Return to Middle Earth… (and/or home)

Not a sound in Milford Sound (ask Google…)

Went to New Zealand, saw some friends, did some skiing, decided it was just like Scotland, came home.

The End.

What, you want/deserve more?

OK, and on with the final over(t)ly verbose blog…

A shaft of sun broke through the murky grey clouds of dawn, lighting upon crumpled mountains as old as the earth itself, the mist rising from enchanted forests of moss and dreams, the cold and weary traveller coming to the end of long a journey across moorland scattered with stunted trees, gnarled and bent through the ravages of time.  There were rainbows and dragons.  And sheep.  Lots of sheep.

IMG_4459Just ask the Hobbits.

Or indeed any slightly dazed backpacker who has just made it (almost) home on the overnight sleeper train from London, weaving their way through the beauty of the early morning Scottish Highlands.  (Funnily enough on the same route as the Hogwarts Express…  And there were dragons in that one too.)

But I digress.

Middle Earth/Old Masters oil painting/Scotland on steroids

Back to Middle Earth – which, as it turns out, may as well be (yes) Scotland.  Painted in dramatic oils by the Old Masters.  And on steroids.

Or hallucinogens – they even have a town named after our capital city (Dunedin) with exactly the same street names, but perpendiculars are suddenly parallel, and Queen, George and Princes are in the wrong order (anyone who knows Edinburgh will (a) understand and (b) sympathise)… It played with my mind so much that I got out as quickly as I could and went to chat to some midget penguins instead.  (Not the drugs talking, I promise).

He’d just been told about the horses’ hooves too

Frankly the realms of Middle Earth were preferable – but to prepare myself, I started my Kiwi adventure in Wellington, and thanks to my man on the inside, the doors were opened just a little for me to peep into the magical world of Hobbits and Orks and Trolls.  Only to discover that, really, nothing at all is real.  Seriously, nothing.  I sat with a post-production colourist as he showed me how he’d changed Gandalf’s complexion from nice, healthy ruddiness to a gaunt, translucent white.  And then a sound engineer demonstrated how they add the horses’ hooves to the most technological advanced films ever made.  I kid ye not – it involves two halves of a coconut shell.  And you thought Monty Python was joking.

After all of the slightly intimidating technological wizardry (coconuts aside), and having been reassured that the scenery was at least real, I decided it was time to head south to experience some of it. (This was also a bittersweet but probably necessary extraction from the unsolvable riddle of “you’d struggle to get unfit in Wellington” when faced with quite so many excellent foodie options.  Richard and Lisa, you broke me!).

However, I started in Christchurch: a sobering reminder of how New Zealand has become so achingly beautiful in the first place.  Earthquakes.

Christchurch Cathedral – a glorified, though sad, pigeon coop

New Zealand is a country that sits on either side of a particularly active fault line – in fact the North Island will at some point shoulder-barge the South Island, though we’ve probably got a few years before that happens.  But from 2010 to 2011, the centre of Christchurch was devastated by two enormous tremors.  What is left is a city centre that, despite five years of dedicated reconstruction, still feels frankly eerie.  Multiple empty spaces still provide dusty temporary car parks, and the old stone cathedral has become a glorified pigeon coop.  Back in the excellent earthquake museum, my chuckling over the Kiwi toilet humour (a competition for the most imaginative back-garden temporary/emergency long-drops) was silenced when I pottered over to a computer screen in the corner.  Only to discover that this was an up-to-the-minute record of earthquakes across the country.  Three in the previous 24 hours. Excellent. I am clearly a sound sleeper…

Enchanted forests

Heading out of town and into the wilderness, where I figured I might be safer if the ground moved again (?), this was real Middle Earth land.  Now hands up, I’m not a huge Tolkien fan (and yes, I just had to google how to spell his name), but apparently there were some Misty Mountains out there?  I found them.  And the incredible enchanted forests, whose thick moss-covered trees must (I was sure) have inspired the well-insulated, hairy Hobbits.

Luckily for me, New Zealand’s weather is also particularly Scottish – ie. if you don’t like it, wait 10 minutes.  Sunshine, showers, wind, snow (more on that later).  But actually, weirdly, mainly sunshine.  Which made for some stunningly perfect walking conditions.

Not a bad lunch stop

I tried to keep moving to cover as much ground as possible – half of the celebrated three-day Routeburn track covered in four hours, was my top achievement.  (Not a sentiment shared by my legs all the same, which could hardly move the next day.)  But sometimes it was tricky when all you wanted to do was sit and stare.

Up near Paradise (yes, Paradise), the scene was so perfect you would never even make it up – you’d have to chuck in a couple of electricity pylons and a bright yellow digger at the very least.  A perfect rocky, shallow river reflected perfect light, with perfect snow covered mountain peaks stretching perfectly away into the distance, perfect gnarled trees dotted across the landscape, perfect grassy banks, perfect sunshine, perfect sky…

Picture perfect

There was only one thing that wasn’t quite so perfect.  I wasn’t there to get all romantic and wistful.  I was there to ski.

And it was just too sunny!

So whilst I was waiting (and waiting, and waiting…) for the much anticipated Great Winter Storm (talked of in hushed tones), I embarked upon a programme of educational and cultural betterment.

Closest any right minded person should get to a bungee jump.  The loos.

Day 1.  Terrifying myself by (merely) watching other people throwing themselves off a bridge into an abyss with an elastic band tied to their ankles.  I followed it up with some wine tasting to steady the nerves.

Day 2.  Meeting a kiwi bird.  Cooing a bit whilst the kiwi bird expert tried (almost in vain) to educate us about this incredibly cute but incredibly endangered species. And wincing when I saw the relative size of egg versus hen.  Ouch.

Day 3.  Scrambling somewhat inelegantly up a 40ft climbing wall.  More than once.  It never got more elegant.  More wine tasting may have been involved (later, people, later – I’m not a complete fool.  Not all the time anyway)

Spot the kiwi egg.  Ouch.

Day 4.  Humiliating myself in an 18 hole round of frisbee golf.  After my third throw took me closer to the first tee than the first hole, we stopped scoring.  But the view wasn’t bad (though much like conventional golf: a good walk, ruined).  Particularly as, after 36 hours of rain, the clouds had cleared and we could finally see up to the mountains – and a snowline that looked, at long last, encouraging…

Day 5.  Skiing!  Or rather, spending 20 minutes apologising to an unsuspecting Canadian after he’d volunteered to roll around in the mud trying to fit my snow chains, then two hours sitting in a crowded café waiting for the winds to die down and the lifts to open.

At last!

Happily this was followed by at least four hours of perfect (albeit frostbite inducing) skiing.  Even if I was manhandled off a chairlift on one occasion for inadvertently breaking the rules.  It turns out that the “three people minimum” mandate wasn’t there to keep the crowds moving, but to stop the chairs swinging against the pylons in the wind.

I refer you back to my earlier New Zealand = Scotland comment.

Green car, green boots, green errr ski slopes…

I did actually manage another two days on the snow, one in perfect, light powder (skiing enthusiasts will appreciate the blissful happiness induced by one 10 second bounce down a deserted, unpisted run, with not a cloud in the sky – makes the other 7 hours of frostbite, queues, and avoiding 6 year old bombers worth it)  The other day was before the Great Winter Storm and would have been a slight disappointment had it not been for my many years of perfecting the art of skiing on grass, and the fact that the mountain café had a very generous wifi allowance. Given that Andy Murray had won Wimbledon overnight, I had a lot to catch up on.  The views weren’t bad there either.

With only a week left of my time in New Zealand – and of my entire year’s travelling – I finally managed to drag myself away from the mountains and headed down towards the coast where, to tick off another first, I became a literary tourist.

Fush’n’chups in Hokitika’s bustling (?) port

Hokitika isn’t much of a metropolis now (even the poor Woollen Sock Shop was all boarded up – gone the same way as the gold?), but back in the latter half of the 19th century, it was one of the most important towns in the country.  If you haven’t read the brilliant Pulizer Prize winning “The Luminaries”, then please do!  It may not be a quick read, but don’t let that put you off – it’s still a page turner.  It also vividly describes New Zealand’s gold rush era, and the hardships and privations endured by the settlers.  Jade and bone carving now seem to sustain the town, but my highlights were exploring the magical glow worm dell after dark, and eating the obligatory Kiwi fush’n’chups on the seafront.  From the safety of my car.  Well if you’d seen the gathering gulls, you’d had done the same. I’d survived a year, I didn’t want to go out in a scene from The Birds…

Continuing north, on my way to the Marlborough wineries, and for three nights in a row I enjoyed “private” dorms to myself – with hot water bottles and electric blankets.  The upsides of winter travel, and a far cry from my accommodation options a few months ago on my South American leg.  Is this what you all meant when you said I’d have to spend my last month weaning myself back onto home-time?  Don’t worry, a mouse shared my room (and nearly my bed) in at least one of the dorms, it wasn’t all luxury.  (The mouse might disagree).

OK, probably not Scotland

So a land of happy creatures.  Kea mountain parrots getting their fill of hire car windscreen wipers, kiwis with grubs on tap, mice warming themselves by my toes, sozzled sheep let loose in vineyards (my personal favourite), and on my final day I met some seals.  Pups pretending to be porpoises in the pool of a mountain waterfall, and big daddies lazing in the sunshine on nice warm coastal walkways.  My obligatory travelling cuddly toy had a lie down next to one – who promptly farted, snuffled a bit, then carried on snoring in the sunshine…

And so here I am, finally at the end of my travels, also a pretty happy creature.

I am sitting in a station café in the Highlands, watching the drizzle outside, about to head off on my final train journey across the Harry Potter Bridge (in case anyone cares: the Glenfinnan Viaduct – it’s pretty stunning, you should probably come visit Scotland too…) to the Arisaig Highland Show.  Topping off 12 months’ holiday with, well, another week’s holiday.

The final blank page…

And I have the final satisfaction of my diary, the source of all of these blogs.  I bought a small notebook a year ago.  I wrote what I wanted, no constraints, sometimes two pages to a day, sometimes only a quarter page.  I amazed people with my teeny tiny writing.  I filled it all up.  But somehow, magically, I have ended with exactly one page to spare!  Any suggestions for how to fill it?  A plan for what to do next?  Or should I just leave it as a blank page.  An open book.  Just because I like the perfect symbolism of the whole thing.

But enough already.  You’ve endured too much of this wordy, drivelly nonsense.

Back to reality.

The moment when all the magic memories of travel are eclipsed by one welcome home hug.