Invercargill/Fiordland Pt. I: The Speakeasy

Before I came to New Zealand I was wholeheartedly expecting to say it was amazing by the time I left. However, after a week of Auckland, Queenstown, Dunedin and Invercargill, I was worried I was getting a little short-changed. People who have spent time in New Zealand rave about it more than anywhere else I know. Even the most idiotic English people I’ve met (including a guy I bumped into in a hostel who didn’t know who Charles Dickens was, and then accused me of being ‘posh’ for using ‘such an obscure reference’) find that New Zealand’s dramatic scenery and awe-inspiring vistas can conjure up words they (almost certainly) were not aware of before their arrival.

However, I really had to wonder what about Dunedin’s student-borne sofa-burning rituals or Invercargill’s remarkably surreal atmosphere people had managed to become so emotionally enveloped in; sure the scenery of the coastline was fairly impressive, and observing the sheer number of sealions/dolphins/seals/[insert marine mammal here] felt like a fairly unique experience, but overall it felt like a slightly exaggerated England. The weather was slightly damper, the humour was slightly drier, the farmland was slightly more sheep-y, the rolling hills were slightly more rollingy-er. However, yesterday was the final day of the Deep South tour with KiwiExperience, and one word right now sums up just how wrong I was about New Zealand: Fiordland.

Before I get stuck into unequivocally praising Fiordland National Park while wiping tears of joy off my keyboard, I have to give a mention to two things that happened since my last blog post. The first; I swam with dolphins. Yep, in New Zealand. This wasn’t your luxurious azure-blue-bathwater Caribbean dolphin experience, no. This all started with our bus driver, an eccentric little old man, preaching to us about how we must go into the sea no matter the weather. As we approached the coast, some of us started getting psyched up, preparing ourselves for a pretty bracing experience. It wasn’t freezing outside, but it wasn’t exactly warm outside.

Then we arrived at the beach. Suddenly, everyone was a little more hesitant. As our van got battered by wind and rain, and the sea was throwing about some pretty harsh dark-grey waves. A few of us got out to survey the situation, which made the prospect seem even less inviting. Standing on a small hill in our waterproof clothing, overlooking rough seas, we then saw a tiny bit of movement – one little dolphin jumping out of the water for just a fraction of a second. I have no idea why we did this, but we all suddenly went ‘Let’s get in there’. It seemed an odd time to do it, just after seeing a dolphin. It’s like we thought the dolphins were just imaginary bullshit and had to see one before believing in them. But either way, we snuck into the broken showers to change, and emerged a couple of minutes later, walked down to the beach, and I was the first to go in. Holy shit it was cold.

Shortly after I was joined by the others, all of whom voiced their agreement with my analysis of the water temperature by using language that would even challenge post-watershed TV censors. After floating about for a bit and attempting to kid ourselves into believing we were adjusting to the temperature (then again I couldn’t even feel my legs by this point, so I guess that’s a form of adjustment), and taking a few fairly large sub-zero breaking waves to the face, we saw some dolphins, about 20 metres away, jumping out of the breaking waves, which was pretty cool. We attempted to make our way toward them, past some pretty sketchy rock formations under the water. They ended up coming fairly close, and they seem to love human attention, which is odd for a wild animal, but after a while I simply could not face that cold any more, so I headed up to the showers to discover two things. First, I had forgotten my towel. That’s cool – as long as the hot showers work, I’ll be fine. Second, the hot showers didn’t work. Or the cold one. I was just stuck in a metal shipping container masquerading as a shower, barely able to build up enough muscle strength to wring out my swimming costume, and feeling like I was about to freeze to death. I re-dressed while still covered in freezing saltwater, stopped by the cafe and grabbed an overpriced mochaccino and tiptoed back to the bus in bare feet, where those who hadn’t taken the plunge silently greeted me with a look that eloquently and efficiently mixed pity with ‘what the Christ did you expect?’

Heading south from here, we ended up on the highway, hitting some surprisingly and unnervingly high speeds, until it all came to an end in fairly interesting and shocking fashion. In the UK, you’ll often see kestrels or other birds of prey hovering way above motorways to wait for roadkill. You’ll often see them, about 100ft+ up, just waiting in place to suddenly swoop down. I don’t know if the birds of prey (usually hawks) of New Zealand were inadvertently the product of inbreeding, but their inability to realise they need to stay the hell away from the road is both painfully obvious and can also be, unfortunately, fairly dramatic, as was the case here. As we were bombing down the road at about 80mph, a hawk appeared from a tree, looking to swoop down and pick something up, but obviously got spooked by us. It had a good 5 seconds to get the hell out of the way, but instead just flapped about in a remarkably directionless manner. It looked like it might just about manage to clear us until bang; we nailed it face-first with the corner of the bus at full speed. It made the most almighty crashing sound, and the top corner of the windshield was splattered with the contents of the retarded bird’s head. I was the only person awake at the time (I mean I hope that’s excluding the driver), so everyone was suddenly jolted upright to a sight they probably weren’t dreaming about waking up to.

After our ill-judged foray into high-velocity vehicular avian neurosurgery, we arrived in Invercargill, and man alive what a magically perplexing town. No joke; Invercargill is the strangest place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to Liechtenstein.

Invercargill. Invercargill Invercargill Invercargill. That name will forever besiege the most anomalistic of my dreams and line my the overcoat of my imagination. A city of such grandiose peculiarity that merely writing (or reading) about it cannot fully propel one into the atmospheric void that surrounds and permeates its oddly wide avenues. A small sign marked ‘Invercargill’ stands way out in the countryside as you approach the city by car. Assuming a village will soon appear, you are instead greeted by more farmland. And some more. And some more. And then suddenly; a bungalow appears. And another. And another. I guess because bungalows are dreadfully inefficient when it comes to population density and floorspace, the suburbs of Invercargill – which are literally hundreds of copy-pasted rows of bungalows – are surprisingly vast in terms of area, particularly for a town of only 50,000 inhabitants. Which also lends it an unfortunately bleak atmosphere.

We kept on going and wound up outside Tuatara Backpackers Hostel on a deserted little street. After waiting outside for a fire alarm to stop ringing, the smell of dolphin still in my nostrils, we finally made it inside and pretty much everyone from the bus went straight to sleep. I, however, decided to take travelling alone to the next level; I decided to hit the town alone. By that point I had been on the road for almost seven weeks and covered just short of 18,000 miles; there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to do at least a little exploring. And a little bit it turned out to be. After stumbling across a map, I discovered that the quiet little street that our hostel was on was actually the city’s main high street. Ok, so it’s pretty quiet but there must be something going on, right? It’s 10pm on a Saturday night. I amble along the road, past all the closed shops and bars, when something remarkable happens; I walk past another human being. Trust me, this is a novelty in Invercargill; it is the most freakishly silent city I have ever been in. There is no noise, save the occasional police car that is aimlessly patrolling the empty streets. Then suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel; a bank. I felt like combining my exploratory evening with a beer, so asked him for the nearest supermarket, which he told me was a twenty minute (!) walk north from the centre. Sure it’s a long way but I guess then I see more of the city.

I left the main drag and as soon as I did so, I realised there was an unnerving lack of streetlights. So, walking a long an avenue/highway hybrid out of the centre with no man-made or natural light source, and feeling a little like I was in Pyongyang, I wandered for what seemed like an eternity until finally arriving at a Countdown, one of the main supermarket chains in the country. Ok so there’s the processed cheese, there’s the UHT milk, there’s the honey (they seem to make a lot of honey in NZ), there’s the excessive amount of dog food, and there’s… no alcohol. I approached the guy at the front counter and said ‘For fear of sounding like a total idiot, where’s the alcohol?’. He responded with a laugh and told me that I was currently in an ‘Alcohol Restriction Zone’ in the Southland region of New Zealand, and that supermarkets and convenience stores cannot sell alcohol by law. Seriously, kill me now, man.

(N.B. I just did some research on this and it turns out that Southland Council introduced this law – dubbed the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act – in 2012. TWO THOUSAND AND TWELVE. Four years ago! I’m sorry, but both that law and how recent its enactment was is an absolute embarrassment and something Southland should be ashamed of. How naive can you be? Are they not familiar with prohibition? Wasn’t exactly a success story, was it?)

Weary from the walk and my swimming antics in the day, and just wanting one goddamn beer, I asked him where I can get one, fully expectant of a response resembling ‘Nowhere’. Instead, he told me there are ‘bottle shops’, but they’re all closed. But then suddenly, he remembered something. ‘Go back into town. All the way back the way you came.’ A great start. ‘Keep going until you get to Calvin Street, then turn right and you’ll see the Calvin Hotel. Go in there and ask’. What in the hell does that mean? At this point I was so far gone, and on such a strange little adventure that I decided I would find out, so I headed back out into the obsidian streets of Invercargill’s drab suburbs until I hit Kelvin Street. Goddamn Kiwi accent. With still not so much as one other human being in sight in all directions, I found the hotel in question and entered the unusually green interior of its lobby, where the only person was a little woman behind the desk. This did not feel like somewhere people come to facilitate the start of a night’s drinking. ‘At this point it feels like it might have been a practical joke, but I was told that I should come here if I wanted beer’. The woman’s eyes lit up; ’Ah yes! Come with me.’

She led me through the silent lobby, past the totally full rack of room keys, to a small frosted glass door. ‘Go through here, past the poker machines’. I stepped through the door into a tiny box of a room filled illuminated by the flashing of about 30 poker machines, all being used by tiny little old women, in some strange hidden room of a hotel at 11pm. What on Earth is this place. I walked past them to discover an even tinier box of a room with a bar in it, with one tap. I approached the bartender (I mean who else was I going to approach? The room was empty.) and asked if they had a menu. She handed me a menu with a full two items on; Hefeweizen and American Pale Ale. A choice of two is odd in itself, but those two? ‘I’ll take the Hefeweizen I guess’. Rather than getting my beer, she got her phone out, dialled a three-digit number, waited for a moment, then said ‘Hi yeah Bill? We need a Hefeweizen in here. Yeah. Yeah just the one.’

Without a goodbye or a thanks, she hung up and left us both stood there for about two minutes in a sort of strange state of stasis where time didn’t seem to exist. No words were spoken and no eye contact was made until a small little guy burst through the door and handed her a brown paper bag, then vanished before I could even acknowledge his dedication to the cause of late-night speakeasy beer delivery. She handed it to me, told me to have a good night, and in a delirious stupor I made my way back past the little old ladies and the receptionist, to whom all I could do was laugh and say ‘What the f*ck is going on?’. She unlocked the lobby door and I headed back out into the silence, until I found myself sat on a park bench watching an old man do some form of interpretive dance to the sound of his own rendition of a makeshift Rihanna medley. It suddenly hit me that, in retrospect, I probably should’ve just accepted the sweet embrace of sleep like everyone else with a brain.

The following morning we somehow made it back onto the bus at 8am, before stopping at the small village of Garston to switch to a giant coach with daytrippers from Queenstown who were also heading to Milford Sound. I have to admit, though the drive was long and the weather ended up being pretty terrible, Fiordland is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now. Unfortunately I am currently incredibly sleepy in a hotel room, but have a lot more to say from here, so will make this a two-part entry. Stand by.


Queenstown/Dunedin: One Cemetery

Hey Mr Sealion
It turns out that New Zealanders have a pretty odd sense of humour, which could be classified as ‘dark’, but sometimes overflows into ‘slightly cruel’. I’m currently in a hostel in the city of Dunedin, on the southeast of the South Island, having driven for five hours from Queenstown on the Kiwi Experience bus. On the way, a small speed limit sign in the village of Waihola is suffixed by another smaller sign (which is seemingly rather notorious judging by the Google results) simply reading ‘No doctor. No hospital. One cemetery.’

Yes, point taken, but another one that caught my eye in a more striking manner was just outside the tiny town of Milton, about an hour west of Dunedin. In the distance I saw a sign reading SouthKill, with the remainder of the sign blocked from view by a tree. I wondered what the hell that could be. As we got closer the sign revealed itself fully:



So since my excellently brief flight from Auckland to Queenstown with Jetstar (it’s unbelievable how much less hassle a domestic flight is compared to my recent long haul internationals) I’ve been all over the place. After arriving in Queenstown at 9am and heading straight to my hostel, I was told that I couldn’t check in until 2pm. Fabulous. They allowed me to use their shower to get a night in Auckland Airport out of my system, so I did that then hit the town. After walking around the entire place in about 10 minutes (and pouring rain), I headed back to the hostel to wait.

Flying into Q-Town

Queenstown is pretty stunning. The town itself is almost comically small for the number of tourists that descend on it each high season, and really there isn’t much to shout about in terms of shops or restaurant, but it has two things going for it. One is the scenery. It’s surrounded by incredibly dramatic, Canadian-style pine-forested mountains and overlooks an enormous lake. The other thing, as a result of the first thing, is its self-designation as the Adrenaline Capital of the World. Every glass-fronted shop seemed to offer some form of bungee jump, skydive or canyon swing adventure day in which you can put your life in the hands of some overly-eager Kiwis for £300 a pop. This bizarre collective hunt for adrenaline stretches to some pretty surprising places too. There’s a giant gondola/cable car going up the side of a mountain at the edge of town, which takes you to Skyline, a restaurant overlooking the bay and city below. And then when you’re done with your meal, you can take a luge back down.

But anyway, after a night in a hostel, I arose nice and early, left my travel towel in the hostel, and headed to the centre to catch the Kiwi Experience bus heading on the Deep South tour to Dunedin, Invercargill and Milford Sound, stopping at various sights on the way.

After a 4-5 hour drive through some pretty spectacular terrain, we arrived in Dunedin, which was just bizarre. It was a total emotional teleport for me; it was so much like being at home I actually found it a bit culture-shock-y. It was like a forgotten English town had broken loose from Lancashire and drifted around the world and crashed into southern New Zealand. And by the looks of it, it must have broken loose from England at some point in the 1990s.

Dunedin is not the most exciting place I’ve ever been. A student town of about 110,000 people, it doesn’t have much to offer on paper other than the ‘World’s Steepest Street’, Baldwin Street, which we stopped at and climbed up. And yep, it was pretty steep. That’s about as far as I can run with that story.

As we drove around the remainder of the town, we ended up going through the kind of frat-house neighbourhood near the university. And lo, more bellendery was on display. The tour guide said ‘have you noticed the high number of patches of tar in the road? It’s because the students, when they have parties, like to bring sofas out into the road and burn them. You should have seen this place when we won the Rugby World Cup. I don’t know why they do it here more than anywhere else.’ Cool guys, just keep that up. Being a town of students also means you get a lot of assholes who shout stuff at you from passing cars every three minutes, presumably because they’re too much of a coward to stop the car and say it. In fact, f*ck it; I’ll go so far as to say I really did not like Dunedin. It felt like an immature, drab little timewarp of a city where students think they rule the place.

Currently I’m back on the Kiwi Bus heading toward Invercargill. We stopped earlier to see some rare sealions, which was fun, and we’re driving through pouring rain to a beach where supposedly we’ll be swimming with dolphins. It’s about 12 degrees outside. Wish me luck.


Auckland: Robert J. Oppenburger


At this point, I have no idea where I’m going to end up next. The last few days have been one theatre after another for confusing, manically-driven impulses, culminating in me not actually being in Auckland as I write this. That city, in the northern reaches of the North Island, is now a distant memory from the quaint-yet-spectacular South Island city of Queenstown, where I am now. Well, I say city, but on paper it’s merely a glorified village; a population of 19,000 sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipi, wedged clumsily between dramatic pine-forested mountains. However, my 48-hour stay in Auckland was pretty eventful, so I thought I should honour the city with its own blog post.

Air Tahiti Nui flight TN101 from Pape’ete to Auckland (the designation of which I only remember because I had to recount it to New Zealand customs officers about twenty times) was an interesting experience to say the least. A large Airbus jet, fit for maybe 300 passengers, took off in glorious sunshine with about 30 people on board, after which I promptly fell asleep across the middle four chairs while watching (or attempting to watch) a French-made documentary about Belgian singer Jacques Brel, which featured no English subtitles. I’m not entirely sure what my aim was here, but at least my inability to understand a single word worked as an effective sleeping aid.

I woke up to the smell of egg in the air. I sat up, seatbelt buckle stuck to the side of my face, and looked to the left to see a small sleeping Chinese lady, mouth open and fork in hand, slumped over a half-eaten omelette. I looked to the right and saw a guy also with a finished food tray (and five empty cans of beer. At 8:30am). NO! I HAD MISSED BREAKFAST.

I stood up and shuffled down the aisle in bare feet to the back of the plane and asked the steward if I could had some breakfast as I had missed it. He laughed with his colleague and handed me a two-inch diameter tuna sandwich triangle. I asked what he was doing. He looked at me like I was a bellend. I said ‘Petit dejeuner?’. He realised what I meant and handed me a tray of food that felt suspiciously light. I went back to my seat and peeled back the foil on the plate to reveal… an empty plate. Had they forgotten to put the omelette in there? Was this some form of Tahitian practical joke? I stood up and went back to the steward and showed him the empty plate. He looked at me and said ‘That was fast’.

Then, New Zealand. We touched down. I had returned to the English-speaking world. I don’t care how bad it sounds, but God damn it felt good. And not only that, but it was New Zealand, a country I have always had a deep desire to visit. The first country to give women the vote. The land of Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest. The home of my boy Winston Reid (yet everyone here inexplicably thinks the West Ham 1962-63 away kit I’m so eager to show off is actually an Aston Villa shirt. Get the f*ck outta here).

Arriving in Auckland, I couldn’t help but notice two things. One is how incredibly clean everything was. Auckland is a very clinical, pristine city (or at least in the centre); all buildings are glass fronted, the boringly-named Queens Street is constantly being pored over by street cleaners, and there are bins literally every two metres. How nice.

The second thing I noticed didn’t hit me until I opened my phone. Using the fairly insane level of readily-available free wifi on the street and on buses (yeah have some of that, Tahiti), I opened HostelWorld and HostelBookers to discover that no hostels in the entire city had any free rooms for the entire week. Oh shit. Ok, not to panic, I guess I can just stay in a cheap hotel. But no, no availability there either. So what the hell do I do? I’ll tell you what I did; in a moment of frenzied panic, I booked myself into a King Bed Suite on the top floor of a 5-star hotel overlooking the city. Hell yeah bitches.

After five weeks of tents, hostels and even airports, to finally end up in a luxury hotel felt rewarding to say the least. After using as much of the sauna and steamroom as my body could physically handle, I lazily wobbled my way to the nearest supermarket, grabbed a bottle of local sauvignon blanc and a giant bag of crisps, got into my gown and slippers, revelled for a bit in my small moment of luxury and then brought the tone down horribly by watching Oren Moverman’s 2009 film The Messenger, in which Woody Harrelson plays a Casualty Notifications Unit officer in the US Army. That was grim to say the least.

After waking up and suddenly deciding I need to see the South Island while I’m here, I then booked a flight and a bus tour for the following day, and you know what that means? Cheapest flight = worst time of day = sleeping at the airport again. What a contrast from the night before.

So I headed out to the Britomart Bus Station (the hell is with that name?) at midnight to catch my bus back to Auckland Airport. And you know what I was greeted with? A totally transformed city. It was like the last days of Rome. Like Auckland was about to be ransacked by invading forces. Paramedics attending to passed out girls in the gutter, three-or-four-way makeout sessions on street corners and a ratio of male shirtlessness and lame-as-f*ck macho behaviour of 1:1. On my way to the McDonald’s (I needed overnight sustenance), I was stopped by a group of what looked like club promoters. I could see a table of free drinks in plastic cups behind them. Feeling like I maybe needed to take the edge off the evening, I approached the table to realise that they were all medics handing out free water. Why on Earth they thought a guy walking to the bus station wit h an inordinate amount of luggage was so drunk he needed to rehydrate I don’t know, but I accepted their delicious liquid and entered McDonald’s.

This particular McDonald’s had an interesting quirk; self-service screens with which you could design your own burger (at massively inflated cost). I started to design mine when a little Chinese man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at his screen. He had designed a burger but for some reason he needed help. I said ‘press here’, pointing at the ‘Complete Order’ button, but he stopped me hurriedly. I said ‘What?’. He replied ‘No like’. Despite my bus coming soon and being surrounded by drunk Aucklanders in at 12:30am, I looked through the contents of his burger; brioche bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, burger, pickle. Seemed like a fairly standard burger. But before I could say anything he destroyed his creation with gusto by slamming the ‘Reset’ button. I was like ‘Ok then… what do you want?’. Without saying anything, he turned back to the screen to start again. He skipped the bun, then added a burger patty. Ok, pretty minimalist. Then he added an egg. Personally not my choice but whatever floats your boat. Then he added another. I thought personally he’d be all egged out by the end of this faux-burger. Then he added another. And another. And another. Then looked at me.

‘Five eggs? Are you sure that’s right? Seems like a lot of egg to me, man’. He paused, lifted his finger slowly while maintaining eye contact, and slammed the reset button again with no regard for the burger’s feelings. To paraphrase Robert J. Oppenheimer, ‘now he has become death, destroyer of burgers’. He was Robert J. Oppenburger. I sighed, told him I couldn’t wait for his indulgent eggburger fantasies and quickly left to catch my bus.

God almighty I’ve just realised I have so much stuff to write about but don’t have the time right now. Expect another post within 24 hours!


Tahiti: Hurricane Breakfast

Shimi, the world’s best kitten

Six days, eight hours and five minutes after arriving at Faa’a Airport in a monumental rainstorm and discovering I’d have to sleep on a bench outside the airport McDonald’s, I am finally leaving Tahiti. As many of you may have read on my last blog post, while I’ve made some excellent friends here and discovered new ways to appreciate time without internet, I have not enjoyed my time on this island. Or perhaps it’s less a lack of enjoyment of my time here, and more a painful frustration at pretty much everything this island has offered me, which rarely went beyond rain, concrete, terrible transport and charging £10 for a beer.

This troubled little island, however, has just given me a parting gift that should make me a little more reflective and perhaps a little more forgiving, but really just comes across as a big middle finger to me; sunshine. I’ve barely seen a single ray of ultraviolet light this week – it’s been buried behind deep layers of cloud and driving rain, yet now I’m back here at the airport, I look up to see lovely clear blue sky out the window. Two hours before my flight leaves. Thanks for that, Tahiti. I could probably just accept that I was unlucky, and that maybe this island can give holidaymakers a perfect tropical paradise experience, but really it just makes me think that Tahiti hates me as much as I hate it.

Having written only three blog posts in the last week, including one that didn’t really recount anything that’s actually happened, you’d think I’d have enough experiences built up for a novel-length entry, but nope. Not much has been going. In fact, I can count four things of any note that have actually happened all week. They are as follows:

The first is that a tropical storm hit us. In my inadvertent round-the-world tour of natural disasters which has so far racked up an earthquake in Chile and a flash-flood on Easter Island, I’ve seen some extreme weather, but none like what hit us yesterday. At my hostel on the west of the island, everyone gets up early, everyone sits together and eats the excellent breakfast provided by the hostel, and everyone does it no matter the weather. Earlier this week, a Category 5 hurricane hit Fiji, west of French Polynesia, and a number of little subsidiary storms have been ambling around the South Pacific. One had been circling close to Tahiti, and at breakfast the day before it was due to either hit or miss us, Fred – the hostel owner and most French man I’ve ever met – disappeared into his house and returned, cigarette hanging from his mouth and a baguette/laptop combo under his arm, to show us a website that tracks tropical weather activity. As the day went on, we all agreed, as did the weather forecasters, that the storm would slip around the south of the island and miss us entirely.

You have no idea how close I was to stepping on this bird. Who designed this thing.

The following morning, I woke up and headed to breakfast to find tablecloths whipping around in the wind, all the other guests sat in the little open-air breakfast hut wearing waterproof clothing zipped up to their noses, and all attempting to stop the mess of peanut butter and marmalade jars from being picked up and carried away on the breeze. ‘Oh so the storm did hit us in the end?’ I asked Fred. ‘No, the forecast said it would miss’. OK. I took my seat, rain digging into my face, and grabbed a piece of damp baguette. Just as I went for the butter with my teaspoon (for some reason the only piece of cutlery available), a huge gust of wind suddenly picked up two of the tables and, complete with jam jars, coffee mugs and butter dishes, slammed them against the back wall and out the side of the hut, out into the driveway. And we all just watched them sail off into the distance. I looked at Fred, Fred shrugged, and we went back to drinking our coffee/rainwater mixed drinks. It seems nothing can stop the French from enjoying a breakfast baguette.

The second thing of note was the story of how I got stranded in Pape’ete. As you will all know, I have described Pape’ete as somewhat of a shithole; a hideous mess of grey buildings and greyer clouds of exhaust smoke. However, on Friday I decided to head up into town as there was nothing else to do on the island. Plus, I wanted to see if I could persuade Air Tahiti Nui to allow me to jump ship and get an earlier flight off the island (£250 for a flight change?!). After resigning myself to another three days in this hellhole, I headed straight for the nearest bar, got on the wifi, wrote that particularly angry blog post about Tahiti, sent it off, grabbed a beer and finished it in about 90 seconds. At which point I looked around and realised it was 6pm. And on Tahiti, that meant it was dark. In a kind of semi-panic, I headed to the ‘bus terminal’ (really just a hut on the side of the road), and sat in darkness for 15 minutes before the lack of other people waiting, combined with a row of SUVs parked in the bus stop itself, made me realise I’d probably be there all night. So what did I do? I started walking. My hostel is 20km from Pape’ete, and in the pouring rain, without many other options, I started walking down the main road that circles the island.

Yes I am fully aware that the word ‘taxi’ is probably ringing around in your head, but you have to remember that I’m a traveller, and budgeting is pretty much a requirement for every part of my trip. Even at their cheapest, taxis are rarely a viable option, and here the words ‘cheap’ and ‘taxi’ would never be uttered in the same sentence. Taxis don’t patrol for rides here; you have to call them. And the callout charge is £9 before you’ve even gone a yard. The fare then is 150 XPF (about £1) per kilometre. So that’s £29. Oh hang on no it isn’t, because the fare goes up once the sun goes down to 240 XPF per kilometre. So overall, from the callout to arrival at the hostel, I’d be charged £42. For a twelve-minute journey. What on Earth is that about?

Soaking wet, I decided to stop at a supermarket about a kilometre from Pape’ete where I had earlier gotten wifi. After the wifi refused to work, I went to the information desk to ask what my options were. After practically laughing out loud at me questioning where all the buses were, she told me the only option was a taxi. So I turned around and said ‘I’ll just walk’, when a little old lady, attempting to return some clothing at the desk and laughing with the staff, said ‘I can drive you’. I said ‘Oh that’s very nice of you but it’s OK’. She insisted I shouldn’t pay for a taxi or walk along the road at night, but obviously a random woman at a supermarket is a less appealing prospect than both of those options. She went back to returning her clothing, when the other information desk lady leaned over and whispered ‘I understand why you’re hesitant but it’s OK, I have been friends with this lady very well for many years, it’s perfectly fine, I have her phone number and address’. The other information desk lady agreed with her and said it really was my only choice as there would probably be no taxis free anyway. The first then leaned over the desk and showed me the old lady’s name and phone number on her mobile.

(N.B. Yes I’m aware I’m making a big deal of this but I am 100% sure my mum, who will currently be reading this, would have a heart attack if I didn’t make it pretty clear that this I was totally convinced this was undeniably a safer situation than either walking home and ending up under the wheels of a passing garbage truck, or hitchhiking. And lo, I was right; I’m not dead.)

So I caved. There’s no way in hell they were all in on some human trafficking con. In my desperation, and after a good 10 minutes of internal debate (and outward debate with the information desk lady), I agreed to a lift, and we stepped outside into the pouring rain to reveal the most extraordinary vehicle I could have imagined for a little old lady. She got her keys out, clicked the unlock button and a beep sounded behind us. I turned around to the sight of a monster/pick-up truck hybrid. The wheels were as tall as my shoulders. I had to literally climb into it using a built-in ladder. After boarding the Starship Enterprise, I asked her some questions to make conversation. To cut a long story short; she was ‘retired’ despite having never had a job, had married a multi-millionaire property owner in the 70s, was particularly worried about the rising drug abuse problems in Tahiti, and then, without any hassle, dropped me back at the hostel. After adamantly refusing any money for her help, she told me that acceptable payment would be to ‘write about her as part of my strange and unpredictable adventures’. So there you have it.

The third thing was that I was standing at a crossroads when a police car ran a red light, and all other cars in the queue proceeded to follow it through the red light and across a line of perpendicular traffic, causing a couple of crashes, lots of car horns and the occasional French swearword.

The fourth was the entirety of my final day. While the Tahiti experience has been pretty shit, the final day was far from it. Camill, my friend from the hostel who I spent pretty much every minute of every day with, had organised something pretty awesome and extremely French. A group of family friends of hers were hosting a lunch at their place up in the hills overlooking Pape’ete, and I’d wrangled an invitation. After weaving through awkwardly steep roads and sharp turns, we arrived at the house. I have to say, after five weeks of slumming it in hostels, this was the most welcome change of pace I’ve had so far; we were treated to a four-course French meal, complete with champagne, about five bottles of red wine (including an absolutely mindblowing 2010 Saint-Emilion), three different meats, a cheese board and finally a decent coffee, something I’ve dearly missed in recent weeks. Oh and they had the tiniest little kitten ever.

So after getting a little drunk and eating enough food to sustain me for hibernation, we headed back to another of Camill’s friend’s place, where I saw the first sunshine of my entire time in Tahiti, accompanied with a few beers and a swim in their pool. So Camill, if you’re reading, thanks again; the entire Tahiti experience will be much more fondly remembered because of it!

I would continue now into a couple of reflective paragraphs about how perhaps Tahiti would be the perfect holiday destination in the right circumstances, or that maybe I just have to appreciate the experiences I had rather than concentrate on the negatives, but I don’t want to. Get me off this f*cking island.


Tahiti: Knives Out

Just a short one today, as I’m currently stealing wifi from a nearby bar. I’m afraid it’s not a particularly upbeat one either. Right now I’m not interested in talking about specific experiences I’ve had. Rather, I have some thoughts I feel I need to air. I’ll do a proper post tomorrow.

Instead of taking the usual steps of coming up with a name relating to my day’s experiences for the blog post, then linking it in later, I’m referring to it straight off the bat this time; I’m getting the knives out for this island. I attempted to take it a little easy last time out for fear of being hasty as I perhaps was about Easter Island, which turned out to be pretty much perfect. After five days, however, I can pretty categorically state that Tahiti is not somewhere I would ever recommend visiting. Sorry all.

Perhaps if you’re a Russian oil baron who doesn’t mind pissing money into the wind from your passing yacht to buy out every supermarket’s unnervingly huge collection of foie-gras, or if you’re a mid-manic-episode-60-year-old who was awarded an abhorrently large cash settlement in your recent divorce hearings, you might like this confused, confusing little rock out in the Pacific Ocean, but I know none of you, reading this, fit into either of those categories (Hi Roman). This is an island of opulence and ostentation; of rich white Americans and French people coming over and acting like it’s their playground.

The only town of any note is Pape’ete, right? Well as I’ve already made clear in my last post, it’s hideous, yet it is a bustling centre of commerce and business, so I guess it has to be there, and people can just ignore it. However, outside of Pape’ete you have fairly poor people, living in huts made of corrugated metal. Their infrastructure is poor and not particularly inviting. So tell me, where do the foreigners go? The goddamn Hotel Intercontinental. How authentic, how truly wonderful a show of attempting to experience other cultures you’re showing by locking yourself away in a gated alcove of fake beaches and driving rented SUVs with tinted windows.

However you know what is really infuriating? Tahitians seem happy to play along with this pretense. When I arrived, I assumed I’d see a bunch of Polynesian culture out and about. Food, drinks, shows etc., but do you know where the only traditional dance I saw was held? At the Hotel Intercontinental! It was absolutely bizarre to see this amazing dance, hundreds and hundreds of years old, being performed by natives to groups of old white French onlookers, glasses of imported vintage Bordeaux in hand, who would throw them a casual semi-appreciative applause every few minutes. I’m not blaming anyone for this particular dynamic, and I’m sure it’s far less harmful than it seemed from my perspective, but it all just seemed so uncomfortably colonial.

And that is crux of what is both positive and negative about modern life on Tahiti; colonialism. The French, like the British and Spanish had also done all over the globe by the time Tahiti was occupied, absolutely gutted this island of any atmosphere it once had. The rest of French Polynesia may be an authentic, exotic land of real Polynesian spirit, but the contempt they showed to this island by bulldozing everything and replacing it with concrete is just so, so sad. The French gave this place an infrastructure, and gave it millions in tourism money, but it has simply become France-sur-mer; a messy, fake enclave of that country, populated by unhappy Parisians, smelling of pollution and importing enough pointless pretentious French bullshit to create enough of a carbon footprint to stamp out the f*cking sun.

Although you know what? This island wouldn’t be such a grave disappointment if it didn’t act like it’s the ultimate holiday destination. This is not a tropical island paradise, as I’ve said a million times, yet the Tahitian tourism board is the greatest conman in the history of vacations. We all think of it as that remote, sunset-walks-in-the-sand, romanticised bullshit, yet when you get here, it just serves up one big disappointment after the other. I know I’m not the only one, either; almost every other traveler I’ve met so far has shared my opinion to some extent, ranging from ‘Yeah it’s not quite what I expected’ to ‘Man I really need to get out of this place’.

There was a moment when this island really would have been paradise. Now it just sits as a disfigured monument to foreign interference.


Tahiti: Baguette of Hope

View from my hostel

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world so far, it’s that Easter Island is dry. I complained day after day about the ‘brutal humidity’ of the island every time I had a moment to air my thoughts, but in hindsight it was either because I’m just generally not used to humidity at all, or because I had just come from a particularly dry region of Chile. That place is not humid. Tahiti? Now this is humid. I’ve been here for about 3 days now, and it has been non-stop rain of torrential proportions, combined with 35 degree heat and obscene levels of dampness in the atmosphere. Even now, as I sit on the porch of my hostel, mangos falling off the trees and slamming onto the roof every 10 minutes, I am struggling. It’s just so muggy.

Which brings about some other unusual problems. For instance, you always have to wear shoes; even if it hasn’t been raining, the ground will be saturated with dew. Also problematic is the insane mosquito problem; Tahiti is apparently a hotspot not for the Zika virus itself, but for the mosquito that carries it. So I assume, as soon as it’s introduced to Tahiti, the island will descend into collective apocalyptic panic. Natural order will break down, the government will be airlifted to safety, people will sell off all their gold, and all that will be left is an army of babies with shrunken heads, destined to aimlessly wander the land for all eternity.

F*ck you too, Vodaphone model

Also one thing that appears to defy the laws of science; you can’t dry clothing. It’s very strange, but say you get soaked by this rainfall and want a change of clothes, you’ll put your wet clothes out to dry somewhere – be it in a dry spot or even indoors – you’ll come back an hour later to discover that they’re actually more damp than they were before. I’ve been forced to devise a routine involving ceiling fans and support beams to successfully un-soak my clothing.

So, Tahiti. It’s white sand beaches again, complete with coconut-laden palm trees, cheerful men selling mangos and a laid-back Polynesian atmosphere, right? Without meaning to sound clichéd; if this is your idea of the essence of Tahiti, you could not be more wrong. This little sweatbox of an island, stranded out in the South Pacific, is an intense, heavily industrialised place that offers little in the way of perfect beach relaxation opportunities. The beaches are covered in black volcanic sand and rocky outcrops that leave no space for sunbathing or swimming, the island is encircled by a permanently-busy, fast-moving ring road dominated by heavy-duty transport vehicles, and then there’s Pape’ete, the capital and only real town of any note on the island. Pape’ete is not like Hanga Roa back on Easter Island. It’s not dirt roads and reed-roofed huts. It’s a hideous little city, absolutely devoid of any charm that the region may have had bestowed upon it by the original Polynesian settlers or their French colonisers. It’s a traffic-intensive, roadwork-filled maze of soulless concrete phone shops and cash-for-gold establishments, punctuated by the odd McDonald’s and filled with homeless people. The entire city is dominated by towering shipping cranes and a remarkably suffocating smell of pollution. I thought I was taking a huge risk by booking a hostel 20km away from Pape’ete. And sure, the transport around this part of the island is not as good, but overall I could never have foreseen how good a decision that has turned out to be.

Seems a bit much

Me and a couple of people from the hostel all chipped in to rent a car yesterday, and took the arduous drive up to Pape’ete, where I had my first casse-croute, a gastronomic staple of the island, and – I assume – one of the main factors behind French Polynesia’s surprisingly lofty ranking on lists of the world’s most obese territories. Every cafe, every food truck and every restaurant will have a variety of casse-croutes to test your vascular capabilities. In the major food market of the city, the ‘main hall’ is a vast space, white picnic tables bookended all the way from one end to the other, with maybe only about four food vendors; two guys selling whole tuna, one selling limes and another sat at an empty table looking like he’d forgotten why he was there. Then, through a small passageway at the back, we found a row of hidden, bustling fast-food stands. What they were doing back here, I don’t know, but I proceeded to order my first casse-croute. I got one with steak hache. Wait, I know I’m taking an age to explain what a casse-croute is, but I’ve got another point to make here – what the hell is steak hache? I couldn’t remember exactly from the last time I was in France, so I asked the server. ‘Well it’s steak. Then you mince it up, then you put it back together and cook it’. Oh yeah! It’s funny you French people call it that, cos it already has a name – it’s a goddamn burger. What on Earth is that about? Scrolling further down the menu, I noticed they also served burgers. I was extremely hesitant to ask, for fear of lapsing into some sort of never-ending cycle in which I’m being told all food is minced-up steak put back together, so instead waited for my food. What arrived was a monster. A casse-croute is a giant baguette, cut lengthways, and stuffed with lettuce, tomato, onion, copious amounts of meat of your choice, and then also filled with chips and covered with BBQ sauce. It’s an entire meal in a piece of bread. After sweating my way through the entire thing, I decided I may avoid them from now on. Although, they are cheap, and here comes my final and most fervent gripe with this island. If you don’t like me bitching about money, click away now.

The personal financial costs of Easter Island’s ‘remote island economy’ was a tiring and mildly frustrating appendix to an amazing trip. Tahiti is dominated by financial woes. Perhaps if it weren’t absolutely pissing it down with rain all day every day I may be able to find ways to distract myself, but as it stands, the only major activity available to me is either drinking the truly dreadful Hinano lager brewed on the island, or lurking around supermarkets, which on Tahiti is actually surprisingly entertaining. It’s actually become quite funny by this point, but my God this place is expensive. And so French.

If you went to the Cook Islands or some similar British-owned South Pacific island group, I guarantee you wouldn’t wander down the street to find such excessively British things as a Tesco, a fish & chip shop, a Twining’s and a bowler hat fitter all lined up next to each other, yet the French clearly took their hedonistic colonial days very seriously. Head into Pape’ete and you’ll see patisseries, boulangeries and boucheries crushed up against one another. You’ll see native Polynesians in part-traditional dress walking down the street holding giant baguettes. You’ll even see beret-clad men leaning against lamposts with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.

Thus, you’ll also see such French staples as Carrefour, a giant supermarket known for having extremely low prices. Hilariously, it is thus also considered the cheapest place to buy food on Tahiti. Trouble is, the French have also decided that supermarkets in Tahiti will not be filled with Tahitian versions of French staples, but of the authentic French staples themselves. Yeah sure, why not fly a tiny piece of reblochon halfway round the world and charge £20 for it? Why not chuck that 1995 Bordeaux on there too and sit it on the shelf at £450? And while you’re at it, stock the plane up with the shittiest, Carrefour own-brand budget versions of all the food, and thus totally negate the fact that they’re budget items. A usually £2 tub of crap, bland own-brand ice cream? That’s now £15.

Interesting, this is totally normal for the islanders, as you would expect, because there’s another funny little aisle in the far corner where every item is marked with a little sticker saying ‘Avion’ over a white silhouette of a plane. These are items they are making a point out of having flown over, and it turns out the things they choose to specify this aspect of amount to an odd collection of stuff. American processed cheese, Delerium Nocturnum Belgian beer, tapas chorizo and nutella are all mixed in there with some sort of unspoken added flight tax, as if the rest of the items in the supermarket hadn’t been flown in. But then; light at the end of the tunnel. As I stumbled through the foie-gras section, my wallet weeping as my vision started to go blurry, I reached the croissants. Expensive but not too bad. Then donuts. Hey they’re kind of cheap. Then, boom. I knew it. You can always rely on the French to charge absolutely nothing for one staple of their diet. I held it in my hands and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps there is space on this small, tropical speck of land for cheap food. It was my baguette of hope.

So in conclusion, Tahiti is vastly different from anywhere I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m ticking off boxes of countries, climates and cultures at an alarming rate, each one revealing hidden surprises and strange, unexpected flaws. It’s kind of depressing in a way that many of these places that were once so far away and exotic and mysterious are now just… here. And they’re just places. They’re not magical lands made of rainbows and happiness. They’re just cities, towns and countries where people are born, live, work and die, and it’s possible to feel that. Perhaps it is that Tahiti, a place so synonymous with luxurious paradise, is actually a pollutant-ridden centre of commerce, that is making me feeling quite so confused as to what to think. As that drugged-up guy from Keane once said, ‘the map of my world gets smaller as I sit here, pulling at the loose threads now’.


Easter Island: Bitchhiking

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Such enthusiasm

Sitting on the jagged black rocks that the islanders have kidded themselves into calling a beach, can of shitty Escudo lager in hand, getting through a five-pack of raw hot dogs and staring out at the sunset wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life in both a positive and negative way, it all clicked into place in the most unlikely of circumstances. I rose from my spiky makeshift seat and headed down the moss-covered steps just as a crab flew flailing past my field of vision having been tossed from the crest of a wave like a one-way boomerang, and, with the crumbs of indecipherable donkey components still falling from my lips, I sprinted across the main dirt road into the town’s only internet cafe. It is there I now sit, a mere three hours before my flight leaves (don’t worry, the airport is literally a five-minute walk), writing this post to tell you that the full 180 is complete. And I haven’t simply gone from Easter-Island-based disdain to mere fondness, no. I have a full-blown confession to make; I love this island more than anywhere else on Earth.

Last night I crawled into my sauna-like tent at 10pm in the hope of rising early enough to hitchhike to Tongariki on the northeast extreme of the island. The beach at Tongariki, supposedly, is one of the greatest sunrise-watching spots on the planet, so at 5:15am, which was way too early in hindsight, my alarm sounded and I woke up to not tranquil morning silence, but another brutal rainstorm hammering against all sides of my tent. Even after travelling 10,000 miles to one of the most extremely remote point on Earth, there is no way in hell you’re getting me out of bed to stand in a rainstorm in total darkness waiting for a lift from a stranger. Back to sleep. I can always see a sunrise in Tahiti, right?

Such enthusiasm
I woke again at 9:30am, feeling like I’d slept for about 30 years, and headed up to the ‘main road’ in an attempt to hitchhike to Tongariki in a less inconvenient fashion. Sunrises aside, Tongariki is supposedly highly impressive anyway, and it – along with Rano Raraku – were the only parts of the island I had yet to see. At the point where the main airport road diverts off into the countryside, and adorned in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms (literally what the Christ was I thinking?), I stuck my thumb out and lo, the very first car stopped. A squat little islander rolled down his window and told me that he couldn’t pick me up, then drove off. I mean, it was generous of him to stop but that wasn’t exactly the most useful information he could have imparted in that particular moment. So, just as the North Koreans had experienced in 1994 when Kim Il-Sung bit the dust, I began my Arduous March, though mine was in a somewhat more literal fashion than their, and a few million fewer people perished.

Heading slowly yet steadily up the road to nowhere, constantly looking back through the fringe of my now overly-long hair and sticking my thumb out at every moving object, I met the eyes of maybe 50 different drivers, most of whom were white tourists, and all of whom either looked at me with intense confusion as if they had never seen a human being before, or with pity as they performed a wildly exaggerated shrug to make sure I understood their aggressive apathy before rip-roaring over the horizon at 15mph. As I bent down and put my hands on my knees to shield my face from the rapidly rising heat, one passing driver even laughed at me and made a walking symbol with his hands. I hope he loses his hands in a tragic walking accident, then we’ll see who’s making the unpleasant gestures, friend.

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Finally, a large van filled with propane tanks stopped. The guy shouted a bunch of Spanish at me, and I said ‘Tongariki?’, to which he responded ‘Tongariki! Ooooooh!’, and swung the passenger door open invitingly. We trundled up the road, my fingers digging into the dashboard as the van felt like it may either collapse or its contents explode at the merest fender bender, until we hit the turn off for the start of the road to Tongariki. He pulled into a driveway, told me his grandfather was an Englishman called Henry, then said ‘I live here’ and pointed at a shed. I guess that was the end of that leg of the trip. I was now stuck on a small through road between the two main paved roads, and still only about 1/5th of the way to my final destination. I stuck my thumb out at the first passing car and boom, he stopped.

I opened the door to what can only be described as the scent of dead animal. A man with a strange sunhat and pitch-black tinted sunglasses looked across at me and again spoke to me in Spanish, this time with an unusual mumble. I asked him ‘Tongariki?’, to which he said nothing, looked forward, and started driving. I too looked forward to reveal the strangest dashboard configuration I’d ever seen; it had a ledge sticking out at the top, where an airbag would normally be. I’m pretty convinced that whoever is in the passenger seat the day Captain Grumbles goes crashing into a giant head statue will be turned to dust before they can say ‘what’s with all the used latex gloves on your dashboard?’

We drove for about seven minutes along the coast road up the east of the island, at a snail’s pace as always, until we reached a turning up into the farmland in the interior of the island. He said some form of ‘Here, finish.’ at which point I got ready to get out of the car, when the guy asked for some money. I said ‘Money? Why?’. He said nothing, but pointed at the rev counter. What, you want me to pay for the time you wasted by not actually using second gear? Assuming he meant petrol, I went for my coins pocket, pulling out about 1,000 pesos – the equivalent of around £1. He snorted and said ‘No. Mas.’ I added another 1,000 peso note. So that’s £2. Again he told me he wanted more. Rather than play this stupid guessing game, I sighed and asked him how much he wanted. He said 10,000 pesos.

Knowing he spoke no English whatsoever, I said ‘Ten thousands pesos?! That’s ten quid man, why the f*ck would I give you that much for a seven-minute ride?’. I don’t really know what my aim was here; I just needed to vent my incredulousness. It didn’t work. He just stared at me, having clearly not understood. I said ‘No 10,000.’ I know it was a risky tactic but I wasn’t having this floppy-hatted gimp con me out of petrol money when he was already heading in that direction, and not even taking me where I wanted to go. He sighed, and with a frustrated tone said ‘OK, 5,000’. I said ‘How about tres mil?’, showing him my haul of three thousand-peso notes. He said ‘No five?’ at which point I nonchalantly said ‘Nope’ at the exact moment a 5,000 peso note jumped out of my wallet and drifted down onto his feet. I blurted ‘Adios!’ and scrambled out of his car. I was now £5 down, in the middle of nowhere, only about halfway to Tongariki. This had not panned out as planned.

Cue the next passing car and in it driver #3; a smiley little man from mainland Chile who picked me up with great enthusiasm, and in incredibly broken English attempted to chat to me all the way to Tongariki. He wasn’t even going to Tongariki – he was going to Rano Raraku – but he drove the extra mile or so just to drop me off. Now this is the kind of ride you want. Friendly, happy and not acting like he’ll turn me into another one of his latex-glove-based dismembering experiments if I forget to sling him over a couple of pesos.

So two hours later I arrived at Tongariki. On an island that takes 15 minutes to drive across. Only something special was going to snap me out of the tired, sunburnt, agitated stupor I had sunk into, and that’s exactly what the 15 giant Ahu statues of Tongariki did. I can report first-hand that the famous ‘Easter Island Heads’ are not merely famous due to their mysticism or peculiarity – they are truly imposing and intimidating structures of monumental proportions considering their age, and the resources available during their construction. In photos, the Ahu often appear alone, with little reference of scale, but stood among them, you appreciate their sheer magnitude as they tower over you, some as tall as 30ft. I arrived at the site to find a strange turnstile, and a slender little middle-aged woman selling freshly-squeezed pineapple juice in water bottles approached me and asked for my ticket. ‘What ticket?’ I replied, to which she said ‘for the national park’. I told her I didn’t know I needed one. She told me I did. I told her I understood, and asked where I could buy one. After silently noting the fact that I was short of breath, sunburnt and dripping with sweat, she paused for a moment before visibly wincing and hesitantly saying ‘… at the airport.’

‘The airport?! That’s in Hanga Roa! I just hitchhiked all the way here!’. She told me she was sorry and there was nothing she could do. Suddenly, I felt a slap on my back. I turned round to see a lanky man in sports shades and a national park polo shirt nod at me and say ’Don’t worry about it’. I almost exploded with relief. I thanked them both, bought a pineapple juice as a gesture of goodwill (genuinely the tastiest juice I’ve ever had) and went and explored the site. Unashamedly took a few selfies, then a few regular photos, then mulled over how the hell they precariously perched these gigantic things on the little stone plates underneath them, then made haste as there was a grand total of zero shaded spots anywhere in about a mile radius. Luckily, within walking distance (though not really) was Rano Raraku, the site of the quasi-quarry where the basalt stone used to make the statues was mined. I walked for another twenty minutes, singing loudly to myself to distract from feeling like I may be about to melt, until I finally hit the entrance to the site. I strolled in and headed up toward the quarry, when I heard something that made me almost burst into tears; ‘Hey, have you got your ticket?’. It was another national park.

I was too far gone at this point. I wasn’t playing the risky ‘I hitchhiked here’ card – instead, I went nuclear and started breathing heavily and squinting like in great pain, and turned around to see another man in a national park polo shirt. I told him ‘I just walked here from Hanga Roa’. I like to think this lie wasn’t quite as bad as it seems, simply for the fact that I had done a hell of a lot of walking in blazing sun. I told him I’d do anything, that I’d pay for a ticket when I got back to Hanga Roa, and he took pity on me and allowed me to continue. I would of course get back to Hanga Roa later and totally forget about the ticket in the mess of getting ready for my midnight flight to Tahiti. In a moment of terrible timing, it suddenly popped back into my head as I was about to board the plane, so I quickly looked it up on the sketchy wifi. £10 for each national park. On an island the size of the Isle of Wight. I’d been to Orongo, Anakena, Tongariki and Rano Raraku. That’s £40 gone. As much as I feel guilty for forgetting, I feel I’ve already contributed an absolute fortune to this tiny economy just getting here and generally being here – considering how insanely difficult and costly it is to find your way to Easter Island, I feel like charging an extra £40 for admission to the only tourist attractions on the island is a little cheeky.

However, such was the quality of Rano Raraku, that I may actually be tempted to find a way of retrospectively wiring the local park authorities the money for my entry. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen; a giant wall of rock, surrounded by Ahu, all poking out of the surrounding arid grassland at jaunty angles. In the centre of the cliff face was a mixture of half-completed and semi-destroyed statues, evoking an eerie sense of a past event causing an immediate halt to all construction. I later discovered that, though many of the statues are still in pristine condition around the island, the myriad of statues you see toppled over, lying face down, or in pieces by the sides of roads, were mostly destroyed or defaced by the original islanders themselves, the same people that slaved to create them in the first place. What caused them to undo much of their (seemingly exhausting) work remains a mystery, and while most guides and history leaflets tentatively mark it down to ‘tribal warfare’, they are also keen to point out that this is mere speculation. It is unlikely that we will ever know what happened.

After hitting a point of pointy-island-head-statue saturation, I headed back to the main road to hitch my way back to Hanga Roa. I got back to the road at about 3pm, which is pretty much peak temperature time, and realised I may be in a little bit of trouble. Having spent enough time in South America recently, it suddenly dawned on me that everyone eats lunch around this time in this part of the world, and what a prescient realisation that was; it took 15 minutes of walking under brutal sunshine for the first car to show up. It zoomed straight past me. Great. Another 15 minutes went by until I heard another car approaching. A red pickup truck. I put my thumb out and pulled as desperate a face as possible, until they too drove straight past, making eye contact as they did. In an internal fit of melodrama, I sunk to my knees in despair, and I can only assume they saw me in the rear-view mirror, as they screeched to a halt as soon as my knees touched the dirt. I picked myself up and sprinted up to them, shouting ‘Gracias! Gracias! Gracias!’ as I ran. I asked the two men if they were going to Hanga Roa. They said yes and told me not to get in the front with them, but in the flatbed at the back. This was riding bitch taken to the extreme. I was bitchhiking.

I climbed in, and before I could get settled they went into hyperdrive and accelerated to about 50mph along this tiny, narrow little unmarked road. I had gotten in the car of the only fast drivers on Rapa Nui. Thank Christ. However, five minutes down the road, we pulled into a small layby on the beach and stopped. I clambered out to ask what they were doing. They said ‘Goodbye!’ and just stared at me. I can only assume that was a mistranslation, rather than abrupt rudeness, but I again found myself walking for another half an hour down that goddamn road until I got picked up, hassle free, by a woman who drove me all the way back to Hanga Roa. Thank the Lord God.

Aimlessly wandering around the campsite in a daze of heat exhaustion, I realised I was wasting my last few hours here, so I headed to the nearest supermercado, grabbed that very same can of shitty Escudo lager I mentioned earlier, and hit the beach. Sat there, watching the dramatic colours of the endlessly-entertaining sunset for the fourth night in a row, I realised that this genuinely was paradise. It goes without saying that nobody wants too much of a good thing. It reminded me of Robert Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ theory; that no human being would ever trade their own life, with all its imperfections and hardships, for a simulated life of total perfection, day in, day out. Paradise isn’t really about non-stop luxury, it’s about a small moments of luxury mixed in with intrigue, weirdness and the occasional moment where you feel like giving up. Easter Island is the very essence that. You may have to work a bit beforehand, but you’ll be rewarded with the greatest beach you’ve ever seen, and you may have to hitchhike in awkward circumstances, but you’ll be rewarded with the most intriguing, creepy national parks you’ve ever seen.

Perhaps its more of a paradise for travellers rather than the average holidaymaker. People who maybe look for more of a challenge than others; who traverse the globe for no real reason other than to just… see how far they can go. To see where they end up. For instance, sat at the glorious beach at Anakena I was perfectly content, but sat in the back of a pickup truck flying down a narrow coast road at 50mph, then I was excited. That’s what I personally travel for – to see where I can end up without trying. To get into situations so far out of my comfort zone I could never foresee them.

And so, as I finish this particularly lengthy post on the plane leaving Easter Island, I have a real sense of having experienced something truly special. It’s bittersweet, of course, but more sweet than bitter. In a little speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing, I saw things that blew my mind, made me laugh, made me frustrated, made me sad and even made me question life in general. When I set off for the island, I received a message from a friend I met in Argentina saying ‘Have fun on Easter Island… contemplating!’. And genuinely I have never done that more than in the past few days. I thought it would be boring and isolating, being stuck somewhere like that, but it was, against all my predictions, totally exhilarating from beginning to end.

In all honesty I’m having difficulty summing up what it is about this place that is so special. So in the absence of a clearer description, I’ll instead leave you with a poem by Charles Bukowski, titled Nirvana, that I’ve always found very evocative from an outsider’s perspective, but now I’m sat here, on a plane drifting through time zones away from little Easter Island, I find it particularly apt.

Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose.

He was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina

On the way to somewhere, and it began to snow.

The bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills,

And the passengers entered, and he sat at the counter with others,

And he ordered, and the food arrived.

And the meal was particularly good. And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he’d known,

She was unaffected, and there was a natural humour which came from her.

The fry cook said crazy things and the dishwasher in the back laughed

A good clean, pleasant laugh.

The young man watched the snow through the window,

And he wanted to stay in that cafe forever.

A curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.

And it would always stay beautiful there.

Then the bus driver told the passengers it was time to board,

And the young man thought ‘I’ll just stay here… I’ll just stay here’.

But then he rose and he followed the others onto the bus,

and he found his seat, and he looked at the cafe through the window.

The bus moved off down the curve, downward, out of the hills,

And the young man looked straight forward,

And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,

Or they were reading, or trying to sleep,

And they hadn’t noticed the magic.

The young man put his head to one side, closed his eyes

And pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do.

Just listen to the sound of the engine,

And the sound of the tires,

In the snow.




Easter Island: The Great Divide

The rarest beer I’ve ever drunk: Mahina Rapa Nui Porter. 6.8%, smokey, excellent.

On Easter Island, there is a small and notably un-vocal independence movement, which is slowly and seemingly incredibly ineffectively fighting for freedom from the reign of terror bestowed upon it by notoriously oppressive Chile. So far, I’ve seen little evidence of it, save for a guy in a national park who lives in a hut with FREE RAPA NUI etched all over it in greyish chalk. In fact, I saw a more vocal movement for changing Easter Island’s lingua franca to French than for independence. Walking by the Rapa Nui Parliament earlier today, I wondered which side of these arguments the officials of the island fall on, and suddenly I realised something that I had been totally oblivious to for the past three days; this is not Isla de Pascua or Easter Island. This is Rapa Nui.

Once you leave Santiago, on the mainland, you will no longer hear the words ‘Isla de Pascua’, and everyone will revert to calling it by its traditional Polynesian name of Rapa Nui. Even Chileans who come here from the mainland call it that. I don’t feel like it’s a hint or even an acknowledgement of an independence movement, but I know for a fact that if I were a born-and-bred Islander, I would be pretty pissed at my parent country making up a new name when we already had one, so I guess it’s understandable. Obviously as an Englishman you may think this an incredibly hypocritical stance to take, but I of course sympathise with the territories whose names we changed as well.

I need a haircut

I traversed the island today, from the south to the northwest, and I have to say, if there’s any call for independence around these parts, it should be for the north separating from the south. Hanga Roa, the ‘capital’ and only real town on the island – where I’m staying – is wedged down in the southwest of the island. Having spent the first two days of my stay here in the south, I was led to believe that the entire island is like the south; undulating hills, rocky beaches, dramatic cliff faces and remarkable humidity. In many ways, it has a beauty of its own, yet it may take a bit of time to get used to. For instance, last night I headed into town to watch some form of native ceremony to do with crowning a queen or… something, and I was halfway there when the most extreme tropical rainstorm came crashing down on us. It was a monsoon on steroids; within thirty seconds it felt like I had been in a bath while fully clothed. I stood and stared out at the sea, with the rain pounding against the faces of a few statues nearby, feeling like, if this is the most dramatic, exotic thing the island can offer me, then I guess I’ll take it. Heading north in a pickup truck today, however, we hit a dense forest on the way, winded around through that for a few minutes and then bang; out the other side.

Rapa Nui’s majestic parliament

So starts the northern half of the island; barren, dry, rugged and astonishingly beautiful. This is the checkpoint from which you can fully start to appreciate this little dot of land in the middle of nowhere. Massive long-extinct volcanoes rise out of the ground, dark grey basalt mountains sit alongside them and slope down to the most pristine white-sand beaches you’ve ever seen. As we drove past bizarre pitch-black volcanic rock formations and wide open meadows sandwiched between the tarmac of the road and the blindingly-blue sky, I realised why this is a tourist destination of such esteem. As I said in my last post, everyone here is Chilean; if they wanted decent beaches or mountains they’d just stay on the mainland. Rapa Nui has something very unique about it. Obviously we all know about the Ahu statues and the general ‘I’ve been there’ vibe you get from such a lonely little island, but this is a landscape the likes of which I’ve never really seen before. As some of you will know, my favourite country on Earth is unquestionably Iceland, and whenever I describe why I love it there so much, I usually start with ‘Well, the landscape makes you feel like you’re on Mars’. This island gives me a very similar feeling, except with brutal heat and humidity. It’s like Bizarro Iceland.

Anakena beach

We ended up at Anakena, a tiny stretch of beach on the northern shore of the island. I stepped out of the car to the what I can only describe as the most perfect ‘island paradise’ beach you could ever imagine. It was straight out of a postcard. White sand, palm trees, little reed-roofed huts selling freshly squeezed pineapple juice, and seawater bluer than the sky. Well I mean it would’ve been the archetypal paradise beach if it weren’t for the creepy Ahu staring us down from the corner. I was hungry so I grabbed a camarón, a sort of deep-fried empanada filled with cheese and prawns (I know right?) and it was genuinely delicious. I sat on the floor and that’s when the two things that maybe made this not the perfect beach hit me. One is the cost. This island is excruciatingly expensive. A bottle of water will set you back £3, a can of beer £5, a burger £15. But I’m on holiday, so who cares. The other is that Rapa Nui is absolutely plagued with some form of red ant that, if you give it the chance, will crawl all over you and into your clothing and bite you to its little jaws’ content.

After alternating between picking melted cheese off my chin and trying to get a hoard of ants out of my swimming costume, I went for a swim, sat in a deckchair, then climbed a big hill adjacent to the beach, where at the top was a small cave with a perfect panoramic vantage point. I sat there for a while, trying to halt the sun’s attempts to turn me into a raisin, and I noticed something else. In my last post I was perhaps a little unfair on the island’s remoteness; I suggested it feels just like any island anywhere, and that the surrounding water looks the same as, say, the Channel.

Sat there, in this potentially millions-of-years-old cave, surrounded by these iconic pagan statues that date back to the 13th Century, I really got the sense that I was somewhere pretty special. Perhaps not just in a holiday-making sense, but in a geographical and historical sense. Although obviously you can just jump on a plane here these days, it hit me how this strange little place once must have seemed like the entire universe to someone. The entirety of their world would start at the beach at Anakena, and end at Orongo on the south coast. That’s all they would have had. At numerous points, people would have set out by boat and, I imagine, come back empty handed. There’s too much of nothing in every direction for that to be a viable option. But while obviously modern technology and the expansion of the travel industry has – in a relative sense – made Easter Island feel like a lonely little speck of dust, back then it must have felt like the centre of the universe – the only place that ever existed and ever will exist.

Some more Ahu

Driving back from the beach, I had a third epiphany; Rapa Nuians cannot drive. I’m not talking like southern-European-style nonchalance, overtaking on blind corners at 70mph on a mountain road with no barriers. I’m talking like it feels like everyone here has only just passed their driving test. Hands always at 10 and 2, never hitting 16mph, getting distracted and drifting out of lane, and perhaps the weirdest one; slowing to an absolute crawl when a car is coming in the opposite direction. There’s one kind of ‘major’ road that cuts through the island from north to south, and on our way back to Hanga Roa, every car heading back to Anakena would slow to an almost stop, and we’d then follow suit, and pass each other with a combined speed of about 4mph. There’s loads of space! I could drive better than this an I don’t drive! Heading back into the forest, we saw our first breakdown – a woman getting a jumpstart from a guy in a van. Five minutes later we saw our second – two vans stopped at the side of the road, bonnets open, one with steam pouring from it. Then about 100m further down the road, around a corner was a broken-down VW Beetle perched on a breakdown rescue truck, which itself had also broken down. So of the two mechanics in the truck, one was up top fixing the VW, the other was lying underneath his own truck, oil spilling past him out into the middle of the road. What a shitshow.

I’m currently sat on the beach back at Hanga Roa, watching the sun go down behind an impromptu fireworks display and drinking a bottle of Mahina Pia Rapa Nui, a porter brewed on the island, and I have to say, after everything I said yesterday, I’m going to have to admit I may have been a little hasty. I wasn’t even that negative, but once I explored more comprehensively, I’ve begun to understand things about this place are perhaps a little difficult to spot immediately. Wandering through the town centre late on a Sunday evening, when the swarm of loud American and Chinese tourists have gone back to their pampered palaces of inauthenticity, you can get a sense of what this island is really about; glorious nothing. It’s a lack of complexity, combined with a barren landscape and an empty horizon that gives this place a feeling of kind of bastardised paradise. It’s not the pretty, perfect tropical island retreat, it’s a little jagged runt that Pangea left behind all those millions of years ago, and I have to admit, I love it.


Easter Island: Nazi Volcano

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Oh hey Waitrose Essential mayonnaise, glad you could make it

A well-known aspect of Latin American life is its capacity for delays, lateness and a generally relaxed attitude toward schedules. In Argentina and Uruguay, I often found myself idly sat by as buses refused to turn up, or as meals took 50 minutes to arrive. In Chile they bumped this trait up a gear; someone would arrange to meet you at 6pm, then turn up at 8 or 9 and act like nothing’s wrong. However, today I sat foot on the mystical land of Easter Island. Known for its Polynesian quasi-religious statues (Ahu) and its rugged landscape, it has built a reputation as one of the world’s most remote island resorts, and seemingly, the world’s slowest.

Nothing happens on time on this island. Nothing. My flight was delayed taking off and subsequently delayed landing, which was a pain, but nothing compared to the shenanigans at Matavuri Airport. The dudes who bring the stairs to the plane took 20 minutes, the baggage reclaim took an hour and a half, and the guy giving me a tour of the campsite here (yes camping kill me now) thought I needed to know literally everything about the facilities, including the mechanics of a washing machine and what a bicycle is. So despite being checked into a campsite literally 100 yards from the tiny little airport, it took three and a half hours before I could actually begin to explore, and explore I did.

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My very own floral wreath at the airport

I’ll be honest, Easter Island is not a tiny speck of land in a vast ocean of nothing. Well I mean from a relative standpoint, it obviously is, but when you’re here it’s not quite like that. First off, it’s not that small. It’s not like some random bit of rock like the Pitcairn Islands; it has enough space for four different volcanoes, three national parks, and a coast road featuring 28 sets of Ahu.

Speaking of which – due to the lack of any English speakers at my campsite – I’m kind of alone here, so I headed off to the beach last night, as I’ve heard great things about the sunset. On the way a convoy of motorbikes passed me, with all riders wearing Nazi helmets. Oh so you can’t import any decent wine but you can import a bunch of goddamn Nazi helmets? The strangest thing about this sight was the direction these eight men were going – north, up into Terevaka, the massive volcano that dominates the skyline here. At 9pm. What the hell were they doing? Is this a conspiracy theory come true? Maybe Hitler never died – maybe he’s hiding out in a volcano lair on Easter Island.

But anyway I got to the beach and witnessed a pretty amazing sunset, and I realised, going back to my earlier point about isolation; you just can’t feel it. Sat at home in England, you might think ‘God wouldn’t it be amazing to escape to somewhere that remote?’. On paper (and more specifically on a map), islands such as these are an inviting if costly prospect. A dot of land surrounded by nothing for literally thousands of miles. But when you’re here? It just feels like any other coastline. It may be obvious, but the horizon curves beyond view after a certain point, so you might as well be sat looking out at the Atlantic, or the Bering Strait, or even the Channel. France could’ve been just over the water for all I cared.


Another expectation that I was also sucked into but turned out to be false is a belief that you’ll be able to get into and understand the isolated island lifestyle through witnessing others and experiencing it yourself. You’ll see that the people here do things differently; they’ll be more relaxed, friendlier, less ‘corrupted’ by outside influence. But I have to report that it’s bullshit. It’s part of Chile, and that is a very obvious fact. Call me naive for having expected it in the first place, but nobody speaks any form of Polynesian language, I’ve only met two true islanders, every single sign is in Spanish, it is absolutely jammed to the point of bursting with Chinese tourists and – most notably – it just is part of Chile. Same food in shops, same beer in bars, same terrible radio, same currency, same everything. The only things that are slightly different are the time zone and the landscape. Also, strangely, none of the restaurants or supermarkets have their own customised signs. Instead they all have these weird pre-made wooden signs featuring a big Coca-Cola logo and an empty space where you can write the name of the restaurant. Now that is depressing.


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My failed selfie at the Swampcano

Speaking of which, I went to a bike rental place earlier today and got myself a little mountain bike for 24 hours for £10. I looked at a map with the rental guy, and he pointed to Orongo, a national park squashed in the southwest corner of the island – the only area south of the monumental airport runway that cuts across literally the entire island. Telling me not to jump the gun and go north, he suggested I take a quick bike over to Orongo. See the ancient houses, see the little islets off the coast, and of course go to the volcano and have a look. I owe this man a slap in the face. This is not cycling terrain. It’s a shitty dirt road stretching almost 10 miles uphill to the top of the volcano. With no shade. In this heat. Why this rental guy thought I had a look of the Bradley Wiggins about me as I managed to drop the bike and subsequently dislodge the gear chain while attempting to simply walk out of the car park baffles me. So I’m back at the campsite now. I have to admit, the cycling back down was awesome. Even when I had to kick a cow that charged me, still fun.

I’ve finally recovered from La Serena. Not in a wild party way, but in a nagging cold that I inexplicably had all the time I was there. I got an interesting moment as a leaving present too – me and Benjamin (a fellow hostel worker) were making beds, when I grabbed a blanket to lay across the top and a gigantic spider jumped out of it. Now I know I’m not exactly Australian, but I’d never seen a spider this big. It stumbled around the room for a bit until the cleaner came in and (in hindsight quite ironically) didn’t hesitate to stamp on it. This wasn’t a small little speck stuck to her shoe – she lifted her foot to reveal a large black stain on the floor, with a couple of legs left behind. She sighed, then continued to make beds. Her nonchalance made my day.

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Were you aware that it is 16 ecláks?

The next day I headed south on a bus, my upgraded semi-cama (‘half-bed’) feeling just as uncomfortable as I had expected when I handed over an extra £2 to book it. Had a beer, had a Taco Bell, and got in an overpriced taxi to the airport. I had a kind of semi-argument with the driver before we got in about the price, saying that last time I’d paid £7, to which he laughed at me. I almost considered not getting in but it was late enough for me not to care at this point. Whatever. Once I’d got in, I realised I had landed another strange driver, like Bruno all those weeks before. He asked where I was from, I said England, and he handed me a small blue book. It was a clearly very hastily-made Spanish-English dictionary, bound together with bits of string. He handed it to me so I could start a conversation, but I was way too distracted by the sheer number of incorrect translations in there. Almost all of it was wrong.

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Mate have you checked out that new dóonsing clab in town?

‘What time did you arrive?’ came out as ‘How long did you be?’, ‘How much will the trip cost?’ was ‘How much are this carriage?’ and I also enjoyed ‘I am going to the airport for my flight to ___’ becoming ‘I am gliding from airports in the ___ flight’. Another interesting facet was the English phonetic pronunciations. I didn’t get many photos as my phone camera is atrocious, but you can see some of them in this post. The driver attempted to speak to me but the backwards translation made it difficult to find what I was trying to say in English, so the conversation was frustrating and didn’t last long. I should have just told him I was gliding from airports in the Easter Island flight.

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I do love Fruit of Count

I took a hit and slept overnight in the airport and boom; the LAN staff took pity on me and gave me a reclining seat, with massive legroom, extra food and nobody either side of me.

But as a result I’m here, semi-stranded on the Navel of the World as the natives like to call it (wasn’t that a UK newspaper?) in a tent the size of a shoebox, on my own, in total darkness, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Definitely more to follow tomorrow.


P.S. Holy shit I wrote this out earlier but just as I upload it I have to add – I just went out cycling again and had to turn back because of the heat, but on my way out a couple of dogs were by the side of the road looking suspicious. I approached on my bike and saw a black lump in the middle of the road and assumed it was an animal. It was. It was another dog. They had eaten all of it apart from the head and front legs. That is a vision that will haunt my dreams.

La Serena: Buy Two Get None Free

Pisco Elqui

There have been a number of moments this week where I perhaps could have sat down to update the blog, but in all honesty, working at a hostel really wipes you out. Well perhaps it’s not the working, but the fact that, when you’re at a hostel as a guest, your usual daily activities alternate between socialising, going out and perhaps spending a couple of hours alone. Add work into that schedule, and you have to choose one of those three original activities to replace with changing pillowcases and mopping hair off the women’s shower floors (literally what the Christ are you doing in there? Scalping each other?). And let’s be honest, no sane person would fly halfway round the goddamn world to toggle between serving breakfasts to hairy Swedish crossdressers and spending time alone. Yes I do have someone specific in mind.

So you have to sacrifice a little down-time. This is the only place on my entire trip where I’m working during my stay, and I leave tomorrow; from now on the blog posts will be more frequent.

So I’ve been in Chile for about 10 days now, and of course I’m going to start this chapter of my blog with a bang – we had an earthquake here last night. I frantically texted pretty much anyone I have ever known in my life shortly afterwards, so I doubt anyone reading this will be unaware of this fact that I’m so desperate to tell people about, but yes; a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Coquimbo region at about 9:30 last night, about 45 miles south of us. After for some reason having consumed a two-litre bottle of Coke Zero in the previous 15 minutes, I was flying around the hostel with a broom like a retarded child in a Haribo factory, sweeping up whatever residue the endless flip-flop-clad stream of travelers had left in their wake, when suddenly I felt these weird pulsing vibrations from what I thought were people walking downstairs. I looked up, ready to tell the herd of elephants coming downstairs to tread a little more lightly, only to see an empty staircase, and the American man sat down the hallway from me suddenly bolting out of his chair shouting ‘It’s an earthquake!’. Me, him and another American woman were the only people on the ground floor, and within two seconds they were wedged in the doorframe of their room. I assume they must have been Californian with experienced action-taking like that. As the vibrations got stronger, I stumbled around the hallway, not really knowing what to do.

For those who have never felt a mild earthquake, it’s really not as dramatic as you’d think. Sure, magnitudes 8 and up are probably pretty wild, but this little 6.3-er kind of felt like I had been in the middle of dancing and then suddenly gotten really drunk for a few seconds. The floor feels kind of hollow and flexible, like trying to stand totally still on a trampoline, while a low rumble echoes through everything in the vicinity. That’s the one thing that makes a mild earthquake a little bit more intimidating than its destructive capabilities suggest it should. It was just a bit of vibration and maybe a potted plant or two shuffling across a table, but the sound is extraordinary. Say you hit a banister or stamp on a hollow floor – the vibration will dissipate shortly due to it being ‘grounded’ or connected to a non-resonant object that will absorb the movement. If everything is shaking, including the ground itself, no shock can be absorbed, so the natural sound of everything vibrating happens at once. The walls, the tables, the beds, even the entire building lets out this flat rumbling growl.

Seeing as I have never come close to an earthquake in my life, and had forgotten the frequency with which they happen in Chile, I got caught in about 20 different minds. I ran towards my room, then decided it was too far, so ran back under an arch in the hallway. Realising this wasn’t as structurally sound as I had hoped, I gave up and got down on one knee and put my hands on the floor. Then I remembered the doorway trick, and I sprinted across the hallway to the bathroom door. By this point, however, the earthquake had already been over for a good ten seconds, and I looked up to see my fellow hostel workers staring down at me from the second floor, laughing at the evident panic on my face as my fingers dug into the doorframe. They started going about their business again, so I played it cool, and emerged from my hiding place, only to see the American dude still clinging to his doorway in the next room, his eyes darting around like a tinfoil hat-wearer who had just spotted a UFO. I casually laughed and said ‘Isn’t it over now?’ to which he replied ‘Well THAT one is…’. I lost my composure and darted back to my doorway. In the end, not much happened, though a 5.1 magnitude aftershock happened about 20 minutes later, which I didn’t even notice. If I were to take one lesson away from the experience, it’s that if anyone has ever been killed by an earthquake that registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, they must have been juggling 20 skittles while on a 30ft-high unicycle made of glass.

Best hostel ever

Chile certainly takes the crown for best destination so far. It’s such a strange place – so isolated by the Andes geographically (and to an extent culturally too) – packed full of natural wonders. Huge mountains surround every town, the beaches are long, the waves enormous. It feels much more like Latin America should than Buenos Aires, which is so incredibly colonial that it just feels like a European city. La Serena, the town I have spent the last week in, is an odd one. A seaside town that is actually not on the sea, La Serena is small, dusty, yet incredibly lively. It’s one of the busiest towns I’ve ever visited. Heading out into the centre on a Friday or Saturday was just absolute human gridlock. There are also also an extraordinary 33 churches in this small town, and it seems to be a popular marriage hotspot, so on more than one occasion I found myself wandering into a church only to realise I was now part of a wedding. You can literally just wander in and watch the service.

However, the highlight of not just Chile but of the trip so far (apart from my colleague here attempting to explain a buy-one-get-one-free sale on beer to a customer and accidentally saying ‘Well you buy two, and you get two beers’) was the Elqui Valley. An astonishing feat of tectonic activity, the Elqui Valley is a huge chasm that leads from the coast to the Andes – the entire width of Chile – and is just… desolate. The roads are flanked by enormous dust-and-cacti-covered mountains that stretch way into the sky, while tiny little villages (usually with a church and an empanada stand) are scattered along the route. I took the bus with a friend from the hostel to Pisco Elqui, a small village way into the valley where pisco is made. Pisco is – according to Wikipedia – ‘a colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile. Made by distilling grape wine into a high-proof spirit, it was developed by 16th century Spanish settlers as an alternative to orujo, a pomace brandy that was being imported from Spain.’ Yet, despite distilled wine sounding like something only Withnail would drink, it’s actually very sweet and very smooth. I went on a distillery tour of Los Nichos, one of the most famous pisco brands in Chile, and after sitting through the history of the spirit entirely in Spanish, we got what we all wanted – a tasting. Yes.

Trying my hand at hitchhiking in the valley

However, the Elqui Valley has something even more special attached to its name. The main road that winds its way precariously through the mountains of the valley is nicknamed the ‘Ruta de las Estrellas’ – The Route of the Stars – and good Lord did it live up to its name. After stumbling across the most spectacular hostel I’ve ever been to – £10 a night complete with pool, outdoor kitchen, open air rooms and some astonishing scenery – me and a couple of people that had come to the valley from La Serena booked ourselves onto a midnight stargazing tour. Once the sun goes down, stars start to appear pretty quickly. Then more. Then more. Then even more until the whole sky is nothing but stars. And this was when we were sat in the brightly-lit garden of the hostel. Obviously I knew it was going to be special, so we went out and got a two-litre bottle of wine to split between three, necked it and headed out into the desert in a minivan. Almost immediately I realised that this van was surprisingly short of seatbelts, and so hung on to some rusty hooks that were attached to the floor by an elasticated cable. I did not feel safe.

We drove for about 35 minutes, my face a picture of unending terror the entire time, until we got to a small clearing at the base of two mountains. In the middle was a car park and a small observatory dome. I stepped out of the van, already impressed by the starscape, until the final car in the car park switched its headlights off. There is no real way to describe it other than with the two words that subsequently came out of my mouth; holy shit.

From horizon to horizon was the most intensely bright night sky I have ever seen, crammed with stars and planets in literally every direction. Constellations that were usually so easy to spot had become lost in the mess of light. The ambient luminosity was such that you could clearly see the look of awe on the other tourists’ faces. The faded Milky Way was right there, stretching across the entire sky, surrounded by other small gas clouds, nebulas and star clusters, thousands if not millions of light years away. And they were right there, staring you in the face as you stared back. It is of course a cliche to be totally in awe at the scale and majesty of the universe, but that is the first time in my life that I – someone who has stargazed a lot in the past – have been truly blown away by the night sky. When confronted with a naked-eye view like that, comprised of long-dead stars, incomprehensibly massive galaxies and clouds of helium and hydrogen that birth the stars themselves – and deep down knowing that they are distances from us that humankind could never even hope to surmount – I believe that it is truly impossible for an observer not to be moved. On paper it is a vast expanse of nothing, punctuated almost unfathomably infrequently by objects that we will never visit, that has sat idling above our heads every single night for as long as there has been life on this planet – as long as there has been a universe for us to exist in – and yet it is not something that will ever grow old. It will never not be awesome in the truest sense of the word. It is not only the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but arguably the most amazing thing that any human being could ever see.