We start our New Zealand photo essay with Dunedin, the largest city we’d seen to that point, which is famous as a university town full of “scarfies”, a term referring to the scarves they wear to alternately support their school teams and snap each other’s asses in the shower. It is even the title of an incredibly famous movie starring Taika Waititi, co-writer/star of “What We Do in the Shadows”. Anyway, it has an impressive old railway station, a disappointingly industrial waterfront (great place to pick up wholesale office supplies, though), a town centre with a cool name (“The Octagon”) that, unfortunately, it doesn’t really live up to. Although it did feature people doing “spoken word”, so apparently they have weirdos, too. Got a large pizza for $7 from Domino’s, though, to date our cheapest meal in New Zealand.
Four years on from the devastating earthquake of 2011, and downtown Christchurch still looks a bit like a disaster area. I can only imagine it is far better than before, but it still has an eerie vibe, with every standing, functional building seemingly surrounded by two or three empty lots and construction sites. I assume the rapid increase in street art has as much to do with people having had bigger problems than stopping graffiti, but hey, elephants in the city? Edgy.
It was here that we got the wheels that would take us through the rest of our Kiwi adventure. Renting a car in New Zealand (or a campervan) is practically mandatory, partially for the freedom and partially because public transportation is a bit sparse. We chose something cheap, small and non-descript, our style to a tee.
Remote, rural, beautiful. Luckily the picturesque drive to Okains Bay took place in clear afternoon skies, because by the next morning the clouds had sunk down to take up seemingly permanent residence along the top of the ridge like an improbably thick and intensely distracting toupee.
The quiet rural setting and dramatic wind-swept beach had everything – from massive rolling waves to impressive cliffs, to old people walking gingerly on the sand and a huge, long-dead fur seal. We shared our nice B&B (minus the second B) with a number of friendly Germans ranging in age from 30 to 70, and a group of older American women leaving NZ in the morning gave us a cooler and ice pack. Score.
It is rare to get the chance to physically interact with an actual piece of classic cinematic history. Being able to climb inside the doughnut itself was like getting to brush your teeth with Tom Selleck’s moustache.
Like a softer, rounder Stonehenge where you were allowed to touch literally everything. Plus, as Laynni said, “I know it would be wrong to do, but this would be a great place for paintball”. I settled for once again pissing where I probably wasn’t supposed to.
A beautiful drive through spectacular mountain scenery, with strangely no actual markings at the high point of the crossing. Interesting fact, the pass was actually named after a dull British surveyor, not the legendary former king, or the Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even, as most people assume, the 1981 alcoholic Dudley Moore character.
An hour and a half up into a rocky valley covered in low shrub and wet rocks, not unlike the outdoor terrace at a Japanese restaurant.
Clear across the country to another atmospheric, windswept beach, just on a completely different coast, featuring extraordinary sunsets and creative driftwood sculptures of dinosaurs, turtles and award-winning beds. The town was the setting for the excellent 2013 Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, although since the book was set during the gold rush of the 1870’s, very little remained that was recognizable. In particular, there were a lot fewer indentured Chinese workers and we found it much more difficult to acquire laudanum.
Besides boasting incredible rock formations, a fascinatingly jagged route and a simply top-notch suspension bridge, the eponymous gorge is all about the water colour, an eerily riveting shade of blue, like well-chosen coloured contact lenses, or relatively expensive windshield wiper fluid.
After spending what felt like hours on the lookout for the perfect scenic viewpoint to enjoy a lunch of salami, cheese and chocolate, we finally chose this rugged overlook slash recent construction site. The views were magnificent, the wind foiled the dastardly sandflies and the whole area was really muddy, like, shoes-making-obscene-sex-noises-when-you-try-to-walk muddy. We changed parking spots several times, got our shoes, bumper and floor mats filthy regardless, and had to eat perched on the tiny, angled trunk, then left and 500 metres down the road passed a recreation area with picnic tables, viewing benches and a toilet that didn’t even look that nasty.
This fascinating geological anomaly is the most popular tourist stop on the West Coast, I guess because they look a little like pancakes. Whether that name was chosen solely because of the rather questionable resemblance, or because it fit in nicely with the name of the town, which sounds a lot like “pancake”, especially if English is your third or fourth language. Plus, the high tide blowholes add an exciting element, not to mention being an incredible name for a shitty jazz trio.
Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in. But usually taking a photograph and an ibuprofen does the trick.
The northwest coast of the South Island is famous for having the largest tidal swing in all of New Zealand, apparently as much as 6 metres from low to high. This results in large muddy bays at low tide, requiring the boat taxis that ferry people to all the great day hikes on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track (another of the Nine Great Walks) to use alternative methods to get their boats in and out of the water. Namely, tractors. As we waited in town we laughed about how they had to haul the boat through town, across the sand and mud, then back it into the water, and joked about how great it would be if they did all this with us perched in the back of the boat looking around like we were in a particularly depressing parade. Funny thing, they did.
Great hike and beautiful coastline, the most popular by far, and seemingly the most diverse; hikers, sunbathers, holiday-makers, a disgruntled girl carrying a sleeping bag and mat in a garbage bag under her arm, her barefoot friend who looked shattered with pink trainers dangling from side of backpack, young backpackers heading out late in day with bottles clinking. In relation to Milford, it seemed like a great hike to dabble on, probably not the one to feel remote or adventurous, unless your idea of adventure is listening to young European campers having sex and vomiting outside the hut, and not necessarily in that order.
Apparently, visiting this only remotely interesting rock has become an official prerequisite for every tourist boat in Abel Tasman National Park, regardless of their end purpose or even the direction they happen to be heading. And the boat driver’s enthusiasm, or lack thereof, seemed a good match for the excessive optimism of this rather middling attraction.
After a few hours of easy hiking along the coast, we finished off with a relaxing hour lying on the grass in the sun, opting for that over the rusty bed frame in the shade the Asian couple went with. In fairness, it somehow managed to mix well with the giant bandana fluttering from under his hat and the way his wife seemed dressed to star in an Alaskan horror film).
We waited for our boat at a nice waterfront resort which apparently specializes in organizing exotic weddings, these festive fellows representing that last, late group of young drunks common to every wedding in civilized society. Of course, here their arrival was by hired dinghy instead of stuffed two per seat in the back of a groomsman’s minivan, choking down Bud Light as fast as possible, having somehow miscalculated that the 10-minute drive required three last beers, all pre-opened to save time over the long run.
Picton, a nice little town where you can see dolphins and sting rays right in the harbour, the movie theatre only holds 15 people, kids race colour-coded sailboats in the bay, ice cream cones cost less than Kit Kats, and our hostel was located next to a cemetery and featured a consistent theme of death – black curtains, black art, skull key chains, Liam Neeson movie posters, scones.
Oh, they love their meat pies here in New Zealand. So much so that they even sell them at McDonald’s (the “Georgie Pie” – why “Georgie”? No idea). And every bakery has one kind of fudge, one tray of bland doughnuts and an entire glass cabinet filled with at least 15 different variations of meat pie – mince, mince and cheese, cheese and steak, steak and mushroom, mushroom and bacon, bacon and cheese, cheese and chicken, etc. They are flaky, meaty, usually bursting with gravy, cost less than $5 each, and are instantly rescued from the warming light they’ve been basking under since 7 am and handed to you in a small paper bag for you to eat standing just outside the door without cutlery like a hobo downing vanilla extract to forget what it was like to work in the financial industry. So very Kiwi.
We discovered this not-so-hidden gem our first afternoon in Picton, and Laynni simply couldn’t get enough of its space-age cleanliness and firm, no-nonsense directives. Not only is it fully automated, robotic and free, but you can also enjoy being walked through the entire bodily evacuation process – from how to manage the seat to making the soap work to getting the door to let you back out – by a voice that sounds like a more Commerce degree version of Lorde. Surprisingly advanced technology from a country that has yet to figure out how to make a bridge with more than one lane.
The similarly off-putting likeness of Donald Duck caught our attention not just for his vandalized tail feathers and aggressive stance, but for the irony of the two real live ducks squabbling by his feet, clearly on the verge of coming to blows under his smug leer. However, this rough approximation of the beloved Disney icon had that certain something that really made my skin crawl, making me picture him as Mickey’s slightly unhinged cousin, possibly a country club valet on thin ice for stealing change from ashtrays and getting caught masturbating in a Toyota Corolla.
After a comfortable and uneventful ferry trip across the Cook Strait we busted up the west coast of the North Island to the “raggedy historic town” of Whanganui, home to the one Great Walk that isn’t actually a walk (details, details) but , in fact, is a multi-day canoe or kayak journey down the spectacular Whanganui River. Well, we hadn’t left ourselves quite enough time for that whole business, but we certainly did have a few hours to spare for yet another narrow, winding scenic drive that would take far longer than the distance would normally warrant. Hence, over two hours to travel 64 kilometres, another trunk-of-the-car lunch, and plenty of awesome “wow-look-at-the-river-now” views.
With an afternoon to kill as we rather optimistically tried to time the weather perfectly right for our looming Tongariro Alpine Crossing (also known as Mordor from Lord of the Rings, and coming soon to a blog near you), and a must-see part of any Auckland to Wellington itinerary, we somehow convinced ourselves that a nice light warmup would be a 20-kilometre afternoon of biking on quiet country roads and along rough, narrow ridges. We started 600 metres higher than where we ended, so obviously it was mainly, and exhilaratingly downhill, yet somehow they still managed to sneak in enough uphill sections to lead to sweating, whining and some less than ideal leg soreness the following day. And don’t even get me started on the lack of padded gel seats and just how that turned out, or ask me to point to exactly where it hurts.
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