The Quiet Traveller: Day 12 – Abel Tasman

We set off from Picton on a new bus (the old one had headed northbound) with a new driver called Cookie, who turned out to be the coolest bus driver around. Originally a chef from Ireland, he now worked for Stray, driving around New Zealand year round. I never did discover whether his name came from his previous profession or whether it was a nod to the Cookie monster – a stuffed version hung from the ceiling of his bus.

Today was not an action packed day as we were spending most of it on the bus travelling to Abel Tasman. Abel Tasman National Park is located in the North of the South Island, and is perhaps the most stunning destination in all of New Zealand. Named after a Dutch explorer, its landscape is coated in dense forests which slope down towards crystal clear waters – perfect conditions for sea kayaking. Most places we stayed in just the one night; it was clear why this place was two, although more would have been welcome.

Perhaps the most action of the day was of the social kind. A new bus meant a new group of people, and it turned out these would be the people I would spend most of my time in New Zealand with. A number of new and interesting people appeared, including Keith, a guy from Manchester who had the best accent and loudest snoring known to man, as I would find out in coming weeks. There was also Max, an incredibly reserved German who was in bed at 9pm (how efficient).  But the most interesting was probably the guy who ran the accommodation.

The Barn was run by a man who used to be (from what I gathered) in the GSG (German Special Forces) and his partner. Now, I’m not sure what use such a specific skill is in running backpacker accommodation, but in my opinion, they did an excellent job. I  also suppose if you know the competition are former spec ops, you’re not going to set up shop on their turf are you? One way to retain market share indeed.

Abel Tasman was also the only place where the accommodation management came on the bus and essentially told us: ‘Don’t mess our stuff up or we will end you’, in the nicest possible way.

Once rooms were sorted, we set about making our group meal; something which happened a few times whilst with Stray. Obviously Cookie was in charge, and he had sourced supplies to make a chicken dish with a dessert as well, which I think was some kind of tart or cheesecake. This was admittedly a bit of a challenge for me, as I’d had enough of people for one day, especially with the amount of new ones. Nevertheless, I was inspired to keep going just for a bit longer just because of the simple fact I would get fed if I participated, and this was something I wanted dearly. Introverts find it much easier to talk/do things they are genuinely passionate about – in this case my passion for food helped me greatly.

I was a bit apprehensive about how the meal preparation would go, but we soon had an all international team prepping and washing up as well. It was actually very life-affirming to see people of all countries coming together to achieve a common goal. What wasn’t life affirming was that I had landed myself the crap task of whipping cream in a bowl. And this cream was not complying with the movements of my whisk. Everyone else was getting on with their tasks, whilst I grew increasingly out of breath, limply swirling my whisk in a desperate attempt to froth the substance. To cut a long story short and before this turns into a Nigella Lawson fantasy, I gave up and let a Dutch girl who was a chef back home take over.

Whilst wolfing down my dinner later, I chatted to a few people around the table, and realised something. I was getting a tiny bit better at this. You can learn to talk to people and you can get better at it with practice. Looking back, it was bizarre how this had never occurred to me before. Everything improves with practice. Apart from a former housemate of mine on Fifa. I think he actually gets worse the more he plays.

So all in all, not a massively eventful day on the road. But tomorrow would see me take to the high seas and conquer the water. I would summon the Kraken and rule the waves without mercy. I would plunder and pillage merchant ships and take from the rich to give to the poor. I would get leg cramp in a plastic sea kayak.

Track of Day 12 – Flashed Junk Mind // Milky Chance

 

The Quiet Traveller: Day 11 – Picton

As first days go, the first day on the Stray bus had been a success. But the night was a different story.

My bed was reasonably comfy. The wifi was terrible but just about usable. My roommates were friendly. But then in the middle of night, a Dutch guy returned from the ‘fishing trip’. It seemed he had spent the night drinking like a fish rather than catching aforementioned fish. Overly merry on the vino, he clambered into bed, only to begin spewing loudly onto the floor moments later. I felt so sorry for Virginia, the Canadian girl directly next to this drunken Dutchie.

I eventually fell asleep, only to wake in the middle of the night to sounds of terror. Well it wasn’t terror, it was the Dutch language – this half-asleep drunk Dutch guy was shouting in his sleep, loudly. My eyes snapped open, my brain frantically trying to figure out what was happening. I could not understand the strange sounds. As the penny began to drop that it was just Dutch and not an alien invasion, I shut my eyes again in the hope of getting at least some sleep.

Today we we venturing onwards to Picton, where some travellers would be heading to the North Island on the ferry, whilst I continued on my anti-clockwise route of the South Island. Picton is quite a picturesque town, nestled deep inside a fjord- like bay, but the main reason for its continued existence is that is provides the inter-island ferries a convieniently sheltered berthing point.

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A brooding Picton sky, much like me in the biscuit aisle.

On the bus journey to Picton, I overheard a fascinating conversation about North Korea, and how one ambitious traveller was heading to the authoritarian state in time for Kim-Jong-Un’s birthday. I would be sure to bring a present to that shindig, or else you’d end up not in the bouncy castle but in the significantly less fun and non-bouncy gulag. Nevertheless, North Korea travel is a slightly controversial travel destination in my opinion. Yes, there’s no country in the world like it and it’s almost a privilege to be allowed in, but at the same time tourism is funding the regime.

Because there was not a huge amount to do in Picton, Me, Veronika, and a Taiwanese girl and her mother decided to go for a walk into the hills. Yes that’s right, she was travelling with her mother. I was so surprised when this was revealed to me; I was convinced they were sisters as they both looked very young. Imagine travelling with your mum though. Two months of constantly answering to ‘Have you got your coat?’ with ‘Yes mum’.

It was a scorcher of a day, and first the Taiwanese contingent dropped out, and then I dropped out, and then Veronika marched on in an efficient Austrian manner. Veronika was also efficient at taking photographs, making Amy’s efforts at the Twelve Apostles seem like they were taken by someone with no hands.

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I came. I saw. I conquered. I stood awkwardly for a photo.

Upon my welcome return to the hostel, I took a shower (although I could have had a jacuzzi soak, this place actually had one for some reason) and decided to go and socialise as I felt like I had some energy left. However, there was an old Kiwi dude chilling in the outside area which led to the lounge. Not that there was anything wrong with being an old Kiwi dude, but he sat there smoking with a can in hand, attempting to lure people into awkward conversation as they walked past. This would require some light-footed movements to escape the guardian’s watchful gaze. I strode out into the yard with purpose, to send a message that I, Simon, was on a mission, and that mission was to socialise with people who did not smell like a 1950s pub. Alas, my mission was interrupted.

‘German?’ he called out to me. I looked round to see if it was me he was talking to. He was. ‘Uh no, English actually.’ I replied. ‘Oh, you just look German that’s all’. I laughed and commented that it was my glasses that did it. Luckily it was a brief exchange, and he let me continue on my way. Not sure how I feel about looking German though.

I entered the lounge, which was strangely silent. I took a seat next to the bookshelf and began browsing the titles. I looked up, and realised that everyone was on their phones. As useful as they are when travelling alone, I can’t help but feel they have ruined travelling. Whenever you go to a new hostel, there’s a mad scramble to get that wifi fix and connect to the world. I’m not saying I was above this; I too was keen to get online. But after a few weeks, I realised that a) you don’t miss much when offline, and the updates aren’t going to go away and b) being offline is great for the mind.

It was sad, because I had enough energy to chat away with strangers, but it was wasted energy. I instead retired to my room to read and write.

Track of Day 11 – Heartbeats // Jose Gonzalez

The Quiet Traveller: Day 10 – Kaikoura

I had decided to walk back to the airport, which was where the Stray bus was departing from. According to Miki, my host, the walk was about 20 minutes. However, it seemed he forgot to factor in the fact that I was carrying what may as well have been an obese baby elephant on my back. It took me a little longer than expected, but I eventually reached the pick up point with time to spare.

Now all I had to do was wait. And it was quite a nerve-wracking wait. Usually the wait for a bus consists of thinking ‘where is this bloody bus?’. But this was more of an existential crisis wait. What was the protocol? Who would be on the bus? Where would I sit? Should I put on a grinning holiday face, or a standard commuter face?

If anything, the feeling reminded me of the moments before entering my first year university accommodation. You’re about to be stuffed into an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time with strangers you don’t know at all. You don’t know what it looks like on the inside. And someone has already stolen your cheese. Well, in the case of travelling, someone has stolen your cheese, but you have no idea who because the hostel is so big. (To confirm, I have never had my cheese stolen, that I know of anyway).

The bright orange bus finally rolled up, and I edged closer like a raccoon sneaking towards a family picnic. A gaggle of people stumbled off, so I made a half-hearted attempt to integrate into the crowd.  In a cool twist of fate, I found myself next to an Austrian girl who would eventually become one of my friends for the duration of my time in New Zealand, and to this day. Veronika and myself were the only new people getting on the bus at this pick-up point, whereas everyone else had been on it for weeks at the most and a couple of days at the least, so naturally cliques had already formed.

Having already made a friend, I stepped aboard with heightened confidence, only to find that the bus was rather packed. I managed to find an aisle seat next to a Swiss guy called Florian. I soon realised that whilst amiable enough, Florian was not in the mood for talking, and to be honest, I was happy with that for the moment. It was time to take in what was happening and enjoy the view.

And what a view it was. As we drove up the coast towards Kaikoura, on the eastern side of the South Island, I saw vast mountain ranges emerge to meet the sea road along which we travelled. My first impression of New Zealand’s landscape was that it was Wales 2.0. A Wales on steroids. Everything reminded me of Wales, but much bigger and better. To complement these views, I was able to stare thoughtfully out the window to the mellow sounds of Ben Howard, thanks to Lolly’s (the bus driver) excellent taste in music.

Just before reaching Kaikoura, a huge pod of dolphins came to the surface in the bay, not far from the road itself. The icing on the cake.

Upon arrival, we were assigned our rooms at the hostel, which was called ‘The Lazy Shag’. This cheeky and subtly pure filth double entendre was fortunately depicted on a sign as a bird chilling in a deckchair, and not the other version of a lazy shag. I was placed into a mixed room of 8 and managed to snare a bottom bunk for easy bag access. Soon after, I got chatting with Sine, a 19 year old girl from Germany, and Laura, a 20 year old French girl who was the very the definition of French. She had a fantastic accent not unlike that of Thierry Henry. We decided to head into the town and check it out. I was getting quite tired of people, but at the same time I really wanted to explore, and it was with this thirst for adventure that I managed to put on my fake extrovert face for a bit.

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A rather funky camper van.
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Essence of Mordor.

Walking towards the main drag in Kaikoura, I couldn’t help but feel I was in the middle of a bad joke. A German, a Frenchwoman, and an Englishman walk into a bar. You get the idea. Kaikoura is a small town, with a couple of shops, bars, and a number of fishing establishments. We decided to eat at a fish and chip shop that had been recommended to us by Lolly, and soon enough we were gorging ourselves on some half decent chippy delights. I lectured Sine and Laura on the finer points of British fish and chip culture, such as the traditional method of newspaper wrapping. Looking back, they must have wondered what they had done in a past life to be stuck with an Englishman moaning about the lack of Daily Mail as a chip receptacle. Incidentally, that’s all the Daily Mail is good for.

Once back at the hostel, some people opted to go on the activity for the evening, which was a ‘fishing trip’. I say ‘fishing trip’ because the main appeal was not really the fishing, but instead the appeal of virtually unlimited wine at the fisherman’s residence for $10 or so. As good a deal as this was, I didn’t feel up to being around people any more. It had been a socially exhausting day indeed. However, I realised that I had no obligations to spend time with these new people. I could do whatever I wanted when not on the bus. Introvert or not, sometimes social obligations aren’t really obligations. To quote Peter Parker in Spiderman 3: ‘Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice.’

Instead, I went for a stroll along the pebble beach, and found a spot to take it all in. I pulled out my journal and wrote the notes which make up this writing today. The sun began to set, and I sat alone on the beach, with not a soul in sight. At that moment, that was my perfection.

Track of Day 10 – Keep Your Head Up // Ben Howard

The Quiet Traveller: Day 9 – Christchurch

Today was the day the real journey would start. The real introvert test was here. Was I ready? I had to hope so.

It was another early start (a recurring theme of this trip – travelling is not an afternoon pursuit it seems) so I could finish packing and reach the airport in time for my midday flight to Christchurch, New Zealand.

The flight itself was not the greatest experience in the world. I was flying with China Airlines, onboard an Airbus A320 which looked like it was past its best years. The interior was not unlike a third hand sofa bought off Gumtree, and it would not have surprised me if the engines were from an X-reg Vauxhall Corsa. I’m not scared of flying, but I do feel more comfortable when you know the plane is up to date, although there is such thing as a plane being too up date, something which I will come back to later.

Despite my concerns, the only breakdown all flight was the two Scottish women sitting in front of me. Apparently the film ‘Brooklyn’ has the capacity to reduce bonnie lasses to floods of tears.

The landing was also not the greatest experience in the world, and as aviators say, things got a bit ‘wibbly-wobbly’ thanks to a buffeting Christchurch crosswind. It was a mild relief to be back on the ground. And it was new, uncharted ground, for that matter.

Security was an interesting experience. I had no idea NZ border control would be a big step up from Australia’s. Firstly, you have to have clean shoes to make sure you’re not bringing any venomous Ozzie critters onto NZ’s shores. Secondly, they also had sniffer dogs unlike in Melbourne. A dog approached me and gave me a good sniffing, in particular near my pocket. The handler of the dog asked me to remove what I had in my pocket, because the dog could not speak and she wanted to check what it was I had in my pocket. I pulled out my wallet, to which she said ‘Have you got any food in there?’, to which I responded, ‘Well, no…it’s my wallet.’ If only there was some kind of wallet which you could store a sandwich in. Having confirmed that my wallet did not contain a BLT, I was directed toward the airport exit.

I was staying at a BnB for the night before embarking on the Stray bus tomorrow morning, so I got picked up by my host Miki from the airport. To be honest, NZ felt a lot like the UK so far, mostly thanks to the bleak multistory car park in front of me and the bleak grey clouds above me. Miki was an excitable Hungarian who picked me up in a white Toyota. I loaded Berghaus into the boot, and off we went on the short drive to his residence. He ran the M&Y Guesthouse with his wife Yan,  which turned out to be a really great place to stay for the night.

I had a brief restorative rest in my room, and then decided I should go and socialise in the living room with other guests. I was unsure about this at first, but I decided it was better to start chatting with strangers sooner rather than later, as I was going to be meeting a lot of them. Also, because I had my own room, if I found the conversation too draining, I could always retreat back to my nest.

Upon entering the living room, I encountered a young Asian girl, with whom I struck up a conversation with. After exchanging names, up cropped a question which would consistently pop up on a regular basis over the next two months – ‘So where are you from?’

The conversation went like this:

Me: ‘Where are you from?’

Asian girl: ‘Japan’

Me: ‘Oh nice, whereabouts in Japan?’

Asian girl: ‘Hiroshima’

Me: ‘Oh the place where they dropped the…..it’s by the sea right?’

This was not a good start.

However, a few minutes later an Indian couple walked in and took a seat at the table. They offered me a piece of ‘chikki’, a sweet Indian delicacy made from various types of nuts to form a kind of brittle. It tasted alright, but it was also incredibly dry, so naturally when offered more I idiotically grinned and stuffed more pieces into my now Saharan mouth. I took my leave a few minutes later, having had enough socialising for one evening. Mixed results so far indeed.

I was pretty tired physically and mentally by this point. I cocooned myself in my duvet and contemplated where I was in the world. In New Zealand. How exciting. And tomorrow would bring even more excitement. As would the day after that. And after that.

(Apologies for lack of pictures/awful generic wing photo, apparently I just didn’t bother taking any that day bar that one.)

Track of Day 9 – Radiohead // House of Cards