wimped out on the bungee jump having seen the place where they leap into the abyss. That reminds me of a joke - How does a blind person know when they have got to the bottom of a bungee jump? The lead on their guide dog goes slack.... Sorry. Where was I? Yes. Jet Boating. That was what I wanted. They go up the Shotover River to do this. I was in for a surprise when I got there. The river goes through a canyon you could just about squeeze a kayak through never mind a four and a half ton, 540bhp, twin V6 Buick powered jet boat that would give Jeremy Clarckson a hard-on. Woo Hoo what a ride. The drivers deliberately aim for the rocks that stick out of the canyon walls and up from the river bed. I was sure he was going to run it aground but apparently it only has a four and a half inch draft. Big 360 degree spins, all getting wet, screaming (that was just me). Fabulous. They should do that up the Leeds Liverpool Canal for Capital of Culture year. Dodge the shopping trolleys and skim the fishermen... cool. I want to be a Jet Boat driver. Giz a job, I could do tha.