Out! in New Zealand

“Could have hit that with a stick of rhubarb.”

 

Eleven thousand, six hundred and eighty five miles. That’s how far the map said we’d travelled. That’s so far I’d have written it out as words even if it wasn’t at the start of a sentence and I wasn’t a good little grammar boy.

Took a while too; to get to New Zealand from London you have to be airborne for so long we lifted off Thursday and flopped down exhausted on Saturday. That’s a Friday I’m owed and don’t think for a minute I won’t be demanding it back when the coronary starts licking at my left arm.

New Zealand was the last of the countries on my list of places it was mandatory to see before I died, but we’d had mixed reports. The majority told us it was a beautiful and welcoming country. The minority said it was hell and all the inhabitants are stupid, but he was lording it about in a winnebago and I think he was expecting a red carpet. For my part I was interested to see just how different it was from the country of my birth, given its position almost exactly on the opposite part of the planet, just about as far as far can be.

Our first sight of New Zealand proper was Wellington; inauspicious, given that’s the name of a town I once served a hellish seven-year sentence (‘school’ they called it). With jetlag tickling every sense we lurched around the quayside for a couple of hours, then after a nightful of the dead’s own sleep we explored Wellington at length. It soon became clear this was my favourite Wellington, by some distance.

 

 

For a first-world capital city it seemed entirely unflustered and in no hurry. Few people around bar the obvious tourists peering out over the Pacific; various shops and offices dotted about as usual but none manned by stress-laden drones skirting swiftly around ignored security guards and cleaners; Parliament buildings requiring no heavily-armed plod. Wellington is run how you might imagine a city should be run when not fueled almost entirely by fear, of bombs, destitution or just other people.

High above Wellington is Mount Victoria. Here we saw our first cricket, the noble game being the ostensible frame around which we had hung our trip. England were playing two Tests against the Kiwis and it seemed rude not to pop over.

That said, I thought our seats might have been a little closer to the action.

 

 

In fact the first Test was in Auckland a few days later, but first we had a terrible thirst to deal with. The Marlborough region is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. Having partaken of a wine tour in such oenophilic locales as Stellenbosch and the Napa Valley we were hardly going to sidestep one of the white wine capitals of the world no matter how ambivalent I am towards the stuff myself.

It required a boat to get there, though. The Marlborough Sounds between the north and south islands of New Zealand can at times be a ferry-fearing heave fest, but among leaping dolphins and skimming shearwaters we made our way across mercifully smooth seas and witnessed the majesty of the south island for the first time. Oh but it’s green. There can’t be this many trees without a salivating logger anywhere else in the world, and the country’s mountainous terrain makes for some startling views. It gets better the further south you go, but this wasn’t a bad start.

 

 

Our wine tour took place alongside a pair of Kiwis from Auckland and a pair of Americans from America. Over four wineries we established that (a) my new favourite type of wine is called Albariño, (b) they make sparking red wine in New Zealand, and (c) yeah, sorry, I still really don’t like Sauvignon Blanc.

With a lovely sunny day to spare we wandered through the hills near the little town of Picton, enjoying glorious views over the harbour. One of my favourite days in the country was spent strolling under tree canopies, marvelling at locusts’ half-jump-half-flight and listening to a multitude of bird life my ears had not previously been privy to – some beautiful and some baffling. If you put the song of every bird on Earth into an AI-powered computer, and told it to generate a new bird song based on what it knows about birds, I imagine the resulting cacophony would sound not unlike a ‘tui’.

Happily the baking walk under ozone-free skies culminated in a beer beside the marina at a place called Waikawa. It was at about this moment I decided I’d quite like to be a duck.

 

 

Picton itself was a calm and friendly place, even if it did remind me a little of the type of Maine burg into which Stephen King releases axe murderers. And then there’s the sirens. For a country known for its earthquakes they might do well to put up a few signs alerting tourists sleeping on white sheets that when the air-raid siren goes off at 7am you don’t need to assume the foetal position and hope the roof holds. (It turns out its to alert the local volunteer emergency services that they’re needed. Or that there’s an earthquake coming.)

On the sixth day God created rain, and dropped every last massive drop of it on the Marlborough region – thankfully just as we were getting off away and out of it. Next stop, Auckland.

We’d rented an apartment for our stay of five days in Auckland and while the owners finished sorting it out after the last bozo had left late, we sat in Western Park for a while. A lady walked past with her arms wrapped around herself, looking down; 15 minutes later she walked back, with her coat undone and a little smile on her face. If there wasn’t a dealer or nefarious lover behind one of those trees, that’s a park doing what a park’s supposed to do. Even if there was, still works.

But Auckland is an odd place. The biggest city in the country, in terms of population it’s a tenth the size of London and isn’t unlike a smaller, cleaner version of its big cousin. Yet for some reason I found it hard to fall for, quite possibly because a big city in a vast but empty country like this almost seems out of place, or even out of order. It’s probably a good city to live in given the breadth of its amenities, and over a quarter of New Zealand’s population is here. It’s almost certainly an excellent place for a pub crawl. But for a tourist? Not much going for it.

But never mind that – we’re here for the cricket!

Oh dear.

 

 

England’s first innings lasted under an hour and a half for the princely total of 58 runs. If you’re not a cricket fan, that’s like Vogue Williams on Mastermind or the Women’s Equality Party in the last election. For the 16 or so fans in attendance it was a real ‘I was there’ moment, or rather ‘Oh Christ, I was there’.

All right, more than 16, but someone somewhere right now should be getting the hairs plucked one by one from their testicles for deciding Eden Park in Auckland is a sensible place to play a game of Test cricket. A soulless bowl of a rugby stadium, over the rim of which not a thing could be seen such that you could be in any city in the world – even Birmingham – it was about one-tenth full and had the atmosphere of a recent meeting of the Kevin Spacey Fan Club. What little noise could be heard came mostly from a pack of cretinous Leeds fans repeatedly intoning ‘Here for the cricket, we’re only here for the cricket’ to the well-worn tune of Guantanamera.

I turned south and sucked like Stormy in a fervent bid to get Marlborough’s weather up this way to spare us the misery. And it worked, with ark-floating rains – there’s no half measures with the meteorology in this part of the world – meaning we had to find other things to do in Auckland. Given its paucity of notable sights and attractions, this involved drinking in an Irish bar called Father Ted’s and browsing the racks of a magnificent emporium called Real Groovy for some probably rubbish Kiwi tunes to take home with me. We spent a day out of the city on the excellent Tiritiri Matangi Island reserve, peering out to sea and making the acquaintance of bellbirds, red-crowned parakeets and a particularly friendly North Island robin. Yes, leisurely birdwatching is becoming a hobby and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Having made the decision to forego further horrors at Eden Park we rearranged a flight and headed south to Queenstown a day early. Everyone you know who’s been to New Zealand will ask you upon your return if you made it down to Queenstown. Yes, we did. We went to Queenstown. Happy now?

 

 

Here we found more ducks, bobbing about in an amusing pack, er, flock, in the choppy waters of Lake Wakatipu. I’d love to be a duck, I think. Not 30 minutes later without a further thought going through my pretty little head I ordered duck for lunch and we proceeded to sit and watch the youthful crowd go by in this town known for its extreme activities. People jump off things and that. Go them.

We had by this point hired ourselves a car to head up the west coast. Our intention was to drive for an hour or so via Arrowtown and the Crown Range Road to Lake Wanaka, which you don’t pronounce the way you’d think. Arrowtown is an old gold-mining town and looks like it, with an intentional Wild West feel. I just fancied a massive pile of savoury cheese and ham waffles for breakfast and the passive aggressive Swede serving us was more than ambivalent to oblige. Nice of him to ask the chef to pile cinnamon into it to make sure it tasted foul, that was a real treat, as were the views across the Crown Range. Allegedly epic, they were shrouded with the type of rain that allows for 10-metre visibility, which at least meant the wife couldn’t see, only imagine, the hundred-metre-plus drops off the side of the road as we skidded across the mountains.

The weather also meant we couldn’t see a bloody thing at Lake Wanaka, so we went on early to our stop for the night, a little further north at Lake Hawea. And having been at Lake Hawea for about 20 minutes, the clouds suddenly began to clear and we could see Lake Hawea. I’m aware I’ve been saying Lake Hawea a lot in this paragraph. I don’t care. It’s now one of my favourite places on Earth. Lake Hawea Lake Hawea Lake Hawea.

 

 

I’m not sure what happened beside that lake but as the clouds cleared and we took a stroll beside the water, something in my brain cleared too. I thought I’d got a fair handle on New Zealand already but by the lake it just all suddenly made sense. The world’s only harsh and scary because we choose to look at it that way; it can just be nice, you can try to get along with folk, there really isn’t much need to worry about things so much. I’ve been in places before where similar thoughts have occurred to me, most notably Cambodia. But here, for the first time, I realised that rather than just envying other people living like that, it might even work for me too. At any rate I can try, and for that I have Lake Hawea to thank.

Driving in New Zealand is easy – correct side of the road, see – but it’s helped further by there being hardly any other bugger about. The reduced risk of ploughing into an oncomer allows even the driver to gawp at the stunning scenery of the south island, with flat plains towered over by gigantic mountains, covered with trees. At our next destination the scenerey got better still, with snow-capped peaks either side of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. Glaciers make no sense of course, everyone knows that, but chased by gregarious fantails and best-name-ever tomtits, we took a walk all the way to the terminal face of the Franz Josef, which for some reason looks like a quarry.

 

 

Screwing my eyes tightly shut as I confirmed the booking, we’d chosen to drop the car off at Greymouth for a fantastical sum. This was so we could ride the famous Tranzalpine train across the Southern Alps to Christchurch, our final destination. The commentary along the way threw up some interesting tales of New Zealand’s history, from the exploits of national heroes such as Samuel Parnell and Arthur Dudley Dobson to the more questionable activities of the Burgess Gang. More power to the trade unions’ elbow and all that, but I know which I’ll be reading more about. In truth the scenery from the train was no better than it had been elsewhere on the south island, but since the whole place is stunning it’s fair to say it was a agreeable four hours or so.

Christchurch was famously levelled by a series of earthquakes a few years ago and you can tell. The city has an eerie vibe, not helped by it being virtually deserted over the Easter weekend. There are building sites absolutely everywhere in various states of completion; there aren’t enough people in all of New Zealand to finish half of the work in the next decade, let alone people in Christchurch. Interesting attempts at ‘art’ have popped up everywhere and some sites have signs asking the public to suggest something to build there, hinting that this might be a land of weed-strewn makeshift car parks before much longer. The cathedral still has a bite out of it.

 

 

It’s a terrible shame for what was almost certainly a charming city before disaster struck. It’s hard not to root for Christchuch but it’s so tough to see how it’ll recover properly when the pace of reconstruction is so unhurried. I wonder whether the ever-present threat of more earthquakes might be inducing a little reluctance to commit.

What it meant for us was five solid days at the second Test match. This is not something I plan to do ever again – even I need a day off somewhere in there – but if you’re going to watch five days’ straight it might as well be from a viewpoint like this.

 

 

The contrast between Eden Park and the Hagley Oval could scarely be more marked. To get to the ground we walked through a park-cum-botanical garden, past the Heritage Rose Garden and Daffodil Woodland on paths strewn with thousands of acorns. In the cricket ground your seat is a grass verge and the surroundings are that of a successful village club. I cannot imagine a nicer place to watch a sport I love.

We sat alongside the famous Barmy Army. Now, I run the risk of sounding po-faced at this point; believe me, I appreciate their efforts at following the England team around the world with rousing vocal support. And they’re funny, too, though not as funny as the set of Kiwi fans who dressed up like Australian cricketers and got their sandpaper signed by New Zealand players on the boundary. Never has a story united two nations in hilarity so much as Aussie ball tampering, let me tell you.

 

 

But five whole days of the Barmy Army, complete with the undercurrent of Brexit never far from this type of Englishman, did eventually grate. It was telling that a non-Army mixed group of boisterous Kiwis and England fans singing alternative songs and generally larking about caused the Barmy Army to stare across humourlessly, as though only ‘official’ entertainment should be permitted. We did however spend an entertaining evening at a charity event in the pub with them, listening to Billy the trumpeter interviewing Graeme Swann and ‘Two-metre’ Peter Fulton as they tore into the hapless cheating Aussie baaaastards (choice line from Swann: describing David Warner as a ‘feral twat’).

On our final day it was painfully obvious that we had no desire to leave New Zealand. Long holidays usually end for me with a nod and a ‘yep, home time’ but in this case I was far from keen to go back and I’m still not sure why I didn’t do a bunk. I could right now be back beside the lake, failing to skim a stone more than three jumps in its wind-swept waters, concluding that this planet could be a happy home for us if only we’d de-stress and de-clutter a little.

 

 

Though its geography might be a world away, New Zealand in its lifestyle is almost exactly like the UK. They eat the same food, they have the same sense of humour, they’re far too keen on a drink for a sensible society, their towns contain the same mix of dry cleaners and curry houses. Sure they take influences from America like everyone else, but it’s British American they’ve plumped for, and certainly not Australian American.

But there’s one crucial difference – how calmly they approach this mad life. Though we can only have skimmed the surface of the place, and no doubt there’s some rage in there somewhere, it felt so conducive to a smooth, enjoyable life as to make me and my existence in London seem like the bloke out of Falling Down by comparison. They give out free Factor 50 everywhere you go for God’s sake, and nothing screams CHRIS more than that. There are various places in the world I would happily live for a while, to give myself a break from Britain and Britain a break from me, but none would suit me better than New Zealand.

You’ll come visit though, right?

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