Tokyo: Assorted Sausage

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Well hello there

I am in Tokyo. At pretty much every point in my life up until the moment I clicked confirm on a booking form that accompanied an itinerary that contained the words ‘Tokyo Narita International Airport’ in December 2015, that is not something I thought I’d be saying until much later in my life. I had always been under the impression that Japan would be an exotic pipe dream until I’d actually bothered to not be unemployed any more, but no; I currently find myself sat in K’s House Backpackers Hostel Tokyo, mug of instant coffee in hand at 1am, writing a blog post about the most insane 24 hours I’ve ever experienced in a new country.

 

I know it’s incredibly trite to describe Tokyo – or Japan as a whole – as ‘crazy’ or ‘intense’, but once you set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, you quickly realise that those labels come with concrete backup. Evidence of Japan’s unrivaled insanity flows through every sidestreet, hangs from every luminous facade and permeates the walls of every 7/11 that sells spaghetti carbonara in a vacuum pack with soy sauce.

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A classic British dish from the British pub – assorted sausage.

Flying in to either Hanida airport or the far-less-conveniently-located Narita airport, you are treated to an endless stream of magnificent vistas, ranging from tropical islands forming stretches of dots to the horizon, to the indisputably obvious grandeur of Mount Fuji, to the neverending skyline of Tokyo itself. From the sky, it’s clear that Tokyo is practically a country all of its own; rather than the classic centre/suburb structure of pretty much any major city on Earth, Tokyo is a blurry jigsaw of cities smashed together to form a whole that, in all honesty, doesn’t really stand together as a whole. For instance, I’m currently staying in the Asakusa neighbourhood in the northwest of the city, but I don’t have to travel for anything – Asakusa has its own chain shops, its own tourist sights and its own centre, as do all the major neighbourhoods of Tokyo. In fact, so far I’m not entirely convinced Tokyo has a ‘centre’. I’ll attempt to find out tomorrow, even though I could quite easily just look it up now.

 

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‘The Scramble’, Shibuya

After landing at Narita (thanks Jetstar), I had to navigate my way through the Tokyo subway using only a Japanese-language map, which, to put it lightly, was nearly impossible. I somehow ended up catching an express subway to Aoto station, at which point I jumped on the next train in a total gamble which luckily paid off, and I ended up at Kuramae station, a 200m walk from my hostel. I trudged in and to my room with my oversized suitcase, and immediately turned round and headed back out the front door to track down some food. On Edo Street, right outside the hostel, there’s a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Burger King and… a random little hut with a name and menu entirely in Japanese. I know which of those I’m gonna choose. I headed in, sat cross-legged on the floor at a shin-high table, and was handed a menu. And so began one of the oddest meals I’ve ever eaten. We can all agree that sashimi is a highly popular dish all over the globe for good reason, right? Well I guarantee you, whatever kind of sashimi you’ve been served at any point in your life, it may have been delicious but it’s some inauthentic bullshit, because there is no justification or place in the modern world for what I got given when I ordered an assorted sashimi plate in what I subsequently discovered was an actual sashimi restaurant in Tokyo.

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Not the best choice of name

My beer, which was for some reason poured by a beer-pouring robot that sits in the corner, arrived first, so I chugged it down to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what was on its way to me. About two minutes later, a remarkable sight; a wooden board laid out in front of me with an assortment of different shimmering, raw seafood items. I recognised my good friend octopus on the right, and the big chunks of salmon next to it, but the rest was a total mystery. There was a pile of grey-brown fish slices, then a few rolls of strangely transparent flesh next to that, then some prawns, and finally an awkwardly-placed fish head/tail combo at the far end. First, the octopus, which I mistakenly smothered with wasabi before taste-testing, and I had to sit there wincing, tears dripping into my beer for the next two minutes. It was the most intense wasabi I’d ever been in the vicinity of, let alone having put in my mouth. I pushed it to one side and continued with my marine quest. Raw octopus is kind of bland and tough, so I moved onto the salmon which was extraordinary – easily the best salmon I’ve ever eaten. However that was in short supply, so I picked up the strange transparent thing and gave it a go. It was chewy, flavourless and rubbery, with a strip of thick fat running through the middle. I called the waiter over to ask what I was eating, and he flipped the menu over and pointed at ‘whale bacon sashimi’. Right. I’d been in Japan about two hours and had already accidentally eaten whale. Onwards and upwards. Next was the brown-ish fish, which was also excellent, though very pungent. And then the prawns. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten prawns totally uncooked, but there’s two things you’ll have noticed about them if you have done. One is the fact that when you take the head and tail off, there’s blood. Like proper red blood. I don’t know why but I found that really odd. Second was how utterly revolting they are. They can be categorised as slimy, squishy and leaving a nasty film over the inside of your mouth.

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AVE SOME OF THAT

I called the waiter over again and pointed at the only two remaining things on the plate; the fish head and tail. I made a hand gesture as if to ask ‘do I eat these?’, hoping to God he would turn around and laugh me out of town, which is kind of what he did. He said ‘no no no no no!’ and took the plate away, much to my relief. However, about three minutes later the head and tail was returned to me, having been shallow-fried. I froze for a second and looked up at him. I slowly raised my hand to my mouth, apprehensively making the ‘do I eat these?’ sign again, to which he nodded, said something in Japanese and pointed at the kitchen. I turned all the way around and saw that the two chefs I had walked past by the entrance had come all the way over to my table to serve me this plate of fried Japanese fish head and tail and wanted to watch me eat it. Talk about pressure, man.

I went for it with my chopsticks but the guy told me to eat it with my hands. I broke off some of the gill and ate it. It actually wasn’t that bad, and seemed to satisfy the two chefs, who bowed and went back to their sweatbox kitchen. However, the waiter hung around like a cloud of intestinal gas made a ‘eat it!’ gesture with his hand. I hope you’re all proud of me cos I just f*ckin’ went for it. The whole head down. Boom. Sure it was bony, but really I felt like I got off kind of easy; it was just like… fish. It actually was kind of nice. Anyway, I rewarded myself with another robot beer, paid up and left, at which point I discovered that the waiters at this restaurant follow you outside as you leave, and bow as you walk away. That was kind of cool.

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Meiji Shrine

Next day I woke up and set out into the world of Tokyo, just to see what was up. No plan, no nothing. I ended up navigating the painfully weird subway system across town to Tochomae and went up the government building which famously has great views, and the observation deck is free. Suck on that, Tokyo SkyTree. I saw the Meiji Shrine in the distance so walked over there, did the whole handwashing ritual and went inside. The shrine is a really awesome place, and is a tiny little beacon of quiet in an intensely noisy city, but it’s also jammed full of tourists, which is odd. There are guards telling everyone to be quiet, so you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people, none of whom are making any noise. It was surreal to say the least.

I walked across to Shibuya to see ‘The Scramble’; the famous intersection featured in every band’s music video if they persuade their label to allow them to film it in Tokyo. It’s not much to shout about, it’s just a very busy junction. I assumed it would be surrounded by a wall of restaurants and bars that look down onto it, but no – the only thing that sits up high and looks down on Shibuya is a goddamn Starbucks. Thanks but no thanks.

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The world’s saddest selfie

To me, the most notable tourist attraction in Tokyo is Tokyo itself. Rather than walking from one amazing sight to another, the surprising and culturally baffling sights present themselves to you as you make your way between destinations. There are obviously the clichés we all know; every street coated in neon lights, every man wearing a black suit, every girl wearing the most over-the-top plaid school uniform. Then there are other things that pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one example is that nobody in this city locks their bikes up. Obviously bike theft is just literally not a thing in Tokyo. Rows of hundreds of bikes, bunched together, and all totally open to just… taking away. Another is that the subway has ‘women-only’ carriages on their trains on weekdays; a fact I learned when I accidentally ended up in one while travelling to Asakusa. However, the Japanese are much too polite to make a fuss, so I just sat there with a lot of uncomfortable gas-mask-clad women giving me glances out of the corner of their eyes until I slunk off.

 

It’s just random little differences like that, that seem so inconsequential in the long run, that are the most troubling as a foreigner. I’ve been here for about 48 hours, but trust me, culture shock is no joke. The hostel I’m staying at is populated mostly by Japanese people, so there’s limited scope for meeting people who I can hang out/go out with due to the lack of English speaking natives. As a result, I’ve spent the last few days totally alone, 6,000 miles away from my home, with a time difference that means I can’t really communicate with people in London very easily, in a country where nobody speaks English and has an alphabet I can’t read. While intense and visceral and insane, Tokyo is simultaneously wearying, alienating and, surprisingly, lacks warmth. That’s what has hit me the hardest since I’ve been here. Everything is so clinical and, really, rather cold. It may sound like a good thing that the streets are freakishly spotless, the people are efficient and determined and everything you could ever want is available in every shop at all hours of the night, but somewhere in the middle of it, Tokyo is just so crazy that, to an outsider, it’s more of a performance piece, Synecdoche New York-style, than a real functioning metropolis. It’s the kind of place it’s absolutely mindblowing to visit, but I could never in a million years envisage myself living here.

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The concept of the 24-hour clock takes on a new twist in Japan

And on that note, I’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation about 50,000 times in my life. It’s been one of my all time favourite movies since I first saw it in 2003. I’ve read a number of theories about both its popularity and how accurate its portrayal of Tokyo is, and the more outspoken views tend to come from one group of people; self-righteous westerners who have never set foot in Japan. Seriously, the amount of shit this film has gotten for being ‘offensive’ towards the Japanese is not only total bollocks, but also totally misses the point of the film. Take, for example, these two quotes about the film from North American publications;

 

“[The film] says, as racists often do, that foreigners, in this case Japanese, are inherently comic and stupid. Of all the Japanese in the film, not one comes across as much better than a cretin.” – Robert Fulford, The National Post

 “[The film] is an ethnocentric compendium of unpleasant stereotypes, indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan.” – Steve Burgess, Maclean’s

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View from the Government Building

The first is plain wrong. It is not a film of mockery, it’s a film of observation, and – whether you like it or not – accuracy. At no point does it say or do anything that may be even misconstrued as overtly offensive toward the Japanese, it merely shows Japan as a country that developed at the same rate (or perhaps faster than) a country like America, and so stands as a monument to cultural differences and their impact on the growth of a nation. Americans have supermarkets that sell cheese in an aerosol can, while the Japanese have supermarkets that sell – as I discovered yesterday – sandwiches that contain strawberries. They’re both weird to me. It’s not a detriment to Japan, nor its people, nor its culture. Also, the insular perspective of the film is down to its two main characters being deeply flawed people who are noticeably introverted and unwilling to blend in. That in itself is more of a slight on American tourists than it is Japanese natives. The whole point is that there are no Japanese characters in the film, so how, as you say, can they be portrayed as ‘cretinous’? Sounds to me like you’re the one that extrapolated that conclusion.

The second quote is just bizarre. Isn’t that the whole point of the film? In fact, by saying that Lost In Translation is ‘indicative of the way foreign workers often view Japan’, doesn’t that technically mean that the film succeeds in exactly what it’s trying to do – portray the confusion, exhaustion and constant state of comparison to home that accompanies spending time in Tokyo?

I could write so much more but I know nobody wants to hear it. I’ll move on.

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Where am I supposed to keep my commuting skis then? God dammit.

So I was in this bar last night after heading out into town on my own, and after knocking back a few Suntory whiskeys (yes that is the brand that Bill Murray’s character is advertising in the film – this was coincidental), I called the bartender over and pointed at the menu. ‘Shochu’. What on Earth is that? I know Japanese whiskey is big these days, and sake is obviously very famous, but shohcu is not something I was familiar with. He spoke no English, so he brought a giant bottle over (I mean literally the size of his torso) and put it in front of me. It was all in Japanese. I couldn’t read it. The guy next to me then went ‘potato’, but in an accent that was quite strong, so I asked him to repeat it. I also wasn’t expecting him to speak English so I was a little taken aback. ‘Potato! Potato potato potato potato potato’. I was sat at a bar with a man saying potato at my face. At this point I realised he may not have been able to say that much in English. I, foolishly, said ‘potato?’, to which the bartenders and the guy again piped up with a grin-laden chorus of ‘potatopotatopotatopotato’. I said ‘potato!’, and pointed at the option to mix it with oolong tea.

 

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Sean Connery’s napkin range

Just as it arrived, the guy next to me attempted to ask where I was from. I said England, to which he went ‘Ah England! You know Dad Bakaim!’. Dad Bakaim? I asked him to repeat himself. ‘Dad Bakaim. Football. Football football football’, each repetition partnered with an upward flick of the head. ‘Ohhhh David Beckam!’, ‘Yes Dad Bakaim yes yes’. He pointed at my drink. ‘Potato?’. ‘Yes it’s very good!’. It wasn’t. It tasted like unsweetened oolong tea mixed with potatoes, probably because that’s exactly what it was. ‘Barry!’ he then exclaimed. I didn’t know what to think. Was he going down the football path again? Was it Gareth Barry this time? Of all the players. ‘Barry?’. ‘How say? Barry?’. I said ‘Yes, Gareth Barry’. He got his phone out, did a quick Google search and opened a web page in Japanese. He point at the title and said ‘Gareto Barry’. I couldn’t read it so I said ‘English?’. He hit translate and so opened a translated English page about barley. Oh shit. I said ‘Ohhh you meant barley? In my drink?’. ‘Yes, barley’, he said, pointing at the glass. ‘No potato?’ I asked. ‘Yes, potato potato and Gareto Barry’. What have I done to this poor man. I left, stepped outside into the pouring rain and looked across the road to see a big advert for H&M featuring Dad Bakaim.

 

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Yo.

This is kind of a ‘Part I’. I have so much to say, so more to follow once I finish my pile of egg mayonnaise with prawns and onions. Genuinely delicious.

 

ALSO I’m meeting up with an old friend tonight so THAT should be fun. Though I don’t know why you’d really care.

Gabe

Melbourne: Smoked Roo

Yes I apologise profusely for the cover photo of this post but I took literally one photo in my entire time in Melbourne so I have to save that one for later and use a photo of Syndey. I’m deeply sorry.

Since swooping into Avalon Airport about nine days ago, I’ve discovered that there’s really only one way to describe Melbourne; undefined. Where Sydney is a sprawling mess of suburbs and wide avenues punctuated by the inconic vistas afforded by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Melbourne is just a mess, full stop. This is in no way me saying that I don’t like it here, but more that it’s difficult to get to grips with exactly what it is that I like about it. When in Sydney (or really anywhere as long as you’re speaking to someone who’s visited both cities), you’ll often meet people who rave about Melbourne over the former, saying you absolutely must to go south and visit it. However, I should have seen my own personal existential inquisition coming, as whenever you ask even people from Melbourne what is so great about it, or what there is to do that’s so enticing, they’ll often just say ‘… I don’t really know’. Well, either that or ‘… you can get good coffee’.

In fact, on that note, let’s get something out of the way right now; the coffee here is good, but inferior to any I had in Sydney, and that in turn was inferior to any I had in New Zealand. Yeah, blasphemy – what of it? The Kiwis have got you beat, ‘bro’.

So what have I actually done this week? The truth is not much. Staying with my friend Tony, I’ve just been taking it easy, which includes a few days of sleeping in to midday or 1pm. Sweeeet. My liver has been fairly unhappy, however, having taken the harshest beating of my trip so far on the first night after landing. After going to three or four pubs and then getting a literal mountain of meat at a Chinese restaurant, we discovered a whiskey bar that happened to have a bit of a twist in its menu. In this place, a beer is about $10, and a whiskey is about $10 too. However, they have a ‘boilermaker’ menu, whereby you can choose a combination of one whiskey and one beer, which costs… $10. And I’m not talking shit blended whiskey, I’m talking high-quality single malt scotch. (If you’re English and you’re not familiar with the conversion rate, $10 is about £5). So I took what I would call too much advantage of that deal, then headed back to Tony’s and passed out, having gotten up at 3am that morning for my flight from Sydney.

Now then, the flight. It is not so much the flight itself that I want to talk about, but more where this flight happened to end up. Melbourne, for a city of just over 4m people, has a remarkable four airports. Tullamarine, the main international hub, Essendon, a small airport pretty much in the city centre, Moorabbin, an even smaller airport in the suburbs, and then… Avalon.

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There it is. The one photo I took in my entire week in Melbourne. My man Tony.

Avalon Airport is not in Melbourne. It’s not really in the ‘Greater Melbourne Area’ either; way too much countryside separates the city and the airport. In fact, it is much, much closer to the town of Geelong. Overall Avalon is about 35 miles southwest of Melbourne, which is around the same as Luton Airport’s distance to Central London, the difference being that the London Metropolitan Area (the area around London that is continuous urban area), has 14 million people and has comprises a total area of 3,236 square miles. As I’ve already mentioned, Melbourne has a mere 4 million people, over an area of oh shit, upon further research I’ve just discovered that Melbourne’s total area is actually larger than London. That’s despite having 10m fewer people. There goes my point.

Forget that. Basically my point is that Avalon is little more than a cardboard bus stop in the middle of shrub-covered nothing. It’s not exactly the stereotypical ‘outback’ that you think of when the word Australia drifts through your consciousness, but it’s not far off. We arrived in truly atrocious weather, our plane getting battered all over the place by the thick clouds, and we slowly taxied up to what looked to be one of about two gates in the entire airport. In fact, to get a sense of the size of Avalon airport, I can tell you that I could see the roof of it while we were taxiing. The entire building is shorter than the window of a Boeing 737. I crossed the runway, reaching into my pocket to get my phone out, until a little woman wearing a tangerine-coloured hi-vis jacket ran up to me and told me not to ever get my phone out on the tarmac. Woman this isn’t Charles De Gaulle. Who’s radar am I fatally messing up by attempting to connect to the free wifi this airport incidentally doesn’t even have? I get that your job description is literally just ‘make people’s lives a little less enjoyable’ but Jesus.

After navigating my way through Avalon’s 70’s-esque interior, complete with faux-shag carpeting in the arrivals section, I stumbled my way to a city transfer bus and accidentally sat one row in front of some sort of obese man-child who would not shut his mouth for the entire hour-long trip. Keep in mind this is still about 9am. I had to turn around a number of times to double/triple/quadruple-check if he was disabled just in case my anger was unjustified and unintentionally intolerant, but he was no spastic – he was just a regular fat dickhead who cackled, coughed and violently sneezed his way into the eardrums of his fellow coach-goers.

Melbourne, as people who live in it will tell you (and as I’ve already said), is all about atmosphere. It is (as I’ve already said), an enormous city area-wise, but the ‘CBD’ – or centre – is a small grid of about 5 x 8 streets that are absolutely crammed to capacity with people, shops and restaurants. So, most days I would wake up, head into the centre and attempt to navigate the strangely tiny layout of the CBD, picking up a coffee on the way and scouting for restaurants I would later eat at. However, I gotta give it to my bro (and host) Tony; he took me to three places that were three of the best meals I’ve had on my travels so far. One was the excellent burger at ‘Beer and Burger’ in Richmond (yeah great name right), one was the chicken parmigiana at the Napier Hotel in… somewhere (which had a layer of kangaroo, or ‘smoked roo’ on top), and the third (and best) was SUT & Wine, an extraordinary Korean BBQ place in Box Hill.

Honestly, I apologise that this has been a bit of a nothing post, so I’m going to end it here. I enjoyed my time in Melbourne but most of it was just chilling out and not really doing anything. About 24 hours ago I left and landed in Tokyo, and I’m dying to write a post about all the random and hilarious shit I’ve already seen, so I’ma do that now.

Gabe

Sydney: Long-Range Creepin’

I suppose I’ve left it long enough; I know none of you are exactly hanging on my every word, but it is probably time I wrote another post. My last post was written just as I was about to board a flight to Sydney from Auckland, and I write this post having just landed in Melbourne from Sydney a week later. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Sydney, but I did have a lot of free time in which I could have updated the blog, yet I felt there just wasn’t much to say.

After seven weeks of non-stop travelling and activities, I decided to very much take it easy for my time in Australia’s largest city. Staying with my friend Nick allowed time and space for sleeping in, and removed me from the increasingly tiring world of jam-packed hostels which, by the end of my time in New Zealand, had made me feel a bit like Nigel Farage at the EU Parliament; resentful of everyone and wondering why I’m there. As a result, I kept sleeping well past 10am, and thus didn’t leave the house until at least 11am each morning, though this may have been something to do with our nightly tradition of liberally hitting the house’s opulent liquor cabinet to take the edge off our ferocious ongoing backgammon rivalry.

So, Sydney. After stepping off the plane into some pretty uncompromising heat, I quickly hopped onto one of the most appallingly-designed train networks currently in service on this planet. Granted, Sydney Harbour is an awkward shape for a city to have been founded upon (well done Captain Cook you proper bellend), but that doesn’t excuse the layout of the train lines here. Imagine, if you will, that you’re at Sydney International Airport in the south of the city, with the coast to your east, and you have to get across to the western suburbs. You’d best believe there’s no train bypassing the middle of the city, so what do you have to do? Get on the train and go north until you get to Central Station, where the train will continue through to the north until it gets to the harbour, at which point it turns to the east and goes in a loop around five stations in central Sydney, ending up back at Central Station again. Then it heads west into the suburbs. It’s like the train isn’t allowed to turn left. As a result, it took longer than anticipated to get to Nick’s house, at which point I went for a swim, attempted to sunbathe without turning into a raisin, then crashed out horribly having gotten up at 3am that morning for my flight.

In all honesty I did barely anything touristy in Sydney. Yeah I saw the Opera House (which is surprisingly small when you see it in person), and walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge (which is pretty impressive), but really I just hung around with friends and absorbed the atmosphere of the city. In all honesty, even when you make a concerted effort, there just isn’t all that much to do in Sydney, despite it being a massive tourist destination. The Opera House is really just something you observe from the outside as a piece of iconic aestheticism, and the Bridge is a functioning foot/rail/road bridge, so I only actually ended up spending money on two activities.

The first was the Sydney Eye Observation Tower (which most people just know as the Westfield Tower). And I can tell you that wasn’t so hot, despite affording vistas stretching for miles and miles. While the view of the natural harbour in the distance is fairly impressive, Sydney itself is not much to look at from the air; it’s just a metropolis much like many others on earth. Really weirdly, many of the buildings near to the observation tower are of a similar height to the tower itself, and thus block the view of both the Bridge and the Opera House. I wanted to be frustrated, but then realised that I’d already seen those two things numerous times by this point in the trip, and always from more flattering angles anyway. As I sat on the window ledge and stared out at the side of the adjacent skyscraper, a small Chinese woman came and sat right next to me, at which point I turned just in time for her friend to inexplicably take a photo of both of us; her with an attempt at a posed smile, me with a frown of ‘what the Christ are you doing?’. I hope that one goes in her holiday scrapbook, or she frames it.

Then I discovered the telescopes. Oh the telescopes. There are some pretty powerful ones at the top of the tower, which I just naturally assumed you’d have to pay for like any other tourist destination on Earth. But no! I looked into one of them to reveal a shirtless man sunbathing at the far end of Hyde Park, a good few blocks away from the tower. After getting as much fun as I could out of long-range creeping on people, I realised I could hold my phone’s camera up to the viewfinder, leading to some really odd photos with an astronomy-esque aesthetic. That’s about as much enjoyment as I could get out of the tower (especially considering they didn’t even sell beer up there), and headed back down.

After a night in the pub playing Connect Four (which Nick absolutely destroyed me at, 10 games to 1), I got up fairly early the next day and headed to the harbour to get the ferry to Manly Beach. I know, great name. With the sun absolutely beating down on me, we headed out into the harbour and cut across the wake of a passing cruise ship, causing some fairly large lurches up and down, which for some reason caused all the Chinese tourists on the boat to scream like they were watching their children get disembowelled. So, after riding out to rough seas and shrieking our way into Manly Harbour, I bought some cheap sunglasses and hit the beach, which I noticed was being patrolled by the strictest lifeguards I’ve ever witnessed. Manly Beach is probably a 1.5-2 miles in length, with people sunbathing, surfing, swimming and paddling across its entire length. Just as I arrived on the promenade, a siren went off, echoing all the way along the coast, and after coughing into the microphone, a man said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, as I’ve already made very clear, you aren’t supposed to swim outside of the flags. You two. Yes, you two. Come back to shore now, walk down the beach and reenter the water between the flags we’ve set up. There are strong currents today that will sweep you out before you’ll know what’s happening.’

I looked left along the vast expanse of sand and water. No flags at all. I looked to my right, and just before the end of the beach was a solitary yellow and red flag. I assumed the other was at the far end of the beach, meaning these two trespassers must have strayed into the only tiny stretch of water that was off limits. But I was wrong. I walked toward the flag and lo, the other flag came into view behind the first, about ten metres further down the beach. That was the extent of their safe swimming zone – a ten-metre slot on a beach miles long. I looked back down the beach and, just as before, saw people partaking in every marine activity under the sun on all points of the beach. Why were the lifeguards not stopping them? Who were these two poor bastards that got singled out for the condescending retard treatment?

I headed past the Nazi lifeguard offices, toward the cliffs near the beach, prepared to head up into the national park in brutally hot weather. Originally I had assumed, what with Manly being so jammed full of tourists, that this walk would be short, easy, well-marked and crowded. I could not have been more wrong. After taking a smoothly-paved path into the first set of bushes and up a hill to the cliffs, the asphalt suddenly vanished from under my feet, and I found myself making up a path as I went along. I ended up on the edge of a cliff by accident, then headed back into the thick foliage to emerge at an abandoned World War II gun pit used by the Australians during the failed attempt at a siege by Japanese submarines during May 1942. However, these gun pits (of which there are quite a few) hadn’t been refurbished or converted into a museum; they’re situated in a national park and thus I imagine redevelopment is prohibited. As a result, they’re literally derelict; just concrete-lined trenches in the ground, now home to some pretty extraordinary wildlife (or at least to an uncultured Englishman). Aside from the inevitably huge spiders which hung from every ledge, the pits had been colonised by groups of what I later discovered were Eastern Water Lizards, which are awesome green-and-black lizards, about 40-50cm in length, that look like they’re fresh off the boat from the Jurassic Era.

Unfortunately my wander into the Australian countryside predictably took a turn for the worse when I saw a clearing in the distance, and weaved my way towards it, only to discover a swamp. Holy mosquitoes that was not what I wanted to see at that point. After I realised an ambush attack was imminent, I sprinted back into the undergrowth and over the next hill where I suddenly found a road and, more surprisingly, a hospital. I have no idea why on Earth they placed it there, in a national park, by some cliffs, on a peninsula which is difficult to access unless you have a boat. Either way, I walked back down into town, grabbed a glass of red wine at a bar, watched the sun set, then headed back to Nick’s for another round of the gammon.

I’m now in Melbourne, sheltering in a coffee shop from the hideous weather outside (rain this time, not sun), so will report back once I get to grips with this city.

Gabe

Invercargill/Fiordland Pt. II: Extreme Tea

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Spoiler alert: I jumped.

Our first impression of Fiordland, from the confines of our bus, was a sudden loss of wifi and mobile reception, which I hope ended up being a blessing for most of the people on board. I’m the kind of person who likes to stare aimlessly out of the window, but it seems that even in midst of the most lavishly grand scenery, surrounded by 1000ft waterfalls, glacier-topped mountains and mist-filled valleys, some people are just not that interested. I’m not one of those people who believes we’re all collectively turning into phone-obsessed morons who can’t cope without checking Facebook every five minutes; that’s a sentiment I find arrogant and self-righteous, and people can do what they want whenever they want. I just find it kind of confusing when you’ve paid over the odds to go on a tour of one of the most beautiful corners of the Earth, and you don’t feel like even looking out the window. Even more baffling are those who decide that the moment of entry to the Park was a good time to get some long-awaited sleep. Seriously. Why sleep through that?

All corners of Fiordland – particularly the Darran Mountains – are remarkably intimidating. This is not your typical Alpine landscape with wide rolling valleys and green, sloped foothills; this is difficult, uninvitingly angular terrain where giant granite cliff faces and piles of jagged rocks separate the peaks. We toured for a while, stopping by at various viewpoints including the remarkably bleak Eglinton Valley, but once we had climbed far enough into the park for the weather to have worsened considerably, we took a break at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel.

The Homer Tunnel is the most vivid time-capsule souvenir of the infamous early days of discovery in New Zealand. Once the dramatic vistas of the Milford Sound were discovered in the mid-late 1800s, it was decided that the world needed to be granted access to this naturally enclosed fjord at pretty much any cost. So, in very surprisingly preachy terms, we were told by our driver that the construction of this tunnel – which cuts through the Homer Saddle – took 19 years and cost the lives of numerous workers. As a result, after entering the tunnel and slowly descending into weird, claustrophobic darkness, our driver said something along the lines of ‘As we exit the tunnel, be sure to take in the surroundings. People died for this view’, then timed a piece of post-rock music to suddenly explode into a crescendo over the speakers just as the previously inaccessible mountains appeared. In all honesty it was kind of a cool – if a little overbearing – moment, but I am hesitant to praise the driver too much due to his conduct later on the trip, which I’ll come to later.

We began heading down into the Sound past more insanely steep and seemingly infinitely tall rock faces, until we reached the boat. We set sail in cloudy and blustery conditions, at which point I decided to take advantage of the unlimited free tea on board, and attempted to drink it on the top deck in gale-force winds. As my hood slapped against my face and most of my beverage went flying out of the mug into the deepest depths of the Sound, I realised I had discovered my favourite new sport; Extreme Tea. Attempting to pour, brew and subsequently drink tea in a natural wind tunnel as vicious as Milford Sound felt like a fairly comprehensive test of my Englishness, and I embraced the challenge with gusto, stoically defying wind speeds that would make Neptune seem calm. I quickly switched to beer.

After touring the Sound, which is surprisingly short in length if not height, and being joined by some dolphins for part of the journey (and stopping directly under a waterfall while I was stood on the front deck), we got back on the bus and headed back toward Queenstown. However, the trip had one more little surprise in store; the driver. As we approached a restaurant in Te Anau, a small village near Fiordland, the driver passed around a form that allowed us to pre-order burgers for our arrival. Typical tourbus maneuvre. By the time the form got back to the driver, it had four signatures on it, which he clearly did not bother cross-checking, as by the time we arrived at the restaurant, only three people went in for a burger. The driver got back on the bus and said ‘Right, before we go, I’ve just noticed that we’ve got a joker on board. There’s a signature here for a Ben. But there’s no Ben on board is there?’. To be fair there actually was a guy called Ben on board who I’d met while dolphin swimming the previous day. I almost called him out on it when he said ‘Yeah, Ben Dover? Very funny. You guys think it’s funny to waste people’s resources? There’s a burger in there with nobody to take it. You know what? I was going to put a movie on, but that person has ruined it for everyone. We can just sit here in silence.’ Now it may seem obvious, but two things struck me as odd about this moment.

The first is that he kept repeating the terms and conditions of his punishment. ‘Yeah it’s a shame we can’t watch the film but I guess that’s what happens when one person ruins it for everyone else. I just don’t feel like putting the movie on now. I’ll just take you back to Queenstown and you can entertain yourselves. You can figure out amongst yourselves who ruined it for everyone else. Yes, we get it you f*cking lunatic, you’re not putting the goddamn film on. Stop telling us to engage in a witchhunt because you can’t handle the emotional baggage that comes with a wasted burger.

The second is what the hell do you think you’re doing? You are an adult, right? And you know who else is? Everyone else on your busIt shouldn’t need explaining to you that you are not our father scolding us for making a scene, nor are you a substitute teacher on a school trip that’s getting out of hand. We’re all adults, some of whom are actually older than you, and none of whom know each other. Why on Earth should I take responsibility for some random cretin making a lame joke? And more to the point, we’re all adults who have paid your company a shit-ton of money for you to shut your goddamn mouth, get back up to the front of the bus and do your job, which is to drive us into a national park, and to drive us out again. It is quite definitively not your job to punish your own paying customers for some shit they didn’t do. I will not be spoken to like I am a child. I care about conserving the beauty of Milford Sound. I care about futhering the economy of small towns in the area so that they can continue to prosper. I care about the poor and the sick and the disabled. You know what I don’t give a shit about? A burger. One solitary burger. If it pains you so much, why didn’t you take the hit and pay for it? Why didn’t you chuck $10 of your money down from your moral high ground? What was really agonising though was that once we approached Queenstown, he suddenly went back to jokey, friendly mode over the tannoy. No dice, friend; you’re waaaaaay past the event horizon at this stage. No amount of casual chat is gonna erase you patronising us to within an inch of our sanity. Needless to say, I will be writing to Kiwi Experience about this matter. After all, I am English.

Skip forward a day and I found myself sat around in Queenstown with not much to do. Realising I had another three days here in The Adrenaline Capital of the World, I decided to hike up to the top of a mountain. Then I hiked back down again. I mean that was fun but not exactly thrilling. So I returned to my hotel room, stalled for a bit, and then impulsively booked a bungee jump.

This is not something I had ever envisaged myself doing. Not because of nerves or fear; it’s just not something I had ever had any interest in doing. What was the point of throwing yourself off a bridge attached to a rope? Yet, for some reason, impulse – and constantly being surrounded by bungee jumping adverts – convinced me I should do it. So I went to sleep dreading the next day. I awoke the next day, made some terrible breakfast, and thought – incredibly irrationally, I know – ‘if I’m going out today, I’m going out wearing the claret and blue’, put my 1963 replica West Ham home kit on, and headed out the door. The bus ride was annoyingly short; I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to gather my thoughts before passing a mountain to reveal an enormous ravine with a bridge spanning it. Oh shit.

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The worst moment ever.

I attempted to make it all as un-agonising as possible. I rushed in, got weighed, got my ticket, went to the bathroom (obviously), and headed out to the bridge. Sitting on the edge, my unnervingly-loose-feeling harness around my waist, I have never felt my heart pound so incredibly violently. They asked me to move down to the next platform, at which point they tied my feet together and surrounded in with a strange towel for padding. Then they hooked two carabiners to it and… that was it. Holy shit, you’re telling me I’m about to throw myself off a bridge to a river way below us connected only by a knot that you tied with your hands? My hands are actually sweating again as I type this out, and I’m in a coffee shop the following day. They lifted me up and held onto the back of my waist harness (which was attached to the rope too), but didn’t feel all that tight. They told me to shuffle to the very edge, so I did. They told me I needed to go closer. So I did. They were, however, insistent that my toes hung off the edge. Shuffling forward, feet tied together, and staring down off a 150ft drop into a ravine is a moment I will never ever forget. I’m not one of those people who ‘can’t look down’; I decided to embrace the moment, give a ‘what the hell am I doing?’ shrug to the camerawoman, took a deep breath and waited for the countdown.

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Grace and beauty

The nonchalance with which the bungee guys execute the countdown is really quite unpleasant. You’d think it’d make it seem all very routine and ‘well, here we go!’ about it, but you just want there to be a bit more ceremony. A fanfare or a flamethrower or something. Instead the guy just goes ‘right, hands off the railing – 3, 2, 1, bungee!’. And you can’t back out. If you hesitate, first, you’ll look like a total loser, and second, they’ll ask if you need a push. I decided to be a man and that I would just go for it. Prior to jumping he told me that because of my weight and the fact that I wanted to touch the water at the bottom, I’d have to give it a good jump away from the platform, rather than just dropping off like a corpse in a Mafia film.

There was an odd moment of silence after the word ‘bungee!’, as I realised I was about to leave the safe confines of the instructor’s grip on my harness. I looked down for a fraction of a second, with literally every muscle, tendon, nerve and pore in my body doing its best to tell me that I would die violently if I jumped. But you just have to tell yourself that all those millions of years of evolutionary instinct are not naturally ‘aware’ of the existence of harnesses, or of bungee jumping in general. In a way, it’s the experience of dying without the death; it hit me as I was about to jump that it’s a strangely morbid activity. Why do we want to know what it feels like to jump to our deaths? But f*ck it, no time to think about that now – I leaned out over the canyon, started to topple forward, extended my legs, and I felt my feet leave the platform. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the most terrifying moment of my life. I will never ever forget it.

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More falling

There isn’t really much to do from then on if you’ve never bungee jumped before. To someone who has never experienced the mercy of the elastic hauling you back up away from the river, it’s just falling – not bungee jumping. My original plan was to pose for the camera as I fell, but the focus required to convince yourself to put your faith in a piece of rope is so all-consuming that you just kind of flail around. I for instance, I don’t remember putting my arms in the air as I fell, but according to the photos that is what I did, and it made for a couple of pretty awesome shots. As I fell, I shouted some non-verbal nonsense, until the bottom, when I was suddenly whipped round to find myself about a foot away from the water, just agonisingly beyond my fingertips. Then, part two of the bungee, which I was not expecting to be quite so dramatic; the return journey.

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The bounce-back

At the apex of the rope’s elasticity, staring down at the river, you could feel every square inch of the veins and arteries in your head and eyes being inflated like a car tyre – it feels like you’re about to have a stroke, aneurysm and brain hemorrhage at the same time. Your body feels like it literally could not take any more pressure, and then ping! You’re sent careening back up towards the bridge at breakneck speed. I was really not expecting to be shot up quite so high, but you almost reach the bridge again, this time flailing around even more as you’re not sure which way is up and which way is down. It’s just a total blur as rock faces and your own feet go flying in and out of your field of vision, like looking through a zoetrope. I found myself almost upright at the top of the bounce, at which point I loudly proclaimed ‘F***********CKING HELLLLLLLLL’ to the platform of – I assume – amused and pitying onlookers. As my profanity echoed across the canyon, I plummeted back down for another quick dose of air pressure in my brain, and then the final part of the bungee begins; the really shit part. The last few bounces are absolutely infuriating, as a couple of guys on a dinghy in the river set sail and hold out what looks like a shower curtain railing for you to grab onto, you just helplessly hang there like a dead pig in a butcher as your vision starts to blur and you feel like you may actually pass out. After not being quite close enough for a couple of swings, I finally got one hand on the pole, and almost ripped it out of the guy’s grasp, so desperate was I to get down. They pulled me closer, my shirt having almost lifted up over my face and veins popping out of my head, at which point I said ‘a dignified entrance I’m sure’.

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My dignified touchdown

This is the moment that convinced me not to buy the video. After letting me down and me sprinting back up to the top, I met a couple of people who said ‘holy shit your eyes are so bloodshot’, and headed inside to watch my video. As the guys in the boat are getting you down, they tell you to do a sit up so that you land on your back rather than your head, and this reveals your ‘hanging upside-down face’ to the cameras at the top. It was horrific. I looked like a man who had either just survived a decompression accident on the ISS or someone who was having to spend longer in the bathroom than they would have anticipated. I decided to just get the photos, head back to Queenstown, have a beer, treat myself to a fantastic burger and fries from Devil Burger (which is superior in every way to the greatly-hyped Fergburger), and watch some Seinfeld in my hotel room. I then found that the adrenaline was an extremely slow burner, and hit me just as I tried to sleep. I couldn’t do it. So after a fitful night of half-sleep, I’m here, living to tell the tale of the dumbest, scariest thing I’ve ever done.

I am pretty tired though.

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

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!

Gabe