19 July, 2007

The Day I Never Saw, on Aotearoa.

I was at LAX airport in plenty of time and so I was able to organise a window seat on the plane next to the door. When I got on the plane I sat next to two young Kiwis who knew all there was to know about commercial aeroplanes, and this plane in particular. This was a very old one, they said, which meant that about 100 seats in front of us had to remain empty since the fuel tanks were too small to accommodate enough for such a long flight. We were going to be in the air for 14 hours. This happily meant that when we went to sleep we could find a few seats in front, put the arms up and stretch out for a decent snooze. We were also taken great care of by the attentive Qantas staff.

We took off into the Californian twilight and headed towards the sun at about 8.30pm on the 2nd of July. The oddest thing was that 14 hours later I arrived at 4.30am on the 4th of July. Crossing the date line meant that the 3rd of July 2007 was, for me, the non-existent 'day I never saw'. And the great thing about that was that I never once worried about it in any way at all, so there's another wee test passed!

Getting into Auckland was a challenge. The passport control staff were very polite while they told me I'd need to go and speak to the nice Customs officers, because in order to enter New Zealand everyone needed a ticket to say when they were leaving. I'm not sure whether I was just tired, but whereas in the past I might have flapped a bit at this point, this time I just calmly went over, sat down where I was told and started pulling out all sorts of documentary evidence to prove I wasn't staying. I had the waybill for the bike's transport, the contractual agreement about my career break, and my passport which proved fairly convincingly that I didn't hang around anywhere too long. My trip would have been a lot of trouble for any potential illegal immigrant to have gone to. In the end the smiling Customs officer joked that I was lucky because he was happy and on his way home. He stamped my passport for just one month, whereas ordinarily UK subjects would be entitled to six months as tourists. One month is more than enough for me!

It was 6.30 in the New Zealand morning and I was very groggy. I found an internet connection and contacted Alf, my brother, already campervanning around the South Island with his family. I had to spend more time on the computer because of the way I'd paid for it, so I put my very tired tuppence worth into a debate over a less-than-enthusiastic local councillor back home who seems unable either to trust the community of Kinghorn or understand the meaning of the word "consult"!! Odd to be so frustrated about an issue so far away at such an early hour of the morning, and in such a state of fatigue!

A shuttle bus took me directly to the Camper van hire company for free. This was great and the staff there were very helpful. I was, sadly, put off by the amount of money I had to give as a bond - in case I had an accident,or even if the windscreen became chipped or I had a puncture! The kindly staff allowed me to use their phone to contact Alf who informed me that Kiwis were, overall very good drivers, that this was standard practice, and not to worry. I paid up and drove the van to a nearby supermarket car park where I got my head down for a couple of hours of much needed quality sleep.

Fully recovered, I went shopping. At the deli counter I was treated to some welcome 'crack' from the Maori lady in charge there. This was something I hadn't experienced since I left Scotland! It continued at the check-out counter and I left the busy supermarket beaming with comforted glee. New Zealand was going to be fun!

The milky light reminded me of a clear winter's day in Scotland too, as I headed southwards with the sun behind me. The roads made perfect sense and were excellently signposted. It was a wee bit confusing having the sun behind as I went south, but I just had to waken up to that! It'll be the same in Australia. The air was fresh, cold even. I happily commented on how welcome I thought this was to several people along the road. I'm not sure my enthusiasm for this freshness was reflected in the local populace. It's the middle of their winter, after all. Icould get my heavy jumper, jeans and boots on and switch on the heater. Luxury! The van itself was full of everything I could possibly need and it wasn't very expensive to hire, if you discount the 'bond', which I would get back if I took it back in one piece. If you're coming out though, shop around for the best deal. I paid half of the bond of others for no apparent reason.

That night I stopped in a lay-by and made my own tea (beans on cheese on toast - delicious!) before marvelling at the number and clarity of the stars. The Southern Cross was very clear, although I didn't recognise anything else. I could see more clearly those gaps between the stars which I'd learned the Inca/Quechua recognised animals in. These are just as clear as the dot-to-dot pictures of the Ancient Greeks, but show a different perspective on the skies.

When I got on the ferry between the North and South Islands next day, I couldn't work the ship's public phone to phone Alf. I was still unsure of where I should find him and family and needed to know where to head. I had to buy a 'card' (which was a receipt!) and enter the ten-digit number before pressing the hash key and choosing option seven if I needed to hear the menu again after choosing the wrong option because I was clearly far too thick to cope with any such modern technology. More buttons to press just increases the chances of chubby wee fingers pushing the wrong one. Modern phones seem designed for use by locusts or maybe praying mantis only. Phone companies should train these larger insects up as optional extras - I'd buy one. This ridiculous and farcical nonsense cost me a bargain $5NZ (about 2.50GBP) and for that, I spoke to nobody.

I went to get a coffee and mentioned to the lady how simple life used to be when all you had to do was dial the number and then stick coins in the phone! She agreed that this 'progress' was very irritating, took pity on me and offered the use of her own mobile! Alf didn't answer anyway, and so she texted him, telling me to make myself comfortable and if he phoned, she'd come and find me. Lovely lady! Ten minutes later, Alf phoned and we had a rendezvous organised.

The ferry took three relaxing hours and the following well-maintained road to the south was not so busy. I saw some older vehicles - a Zephyr 6 (my dad's old car!), a Triumph Herald, an Oxford (who made those?), a Hillman Minx, a Wolseley Mini. These must be so much better preserved since New Zealanders don't use salt on their winter roads - I'd been issued with snow chains for the camper. Never used those before, and the only snow I could see was distant and on the very top of mountains. Scenery was truly incredible. Swiss-like in its 360 degree picture postcard quality. Point the camera in almost any direction and you'd need to go to some effort not to get a professional-looking shot.

We all found each other as arranged in Oamaru and checked into the local campsite. Campsites are everywhere, as are camper vans, and all seems open for the tourists, even though it's winter. Camper vans often wave jovially at one another. The campsites had every convenience - kitchens, hot (very hot) showers, heated communal areas with TV and dining areas. Worth every penny, warm and welcoming. This one even had internet in a quiet wee heated room.

Refreshed after a good sleep, we headed in convoy to look at some interesting spherical rocks that my sister-in-law Lynne, had found out about in the guidebook. Ailsa and Angus, my niece and nephew, travelled in my van since the back seat in theirs gave only a very poor view of the scenery. It was a bit of a squeeze, but we managed pretty well. All three of us could sit in the front of mine. Some of the rocks had broken open and out of one appeared a small boy . . .

In Dunedin (named after Edinburgh 'dun' is Gaelic for castle) we found 'the steepest street in the world'. I don't think you were supposed to drive up it in a camper but the traffic was so quiet and the van didn't seem to mind. It was very scary though as things clattered around in the back and I felt we might take off at such an odd angle! We left the city and headed West towards the fiord lands of Doubtful Sound. We camped that night in the middle of nowhere and again marvelled at the clarity of the stars, and the cold.

Next day we were up early. The cold in the night had been a real problem for me to sleep through, and the water had frozen in the tap. We had to take a boat across a huge loch, then a bus over a mountain, and then another boat out into the fiord itself. What a trip. It was cold, but truly awe-inspiring. The guides were very calm and gently-spoken in this perfect scenery. At one point the boat's captain quietly explained that he was going to stop the engine so that we could all listen to the silence.

As soon as he had done this I heard a stomp-stomp-stomp on the deck. A lady had approached one of the guides who was quietly having a mug of tea at the back of the boat and demanded in a thick Germanic accent; "Fvy haff vee stopped?" "So that we can listen," came the whispered reply. In the silence, I was sure I could hear her ear drums beating, straining every aural muscle to fully appreciate the immense vacuum of sound. She looked around for a few seconds with a knotted brow. "But I can't hear anysing!" She finally barked. Priceless.

We visited an underground hydro-electric power plant which Angus explained in great detail to me. He had listened intently to the lady, while I had concentrated solely on staying warm.

The kids had been skiing and wanted to go back and do more, but all I could negotiate for them instead was a go on some quad-bikes. By the time we had learned how to do doughnuts on these and then gone up and down some insanely steep hills, I could see how useful they would be for shepherds and farmers, but wondered at their wider appeal. I was also beginning to wish I'd insisted on a proper bike, as had one of only two ladies in our "Adventure" group. I had asked but the hiring man had said that I would need to be an 'expert'. Yeah, right! It really was great fun, but didn't last overly long and was also quite expensive.

By this time Ailsa had drifted back to the now more spacious seat in the big van, while Angus had contentedly become my co-pilot. We looked at a huge glacier before heading over a pass back to Christchurch. When we came to cross over Arthur's Pass the next day, some road workers stopped us to insist that snow-chains would be needed. Luckily, Angus had paid close attention to the demonstration when his dad had been shown how to fit these. I had only been given a wee sheet of paper with some pictures! Angus had our snow chains on long before the other van, and we had plenty of time for an excellent wee snowball fight before all setting off up the hill. It was mainly a waste of time, however. I've ridden a motorbike through much deeper snow, and for far longer than the wee bit of slush at the top of that pass!

Angus did brilliantly again to navigate us all into the campsite outside Christchurch where we would spend our last night. Lynne and kids were flying back to Melbourne in the morning, while Alf returned to his work in Wellington, NZ's capital. I would head back down to Oamaru, to see if I could retrieve my hat from where I'd left it in the internet room on the campsite.

First thing next morning Angus proved himself quite adept at pulling away gently, stopping and driving around the near-deserted campsite without ever stalling. (Don't tell the hire company - he's only 11!) Before they got their planes, we had enough time to go to the Antarctic Centre. This was huge and needed maybe two days to do properly. There was information all about penguins (from the Welsh pen-gwyn, meaning white head?) as well as NZ's huge contribution into Antarctic research.

Later when I got back to Oamaru and asked about the hat, the lady at the campsite check-in desk had no idea what I was talking about. I checked the internet room myself and found my hat exactly where I'd left it on top of the terminal six days previously. It isn't a very attractive hat, but it was still something of a surprise to find it just where I'd left it after a whole week!

Heading north at a leisurely pace, I realised that if I didn't get back on the very next ferry then I'd be struggling to make it all the way up to Ruakaka, in the north of the North Island, before I had to give the van back. This meant I had to drive all the 800kms (500miles) back to Picton for the Wellington Ferry in one day. I made it with just 15 minutes to spare.

With the help of some friendly petrol attendants on the other side, I quickly found Alf's flat in the middle of New Zealand's picturesque yet small capital city. He was going into the centre of the North Island to stay with some workmates the next evening, so we drove up to Taupo, overlooking a huge loch. There were incredible snow-capped mountains all around as we drove along The Desert Road. This desert was the least like any desert I'd seen. With no sand and lots of greenery, it reminded me of Rannoch Moor. The road even had some really sharp bends in it - very un-desertlike - and the fantastic backdrop of this mountain, which I'm sure Alf will remind me the name of.

After a relaxing evening in the company of his colleagues, I dropped Alf at the station to go back to Wellington and headed north to Ruakaka, where I wanted to take a gift to a workmate's elderly uncle. I arrived well into the dark and set up quietly on the campsite, deciding to look for his house in the daylight. In the bright sunshine I couldn't find the house. I was looking for 24 Beach Road and the even numbers ran out at 4, then didn't start again until 54. Locals helped by directing me to the Post Office, and then looking through the phone book. There was one John Smith. He was friendly enough, but Irish in origin. With time running out, I needed to make a start back south. So, sorry Anne, I never saw your uncle! But Alf and I very much enjoyed the gift I'd bought him, and the trip was well worth it if only to see the Complaint Department at the campsite!

There were floods on my intended route south, so I went more directly. Everywhere in New Zealand people were welcoming, friendly, helpful and full of crack. Each interaction was a conversation with a healthy spark of humour in it and I felt very much 'at home'. A visit to Te Papa museum in Wellington showed me how the Maori are valued by the later European settlers and the two communities have come (more or less) to understand and respect each other in something of a model for other countries.

A huge teary-eyed Maori had told me about his trip 'home' to Bonnyrigg in Scotland, to take his granny's ashes back. He had tramped the streets of a soggy, dreich Bonnyrigg visiting old addresses and finding no relatives in them. Eventually he gave up in despair and found a local hostelry. It turned out the barman was his second cousin, and a whole new world of relatives soon filled the pub. He was treated as a celebrity by so many relatives he didn't know he had. He was happy even to be recruited to play rugby for the local team - three times. He also said that he was pleased the British had colonised New Zealand, when he looked at what had happened to indigenous peoples in Africa, Australia and in the Americas. I thought maybe the British had met their match in the Maori.

When I got back to Wellington, I sat in Alf's house for days just revelling in the unfamiliar luxuries of homely surroundings. In the evenings we'd go out and explore the city, but just chilling in the flat was the relaxation I seemed to need after bombing around New Zealand, after getting the bike onto the plane, after rushing through Central America, Mexico and the US, to meet the deadline of getting to NZ in time! A whirlwind of movement, but well worth the effort.

I have to come back to NZ. I've seen much of its fantastic countryside from the road but haven't done the place any real justice. I found it to be very well sorted out. How 4 million people can keep such a diverse country in such an excellent state of repair is a mystery to me. I heard there was some gold, which would help. But still it's amazing. Just quietly getting on with life on the edge of the world, not bothering or being bothered by anyone. Taking their sport very seriously, but keeping incredibly fit with it. There was nearly a national day of mourning when they lost the Americas Cup!

The Kiwis have a drink, an equivilent to our Irn Bru or Peru's Inca Kola, called L&P 'World famous in New Zealand since ages ago'. Tasty but sugary! Before moving on I took the opportunity to have teeth and eyes checked, as well as getting the fourth jab in a series for some hideous disease I hope never to get. It turned out that the optician's mum had grown up in, and her grandparents were from Burntisland! I'd delivered newspapers to them when I was a laddie. When I phoned to make the appointment, she thought it was her uncle having her on. Small(ish) world.

There was a very inexpensive airport shuttle mini-bus that picked me up at the door, after a final lunch with Alf. Wellington Airport was a bit confusing. It said on the overhead board to check in at Gate 25, so I kept my luggage. But you weren't allowed trolleys after a certain point so I had to carry, but the gate wasn't open yet so I had to sit. This was a bit unusual for an airport. But then I noticed no-one else had their big bags so I had to think. It turned out I was supposed to check in at another place, back through the airport and, as at all other airports, board at Gate 25. But before I could check in I had to go and pay the 'departure tax'. In Scotland we might call this 'ransom' and I hadn't even been aware I'd been kidnapped. However, they wouldn't let me leave unless I paid to get out. A bit dizzy, I eventually settled in the departure lounge with my book, waiting for the flight to the "West Island".