Sunday, 31 May 2009

Views from (and of) the tops

I'll let the North Island scenery (or the bits I've climbed at any rate) speak for itself today. The three photos above are:
- Castle Rock towards the top of the Coramandel Peninsula.
- The Pinnacles further south in Coramandel.
- The summit of Mount Maunganui looking south to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty.
The Pinnacles walk in particular has a fantastic path, lots of ladders and rock staircases near the summit. There doesn't seem to be the same sort of focus on bagging peaks in NZ as there is in Scotland, but the popular ones are made as easy as any hiker could reasonably ask.
These walks are full of reminders of how much man has changed the NZ landscape. Not just the Europeans; the Maoris and the rats and dogs they introduced had wiped out Moa and lots of other birds before Europeans got here, but Europeans took destruction onto a new level. Coramandel has a few stands of the huge kauri trees, and used to have whole forests of them, but logging wiped these out in just a few decades. There's still attractive bush on the walk up to the Pinnacles, but the kauris will take centuries to recover their former glory.
The bush is full of interesting fauna and flora, if you like that sort of thing - I can only take so many different types of trees and shrubs. On some hills you hardly ever get out into the open until you reach the summit, and I miss the open hillsides and ridgewalks you get on Munros in Scotland.
Now back in Australia, but seem to have brought the NZ changable weather with me. Though Brisbane was flooded last week so maybe it's the other way round.

Friday, 29 May 2009

"Hey, I can eat beans without worrying about the consequences!"

One of NZ's finest tourist attractions would be the White and Pink terraces near Rotorua. If they hadn't been destroyed by the Mt Tarawera volcano in 1886, that is. But Rotorua's still pretty striking, to the nose as well as the eyes. Many years exposure to egg sandwiches has built up my resistance to sulphurous pong. The local maoris probably notice it even less, though this chap's looking a bit shell-shocked by it all. The villagers at the Whakarewarewa thermal village (this is the short version of its name) are much livelier, and even managed to put on a cultural display that didn't make me cringe, so obvious is their pride in and enjoyment of what they do. See for details. The place genuinely feels like a village where people live and work, rather than just a showcase for tourists, though this is partly because there are so many smoking maoris hanging around.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Whae's like us? And where are we?

NZ may be proud of its Scottish heritage, but we don't seem to be flocking here nowadays. I met a Scottish traveller at Rotorua the other day, she was the first I've spoken to since I left home. Whereas I've met any number of Dutch, Israelis, and Irish, none of whom I'd have expected to be travelling in greater numbers than us. Plus as many Germans as all the rest put together. Where are we all?

Maybe I'm just in the wrong places. There is a special breed of traveller who arrives in a City Centre hostel, and settles in to drink coffee, watch DVDs, moan about their lack of money and the impossibility of getting a job, and never moves on. Having spent only 2 nights in City hostels here I haven't met many of them, and I wouldn't want to think this was what the missing Scots are doing, but maybe...

Anyway, doesn't stop the locals paying tribute to us in all sorts of ways. A couple of examples (see photos) are a special Scottish section (which doesn't accentuate the bagpipes and silly dancing image quite as much as the photo implies) at Te Papa museum in Wellington. And a sculpture (ok, it may be coincidence) of the 'Worst Toilet in Scotland' scene in Trainspotting, from the delightfully wacky Waiau Water Park on the Coramandel Peninsula.

Regardless of how many of us come, some of us stay. I spent 2 nights with Caroline Bagshaw and family near Hamilton. Caroline's the sister of Roger whose tragic early death I mentioned in April. She was the year below me at school though our paths seldom crossed then and never subsequently. She moved here 16 years ago and the rest of her family followed. I couldn't have asked for better hospitality, especially in the circumstances, and glad I had the chance to belatedly pay my respects; I couldn't make the funeral as I only heard about it the day before.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

So here's what I think...

Another slice of my literary opinions. Anyone who would rather get these from qualified reviewers who actually get paid to read and comment on stuff, look away now.

The House of Dust - Paul Johnston: Actually, this only just qualifies as literature. It's a detective story set in a fascistic future Edinburgh (about 2025), which sounds a juicy mix of SF and crime fiction, but it's so badly written it gives both genres a bad name. Abysmal prose (the dialogue would embarrass Jeffrey Archer), 1-dimensional characters, and laughable set pieces (the heroes actually turn the tables on the main villain in the climactic confrontation by shouting the equivalent of "Look behind you!"). This chap's managed to get a whole series of these published, which is depressing.

Thud - Terry Pratchett: Late-period Pratchett, which means a more thoughtful (despite the title) plot (about dwarves and trolls - it's a race/religion allegory) and fewer laughs than he sometimes provides, though one crack about Gods still has me chuckling 3 weeks on. For Pratchett fans amongst my readership (i.e. my brother Alan, and er... not sure who else) it's one of the 'Guards' books, probably the best ongoing series on the Discworld.

Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood: A much more 'literary' novel, about a Canadian artist reflecting on her life, as she returns to an exhibition of her work in Toronto, where she grew up. It's gripping, especially in the sections about the narrator's early schooldays, which have been described as an important insight into the way young girls interact with and often bully each other. But it's a little chilly, some of the characters just don't come to life, and the narrator is someone things happen to, she seems to make few conscious choices of her own. It made me think, but I didn't find it very convincing, the later stages especially.

In Another Light - Andrew Greig: A Scottish novel intercutting the adventures of a doctor in Penang, Malaya, in the 1930s, with those of his son in contemporary Orkney. The son is trying to discover his father's hidden past, and to make sense of his own life and love after a near-death experience and a series of bereavements. It's excellent; mature, addictive, moving, and full of believable characters with recognisable dilemnas. I can see it having the same effect on many men as the film Sideways. The ending is a little contrived and makes some characters seem unrealistically devious, but it's a minor gripe. I'm looking forward to reading more of Greig's work; have given this one to Caroline Bagshaw in exchange for an earlier one set in the Borders. Hope we both get as much pleasure as I did from In Another Light.

Beneath the Skin - Nicci French: A superior thriller, well written by good observers (Nicci French is a pseudonym for a couple who write together) and tackles a really interesting dilemna - how do police, and victims, really feel and act when they realise that a victim has been chosen for death by a serial killer who has already proven his competence. But I didn't like the structure much, having narrators who tell the story up to the moment of their own murders is unpleasant rather than properly chilling.

Adrenalin Rush

So I decided to jump out of an aeroplane. It seems obligatory in NZ. And if you're going to do it, do it properly, so I went for the maximum 15,000 feet, 1 minute of freefall option. Then had a sleepless night, then the Taupo Tandem company maximised my nerves. Long delay before they got the plane organised; a German instructor with poor English, which meant pre-jump nerve-calming banter was out; then it turned out everyone else on the plane was leaping out at 12000 feet, so myself and instructor had it to ourselves for the last 5 minutes before the door opened again, and we took the big leap into the void. It's an out-of-body experience, I still can't quite compute that I did it, it feels like something that happened to someone else. And it went incredibly fast, can't believe the whole thing took a minute, never mind the freefall bit. I'm sure there were some fantastic views (like the one above of Mt Ruapehu, only higher), but I don't remember them, I'm sure I had some sort of conversation with my German after the chute opened, but the only thing I can remember saying is "Woooaaahhh". To misquote Steve Redgrave "If I ever strap one of those things [a German attached to a parachute] on my back again, shoot me". Of course, he did, and I secretly hope that on some subsequent big birthday I feel mad enough to sign up again.

Felt for one other chap who planned to do it the same day. He didn't know until he got there that they have a 100KG limit, he was 104KG, so had to sit in the aerodrome and watch his friends come back sporting the same sort of insane grins I was probably wearing myself an hour later.

Tried to recapture the magic the following day by trying to recapture the magic of childhood. The most exciting thing I did in NZ when I was 12 was the Shotover Jet Boat in Queenstown. In fact, it was better than any roller-coaster, a thumping twisting cascade through rapids, near death collisions with rocks, overhanging trees etc. Taupo has a similar run through several sets of rapids, and - well - ok, so I'm 41 now, it's not quite the same. but still fantastic fun.

But I still draw the line at bungy jumping.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be...

Masterton gets bypassed by most tourists, but that'll change when the plaques to commemorate my home and school go up. If I ever do anything worth remembering - suggestions please. Not that the conservation authorities are showing much respect in the meantime - the house (see photo) has acquired an extension to the back porch and a lot of decking, and part of the school burned down. But pretty much as I remember really, very strange to see them again 29 years on. Other things on the pilgrim trail have fared worse. The library has moved, the open air swimming pool is now mostly under cover (clearly Kiwis aren't as tough as they were) and the Golden Shears motel where we stayed on arrival in Masterton is now an Old Folks home. But my holy grail, Hedley's bookshop, is still a mainstay of the high street and has doubled in size, definitely a good sign. There's lots of good independent bookshops in small NZ towns, much better in this respect than their Scottish equivalents.

I caught up on some of what I'd missed while out with a friend from my Wairarapa College (i.e high school) year. We'd exchanged xmas cards up to about 7 years ago, but lost touch after that and I only decided to search for him in the phone book the day before I went to Palmerston North, where he lives now. He's a reminder of how straightforward my life has been. His wife of 20 years has had constant health problems, his kids are 'high-maintenance' for various reasons, and he's at least partly estranged from his parents and his 5 brothers. Though successful professionally his life sounds a real struggle, and he seemed glad of the chance to unload it all. And the stories he told of the few classmates and even teachers we both recall all involved underachievement and missteps. In particular, one guy I recall as being bright, the best sportsman in the year, and an extremely nice guy (he was very good to me as the uncertain foreign kid - I didn't have the confidence to make a real effort to win him as a close friend, though I would have liked to), apparently got into drugs in a big way at University and was last heard of in a psychiatric institution. There's an awful lot of ways to mess up a life, glad I've avoided most of them.

This sounds a bit downbeat! Glad I went back, wish I'd time to see more of the local sites and do the walks I resisted like mad when our parents tried to drag us up them the first time round. Many thanks to Peter Donaldson and family for their hospitality, including the kids party we went to, featuring very complex tug of war - about 20 kids and they all kept changing sides. Though even by my standards, watching 4 rugby games (3 Super 14 plus a local match), plus going to see Pete coach his son and other kids on the Saturday morning, in the space of 26 hours, is a bit excessive!

An NZ vignette

I was eating between planes at Christchurch airport when an extremely classy lass sat at the next table. Sharp black suit, expensive hair, immaculate makeup, eating a small plate of sushi while typing on an up-to-the-minute laptop. Wouldn't have looked out of place in the swankiest 3 Michelin star restaurant.

Then a waiter brought her a huge bowl of fries, which she proceeded to slather in enough ketchup to drown a whale. Christchurch ain't turning into the Paris of the south anytime soon...

Sunday, 17 May 2009

If you want to get ahead...

Mexican flu has reached Wellington. The symptoms, and the effect they had on the fashion sense of one innocent traveller (his resistance weakened by an onslaught of tortillas and intoxicating beverages), are clearly visible.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Coming in from the cold

As previously stated, I think couchsurfing ( is a great idea, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. In the case of my hosts in Dunedin and Wellington, this means heating. NZ has a curious view of central heating and double glazing, ie 'we're not ready for these new-fangled ideas, thanks'. In the Dunedin flat, there were alternatives, but being students, my hosts were reluctant to incur cost by using them. In Wellington, my hosts simply don't have anything - the flat is in any case more a micro-brewery (with a very palatable product) than a place to stay. Of course, the accommodation is free, so I'm not really complaining, just didn't think my chunky hand-knit pullover would see so much indoor use here.

But it's the opposite with Pete and Debbie (the latest members of the Donaldson clan to host me - as ever, hospitality way beyond anything I've a right to expect) in Masterton. A wood burning fire-cum-water heating system in the living room, which had me sweating beer (Pete is very generous on this front too) by the end of the 1st evening. This is a much nicer problem. Plus the weather is warmer here in the north. Just as wet, but this has mostly been at night, when I find it a relaxing sound. In fact, getting to sleep without the sound of water pounding on the roof and windows could be an issue, if I ever get to experience it again.
Will report on the Masterton nostalgia-fest next time. But had a few days in Wellington first. I've little memory of spending time in the cities when we were here before, suspect that as outdoors people our parents just didn't take us to them much. Wellington is the most attractive NZ city to walk in (or rather above - see photo for one of many attractive viewpoints that overlook the city), but the big attraction is Te Papa, the newish Museum of New Zealand. Like many of these new museums, it has complex architecture that somehow fails to form a coherent whole from any angle, and an impressionistic approach to exhibits which sometimes makes me want to grab a guide by the shirtfront and shout "I don't want to know how it felt, I want to know what happened, dammit!" The Imperial War Museum in Manchester was the same, a sensory assault that told me lots about what it was like to be in a war, but left me giving thanks that I knew the history of the wars Britain had actually fought prior to going in. But both are very impressive in their own way. Te Papa is huge, and the large-scale exhibits make excellent use of the space they've been given.
Te Papa is also a reminder that the Maori experience is more central to life and culture on the north island than the south. The Maori versions of history and myth are reported on exhibits and at viewpoints in the south, but they can seem like afterthoughts, plus I saw few actual Maoris there. Apparently there were large areas they never colonised, only visiting seasonally to mine or hunt. I'll be interested to see how the North differs.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Lucky, lucky, lucky

Not with the weather, that is. But the wildlife has been extremely cooperative on this trip, I feel like Dr Dolittle. Birds queueing up to be photographed, a higher than average number of whales, dolphins returning to Kaikoura after a few days away just in time for me to swim with them. And now the albatrosses. I took an Otago peninsula wildlife tour yesterday, including a half hour in the royal albatross viewing hide. Many visitors see only a few chicks waiting patiently for their parents to return from marathon fishing trips, which only happens every 2-3 days. We saw 4 adults soaring past the hide (several times each), 2 chicks being fed (see below), one take-off, and as a bonus, a hawk also hovered 10 yards from the hide, then pounced on a mouse and took off with the unlucky wee thing still in its claws. Our guide was practically in ecstasy, proclaiming us the luckiest visitors of the whole season.

The tour also involved seals (Mums and Pups, far more active than the sleeping heaps of blubber I've seen elsewhere), sealions, and yellow-eyed penguins, all at the far end of the peninsula. Plus spectacular raging seas, I've no idea how the seals at that location survive their trips from sea to land, we'd look like we'd spent 5 minutes in a blender.

Still no kiwis yet though, hope to put this right in the north island.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

How did you know I'm not from round here?

Travellers don't want to look like travellers, we want to blend in. Depending on who you are and where you are, sometimes it ain't that easy...

I love it when a plan comes together

Just occasionally something works out well enough for me to feel smug. My plan to cycle the Otago Rail Trail in 3 days was dropped when I saw the weather forecast for the last 2, instead I went for the scenic train trip up the Taieri Gorge, overnight in Ranfurly, followed by a single day cycle on the section of the trail from Ranfurly to Middlemarch.  Very cold, but downhill and downwind, and the heavy showers weren't forecast until the afternoon.  Sure enough, the bus driver who picked me up in Middlemarch said that when he'd driven through Ranfurly (5 hours after I left it) the snow had arrived and was piling up on the roadsides.  I met a few cyclists heading in that direction; I'm guessing they didn't enjoy the trail as much as I did!  It's an excellent cycle route, has apparently done wonders to revive interest in an area that doesn't normally get many visitors.  If only someone had thought to do something similar when the Waverley line through the Borders closed down.

I wasn't the only one to be scared off by the forecast.  The scenic train was busy, but I had the bus to Ranfurly, the hostel in Ranfurly, and the bus the following day from Middlemarch back to Dunedin all to myself.  Not sure the last was a good thing, it meant the bus driver could lecture me on his Neil Diamond obsession for over an hour, at least 55 minutes more than I wanted.

A word in praise of the NZ visitor centres ('i-sites').  I went into the Dunedin one to ask about this trip at 10:45 on Friday morning, needing to be on the Taieri Gorge train at 12:30.  I needed to book the train, 2 separate buses, overnight accommodation, and bike hire (including delivery to my starting point).  All done within 15 minutes, very efficient, which has been my experience of the i-sites throughout.  

Not sure if the weather on the Otago plain has been as bad since, but if Dunedin is any guide, there'll be some miserable cyclists out there.  I'm in an attic room, ideal for listening to rain crashing against your roof and window from all angles.   And a good excuse to spend 2 days huddled in museums, galleries, pubs (Chiefs v Hurricanes was best rugby game I've seen in nz to date) and movie theatres (Star Trek last night, very entertaining).  Venturing out again today for my last chance to see albatrosses and penguins, on the Otago peninsula.  Don't think these guys make it to the North Island, where I'm headed tomorrow, they seem to like this weather for some reason. 

Thursday, 7 May 2009


Everything in NZ is just a bit bigger than everything in Scotland.  I'd no problems with them having bigger mountains than ours, but it's a bit depressing that they even have 2 mountains called Ben Nevis bigger than ours.  

Looking on the bright side, they have much bigger student flats than ours, if tonight's accommodation is any guide.  I'm here via the Couchsurfing network, in a room that I thought was a cupboard but turns out to be like Bender's cupboard in Futurama, i.e. almost bigger than the flat it's attached to!  Many thanks to my host Emily and her flatmates for the hospitality, and to Emily for letting me join her swimclub for drinks tonight - never seen such a gathering of impressive sets of shoulders in my life!

They also have a bigger than average rainfall, and much of it is scheduled to fall in Otago in the next few days, so debating whether to go for cycling the full Otago railtrail.  May settle for just a section of the trail, the bit nearest to the far end of the Taieri Gorge scenic railway which I'll definitely be taking whatever the weather.  

Or I could spend 3 days watching Super 14 games in the pub...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Blasts from the past

I wasn't sure what I'd remember of NZ from my previous visit in 1979/80, when I was 12. The answer so far has been 'not much', though partly because I haven't revisited many of the same places. The family did a 3 week tour of the South Island in 1980, but myself and brothers were more interested in jet boats and swimming pools than scenery, and though I definitely remember Milford Sound, it was more for the dolphins, seals, and the thrill of driving through a long tunnel than for the waterfalls and soaring peaks it's famous for.

But had a couple of flashbacks in recent days. The drive from Picton to Havelock is only about 25 miles but I remember it taking forever. In 1980 we took so long that we arrived after the petrol station was closed, and the following day was Sunday, so no petrol for sale back then. We were only able to head on to Greymouth because a Havelock local offered to siphon some petrol from his lawnmower! And while opening hours may be more convenient nowadays, the road is just as twisty, I doubt anyone could exceed an average of 20mph, especially when driving an elderly Nissan Sunny. Very scenic, if you're not in a hurry, but if you are, travelling this region by boat makes much more sense.

Another thing I remember is the waterfall in the photo, because even at 12 I realised that the concrete thing at the far side was an awful eyesore doing its best to spoil the view. I didn't remember where it was, or even that it was in NZ, but anyway, these are the Maruia Falls, created by the Murchison Earthquake in the 1920s, and this is only a fraction of what they'd be capable of after a wet spell.
The real nostalgia fest will be my return to Masterton in the North Island, where we lived in 79/80. I remember the layout of the town, our house and garden, and my school very well, and am looking forward both to seeing them and to semi-scientifically analysing how closely they fit my memories. Of course, school and house may have been knocked down by now!
But anyway, prior to wallowing in the past I've committed to cycling the Otago Rail Trail, so heading down towards Dunedin for my last few days in the South Island; currently back with the Donaldsons in Christchurch. Have spent more time than intended in the South (I've put back the date of my return flight from Auckland to Brisbane), and still not seen the glaciers, been to Mount Cook, or taken part in the permanent party that is Queenstown. But can't do everything, and you'd need a lot more time than I've got to do everything NZ has to offer. Maybe on the next trip....

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Making it up as I go along

I made an almost (but not quite) conscious decision on this trip not to plan too far ahead. In NZ, this has taken the form of staying in places I knew almost nothing about (eg Tekapo, Hamner Springs, currently Nelson), not buying a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, and making my decisions about what to see and do on the day I do them. This has been mostly positive. Most recent trip has been 2 days up at Golden Bay with Dani from Austria, walking the Abel Tasman Park (soaked again, but at least got some nice rainbows), the beaches near Farewell Spit, and to one of the World's biggest deepest holes near where more of Lord of the Rings was filmed (she's another LOTR obsessive). We met and arranged all this in Nelson the night before we set off, I doubt we'd have done so if I'd been enslaved by the Rough Guide the way some travellers are. Now she's about to go to the North Island, or start working somewhere, or just sit drinking coffee for a few days (you think I'm indecisive...) and I'm going back south, to Christchurch and then maybe on to Dunedin, where I'd like to cycle the Otago railtrail. Probably fly to North Island after that.

One decision I can't put off much longer is how long to stay in NZ. Right now I'm booked to fly out on 20th May, but this leaves very little time for the North Island, so now planning to put this back at least a week. Less time for Oz, but hey, been there done (some of) that.

I wondered if I'd lose touch/interest with what was happening at home. No sign of it yet, checking rugby news is still 1st thing I do when I get computer access, and Hull City's battle to avoid relegation is still on my mind. But not seen anything about Scottish politics since I left, another plus about being away!

Incidentally, no shortage of emails from home, including comments about this blog, for which many thanks, but no comments on the blog itself for some time. Feel free to add them, the more irreverent the better, I hate talking to myself.