High/Low

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So. We’ve been back now for nearly three weeks, strange as it seems to think about. The trip home took somewhere in the region of 36 hours, and involved perhaps three or four hours of light dozing. I won’t describe Dubai airport at five in the morning, local time, hiving with disoriented travellers from all over the world. If you’ve ever been in that place – sleepless, so dislocated that you no longer have any idea what your personal time is – you can imagine it.

We’ve done surprisingly well with jet-lag, all things considered. We arrived home around 1:30pm London time on Friday, after leaving our hotel at 2pm New Zealand time the previous day. Thankfully, Loz’s lovely parents, Sue and Pete, picked us up at Heathrow and drove us home. At 2:30pm, I decided to go to bed. “Oh, I’ll sleep for three hours, and then stay up until bedtime,” I thought. At 5:30pm, I turned off the alarm and didn’t wake up again until 4 the next morning. I saw 6am while drinking tea at my kitchen table for several days in a row, but it could have been much worse.

There are two questions that we’ve been asked repeatedly since we got back, and I’m going to write a post that covers each of them. One is, “So what were the best and worst parts?” The other is, “So, is everything, you know, different now?”

Question 2 might take a while to answer, but I think I can tackle Question 1 now.

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Loz’s answer might be different, but the best part of the trip for me was Nepal. I was answering this question for a friend over lunch a week or so ago, and while talking about the stomach ailments and the myriad effects of altitude, she cocked a sceptical eyebrow at me: “You’re not really selling this, you know,” she said. But I think the fact that this portion of the trip involved some physical hardship made it more of an achievement. Nepal was almost certainly the poorest and least developed place we were, and I don’t want to sentimentalise the “unspoiled” nature of a place where the capital city is overcrowded and polluted and the power cuts out nightly. But the Himalayas are beautiful beyond description, and travelling through the villages and valleys exposes you to a friendly and largely peaceful life. The Annapurna circuit is a long and demanding trek, and being with the same group throughout builds a companionship and sense of achievement; our guides also helped us to learn a little Nepali and a great deal about the economy, culture and lives of the people we met, from Tibetan refugees selling handmade jewellery to teahouse owners. The challenges of our two weeks in India directly afterwards threw some of the contrasts into sharp relief; we travelled in far more physical comfort in India, but the hassles and pressure we experienced, and the effect of being insulated from the day-to-day life of the cities, were much harder to deal with. I was happier between the flimsy, chilly plywood walls of remote Nepali teahouses than in a five-star Delhi hotel.

Some of the other high points:

  • Standing on Brahma ghat in Pushkar, Rajasthan, for the “fire ceremony”. There is a spirituality to India that I can’t put into words; you breathe it like you breathe the smells and the colours. Pushkar is a beautiful town with less hassle and sensory overwhelm than a big Indian city, and that undoubtedly helped, but that’s not it either. I will never be able to explain quite what I felt when I was listening to the chanting and the bell ringing out across the lake, crushing petals between my fingers, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need to.
  • The New Zealand scenery. Watching the sun go down and the moon rise while sitting on a hill above Lake Wakatipu. The volcanic landscape of Tongariro. Floating down the underwater rivers of Waitamo in the faint unearthly light of a ceilingful of glow-worms.
  • Leaning out against the heeling of the racing yacht Cave Canem as we sailed out of Hong Kong harbour.
  • Watching zebrafish swim almost between my fingers at the Great Barrier Reef and thinking, “It’s a Monday afternoon”.
  • The people that we met on trains. Young, older, experienced travellers or newbies, generous, thoughtful, figuring it out as they went along.
  • Seal shows. I don’t know what it is about seals offering me a high-five that reduces me to an overawed and delighted five-year-old, but they do. This effect was enhanced at the Nerpinarium in Listvyanka by the impenetrable quality of the Russian narration, but I defy anyone to watch one seal romance another with a bouquet of roses and not cry tears of pure joy.
  • Cat Ba island, Vietnam. Kayaking around and between the karsts, jumping off the roof of a houseboat, eating simple fresh food at the village restaurant, and riding a motorbike through the fields to the harbour with the wind streaming through my hair.
  • Getting overcome with giggles in a Beijing hotpot restaurant, looking at the plates and plates of unidentifiable foodstuffs we’d been brought and clinking beer bottles. Finding ways to surf the bizarreness of Beijing and coming out feeling exhilarated.
  • Seeing in age 30 with a dawn flight around the jagged summit pyramid of Everest.

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There were lows too, of course.

  • The cheap, uncomfortable, sleepless red-eye flight from Delhi to Hong Kong on India Air.
  • The staring in India. I think I could have handled the noise, the traffic, and even the heat more easily if it had not been for the incessant staring by men. It wears away your fortitude somehow.
  • The costs of Australia and New Zealand made me wince. A beer tended to run you around £5, and the current exchange rate doesn’t help.
  • Emerging out of Beijing Central station into a storm of people and smog.
  • Sleeplessness: in Saigon, Cairns, Nelson, Irkutsk, Kuala Lumpur. Noise, humidity, and cockroaches.
  • The endless, sweltering Russia to Mongolia border crossing: almost eight hours in place. Boredom, hunger, mosquito bites and immigration shakedowns.
  • In a way, I hesitate to describe this as a low, but: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’ve never been anywhere where I was confronted with the consequences of cruelty and misuse of power in quite the same way, and I don’t want to forget.

If I had to pick one moment, though, I can, without difficulty, and it was the “high point” of the trip in more ways than one. At Thorong Phedi, 4500m above sea level, casually looking upwards as I emerged into the freezing darkness of 3:30am, and staggering backwards under the weight of a thousand jagged glittering stars.

Counting Down – Auckland

Auckland at sunset, from Paul and Morag's deck

Auckland at sunset, from Paul and Morag’s deck

We arrived in Auckland on Sunday afternoon, knowing our flight out was on Thursday. It was a strange feeling to have reached our final stop on the trip, and I had a very mixed bag of feelings: sad to have come to the end of it, nervous at the prospect of finding a job again, happy at the thought of seeing home and friends and not being transient any more. We had also both started to focus on reviving our CV’s, talking to our networks, and everything that’s involved in getting back into a career mode, which makes it harder to stay in a “holiday” mood.

On the plus side, we earned so many hotel-booking points in Southeast Asia that we were able to use them to book into a fairly decent hotel, with pool and gym, in Auckland as a final treat. We also had a commitment to have dinner with my ex-colleague Paul and his wife, and so on Sunday evening we drove out to St. Helier alongside Auckland harbour. Paul and Morag’s house has to be seen to be believed; incredible floor-to-ceiling plate glass and a deck overlooking the water and the city. We saw the sun go down while barbequeing on the deck.

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On Monday, we drove out to the Coromandel Peninsula, which has a rocky, forested spine surrounded by spectacular beaches. Our particular destination was Hot Water Beach, another delightful literal description. The beach is a lovely surf beach in its own right, but at low tide an area of sands is exposed under which geothermically heated water is constantly welling up, and with a small spade you can dig yourself your own personal spa pool. Even walking through the surf around this area is quite pleasant: the combination of seawater and boiling hot spring makes the shallows a lukewarm temperature. The beaches in New Zealand are not quite as deadly as those in Australia, but mainly because there’s no poisonous sea life; the currents and rips are pretty much as bad. Still, we had a pleasant swim, paddle, and laze, but Loz was tired out by the nearly-5-hours round trip drive.

In the morning, we had to return Shadowfax, which we did sadly, having put more than 4,000 kilometres onto his already formidable total. While he lacked audio facilities more sophisticated than a tape deck and complained bitterly about having to go up hills above 70kph, he had proved a noble and reliable steed. We spent the day in central Auckland, principally at the Auckland Art Gallery, which had some of the best curation we’ve seen and a collection of New Zealand art from the 1830s on thoughtfully arranged and explained, with individual artists spotlighted. It also had an outstandingly sentimental collection of Victorian art and some modern landscape photography. Auckland was, to my mind, the only “real” city we visited in New Zealand, and the only one to have more than a few kilometres of motorway – all our driving around the country was on winding, single-lane roads. Even Wellington, although a lovely place, has the ambience of a large town much more so than a “real” capital. I’ve really enjoyed some of the cities we’ve been to, but if this trip’s done anything, it’s reinforced my love for London. Apart from my time living in the rural US, I’ve never lived outside a city – and some of them, like Oxford and Cambridge, punched above their weight from a cultural perspective – and I’m too spoiled now to go back.

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On Wednesday, we didn’t do much, by choice. Each of us had begun to feel that we were mentally focused on coming home more than exploring Auckland, so we took it easy and took advantage of the hotel’s facilities while we could. At the end of the day, we had twin appointments with some of Auckland’s best needle artists, and we both came away with beautifully done mementoes. On Thursday, we rose and checked out, then spent our remaining time at the New Zealand Maritime Museum, which is filled with full-sized ships, boats, and vessels of all kinds, from Maori waka and Pacific Islander canoes to the enormous monohull sailed by New Zealand in the controversial Americas Cup in 1988. The museum tracks the full history of sailing from the arrival of the first Pacific Islander explorers a thousand years ago, through the immigrant experience to New Zealand as a competitive sailing force. I didn’t have time to see it all, but I’m pretty sure Loz loved it.

Then it was a cab to the airport, and now here we are, at the end of a long continuous journey, with a trip of many hours to go: Auckland to Brisbane to Dubai to London. I have a lot to say about what the trip has meant and how it’s gone, but I’ll save it for a retrospective. See you on the flip side.

Shiny – Waitomo

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From Matamata we headed north and west again towards Hamilton, a moderate-sized city without noticeable attractions (sorry, Hamiltonians), but a pretty and very habitable place. But we were really there for one main reason: the Waitomo caves.

Waitomo is a Maori word, and like many Maori (and Kiwi) names, it’s deliciously literal: “the place where water enters the earth”. The Waitomo caves are an extensive limestone cave system with subterranean rivers and beautiful glow-worms and stalactites. We were off to have a new experience: black-water rafting. Why, after all, raft along a surface river when you can do it 30 metres underground?

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We were signed up for the full-on Black Abyss experience, which took us underground for almost five hours. On driving to Waitomo, we first had to get fully kitted out: wetsuits with jackets and socks, rubber boots, and helmets with lights, then climbing harnesses. Our journey started with a 35-metre abseil down a narrow shaft into the caves; I went first, and got knocked around against the walls, turning off my light, before managing to right myself and sweating and swearing the remaining distance down. Once at the foot of the shaft, Gareth, our guide, switched off my light and attached me to the zipline, then gave me a solid shove out into nothingness. I shot across a huge cave and then abruptly came up short, hanging in space, surrounded by a thousand tiny pinpricks of light.

We had the very very good fortune that several people didn’t turn up for the Black Abyss tour that morning, so it was literally us and one other person. This gave us far more time than is usual, and meant we could go beyond the usual confines of the tour to explore some of the other experiences. Once all descended the zipline, we began tubing upriver in rubber rings. Switching off our lights, we paddled to the head of a long, narrow passage with a ceiling completely covered with glow-worms, and then floated silently back down. In the faint glow, we could see huge, ornate rock chambers drifting past, with glow-worm formations almost like chandeliers.

Further downriver, we had to abandon the rings and walk or wade, occasionally swim, or jump over a small waterfall. At one point we had to wriggle full-length through a narrow opening the guides call the “rebirth tunnel”. Gareth was able to take us off our usual route and show us where some of the other tours go: the very mild walking tour of the upper caverns and their formations, the more leisurely rafting tour, and the hardcore cave climbers. The latter portion got challenging; cave climbing largely involves wedging any limb or foot into any available space, often using pressure against both walls to get the leverage to go upwards or wriggling through tight, narrow gaps, or finding ourselves crawling through a tunnel filled with thick brown mud. At times, awkwardly wedged, I thought of how far below the surface we were and could understand very easily why people panic, but knew that doing so myself wouldn’t make the gap any easier to get through. The tour finished with a freeclimb up two small waterfalls, the last bringing us to a small opening above the ground. I emerged by degrees feeling like a cross between a newborn calf and Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity.

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Our time in New Zealand was drawing to an end, but first we had one more journey to make: up to Auckland. We spent a little time on Sunday morning exploring the Hamilton museum and its art exhibits, then took Shadowfax north once more.

Sulphur, The Shire and Shiny Bugs

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After the Tongariro crossing we drove directly to Rotorua,  home of boiling mud pools, spuming geysers and, well, a truly horrible smell. You sort of get used to it, but one strong gust of wind and a sulphurous stank is up again. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a bold but ultimately failed attempt at nominative determinism.

We just had one full day in Rotorua, so we headed out to see the big geysers and the Maori workshops at Te Whakarewarewa (full name significantly longer). The delicate bone carving and weaving is a nice counterpoint to the hourly rumbling explosion of hot Te Puia, or the bibbly-bubbling of mud.
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The next day we went to Hobbiton. More precisely, we went to Matamata, halfway between Rotorua and Hamilton. From what was once just an idyllic farm and film set , a permanent (and, it would seem, extremely profitable) recreation of the Hobbit village has been installed, with holes of many sizes, vegetable patches, the party tree, the mill and the working pub – the Green Dragon. With over two thousand tourists sampling a draft each day, it is officially New Zealand’s busiest pub.

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It’s a really great trip, and after traipsing through the country for views of where they filmed (often drastically altered in post – production) it’s good to visit the permanent reminder.

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The next day we headed south from Hamilton to the glow worm caves of Waitomo for a spot of relaxing abseiling, flying fox, tubing and free-climbing up waterfalls. In the dark. It was pretty awesome. Then it was off to Auckland for the last stop off the trip.

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Smellacious – Rotorua & Matamata

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Once we finished the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we had no choice but to get in the car and keep heading northeast – up to Rotorua, capital of New Zealand’s volcanic wonders. We were staying at the Grand Hotel, which belied its name rather spectacularly; it was a cheap and dilapidated establishment, but central.

The thing you can’t help but notice about Rotorua… the smell. You may have thought the volcanic lakes at Tongariro smelled bad. They have nothing on the entire town of Rotorua. While the hot pools, geysers, and vents may make for wonderful scenery, the entire town is pervaded by a sulphurous reek so powerful that it nearly made me gag. I coined the word “smellacious” in an attempt to distract myself through wordplay.

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We spent our day in Rotorua checking out one of its main attractions: the geothermal wonderland at Te Puia, which houses hot springs, bubbling mudpools, geysers, and Maori schools of carving and weaving. While the school of weaving is open to anyone, only young men of Maori descent are admitted to the carving school, and carving is the most prestiguious of Maori arts. The whole history of an iwi (tribe) is encoded in its carvings, for those who know how to read them. After having had the chance to tour the workrooms of both schools and ask questions, we were guided round the park. Hot springs and mudpools, bubbling away ominously, are dotted around liberally, as are vents where gas escapes, often with pure yellow sulphur crusted on the nearby rocks. But the star of the show is the Pohutu geyser, which erupts every few hours on average and can shoot up to thirty metres straight up. It is predicted by watching its nextdoor neighbour, the smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser, which reaches a highest height of around 12m and reliably erupts about 30 minutes before Pohutu.

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After the geothermal park, we spent the afternoon touring the Rotorua Musuem, which has a strong focus on Maori culture and history, taking you through the complex way of life Maori developed to live all over New Zealand, and the issues facing Maori today. I particularly enjoyed a 20-minute documentary about the Maori regiments from New Zealand that served in the Second World War, all of whom were volunteers, and who suffered heavy losses. While New Zealand’s natural wonders are amazing, they don’t really ask much of you as a visitor, and in a way I was grateful to have to reach a bit harder to understand the cultural and political issues of the Maori now living in a mostly-Pakeha (European) environment. We finished off the day with a swim in Rotorua’s Blue Baths – an Art Deco outdoor pool and bathhouse with spa pools naturally heated to 40C.

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The next day, we headed on to the small rural town of Matamata. Once known primarily for its racecourses, the town’s attractions changed significantly when, in 1998, Peter Jackson fell in love with the Alexander family’s farm and used it to create Hobbiton. The sets were temporary when first used for the Lord of the Rings filming, but when Jackson and Weta came back to film the Hobbit Trilogy, they were rebuilt with permanent materials. Even the Visitor Information Centre in Matamata, where tours start, has been retrofitted as a thatched-roof cottage. A good number of local people had managed to wangle jobs as extras, techs, or crew, and as we drove towards the site, the bus driver told us stories of the massive scale of the production and the huge tasks of coordination needed to keep it running. The location itself is stunning in its own right; small hills and valleys roll dramatically, creating a sense of intimacy and cosiness. Once the tour guide took over and began guiding us around Hobbiton, the stories began – all of Peter Jackson’s obsessiveness and fanatical attention to detail. Peter Jackson turns pear trees into plum trees by hand for the sake of a throwaway Tolkien line; Peter Jackson gets people to create fake lichen; Peter Jackson employs a troupe of university students to paint the leaves of a tree the right shade of green; Peter Jackson employs people whose sole job is to peg out and then bring in hobbit washing every day, to create paths worn through the grass. Hobbiton itself is a testament to this obsessive vision, and it’s maintained, by a huge crew of gardeners and staff, as though a full village of hobbits has just stepped out for a smoke – washing still out, tiny ladders perched against trees, fresh fruit and vegetables in the process of being gathered. The effect is charming, but also, to me, came off as though there had recently been a hobbit Rapture.

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While most of the forty-odd hobbit holes are nothing but a frontage built into a hill, a few can be opened, and there are some miniscule ones used to create the tricks of forced perspective that can make Gandalf look twice the height of Frodo. The Green Dragon Inn was once nothing but a fake frontage, which Jackson burned to the ground for Frodo’s apocalyptic vision, but in 2012 the landowners recreated it as an exact match of the set used for filming, and tours end with a free pint out of earthenware mugs. So there we found ourselves, sipping ale and ginger beer, in armchairs in front of the fire in the Green Dragon.

Two Simply Walk Into Mordor

(yes, both Amy and I have basically made the same joke)

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We drove up from Wellington via Palmerston North, which houses the New Zealand rugby museum. This is a relatively small but well curated set of memorabilia from a century and a half of rugby. If it has a slight tendency to forget that other countries play rugby and occasionally not against New Zealand, we’ll forgive them that.

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We stayed overnight at the Sportsmans Lodge in Turangi. This is the self – proclaimed Trout capital of the world and the was many a photo of a grinning fisherman on the wall. We ignored this and got up early to head to the Tongariro Alpine crossing. This is one of New Zealand’s great walks, a 6-hour tramp up and over a pass between volcanoes. The scenery is extremely varied, from scrub at the start through a rocky Mars – scape past Mount Doom.

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From the top, an infernal smell greets your view of stunning turquoise lakes. We wound or way quickly upwind of them before stopping for lunch. From there it’s a hustle through an active volcanic region before finishing through a long, winding forest. Really quite stunning.

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