Saturday, August 08, 2009

New Zealand - Aug 2000

Nearly a decade since I wrote this as an email from Singapore. I'm very glad to have got a copy of it from my old pal Jason, because reading this again after so many years brought back so MANY memories of my New Zealand trip! A great many thankyous, Jase, for keeping this email for so long, and fwding it back to me on request!

Ok, here goes. New Zealand is BEAUTIFUL!!!!!! The most gorgeous place I've ever seen, I mean, every place I saw looks like it belongs on a postcard! Impossibly lovely and green. It's supposed to be peak winter now, but apparently it's been a mild winter this year, so most of the time the weather was sunny and clear and windy and cold, instead of being wet and rainy and windy and cold. Good for me!

Anyway, the flight from Singapore to Christchurch was a royal pain. It took 10 hours to CC and another hour from CC to Wellington. The most boring, esp as they showed old movies (not in the sense of classics). I couldnt sleep 'cause I cant sleep sitting up. Hell, I cant even sit up sitting up!!! :-) I fidgeted all through, and must have irritated the life out of an old Kiwi guy who had the misfortune of sitting next to me! :-) HE didn’t have any problem snoring his head off. Bah! The only worthwhile hour was when we were nearing CC and flew over the Southern Alps... peak after snowy peak whizzing by beneath us. Lovely!

I had a short stopover at Christchurch which I reached at 11 am or thereabouts. I had about an hour to see part of the airport, which isnt very big anyway. Not like Changi, which spreads for kilometres and probably occupies half of Singapore's total area! But Wellington airport was smaller still! Would you believe people can come almost all the way to the plane to receive visitors? Imagine if such a thing could happen in India!

Of course, Lakshmi wasnt on time, but by the time I'd picked up my luggage, she arrived. One step outside the airport, and I had to put on my warm sweatshirt, which stayed over the rest of my clothes for the next 10 days! :-)

It was WINDY and beautifully cold!!! I loved it! We went by the airport bus to a place very near where Lakshmi stays, which is an area called Lower Hutt. Wellington is actually in five parts, and the city proper is called Wellington. The other areas are Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt and I forget the other two! I didnt go there, anyway. I think Wellington must be about the only place where you can see all four forms of transport in one place, and if you're in the right place at the right time (I was), all together at once - road, rail, sea, and air! It's SO cool!

I wasnt jetlagged at all, actually, and was all willing to go for a long walk. But what we did was walk to the supermarket where Lakshmi picked up stuff and then we took a bus back home. Wellington is a lovely place. Unlike Singapore, there are hardly any high-rises, and those few only in the city business area. Most of the houses are pretty little picturesque cottages, with little flowery gardens, and each one is SO individual! After 5 months in Singapore, believe me, that is so very refreshing! Even the so-called flats have only two storeys! :-)

The next day was also pretty quiet. I went for a loooooooooong walk in the evening with a pen friend who stays there - the walk turned out to be long because we couldnt find a coffee shop that was open! That's the one thing I disliked very much about NZ in general. Everything shuts down by 5.30 pm!

Oh, and Wellington is very famous for its coffee – what variety, what HUGE bloody cups of it they give you! Even the vending machine coffees are fresh, with the beans being ground automatically for each individual cup. A coffee-lover's dream, allright!

The actual travelling started on the third day - Wednesday. We went on a three-hour ferry ride from Wellington to a place called Picton. That was a lovely journey and I spent most of the time on the top deck, being buffeted by the wind and loving every last minute of it! Lakshmi and Papu stayed safely downstairs, and Shiv went upstairs and downstairs trying to keep us all company!

From Picton, we took the TranzCoastal train to Christchurch - five hours of a beautiful journey all along the sea coast. The carriages are very warm, and I spent most of the time in the observation coach, which is open to the breeze and gives excellent views!

Oh, that wind!!!! :-)

I managed to see two seals on what passes for a beach on these coasts...sadly, not a close view of them since the train driver wasnt obliging enough to stop for me! But good enough! WHAT a lovely journey!

We stayed at the YHA (Youth Hostel) in CC. I'm very glad I became a member of the YHA in New Zealand. Apparently there's a waiting list of many months if you try to get a membership in India. And only Delhi has a YHA hostel! bah! The one in CC is great. There's a big kitchen with all appliances and crockery, and you can do your own cooking if you like. Then a big common room with TV and lotsa ofas, and email facilities. It was great fun there.

Since we reached CC in the evening, we didnt have much time but to walk around the city centre. There's a great big cathedral right in the middle, and since the city centre square is all paved, it's pretty difficult to tell where the footpath ends and the road begins. At least, since I was looking around at things, I didnt notice, and got beeped at by drivers for stepping in front of them at a red signal! Not to mention bleeped by Shiv for being so dreamy.

How many lovely pubs there are in CC! And most of them have punny names. I loved it all! And the "chippies" they serve - ooh! You gotta have french fries in NZ to know what REALLY good fries are like! McDonald and the others are non-starters!

The next morning, we went off to take the scenic railway journey on the TranzAlpine train. Golly, talk about scenic!! It was amazing. Over deep gorges and tumbling rivers and across a huge glacier-carved valley and more snow-capped mountains all the way to a place called Greymouth.

I dont think my little Pentax could have done justice to the views, but I tried my best! The only way to get an overall view would be from a helicopter or something, I guess. Again, I was in the observation carriage even though the temperature must have been about 2 or 3 degree Celsius. I went in only occasionally, to thaw my nose and fingers out! I was wearing gloves, but it was freezing nevertheless. And what's more, I met an old American preacher whose first question was am I a Christian. When I said no, he asked if I'm a Moslem (his pronunciation). When I said no again, he looked puzzled and wanted to know if I was a Jew (!!!). I told him I was born a Hindu and he got this look on his face which plainly said "heathen" *lol* Still, he was a very nice old man from Minneapolis, even if he tried to convert me right there! Have I heard about the religion of Christ, he wanted to know, hahaha!!

Back to Greymouth... it's a tiny little place which mainly is a transit point for sports enthusiasts. It's very pretty, all the same. NZ manages to keep its cities and towns clean without ever having a single notice saying "dont litter" (Singapore is full of dire warnings!). I guess it lies in the attitude of the people. After all, there are so few of them!! I really loved the empty streets. Those people in Wellington and other smaller places, they think it's a traffic jam if there are six cars at a signal!!

The journey back to CC was not so great, because it was raining and grey. In fact, the TranzCoastal from CC to Picton was delayed by half an hour because of that, so they held back the ferry which was to take us back to Wellington. Oh, that ferry journey back to Wellington was fabulous! Nobody was allowed on the top decks because of the rain and wind and waves, so I had to stay out on a lower deck, from where you couldnt fall out! God, the wind and spray was fantastic! It was enough to blow you off your feet, and it was such gorgeous fun! I didnt go down into the lounges at all, and Lakshmi and Papu didnt come up on deck at all!

Shiv, again, spent his time travelling up and down, poor guy! :-) I'm so glad to find out that I dont get seasick either! Of course, it was only a 3-hour journey, I dunno if I could do as well on a long voyage.

The best part of the ferry trip in good weather is the view when you're getting into Picton or Wellington. The bays are fairly calm even in bad weather, and you see all these green uninhabited islands as the ship winds its way around them... ooooooh! Beautiful!!!

We got back on Saturday afternoon, and went for dinner at a friend's place. Sunday morning, and we were off again to the bus station for our journey to a place called Taupo, on the way to Rotorua. Travelling by bus in NZ is a pleasure. You dont feel any strain because the buses are so nicely upholstered and comfortable. And the views are so lovely, too. A far cry from the buses you get in India, more's the pity. I kept wishing we could take such luxury for granted too, but I dont think that will ever happen in India. *sigh* Too many people, too little money.

Taupo is good for adventure sports like bungy jumping, tandem skydiving, jet boating and the like. It has fabulous views of volcanic peaks, and it also has an enormous lake which was created during an eruption in the last century. It's about 58 km long and 45 km wide, and apparently it's roughly the size of Singapore, or slightly larger!! :-) THAT oughta give some perspective, allright! It did me! Think of 3.8 million people crammed into a space that small, when the ENTIRE population of NZ isnt that much! And yet Singapore doesnt seem crowded... I wonder how they do it.

Stayed at the YHA hostel in Taupo. It wasnt so good as the CC one, because the room was just a box! And it didnt have email either. I guess that's cause it's owned privately, or something. The owner stayed downstairs in her pvt apt.

Anyway, the next morning the YHA owner's husband took us and a Danish couple) on a sight-seeing trip all the way to Rotorua, where we were going anyway. So we got to see the Wai-o-tapu mud pools and bubbling hot lakes which were coloured orange and green and purple and rust by the minerals, and all of them poisonous! Various craters called Devil's Kitchen, Devil's Inkpot (cause the water can stain your skin if you were dumb enuf to let it touch you at all!), Devil's Playroom - all steamy and bubbly and stinking horribly of sulphur!

There was a geyser too, called Lady Knox. It's very pretty,and everyday at 10.15 am it goes off impressively because it's set off by having soap poured into it! :-) I think I MUST see the Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park... it must be pretty damn impressive!

At Rotorua we went on the skylift (the thing is called a gondola, for some strange Kiwi reason, and Lakshmi thought it was the kind you get in Italy, and was pretty disappointed!).

No big deal. Then we went to a farm show - that was pretty good. Saw a sheep being sheared - the guy finished in 5 minutes!!! That wuz quick, and the commentary was funny. Good thing the Kiwis have a sense of humour! Though sometimes the accent throws you off a little, making it a bit difficult to get the joke immediately!

The Rotorua YHA is pretty good, it's got a hot pool - spa, as they call it.

The next day we set of on an all-day tour. Our guide was one of the biggest Maoris I've ever seen, built like a house - tall, wide, solid and unyielding! And a good thing, too, as it turned out. His name was Jamal - but he's not a Muslim. Apparently his dad got the name from some TV serial character he admired! :-)
Anyway, we had a Canadian chap along too, a very nice young 19-year-old called Albert, who has already travelled to around 50 countries, including India. He waxed rhapsodic about India and it took awhile to shut him up about it and
tell him we knew all about cows on the roads! Since Lakshmi and Papu wanted to have a bath in a hot river near Wai-o-Tapu, and I didnt, I took Albert on the tour of the geyser and other assorted Devil's places. That was fun!

After that we went to a volcano called Tarawera. It's not extinct, it's just dormant. That's where Jamal's hugeness came into use. We wanted to walk down into the crater and he first took us to his usual path. That happened to look pretty much vertical to me, but I wanted to try it anyway. The whole place is ankle-deep in tiny slippery stones that give no grip, so the first thing that happened was that I slipped and was in imminent danger of going down the crater on my backside - good thing Jamal got hold of me and pulled me back up. After that he decided to take us the beginner's way down, which was much less steep and a lot more accessible! That was such an amazing experience!!! It's the weirdest feeling to be down in a crater and look up at the sides rising up at 60 degree angles all around and think - THIS is where the lava erupts from! Wow...!!!

From there Jamal took us for a surprise barbeque lunch (which he cooked) in a tiny shack deep inside a forest, with fantastic views of the hills and valleys - and golly, talk about bumpy rides, the path was hardly big enuf for our 4-wheel drive!!
After that we went to the Tarawera falls - breath-taking, and the river was SO clear we could see the pebbles and the trout that were swimming about happily! Jamal said he'd caught fish with his bare hands, but I declined the treat because the water was bloody freezing!

Back at Rotorua, we went to a Maori area of town called Ohinemutu, which is a very active area in the sense that there are hot pools everywhere, with steam rising from the cracks in the footpath and from the gardens of the houses there! It was fantastic!

Lakshmi and Papu didnt have the energy for a Maori concert in a Maori village after that, but I did. I turned out to be the only Indian in a bus filled with Europeans and Americans. We all had to sing something in our native language and I sang the National Anthem - only because some of the others got all patriotic, and I couldn't be any less!

I love Maori folk music - and we heard songs and saw dances performed by the villagers. I really like the war dance - the haka, as they call it. It's very, very VERY impressive, believe me!! Fell for the rhythm and beat immediately, so much so that I went and bought the group's CD! Yet to listen to it, of course, havent had the time yet. After that there was a traditional Maori feast, where all the food is cooked underground beneath on hot rocks... I cant say I loved the food as much. Smoked food is good in small quantities, but when the pudding tastes the same as the veggies, it's a bit much! *g* I'm afraid I didnt quite love the taste. But I DO love the Maoris, and it's a pity that the 11 percent of the population they make up is ALSO 80% of the unemployed in NZ!!!

On Thursday morning, I caught the flight out to Christchurch and by Thursday evening I was back in hot muggy Singapore, and here I am on Friday, finishing up a monster email!