Budapest: Diesel and Petrol

Who would have guessed that, having left it idly snoozing on the shelf of forgotten dreams for close to two years, I would ever have enough confidence (that I may be accidentally mistaking for arrogance) to look back at my clumsy old blog posts and, reeling with sheer visceral adrenaline from thrill-a-minute stories of the time I went bowling in Ukraine or said the wrong form of “thank you” to a 7/11 worker in Japan, thought I should dust off my laptop, flex my fingers and give it another go.

Hello darkness, my old friend

And what better place than here, what better time than now? I can actually answer both of those honestly: a better place is probably somewhere that isn’t the back row of a Ryanair flight where I am squashed into the corner by a proportionally challenged Hungarian woman who appears to need help translating the Daily Mail’s sudoku game despite it being comprised entirely of numbers, and a better time, it goes without saying, is any one that isn’t 7am.

Today Kate and I fly to Budapest for a few days before snaking our way through to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Lake Bled and Trieste before flying home. I’ll admit that due to other commitments and the small window we were afforded for travel by the Easter holiday, our timeframe was somewhat limited for cramming that all in so we’ll be entering and leaving cities before you can say “mi a lényeg az életben?”

And already we’re off to a flying start for the blog as I was held up at Stansted Airport (as if that isn’t bad enough) by a security guard who logged “traces of chemicals” on my luggage after three goes over with that magical swab wand thing.

After him and a few other people started scurrying around and pointing ominously at me from across the concourse, I started to grow fractionally worried. When he came back over I asked what was up, to which he responded with the chemical remark. I asked him what kind of chemicals, and, poring over a roll of receipt paper that had just printed out of a sort of futuristic anti-terrorism machine, said “hmm… diesel and petrol.”

And as if having a girlfriend who works for the police and frequently tells me I have “almost certainly” been watched remotely by counter-terrorism forces due to having to look up ISIS movements online for work, the security guard looked me up and down following his assessment, scribbled my name onto a form, paused for a moment and said “… alright. You can go.”

But yes, the blog returns! And ho ho ho, this time you poor souls who have decided to come back for another round will be subjected to a big difference since the time I bored you all to tears with my last outing.

If I come across as an arrogant tosser throughout this new series of entries, it’s because I, ya boi Hidden Gabe, against all odds and for reasons that shall likely remain a mystery until I’m in a morgue, am now an award-nominated blogger. Yes that’s right, in perhaps the most uncool turn of events imaginable, in August last year my mum, in a classic motherly fashion, pushed me to submit a piece of my choice from my blog to the AITO Travel Awards, and what happened next was a little surprising to say the least.

Upon asking her why on Earth I would put myself through the shame of coming bottom of a ranking of the 500+ blogs that were likely to be submitted, she said: “Well I just remembered that really funny post where you were climbing over that wall in India and then fell off and landed on your face.”

Thanks mum.

“That post is not very well written though,” was my response, to which she shot back with “… yeah maybe actually.” A more damning yet predictable indictment I could not have wished for.

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Alright everyone stay calm and nobody will notice we’re here

Nevertheless, after a few whiskies one night I decided that I would try submitting one because what’s the harm, right? I chose one called Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train, a concise but slightly over-earnest snapshot of travelling through the gargantuan, perplexing wilderness of eastern Ukraine, somehow drawing blood from a stone by wrangling unnecessary emotion out stories involving drinking warm Staropramen on a train served by a woman called Gollum yet omitting details of how I also managed to make the entire nation of Palestine cringe by absentmindedly greeting some Christians from Ramallah with a hearty “Shalom”.

I read the piece again, made a few tiny adjustments and submitted it. To six separate categories. Including ones it didn’t meet the criteria for. Go big or go home, that’s what I say.

Skip forward to October and I get an email from AITO with the subject header “Re: Re: Fwd: AITO Travel awards invitation”, followed by a worrisome, stark question – “Gabriel could you possibly let us know if you are able to attend next week?”

Suddenly it hit me – all those emails about some travel awards thing I had for some reason been dismissing as primitive spam were actually a first class ticket straight to the biggest of big times. I quickly scrambled back to track down the earliest one, discovering to my horror that almost a month previously I had been told I was nominated for Travel Blogger of the Year and given an invitation to the ceremony. No longer would my rambling words mean nothing. No longer would I be casting blog posts callously into the abyss. Now I would be casting them into the abyss with a little metaphorical gold sticker on them.

In all seriousness, I’m not quite sure why my post made the shortlist of six, and was stunned when they told me there had been over 400 submissions to that category. I mean, I do like that post or else I wouldn’t have chosen it, but… really?

First off, my piece was the wrong length for that category. Second, I was nominated as a travel blogger of the year despite my piece being published over a year before the ceremony. And third… I dunno, it’s hard to explain.

I suppose in a world where the majority of travel writing and blogging has morphed into a feel-good cascade of inspiration porn about finding your inner self and claiming enlightenment through embracing other cultures while wiping self-congratulatory tears from your own keyboard as you type, mine felt like a bit of an interloper; a shonky, hastily cobbled together bit of prose about how ugly Dnipropetrovsk is and how trying to sleep on a hot train didn’t do much for me.

However to say that all blogs are like this would do a great disservice to the other shortlisted nominees – their pieces were informative and quirky in way that mine could never hope to emulate. And of course I didn’t win. Or come in the top three. Out of six nominees.

So stay tuned as I – in all likelihood – fail miserably to secure a nomination for next year.

Gabe

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Odessa: Give ‘Em A Hundred

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I call this one Slavs Squatting

As much as I can see that Odessa is an exceptionally pretty city, it is difficult to fully gauge the qualities of a destination that you’re supposed to be able to analyse if you wake up at 1pm with a thunderous hangover and attempt to explore it in 34 degree weather. Last night inadvertently involved drinking a literal 15 litre tower of beer (among other things), so apologies if this post is not exactly enlightening about what is, based on all evidence we’ve gathered so far, a lovely place. So while I can’t tell you which statues and monuments are the most historically significant, I can tell you which is the most comfortable to sit down and catch your breath on.

Yesterday we swam in the Black Sea after being raced across town by a taxi driver who we’re convinced gave us a discount because he was aware of his own batshit insane road rage. After speeding down every sidestreet at 70mph, he then decided to beep furiously at a decrepit old man who was driving slowly in the car in front, and ended up getting so worked up that he not only swerved into (subsequently equally furious) oncoming traffic to overtake him, but then did a fake swerve to the right and pretended to ram the old dude. So he only charged us 100 hryvnias (about £3) for a 20-minute journey.

Speaking of which, Jake has developed a rather cavalier attitude towards his hard-earned hryvnias, and has coined a catchphrase that will go down in the annals of time; ‘Give em’ a hundred’. No matter the cost of an item, Jake will offer 100 hryvnias, which could be seen as either a great deal or a grave insult. A taxi driver charging 60 will give us a big old grin and a thanks as we swing him 100, but when a woman in a shop is asking for 150 for a bottle of wine, the tactic often comes apart at the seams.

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Last night before things went dark

In fact, if we’re all picking up our own little tactics. After one of our longer and more painful nights out, we needed to get home. Despite Jake being our designated Russian speaker, instead it was Elliot who stepped up to the plate when we were offered an 800 hryvnia taxi ride (8x the going rater). Instead of our usual bargaining (give ’em a hundred, am I right?), Elliot decided that a more effective tactic would be extended his arm entirely, putting the palm of his hand up to the taxi drivers nose and shouting NYET!right in his face. While it may have been a simple drunken misjudgment of volume, it certainly did the trick, and the toothless driver sheepishly retreated back into his 1970s Soviet shitmobile.

We’re about to head out again (kill me now) and are inexplicably sat around bleary-eyed in our underwear waiting for a washing cycle to finish, at what looks like the start of a porn film that even the most depraved gay men would shy away from. And when that’s done, we’ll have to deal with the fact that the washing machine becomes electrocuted when plugged in, and shocks you if you try to touch it.

This blog post is about the best I can do in my current state. I will post another tomorrow, promise.

Gabe

 

Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train

Last night, far beyond the lurching reaches of Dnipropetrovsk’s smokestacked suburbs, somewhere in the darkest wilds of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, we stood with our heads on our forearms, resting on top of the open window panels as we hurtled towards Odessa on a 14-hour sleeper train. With cans of demoralisingly warm Staropramen we had bought from the housekeeping lady at the end of the carriage, we skipped past abandoned factory after abandoned factory, through towns, districts and regions evidently not sufficiently prosperous so as to have ‘de-Stalinised’ themselves; this was another instance of that pure, unfiltered post-Soviet backcountry that travellers like Jake, Elliot and I have scoured this continent to compile memories of for the past decade.

Having booked a first class sleeper cabin, we naturally assumed that our train would be of similar technological adequacy (and age) as our previous train from Kiev to Dnipro. However, as we touched down on platform five, our oversize luggage in tow, we were greeted by a row of grey-blue cattle cars masquerading as a cross-country train service. Climbing up the stairs into the carriage corridor felt like watching From Russia With Love in virtual reality. As steam spurted from pipes in the walls, and the smell of crumbling skin cells launched itself from the Persian carpet with every step further into the darkness, we sidled along a mahogany-flanked train carriage that must have been at least 80 years old. At our cabin, fold-up leather bunk beds greeted us, along with a window that refused to open, and subsequently a heat so stifling that we immediately knew this was going to be a rough night.

Skip forward three hours and three beers and Jake and I found ourselves with our heads protruding from the windows in the corridor, maximising our lung capacity in futile anticipation of any fresh air that might manage to penetrate the burning coal embers and iron smelting fumes surrounding the train as it sat motionless in a freight yard. Overhead rang out the deafening sound of control box operators communicating with each other and their various cargo-filled subjects via loudspeaker, and we watched as coal truck after coal truck was slowly dragged or pushed into the obsidian blankness beyond the last lamplight of the depot. Under the assumption that our train would lurch back to life once all tracks were clear, Jake then nudged me on the shoulder and pointed into the distance down the tracks. Out of the black rolled a coal truck with no engine attached. As it rumbled into the light, I stupidly asked ‘how is that thing propelling itself?’, before realising that it wasn’t. It was obviously a mistake – a carriage that had come loose and rolled away, and just about the closest thing Jake and I would ever see to a runaway train. As we watched with bleary-eyed nonchalance like a cow stares at a passing car, it then slammed into a row of stationary freight containers, waking the entirety of our train up with a thunderous impact. As everyone jolted upright and a group of worried-looking track workers suddenly jogged into the light, Jake and I burst into hysterics, further angering the burly Russian co-occupants of our carriage. Before we could even finish laughing, our train suddenly sprang to life and wobbled off, inexplicably back in the direction we had just arrived from. I decided to question no further, and promptly went to sleep.

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Sunset from Monastyrsky Island

So now it’s Odessa’s turn to undergo my mild-mannered and irrelevant scrutiny. Dnipropetrovsk had been fun, but a sort of challenging fun. A city that is in no way built for tourism, it’s grey, industrial and rough around the edges. With only one major boulevard, the centre is compact and – apart from on Sundays – mostly lifeless. However, there is an untapped beauty within it. For instance, while the city is a hollowed out former Soviet industrial stronghold, it also has sights like Monastyrsky Island, hugging the western bank of the vast Dneiper River, complete with forested parks, white sand beaches and – if you’re a fan of industrial landscapes – one of the most stunning sunset spots one could ever hope to see, underscored by the vast expanse of water surrounding the island, and punctuated by concrete bridges and shipyard cranes far, far in the haze of the distance.

Dnipropetrovsk is a city that I could never recommend to anyone I know. Nothing about it is conventional. There isn’t much to do, there isn’t much to see, but something about it left me with a sort of unspectacular love. And that’s still love, I guess, so it feels like it has to be qualified by something, but it isn’t. The emptiness, remoteness and unfamiliarity of the city are its drawing points.

I am perfectly aware that this knowingly-backhanded endorsement generously affords the average person an adequate arena within which to pick off reasons to avoid Dnipro at all costs, but that’s not really the type of person I’m selling Dnipro to. I write this because I know that simply by being in a place like this, Jake, Elliot and I are in a miniscule minority, even though I’m aware it comes across as perhaps a little overtly abstract to constantly try to put into words the perspective of someone who frequently finds himself in far-flung places purely because they exist. As a result, it’s difficult to explain much further, beyond saying the kind of fondness one has for a city like Dnipropetrovsk can only really be felt by those who have a love of travel off the beaten track – those who go somewhere simply so they can expect nothing and thus relish everything.

Gabe

Dnipropetrovsk: Gogl-Mogl

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Time to statue!

I promised myself (and of course all you tragically bored readers) that I would finally get this blog up and running again, and that I would be so on the ball that said ball would slip out from underneath me and I would crack my head open on the Dnipropetrovsk concrete, in a manner not too dissimilar to an exceedingly drunk club-goer I stumbled across in the midst of having his pockets ransacked by a bunch of burly gangsters pretending to help him last night.

As the mercilessly hangover-inducing unfiltered lager of eastern Ukraine flowed through my veins (that’s not good is it?), I stumbled up to this helpless man, passed out face-down on the concrete, while I waited for Jake and Elliot to emerge from the already-infamous Club Rio on the banks of the Dnieper River, its unusual girth measurable only by the blurry twinkles of streetlamps over a mile away on the opposite bank. As I stretched out a tentatively violent foot to nudge him (or kick him depending on my inebriated lack of judgement), two skinhead men appeared from behind a tree, and with an almost routine-like efficiency, power-walked up to the man, knelt down at his side, and rootled around in his pockets, stuffing his copious wads of Ukrainian hryvnia into their own coat linings, before locating his phone and tucking that into their waistlines. After that, they helped him to his feet, slapped him in the face to wake him up, and vanished into the darkness, leaving our drunken victim drooling long chains of saliva down his own shirt and onto the feet of a statue of Taras Shevchenko.

While I imagine this is the kind of story you were expecting a lot of in a blog about Ukraine, this is just about the only moment of genuinely reprehensible behaviour we’ve witnessed in our time here. I mean granted it’s only been four days, but it must be said that – what with everyone questioning our choice to head to a recent war zone – Ukraine is no more dangerous than any other country in Europe, unless you feel like taking a couple of shells to the face in Donetsk or Luhansk. The vast majority of this country is perfectly safe. Sure, the infrastructure is a little shonky and it does feel somewhat impoverished in places, but it’s not Mogadishu – people aren’t going to kidnap or murder you for being a foreigner.

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Shevchenko Park, Dnipro

So, after about 24 hours in Kiev (during which time I of course had a chicken kiev), we took the six-hour train to Dnipropetrovsk at 7am, weaving through the floodplains of the Dnieper across the flat interior of this vast country. We decided to spend the extra £3 to get a first class ticket, complete with reclining chairs and a buffet car unfortunately called the WOG Cafe. After knocking back a couple of hot dogs and watery americanos on our arduous march across the former UkSSR, we shuffled down the aisles and off the train, squeezing past the buffet car’s trolley service which we affectionately dubbed WOG-On-Wheels.

Dnipropetrovsk is an interesting city. It’s got a really post-industrial, post-Soviet hinterland vibe about it. It’s in the middle of nowhere, stranded hundreds of miles from the coast, with one big wide avenue (named after Karl Marx, of course) slicing through the middle of the city. Thick black smoke billows from the chimneys of factories that flank the edges of every panorama of Dnipropetrovsk, their corresponding high-rise apartment blocks for workers visible in their shadows. However if there was one trait I had to select as the most noticeable in this city, it’s that the Latin alphabet is nowhere to be seen, and if you’re hoping anyone can speak English, dream on, friend. In most Eastern European cities, signs will be written in their native Cyrillic, underscored by the Latin version, so us heathens can have a crack. However, in Dnipro, there is no Latin alphabet – it’s just thick, imposing Cyrillic, and there’s somewhat of a British mentality about your average Ukrainian’s attitude towards the English speakers of this world; if they don’t understand your language, say it again, and louder. We’ve had Ukrainians repeat phrases we already don’t understand twice as loud enough times to truly understand how infuriating it must be when English people do the same to unassuming foreigners trying to ask for directions.

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The sign in the background says Gogl-Mogl. We felt it deserved some reverential respect.

And no scenario saw as much heightened repetition as when our beloved Jake proceeded to leave his Sainsbury’s bag of valuables in the back of the taxi taking us from the bus station to our AirBnB. After rushing back to the station to find the driver, we found that he wasn’t there. He seemed like a nice enough guy and were convinced he wouldn’t steal someone’s stuff, so we approached another driver who saw us get into his car and asked if we could phone him. After the longest phone conversation in modern history, we were told in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that the driver was asleep. Then that he was driving around. Then that he was at home. Then that he had the bag. Then that he didn’t. Then that it was still in the boot. After about half an hour, a different taxi driver showed up with the bag. In our euphoric relief, we ransacked the bag to discover that Jake’s phone wasn’t in it.

Oh typical, bloody taxi drivers giving back the bag but pocketing the most valuable item in it. After it slowly dawned on us that he may have stolen the phone, we continued to quiz the other drivers about the whereabouts of the phone. Yet again, we were told that he both did and didn’t have the phone, that he was both asleep and awake, that he was both at home and still out driving around. Defeated and a phone down, we trudged back to the apartment to unpack. I hung up my clothes, did some laundry, drank some beer, and then unfolded the sofabed to reveal underneath a sight all three of us both wanted to see and didn’t want to see at the same time; Jake’s phone. For God’s sake.

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A disappointed selfie on Jake’s newly-found phone.

Gabe

Gatwick Airport: Lazybones

Yes, you read that right. The blog that nobody asked for in the first place, and that nobody pined for in its absence, is back. Though this will be one of my shorter blog posts as a half-hearted re-introduction of Hidden Gabe, it still needs to be said that I have been tragically lazy in recent months, in a manner that is unbecoming of an aspiring journalist.

The days of my weird and wonderful round-the-world trip are long behind us, and I have reluctantly hurtled myself back into the menial trivialities of life in the frighteningly middle-class terraced-house corridors of East Dulwich, I have been ‘travelling’ in a somewhat less explicit manner since then. For instance, I took a trip to Spain in June. It was undeniably a trip that was jam-packed, however it was mostly jam-packed with red-wine-laden family card games, and silently creeping further and further towards a melanoma diagnosis. And who wants to read scheduled updates about how many Catalan words I can mispronounce per day? I sure as hell wouldn’t, even if I had written them myself.

Then there was the Georgia trip. Now that was legitimately too busy and full of insanity for me to even pause for a moment. From winning over a grand on the Europa League final, to necking four glasses of wine with our own taxi drivers halfway along a poorly-maintained mountain road in Kazbegi, to helping clear a highway of debris from a truck that had recently disintegrated after tipping over on a sharp turn, Georgia was fast, furious, and fantastic. Hence, I just didn’t want to miss anything by taking time out to write paragraph after paragraph detailing every single event of the day. I just wanted to live it, not analyse it. Yes, that is as wanky as I have ever sounded on this blog.

And so, in 45 minutes I will be boarding a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. I will be spending 16 days touring the country with my companions Jake and Elliot (who are not on the same flight as me which is a pain), and really at this point I can only speculate on what’s to come. And I’m not going to do that because people don’t want to read blogs that tackle subjects that can only be written about by guessing. Oh wait, I forgot about Brexit.

Expect more soon.

Gabe

 

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.

Gabe

Queenstown/Dunedin: One Cemetery

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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:

SouthKill

Abbatoir

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.

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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.

Gabe