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.

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.

One Does Not Simply Walk The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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One blogs about it.

From the Picton ferry, we rolled in to spend a last night in Wellington with Anna and Steve at the ex-Polish Embassy. Loz went up to the Botanic Gardens to take in the last nights of the summer celebrations there, whereas I preferred to catch up on sleep. In the morning, we took our last long drive in New Zealand: north to the small town of Turangi, at the foot of huge Lake Taupo. This brought us in reach of the volcanic zones of the North Island, part of the Ring of Fire that encircles the Pacific. Specifically, it brought us within striking distance of Tongariro National Park, home of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For that evening, though, we relaxed by visiting the nearby Tokaanu thermal pools, where we got sucked into a tennis/volleyball game with a family of NZ dairy farmers. Someone (me) also had the brilliant idea of buying sausages for dinner, and using the leftover ones to make delicious sandwiches which we packed away for the next day.

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Tongariro National Park contains three active volcanoes: huge Ruapehu, with multiple craters and vents, and the more conical Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. The rest of the park is a spectacular alpine landscape, and the 19km one-day walk across it is one of New Zealand’s most famous “tramps”. All three of the peaks are tapu (sacred) to the local Maori, and they gifted the peaks to the government in order to preserve them. Tongariro, with its classic cone shape and red-hued summit crater, also starred as Mount Doom in LoTR, and the desolate landscape of the plateau between the peaks put in several appearances as Mordor. We began by parking Shadowfax at the end of the route at Ketetahi, and catching the shuttle bus to the start point at Mangatepopo. Ruapehu loomed over the car park, issuing innocent-looking puffs of white smoke from its largest crater. It last erupted in 2012, and the area close by it is still considered a “volcanic hazard zone” in which stopping is ill-advised.

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The walk begins with a pleasant, gently rolling tramp through low alpine vegetation and streams, but it soon starts to rise steeply and brings you alongside the Red Crater of Tongariro in a Martian landscape of bare soil and rock. Walking along the summit ridge, the wind was fierce and punishing even on our hot summer’s day, and the ground is a lethally steep mixture of ash and rock into which you have to dig your heels constantly to prevent slipping. Further along the ridge, three volcanic lakes come into view, glittering in the sunlight like precious jewels and reeking like hellpits.

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As you leave the ridge, you begin working your way around by Ruapehu, with a vista out towards Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo and across to Mount Pihanga. Ruapehu was continuing to issue steam, not just from its main crater but from a half-dozen vents dotted around the summit, and we kept moving briskly despite sore feet. Slowly, the trail winds down past hot springs to a lush forest trail that leads you back to the final car park. It took us just over six hours to walk the 19.4km at a markedly brisk pace, and we fetched up, blistered and exhausted, next to Shadowfax at 2:30pm, about to drive an hour and a half to the volcanic wonderland of Rotorua.

Rejected by Whales – Dunedin, Christchurch & Kaikoura

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From Queenstown we drove south again to Invercargill, almost the southern tip of the island, where we lunched. There is a more direct way inland, but the route via Invercargill is famous as the Southern Scenic Route, rolling through the Catlins and taking you near New Zealand’s southernmost point. Invercargill is a sprawling, grey conurbation without anything very much to recommend it, but it does have a few decent cafes. We also took the chance to stop above a spectacular south-facing bay and gaze out, knowing that nothing stood between us and Antarctica but open sea. After that, we spent the afternoon driving through the Catlins, an area of rolling hills by the coast, before arriving in the student city of Dunedin in the late afternoon.

We were staying in a B&B just outside Dunedin’s central octagon, and at the top of a steep hill. There are some beautiful outdoorsy things to do along the Otago Peninsula, but for once we weren’t there to do them but to return to more urban pursuits, such as art. We visited the Dunedin Art Gallery, which differed from most by not having a permanent collection. Its current exhibits included sculptures made from lacquered corrugated iron and fluorescent lights, and an exhibit of composite photos set in American suburbia. After that, it was to the Otago Museum, which harbours an enormous, Victorian-style collection of taxidermied animals, patiently laid out according to families and phyla. Elsewhere in the museum, there were exhibits on Maori culture and their legends about the formation of New Zealand. We only spent a full day in the city before moving on, though. On the drive to Christchurch, we stopped over in Oamaru to visit Steampunk World, and to those of you who don’t know what “steampunk” means, I’m afraid you’re going to have to google it yourself. The… exhibit is a small and very odd collection of kitsch, rusting machinery, and grotesque dolls, but Loz enjoyed himself.

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In Christchurch, I spotted and zeroed in on one thing in the guidebook: the International Antarctic Exhibition. I had never realised that the American, British and New Zealand expeditions to Antarctica all base themselves out of Christchurch, and there is a huge exhibition building dedicated to this purpose out by Christchurch Airport. I love everything about Antarctica, and I have no idea why. I think it’s the harshness, the enormous distance away it is from everything I’m familiar with, and of course the scientific fascination. The first exhibit we hurried to was the one that gives you the chance to experience, in part, an Antarctic storm; you step into snow in a room kept at around -8C, and then the lights dim and the wind rises and rises until you’re experiencing a windchill of below -20C. A 4D show gives you the experience of travelling on a ship through icebergs, including rocking and the occasional spurt of icy water in your face. The centre has extensive exhibits about Antarctica’s geology, flora and fauna, and the environmental research that takes place there, as well as, of course, what life is like year-round. As a finishing touch, the centre has a troupe of blue penguins. I loved it.

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The next day we were on the road once more, heading back gradually towards our ferry to the North Island. Three hours’ drive brought us to the coastal town of Kaikoura, which is famous for its marine wildlife. We had an afternoon whale-watching expedition booked, but stormy weather at sea had led to cancellation, so we crossed our fingers, rescheduled for early the next morning, and retired to our motel room. Sadly, the next morning the whales had once again declined to play ball, and we had to be in Picton for a 2pm ferry, so we hit the road, arriving in Picton three hours ahead of schedule. We filled the time by a visit to the local aquarium and a hike out to Bob’s Beach along the edges of the harbour. And there we were; done with the South Island, after looping right from north to south along both coasts. Now for the North Island: volcanoes and hobbits await.