If I’ve got my days right in my journal, today was St Patrick’s Day, which meant the innards of the bus were voraciously decked out in green and all things Ireland related. That’s what happens when the driver is Irish. What also happened was a lengthy playlist of Irish artists booming through the bus speakers, including but not limited to Snow Patrol, The Corrs, and Ronan Keating. Try as I may, I could never explain.
Wanaka was today’s destination, a small town on route to the major destination of Queenstown. But before we even got there, New Zealand’s scenery hit pengest fleekness or whatever the kids say now. It was a stark contrast to the cloudy views in Franz Josef.
The lake is famous for its near-perfect reflection of Mount Cook. If you look at the image upside down or sideways, it’s very hard to tell which way is up. It was about a 35 minute walk to this location, but it was worth it. No man made water-feature can beat feature au natural. A quiet place to reflect indeed.
Every stop along the way was like this.
These sights accompanied by a banging Irish soundtrack resulted in one of the best days of travel on the bus so far. Also on the bus was the signup sheet for activities in Queenstown, including activities such as hang gliding, skydiving, power boating, and bungy jumping. In a rather rare impulsive move, I signed myself up to throw myself off a high ledge while attached to a piece of elastic band. I decided not to tell my parents I had done this.
I felt surprisingly calm after signing up, but I have always wanted to jump off something tall to see what it feels like, so I guess I felt like this was progression towards fulfilling a lifelong ambition. Of falling rapidly towards the earth. And isn’t that strange, how things like making smalltalk and talking to strangers and interacting with people for long periods can be difficult and draining, yet you give me an elastic band and a cliff and I’ll happily jump off it. Fears are strange things. Which I suppose makes them less scary in a way. Weirdos.
Upon arrival at Wanaka, I was sad that we were only spending the one night here. It was gorgeous. Sitting lakeside amongst the mountains, it’s a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to the NZ backpacking route. Nearly everyone I spoke to shared my desire to spend more time there, and I heard tales of people returning to the town after seeing the rest of NZ.
Naturally, as the day was St Patrick’s day, the evening would be a big green party. I hung around for a bit to witness a beverage fuelled limbo competition, and then decided to head to bed. I was enjoying myself greatly, but being around people all the time was starting to take its toll. Luckily no-one else had to signed up to the particular bungy I was doing, so tomorrow I would be able to venture off on a solo quest to dangle from a ledge.
In a weird coincidence, the quote at the bottom of my journal page of the day read ‘Abroad is the place where we…follow impulse’. Eloquent indeed.
After a night of multiple beverages (beveragi?), I wasn’t feeling the greatest, but my plans consisted of nothing anyway, so that was ok. Today my plan was to shower, eat, do washing and just chill. And have a decent cup of tea, if that was at all possible. Coffee made outside the house tastes good. But tea rarely does. Tea must be made inside the walls of this Englishman’s castle.
Part of my plan was also to find some wifi, as the hostel wifi was as weak as my knees after hearing a biscuit packet rustle. I decided the best bet was a cafe named The Aviator, as it charmingly advertised free wifi on an outside A-frame. I sat down, having ordered a coffee and what I think was a lasagne, and logged onto the interwebs. It had been a while since I had used the internet, having been busy surfing and being in remote areas. I chatted with friends, which given the location I was currently in, was such a cool feeling. Here I was at the foot of a glacier on an island on the other side of the world, talking to people from home. That’s globalisation for you.
Having wolfed down my food, I slowly slurped my coffee as I still wanted to use the internet, mostly to check up on the Premier League. Honestly, the one time in my life I go to the other side of the world for two months, Leicester decide to cause a ruckus and I’m not around to watch it unfold. This was a disappointment indeed. Such is the life of a Spurs fan.
The cafe was slowly filling up, which meant a chance to kick back and people watch. Americans are always good fun to watch. I witnessed a portly man complain that there was not enough hollandaise sauce on his food. It wasn’t the taste, the temperature, or the presentation. It was the quantity. Classic.
However, I perhaps was just a little jealous, as I saw another group of wealthy Americans sign up for pretty much every glacier tour. Maybe I could use my British accent to get adopted by them. Does that work? Hello Mr and Mrs American, I’m British. Will you fund my adventures in exchange for me saying words that sound funny to you?
Aside from Americans, there was a herd of old people bumbling about. There needs to be an appropriate word for a large group of old people. For such a common occurrence, especially on the South Coast of England, it’s surprising there is not one. The offenders had stickers with their names on and the name of their tour operator, which I quite frankly, found hilarious. We start our lives as babies in the hospital with name tags, and end them as named-tagged troops of the blue-rinse brigade.
Before the staff of the Aviator cottoned on to my raccoon-like use of their wifi, I trotted off to see if I could find any parts of Franz Josef that I hadn’t already explored. Heading towards the edge of town, full of lasagne, I soon found myself needing to publish a lengthy title. Luckily, Franz Josef has public toilets, so no issues there.
However, these toilets were unlike any I had ever encountered in my life. I walked in and discovered you had to press a button to close the door, which would then automatically lock. I did so and a disembodied voice echoed ‘door locked’. Weird.
As I made myself comfortable, music started playing. The kind you usually find in an elevator. If I’m honest, this was most off-putting. But what was put me off the most in this bizarre contraption was the writing on the door-locking device. ‘This door will open after 10 minutes’ it said. So it hit me that I had 10 minutes in get the job done, or else the door would open directly onto the main street in Franz Josef. What kind of 1984 toilet was this?
Now, don’t get me wrong, as I’ve mentioned previously, toilets can be a handy restorative niche if you need a few minutes away from people. But this was just ridiculous.
To be fair though, this toilet was probably the most interesting thing about Franz Josef after the glacier itself. Sure, the scenery was good, but it was obscured by thick clouds (see awful featured image) for both days – which was both annoying visually and for those trying to get up the glacier by helicopter, as recent accidents have tightened the flying conditions that can be flown in. It will be interesting to see what happens to the town after the glacier one day disappears. Thanks to global warming, it is vanishing at a rate of knots, and that rate of knots will only increase thanks to Donny Johnny Trumpington.
Setting off from Westport, we continued along the coast in the direction of the Franz Josef Glacier. I was not booked on to do anything at the glacier, so I decided I had to make the most out of the stops on the way.
The main point of interest on route was Hari Hari, where in 1931 an aviator named Guy Menzies landed the first solo flight across the Tasman Sea. The Tasman is the lengthy wet area between Australia and New Zealand, although the flight is not far by today’s modern aviation standards. But in 1931, such a trip took some industrial sized military-grade balls. Menzies landed not on what he thought was a field, but was actually a swamp. This unfortunate turn of events, and the fact that Shrek had negated to install any kind of runaway that could accommodate an Avro Avian, meant Guy’s plane ended up with its wheels pointing at the sky.
Luckily Guy survived, and there is now a memorial garden dedicated to him at the site of the ‘landing’. This consists of a mosaic with a lot of inspirational messages from people around the world, and a sundial. I looked at the sundial and appreciated the ultimate analogue form of telling the time; a stick and the sun. Upon closer inspection, the dial had an inscription, which read ‘Be true to others as the dial is to the sun’. I boarded my mental submarine, locked the hatches, and hit the dive lever.
Whilst deep, I reached out to touch the sundial itself. Pulling my hand back, the middle part came back with it a little way. I reached back again and shook it. The bolts connecting the dial to the base were loose, and I could freely shake it around. I no longer appreciated the dial, but instead the irony of the situation. The dial was as true to the sun as a promise not to invade Poland.
Arriving at Franz Josef, I soon realised that the town itself only existed to serve the purpose of a base for those hiking or helicoptering up onto the glacier itself. There’s not a lot going on if you’re not going up, and much like Picton, it is merely a transit hub.
I also soon realised that this meant there was not much to do except go to the pub. We were greeted at our accommodation an owner who seemed to think he was some kind of beverage based demi-god, who gave out free drinks to a few travellers upon arrival. He attempted to make his place sound like Ibiza, which to be fair to him, he did good job of. The place had a university halls kind of vibe, and after dinner at the onsite restaurant (very hallsy), people came together for drinks.
As an introvert, I do find socialising isn’t as draining after a beer or two. Alcohol can be a verbal lubricant, a phrase which sounds disgusting but is oddly accurate. However, it’s not recommended because you’re fundamentally altering your personality. And this book is about adapting and thriving with your personality, not changing it with substances.
Having said that, I was intrigued to try the local beverage of NZ, Tui. I bought myself one, and then a Swiss guy bought me one, so naturally I had to buy him one back, whilst getting myself one and so on. You get the idea.
Tomorrow would be for recharging, both of the social energy variety and beer variety.
Today we were on route to Westport, a small town on the West coast (as the name suggests). Having throughly enjoyed my first experience of surfing in Australia, I had decided to sign up to surf at Tauranga Bay, which was a short drive from our stopover.
Surprisingly, there were only two of us from the bus signed up for surfing, so when we reached the coast, me and Joe went off to the surf place whilst the rest of the bus went on a walk. Joe was a bespectacled chap with an extraordinarily bushy beard, nothing like the useless bristles I was sporting. I swear most of my thoughts whilst on the road were ‘Where can I get food?’ and ‘I should probably shave, I look like I live in a bush and feast on passing rats.
As we walked to the surf place, it came into view, and I realised it was not a surf place, it was a surf van. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but my original thoughts had revolved around a form of architecture that didn’t have wheels. I was intrigued.
We were then introduced to Mark, our instructor for the afternoon. In a word, Mark was gnarly. He looked gnarly, talked gnarly, and when I learned about his past, he was indeed, gnarly. His face looked like he had spent his life in the sea, with a gruff Kiwi accent and bronzed skin from many days in the sun. He also knew his shit.
If you’re reading this online (which you obviously are because I haven’t put anything into print), here’s a link to some footage of Mark and Tauranga Bay. Starts at 5:00.
I later learned he had travelled the world as a pro surfer, spending eight years seeking out the best waves in the world before finally settling for the regular surf at Tauranga. He told me tales of how he had been to Hawaii, where the waves were so strong even the pros were wearing helmets – you know it’s bad when the pros are wearing helmets. I asked him if he had surfed all his life – ‘Nah, only since I was 16’ he replied, as if he had recently picked up the sport like picking up a pint of milk.
The surf proved to be a bit tougher than when I was in Australia, and before long I was absolutely knackered. Strong waves are a problem for me because I am 90% skin and bones with assorted organs thrown in for a laugh. However, Mark’s instruction was incredibly useful, and I spent a fair bit of the afternoon actually on the board and surfing the breakers in. I like to think you have to fight the elements to to earn the right to join them for the ride back to shore.
I arrived back at our accommodation to a hive of activity. People were everywhere, cooking, socialising, and just generally bustling about. All I wanted was a shower, some food and a sit down. I had a shower (sand needs to get back in the sea), and then luckily a friendly German guy called Mathias let me have a share in what he was cooking. I can’t quite remember what it was, but it was delicious, and I am very grateful.
Before long, most people were in bed. I expected the nights to be much later at hostels, but it seems travelling, as fun as it is, can tire out everyone, from the quietest introvert to the most outgoing extrovert and everyone in-between.
The sea kayak were doubles, so I paired up with Veronika and got in the front of the mighty vessel. We were given a kayaking crash course from the safety of dry land, and then we loaded the kayaks aboard the tractor trailer and headed down to the shore. The plan for the day was to kayak along the coast for a few miles, drop off the kayaks on a beach, and then walk back to base along the coastal path.
There were no other Stray bus members with us on this adventure, but there were a few members of the public, including a young Spanish couple and a fantastic Irish family, consisting of two parents who were definitely getting on a bit and their grown up daughter, possibly late twenties. It was a scorching, cloudless day, and I was interested to see how the classically pasty Irish would stand up to the heat. Although I had concerns of my own, which meant I donned my Australian style hat and copious amounts of sun cream.
The other member of our group was Oscar, our Kiwi guide and instructor. He was incredibly chilled out and incredibly young (younger than me), yet you felt that he knew his kayaking stuff. Out on the water I asked him if this was something he had always wanted to do. He replied that he had become a kayaking instructor straight out of school, because he didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he enjoyed kayaking. Sounds like you’re living life right, Oscar.
The sea was flat as a pancake and the wind minimal. We launched into the tiny breakers and I began windmilling my arms, attempting to dip the paddle ends in and out of the water without pouring the ocean onto my suncream-infused face. Being in the front, I had to operate the rudder. Since when did kayaks have rudders? This was news to me. Anyway, steering the vessel proved to be a lot of fun, especially when the occasional boat came past and I had to direct the bow into the wash. Sea-faring language is weird. Rudder is just udder with an ‘r’ in front. Port can be left, an alcoholic beverage and also a place to berth a ship. Don’t get me started on the shipping forecast – yes, I’m looking at you, Dogger.
With two people in a kayak you can go at quite a pace, and although we weren’t racing against our fellow kayakers, I did feel mildly victorious when we nosed ahead. The Irish parents soon fell behind, but to be fair they were doing a good job for their age. Our first destination was an island named ‘Adele Island’. Ironically, it was a really calm day on the water, nowhere near rolling at a depth of many fathoms standards.
The unique thing about this island is the noise it makes. As you draw closer, the sounds of many thousands of birds can be heard, a complete contrast to the near-silence of the forest on the shoreline. This is because there are no predators or diseases that have become abundant on the mainland, and it represents what the Abel Tasman area would have sounded like when Abel Tasman himself discovered it.
It felt great to get out and stretch my legs, because as fun as kayaking is, the leg room is somewhat wanting. Still, not as bad as a Ryanair flight. We wandered around the island beach whilst Oscar prepared some much needed tea and biscuits. An island free of human activity, tea and biscuits, and beautiful weather. Life was at a peak.
Clambering back into our cockpits, we launched into the slightly windier open water once again. This increase in wind was because we had left the safety of the bay we had departed from, and I was glad I had re-doused myself in sun cream before setting off. Coming round the head of the island, we came across a seal colony, which really got me thinking. About how I wanted to be a seal.
Wake up. Roll around. Roll to find food. Roll back to sleeping area. Make strange noises. Such is the life of the seal. If only my life was like that. Oh wait…
My arms were beginning to tire as we edged closer to our final destination, a beach on the mainland. My main issue was that my swans were/are nowhere near sick enough to warrant calling a vet. Dipping was becoming stroking, meaning my oar end was not having much of a forward thrusting impact. Eventually, our plastic fleet made it to shore, and I gladly set down my paddle for the last time. Kayaking is fun but hard work.
On the beach, Oscar conjured up a thoroughly enjoyable lunch, and I spent the time chatting away to the amiable Irish family. It seemed the parents were visiting the daughter who was spending a longer period of time in New Zealand. It’s easy to see why people end up long term in what is such a great country.
Saying a slightly sad goodbye to Oscar and the Irish, who were getting the water taxi back to base, me and Veronika began the lengthy trek home. It was still scorching, but I was glad we were in the shade of the coastal foliage for the majority of the route. Over 12km and several hours later, we staggered back into The Barn, my legs like sausages and my German language skills greatly improved. That’s something I definitely did not expect to happen in New Zealand of all places.
The evening was spent reconvening with Stray people around a fire pit. I met a few more of my fellow travellers, including Freddy, a friendly Canadian (of course he was friendly) who lived in Vancouver, just north of Seattle. I extracted a few tips from him about Seattle for later on my travels.
I then got chatting to an American girl, who told me she was spending a few more days than just the usual two in Abel Tasman. ‘Why are you doing that?, I queried. ‘Well, it’s so nice here, and I’m introverted so I need a bit of a break.’ She didn’t have to say any more, I totally understood her. It’s incredibly fun but incredibly draining living out a rucksack, and I could tell that she wanted a few days off from carting her life and possessions all over the place. It was also very satisfying to meet someone on my wavelength in the same situation as me, however brief an encounter it was.
As weary travellers began to head to bed, I spotted a few people spread-eagled on their backs on the wooden decking, looking skyward. I decided to see what the fuss was about and tilted backwards to rest my head. Stars popped and flared before me, the like of which I had never seen. More and more kept appearing, and I suddenly felt small in the vastness of everything.
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.
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.
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.
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.