Tuesday, 28 April 2009


It goes without saying that snorers are the greatest curse to afflict humankind. Their rasping, hooting, roaring, shuddering (I've heard all kinds) sounds are carefully calibrated to cause maximum irritation to the light sleepers they afflict. They should all be consigned to the 7th circle of Hell immediately, alongside the Taleban, the Khmer Rouge, and that referee who gave England a last minute penalty at Murrayfield in 1994. They [goes on and on in this vein for several minutes, you probably don't need to read it]
But so far I've been pretty lucky. I've shared hostel dorms with up to 12 people and can only recall one really bad night. That was at the end of the Milford Track. Ironically sharing huts with at least 7 people on the Track itself was no trouble, but sharing with 3 in the Milford Backpackers lodge was torture - a Japanese man and a very large lady (I was concerned about the strength of the bed - she was in the bunk above me), joined together in unharmonious symphony and proved impervious to all the pokes, kicks, sirens and rabid possums I threw at them.

It probably helps that nearly all dorms seem to be mixed these days; the girls snore in a ladylike fashion if at all, and perhaps the guys subconsciously tone it down in order to avoid making a bad impression (this may not be good science). Most dorms were single sex when I did Europe by train in 1992, and the snoring was far worse.

Snoring is no problem if you're so tired you're asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. One way to achieve this is lots of beers, but the one I've just tried is 2 days cycling in heavy rain on Queen Charlotte Track (pictured with latest trusty steed). There's great views of the sounds on either side of this peninsula, and despite a few too many steep sections, the track is a nice mix of coastal and ridgetop. But I didn't have much time to look at the views, more focused on staying upright, it was very slippery at times. Only one fall, which given velocity and rocky landing caused surprisingly little damage, but really tiring, mentally as well as physically.

One other strange experience on the Track, a large good quality restaurant at Punga Cove (where I stayed) to myself! There were only a few occupants that night and everyone else was cooking for themselves. So waitress and chef had an evening solely devoted to making me happy, I could get used to it!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Call yourself a hostel?

Back on my own again, Zoe's off to the North Island in search of a job on the Hobbit, or a course in meditation in Thailand, or to get away from pleas from her Dutch friends for her to come back to her old job behind the scenes in a Dutch TV hospital drama; she hasn't decided yet. But enjoying wine tasting while considering options - photo is from winery near Blenheim. So I'm having to cook for myself again, with the exception of dessert - current hostel serves portions of a huge chocolate pudding to all residents every night, best freebie so far. And the room at this hostel is en suite, unheard of luxury. Though to be fair, most hostels have been good, except in Christchurch, I've heard complaints about 3 different ones there. Good job the proliferation of Donaldsons in Christchurch means I haven't had to stay in any of them.

So time for another long distance track before I get fat. The Queen Charlotte Track at the top of the South Island, starting tomorrow, and this time I'm doing it by mountain bike, which should reduce it to 2 days. Hikers use the same path, wonder how many of them I can take out en route?

Friday, 24 April 2009

The Big Guys

NZ has to be the most environmentally aware place on earth, you can't do anything without being reminded of the effect you're having on the planet, and on NZ in particular. Which is fair enough, it may be beautiful and seems full of fantastic animals, but the numbers are tiny proportions of what they used to be. There were lots of reminders on today's whale watching trip, but the sperm whales here in Kaikoura don't seem to hold it against us and put on a top show. The moment when they stop lounging on the surface, flick their tails in the air and set off for the depths in search of another 200 kg of squid, is the moment when all the cameras click. Except mine, which was unfortunately still in the hostel, but Zoe has a better camera anyway so this is probably a far better shot than any I'd have taken.

It's one of the truisms of travelling that you keep bumping into the same people. So far, I've only one such stalker, Marco from Italy, who I met in Te Anau (he had the bunk under mine). And Stewart Island. And Dunedin. And now here - he's in the bed opposite me in the dorm tonight. Can't decide which of us is feeling more uncomfortable about this, we haven't really had a proper conversation yet, but I suppose I'd better start one at some point if this is going to keep happening.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Hope it doesn't do what it says on the tin

I wonder if the NZ authorities really want us all scruffy travellers trailing round their country; at times they go out of their way to make it sound uninviting. After braving Dead Man's Beach in Stewart Island, yesterday saw an assault on Avalanche Peak at Arthur's Pass, hoping that the name was a mispelled invite to 'have a lunch' and not anything more threatening. But weather was anything but threatening, clear and sunny throughout, and in any case myself and current travelling companion Zoe from Holland are veterans of the Milford Track and so undeterred by threatening nomenclature. Or else have formed a belief that divine providence in the shape of helicopters will swoop down and carry us to safety any time we get into trouble. Anyway, Avalanche Peak (about 6000 feet) was duly added to our list of the NZ equivalent of Munros (summit photo attached). OK, so this list currently numbers 1, but got to start somewhere. NZ walking tracks are excellent, mainly to ensure that walkers stick to them and don't wonder off into the wilderness, and the Dept of Conservation which governs the wilderness areas has a thorough system to ensure us 'trampers' report our comings and goings. But the cairns on the summits are a bit underwhelming, maybe because they don't last long. Apparently the summit of Mount Cook (NZ's highest) and much of one side of the mountain took part in an avalanche a few years ago, lowering the mountain by about 20 feet. I'm sure it doesn't happen often, but doesn't encourage you to linger on the tops.

I also spent my 1st night at a bach, which are NZ 2nd homes, sort of like but'n'bens in Scotland, but just as often on the coast as in the hills. This one was built by Terry Donaldson in the 1960's, before he settled down to among other things act as my Dad's boss in 1980 when my family was out here for a year. These architectural skills have been passed to his sons and grandchildren, who built an impressive house out of driftwood on the beach in the course of an afternoon. Many thanks to Terry and his family for their hospitality, really glad we've stayed in touch all this time, just a pity that Motanau Beach was about the only place in NZ covered by thick cloud while we were there.

Zoe and myself have agreed an amicable division of labour; I drive the hire car, she cooks (extremely well), and in between we spend the time disagreeing about films and music. Have now reached Hamner Springs for some sulphurous R&R, whale watching in Kaikoura next if the Japanese 'scientific' community haven't sent them all to the dinner tables of Tokyo by now.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Down on the farm

Another ambition for the NZ leg of the trip achieved - I've played representative rugby!

...OK, I played alongside representative rugby players.

...OK, 1 player. Who is 13 and has played for the Southland Under 48KGs team.

...OK, it was 3 a side in Soren's garden and I was rounded by an elusive 7 year old. Who then beat me at Monopoly as well.

Actually I blame Sheena for all this; after 3 helpings of fish pie, plus all the pancakes, carrot cake et al it was a miracle I could move at all. Credit also to one of their cows for some fantastic steaks, albeit I think her contribution was involuntary. I was beginning to think I was being fattened up to take the cow's place, so have made a break for it. Latest rickety Nissan Sunny hire car got me to Dunedin today, via the scenic bits of the Catlins (saw lots of seals/sealions (pictured) - will have to memorise the difference sometime), and have just spent several hours watching the Highlanders' (local rugby team) latest miserable capitulation while being harangued by the locals on the inadequecy of all things northern hemisphere, which as they kept buying me pints I was quite happy to listen to.

At least I beat Soren at golf on the world's most southerly 18 hole links course. Anyone who thinks this sounds just like my life at home, only without work, is of course alarmingly near the truth, so will try and push the envelope in time for the next blog. Not too easy down at the foot of NZ, everything is just so Scottish that it's hard not to slip into a comfortable routine.

Many thanks to Soren, Sheena and all their family for their hospitality, incidentally; it went so far beyond the call of duty as to be out of the park - I hope I get the chance to repay the favour, perhaps for their boys when they're ready to travel in a few years. I've made clear to all of them that notwithstanding NZ residency, they're Scots and if they're ever good enough to play international rugby it had better be Scotland they play it for - or this invite will be withdrawn!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

I've got a blog, so my views matter, right?

One great thing about a blog is you get to shove your opinions down people's throats. Until they all go away and you're talking to yourself, that is. But risking all, here's what I've been reading since leaving the UK. Being a hoarder, it's been painful parting company with some of these books, but I was determined not to carry useless baggage, so they've all gone to hopefully good homes:

Impartial History of Britain - John O'Farrell: Comic history, more of England than Britain, as the author admits. Very easy and occasionally amusing read, though lots of cheap jokes at obvious targets too. Left with my couchsurfing host Colin in Melbourne, I think he actually wanted it for the history rather than the comedy. It does both, though anyone using it as a reference should be careful about which is which.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay - Michael Chabon: A 'Great American Novel' type book, brimming with content. New York social history, the war, the holocaust, all against the backdrop of the early heady days of comic books and their explosion in popularity. Compelling characters and scenarios, I loved it. Left in Vic Hall hostel in Melbourne with my enthusiastic recommendation.

The Road - Cormac McCarthy: Like Kavalier and Clay, a Pulitzer prize winner (only the best...) but very different, a grim, spare, repetitive post-holocaust trudge through a dead world, focused on an unnamed father and son only. Addictive but depressing, and it annoys me that 'literary types' think this is the 1st time this sort of thing has been done, simply because it's a 'novel' and doesn't carry the Science Fiction banner. Set in that context, it's a little better written but basically no different to much that's gone before. Also left in Melbourne as an antidote for anyone who's taken too many happy pills.

Pyramids - Terry Pratchett: I needed something funny and full of human optimism like this after The Road. If you know Pratchett this book won't surprise you, if you don't it's time you tried. I think it's one of the better ones I've read but maybe that's just because I was in the mood for it. Left with Matt Donaldson with my recommendation, Alan can give him the comprehensive guide to what he should read next if he likes it.

The Jane Austen Book Club - Karen Joy Fowler: Upmarket Californian chick-lit, tieing the lives of 6 characters in a club to discuss Austen's novels with the 6 Austen novels themselves. A bit inconsequential but full of clever insights, and I like Fowler's use of her characters to recommend good SF (which she used to write) to the reader. Would have meant more if I'd actually read any of Austen's novels, of course, though I know the plots of 3 of them from various films. Left in Te Anau youth hostel prior to commencing the Milford Track, which saved it from a soaking.

Last Call - Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates is one of my favourite novels, a brilliantly plotted and atmospheric time travel story, full of Dickensian ghoulishness. I'd tried 3 of Powers' books since, except for brief moments none had recaptured the spark. But Last Call gets much closer, the imagery and mystique of tarot and gambling is lots of fun, and the plotpot boils nicely throughout, even if there's never much doubt about where it's heading. The characters and setting are all a bit American for me, and the book is too long, but basically I'd recommend it. Though if you've not read Anubis Gates (and unless I persuaded you to do so, it's unlikely you have) then read that first. Left in Dunedin Hostel.

Not sure what'll be next. Recommendations welcome...

Go Mongrels!

You probably know from the Sports headlines (what do you mean it wasn't reported?) that the Mongrels (Dave and Nicki from Christchurch; Dawn from Horsham, England; Sarah from Eastern Germany and me) stormed to victory in the institution (well, apparently the Lonely Planet Guide mentions it) that is the Stewart Island Sunday quiz. A strong female contingent was crucial in the 'identify the brand of chocolate bar' round, your truly was most use for the 'Name every English king between 1216 and 1553' question, I knew that Weetabix wallchart that lived on my bedroom wall in the late 70s would earn its corn someday.

Apart from this high intensity sporting occasion, it's been a quiet few days. Stewart Island has the usual share of long-distance bush-tracks, but after Milford I was happy to settle for the more local variety of walks and cycles, both around the main town Oban (where I drank Oban single malt to fit in), and on the rat and stoat free (a very big deal here - the local birdlife can't fight for toffee so gets massacred when either of these make landfall) island of Ulva. As with everywhere else in the South Island, everything non-Maori is named after a Scots man or place.

Back on the farm in Invercargill now, still in awe at the quality of food and hospitality laid on by Sheena for the 10 people in the house at present. Plus she did the 5am milking this morning. Also having a laugh at Soren's primary school class photos, what an embarrassment some of those hairstyles are, think the reason my class couldn't beat them at football must be because we were laughing so much.

Friday, 10 April 2009

"Oh Lord, I've never been a religious man, but I'll devote my life to you if you send me a helicopter NOW"

The Milford Track is said to be the best walk in the World, and one of the wettest. Both true. It was the only 'epic' I'd specifically committed myself to before I left the UK; you have to book your place on it months in advance. As predicted, the weather gods were indeed saving themselves for this, and on Day 2, they gave it everything - about 500mm of rain in total on various parts of the track. After 2 hours of leading us miserably through thigh deep streams, the ranger announced that if we went any further (1st photo) we'd be neck deep or worse, and that while he wasn't ruling this out, he would radio his base to discuss ferrying us over the submerged stretch by helicopter. Everyone secretly prayed to his/her own personal Gods for the whirly option, and thankfully they answered us (2nd photo). It took about 15 trips and 2 hours to ferry us all over the 5 impassable kilometers, and the 5 minutes it took were more than cool enough to compensate for the hours of misery beforehand, and even the additional hours of misery that evening when I discovered that my cagoule, pack and contents were rather less waterproof than hoped.

Soaked trampers (NZ-speak for hikers) aside, the Milford Track is at its best in the rain, with spectacular temporary waterfalls cascading down 2000 foot cliff faces everywhere you look - I could see 20+ at several points. And Milford Sound is a picture book place to finish up, though it's a strange feeling staggering off the boat at the end of the 4 days into a visitor centre full of endless busloads of Japanese tourists. I had a similar experience in Macchu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail a few years ago. Must be weird for them too, can't imagine we smelt very good.

But this all seems a bit inconsequential right now. Checking emails on my return to Te Anau, I learned that Roger Bagshaw had died suddenly. He was a couple of years below me at school, and though we didn't have much direct contact, we met regularly via our mutual friend Ian Brown (usually in fairly liquor-fuelled circumstances) kept in touch through Facebook more recently, and I'd made arrangements to see him in Christchurch later this month after his return from the Hong Kong Sevens. He was the life and soul of every night out I ever shared with him, very hard to believe he's gone. See http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=76436791850 for how much he meant to friends old and new.

Now staying with another school friend, Soren O'Reilly, plus his family (4 boys from 7 to 13, so unlikely to be a relaxing few days!), near Invercargill.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Mackenzie Country

...which was named after a sheep rustler, a proud son of our clan, needless to say. It's a strangely dry part of the country, which is why it has NZ's biggest observatory (about 5 telescopes) on one of the mountains, and I spent this evening at their first ever open night (part of international astronomy year). Can now find southern cross, Alpha centauri, Sirius and Betelgeuse, and saw Saturn plus rings and moons through telescope for first time. Staggering level of ignorance in some of the questions being asked by my fellow attendees. One clearly didn't believe we'd landed on the moon, another wanted detailed instructions on how to respond to an asteroid strike.

Getting dangerously complacent about NZ weather, which has been excellent so far. Nasty feeling the weather gods are saving up for a drench on the Milford Track. Only time I've got wet so far was while swimming with dolphins, which is kind of the point. Oh, and for Lord of the Rings fans, wading the river to get to where they filmed the Edoras scenes. Casual visits aren't encouraged, but having driven 25 miles up the valley I wasn't going to let thigh deep water put me off, especially as there were girls on the summit of the hill who'd clearly forded the river ahead of me. No signs at all of film crew occupation, never mind golden halls of Meduseld, but it's a fantastic viewpoint regardless, would have been ideal for the Rohirrim to spot approaching armies, if the Rohirrim had been real, that is.

Update - 14/4: Should say more about the dolphins, everyone asks about it. Basically we were zipped into wetsuits (photo attached for those with strong stomachs), taken on a 20 minute boatride, thrown into the sea at the point where bay meets ocean, and encouraged to make lots of noise, which usually attracts Flipper's local relatives. Well, his much smaller relatives, these were Hecter's dolphins, which are the ladies handbag version. They were a little shy at first, but after us mermaids gave them some rousing renditions of the Hokey Cokey, Old MacDonald, and The Melrose Song (ok, that was just me), they started making regular spins through the group, coming within a few inches several times though never stopping to chat. It's exhilarating, though Soren tells me that his family were able to boogie board with the same species for free at beaches on the south coast on holiday, which sounds even better.