First deviation from this blog’s initial purpose as a travel diary, however I’m not below shameless plugging. Here’s a short review of the recently read ‘Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
Read the review here on the short and weird writings of Lin: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/414370851
I must confess to stealing this idea from our friends Tom, Becky and Michael who presented their ‘favourites’ in a very similar format. We have both had the most wonderful experience of our short lives and we thought this would be a great way to reflect on the very best bits of the trip. It also allows you to live the highlights without trawling unnecessarily through post after post of my rambling.
Whether you’ve been a regular reader, an occasional observationist, or have accidentally found yourself on this page in a search for something else, I thank you all for your time and energy. I hope you have found something in it that made you smile, laugh, cry, gasp, cheer, moan or groan. If nothing else, I hope it killed a half an hour.
We had the time of our lives, and I immensely enjoyed bringing our experiences to your computer screens. Here, are the Gappies:
Apologies for the late post; there’s been a little adjustment over the last few days. The post below was written whilst sitting in JFK Airport’s departure lounge, Thursday 16th August at around 19.00. Last in the series!!
Airports aren’t inherently exciting places. They aren’t particularly colourful; not really entertaining (quite the opposite) and the staff inhabiting them actually look as though they live there, unhappily welcoming you into their home with a grunt and the snap of a nylon glove. Also, there are no ball-ponds. If there were, you’d see far more smiling faces. Anyway, forgetting the primary reason for going to an airport they’re pretty drab. But the times I’ve actually remembered why I put myself through the rigorous security procedures and hours and hours of waiting, I’ve been as giddy as the puppy whose realised he can tire himself out by running circuits around the sofa (true story, thanks Bess).
The reason being, that boarding a plane and jetting off to a new city is exciting and this has been the reward for everything else one has to put up with in airports. But the latest airport instalment I fear will not have that same impending excitement, not least because it will be our final flight of our six month trip. Actually no, it won’t be our final flight. It will be our second to last flight, and maybe that is why I feel so indifferent.
It’s only Iceland that comes between New York and Manchester and whilst I’m very excited to come home, the prospect of transferring in Reykjavik has not filled me with the same glee as past sojourns to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Sydney, Auckland and New York. Speaking of the Empire State, there was plenty of anticipation coursing through my veins as we waited to board in Los Angeles ten days ago; enough for a transfusion in fact. We had enjoyed our stint in California and among the neon lights of the Nevada desert, but New York was the state I was looking forward to the most: the grade-A student among a mixed bunch; the favourite child.
From the moment we landed at New York’s JFK airport, I felt at ease. Excited, yes but more than anything, I just felt comfortable. Things just felt easy. Whether that’s more the result of being in an English speaking country allowing for easily navigable airport/metro/subway directions, or the culmination of various airports over the past six months, I’m not certain. With the direction of an extremely helpful cousin, we arrived in Brooklyn, tired but content.
After a bit of breakfast courtesy of our host and one (okay two) cups of revitalising tea, we did what any traveller is keen to do with their surroundings despite the six hour overnight flight: familiarise. We walked about the neighbourhood finding convenience at every turn: subways, restaurants, bars, restaurants that look like bars, card shops, butchers, pharmacies, pharmacies posing as mini-supermarkets and not far from our ‘door-step’ the man-filled island of Manhattan.
Above: Lower Manhattan’s Financial district, as seen from Brooklyn
We got our first glimpse of Manhattan after taking a stroll to what used to be Brooklyn’s bustling docks but what is now largely a paved promenade and leisure space, complete with fountains/springs for Brooklyn’s pixies to prance about in and several beach volleyball courts, which were surprisingly still being used even after NBC’s Olympics coverage finished. From talks with the locals, it would seem Brooklyn has undergone some refurbishments in the past few years and this project is just one demonstration that this NYC borough is changing people’s perspective about itself.
I think I was hoping to be able to see the entire city at a single glance, but I’m glad that my naivety was dashed by the very large reality of one of the world’s biggest cities. The only skyscrapers in view were those of downtown (and when they say downtown it really is a different town), where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre should still be stood. But the part of town which includes Wall Street still engages the eye; not quite breath-taking, but mightily impressive. If you alter your glance north-east along the waterfront, you see the Brooklyn Bridge; all brown and ageing, basking in its own iconic-ness. Just one of hundreds of magnificent NY landmarks, we centred our first full day in NYC on this bridge, enjoying an ice-cream by the pier before beginning the walk across it.
Above: Brooklyn Bridge and part of the Manhattan skyline from the pier
We found out from a different but equally helpful cousin that a NY City Pass would become our best friend whilst in town, especially if we were keen to visit all the major landmarks, museums and galleries- which we were. For $89 the pass provided admission to The American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), The Museum of Modern Art and the Empire State Building. All these attractions charge a general admission of at least $20 so we had already paid for four of our ‘must-do’s’. In addition the City Pass also gave us entry to one of The Guggenheim Museum or The Rockefeller Centre (observation deck) whilst providing discount to the one you didn’t chose, as well as either a boat trip to Liberty and Ellis islands or a river cruise.
At risk of sounding like a publicist for the City Pass, it was well worthwhile and I recommend anyone visiting NY for its museums and galleries to purchase one. Not only did it save us money on all the attractions we would have visited anyway, more often than not the pass acted as a queue-jump, while the ill-informed suckers waited in line for general admission. Ha! (If you quote my blog when you buy one, I receive 50 cents and a bar of Hershey’s, as per our endorsement agreement…)
Thanks to our nine days in NYC, we were admitted to take our time without the risk of boring ourselves with too many attractions in one day. Deciding two attractions per day would be sufficient for our sanity, we snaked into the city underground and popped up on Central Park’s west-side to visit the American Museum of Natural History. After a spectacular planetarium show narrated by that famous advocate of space exploration, Whoopi Goldberg, and a long walk about the vast halls of the building, we had planned to take a brisk walk through the sunning park to the MET on the other side. Unfortunately the green grass, the warming sun and the strange feeling of serenity among a city of chaos was too much, and we surrendered to a short nap.
Above: looking west from our nap-spot in Central Park
But as I said, we had the time to allow for such factors beyond our control: weather, illness…sleep. We managed to get to all of the above attractions whilst also managing to go shopping too. Apparently “you can’t come to New York and not shop” so with what money we had going spare we took/I was taken to Madison and 5th Avenues as well as Broadway. On this particular occasion I was content to walk about the city in my usual manner, staring high and angular at street after street of buildings that reach seemingly forever upwards, each scraper trying to out-bid its neighbour in their American conquest of sky.
Above: looking up from the 9/11 Memorial, 1 World Trade Centre (or Freedom Tower) nears it’s completion, due to become the city’s tallest building.
When the weekend came around, we looked closer to Brooklyn for an afternoon of entertainment, assuming it would be even busier on subways and in museums during the weekend. We were pointed in the direction of Williamsburg- just a few subway stops from our Brooklyn base- which had a reputation as a ‘hipster’ hangout. The main street of Bedford certainly gave way to a trendy arts scene with an overkill of café’s, book shops, vendors on the streets selling books, CD and vinyl stores, cheap eateries and bars. At 3pm on a sunny Saturday, the street was buzzing with life, taking on a mini summer British festival, if only such events were allowed to take place on the street (and only if such fine weather found its way to our Isles). If you visit NYC/Brooklyn, you must sample the local brew: Brooklyn Lager. For American ale, it’s surprisingly un-American.
Above: a busy Bedford Avenue on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg- great for grabbing a drink, a bit to eat or browsing the many book shops.
It’s hard not to come to NYC without boarding a sea-vessel, and our nautical voyage in the harbour took us to the two famous islands after Manhattan: Liberty and Ellis. After the hour + wait to board the ferry from Battery Park downtown, we decided not to bother disembarking on Liberty; home to the Green Lady with the lamp. Firstly, we were given good views from the ferry as we approached the island, enough for a few photos, and secondly the queue to get back on the ferry looked too big considering we might only spend 20 minutes gawking at her feet.
Above: Lady Liberty, from the less-popular and more flattering rear-view
As such we stayed aboard till Ellis, getting off to look around the Immigrant Station where migrants coming into the country were initially brought between 1892 and 1954 (although form 1924 it was primarily used as a detention centre). It now houses a museum devoted to the city’s history of immigration but it also allows the public to scour the immigration records for a fee of $7. As it happens, my paternal Grandad was brought to these very shores in 1921, barely two years old and it was fascinating to track down his name and details, seeing the manifest of the ship he travelled on over 90 years ago.
It was only on our very last day of sightseeing that we took to the city’s most famous and iconic landmark: The Empire State Building. Unfortunately, we chose the only day of showers during our whole time in NY to go to the 86th floor of the tallest building in the city. Visibility was at a minimum, and the thunder that threatened nearby was no advert for us to stay too long. As we made for the nearest subway station having come down, a bright flash was followed barely a second later by a crack that seemed to reverberate around the city. We didn’t look back, but we assume the building is still intact.
Above: view of the Empire State Building from the top of the Rockefeller Centre. Amazing city palette as the sun was setting.
Luckily, we had ventured up to the top of the Rockefeller building a few days before and enjoyed much clearer and much drier views as the sun set on a lazy Sunday. Like most cities, when the sun goes down, the lights come out to play and after a fantastically filling meal at a cheap burger place, we went in search of the brightest of lights: Times Square. Now it’s a known fact that New Yorkers loathe Times Square, a point much emphasised by John Stewart on an airing of The Daily Show that same night. In similar form, Leicester Square (London), Fisherman’s Wharf (San Francisco) and Hollywood (LA) are only frequented by locals that are either working at or bringing tourists to or from said tourist traps. The lights were certainly shining, but that’s not to say there was anything of interest to see.
Fortunately NYC is not all about busy tourist spots, and the benefit of lodging with a resident local comes in the form of the everyday goings on of local neighbourhoods. On Monday for example, we went to a stand-up comedy gig, just a half hour’s walk from our host’s apartment in Brooklyn, and it show cased some excellent comedy acts. Typically fronted by Kristen Schaal of Flight of the Conchords fame- a Brooklyn resident who unfortunately had given over to other commitments (Edinburgh Fringe, if I’m not mistaken)- the final act of the night was a Wyatt Cenac who appears regularly on The Daily Show. If anyone is going to visit this wonderful city, you would do far worse than spend a lot of time in Brooklyn, more specifically at the Hot Tub comedy venue which fills up every Monday night.
Above: a rare wisp of cloud adds a bit of theatre to the evening Brooklyn sky
Had I stayed in the chaos of Manhattan I would have undoubtedly had a very different experience, probably one of considerably less space and far more pollution; noise, light, sewer, etc. But the luxury of being able to bathe in the splendour of the city without being drowned in it, gave us the perfect ending to a very special six month journey. As I said earlier, it was made comfortable from the first moment to the last. We saw everything we planned on seeing; did everything we planned on doing, and the great thing about NY is that we’ve realised there was so much more we could have done. NY gave us the perfect big city experience and like any good destination it should leave the appetite juicily whetted. Not only did we gorge ourselves on a very sizeable chunk of the Big Apple (bet you’re surprised I held off this long before resisting to the cliché?), it has left us wanting to go back for another bite. Now that’s a plane journey I can get excited about again.
Talking of crazies, after three nights in the LA sunshine we boarded a Greyhound bus to Las Vegas. The gambling capital of America is often referred to as the weird and the wonderful, and I can confirm that the concept and realisation of this desert city is both weird and wonderful as well as the posers that take advantage of the crowded strip (walking from the Mirage hotel to Caesars Palace we bumped into a few ‘celebrities’ including Alan from The Hangover- you’d think he’d have learnt from the first two hangovers).
Above: The Paris Las Vegas Hotel, as seen through the Bellagio fountains
We had scored a pretty good deal on a pretty nice hotel online and whilst we weren’t lodged right on the strip, we checked into the very nice Las Vegas Hotel just a five minute taxi ride from the major players. It was one of the better hotels I’ve stayed in and certainly the largest; you know you’re in big hotel when it takes 45 minutes to check-in. Having spent the majority of our five months so far in budget hostel accommodation- some lodgings consisting of a bed in a room with no heating (during a NZ winter)- checking into a 4-star hotel with its own casino seemed a little strange. But we welcomed the king-size bed and the en-suite and it took us to think twice before we realised we couldn’t afford room-service.
The first of our three nights effectively saw us go straight to bed, eager to throw off the effects of a six hour bus journey through the desert. But we woke up refreshed the next morning and plotted our doings for the day and the rest of our time here. We discussed booking a day trip to visit the Grand Canyon which is certainly a place I would like to visit, however the day itself would have us rise before 5am and not allow us to return to bed until after 11pm. Still suffering from the effects of jet-lag from our flight to LA, we decided not to visit the canyon, as grand as it may be. Just being in Las Vegas was somewhat of an added extra to our American itinerary, so we decided to spend our money a bit closer to home, booking to see the Cirque du Soleil produced show: The Beatles LOVE.
Above: New York, New York hotel on the left with the MGM opposite
I feel somewhat ashamed in admitting that I didn’t know that this particular show had come into existence before the similarly titled music album. Once I realised that the brilliantly produced album was an inevitable offspring of the brilliantly produced show, I had to see it. And we were not left disappointed. I’m pretty sure whichever Cirque show we had booked to see would have wowed us, but this one had a personal touch. The music, the performances, the visuals; phenomenally put together. I understand the scepticisms of hard-core music fans when another art-form gets hold of original recordings, but this was an experience of novelty and uniqueness and I can only applaud and admire the mind (or set of minds) that first conceived such a mind-blowing and never-before-seen show.
When we weren’t being wowed by professionals we were either being wowed (or harassed) by Vegas street-pretenders or else sunbathing poolside (warmth was not a familiar concept in a wintered Aus and NZ). We spent a night out on the strip, going from casino-to-casino enjoying a few drinks and even recklessly blowing a few quarters on the slots. I’d love to tell you we hit the jackpot and spent the rest of the night in a drunken stupor, however neither of us have the interest nor the longevity to gamble seriously. Our biggest win was Jo’s $7.25, which bought her a drink at least.
Above: Vegas moments before dusk, a softer view of Las Vegas
With the casino authorities clearly onto our suspicious streak, we called it a night knowing that we had a long day ahead of us. We didn’t leave the desert until 5pm but once we had completed the return journey to LA, we boarded another bus around midnight that took us north to San Francisco. The only positive to take from this gruelling 13 hour journey (other than that it wasn’t a 20+ hour trip from Thailand to Laos) was the complimentary wi-fi on board the express coach to SF. The wi-fi and I became well acquainted during the sleepless night ahead.
The other good thing about travelling through the night was that we arrived in ‘The City’ (I swear that’s the first and last time I refer to SF in that way) early in the morning, giving the sky-scrapered city an ethereal air as we crossed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge into town. Of course we could not check into our room at our hostel so early in the morning, so we made good use of their common room couches and wi-fi before being unable to hold off our hunger. Rather than wait any longer for the bustling kitchen to free up (they had free pancake mix at the hostel) we ventured out into the streets of SF looking for Dottie’s True Blue café as recommended by a quick online search.
From our hostel we turned left and found the café which was well worth queuing up for round the corner for a breakfast of sausage and egg, as well as breakfast-dessert of pancakes and syrup. However if the café had been a right turn from our hostel, we’d have had a much better first impression of SF. Whilst I don’t think we were really in any danger, we had chosen a rather unsavoury part of town to break our fast, with loud, animated and apparently homeless characters lining the streets. It was a shame that this was our first experience of SF for we left the city with nothing but good things to say, but the long sleepless journey coupled with the lack of food and lack of welcome from our hostel reception was only aggravated by our venture into “Bum Town”. But given a sleep, a shower and a full belly once we had checked into our room, we took the right out of our hostel and fell helplessly for SF, inspired by its ambitious sky-scrapers and charmed by its colourfully attractive houses.
We might not have been very appreciative of SF’s hills as we half cycled/half pushed our bikes from bottom to top, but the city owes much of its uniqueness to its topography and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like without it (maybe LA without Hollywood; not so bad after all then!). As well as biking-the-bridge and visiting the small seaside town of Sausalito from where we caught the ferry back to SF, we walked the city in much the same way as we have the major cities we’ve come across on the trip: wandering about with little plan hoping to come across something only known by locals (in this city, this came in the form of a brilliant book shop/museum devoted to the Beat poets of the 1960’s).
Similarly we avoided the queues for the famous cable-car, but that’s not to say we avoided all the popular destinations. We took an afternoon walking the esplanade on the east side of the city heading north until Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Strawberries and Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice-cream was the perfect accompaniment to a day at the sea-side whilst a seal-colony provided the entertainment.
After four days in SF- which I’ve come to think stands for Supernaturally-fast Fog- we returned to LA for one last fling with the stars. With a day to kill before our flight to New York City, we decided to fill it with a tour of Warner Bros studios in Hollywood which- like our last venture into Hollywood- had us championing public transport. But this time we also returned having had a much more enjoyable experience, touring the back-lots and sets of a long-standing film and television studio.
The guide may have been a little ‘obvious’ in that most of what was ‘revealed’ about the magic of making movies, included: “You don’t actually need to build a ceiling on a set, mainly because the camera never looks up”… But it was still fun and a nice way to finish our brief west-coast tour.
I’m not sure if I would label LA phony or genuine. On the one hand, Hollywood Boulevard was a disappointment, rotten with lookalikes and desperate wannabes in the costume of the current flavour; trying to con the public into thinking they are getting a taste of ‘fame’. But on the other hand, it should have been exactly what I expected. After all, this is the long-established centre of the western film industry, where people spend their whole lives ‘pretending’ to be someone else, mimicking reality, while the whole world looks on in admiration, hoping to one day trade in their own reality for the virtual one of their on-screen heroes.
Regardless of the conclusions drawn, the convenient side-effect of visiting these places is to gain an experience and to recognise the value behind visiting somewhere unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. So far, America has been just that and I’m hoping our last week in New York City will be the same.
In New Zealand I commented in one particular post that one feels immersed in a large film set that encompasses the entire country. I spoke of the revelry in which we bathed as we traversed the two islands, as Peter Jackson’s vision of JRR Tolkien’s epic is made a reality. So there was every reason to expect a similar feeling of awe as we arrived in Los Angeles; home to the world’s most popular and highest grossing cinema: Hollywood.
Unfortunately the telling difference between the two is, whilst NZ’s film spectacle is natural, living and inextricably tied to the history of the country itself, Los Angeles and it’s Hollywood district has a disappointing air of phoniness. Yes, many of the big screen hits we know and love are made here, but that’s exactly the point: the manufacturing process, which ultimately leads to a fake sense of reality.
Above: no caption needed here!
On our arrival into downtown Los Angeles from the airport, it was difficult to grasp a real sense of size. Whilst we could see the west-coast city from the freeway (I’m sorry UK followers, whilst I’m in their country it’s only right I play by their rules) it was difficult to see much of anything else; the city just appeared to continue for miles in each direction, gradually scaling down from 60 floor high-rise to suburban bungalow. Due to the nature of our long haul flight that took us 12 hours back in time, we did little that same day but nap, exploring our downtown surroundings only to fill our stomachs at the pizza place on the same block.
The next morning was beautifully sunny and we set out to familiarise ourselves among the shade of the domineering skyscrapers. Our hotel was situated on Main Street, intersecting 7th Street and it was along the latter that we walked along for 15 minutes before reaching the 7th Street Metro Station. There were two recurring warnings from people we had met on our trip who had visited LA and these were: “It’s a very big place” and “There is virtually no public transport”. There is no doubt about the legitimacy of the former; we walked for some time without really passing anything of interest. However the latter we found out to be a victim of conventional wisdom at its cruellest. Whilst nowhere near as extensive as London’s underground network, LA hosts a number of city centre underground metro stations which offer access to the surrounding districts. As well as being relatively affordable, the stations are clean, well signed and the trains are punctual. What more could you ask for? As an extra, the ticket barriers they have in place don’t actually require you to scan your ticket, making certain excursions very affordable.
From 7th Street Metro we took the red line out of the city to Hollywood which has four stations, at least two of which give you doorstep access to the Walk of Fame. The sight of the Hollywood hills as you step out of Hollywood Vine station does give you a sense of perspective; however it is but a brief glimpse of perspective through the various concrete buildings that line Hollywood Boulevard. We were close to one end of The Walk so we decided to carry on to the end on one side of the road, cross over and turn back the way we came on the other side, thus seeing as much of the star-laden street as possible. I did enjoy the walk, strolling from one end of the boulevard to the other with my face cast down at the actors, singers, presenters and directors, but to look up and around was a more grisly affair.
Above: Hollywood Boulevard
Once you hit the central area of the boulevard, it’s a chaos of people not looking where they are going. Crowds form around the desperate wannabe’s, dressed head to toe in costume. Batman, Spiderman, The Joker, Bumblebee, Wolverine…the list goes on. Despite seeing a particularly convincing Michael Jackson, the place stunk of cheap mimicry and phoniness, and having survived the walk through families (the parents of whom were more often than not dragging the children about excitedly) back to the station, we left this crazy town to itself.
The following day we spent at Santa Monica and Venice Beach, which turned out not unlike Hollywood. Again, the public transport myth was further displaced as we hopped on a bus the street over from our hotel which took us directly to Santa Monica pier. Okay, it may have taken over an hour and it may have been pretty much full for the duration (often with the weird and…well weird), but that only proves the other pre-conception: “LA is a very big place”.
After two months in the southern hemisphere winter, Jo and I both enjoyed the beach part of Santa Monica, hoping to reignite the tanned skin we earned after two and a half months in Asia. It was a busy day, but we both had fun walking along the pier which hosted fun-fair rides, food stalls, restaurants/burger-joints, souvenir carts and most importantly, ice-cream parlours. The chocolate fudge sundae was necessary actually, necessary to the walk we were about to embark upon along the coast to Venice Beach, and knowing how big LA was, we were under no illusions as to how far we might have to walk.
Above: view from Santa Monica pier
After about 40 minutes of walking we had arrived at Venice, and there was no doubt that we had arrived in what we had previously read to be a quirky, alternative and even freakish kind of hang-out. Here there were far more street-vendor types, making the beach front walkway look more like the back-streets of Bangkok. It seemed anything and everything was available for purchase here, from the mundane beachwear stuff to the exotic and bizarre art-work/sculptures of the local ‘hipsters’. In a way Venice was not unlike Hollywood. People were out and about trying to promote themselves and their weird talents, often just shouting and raving in a deranged fit for attention. What may have once been the scene of a legitimate arty/alternative movement in LA, now looked to have become a second home for the Hollywood crazies.
Hello anyone. This is our 2nd bus journey of the day and the only thing making it more bearable than the last is that Greyhound have kindly provided free wifi on this one!
Just to recap since my last post, which despite it going up yesterday only filled you in as far as our flight from Auckland to Los Angeles.
We touched down in LA on 25th July, a day we had already suffered in New Zealand before travelling back in time 13 hours. We stayed 3 nights in the City of Angels before we took our first Greyhound to Las Vegas, arriving late Saturday 28th. We really enjoyed Vegas but I wont say too much here; you’ll have to wait for a bulkier post in a few days time. But I will say that- unlike LA- it was everything I was expecting and more. And shinier.
We left the self proclaimed (and perhaps deserving) fabulous Las Vegas this morning (Tuesday 31st) and at ten past twelve the next morning, we are still on the road, albeit a substitute of bus in LA.
We hope to be in “The City” (a phrase I flatly refuse to use again) by 7am and we both have high expectations after glowing and often radioactive reviews from fellow travellers. If San Francisco can provide even half the wonderment that Vegas afforded us, then I’m sure we wont be disappointed.
Well, the countdown is officially on. Yes, the ‘final’ countdown, if you will. Just over a week ago Jo and I realised that we had exactly one month left to enjoy our worldwide voyage before it comes full circle. I would like to describe it to you in the Hollywood style, where we both make the very sudden revelation almost synchronically and spout some cheesy line like: “well…let’s make it count”. Actually, that sounds crap. Luckily, the reality was nothing like this. The full, unedited, raw, hand-held-footage version was at least a week in the making, and if you managed to sit through this post’s predecessor without getting up to go to the bathroom, then you should have an idea why.
Our last week in New Zealand felt a lot like waiting in an airport departure lounge. Our business was all but concluded, our bags were somewhat neatly packed and we could see our plane through the departure gate window. More annoyingly, we had to sit restlessly as the frequent flyers and gold/silver/platinum/diamond/pompously precious stone members breezed past queues to take their seats on board. Seven weeks in a country roughly the size of the UK was- in hindsight- a little longer than was perhaps necessary, however as we arrived in the south island town of Blenheim on Tuesday 17th July, feeling the need to keep reminding each other that we only had a week left in NZ as well as a month left till arriving home, this feeling strangely disappeared.
Whether it was the surprisingly warm weather in Blenheim that welcomed us as we hopped off the Stray bus, or the two leisurely days of wine-tasting ahead of us that perked us up for the final leg of our NZ tour, who’s to say (you’re invited to make your own conclusions, using the evidence below)? Either way, we walked through the small Marlborough town feeling optimistic about the following two days. A few days earlier, we were reunited with our two Irish followers in Mount Cook, as the Stray bus pulled in on Saturday night.
Above: a sunny Blenheim shines from the back of our hostel
Okay, it’s impossible to say who had been following who since we first met Kerri and Cara over a month ago on our maiden voyage south of Auckland. But our paths were fortuitously intertwined and our similar schedules meant we kept catching up with one another on different buses. Sadly, all trips must come to an end and all mini trips within trips, when you’ve come to get to know people, must also expire at some point. Kerri and Cara took one final hop-off the bus in Geraldine- a small town not far from Christchurch- and we were destined to never again cross paths. Having spent virtually our entire time in NZ in the familiar company of people we had come to know through Stray, it was strange to finally say goodbye to some familiar faces. I think this, coupled with the nagging knowledge that our screen time in NZ was approaching its final frame meant we were looking past the following week or so to our flight out of Auckland.
But Blenheim sought to save us from boredom and whilst it didn’t quite swoop in at the 11th hour like most blockbusters, it humbly went about providing us with one of our most memorable days on this trip. We discovered our hostel- on a quiet street just behind one of the main roads- which was a quaint bungalow-turned-hostel backing onto a peaceful little river that sparkled gloriously in the winter sunshine. The realisation that we were most likely experiencing warmer weather in the middle of a NZ winter than we would have enjoyed back home amid the indecisive British summer; this alone made us feel content to still be in NZ.
A cup of tea on the decking and a brief navigational talk from our host later, and we were off on our bikes eager to sample at least one winery before dark. A bit of pedalling and a few hundred metres of back-tracking brought us to Wither Hills where we sampled six (possibly seven or eight) wines whilst roaming freely from cellar door up to the roof which gave us a stunning 360 degree view of the vast flatlands, every inch of which seemed to be taken up by grapevines.
Above: from the rooftop of the Wither Hills winery, there is not much else but fields of fields of grapevine
Luckily the Marlborough region is a very flat expanse; otherwise we may have visited considerably less establishments the following day. In truth, we only made it to two wineries on our second day which isn’t particularly much: Rock Ferry and Allan Scott. However we also visited a fine brewery (I’m not sure I’m peasanty enough to pull off: “fine brewery”, but hey) - the Moa brewery- as well as the Makana chocolate factory. After a lengthy chat in between quaffs of beer samples with our host, we learned that Moa is a relatively new NZ beer; popular in its native and currently trying desperately to announce itself in the UK market. They have at least 12 different beers ranging from the bubbly pilsner to crimson stout-like ales and every one I tried was delicious. Moa will be sponsoring NZ’s athletes in the London Olympic Games, so if you see it appear on your supermarket shelves, give it a glug.
Above: relaxing at the Moa Brewery, Blenheim
We must have been just about the only people cycling around NZ’s most renowned wine region in winter; this careful deduction being made by the fact that in most places…we were the only one’s there. But it meant that we had the sole attention of the lovely wine-giver-outer-ladies and in each place we stopped for at least 45 minutes to chat, and not just about the wine which, after being told what aromas and flavours you’re supposed to be able to taste, leaves you looking for other subjects of conversation. But despite us feeling severely out of place in our bike helmets and high-viz jackets, we had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It was Jo who was most excited about wine-tasting before our arrival in NZ, and I’ll admit as a non-wine drinker that if I was on my own I’d most likely not have done it. But there’s something satisfying about cycling around wine country, with the most brilliant back drop of mountains standing over field after field of grapevines, with the sun beaming down and the mild breeze rushing past us. It must be something they put in the wine.
Above: vineyard after vineyard in the famous Marlborough region
Having biked all day- and drunk our fair share of alcohol- we arrived back at the hostel just as dusk was settling in and sat to catch our breath out on the decking of the garden. With a mug of tea to counter the coming night’s cold, we sat looking out over the river and the grassy goodness beyond it. In that moment, any ill-feeling that had crept in as a result of our long stay in NZ, sailed calmly down-river and was replaced by a feeling of contentedness that says: “you’re going to look back on this moment when your trip is over and it alone will instantly make it all worthwhile”.
I’m not sure I quite realised it till after it happened, but another one of these moments occurred earlier on the same day we arrived in Blenheim. We had stopped in Kaikoura the night before- a whale watching spot on the south island’s east coast- and before we left the little seaside town, we stopped by to check up on one of the seal colonies that takes up residence at this time of year on the coast. Now seals are cool, but seal pups are cute and having been led a short way into bush by our driver- following a shallow stream inland- there was nothing more entrancing than the sight of a nursery full of seal pups playing innocently in a shaded pool. The pups follow the stream by themselves to this haven where the water is plentifully provided by the waterfall and predators are nowhere to be seen, making this the ideal spot for jovially playing, swimming and frolicking about in absolute seal luxury.
Above: a seal from the first colony we came across in Kaikoura
It was truly amazing getting the chance to see these animals in such a unique yet perfectly natural environment and looking back, despite not being able to take many photos due to the low light, I know I’ll never forget the image of 20 or so seal pups diving into and leaping out of the water in their own personal pool. I’d say it topped our penguin parade experience in Melbourne for its spontaneity alone.
It’s reassuring to know that despite our growing feelings of indifference to the country as we plotted our next move, we still enjoyed some of the most amazing experiences of our trip. If anything else, it just goes to show what a fantastic country NZ really is. That I can at one point have made my mind up regarding all there is to see, only to be proved wrong a split second later.
And as we continue our onward journey, currently headed north-east, 30,000 feet or so somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, I’m glad to report that when I look back over my shoulder at the country we have just hours ago left behind and even when I think about our last week that was possibly ‘one week too many’ I’ll be reassured by memories like those above that it was in fact the perfect amount of time. Well look at that, it looks like I am capable of a cheesy, Hollywood line after all. Which is quite convenient considering the sunny west-coast city we’re due to fly into in seven hours’ time.
It would be an understatement to say that- here in New Zealand- we are surrounded by natural beauty of the highest order. Whether it’s the rolling green pastures of the northlands, or one of the south island’s almost see-through lakes you get a glimpse of, only the very unobservant or the obtrusively uninterested can possibly ignore this near-untouched world. That said however, after nearly six weeks spent gawping out of our bus window, I‘ve found myself looking within the bus a lot more often.
The gripping plotline of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone may well answer for part of this, but I think what may be mistaken for an increasing ignorance of our surroundings is simply an on-going familiarity with our environment. Anyone who has taken the southern route along the south island’s west coast from Picton to Queenstown will hopefully be nodding in agreement with my admission and the following statement that this particular part of NZ is home to the country’s most majestic features.
The Queen Charlotte Sound, Abel Tasman, the rugged west coastline, the southern Alps which host the glaciers Franz Josef and Fox, Wanaka, and Queenstown; two towns that might once have slept quite soundly in the arms of encircling mountains before NZ woke up to its potential as an extreme sports and adventure destination (it would seem AJ Hackett set that particular alarm and made sure everyone heard it).
Above: centre of Queenstown, as seen from our dorm. If I’m not mistaken, the ‘Remarkables’ mountain range provides the backdrop
When we arrived in Queenstown almost two weeks ago, it had felt in many ways that we had reached a climax; that we had arrived at our desired destination. For many people, Queenstown is the sole reason they are in the country, at least at this particular time of year. NZ’s lovable Aussie neighbours flock here by the plane-load in search of snow, skis and Sambuca as the southern hemisphere takes a wintry turn for the worse. And in terms of natural beauty, it’s easy to think you’re trip has come to an end. Queenstown is tucked away between giant green hills and barren snow-topped mountains whilst Lake Wakatipu sits calm, reflecting the town back up at itself like Narcissus in unadulterated admiration. There’s a reason people come here for three days and end up staying for three weeks, and it is fairly obvious upon first sight.
But despite us not yet realising it, our search for breath-taking beauty was unfulfilled in Queenstown and after five days of skiing and drinking we rose early one Sunday morning, and sneaked out of town on a bus heading south. After a few hours of head-nodding naps, the early morning dark turned to daylight and our weariness turned into awe as we slunk almost unnoticed into the inspired territory known as Fiordland National Park. Unlike some people we had spoken to who had made this same trip south, the sun was in glorious form and treated us to a four hour drive about, around, within and in the end through mountains.
Above: one of the first photos taken as we entered the haunting Fiorlands
Our Stray driver, E.T (so called because he’s always phoning home, of course) stopped often enough for us to take in as much of this stunning parkland as possible and gave us commentaries on what we were looking at as we crawled through. Eventually, the mountains began to squeeze the road, making for a windier ride where cliff faces were often so close we could see fully formed, giant icicles where falling water had been stopped mid-air by the cruel conditions. The mountains soon released the road from its tightening grip, making way for vast expanses blanketed in untouched snow before the road led to what at first appeared to be a very obvious natural stop in front of a mountain. As we approached, the arc of the tunnels entrance became obvious and the surreal moment of winding through this earthly giant took over. With no time to catch our breath, we exited the other side to a steepening valley which wound from side to side for some time before levelling out at sea-level.
Above: just one of many ‘mirror lakes’ in the park
Without doubt, this was the most staggering drive through any country I have ever been to, and whenever I could close my mouth long enough to gather my thoughts, I remember thinking that I would struggle to top this experience anywhere else in the world. As with most drives, there is often a destination at the end and our final stop before turning back on ourselves just so happened to be Milford Sound: as though the morning hadn’t already been a feast for the eyes.
The boat cruise through the sound was an incredible experience and I struggled to put my camera away before we reached the Tasman Sea. Lush, forested mountains enclose you from all directions. In want of a better analogy, imagine playing with a toy boat in the bath: your knees are the mountains that erupt out of the water. Now just imagine you’ve got more knees and that they’re green from the tiny trees that cover them. You now have a madman’s interpretive image of the mighty Milford Sound.
Above: Milford Sound heading out of the inlet passages towards the Tasman Sea
The drive back the same way was just as impressive as the way there, and the day was topped off when at a brief stop to take a photo one of the resident birds popped by to investigate who had been trespassing on its turf. The Kea is reportedly one the smartest, if not the smartest parrot in the world and it is notorious for stealing food, which I imagine to be a lot cuter than angry baboons committing the same offence. Fortunately, we had been pre warned and the far from timid bird- with its blazing green feather coat- merely hopped on our empty bus’s step, peered down the corridor and hopped off. Clearly nothing worth stealing on our bus, at least not much worth anything to a parrot.
Above: the ever-so-clever Kea parrot, native to Fiordland National Park
Our lodging for the night was among this very beauty in the remote Gunn’s Camp, a small place by the Hollyford river valley, named after Davy Gunn who bought the land and helped open up this beautiful area to tourism. I wrote about our stay at Abel Tasman and how clearly the night sky shone for us on that occasion, but the piercing clarity of the sky at Gunn’s Camp was on another level and we all admired the stars on a late night walk through bush to see glow-worms (we also spotted a few possums clinging to trees on the way).
It was a shame to have to say goodbye to Fiordland National Park the next day but we were due in Invercargill where we would stop the night. From here, we had the option of heading even further south from NZ’s southern-most city to Bluff where a ferry would take us on an hour’s voyage to Stewart Island: NZ’s third island. Unfortunately though, this was a particularly expensive crossing ($75/£37.50 one-way) to a tiny settlement renowned for its conservation of rare native birds. It was a shame that we did not venture the stormy southern waters, but budgetary constraints meant that we stayed docked and dry in the quiet, Scottish-founded Invercargill.
The following day we did venture to the Bluff, picking up the solitary soul who dared spend the night on Stewart Island while we sheltered on the mainland. On our way there we stopped at many sights including Curio Bay where we observed New Zealand seals cavorting on the coast as well as a petrified forest. All around the southlands, trees small and tall bow in forced worship, bent and weathered out of shape towards the ground by the extreme winds and salt air from the Arctic.
Above: trees in the Southlands pummeled over by the Antarctic winds
Having left on Sunday, we were back in Queenstown by Tuesday where we kept a pretty low-profile in an attempt to repel the town’s money-spending monster. We spent Wednesday taking a late breakfast before walking up the Ben Lomond Scenic reserve and catching the gondola down, eager to treat ourselves to one last Fergburger before we said goodbye to the adventure capital of the world for good. Thursday’s bus picked us up at 9am and our driver Horse who had accompanied us on our southern loop to Milford Sound and Invercargill, drove us north to Mount Cook Village which lay in the shadow of NZ’s highest peak: Aoraki/ Mount Cook. Or at least, it should have lay in its shadow: for the most part of our three nights in this remote village (if you could even call it that) the 3754 metre mountain was hidden by cloud that had nestled in the valley.
Thankfully, our drive into Mount Cook was clear and we had ample opportunity to snap the peak before we lost it to the elements. We were indeed immersed in yet more unbelievable and unforgettable landscape but for the most part the weather ensured we were unable to fully appreciate its magnificence. And it was only leaving Mount Cook earlier this morning, as I found myself engaged by the snappy, hilarious sound-bites of Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Say’s, that I realised that despite the never ending mountain range that flanked us on one side, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I had been on the journey south (at the very least I didn’t have my face pressed up against the glass, which I’m sure our driver appreciated).
Above: first glimpse of Mount Cook (the peak to the left) before we drove into cloud
Having stayed at Mount Cook without really being able to see it, I realised that NZ as a whole had become Mount Cook and that our six week treat in this country, the constant bombardment of natural beauty had become the thick cloud that filled the valley. We had been well and truly spoiled and our over-exposure to NZ had clouded our appreciation of it. It was a sad thought, because we have come to love this country over the past month and a half, but Jo and I can’t help but feel that we’re ready to move on. We can’t help but feel that after all the sunshine, the clouds are descending on our time in NZ. But thanks to modern digital photography and the convenience of social media, we’ll never forget the country we have seen, and loved, and gawped goggle-eyed and open-mouthed at from our bus window.