Urban legends abound (whether actually true or not I don’t know) of people who’ve boarded a flight in Los Angeles and expected to land a short time later in Oakland, only to find that, when they do touch the ground 14 hours later, they’ve unwittingly left California far behind and ended up across the other side of the Pacific in Auckland. How on earth this could possibly happen I don’t know, but I almost had a similar experience when I cleared customs in what I thought was Auckland – the first sight that greeted me as I passed through the covered sliding doors and into the arrivals hall was a group of men in Canadian Mountie uniforms welcoming people in front of me. I wondered for a fleeting moment if I’d somehow ended up in Newfoundland rather than New Zealand. But I was able to relax when one greeted me “Welcum to New Zulund – it’s choice to heve you here for a vusut, eh bro? Unluss you’re from Australia, thin you can puss off beck to where you came from, eh cuz.”
It wasn’t quite like that. I can’t even remember what he really said, but it was enough to know that I had made it to my intended destination of Aotearoa – “The Land of the Long White Cloud”. By the time I caught the airport bus into the city and trudged up the slope of Queen St to the hotel it was 4pm, and with only very sketchy memories of Auckland from previous visits as a youngster, I was keen to make the most of the remaining daylight and explore the city a bit.
My first point of call was the America’s Cup Village where the various international yachting syndicates were gearing up to race against each other in the Challenger Series starting in a few weeks time, with the winner earning the right to eventually go on to race against a defending New Zealand syndicate around Auckland Harbour some months later. Waiting to see who wins The America’s Cup is always a laboriously slow and, dare I say, incredibly boring process (plus in recent years there seems to be just as much raising of spinnakers and changes of tack in various courts of law as there is on the water), but the 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 campaigns hosted here have certainly added a touch of ‘yuppification’ to this pocket of the city. Opposite the headquarters of each syndicate were smart new apartment buildings lining the Viaduct Basin, the ground floors of each containing trendy bars and classy restaurants which were soon to be full of the kind of people who settled for nothing less than Louis Vuitton or Tag Heuer. There were numerous luxurious yachts berthed nearby, all freshly painted a dazzling white and some of them larger than a suburban house, ready for pleasure cruising charters by rich corporate types and the chardonnay sipping set. I was content to wander around and stare agog at the brashness of it all, but if I really wanted to fit in I’m sure I would have needed to have been 20 years older, wearing a grey suit or Ralph Lauren polo shirt and put on a spare tyre around my gut. Obviously a few million dollars in my bank account wouldn’t go astray either.
Having had my dose of yachting culture I followed the foreshore east, out of the city and along past Okahu Bay. At the entrance to Hauraki Gulf the extinct volcanic cone of Rangitoto Island contrasted with the other hillsides around the harbour which were all crowded with houses. As I turned back to look where I had come from the sun was setting behind a number of large fluffy clouds, its fiery orange glow making a silhouette of the city skyline in front of it. It was a wonderful sight, and it was then that I felt totally relaxed and knew I was really going to enjoy the next month ahead.
I made my way back to the city in the dark, strolling through some eminently well-to-do suburbs and looking for something to eat on my way. One of the things I’ve noticed about living in Sydney is there is a distinct lack of local fish and chip shops offering up battered and fried takeaways without a restaurant price tag. But it was pleasing to find Auckland hadn’t fallen into this type of big city syndrome, even in the classy neighbourhood I was passing through, and I gorged myself on one of the best burgers I’ve had in years from a corner fish shop.
Once back at the hotel I was content to flop down on the bed and watch some TV for a while before having an early night. I’d got home late the night before and had packed very hurriedly before getting a few hours sleep and then left for the airport before 7am, so I was starting to feel quite tired. At 9:30pm a show called The Panel came on the TV, and I thought I was dreaming. It had exactly the same titles, set and format right down to the smallest detail as the Australian version I was used to seeing, and the local Kiwi hosts all had the same style of personalities and sat around the desk in the same order as their Aussie counterparts. It was completely bizarre, and with no Kate Langbroek on the panel over here I think I preferred this side of the Tasman’s franchised version better than my own side’s original.
On checking into the hotel in the afternoon I’d been told I was sharing my room with another guy, and at 12:30am I got a call from Reception letting me know he had arrived. Ken soon arrived in the room and we exchanged our stories. He had also come across from New South Wales and would be on my Contiki tour, and after chatting with him for a fair while I got to sleep sometime after 4am. Not quite the early night I had originally planned, but what the hey.
After a fairly late breakfast Ken and I headed down to the observation deck at Sky Tower, by far Auckland’s tallest building at 328 metres. While it gave the usual bird’s eye view of the city that can be found in similar towers in countless other cities, it was amazing to watch the weather changing dramatically as rain clouds swept past at an incredible rate in the distance all around us. The tower’s other main attraction was the sections of glass flooring offering a slightly unnerving view of the streets below directly under your feet. People would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid walking along them, and one little kid running around the deck had unwittingly made it onto the middle of one before stopping in his tracks, looking down and completely panicking.
Ken and I then split up for the rest of the day. He’d decided to go on a harbour cruise, while I wanted to follow the Coast to Coast Walkway from the city to Manukau Harbour. It wasn’t long before I had reached the bottom of the volcanic cone of Mount Eden and then hiked through paddocks of dairy cows to get to the top. I don’t think there are many other cities of this size in the developed world where you have to avoid treading in cow poo so close to the central business district, and I think it’s something the marketing authorities should promote more heavily. Forget “Auckland – The City of Sails”, I reckon something like “Auckland – You’re Standing in it” or “Auckland – On the Moove” would surely bring more tourists in.
After descending down the other side of Mount Eden I stopped to get some lunch at another fish and chip shop and again was impressed. It’s been a long time since I’ve got a minimum serving of chips for under $2 and not been able to finish them all. Call me a simple man seeking simple pleasures, but I was incredibly content as I continued on following the walkway signs through quiet residential streets and parks towards One Tree Hill. One Tree Hill seems to be a bit of a misnomer because I didn’t actually see a tree at its summit at all – just an imposing granite obelisk. And instead of cows it was sheep this time, some with young lambs sticking close by, keeping the grass down on the hill’s sloping paddocks.
The afternoon was getting on and I realised I was not going to get to Manukau and back again in time for the pre-tour meeting, so I headed directly back to the city. When I got there for the meeting the hotel bar contained two very different circles of people on either side of the room. One lot was downing beers and laughing and joking loudly while the second were sitting quietly, somewhat uncomfortably, watching a National Rugby League final on the TV. I guessed the louder group had all come together as a large group of friends so I took the easy option and headed for the quiet group where I began to meet some of my fellow tourmates. It turned out the louder people were another Contiki group entirely who were only a few days away from finishing their tour, and who would be travelling in parallel with us to the Bay of Islands. Though it wouldn’t take long before our own group started to gel and become as loud.
About a dozen of us decided to go out for dinner, and after wandering around for a while settled on an Irish pub in the America’s Cup Village. The city also had its fair share of mainstream American food chains, and to my surprise they also had Oporto, a Portuguese chicken franchise that started in Bondi and multiplied all over Sydney, but yet I’d never seen one anywhere else in Australia outside of the Harbour City. But then when you think about all the Kiwis that go across to live around Bondi and bum around on the dole for a while, it’s inevitable that one of them would transplant a franchise to New Zealand on their return. I’m just amazed that a Kiwi came up with an idea that involved working.
Now I promise that’s my first and last incorrect stereotypical gag about New Zealanders coming to Australia and not getting a job. I’ll stick to incorrect stereotypical gags about their unnatural relations with sheep from here on in.
The coach was completely full as we pulled out of Auckland and headed towards the very top of New Zealand’s North Island. This was the beginnings of my second Contiki tour, and as we went up one by one to the microphone at the front of the coach to introduce ourselves it became fairly apparent that the numbers were completely dominated by fellow Australians even more than my European trip had been two years before. It was so overwhelming that a couple of the North Americans who had just finished a Contiki tour of Australia later told me they learnt more about Australia during their time in New Zealand than when they were actually in Australia.
After stopping at a park of native kauri trees, we had lunch in Whangarei. I don’t know if there is some ordinance somewhere that dictates the minimum size for what constitutes a “food court”, but if there is, then the single McDonalds, Muffin Break and solitary sandwich shop which was sign posted as the food court in the centre of town must be classified as borderline. But what Whangarei lacks in communal shopping arcade eating areas it more than makes up for in waterfalls – the impressive Whangarei Falls on the edge of town would make the grade in any waterfall size classification.
By mid afternoon we had reached our Bay of Islands base at Paihia and began the first of the water-based activities that would dominate our time here. A launch called ‘The Excitor’ was to take us out to the Hole in the Rock, one of the main attractions in the area. Some preparation for the journey was involved: Putting on enough multi-coloured wet weather gear to almost compromise a sumo suit (and which made each of us look like a fluoro set of traffic lights), storing our cameras in protective bags and then strapping on a pretty secure seatbelt as we got into the boat.
"This ought to be good", I thought as the driver cranked up the engine and we started our journey out to the sea and outlying islands. It soon became clear however that 'The Excitor' was actually a pretty misleading name. Maybe even a fraudulent misrepresentation. I'm sure that back in my Sea Scout days we used to row around Lindisfarne Bay just as quickly. Perhaps I’ll recommend the operators rename the jet boat 'The Monotonator' in order to promote truth in advertising. In any case the rocky outcrops, caves and the Hole in the Rock itself were all very nice and we also drew alongside some seals basking lazily in the afternoon sun, so it was a good trip.
It was a little tough deciding on whether to spend the day sailing around the Bay of Islands on a catamaran or taking a bus trip to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach, but in the end I chose the day sail.
Not long out of Paihia we crossed paths with a pod of dolphins and a few of us keen folk jumped in with the intention of having a bit of a swim with them. The dolphins, of course being the smarter species of the two, had different ideas and decided they weren’t really all that interested, and it didn’t long for us to no longer be able to hear their sonar calls in the water.
I don't exactly have a huge tolerance for the cold, especially cold water, and being spring the water was not exactly at its warmest. While the sailing company provided us with wetsuits that went down to elbows and knees to help compensate, it wasn’t quite the same as wearing my own thick steamer covering down to wrists and ankles which I rely on at the beach all year round to keep me toasty. So after we swam back to the cat and I lay on the deck trying to draw the sun's rays in an attempt to warm up, I began to shiver a little bit. In fact, some of the others thought I was having an epileptic fit.
At Roberton Island we were let loose to explore. It was a great hour climbing the hills and exploring the lagoons and rock pools before returning to the catamaran to tuck into some lunch and continue sailing around, lazily taking in the surroundings and picking out things we could see in the shapes of the fluffy clouds – something I hadn’t done in many years.
This was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable day, though I was thankful to get back to the hotel to have a scalding hot shower to warm up. Dinner was at our leisure, and Ken, Karen, Saad, Damian and myself found a fairly empty pizza restaurant. As is usual at the bottom of pizza menus there was a statement that ‘own choice’ pizzas could be made on request, so I made such a request to the sixty-something year old female proprietor. She gave me a look similar to that probably expressed by the Maoris when the first English settlers arrived in the early 1800’s and asked whether they could take the whole of New Zealand for themselves. Fortunately for her I wasn’t willing to start a war to get what I wanted, in this case a pizza with a bolognese sauce base, so we just ordered from the menu.
A four hour kayaking trip rounded out our time in the Bay of Islands, beginning from a small beach not far from the Treaty House where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 by the English colonial powers and 45 Maori chiefs. While the history of the Maoris and the Pakeha (Europeans) is as violent as seemingly every other Indigenous-European relationship in other countries, the Treaty of Waitangi was at least some attempt by the British settlers to confer some rights and privileges to the Maori people. This spirit of reconciliation in New Zealand survives today – the Surgeon-General’s health warnings on cigarette packets are printed in both English and Maori so that all people will know that “smoking harms your baby”.
We’d just got into our kayaks and started paddling up the Waitangi River when a rain squall swept in and made our progress that little bit more challenging. It passed as we entered the extensive areas of mangroves flanking the sides of the river, and it was heaps of fun weaving around in very shallow water under the cover of the trees, taking care to duck under the branches trying their best to take someone’s eye out. Once back out in the middle of the river we pressed on upstream until we’d reached the base of the small Haruru Falls, then we turned around and headed back for some more fun and games amongst the mangroves.
In the afternoon we returned to Auckland and had dinner at Planet Hollywood. It was the other tour’s last night and it was also the finale for a few on our own tour, including our tour manager Murray and driver Kevin. It was a pity we were losing them for the other tour’s crew of Glenn and Darryl from the next day onwards because I didn’t like the other guys nearly as much. But then again it may have actually been a good thing, as we could have ended up just about anywhere with Kevin at the wheel if his directions on how to get from Planet Hollywood to the Globe Bar was anything to go by. Several people gave up trying to get there and those of us that did make it were only able to thanks to Kevin standing on a random street corner for half an hour, finally indicating the right direction.
A new coach, new tour manager, new driver and some new people, but a morning spent touring old sights – Mount Eden and a visit to Sky Tower for those who hadn’t had a chance to visit before the tour started, and then it was time to leave the big smoke of NZ’s biggest city behind. Contiki tours just aren’t Contiki tours without a day song and I was starting to wonder whether we’d be sadly deprived of one. Mind you, Contiki tours also aren’t Contiki tours without someone sleeping with the tour manager or driver, but that bit I could live without. Finally on the morning of Day 4 we were introduced to our day song – Ronan Keating’s Lovin’ Each Day. I can’t say I have it in my personal music collection or belted it out with much gusto and enthusiasm for the rest of the tour, but nevertheless as a musical memento it sure did its job. I heard it played for the first time after the tour in my local supermarket some months later and for that three or four minutes I wandered along the aisles in a dream–like state, probably with a stupid grin on my face, thinking back to the wonderful faces and places that made this holiday in NZ so special.
Lunch was in the town of Matamata, or Hobbiton as the signs proudly displayed by the roadside. This obvious cashing in on the filming of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand was something repeated in spots like this all over the country, but then why wouldn’t you. The first film was massive and the rest of the trilogy will undoubtedly follow suit, so I’m sure there will be more than a few LOTR devotees making pilgrimages to the cinematic Middle Earth. I was just disappointed we didn’t see any hairy footed locals stopping by the bakery or quickly ducking into the post office. But then again, this was a small town in a rural area and you just never know how tiny the gene pool is in these kinds of places, so I should have looked a bit harder.
As well as its new found love for the Lord of the Rings, NZ is world renowned for its long established love of sheep. So along with countless other bus loads of international tourists we gathered at The Agrodome to watch a sheep shagging show. Um, I mean sheep shearing show. To be honest I was a little non-plussed about going having seen it all before, I’d been on a school excursion to Old MacDonald’s Farm when I was in about Year 1 after all. But watching a shearer decked out in the obligatory blue shearer’s singlet showing off nearly 20 varieties of sheep, getting audience members to milk a cow and then rounding up some sheep in the paddock outside with the help of his trusty sheepdog was surprisingly entertaining.
Sheep are cute, sheep are beaut, sheep are soft and curly,
But when I take 'em into town I have to start off early.
Coz they never go the way I want and I need someone to help me,
So I just give a whistle and I call for Bob the Kelpie.
Bob The Kelpie by Don Spencer (one for the kiddies there).
After the show we were herded back onto the bus like sheep ourselves. It seems a tour manager makes a great sheepdog.
We had arrived in Rotorua, the country’s centrepiece of both thermal activity and Maori culture, and at Te Whakarewarewa we got a dose of both. A guide greeted us one by one with a hongi, two light touches of noses, as we stepped off the coach. We were careful not to make a third touch because, if Darryl was to be believed, that meant the Maori equivalent of “Hey big boy. Your place or mine?”
There were workshops displaying traditional wooden carvings and a re-created Maori village to wander through, complete with a canoe, meeting house, huts and some small cubby houses for the kids to play in. Or at least from my past visits as a child to Rotorua that’s how I remembered the storehouses used to stock food, and I would have dearly loved one in the backyard as a cubby. My childhood memories of Rotorua are also dominated by the gagging smell of sulphur, and it was interesting to find out that the smell around the thermal areas and boiling mud was actually as bad as I remembered.
After checking into our accommodation and having a hangi-style dinner where the food was cooked in the ground, we wandered down the road, past steam billowing out of the roadside drains, for a Maori concert. There we were entertained by Maoris who I’m sure all had phonetically beautiful names like Kahutea, Tuaivi, Waitohi and Stavros. There was something about Stavros that just didn’t seem right. Perhaps it was his fair skin. Perhaps it was his Mediterranean features. But mostly I think the thing that made him stand out from the others was the fact he had pink nipples.
The performance included the two big highlights every Maori concert should have: The women dancing with pois that glow in the dark, and the men performing the haka. There are not many more fearsome or intimidating sights than when a bunch of big Maori blokes stare at you with wide eyes, slapping their elbows and knees while yelling a war chant at the top of their lungs. The most famous haka of all is Te Rauparaha’s haka, performed by New Zealand’s national rugby team the All Blacks at their opponents before every game. It is much less scary when done by the Tall Blacks, the skinny white boys that make up the national basketball team, and downright comical when attempted by half a dozen international tourists. Our group made it look like an aerobics routine.
The night was finished off by retiring to the comfort of our hotel's thermal pool. It was great being outside in the dark and in the rain relaxing in a swimming pool sized bath, and with nearly 20 people running around in the pool we managed to get an awesome whirlpool going.
Before leaving Rotorua we spent the morning at Skyline Skyrides, riding a gondola to the top of a hill and riding a luge. I don't mean it involved getting clad in lycra and sliding feet first down an ice chute, or getting more intimate in the 2 man event, they were more like modern billy carts made out of plastic used for scooting along 1km long concrete paths. Once us bigger kids hit the tarmac it became a game of duck and weave, at times narrowly avoiding nasty shunts into smaller and slower people, especially ones who had stopped before the fastest track’s jump to get out and have a look at the drop. There was nothing worse than exiting an S bend on less than four wheels trying to get maximum velocity for take off, when all you can see is the back of some person out for a Sunday drive along a quiet country lane in a dapper hat (well, dorky helmet really) approaching at a rate of knots. Bloody Volvo drivers. It was so much fun that I talked Carsten into doing one more ride than we probably had time for, and, slightly late, the coach started moving out of the car park as soon as we jumped onboard.
At our next stop near Taupo we experienced one of my North Island highlights, a strange attraction called Rock n Ropes. It was a confidence course of sorts, with a number of tightrope-walking style activities set 20m above the ground, run by a ruddy faced middle aged bloke who looked like he either had seen far too much sun in his lifetime or had drunk far too much. With a harness on and someone below holding the safety ropes we never dropped very far when we fell (everyone gave this a thorough trying out over the afternoon), and I think that most people ended up concentrating too much on walking along the logs or wires to get scared about the heights.
My personal highlight was getting to the top of a long climb up steel ladders, wooden beams and through tyres. It must have taken me a good 20 minutes or so, and I was completely exhausted once I’d hauled myself up there. Another favourite was to climb up a 20m telephone pole, stand on top of it and then leap off to catch a trapeze. It was far from easy to stand on the top of the pole when it was shaking madly in the brisk wind, there was barely enough room for both feet and nothing for my hands to grab onto. I found jumping out to the catch the trapeze was the easiest bit of all, but I did have a decent height advantage to be able to do that.
There was an optional dinner cruise on Lake Taupo which I thought wasn’t quite worth what we had to pay for it, especially because the karaoke machine kept playing up, and we then hit the town in Taupo. A group of us headed back to our lakeside hotel for a quiet drink and ended up bumping into and then sharing a maxi taxi with the instructor from the Rock n Ropes – he’d seen so much sun in the nightspots that evening that he could barely string a sentence together.
We stopped briefly at the Craters of the Moon, the last of the big thermal regions we’d see, and had a little bit more time in Taupo’s town centre. Looking across the lake I caught my very first glimpse of snow for the trip – the volcanic peaks of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe were just visible, their tops covered in a healthy dusting. Over the course of a fairly long driving day we drove around Lake Taupo along the Desert Road past the volcanoes, and continued south to the very bottom of the North Island.
Late in the afternoon we reached ‘Wundy Willungton’ and stopped at Mount Victoria for a scenic view of NZ’s capital city. Despite the chilly wind and gloomy conditions it was all very nice, however I was in a huge rush to get to the hotel – today was the last Saturday in September. The AFL Grand Final was being played in Melbourne and I desperately needed to find a TV, but being across the Tasman where Rugby Union is king I wasn’t sure whether there’d be any coverage of Australian Football’s showcase match.
I flicked through the channels on the TV in the hotel bar but in the way of sporting action I could only find a local provincial rugby match. Finally I managed to find a channel on the TV in my room that had the game on and I was just in time in to see the last two quarters, although the signal was terrible. Most AFL Grand Finals of recent years have not been nail biters by any means, but this year’s was easily the most exciting since 1989 with the Brisbane Lions just getting up over the Magpies in a thriller to win back-to-back premierships. I think I can pretty safely speak for the majority of footy fans when I say that the only thing better than seeing Collingwood get absolutely flogged is seeing them lose in a heartbreaker, especially when it’s in the premiership deciding game.
A Saturday night out in Wellington’s lively pubs beckoned, however we were again let down in the directions from the restaurant to the nominated pub. But in the end it seemed the whole group managed to all find each other in the same pub, even if it wasn’t the one we were expecting to end up in.
The day dawned even more wet and grey than yesterday. It was all a bit depressing but the dismal weather did have one positive side effect, as I joined the optional trip spending the morning riding around on quad bikes on a farm outside the city. Tearing up hill and down dale, through the muddy tracks and creeks and splashing through large puddles as fast as I could, copping facefuls of horrible sheep-tasting water in the process, proved to be a lot of fun and well worth the horrible conditions. We even got to wear bright yellow raincoats and gum boots. At the morning tea stop by some cliffs fronting on to Cook Strait we could spy the South Island for a brief moment, then the clouds once again closed in and we spent the rest of the ride with the rain beating into our faces.
The wet managed to stop all but the brave exploring the city in the afternoon and, knowing I'd be back in Wellington at my cousin’s place in two weeks, I decided I wasn't going to be one of the brave ones.
It was a fairly early start to put our luggage on a waiting truck, and then after breakfast boarded one of the Interislander ferries for the three and a half hour journey to the South Island. The time was well spent teaching a couple of people how to play 500, that most legendary of card games. Of particular note to the students was my comprehensive display of how not to play a hand of misere, not just once but twice in a row. I think should probably sign up for my own lessons before I start teaching others.
Once on the South Island we hugged the Kaikoura Coast, renowned for its whale watching when in season. While it wasn’t quite the right time of year for us it was still a spectacular drive as we passed numerous seal colonies congregating along the rocky coastline right beside the road. The town of Kaikoura itself also presented two unusual sights I don’t see every day. The first was being able to see the ocean and a line of snow covered mountains all in one vista. The second was an old Subaru sedan given a General Lee paintjob from the early 1980’s US TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. I only took a photo of one of them, and I’ll let you guess which sight it was. Yee-haw!
On arriving in Christchurch we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner. I had made the investment of buying a soccer ball on one of the first days of the trip and it had come into good use at various stops while travelling, having a kick around in car parks and even outside the Wellington ferry terminal. But it was in Christchurch where I think it showed its real worth. Our rooms were conveniently built around a good sized grassed square which was just perfect for a game of soccer before dinner, and it was a good way to use up some of the pent up energy from travelling all day.
With some people leaving the tour here and new ones joining we had a huge farewell/welcome dinner in the hotel restaurant, a corny Western themed place complete with a line dancing show. The interior reminded me of the bar in the Quentin Tarantino vampire movie From Dusk ‘till Dawn. Our waiter and line dancing instructor also happened to look unnervingly like Tarantino himself, so I was sure it was just a matter of time before the murdering started. I didn’t have to wait long. The karaoke machine came out soon after dinner and I completely murdered Travis’ Why Does it Always Rain on Me?, with countless other songs getting similar treatment. Our Tarantino look-a-like decided he couldn’t wait until dawn for the carnage to stop and pulled the plug on things just before 1am.
A chant of "Soccer! Soccer! Soccer!" arose from among the group as we made our way outside, most people of course had had a skinful and were feeling fairly hyperactive. It was definitely a less co-ordinated and far louder game than the pre-dinner encounter, however it seemed the other hotel guests were none too keen about a World Cup Final Replay taking place when it did. Darryl bounded down from the other end of the hotel to try and bring a halt to proceedings, however he was far too slow – the hotel manager had already appeared and swiftly confiscated my ball after a pretty poor shot on goal. The first thing that sprang to my mind was the old favourite cricket chant "We want the ball back! (clap, clap) (clap, clap, clap)", but being sober and polite I didn’t want to push things too much further so we had no choice but to accept our red card and return to the change rooms to have an early shower.
I had to go and claim the ball from the office just before we departed, where the manager confessed that she quite enjoyed making me feel like a 10 year old when I asked to get it back off her. With the booty safely in hand there were some ironic cheers from the gallery as I stepped onto the bus. Still, I can't quite see where all the complaints were coming from, as quite a few of our slumbering tourmates who were within mere metres of last night’s monumental sporting occasion managed to sleep soundly through the whole thing.
Before leaving Christchurch we had an hour and a half in the centre of the city deemed by many as the most English outside of England. The Cathedral is probably the main attraction in the city and, although not as big as many of its European counterparts, its Gothic style certainly makes it look a lot older than what it really is. And as my usual line goes, as a building it is all very impressive but I have no idea how effective it is as an actual church – i.e. simply a meeting of Christians. But bear in mind this is coming from a guy who goes to church in a university lecture theatre. It was also very nice to wander along the banks of the narrow winding Avon River, stopping at the Dandelion Fountain at the Town Hall where I have hazy memories of walking around it and getting wet when I was five years old.
I was now in serious need for some new shoes as my existing ones had been falling apart since my arrival in the country, and Ken was in serious need of a warm jumper or pullover. Being men there was only one for it: Grit our teeth, separate and get the shopping over and done with as soon as possible. I happened upon a small shoe shop in Colombo Street where walking through the door was like travelling at least half a century back in time. The shop was dark and everything in it seemed brown – the walls, the carpet, the shoe boxes and all the shoes. It was silent except for the tick-tock of an old clock hanging on one of the walls, and the only person working there was a little old lady. About the only thing that didn’t look like it was out of the 1940’s were the prices. After finding the pair of shoes I was after, brown of course but a little more expensive than I’d originally had in mind, the little old lady and I went over to the counter to an ancient pre-digital cash register where she literally rolled up the amount. I handed over my credit card, expecting her to look at me blankly and ask for pounds, shillings and pence, but she reached down under the counter and pulled out a modern hand-held EFTPOS machine and swiped my card through.
It wasn’t the only part of the day where it felt like I’d gone back in time. At our lunch stop at Arthur’s Pass the local cafe was selling Chuppa Chup lollipops at genuine 1985 prices. I bought two handfuls and stuffed them into my coat pockets, sure that the stash would last for the rest of the trip. They more than did that, while packing my coat when moving house a month after this holiday was over I found I still had two left.
The morning driving stint from the Canterbury Plains and up one side of the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass had been nothing short of spectacular and travelling down the other side to the wild west coast was equally so, running in parallel with the TranzAlpine railway line in parts. It was the kind of idealised scenery you find in car racing computer games, from a dramatic concrete viaduct near Arthur’s Pass through to the long wait we had to make for an oncoming train to cross an extremely long bridge which functioned as both road and rail in its single lane.
New Zealand is famous for its tikis carved out of jade/greenstone, and the town of Hokitika is meant to be the centre of it all. Before we all stepped off the coach to go into a jade gallery a girl got on to tell us about the stone, which may have been slightly interesting had her rote learned speech not been delivered in a complete monotone. It was nauseating to sit through. Almost as nauseating was the fact that once inside the shop you had to pay to take a photo of the full-sized replica of the America’s Cup trophy carved out of jade – although it was clearly an outstanding example of craftsmanship and thoroughly deserved to be shown off as the gallery’s centrepiece. The shop also contained a huge array of jewellery and ornaments that had me rushing for the smelling salts when I saw the asking amounts, but the gallery still managed to suck me in to buying something, I couldn’t resist a few of the roughly cut and polished chunks of stone.
The rain clouds hung low over the tops of the nearby hills but two rainbows were out to welcome us to the small settlement of Fox Glacier as afternoon became evening. The accommodation out the back of the village hotel was the most basic of the trip so far and reminded me of the days of my school camps. This was further reinforced after dark when we crossed the road and paid $2 to see some glow worms. I think I got my $2 worth of entertainment listening to all the school camp style shrieks of "Oi, who is touching me?", "Is that you so and so?" and "What are we meant to be looking at? I can't see a damn thing!" in the darkness.
It was wet and cloudy in the morning and so the optional Heli-hike excursion to the very top of Fox Glacier was cancelled, forcing those booked on it to join the rest of us on an ancient bus to the base of the glacier instead. We walked for perhaps an hour and a half along a valley ridge above the front face of the glacier, and though it was a little cold, thankfully the rain held off for most of the time allowing us some nice views. Then we climbed down, strapped crampons onto our boots and met the ice. It felt a little strange underfoot, like walking across a shattered car windscreen, and there were some deep crevasses and caves formed naturally as the ice is pushed down the valley by the weight of the snow up in the mountains behind. And just to make the terrain even more interesting there were also lots of steps and the occasional tunnel formed not-so-naturally by the hacking of axes by the tour guides.
After lunch the spectacular drive continued, travelling south through Haast Pass and skirting the shores of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. We were heading towards Queenstown, the so-called ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ and quite possibly the climax of the whole tour, and as we approached it Darryl announced the schedules for all the optional activities we had put down to do over the next few days. I wasn’t able to fit in everything I had wanted to do, but the one thing I had signed up for with some misgivings was one of the three available AJ Hackett bungy jumps. And if you're only going to do one you might as well cut straight to the chase and do the biggest one of all. I just didn’t count on it being the first Queenstown optional I would be doing and was hoping to warm up with something else first. My stomach started to twist itself in knots – I was set to do the 134m Nevis Bungy first thing the next morning, followed up by skydiving in the afternoon.
After checking into the Queenstown Lodge and getting all dolled up for our tour photo we climbed into one of the most recognisable and established Queenstown tourism ventures, the Skyline Gondola that climbs up the hill behind the town centre. At the top we gathered for a snobby and posh dinner looking down on the town lights, Lake Wakatipu and across to the simply stunning backdrop of The Remarkables. After dinner it was time to spend some time in town and we hit an establishment called Winnie Bagoes. It was packed to the hilt and its greatest attraction was a roof that opened up for a few minutes every hour, bringing the black night sky in and causing sharp draughts of cold air to filter through. It also had the double advantage of pulling out all the cigarette smoke.
Jenny, Akiko and I had to be in town at 8am and there was a considerable air of nervousness as we sat over breakfast. I'm not sure whether their nerves were in turn making me feel more nervous or made me more relaxed while trying to reassure them. Being the big brave bloke (I hear you scoff) and to their relief, I decided that I would jump first. After arriving at The Station in Shotover Street we were checked in and weighed and told that the jump order is always heaviest to lightest, which meant I would be first anyway. But when we were joined by some Scandinavian tourists I was no longer the heaviest person there, and I got some reassurance from the fact that, while I would still be the first out of our entire Contiki tour group to bungy jump, I didn't have to be the first person for the day to do so.
Just getting to the Nevis site was an adventure in itself. The last 15 minutes of the 45 minute bus ride was along a steep gravel road up a rocky and sparsely vegetated ridge to a tin building reminiscent of an old aircraft hangar. There we were weighed again (perhaps in case I’d lost some weight during my last nervous leak), harnessed up and then directed onto a small open cable car, the only way of getting to and from the bungy platform which was suspended by cables strung up across the sides of a deep gorge above the Nevis river.
It was my turn to go after watching the first 5 or 6 jumpers through the glass floor, and by this stage I’d lost most of my nerves. I got a quick briefing while my legs were strapped up to the bungy cord and then went to stride confidently out to the plank. It didn’t look quite as convincing as I would have liked, having my legs bound together meant it was more like ungainly hobbling than confidently striding, and as I stood on the platform and caught my first glimpse of the valley and river far, far below the video evidence proves I uttered a mild expletive. After being given the countdown there was no alternative but to leap...and the most I can recall of the next 8 seconds and 134m fall is thinking "I've got to do this again". So once the bouncing stopped and I was winched back up to the platform, after about 3 or 4 more people had jumped I got to go again, and with my head clearer second time around I think I enjoyed it all the more.
After watching Aki and Jenny jump the weather started closing in, and as we were on our way back to Queenstown Jenny and I learned that our skydiving had been cancelled. While we were both pretty gutted, I was fortunate in that I had a second chance – I was able to come back to Queenstown a week later after the tour finished. Instead of jumping out of a plane we were able to lounge around in town and then back at the lodge for the rest of the afternoon. As the others arrived back from their optionals some other tales of woe surfaced and it made for some interesting stories. The skiers at Mount Cardrona got caught in a blizzard, and the white water rafters were out in pretty dangerous conditions – whole raft loads of people had fallen out and there were a lot of bruises to show off. One man (not from our group) even got a dislocated shoulder after tumbling out of his raft and onto some rocks.
After dinner we were once again drawn to the opening roof and the dancing on the tables at Winnie Bagoes. It was also good to see Stuart and Julie who had been with us for the North Island but had made their own way to Queenstown. Though it had only been a week since we’d seen them, with all that had happened since then it felt more like catching up with long lost friends.
The day dawned clear as a bell, and the entire group scheduled to go skydiving this morning were able to go. I couldn't help but feel envious, and I was just hoping my second bite at the cherry later would work out. It wasn’t all bad though, the sparkling blue skies also meant Alicia, Christian and I were able to go hang-gliding. After driving up the lower reaches of The Remarkables we stopped at the take-off point and prepared to launch. We were kitted up and all set to practice the take-off procedures. I was told to stand next to the instructor, holding onto straps attached to his shoulder and waist, we’d take two steps walking and then sprint side by side. The instructor looked just like the Australian cricket player Andy Bichel, though slightly older, so I thought his acceleration would be the same as the fast bowler’s. But after we’d taken the two walking steps and started running full pelt I ended up dragging the instructor along behind me.
The real take-off was more smoothly choreographed, and for the next 15 minutes we soared through the sky, with not a sound except for the whizz of the sheet/sail rippling in the air currents. We buzzed past cows, our feet brushed the tops of low bushes clinging onto the hillside slopes, we climbed into the air until the glider stalled and then dived again to pick up speed, and finally after some nifty tight turns there was a slightly rough landing in a farm paddock. As a child I always dreamed of having the ability to fly so this was a truly magical experience, probably about as close as I’ll ever get to being a bird.
Then it was straight on to the next activity of the day, jet boating on the Shotover River. This would be one of the most popular things to do in Queenstown, racing past cliffs and doing 360 degree turns all in a single boat length. Some of it was pretty thrilling, and I certainly appreciated the hot water pumped through the hand-rails to keep our hands warm, but the rest of it was all a bit staid really. I think all the other adrenalin pumping things I had done thus far spoiled everything.
After getting out of the jet boat it was time to move on to white water rafting, and there was definitely some trepidation amongst the group after what had occurred to the others the day before. While this was going to be the third country where I’d been white water rafting, this trip had an interesting prospect that set it apart. Our launch site on the Nevis River was not accessible by road, so once we got close by bus a couple of helicopters ferried us in small groups up and over to the rafts. Having never been in a chopper before I was quite looking forward it, and it was a nice and gentle ride to the top of the ridges...until we got over the top of them. Then the pilot pushed the joystick straight down and we dived. Lori and Jean freaked out at this point, Lori’s eyes almost popped out of her skull and her hands clasped my arm so tightly I almost lost blood circulation to my fingers. The more they shrieked the more the pilot sent us from side to side – all with a big stupid grin on his face while he looked around at his bewildered passengers. My stomach churned slightly with the rapid changes in direction, and could only hope that the doors were shut properly so we weren't going to all fall out while being tossed against them in an involuntary game of corners. This no doubt was the best part of the afternoon, and after the anti-climax of the jet boat it was the most satisfied I’d feel during the latter half of the day.
Once on the ground we found the river conditions were a lot calmer than the day before, and we were told by the rafting company there was no chance of a repeat of yesterday's events. Apart from a few rapids, and the fact that the water was freezing, there really wasn't too much to worry about. The biggest concern I had was that I had to strain to hear the instructions of our guide whose voice didn't seem to carry very well from the back of the raft to me at the front. Perhaps the highlight was paddling under the Nevis Bungy site, which, though it had closed for the day and we couldn't see anyone jump down towards us, still looked pretty impressive from the water level looking up. All in all though I didn't enjoy the rafting as much as my previous times and I think the poor quality of the Queenstown Rafting staff had a fair bit to do with it. The youngest one in particular was a cocksure little pillock who needed some of his smartarse arrogance beaten out of him, and I know there were a heap of others who would have lined up to help me had I done so.
Speaking of lining up, the evening’s entertainment centred on the bar at Winnie Bagoes again, making it a hat-trick for some of us. It probably says more about us being creatures of habit rather than having a lack of venues to choose from, but after all the activity of the day I was tired and it was a little hard to get enthused about being there. It still ended up being a late night though, leaving there at around 1am before chatting in the Lodge’s lounge for a couple more hours after that.
We were back on the coach for the first time in three days and set for more monotonously spectacular lakes and mountains. But first off we had to stop at the original bungy site at Kawarau Bridge – the most popular leap for those only choosing to do a single AJ Hackett jump, and the last one for those who had elected to do all three. With it being the most accessible, those that did jump had all the pressure of a big audience watching on. And with it being the only one where it’s possible to get wet we weren’t happy unless we got to see some dunking going on. Or at least some screaming in the absence of a dunking, which birthday girl Raquel fulfilled more than satisfactorily.
Of all the Sounds jutting in along the coast of Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound would have to be the most famous. It’s equally well known for the hordes of day trippers that come from Queenstown to cruise along the fiord as for the terrible weather that prevents many of those day trippers from fully appreciating its beauty. We were fortunate on both counts, getting there in the afternoon for an overnight cruise as the last of the daily visitors were leaving and being able to experience it all in clear blue skies.
Our vessel motored along the fiord as the sun sank lower and lower. The shadows lengthened over Mitre Peak, its top dusted with the last of the spring snow, and the countless waterfalls around us were steadily tumbling huge volumes of water down sheer rocky slopes into the fiord. In a sheltered bay the boat put down anchor, giving us the opportunity to go out kayaking and possibly see penguins or seals. While we didn’t see either of those we did see a sizeable group of dorsal fins, some bearing scars, unhurriedly but still rapidly making their way towards us from the direction of the sea. Even though I knew they were dolphins and not sharks, I still couldn’t help but feel a little vulnerable sitting in a small kayak in the middle of a large body of water maybe 500m away from the safety of the cruise boat. And this pod was feeling far more playful than their cousins in the Bay of Islands were – continually coming out of nowhere to rise within a metre or so of one side of our kayaks, diving just under us, resurfacing a metre away on the other side and then turning around to do it all again. For all the picture postcard vistas that Milford Sound offers I think the sight I will always remember the most is this: The sensational experience of looking down and seeing the head of a dolphin under one side of my kayak and the tail under the other side as it flashed past me barely an arm’s length away.
With a lack of recreational options on the boat after dinner the board games came out. This wasn’t nearly as boring as it sounded, although it might have been for Ken as he didn’t take too long to run out of Chess opponents. Out on the deck it was pitch black, chilly but very peaceful – except for when John’s guitar serenade and our poor accompanying ad-lib vocals broke the still. And if there’s one disadvantage about living in Sydney it has to be forgetting what the stars look like. But sitting all rugged up with Minh and Luke as the last ones still up at 4am, a million miles away from city lights, looking up into a clear night sky filled with thousands upon thousands of tiny bright sparkles I could only marvel at the wonderful, limitless expanse of Creation.
The boat started up, pulled anchor and then putted further out along Milford Sound to its entrance into the Tasman Sea before turning back towards the head of the Sound and the wharf from where we’d come. Or at least that’s what I’m told. I was the last to surface from my bunk, after breakfast was well and truly over and the boat was back near the bay we’d moored at overnight.
Once back onboard the coach the four hour retracing journey back to Queenstown through the Homer Tunnel, past the Mirror Lakes and around Lake Te Anau beckoned. Alicia, Christian and I were there for only about two minutes of it, getting dropped off at Milford’s airfield. There were a few light planes parked around but seemingly no-one to fly us in one of them. I thought I could have a bash at getting us to Queenstown on my own, although I would have to have borrowed Lori’s Survival Handbook and consult the couple of pages it had on how to land a plane. The Survival Handbook also had handy tips on such things as how to collect water in the Outback and how to treat snake bites, so it seemed like an accurate and trustworthy publication. Mind you, it also had a section on how to survive an alien abduction. On second thoughts perhaps it was fortunate a pilot appeared, we hopped into the four seater Cessna and then I would have been able to give him flying tips out of the Survival Handbook from the safety of the back seat.
After quickly zipping over Milford Sound we roughly followed the route of the Milford Track, coming close to Lake Quill, a tranquil lake sitting in the palm of a cupped hand of snowy mountains, with the run-off water forming the spectacular Sutherland Falls. Further on we were flying over a stark wonderland of pure white, with nothing but the pointed tops of snow covered peaks for as far as the eye could see. Passing directly over a 3km long frozen lake was a highlight, as was the sight of clouds below covering the valleys like a snug fitting blanket as we headed closer to the ocean.
After about an hour we were above the azure blue of Lake Wakatipu and then surrounded by the now familiar landmarks of Queenstown. On final descent Alicia started casually poking around in the seat pocket in front. So casually that it took me a few seconds to cotton on to what she was looking for, but I was able to quickly grab a sick bag from my seat pocket and pass it over to her just in time. The combination of a slight hangover, a night gently bobbing around on a boat and a flight in a light plane proved a deadly mix.
After getting out of the plane and entering the international airport’s terminal through a side door, the three of us were shuttled into town for a leisurely early lunch, choosing to sit in the brisk air by the lake. After a couple of hours we caught a cab back to the airport to meet up with the others in the coach and made the short journey to Arrowtown, a re-created 19th century gold mining town. Apart from the remains of a Chinese settlement I didn’t really think there was too much to see here, with both sides of the town’s main street just a continuum of souvenir shops, boutiques, galleries and food and drink retailers.
The tour was nearing its end and I was starting to get worn out, so once back on the coach I laid out on the floor in the aisle and had a nice nap. I was awoken by the feeling of having my feet higher than my head as Glenn drove uphill along Lake Ohau Lodge’s driveway. All the rooms there looked quite swish – apart from the dated remote wing that we boys were put in due to the rest of the lodge being full. It was the most basic accommodation of the trip, with dodgy locks, meagre toilets and showers and not even a power point in the whole building for me to plug my shaver into. After seeing the rooms the girls got, ‘Ohau’ would they have survived in ours I wonder.
Tonight saw the National Rugby League Grand Final being played in Sydney, and it seemed with the New Zealand Warriors playing the Sydney Roosters the whole of NZ had actually forgotten about Rugby Union for the last few weeks. Now it's fair to say that despite living in Sydney for a little while I still haven't quite caught on to Rugby League, so I didn’t have anywhere near the same sense of urgency to see the NRL Grand Final as I had for the AFL Grand Final the weekend before.
I don't believe in Bondi, I don't believe in Rugby League.
I Will Not Go Quietly (Duffy’s Song) by The Whitlams.
But it came to pass that the Bondi Junction based Roosters managed to beat the Warriors pretty easily and the people of NZ quickly shifted their whole-hearted attention back to Union once again.
The lodge’s cosy bar afforded a panoramic vista of Lake Ohau and yet more snow-topped mountains, and JP celebrated his birthday in style here before a tea towel fight ensued late in the night. You know what they say, "it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye", and that someone was almost me. After having had years of intense training I was able to fend off all comers pretty comfortably – until Julia got me with a beauty straight across the top of my cheekbone. It was a KO in the tenth round as I tumbled down the invisible staircase.
It felt like it had been coming for the last couple of days, and today was it. As our day song was played we all knew there was no need to be “lovin’ each day as if it’s the last” – this really was the last day of the tour.
In heavily overcast conditions Alicia and I were set for another scenic flight and were joined by Ken, Jean, Noriko and Rie. I wondered how scenic the flight over Mount Cook and the Tasman, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers was going to be with all the cloud cover, but the pilot assured us that where we were headed was clearing, and not long after we’d taken off from Lake Tekapo that’s exactly what happened. The scenery was slightly different from what I flew over yesterday, and today we were in a larger Nomad plane which meant I really only got to see one side of the landscape and not get the full 360 degree experience. While there was still plenty of snow blanketing the upper reaches of the mountain summits, in between the ranges we crossed a vast and desolate grey valley which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the moon had its craters not been filled with water.
The clouds had thinned out to fully reveal the otherwise shy Mount Cook, and from above the glaciers I could see the patterns of the shifting of the ice pushing down the valleys in a continual wave.
Sweeping back over Lake Tekapo to land we found its gull grey colour had transformed into an intense and almost unnatural blue, the vividness of which was nowhere near matched when were back on the ground and our entire group gazed across it from the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd and nearby sheepdog statue.
Lunch was at Geraldine, a small town whose greatest claim to fame is it has the world's biggest knitted jumper/jersey/sweater. It’s funny how small towns attach the most obscure tags to themselves in order to attract the passing tourist trade. In this case I thought perhaps it was a more politically correct way of saying Geraldine was the home of the world’s fattest person and this just happened to be their jumper, but I doubt there’s been a person yet quite that big.
On arrival back to the hallowed turf of our favourite Christchurch hotel turned soccer ground we had time for one last kick around, then a fleet of cabs arrived to take us to the final dinner at the Lone Star restaurant. This place was far classier than the steakhouse and saloon chain of the same name I’m familiar with, the waitresses were without exception the most gorgeous women in Christchurch and I’m told the waiters were of a similar impeccable standard. Bottles of red wine mysteriously appeared on every table, Saad’s own farewell gift, and the start of a steady stream of goodbyes over the next 24 hours began.
The sombre mood continued back at the hotel, and after the bar closed about 10 of us congregated quietly in Saad’s room for one last official hurrah. Not that that stopped some other guests heading off to Antarctica the next day in the room next door complaining that they couldn’t sleep with all our noise. It’s a good thing they weren’t here exactly a week earlier, then we would have really given them something to complain about.
Housekeeping knocked on the door at 9am, waking me up but not causing any movement among the still motionless bodies of Ken, JP and Luke. The tour may have been over but I still had another week and a half of my trip left, and I walked into the city to pick up my new means of getting around. The stir the Ford Laser created back at the hotel was worthy of a Ferrari – impromptu farewell photos around it, people clambering to get in the driver’s seat and Julia draping herself all over the bonnet like she was in a photo shoot for a magazine with a title like Vixens & V8s or, more likely in this case, Hornbags & Sensible Hire Cars.
Ken, Lori, Daneeka and Julia jumped in, and with the CD player cranking, we aimlessly cruised the streets like a bunch of idle kids with nothing better to do. Which considering we were just filling in the time before they all flew out it was exactly what we were. After some last minute wandering in the city and bumping into some familiar faces, Peta and I took Param and Lori to the airport and bid fond farewells as they headed back to the US and Canada.
The last of a once large Contiki assembly still remaining in Christchurch had organised to meet up for dinner at a pizza restaurant in Victoria Street. The pizzas were superb and there was beer on tap (I had developed quite a taste for the local NZ brews – especially Monteith’s Black and Speight’s Old Dark) so I was very happy. But it was clear that as our group had now shrunk from almost fifty people to less than ten there were some at the table who had never spoken to each other, and no doubt felt it was probably a little late to start now. We seemed to form three separate splinter groups around the table and it felt like everyone had all met up more out of obligation than anything else. The other two groups left, leaving Saad, Peta and I to continue on back at Peta’s hotel. It seemed late when we said goodbye to Peta, and then Saad and I parted like old friends once we’d driven back to our hotel. It’s amazing how close you can get to others after being immersed with them in such an intense environment like a Contiki tour for just over two weeks, and all the farewells strung out over the last two days left me feeling exhausted.
The solo chapter of my journey began. There was a real sense of freedom as I left the suburbs of Christchurch behind and hit the open road, a feeling that I was now the controller of my own destiny after a couple of weeks of being a passive passenger constrained by the limits of an organised group tour. While still having fairly closely mapped out where I wanted to be each day, the shackles were off and I was free to stop whenever I wanted and for as long as I wanted. And I was able to appreciate how expensive petrol is in NZ.
Driving distances, especially on the South Island, are famously deceptive. Though towns are generally clustered closer together than you find in Australia or elsewhere, the almost universal two lane highway routes are limited by the continually shifting contours of the countryside, and it’s not unusual to spend most of the time well under the 100km/h speed limit. So it was with some surprise that I traversed the busiest road on the South Island between its two biggest cities in less time than I thought, arriving in the centre of Scottish heritage at Dunedin in time for lunch.
My first impression of Dunedin was that people were dying to get out of there – literally. I was driving around the Octagon in the very centre of the city when I saw an ambulance up on the kerb and the ambos/paramedics out pumping a man’s chest on the footpath. When I walked past 10 minutes later there was a blanket covering him.
The rest of my stay was less dramatic, apart from the fact I had my nationality misjudged by a local (and not for the first time on the trip either, I might add). On finding a room in a hostel the manager took down my name and then automatically put “NZ” as my country of origin. Having spent the first 23 years of my life in Tasmania I think I’m equipped with a fairly broad Australian accent, but a couple of times on the South Island I was mistaken as someone hailing from Auckland. I took far less offence to be taken as a Kiwi than I think a Kiwi would for being called an Aussie, and in fact I thought it quite endearing they would regard me as one of their own. That is, assuming those from the South do regard those from the North Island as one of their own – you can never underestimate the power of parochialism. That’s one thing I’ve learned having grown up in a small state like Tasmania. Coming from Hobart I can quite categorically state that people from Launceston are all in-bred. We don’t call it ‘Inceston’ for nothing. But enough already of my own local and petty brand of parochialism.
I spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening happily cruising around the hilly Dunedin suburbs without much purpose, including driving up supposedly the steepest street in the world. While I can’t attest to the truth of that assertion what I can say is I had to put the car down into first gear to get to the top of it. South of the city the beaches of St. Clair and St. Kilda were providing a good swell and a surprisingly large number of surfers were out in the line-up. I’m sure the water down here doesn’t get close to warm until at least January so I stayed within the comfortable confines of the car.
I also stopped by Carisbrook, the home ground of the local provincial rugby team the Otago Highlanders. Out of all the provinces Otago is sometimes regarded as the most passionate about its rugby, however given the whole of New Zealand’s deep rugby fixation I’m not sure it’s really possible to make that kind of call. As well being home for Otago, the All Blacks have only been beaten 3 times in the 32 internationals they’ve played at Carisbrook since 1908, the most recent defeat coming at the hands of the Wallabies last year. With such an imposing record like that it’s little wonder the ground has attracted the nickname ‘The House of Pain’. And in an age when new and redeveloped sports stadiums around the world all seem to be of similar sterile designs and have improved facilities and spectator comfort at the expense of atmosphere, from what I could see the ground had maintained a nice balance between its old-style architecture and more modern grandstands while still packing in over 30,000 rabid rugby fans.
The other place in Dunedin where they’re packing in the people is the University of Otago. It’s long been a big student town and was where one of my Kiwi cousins studied. I had a quick wander through the campus and found it a lot nicer than the campus of the uni I went to. Students being what they are I’m sure the University Of Otago could also be called ‘The House of Pain’, but for many different reasons.
By this stage it was getting quite late and I was running out of cheap dinner options. Almost out of desperation I went to a McDonald’s, and while you’d have to look hard to find someone in print not slagging them off I’m going to buck the trend and give Maccas a thumbs up. One of the essential ingredients in any good burger is a fried egg, along with beetroot and barbequed onions, and the one in my Kiwi Burger tasted every bit as good as a fried egg should. I was just disappointed the burger had a beef patty and not real Kiwi though. I suppose the little nocturnal, flightless birds are endangered enough as it is.
I finished the night off by calling a different little nocturnal, flightless bird – my youngest sister – who was celebrating her birthday. Happy birthday, Spudso. So now you can start learning to drive.
I continued my way south until I got to Bluff, at the very bottom tip of the South Island. For a small port town whose biggest sight is a signpost pointing to the South Pole and some other places, the harbourside main drag was clogged with gawking tourist traffic. Vans selling doughnuts and ice creams had set up shop next to the road and the police were out dealing with a minor traffic accident. But when I stopped to look at the signpost it wasn’t even there, having been taken away for maintenance. The reason for all the activity was because a freighter had strayed offcourse and been stranded in Bluff Harbour for a week. It was a big national news story and the attempts to pull the ship back out into deeper water were drawing sizeable crowds. The captain wanted to lighten the ship’s load by dumping his cargo into the harbour in order to free the ship, but the government authorities were having none of that, and considering the cargo happened to be urea fertiliser I can understand why.
I went up to the lookout at nearby Bluff Hill where a late middle-aged man accompanied by his wife, the man quite possibly being a train spotter under different circumstances, stood peering intently at the freighter through a pair of binoculars. There didn’t seem to be much going on but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm, and he gave me a brief rundown of the morning’s events. I tried hard to be interested as I stood in the slight drizzle and brisk wind but soon went on to survey the rest of the view – windswept and desolate greenery punctuated with occasional pockets of heavy industry, and the dull outline of Stewart Island off the coast. In reality the scene looked a lot nicer than I think I’ve made it out to be.
After getting some lunch and poking around Invercargill for a while I headed north. As I got closer to Queenstown and the road hugged the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu my jaw dropped. Even though I’d travelled along this way in the coach on the way to Milford Sound it was only now, while in the driver’s seat of a car, that I felt like I was fully appreciating the scenery. Once I got to Queenstown I kept going, following the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu around to the village of Glenorchy. I felt like a driver in a stage of the World Rally Championship, having the tightly twisting road all to myself. Shafts of sunlight reached down to the lake through small gaps between the clouds, the rays ever changing as the clouds swept quickly across the sky, and to cap it off this was all set against the backdrop of those magnificent mountains. In reality this scene looked more enchanting than I think I can ever possibly make it out to be.
Once back in Queenstown again I took a detour up to Coronet Peak. The snow was now gone, the car parks and chalets were completely empty and the chair lifts sat forlornly motionless. About the only thing missing were tumbleweeds gently blowing down the now dry and dusty landscape. Can there be anything more lifeless than a ski resort out of season? Apart from Nicholas Cage in every acting role he’s ever had, that is.
The only reason I had come back this way was because I had my second bite at the skydiving cherry booked the next morning, and so I was staying back at the Queenstown Lodge for one night. The lodge’s network of hallways sprawling down the hill towards the lake no longer contained the ins and outs of my tour group, or any other tour group for that matter. The place was almost devoid of any guests. As I walked through the empty lounge areas which had been a hive of activity only a week before I don’t mind admitting I felt quite lonely, and was feeling glad to be out of there come morning.
As soon as my eyes were open I hurriedly dashed out of bed like a six year old on Christmas morning and ran to the window. But on pulling back the curtains my heart sank – all I could see was a dark grey. Going to the skydiving office merely confirmed my dismay, however they told me to come back in 3 hours and see if things looked any better then. As beautiful as Queenstown is I was struggling to think of a way to fill the time in an area I’d now seen from just about every possible angle, so I hopped in the car and took a back road past the now closed Cardrona ski resort and up to Wanaka. On my way back along the main road I had to stop for half an hour due to blasting work on the road ahead. I had a sense of deja vu – the same thing had happened on our way back to Queenstown after the Nevis Bungy, and it was when we were stopped in the Bungy bus I received the relayed bad news that my skydive had been cancelled. This time around it appeared to be clearing up, although I hoped I wasn’t just imagining it, and after the road re-opened and I made it back to the office I was given the green light. I had not come back to Queenstown in vain!
My life was in the hands of Sasa. Such responsibility didn’t seem to trouble him too much, as he and the other instructors spent the time before our plane was ready casually laying in the sun outside the hangar. Shouldn’t he have been double checking the parachutes were correctly packed or something? Before this trip I’d long wanted to skydive but wasn’t so sure about bungy jumping. When it came to the crunch the bungy jumping was fairly easy, but the idea of this skydiving malarky was starting to trouble me. Most of all I think it was all the waiting around that did it, I had too much time for my brain to start mulling over all the ‘what ifs’. Finally we all packed into the back of the plane: Me, two other jumpers, the instructors we’d be strapped to and the person taking my video and photos. It was a very tight squeeze. The plane rumbled over to the grass airstrip, bounced along it as we picked up speed and then was in the air. We climbed in a never-ending circle for what seemed like hours, plenty of time for us jumpers to be strapped to the instructors, put on a cap and goggles and have even more time to think. At 9,000ft the red light by the door turned green, the door was opened and an icy wind whistled through the cabin. The first jumper and instructor sat with their legs dangling out the door for a moment and then in an instant they disappeared out of view. The door closed, the sound of the wind stopped, the green light went back to red and the plane continued its climb. Only another 3,000ft to go, and it took an age to get there. Finally my turn came. Sasa and I wriggled towards the door before the light turned green. When it did the door opened and the biting wind rushed in to surround us. I stretched out and looked up at the sky as instructed. Watching the video afterwards I can see Sasa counting down in my ear, but at the time I heard nothing except the biting wind. Then we tumbled.
We did a somersault in the air, and watching the plane above get rapidly smaller and smaller was the only real evidence I had that we were falling at 9.8m/s2 – once we faced the ground we could have just been hanging in the air for all I knew. Sasa tapped me on the shoulder to let me know I could spread my arms straight out and the force of our descent pushed them back behind the level of my chest (when I woke up the next morning my chest felt like I’d been trying to bench press some massive weights). My mouth was open and the rush of air make my cheeks billow out and my teeth got very cold. Far, far below us Lake Wakatipu was a deep blue and the mountain peaks ringing it looked flat, their now retreating snow levels the only indication of their height. The girl with the video camera was almost within touching distance in front of us and all the while Sasa did what I’m sure is his usual performance – looking completely nonchalant, bored even, save for the regular glances at the altimeter strapped to his wrist. We’d been free-falling for a minute, but in keeping with my stilted idea of elapsed time during the preparations, it felt like it had been much longer. The chute opened and there was definitely some relief on my part as we decelerated with a huge jolt – I was warned this part could have a 'lunch box' effect but the harness didn't rearrange things too badly. Sasa rounded out the experience by doing some neat steering manoeuvres with the parachute then it was a nice smooth landing back at the airfield in front of The Remarkables. Wow, wow and wow again.
I had more time to kill in Queenstown while my photos and video were developed. Despite my euphoria of jumping out of a plane from 12,000ft, I was itching to leave Queenstown and get back on the road. Despite the wonder of its natural surroundings there is a limit to how long you can spend there and I had now found it. I’d realised that though everyone living in Queenstown seems to have come from outside New Zealand, I just could not be one of them. Having seen enough of the streets, the pricey tourist shops, the lake’s foreshore and Queenstown Gardens, I clutched at straws and decided to ride the Skyline Gondola to see the view from the top in the daylight. I also had a couple of rides on The Luge to fill in more time but was disappointed to find riding down the concrete paths here was nowhere near as fun as the setup back in Rotorua.
Finally the time arrived when I could pick up my mementos and take off. I was hoping to make Franz Josef for the night, but it was already after 4:30pm and I had a long way to go if I wanted to get there, find a room in a hostel and get something to eat. I was again back-tracking over part of the Contiki itinerary but it felt as if I was appreciating the landscape afresh. It may have been the main road along the west coast but I could easily go for periods of half an hour and not see another vehicle. I felt like I had it all to myself: The lakes, the dense bush and fernery, the twisting mountain passes, the countless little single lane bridges over creeks and streams, even the single wild and untended paddock occupying a rare space of flat land in the middle of nowhere – complete with rugby posts in the ground at either end. Only in New Zealand. The driving experience was unforgettable, especially the last 25km from Fox Glacier to Franz Josef, when I seemed to hardly get the hire car out of second gear.
Another long driving day beckoned, but as I had to catch the ferry back to the North Island the next day I didn’t have much choice but to get a move on. I skipped up the coast past Hokitika and from near Greymouth was back into previously undiscovered territory. I met a large number of hire cars and campervans congregating at Punakaiki and stopped to have a look there along with everybody else at the Pancake Rocks – layered stacks of limestone eroded by the pounding of the sea.
After quickly grabbing a bite to eat in Westport I pressed on towards Nelson at the top of the South Island and, having made better progress than I expected, I decided to go there via Abel Tasman National Park. Named after the Dutch explorer who was the first European to set eyes on New Zealand (and my home state of Tasmania for that matter) in 1642, the national park has a very popular three day bushwalk around the coast’s bays and inlets. I decided to venture along the southern end of the track for an hour or so to get some exercise. The check-in and check-out logbooks in the information hut were filled with the names of walkers, the date and time and where they were headed in case they got lost. The most recent entry was completed by a Japanese visitor confusing it for a visitor’s book, dutifully filling out their name, the date and the comment “spectacurar!” where the intended journey was meant to be. You can’t blame them for trying, and in any case they were right – from what little I saw of the national park in the late afternoon it was just that.
For my very last leg on the South Island I left Nelson and took the scenic route around the head of Queen Charlotte Sound to the ferry terminal at Picton. A day or so out of Christchurch I realised the lady in the car hire office didn’t give me back my voucher book when she took out the one for the car, so I had no ticket to get on the ferry. But disaster was averted when I dropped the car off at the Picton office and to my relief the ferry voucher had been sent up from Christchurch to wait for me.
Of all the things that annoy me most, the social faux pas that really, really gives me a serious case of the irrits has to be when people cycle through their mobile phone ring tones at full volume in a constrained public area like a bus, train or, in this case, ferry. Though the new phones with polyphonic ring tones aren’t so bad, it should still be the kind of thing you do locked away in the privacy of your own bedroom along with, um, other things you normally do locked away in the privacy of your own bedroom. But in the middle of a crowded lounge area, completely oblivious to the numerous people seated around them giving them death stares, were a group of oldies enjoying the excruciating melodies of a mobile phone. And this was no new model either, it sounded like an electronic re-enactment of a cat being strangled. My attempts to spend the crossing reading a book were completely futile and in desperation I got up and went to another level on the ship, where the seats were filled with people glued to the numerous TV screens in the aisles. I casually glanced at one to see what was holding everyone’s attention and in horror realised they were watching the Bathurst 1000, Australia’s greatest motor race. I couldn’t believe it – I’d missed out on watching the V8s thunder around Mount Panorama for the sake of a mobile phone medley.
As the ship completed its crossing Wellington looked exactly the same shade of grey as when I’d left it two weeks ago. After getting my luggage from the terminal carousel I hopped into another Ford Laser identical in every way but colour to the one I’d left in Picton. It was the kind of dreary Sunday afternoon best spent sitting inside sitting by the heater and watching TV, and that was exactly what I did after the short trip to my cousin’s house, where I stayed with her and her family. It had only been seven months since I’d seen them in Queensland but almost-four year old Ryan didn’t remember me, calling me David for the whole time I stayed there. That was OK though, because whoever David is, Ryan seemed to like him a lot.
One of the consequences of being on holiday is the fact that it’s so easy to become cocooned from what is going on in the world, and mostly this is a joy. But it just so happened that on the one day of the whole trip where I had constant access to mass media there came the reports of probably the biggest news event in the region for the whole year – the bombing outside a nightclub in Bali. So while I was enjoying the last week of my holiday before returning home, there were 202 other people who would never do the same, a number of whom lived in the same or neighbouring Sydney suburbs as me.
Today was the least overcast of the days I’d been in Wellington – but not by much. So while I spent the day driving around the hills and harbour and playing in the traffic with the trolley buses, two indoor pursuits in the city centre were set to dominate the day. The first was Te Papa, the relatively new national museum. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I’m getting older and more impatient, or whether it’s the layout of new fangled museums these days, but either way I seemed to get some sort of attention deficit disorder as soon as I walked in. Give me an old-fashioned glass case of stuffed animals and I could stop and look at them for ages, but surround me with exhibits randomly placed between floor and high ceiling and then add numerous videos, sound bites, computer presentations, touch screens and other so-called interactive features all competing for my attention, then I just seem to wander around benignly without taking anything in. An exhibit on “Kiwi Ingenuity” displayed an old Holden Kingswood station wagon which had its bodywork completely replaced by sheets of corrugated iron. Considering the old ‘Kinger’ was made by an Australian car manufacturer and corrugated iron is as common a sight as a building material on either side of the Tasman Sea, it was a little reminder of how culturally identical Australia and New Zealand really are.
This was reinforced during my tour of Parliament House, where I had confirmation that New Zealand’s political system is just as identically boring as Australia’s. Now don’t get me wrong, this is no bad thing. Quite the opposite actually. If there is one legacy of the colonial might of the once proud British Empire, it would have to be the stable Westminster form of government that its former outposts were established with, and for all the failings of the people who operate within it, it would still have to be about the best parliamentary system in the world.
The inside of the House of Representatives looked like every other lower house chamber I’d been to, except for the seat of the Greens Party leader which was adorned with a possum skin. Possums were introduced from Australia in 1837 and ever since have been a terrible pest. Mind you, almost 150 years later New Zealand introduced Richard Wilkins into Australia, so I think we’ll call it even.
There are two things that stand out within New Zealand’s parliamentary system that they are extremely proud of – the workings of a Select Committee Room allowing direct representation inside Parliament House for members of the public on issues of Maori Affairs being one, and the fact that in 1893 NZ was the first country in the world where women were allowed to vote. I was hoping to have a chat to the country’s second female Prime Minister, Helen Clark, about these issues when the tour briefly stopped in the Executive Offices in the Beehive, but as Parliament wasn’t sitting she wasn’t around. She was probably at home in the back shed tinkering with the engine on her lawnmower, checking on the progress of her home brewed beer, or doing some other similar knockabout blokey hobby. She seems like she’d have more of a knack for those kinds of things than her Australian compatriot John Howard would.
I thought I may have left the amazing twisting roads behind on the South Island, but not long after saying goodbye to my relatives and leaving Wellington’s suburbs the motorway narrowed to a two lane road snaking around steep green farmland. My destination was Hastings, where I had the chance to catch up with Dave, a guy from my first Contiki tour in Europe. When he had evening classes for a few hours in neighbouring Napier it gave me a chance to head over there and wander around. At Te Papa the day before I had been on a simulation of the 1931 earthquake that flattened Napier, and with Art Deco architecture very much in vogue at the time of re-building it has perhaps the most complete assembly of buildings of the rounded style in the world. I also enjoyed the Norfolk pine tree lined Marine Parade, a promenade behind a pebbly beach that gave the place a distinctly European air.
I left Dave’s house before he got up but, seeing as how his ability to sleep is the thing I remembered best about him in Europe, it was an extremely fitting way to depart. I was heading up the east coast along Hawke Bay and Poverty Bay and ultimately to the Bay of Plenty on the north coast, some of the many features whose names have stuck since given by James Cook’s first exploration in 1769. In the afternoon the main road left the coast at Gisborne and cut across East Cape. I was just in time for afternoon milking, having to stop the car for a while as a large herd of dairy cows ambled along the road around me on their way from a farm paddock further up the road down to the milking sheds.
Once I was alongside the angry and grey waters of the Bay of Plenty at Opotiki a sense of nostalgia carried me along the rest of the way, past Whakatane (pronounced ‘fokker-tarney’ – it sounds ruder than it looks), the big fibreglass kiwi fruit outside Kiwi Fruit Country at Te Puke (pronounced ‘tee-pookey’ – it sounds less nauseous than it looks), and finally onto Tauranga, where my aunt, uncle and cousins lived while on my last NZ visit way back in 1987.
The nostalgia theme continued this morning as I climbed Mount Maunganui, alarming sheep grazing on its slopes in the process, and once at the top looked down on The Mount’s inviting surf beaches and across to Tauranga’s large port and harbour.
Then I followed more slow and winding roads to the Coromandel Peninsula, taking in the rich green of the pasture and deep blue of the ocean, and stopped for lunch in the small beach town of Whangamata. This was where we stayed for Easter fifteen years ago and is the site of some of the most famous episodes in the Wilkinson Family's Most Embarrassing Home Videos, so it was good to have a look around.
Among the memories I have of Whangamata is that it was the first place I ever played mini-golf. Somewhat to my surprise I easily found the mini-golf course, but it was long abandoned – protected by a high wire fence, and its concrete layout had lost most of its paint and was choked by weeds. Along the main street now dominated by trendy looking cafes, restaurants and art and craft shops (both Whangamata and I had grown up a lot since the last time we were acquainted) it looked completely out of place, so I’m sure it can’t be long before it is torn down and a new shopping arcade is put in to replace it. But that’s growing up for you.
I continued on to Hamilton, centre of the Waikato region. All the shops had black, red and yellow streamers and balloons in the windows, and on the City Council building a large banner with fifteen black, red and yellow striped rugby jerseys hanging on a washing line was unfurled facing the main pedestrian mall. The Waikato Chiefs had made the final of the National Provincial Championship and the game was on in Hamilton in two days. The place was abuzz, but the locals were soon to be disappointed, with the Chiefs going down 40-28 at the hands of the Auckland Blues.
I consulted my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to find a hostel for the night and the first one I found looked the goods, situated in a rather large and comfortable looking two storey house. But, like the Waikato fans, I was soon to be disappointed. A hand-written note on the front door said the hostel had moved to a new “luxurious” location in an old motel nearby. This all sounded very suspicious and I was proven right – when I went to the new location such glowing terms were a little above the mark. The former motel room I was in had a very tired looking kitchen, two sets of bunks crammed into the lounge room and another two sets squashed into the bedroom. But while not being “luxurious” it was cheap and not too nasty, so I was happy enough to stay there.
There was only more thing on my to-do list to achieve – black water rafting, or cave tubing, in the Waitomo Caves. And to get there I had to drive through Te Awamutu, the home town of Neil and Tim Finn. Their bands Split Enz and Crowded House were huge in the 1980’s and 1990’s and, as normally happens in the entertainment industry, anything or anyone from NZ that makes it big seems to be adopted and then passed off as Australian, causing a massive tug of war for bragging rights between the two countries (“They’re ours!”, “No, they’re ours!”). Actors Sam Neill and Russell Crowe also fit nicely in this category, except for when Big Russ shoots his mouth off or gets into some off screen fisticuffs and he’s quickly disowned (“He’s yours!”, “No, he’s yours!”). I’ve long been a fan of Crowded House and their Best Of album was given constant airplay on the CD player while on the Contiki coach. I was enjoying some of Neil Finn’s more recent solo albums while I was travelling solo too, so while not actually stopping in Te Awamutu it was nice to be able to say I had at least passed through.
...and the sound of Te Awamutu had a truly sacred ring.
Mean to Me by Crowded House.
I arrived at the Black Water Rafting office just in time to tack onto a half day tour with a half dozen other people. After the considerable kitting up process of wetsuit, boots, harness and miner’s hat and light, there was a mini-bus journey to an entrance to the Waitomo Caves system. One by one we abseiled 30m down into Ruakuri Cave, and then in the pitch black dark hung onto a flying fox as it took us over a large crevice. There we were each given an inner tube and jumped off a ledge with it into the black water of a river flowing through the bottom of the cave. Sometimes we paddled along and sometimes we formed a conga line, looking above us to the passing show of thousands of glow worms on the ceiling, the varying brightness of the dull green glow the only thing breaking the darkness. After we’d passed the glow worms the adventure was far from over, ditching the inner tubes to wade through the cave in water anywhere between ankle and chest height. A man-made slide had been inserted for a comfortable head-first ride down a small waterfall, and at times the size of the cave narrowed considerably. One tiny hole we squeezed through was so tight it's given the name 'The Rebirthing Channel', before the cave opened up again and we were trekking through waist deep water once more. The tour concluded as we carefully clambered up waterfalls to get back to the surface. Suffice to say this was awesome and it rounded off my to-do list quite nicely.
Eager to do some more mileage with the remainder of my last full day I took off onto some gravel roads, and with rain constant it once again felt like I was in a stage of the World Rally Championship. The hire car got down and dirty along the back roads, a never-ending view of hilly paddocks, wooden fence posts and fencing wire, many, many head of sheep and the occasional farm house. It was great fun and I was a little sorry I found the sealed highway again when I continued down to New Plymouth. I was hoping for views of Mount Taranaki but, after circling around much of it on my left as I skirted Cape Egmont, the dense cloud cover all over it didn’t budge. I was now on the Surf Highway, and took a couple of side roads to my right to check out some of the many signposted beaches. The seas were grey and choppy and the beachfront caravan parks deadly quiet. There was no doubt I wasn’t seeing the Surf Coast at its best, and in the nearing summer an entirely different story could be told. After darkness fell and I had some average Western-style Chinese food in Wanganui, I turned back to Hamilton taking the most direct route possible, but I still didn’t arrive back at the “luxurious” former motel turned hostel until the early hours of Saturday morning.
After a little while walking through the different themes of the Hamilton Gardens there was no time left to do anything except hit the motorway and drop the now filthy hire car off at Auckland Airport. I was feeling sad my time in New Zealand was at its end, and an awful Qantas in-flight movie starring Adam Sandler did nothing to improve my poor mood. But I did have a chance to reflect on all I’d experienced over the course of a month in NZ, and there were some pretty extraordinary things on the list. And in all that time I hadn’t even heard a snippet of the song that is almost a Kiwi anthem – Dave Dobbyn’s Slice of Heaven. That was perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all.