When we look back on the things we’ve done, we tend to forget the minor annoyances (how hot it was, all the flies, busting to get to the toilet) and the boring bits.
It takes on a rosy glow, becoming better in recall than it was in reality. We even laugh over misadventures we found most unpleasant at the time.
- Activity is the goods for true satisfaction, Sydney Morning Herald, 18th Feb 2004.
Three years. Three years of lying awake at night thinking, “Please god, don’t make me go back there!” It’s been almost three years since BB took a three week vacation in New Zealand and there’s still no sign of a “rosy glow” of remembrance, only the cold shudder of an unpleasant dream. But at least we can talk about it now. In fact, we can whinge at length.
Where did it all start to go wrong? Was it the inordinate delay while we waited to collect our hired campervan? Was it when said van started to break down, at night and four hours out of the capital? The first cold, drizzly night in Taupo? Stepping off the plane? Stepping off the plane during a stopover in Bombay on the way over, to be confronted with armed soldiers and the earthy whiff of the Indian subcontinent?
If I’m honest, the problems started at the travel agents, somewhere around the moment where we pointed at the two small islands just above Antarctica and said, “We’d like to go there”. Specifically, the psychological wound occurred when we suddenly found ourselves forking out the entire four figure cost of the holiday on the spot, rather than the nominal deposit we’d been expecting. (Apparently, if you book your flights less than nine years in advance, you have to pay the lot upfront - presumably, they’re worried that the truth about NZ will be out any day.) My bank account, while not plunged into the red, was suddenly looking a lot less wealthy than I had previously been used to. For the same money, I could have bought, for example:
- A top of the range Apple Mac.
- A semi-pro digital SLR outfit.
- A small used car.
- Enough beer to forget everything.
You may argue that instead of satisfying shallow consumer lusts, I was buying memories that would last a lifetime. Unfortunately, you would appear to be correct. As we walked out of the agents, a small voice in my head muttered, “It can’t be worth it. No mere holiday could be worth all that.” Six months later, the muttering had become a plaintive whine. Thus I was not in a good frame of mind by the time I fell wearily off a 28 hour long haul flight and into the Auckland sun.
The van, as has been alluded to, was a disaster. The depot was a shambles, with various travellers kicking up a stink because their vehicle was too small/large/long in coming. We suspect a German couple who complained vociferously about the small Bedford they had been assigned were actually upgraded to the one intended for us, in the interests of making them go away quickly. That meant we got the leftovers - there, that one at the back that the last bloke said kept cutting out! Does the engine turn? Then shut up and give it to those two English lamers. Throw ‘em a bottle of cheap plonk to sweeten them too - two headaches for the price of one!
“Don’t ever drive with the gas bottle left on!” said the cheerful girl who showed us around the vehicle, while unbeknownst to us leaving the gas tap open, a fact we would discover - to some distress but thankfully no loud explosions - a hundred miles later. Perhaps it was another attempt to keep us quiet.
Long story short: EMS warning light came on several hours later and would intermittently repeat this after every panicked stop we made. Took van to Ford dealer in Taupo, who swore blind he’d seen the same van with the same problem travelling north three days earlier (hmmm…). Arranged swap at Wellington depot. Tore up itinery, followed diversion along west coast (overnight stop at Wanganui, one of the precious few highlights of the trip, although my opinion might be coloured by the sun coming out that day). Exchanged van, also picking up the chairs we had been promised too. The new one turned out to have a broken waste outlet tap (we couldn’t empty the tank until we managed to borrow a wrench in Christchurch), but the rest of it worked. If only we could stop banging our heads on the cramped interior, usually at moments of maximum stress such as when discussing whether to sack it and go back home. (Note: it would be rude to name the company, or write something like “Do not hire a van from MAUI ever, they are a useless, unreliable bunch of baboons.” Particularly in light of their almost adequate response, weeks in arriving, to our complaints on our return home and their generous offer of a 10% discount on any future hire that we would definitely never take up, even at gunpoint.)
But what are a few niggling mechanical problems when there’s so much else in NZ to dislike? For example, there’s the weather, which can be so much better than the UK but frequently is very similar or worse. There’s the scenery, which is spectacular - like Wales or Scotland only…bigger! But who wouldn’t travel round the world at great expense to see mountains that are, although the difference is hard to perceive, much higher? However, you’ll hardly have time to appreciate them, as the only stopping places are either unsigned or hemmed in with pine trees: “Bet that was a nice spot!” we laughed to ourselves as we drove past another layby and found ourselves unable, or in my case unwilling, to turn back.
There are even glaciers, to which you can book helicopter expeditions that will inevitably be cancelled due to the inclement weather, leaving you vainly trying to glimpse the face of the glacier across a large expanse of fog and drizzle. (Did I mention that it rained a lot in NZ?)
By this time, nerves frazzled by unreliable transport, unreliable itineries and reliably dilapidated holiday parks, I was unable to relax for a second, even during a quiet moment on a sunny day amidst pleasant surroundings. Something was bound to go wrong again at any moment. Either that or it would start raining. And what was it with these New Zealanders?? They weren’t quite … normal. You couldn’t talk to them - well, I couldn’t. English humour flew right over the heads, as two hundred years of “no worries” had bred the cynicism and sense of irony out of them. Like their namesakes, in the absence of any natural danger, they could do nothing more useful or interesting than peck at the ground and look slightly quizzical. If you mistook their insouciance for laziness and asked for something twice - like your dessert course, a safety harness, or a noose in the face of their goddamned persistent insouciance - they gave you a mildly concerned look as if you might be hysterical or neurotic. Which, being English tourists in a land of bohemian hippies, we obviously were.
For example, I worried about all the little white crosses by the roadsides, despite the lowly 62mph limit. I worried about the hairpin bends on steep mountain roads that had no safety barriers alongside the sheer drops. Most of all, I worried that the little white crosses always lined the long straight sections rather than the hairpin bends. These people were clearly dangerous maniacs. Home of bungee-jumping, ‘nuff said. If you were minded to leap from a high place in NZ, the mystery was why you’d want a rope to bring you back.
- Detouring to see a huge railway viaduct in the pouring rain. Even through the fog of blissful ignorance that surrounds most train enthusiasts, a small glimmer of self-awareness made me realise the deranged and desperately tragic individual to which I had been reduced.
- The fifties-style concrete holiday park apparently run by Norman Bates and his mother. “Oh yes, Manchester is lovely,” twittered Mrs Bates as we booked in. It’s a sign of how bad things were that I found myself agreeing with her, longingly.
- The dolphin-watching expedition in Kaikoura. The perfunctory safety checks and two minute training video for those intending to swim with the dolphins did not alert me, but the distinctly weird and unnecessary victory dance performed when we passed a killer whale brought sharply into focus the fact that we were far out at sea in the hands of a gang of escaped lunatics. And anyone who thinks dolphin watching must be a magical experience clearly has no concept of the utter tedium in watching what are basically big fish jump briefly out of the water for hour after hour while a PA system squawks uninteresting facts of nature at you. There are only so many photos of disappearing fins that one can take.
- The place that was so supremely dull and grey, I can recall almost nothing about it, other than that we drove out to observe a seal colony in the rain at one point: one bunch of dumb animals looking at another rather smarter one that had thick, waterproof coats of blubber to keep them dry and warm.
- The horse trek with the woman whose father “did some of the horse training for Lord Of The Rings” (I suspect every riding stable in NZ claims this). Despite my evident and confessed inexperience, I was given two minutes instruction, no hat and an animal which was admitted to be “wilful”, and fell off shortly afterwards as it galloped away across the paddock. The subsequent journey with a much calmer, indeed almost stationary mount was no better, as it turned out I am horribly allergic to horses.
- The motel owner’s terribly amusing anecdote in Napier. Some story about a friend of a friend who went for a ride with some bloke that owned a microlight in which he liked to perform loops. “Oh yes?” we grinned, assuming that it was going to be a funny story about copious amounts of vomit landing on startled observers (fairly typical for Kiwi humour). “…And he went into a spin and crashed and they were all killed!” he finished. Oh. Ah. Not that kind of funny story then. See, you can never read these people.
- The hot springs at Hanmer. We came out in our swimming cossies, took one look at the sleet blown across the pools by a howling gale and scurried back to the changing room. Yeah, they might be lovely and warm once you’re in. But am I gonna freeze to death to get over there, knowing I’ll be wet too on the way back? Hellooo, hypothermia?? (This was our most pathetic moment. By this stage, an attitude of Do Not Risk Having A Good Time held firm sway.)
- The hot springs at Rotorua. We drove right past, mainly because by this stage I was in a desperate hurry to get back to Auckland and ensure we caught our return flight, even though it didn’t leave for two days - ghod forbid we ended up staying a day longer. I’ve heard they’re smelly and crowded with tourists though so no loss.
- The hot springs at “Craters of the Moon”. Did go here, must be some divine retribution for skipping Rotorua. Smelly, crowded with tourists and extremely boring unless you’re a kettle enthusiast.
- My Glamorous Research Assistant declaring she wanted to live there permanently. Oh. God. No. (On the plus side: endless Spirulina and Tim Tams. On the minus: New Zealand and four million insouciant Kiwis.)
Oh, there were highlights too, of course - some wonderful and very cheap meals, the odd pleasant interlude amidst the misery and very occasionally the sun coming out - but I’m not going to mention those in case it detracts from how bloody awful the rest of it was, thus tempting me to return one day.