Today is the first day that I’ve had free since touching down over two weeks ago on British soil for the first time in eight months. Since getting back, I’ve discovered that I passed this past semester with a distinction, a credit and two passes (the Australian grading scale works as a fail for anything under 50% then pass, credit, distinction and high distinction). Notably, my distinction was in the anthropology module and as a result of some kind of minor miracle, I got a pass in my Chinese history module. 58%. Not bad for someone who made up case studies in the exam. I needed to pass one of the four modules for each semester, and I passed all eight with varying degrees of effort if I’m completely honest. Since being home I spent just short of a week in Bangor sorting my room out, messing around with Sean, seeing people and mostly messing around with Sean.
The rest of my time has been spent seeing Mags, seeing Connor, trying to spend time at home and failing miserably at seeing everyone else really. I’ve also started volunteering at a LEGO Exhibition at Chester Cathedral which is well worth a visit! So my free time is pretty minimal at the moment, but that’s okay, it’s good to be busy. Before I got back, my time was spent catching up with friends such as Sara and Colleen – my American friends who I’d met all the way back in my first semester at Deakin. The majority of my time was spent finishing off assignments, making the most of Melbourne whilst I could and preparing to leave – getting the necessary forms signed, ticking the necessary boxes and packing things up. At the time, my mind was often wandering towards home and thinking about how close I was to finishing out on the other side of the world to get home and see everyone that I was missing so much. I couldn’t wait. That was leading up to the 18th of June. When the 18th came around, I had all of my things packed up, left a few bags with Stan and Kenny for them to move across to their new house that they were moving into shortly and for the last time, I left MB building at Deakin University. I left with my hiking rucksack on my back whilst I carried my other rucksack and walked to the tram stop, heading towards the airport. The last time I’d been to international departures at Melbourne airport was when Mags left to go home a few months earlier which, to put lightly, was not a good time. “The next time I’m here, I’ll be going home” I thought to myself. As it was, I was off to New Zealand flying from Melbourne to Christchurch. My flight arrived into Christchurch early by about 30 minutes. Upon arrival I was exhausted, confused by the time difference (I thought there was a three hour difference but it was only two) and so I was quite keen to get through security. That was a mistake. There was a queue for the e-passport machines so I asked if I could use the person on the desk instead because there was no queue, and I was told that it was not for e-passport holders. That was fine, so I queued up and waited the extra few minutes. After getting through, I was stopped by security who asked me detailed questions about my intention of visit, where I’m staying and kept questioning me which I thought was odd. After answering all the lady’s questions, she spoke into a walkie-talkie whilst looking at more security people saying “he’s clear” and then told me that I had been stopped because I “didn’t look right”. If I wasn’t exhausted I probably would have been offended.
I arrived at my hostel out of reception hours as expected, so they had left me the key to my room in a wooden box with a printed map with directions and a note saying that they had given me a free upgrade to my room from a 6 bed dorm to a 4 bed dorm. I walked in to find a Swiss girl there who was leaving in 20 minutes for the airport, so we spoke a little about her time in New Zealand and then she left me in an empty dorm. I settled down for the night knowing that I had to be up at 6am. I couldn’t sleep. I had been hit by a barrage of excitement out of nowhere really to get going on my tour of the South Island.
The next day, I was up and out by 7:30am waiting for the Kiwi Experience bus outside the hostel. It was still dark and my first time seeing frost I think since I was in Germany before I left for Australia, if not winter 2014. I was to complete a loop of the South Island with Kiwi Experience but I was unsure how it was going to work. I only had hostels booked for the first night and my last night in Christchurch because Kiwi Experience sort out accommodation and activity bookings, with guaranteed minimum nights on accommodation. Whatever pass is purchased with Kiwi Experience is valid for 12 months from the first day of travel. I was doing the route on minimum time because of my overwhelming stubbornness to not change the date of my flight home, but the bus takes you from one place to another and, in theory, you can spend as much time as you like in one place as long as you find your own accommodation after the minimum nights of guaranteed accommodation with the Kiwi bus have passed. I had this explained to me by the driver after we had got out of Christchurch. He had several clipboards at the front of the bus – one for activities, one for accommodation and then others for special activities or meals in certain locations. Most days we would stop at a café for breakfast and a coffee if we hadn’t had anything already, then a stop for lunch, before getting to the final destination either at lunch (rarely) or later in the afternoon before doing activities in some cases immediately afterwards, in other cases not until the following morning.
The first journey was from Christchurch to Kaikoura. This map is the route the Kiwi bus took going in the direction of the arrows, after I had started at Christchurch.
On the way to Kaikoura, we visited a seal colony where there were some seal pups on the coast before we headed on to the hostel. I had signed up to go swimming with dolphins that afternoon and despite the weather getting the better of two trips out that morning, the one that I was on was scheduled to go ahead. After being given wet suit, fins, snorkel and even special socks to keep our feet warmer on the swim, we got on to a boat and headed out into the choppy waters using only the knowledge of the staff and our eyes to find the dolphins. We found a group of 3 dolphins which we thought was quite exciting, but the captain thought he could find better so we moved on to find a pod of around 400 dolphins which we swam with! Despite the freezing water which had me shivering underwater, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. It was stressed to us that we were there to entertain the dolphins as opposed them to us as we were in their environment. To attract the attention of the dolphins we were encouraged to make dolphin like noises which through a snorkel sounded a lot like you were listening to a human scream internally through a stethoscope. There was a moment where eight dolphins swam directly underneath me, and I came face to face with two or three dolphins at different points too. Before it was time to head back we were told that on that coast there were two resident sperm whales. We think we saw both of them, we certainly saw a whale in two different places and a whale swam alongside our boat for a few minutes too. When it was time to leave, the water seemed to have become choppier and most of us were sea sick going back.
Next day we were up at 8am on the bus from Kaikoura to Kaiteriteri. The scenery on most if not all of the drives was just incredible. If there weren’t rolling hills there were mountains revealing themselves with each bend in the road and then quite often on the other side of the road was the sea. At one point I fell asleep on the bus and woke up to a view of snow capped mountains.
I thought I was dreaming.
On this day it became apparent that “sweet as” was the New Zealand equivalent of “cool” and it was growing on all of us on that bus I think, especially in the kiwi accent. When we arrived at the hostel after a few stops, I’d joined a game of beach football with a group of guys predominantly from the UK and Ireland – most of which had joined the bus that day from the North Island. When it became too dark to play, I went to shower, eat and then joined the pub quiz at the pub owned by the hostel.
At 7am the next day I woke up the whole dorm despite attempting not to. I’d decided to take an aqua taxi with some of the coach group, including the driver to go into Abel Tasman National Park to do a hike.
We passed the second most photographed rock in the Southern Hemisphere – Split Apple Rock (after Uluru/Ayer’s rock in Australia… That I didn’t go to) and the rest of the morning was largely forgettable due to the thick cloud cover obscuring every view of any mountain in the area. Lovely. We continued on to Westport where there wasn’t really anything but it was in a good location to split up the journey. Before arriving at Westport, we visited Lake Rotoiti which is one of the most picturesque spots on the route and was a popular spot for jumping off the jetty and getting an iconic picture. A few of us including myself were still recovering from the freezing morning we’d had and didn’t fancy jumping into a freezing cold lake, particularly after watching one guy jump in and walk out purple from the cold.
The dorm I stayed in at the Westport hostel was large and the room was named ‘The Unit’. I was already close to most of the people who spent the night in that room and by the time we reached Queenstown a few days later, I’d befriended all of them, with some of us referring to our group as ‘The Unit’ after we bonded further spending about £1.50 each on spaghetti Bolognese ingredients to cook together that night.
The next day we headed out and had a couple of walk stops on our way to Lake Mahinapua, which were stunning, before driving to Greymouth – “the most depressing place in New Zealand” according to our driver, Dan. You could kind of see why, but we were only there to raid fancy dress and charity shops on the theme of something beginning with the first letter of our name.
I bought a shirt for a pound and a magician’s hat for about £2.50 and went as a magician. There was a dog living at the hostel pub (which was in the middle of nowhere) who stole a toy sword, a transformer mask and other items and I am absolutely convinced that that dog has a collection of items stowed away somewhere from Kiwi bus fancy dress parties.
The next day, we were heading to Franz Josef which was a particular highlight of my trip. On the drive we were going over some particularly interesting single lane railway bridges – in the South Island, there is a population of just one million people, therefore what’s the point in building two lane bridges? This day was particularly long in terms of travelling and the cloud was so thick that the stunning views out of the windows were reduced to whatever cloud we were in at the time.
We spent two nights in Franz Josef. The first was dull and early after a long, tiring day travelling. The second was after a day much more exciting than that. I was up at 7:30 and ready to walk to the Ice Explorer base. After being briefed and equipped with waterproof trousers, arctic jackets, crampons and other gear, we walked to a helicopter pad to be flown up to Franz Josef glacier. We put our crampons on up on the ice and snow before spending the next three hours walking around on the ice and snow.
We were lucky with the weather as for at least the previous eight days, the tours were cancelled and in fact whilst we were up there, the clouds started rolling in over the valley so the helicopters were starting to pick up the pace and frequency of their shuttle flights. After returning to the hostel and getting lunch at a hostel, myself and a few friends decided to check out a tunnel at the end of a hike. When we got there, the four of us decided we wanted an explore of the tunnel which turned out to be flooded. So rather than be deterred, we took our shoes and socks off, rolled up our trouser legs and left them at the entrance. The tunnel was only about 300 metres long but the water flooding the tunnel had not seen sunlight, so was freezing cold and the tunnel itself was pitch black. We started the tunnel with four charged, working phones with torches. Two torches died by the time we’d reached the end to discover that it was in fact a dead end. Mine worked, but with the case on my phone once I’d gone to check the time (or use some other function) I couldn’t get the torch back on because the case had got wet, so I couldn’t perform the necessary swipe up from the bottom of the screen to turn it on. So to give us light, I started recording video of our adventure back. That video is thirteen minutes of three men screaming and cursing their way through a tunnel trying to avoid the sharp stones and failing miserably whilst an American girl powered off ahead without a murmur of complaint, laughing at us the whole way. Afterwards, we relaxed at the spa as we had a spa ticket included in our Ice Explorer ticket and joined others from the Kiwi bus who visited the spa too. We returned to the hostel to discover that the UK had left the EU, so indulged in pizza and toasted beer to the end of all civilisation in the United Kingdom. Ah well.
We left Franz Josef so early that it was still dark, heading on to Wanaka. On the way to Wanaka, we visited Mirror Lake and had a group picture at the aptly named Pleasant View. Although there wasn’t so much in Wanaka, I think it was actually one of my favourite places on the trip. Partially because I had bonded with the majority of the bus so well by that point and partially because Wanaka was actually quite nice. After checking in at the hostel, four of us decided to go hiking up Mount Iron before it went dark, arriving back in Wanaka after dark.
The next day I met up with Phil at 7:15am to go and look at the most photographed tree in the Southern hemisphere. In my notebook I wrote that it was “dark, cold and uninspiring”. Moving on… We visited Puzzle World on our way out of Wanaka on the relatively short journey to Queenstown. Puzzle World was a building filled with mind boggling optical illusions and an outdoor maze. It was good, but perhaps too mind boggling for so early on in the day. The Kiwi bus stopped at a bungee centre on the way to Queenstown so that certain individuals who felt so inclined to jump off bridges with only a bit of rope to protect them could do so. I didn’t.
Queenstown was just starting to get into their ‘winterfest’ – an annual celebration of winter in Queenstown with special events held all over the (very small) city. It’s a tourist heavy place, with souvenir shops that I took advantage of, many activities nearby and most hostels fully booked – hence why Kiwi Experience’s minimum nights guarantee was useful. Most of us signed up to go on a bus meal as a goodbye thing almost, as at Queenstown many people choose to spend weeks or in some cases, months there after having found work. Afterwards we were going out drinking and stumbled across the rest of the group, where they got the ever dwindling group thrown out of six bars for being too drunk. Of course it’s wrong to stereotype, but they were Irish….
Picture the scene: It’s 2am, you’re still in bars with people from Belgium, Germany, Ireland, England, Sweden and wherever else having such a good time and then out of nowhere you realise you have to get on a bus in 6 hours. Bed time? Absolutely. Myself and my friend Joe – also getting on a bus in 6 hours head back to the dorm that we’re both in. 5 hours later I jump out of bed, pretty excited for the day ahead feeling unusually full of energy the morning after a night out. As I’m walking around the dorm sorting out a bag whilst trying to remain quiet I realise that perhaps the full effects haven’t quite worn off yet. We both make the bus in equally interesting states. Just a five hour bus journey ahead before a boat ride and a five hour bus journey back. It was fine. We went to Milford Sound – named so after the discoverer named it after his hometown of Milford Haven in Wales.The English rediscovered it and weren’t such big fans of that, so changed it to Milford Sound. Spoil sports. Our driver was a different person to the one I’d had for the rest of the trip – Dan, this guy was called Jacob and unlike Dan, Jacob was good at his job. Dan had his moments, but he was nowhere near the comedic level, the informative level or the general approachyness (that is a word) of Jacob in my humble opinion.
Whoever was driving, Milford Sound was incredibly beautiful and was the epitome of everything I hoped New Zealand would be. A friendly Kiwi driver, a good group of people and views so good you almost wanted to do a bungee jump to make sure you weren’t dreaming. The wildlife was good too – we saw wild dolphins on a 90 minute boat cruise and I discovered what is now my favourite species of bird – the Kea. When we eventually returned to Queenstown we went to the apparently famous Ferg Burger (I had a wild fiordland deer burger with Thai plum chutney, lettuce, tomato, red onion and aioli – basically mayonnaise but better and more of a garlic kick to it) and it was beautiful. That night I said goodbyes to people as I headed onward with maybe two other people from my bus that arrived in to Queenstown.
Two more stops – Lake Tekapo and Christchurch.
Most of the Brits were awake early to watch Iceland have their way with the English in Euro 2016. Along with a Frenchman and a Swede (the nationality, not the vegetable) we chuckled at the misfortune of the English and then proceeded to get on a bus and become friends at Lake Tekapo. Bus driver Dan gave us the classic “if you look out of the window on the left you would normally see a lake… Today you can see a cloud. Sweet as.” We stopped to take pictures of the cloud.
In winter in New Zealand clouds just sort of decide to pop down and rest their floofs for a bit and have a sit down on the lake which whilst I’ll admit must be lovely for them, it was rather inconvenient for those of us wanting to see Mount Cook and other mountains on the other side of the lake. Ah well. Some of the drive turned out okay.
At Lake Tekapo, after getting to the hostel and relaxing for a bit I went for a hike up Mount John with a Frenchman and a Swede to catch sunset, to walk back down only to get a bus up again 30 minutes later. That was for an observatory tour I had opted to do. Lake Tekapo is an International Dark Sky Reserve which is a posh way of saying “it’s really dark.” The street lights in Lake Tekapo are intentionally of an incredibly low intensity so not to give off excess white light to pollute the skies. From half way up the mountain the bus driver had to put the headlights off for the same reason and on top of that, we weren’t allowed to use phones and the only torches we could use were the free ones we were given which produced a red light. I’ve seen the Milky Way with my naked eye before, but never at that intensity or that clearly. It was astonishing. Through their telescopes I saw Jupiter, Saturn and its iconic rings, the butterfly cluster, the wishing well cluster and the tarantula nebula. We could see Venus, Mars and Jupiter with the naked eye. I went up expecting to see Saturn and its rings and I came down having seen a galaxy with two suns. There were four telescopes in domes, with one dedicated to searching for new planets, another remote controlled from Boston, USA and the other two for research/tours. It was a wonderful night.
From Lake Tekapo we travelled to Christchurch and despite it being ruined, I loved it. Christchurch suffered a serious earthquake in 2011 which has either directly or indirectly (as a result of earthquake damage) meant that over 70% of buildings have either collapsed or had to be demolished. Christchurch is one big construction site. Rather than seeing this as something negative, Christchurch are now seeing it as a lucky opportunity. Most cities grow through expansion. Christchurch has the opportunity to build a 21st century city from scratch in the 21st century and a lot of thought and planning has gone into it to make it a wonderful city… In about 40 years, which is when it’s due to be complete. At the moment Christchurch is basically one large construction site. It has a shopping mall made purely out of shipping containers and its buildings are either ruins or construction sites with the odd complete street thrown in for good measure.
I visited two museums – one focused entirely on the earthquakes of 2011, 2010 and further back into Christchurch history. I briefly visited Hagley park and the botanical gardens, Cardboard Cathedral (a Cathedral made out of cardboard believe it or not) Cathedral Square and actually basically everywhere of any interest including Pita-Pit! Pita-Pit was used maybe three or four times whilst I was in New Zealand. It’s basically a better version of the fast food chain Subway, where they prepare either salads or wraps and you choose what goes into it but the staff were always really friendly and their smoothies were like that feeling you get when you touch a really soft dog. You know the one? Just a really good feeling. Pita-Pat was great. In the UK we only have them in Manchester, Leeds and of course, London. Further proof that the North is better.
One day I’ll need to go back to New Zealand to see if that rings true over there too, is the North Island better? I can’t answer that just yet, but I can say for sure that the South is looking incredibly tough to beat.
When my trip to New Zealand came to an end, I returned to Melbourne and stayed at Kenny’s for a couple of nights. I took myself out one day and saw some of my favourite Melbourne sights.
Degraves Street, Flinders Street station, Shrine of Remembrance and the view of Melbourne’s skyline from the top and also Federation Square.
Then all of a sudden, I was at Melbourne’s International departures terminal with every single thing that I owned in the Southern Hemisphere of planet Earth and I was going home to my family, my friends and my girlfriend. It’s been a whirlwind few weeks since I’ve been back and I’m not entirely sure when the end is going to come, but long may the busyness continue.
There is so much that I haven’t included because this is over 4200 words long at this point, and if I carry on it’s going to be exhausting for literally everyone involved.
Wherever in the world you’re reading this from, thank you for reading, whether you’ve read them all or just this one, it’s made my effort just a little more worthwhile!