Friday, 30 November 2007

Where Poets Speak Their Hearts

I'll see you again
When the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red
Over One Tree Hill

AND that was New Zealand. It happened in such a blur I have been able to tell you so little of what happened. In fact, I wrote more about Singapore, while in Singapore, than I ever did of here. There was just so much to see, and so little time.

From the unbeatable beauty of the south island to the people and culture of the north, New Zealand did not disappoint. Alas I saw perhaps less of the north than I could have, due to devoting my attention to a rather large job application (and thus I can at least vouch for the standard of Kiwi internet cafes), but I have seen enough of it all to know that I am coming back. And I'm bringing you with me.

Yesterday I climbed One Tree Hill with Cat Holley, a friend from Birmingham, who is studying here for a year. One Tree Hill is an extinct volcano, now the home of lots of sheep, overlooking the city of Auckland. A former Maori pa, or fort, it currently carries the nickname of None Tree Hill, for in 2000 Maori activists damaged the tree in protest and it had to be removed on safety grounds.

So in a few hours I am flying off to Fiji, where I shall be island-hopping around the Yasawa islands. I therefore do not expect to have internet access until the USA straight after, so hang tight, and expect accounts of tropical paradises soon.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Waewae takahia kia kino*


YOU might notice that in the few posts I have written from New Zealand, I have not indulged nor learnt much of Maori culture, certainly in comparison to my interest in Australian Aboriginal culture. Partly this is because - contrary to the advice of our travel agent - you really cannot do New Zealand in three weeks, and therefore we have been racing around, rarely stopping for breath or chance to learn something of the local people. It is also because we have spent more time in the south island, a visual spectacle of a landmass and the true treasure of the land of the long white cloud, but also home to only a quarter of New Zealand's population and far fewer Maori settlements.

We have just spent the last few days in Rotorua, a city in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand's north island. It is fascinating on several levels, from the geothermal fields that surround it, sending up plumes of steam from random draincovers and some notable geysers, to the sulphur-rich lake and atmosphere which, frankly, pongs a little. It is also, at least for KiwiExperience passengers, the place to be to experience Maori culture. So on Monday night, Tamaki tours took us to a Maori Marae (meeting ground) to view a concert and share a hangi feast. It was a truly memorable evening.

Here's Looking At You, Kid

Each bus was to represent a visiting tribe who would accept a peace offering and be welcomed into the village. For a chief, our group chose Kent from Oregon, who was in New Zealand to celebrate his tenth wedding anniversary (and to have his vows renewed, Maori style). Along with the three other visiting chiefs, Kent had to stand alone and face the Tamaki tribe's challenge, in which several toa (warriors) made threatening and violent gestures, supported by war cries, fire poi and sword demonstrations. This Powhiri (formal welcome) is designed to ascertain if the visiting tribe come in peace - if so the visitor will stand and not retaliate, waiting for a peace offering (a Teka) to be presented. Though the near dance-like movements and sticking out of the tongue might sound by description a little amusing, in a serious setting they are truly quite intimidating.

Once granted permission to enter by a Karanga (call of welcome), we all walked around the village, in which Maori crafts such as woodcrafts, weaponry and cooking were displayed. From here we entered the Wharenui (meeting house) for the concert, a display of chants, hand games, poi, stories, song and dance, including the haka (minus the rugby strips). The standard of it all was fantastic, the tone far lighter than the threatening entrance display by the toa. Indeed, applause may not be a Maori invention, but it was fully welcomed!

Maori Totem

Lastly we moved on to the hangi feast, a buffet of food cooked in the traditional manner, underground with hot rocks. For a backpacker it truly was a banquet, with roast chicken and lamb, more vegetables than you could imagine (including kumara), and for pudding the most divine pavlova I have ever tasted. I had a few too many helpings, I just couldn't help myself.

It was a fantastic evening in which I learnt a lot about Maori tradition and folklore. It was in essence a tourist attraction, but it was delivered with such pride and respect, and also immense gratitude. The Maori are far greater appreciated in their home country than the Aboriginals are in Australia, and they are truly thankful.

*a line from the Haka, meaning "Stamp the feet as hard as you can"
Photos: (top) A demonstration of the Haka; (middle) a Maori carving at the entrance to the Rotorua botanical gardens; (bottom) a carving in the Tamaki village

Saturday, 24 November 2007


edited 28/11/07

THERE is a town just north of Christchurch of which I am very fond. It is called Kaikoura, Maori for 'meal of crayfish', and it is a most remarkable place.

A former whaling village on the eastern coast of the south island of New Zealand, the town is laid out on both sides of a lone headland in miles of rugged shoreline. It has a pebble and shingle beach leading into a cyan sea, and is nestled at the feet of snowcapped mountains. At dusk the town shimmers with blue.

The first time I came here, at the beginning of KiwiExperience, I caught a catamaran called Wheketere out into the Pacific Ocean in search of whales. This area of coastline is fortunate to have a short fragment of continental shelf dropping suddenly into the abyss, bringing plentiful wildlife close to the mainland. Indeed, in the space of two hours at sea I saw sperm whales resting on the surface and then diving below, a fifty-strong pod of dusky dolphins and seals sunbathing by the beach. Throughout the year whale-spotters might find pilot, blue, humpback or southern right whales, and maybe even orca off of these shores.

The town is also renowned for its seafood, hence the Maori name, and is home to a shack selling "the best seafood in New Zealand". This it may be, for it was mightily tasty, but in my case it wasn't cooked properly and, well, I shall say no more...

In 2002 an excellent film called Whale Rider was released. Set in Whangara, a small coastal Maori village, the local people believe that their great ancestor Paikea arrived on the back of a whale. Every leader of the tribe since has been named Paikea, and every one has been the first born son. That is, until Pai was born, for Pai is female. Though Pai believes she can be the leader of the tribe, the story follows her attempts to prove herself to the patriarchal village elders.

If Whangara did not actually exist, Kaikoura could easily be that village. It now has its fair share of tourism, but the spirit of the place lies with the gorgeous expanse of water it lies beside.

Since leaving Kaikoura I have been travelling rather intensively. I have come from the blue of that place, over the Cook Strait and through the browns of the volcanic plateau of Tongariro, past Mount Doom and on to Rotorua, a city that if anything is very yellow - the surrounding region is rich in sulphur, making the lakes and soils yellow in coloration. It also smells pretty foul as a result.

Apologies for the slow rate of posts - for reasons that will no doubt be explained at a later date I am very busy. And on holiday, mind.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

And In The Darkness...

JUST because I am a tourist in New Zealand does not mean I want to throw myself out of a plane, alright?

Welcome to Queenstown, the adventure capital of "the world". The birthplace of bungee and home to many thrilling activities such as jet boating, skiiing, river boarding, white water rafting, skydiving, luging, parasailing, paragliding and hang gliding, it certainly is a happening place, nestled in a corner of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Faced with all of these exciting options, and little time to experience them, what would I choose?

Yes, that's right, today I went horse riding.

Those of you who know me will already be aware that the last time I went horse riding things did not go smoothly. Thus it would seem an unusual choice for me to have made, but I was genuinely enthusiastic about it. Not only did I want to prove that I can ride a horse and can enjoy it, but I wanted to get out into the countryside, away from the roads, so that I could soak up the unfairly gorgeous landscapes from a unique perspective, rather than through a bus window. As an added bonus, this happens to be where a lot of Lord of the Rings was filmed so my inner geek was to be appeased also.

I was picked up from my hostel at 8am by a lady whose primary characteristic was the ability to seamlessly change the subject, in effect having a conversation with herself for the 40-minute journey to Glenorchy. "My eldest entered a skateboarding competition last week," she would begin, "but unfortunately they ran out of gas so the balloon had to descend, which was a terrible waste of $20, and they make such an horrendous profit on the carrot cake. Oh look, the Misty Mountains!"

In amongst the numerous threads of conversation I could understand - her boyfriend has a speedboat; she worked in America without a Green Card; she broke a weed-killing pump spray yesterday (all of these were mentioned in the same sentence) - I gathered an understanding of where I was: ahead of me were Middle Earth's Misty Mountains, and a swamp down below was the inspiration for the Dead Marshes. However the Department of Conservation withheld permission to film there as rare species of birds were nesting at the time, so Peter Jackson's team had to superimpose images of the swamp onto the actual filming location - a car park in Wellington.

We arrived at High Country Horses, where I met the staff and the horses, was kitted out and seated atop Winston, an ex-(failed)-racehorse, described from the outset as 'a bit stubborn'. They told me that he is the smartest horse they have, and in observation I could draw many parallels in him with myself: he is a thinker, so much so that he thinks many things may be dangerous and thus refuses to give them a try. Such as walking through water. At one stage we had to cross the fast flowing Rees River, which required enormous effort on everybody's part - Winston to gather the confidence to keep walking, and everyone else to cheer him along.

Elsewhere he was a temperamental fellow, always stopping to eat and on occasion bolting for no particular reason. He was certainly a handful. Plus, just to cement my reputation as 'useless with horses', he headbutted me as I lent forward to trot, nearly breaking my nose, and then unexpectedly accelerated into a canter, nearly throwing me off (the owner of the company came by to congratulate me after for somehow saving my fall).

Yet for the majority of the three hour ride everything was fine, or possibly even perfect. The sun never stopped shining, and New Zealand never stopped delivering beautiful scenery. Here we were following an alluvial river bed, charted by a sinuous cyan river, bordered by snowcapped mountains and pristine forests with not a cloud in the sky. I wish I could do it more justice in my description, for nature doesn't get better than this.

We skirted around the setting for Lothlórien in Paradise Valley, and were just the other side of a mountain from the filming location for the final battle in Return of the King. Nearby was the location for the death scene of Boromir. Along the way our guide told us stories from the set, such as the beards and mustaches used on riders having to be imported from Germany at a cost of $2,000 each!

It was a very enjoyable morning. However I now ache tremendously and smell of horse, and shall hereby vow that if I ever feel the urge to go into the middle of nowhere once more, I shall do it on my own two feet.

Friday, 16 November 2007

In Treebeard's Domain

TOMORROW I shall be hiking up Franz Josef glacier, so I must go and prepare, but I feel in the meanwhile I should fill you in on a few of the activities I have been up to upon arrival in the land of the long white cloud.

We flew in to Christchurch where we were involved (involuntarily) in a street performance, of which the finale involved the entertainer standing upon my shoulders juggling knives; we visited the International Antarctic Centre, where there were blue penguins, Hagglünd rides and a walk-in antarctic storm in which we were taken to minus eighteen degrees centigrade, which is, needless to say, a bit nippy.

Onwards to Kaikoura where we boarded Wheketere, an eighteen metre catamaran, and sailed seven miles out to sea to see sperm whales and dusky dolphins; to the vineyards of Blenheim to taste some wines; to Nelson where I climbed to the centre of New Zealand; and Westport, where we were filmed for a kiwi television show (in a brewery at 9.30am). Along the way I went powerjet boating, but foolishly did not take a change of clothes. This morning I fed a possum (which refreshingly did not bite me), before arriving in Franz Josef itself. I have just returned from kayaking on a mountain lake which leads into rainforest streams - so still and pure they reflect the sky - looking through gaps in the clouds at a snowcapped mountain as the sun set.

Which, I am sure you will agree, is a busy six days. One to give Australia a run for it's money in fact.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sunrise to Sunset

WOULDN'T it have made an interesting read if I hadn't liked Australia? Nearly every backpacker and every traveler goes to Australia and comes back raving about it. It would certainly have sparked controversy if I didn't.

But from the very moment I arrived in Cairns airport I was in love with that country. All through preparing for this trip I cannot honestly say that it ever sank in quite where I was going. Lots of people go to Australia, so it didn't seem quite as special as it really is. But then we flew over far north Queensland, the sun having risen with us over the Gulf of Carpentaria, the landscape pure rainforest. Suddenly we banked, and out of my window the forest descended rapidly from the hills to a beautiful tropical beach with turquoise waters lapping against it. With this sight I suddenly weighed it all up in my head. That, down there, was Australia. I was on the other side of the world. Blimey.

It didn't matter to me that I then got questioned and searched three times before being allowed out of the airport, because the immigration officers were so nice about it. They even offered to repack my bag. It didn't matter that we were subject to two separate sniffer dog tests, because one of them was training and shy, cute and a little bit fuzzy. And it didn't matter that, architecturally speaking, Cairns is a little bit dull, because it is fun, relaxed and everybody there is happy, which is exactly what you want to see on holiday.

Then for the next two months I loved it all: CVA was a fantastic experience, and though I complained about the hard work of the final week, I genuinely would recommend it; the Great Barrier Reef is, well, as good as you imagine; the rainforests, the beaches, learning to rodeo (albeit with goats) on a cattle station; the beautiful Whitsunday Islands and its resident turtles; everything about Sydney; learning to surf; even the Neighbours tour.

I vow to come back and walk the overland track between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair in Tasmania, and visit all of the gorgeous scenery there I never got a chance to see. Plus I want to see more of Australia - the western coastline and the bush proper.

I shall miss the trivial details too, like the "good morning passengers!" announcements in Flinders Street train station in Melbourne, the cheeky public signs and all of the random people we have met, like the comedy double/drunkard act Karl and Karl. There are things I shan't miss also, like the bus drivers of Cairns and the state of the public facilities in Flinders Street; like being bitten by both a possum and Fuji, the fattest cat in the world; like being chased by a cassowary (even if it was in a zoo). But the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So as we flew over the Bass Strait to New Zealand, the clouds darkening, not through gain of thunder but loss of light, beset against a red and yellow sky blending into the blues and black above, I couldn't help but think fondly of my time in Australia. New Zealand has a lot to live up to.

Not With A Bang But A Whimper

I KNOW that you probably don't care. After all, Tasmania is a very long way away. What goes on there doesn't affect you, right?

So I'm about to mention the plight of the Tasmanian devil. Ultimately, it's not a species we usually come across, and it is not one of those media-endorsed cuties either. If the lions were dying out there would be uproar. You don't get YouTube videos of Tasmanian devils sneezing*, either.

But the Tasmanian devil is dying out. In the early 1990s scientists began to notice individuals with grotesque facial tumours, and since then animal numbers have dropped severely, from an estimated 140,000 in 1990 to 80,000 in 2006. The cancer has been found in populations in three of the four poles of the island. In the most recent edition of New Scientist magazine, an article reports that the disease has now been found in the devil population of Narawntapu National Park, previously thought immune. But of course, nobody cares about Tasmanian devils, so the article is extremely short and difficult to find.

Yet this is important. Tasmanian devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world, and are destined to become the second symbol of Tasmania to become extinct within the past century. The first, the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), was officially declared extinct by the IUCN in 1986. However the last recorded living Tassie tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, just 59 days after official protection by the government was introduced. It had enjoyed thousands of years of existence on both mainland Australia and Tasmania, but died with a whimper on public display. There have been unconfirmed sightings since, including one last year, but ultimately, by and large and almost definitely, it is gone.

Lets hope the devil doesn't go the same way.

* Click here if confused

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Another Multicoloured Blog

Hello again Simon Says fans, time for another Multicoloured Blog to update you on the travels of Simon, as he hasn't found a computer good enough to blog on(/through??) yet.

Currently, he is on a bus somewhere in Tasmania between Hobart and Port Arthur. He thinks Tasmania is "beautiful and stunning", and has vowed to return and climb Cradle Mountain- I'll hold him to that! Unfortunately he hasn't managed to see a tasmanian devil yet, but he has seen a wild wombat and echidna! He has also had some grief from the bank (jealousy, probably) which has led to some telephone difficulties, and the discovery that to call a UK mobile costs $4 for 30 seconds!

All in all, he would like you to know he's having a Very Nice Time apart from some food related issues, namely finding the time and inclination to eat properly. However, enough people have objected to this that he is now making a good effort to avoid pot noodles.

That's all from Tasmania for now, lets hope Simon finds a decent computer soon so you all don't have to put up with my ramblings again!