05/03/03: C picks us up from the airport and takes us to his home in Auckland.
06/03/03: Wake up very late. Get bus into Auckland and meet J at the Loaded Hog. C follows and he takes us to Devonport and a posh restaurant there. S, the well-travelled friend of mine who always said that she could imagine that I was the sort who would take to seeing a bit of the world, arrives. She is travelling in the other direction.
07/03/03: Go into Auckland with S and colleague; have coffee; check email and then stop by the Loaded Hog. Return back to C’s, who then drives us to the Pasifika(?) Festival. Head back into town, to a random pub, and then to ‘Europe’ where we play pool.
08/03/03: C takes us to ‘Bees on the Line' to meet his folks. On to a beach that resembles the one from The Piano, but isn’t. Meet S back at the Pasifika Festival. Attempt a night of it with my colleague, C, J and S, and Eva, who S has been sharing a dormitory with.
09/03/03: Wigs on the Watefront (whatever the hell that is) with colleague, S, C and J. Back to Devonport with the aforementioned, minus C. Colleague, S and J get chatted up by sailors.
Auckland is not typical of New Zealand. Its vast sprawl is punctuated by a comparatively small area of high rise development, but this resplendent hub of urban activity could be seen, depending on your point of view, as the jewel in the North Island’s crown. The hosting of the America's Cup for two consecutive tournaments has transformed the inner city into a suave playground for the wealthy – like Monaco or some other insular European hangout.
At night they garishly illuminate Auckland’s 328 metre tall Skytower, which looms over proceedings like a giant syringe. Apparently they change the colour sometimes. Today it is mauve.
We were to stay in Auckland with C. C, a mild mannered Kiwi, had worked with my colleague during his time living in London. It was nice to see him, but nicer still to have access to his bathroom and kitchen and things. I didn’t feel physically worthy of his charming bungalow, or his cooking and his exquisite hospitality generally.
I liked Auckland but it disturbed me. I wasn’t used to waiting for traffic lights to change, or not having a whirring fan to sleep under, or of not breaking out in fresh sweat every time I left the house. I wasn’t used to wearing two layers – sometimes more – or of drinking alcohol from a glass, or of eating carbohydrates in such quantities. After nearly four months spent wandering South East Asia I felt a bit like the Vietnam veteran glued to the bar during the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter.
But I did like Auckland, and I liked it when C took us to a beach that resembled the beach from The Piano, but was not the actual beach because the actual beach was too far away to drive to, and this beach looked similar enough – except I didn’t think it did. We were lucky with the weather (for now) and we could get around in short sleeves (by day, at least) even if our shorts were surplus to requirements. The America’s Cup had recently reached fruition, too, which probably helped with the atmosphere. And it was great to eat real bread and real cheese, and crisps like you could get back home.
It was never planned to happen but, whilst we were away, my colleague’s friend, S, arranged to meet us in New Zealand. She was on her way out to Thailand, and she may have been visiting her sister in Perth, Australia, so why the hell not. She wasn’t sure if she’d stay with us for the whole time, but it was agreed that we would explore the North Island together, at least, and hire a car to do so. The only reservation I now had – aside from the cooler weather – was the diminished appetite for booze, for S was no wild party animal and I think even my colleague might have had enough. That said, I did recognise the need to curb my hedonistic enthusiasm, and this change represented such an opportunity.
Then there was S, an English girl C had got to know through his local church, and who proved good company for the time we were hanging out in Auckland. True to form, I found myself settling in. However, contrary to our Asian predicament, there wasn’t the time to fool around with here: we needed to be on the road.
10/03/03: Pick up hire car and head south-eastward; lunch in Cambridge; arrive at Rotorua and book into the Hot Rock; walk around the lake; drink at Lava Bar; eat at local chipper; nightcap in Lava Bar.
11/03/03: Café for breakfast; drive to Devil’s Gate – tips it down; visit Maori Church; Mexican for tea; the Pig & Whistle and Lava Bar for drinks.
12/03/03: Drive to Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland; on to Taupo itself and book in to Burke’s; go and see ‘Craters on the Moon’; dinner at Burke’s; Holy Cow for drinks and games of pool.
A car is hired and we hit the road. At first, the landscape disappoints; with no character at all, it could be England on a bad day. This is probably the only time I will feel this way towards New Zealand’s geography.
We stop in a town called Cambridge for lunch, and it’s all a bit National Trust. Remember, I feel like I’ve just completed a four month tour of duty in Vietnam, so I’m very sensitive to this sedentary environment. It must be obvious, too, for I have a heavy tan, I’m underweight, and my hair is in terrible condition. (I actually tried rectifying that last issue with a pair of C’s scissors back at his house in Auckland, with only marginal gains).
Our destination is Rotorua, an area rampant with thermal activity. The city of Rotorua itself, such as it is, overlooks a large but shallow lake, and geysers and mud pools surround much of it. The hydrogen sulphate emissions that result permeate all around and are responsible for the conurbation’s alternative sobriquets: ‘Sulphur City’ and ‘Rotten-rua’, the noxious odour calling to mind the aroma of rotting eggs. The local architecture wouldn't look out of place on an industrial estate. The bars are half empty. We have to share a dormitory with strangers. The next day it rains heavily and constantly.
Yet I do not mind it here. There’s something rather quaint about our surroundings that not even the youthful travellers can distract from. I feel no need to commune with them, the travellers. I feel no kinship, no shared enthusiasm. They seem too concerned with activities and not concerned enough with the act of drinking. I don’t think they’ve been to Asia, although they may well be going there soon.
The night before we drive on to Lake Taupo we go for a drink in the Pig & Whistle, just for a couple. It’s supposed to be an Irish pub, and I’m detecting an affinity here for all things Celtic – a common affliction amongst those living in the Great Britain’s English speaking former colonies. Let’s Make this Precious by Dexy’s Midnight Runners plays on the jukebox, and for the first time in a long while I wonder what it must be like to be home.
The weather significantly improves on the drive to Lake Taupo. It is March and the tail end of summer so we’ve no right to expect wall-to-wall sunshine, and nor do we, but this is more like it. En route we stop at Wai-o-Tapu and its ‘Thermal Wonderland’. This might be New Zealand’s most geothermal attraction, renowned for its brightly colourful lakes, boiling mud pools and active geysers. It’s surrounded by evergreen forest, and an amazing place.
Once we’ve reached Taupo and booked into Burke’s, we drive to ‘Craters on the Moon’, a more rugged exponent of the geothermal field, but still very much worth the visit.
The evening’s drinks are taken at the Holy Cow and S and I end up competing together in a game of pool. We are eliminated in the first round, but deserved to progress to the next – our opponents tell us so after they fluke their winning pot. Oh well…
13/03/03: Walk to Haka Falls – consider bungee jumping; check out town; Irish pub for nightcap.
14/03/03: My colleague and S elect to skydive, so I walk around town and pause for some lunch. Drive to Okakune in the afternoon, passing through a desert. Play pool at the Pioneer Bar and end up at a party in the bar next door.
15/03/03: Drive to Whakapapa and ride chairlifts to the top of Mount Ruapehu (almost). On to Wellington and book in at the Beethoven House. Go for a kebab and a few drinks.
16/03/03: Walk to Victoria Point; have a look around town; coffee in Ragamuffins; watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the cinema that premiered it; Irish bar in the evening.
The weather continues to please and the architecture to disappoint in equal measure. S badgers my colleague into sky-diving submission. I make it very clear that I will not be joining them.
On walking to Haka Falls we pass a bungee platform overlooking the river below. For the first and last time in my life I consider what it might be like to partake. New Zealand is a country for thrill-seekers, which I am not.
Ohakune is different from the other towns of the central plateau. Skiing is its trade, and so during summer it reaches remarkable heights of sedation, but this is a good thing. Gone are the 'Kiwi Kids' and the 'Magic Bus' – organised tours that shuttle the youth around the country, delivering them from one adrenaline high to the next.
After driving through the impressively raw Tongario National Park to get there, we find a hotel in which we will be the only guests. We have the floor’s living space entirely to ourselves. It’s just a shame we’ve only the time to spend the one night here.
We – or I, at least – have been drinking pretty much every night since our arrival. However, I cannot recall the last time I was actually intoxicated. We’ve literally been having a pint here or a couple of bottles there. I wasn’t even particularly drunk the night we spent out in Auckland, and I’ve certainly not suffered a hangover since we left Thailand. There just hasn’t seemed to be the opportunity. Just as well, perhaps, because Cambodia upped the ante a bit and I think I was starting to feel a little bit sick.
The evening starts off mildly enough. We find a typically low key New Zealand bar and stop there for a few drinks. Such bars are pretty unspectacular, and will often serve the dual purposes of both a pub and a betting shop. Only slight consideration is given toward the décor, and there’s often a pool table present, sometimes even a dart board, as well television screens emblazoned with sport. In ethos, they’re as utilitarian as many an old-school boozer back home, but without the character, for New Zealand is sparsely populated and many of the towns are built from pre-fabricated materials.
Foreigners don’t much frequent Ohakune off season, so the locals take an interest in us. This is brilliant because I’ve been feeling quite isolated off late. They’re a friendly bunch and we invited next door to partake in a party taking place in the bar next door. Funny thing is, I don’t really exploit this opportunity to get drunk, perhaps mindful of the fact that we’ll be on the move again tomorrow.
Before we set off in the direction of Wellington, we’re going to check out Mount Ruapehu. It’s a ski resort by winter, and just a regular dormant volcano the rest of the year round. It’s March, so we’re there to see the volcano.
From Whakapapa we take the chairlift up to the top the resort, which is still some way short of the actual summit. It is my first time in a chairlift and I don’t like it at all going up, but will find it perfectly acceptable going down. Why do you think this is?
There’s not much to do at the chalet at the top, other than eat soup and speculate on investing in new jumper. Do I need a new jumper? I might need a new jumper – it’s late summer, but there’s no guarantee it will be this warm when we reach New Zealand’s southern sector. I’m not sure how I’m doing financially, so I leave it.
From Tangario National Park to Wanganui the geological feast doesn't let up. Like a cross between a Spaghetti Western and a Vangh Gogh painting, the steep hills undulate like waveforms. State Highway number 4 weaves its way through the valleys, keeping one eye on the riparian woodland to the road’s west.
We don’t have the time to pause in Wanganui and plough on towards Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and second largest city, fearing we might be running a little late. We’ve not struggled to find accommodation so far, but nor has our accommodation been ideal. After our morning detour up Mount Ruapehu this will be our latest arrival yet, and there’s a city to circumnavigate in-between.
Whose idea was it to stay at the Beethoven? The proprietor is a raving lunatic! A theatrical sort with a penchant for – wait for it – Beethoven, it’s hard to know if one is really welcome or not. We don’t hang around long enough to find out, and depart his backpacker’s retreat for a kebab and a few drinks somewhere else.
Wellington appeals. It feels more city-like than Auckland did. It’s more industrial, more compact, and feels more modern. The sun shines for the duration, we find time to watch the latest instalment of Lord of the Rings, and generally have a relaxing time of it.
S decides she will continue with us to the South Island, which we’ve been told will be the highlight of our time here.