Saturday, 28 April 2012

Look Around You. Just, Look Around You

I HAVE recently had the honour of reading the unpublished manuscript of a forthcoming travel book, which shall remain unnamed but will probably be guessable if you read this blog closely enough. I shan’t spoil any of the details, other than to say that it’s great. A significant portion of the book is set in New Zealand, which I visited back in 2007 (that it was 5 years ago is beyond ridiculous). I enjoy reading all travel writing but there is always more enjoyment to be had from reading other’s recollections of places you have visited yourself, so I took a keen interest in the overlap between this journey and mine — jealous of stories from places I never reached, and intrigued by alternative views of the places I did. Of particular note was Wellington.

I spent three days in Wellington in the middle of a frantic tour of the country, courtesy of a well known student operator. Beginning two weeks previously in Christchurch, I had already circled the South Island, reaching as far south as Queenstown, before island hopping on the ferry from Picton to Wellington, our base before the final push north through Taupo, Rotorua and Auckland.

The capital of New Zealand and the second largest in the country, Wellington is a city that New Zealand is very proud of. Voted the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet in 2011, it is a city rich in entertainment and art, gourmet food and cafe culture. According to Lonely Planet itself, there are more bars, restaurants and cafes per resident than New York. It has its own film culture, is home to Peter Jackson's movie empire, has a vibrant music scene and is a cool and happening place. On the islands of the harbour, I now know of pioneering conservation projects and regions devoted to some of the most unique creatures on Earth.

I saw none of this in those three days.

This is not because these things are not true - far from it. My complete failure to 'do' Wellington properly stems from my decision to devote three days of not moving to completing a hefty job application for a position I had wanted for some time. I'd received a tip off on my last call home, and subsequently located a copy of the latest edition of a certain science magazine while in Christchurch (on passing through a second time), in which there was an advert for an internship position. On the road again, it hadn't been possible to work towards the application - though I had scribbled many ideas in my long suffering journal while our coach headed north. As a result, I missed entirely the gorgeous scenery that I would never see again. Luckily, this scenery I had seen before - with Christchurch in the middle of the south island the leg up to the ferry port was necessarily a road seen twice. Handily, this meant passing again through the beautiful town of Kaikoura, a place that remains dear to me to this day, despite a rather unfortunate incident with 'the best sea food in New Zealand'. With three days in Wellington planned, I could settle and devote my attentions to the application.

Thus, while others could sample the culture and energy of the city, I became overly familiar with a number of Internet cafes. An advocate for reading things from paper not on screen, I struggled to control the many iterations of my application and CV given that the money-saving half of my brain had denied me permission to print: after three months on the road, this part of my brain was in complete overdrive. On the plus side, I would never have had anywhere to put all the print outs anyway.

I did escape a few times - once to the superb Te Papa museum, which covers the entirety of Kiwi history, Maori culture and unique New Zealand indigenous wildlife, including the pioneering conservation efforts being adopted to preserve it. (This is where I first learnt about the strategies used to save the kakapo that I would later recount, embarrassingly, to my mother-in-law.) It was at Te Papa that I bought the soundtrack to Whale Rider, which has become an essential aid to revision and project writing ever since. I recall the museum contained an entire Maori wharenui, or meeting house, covering a mere fraction of the floorspace - in essence, its an expansive and impressive place.

My only other memories of the city are of a visit to a Flight Centre, where we attempted to pre-book accommodation in Washington later on our trip; a brief sighting of the parliament building, nicknamed the 'beehive'; and an extremely brief visit to one of those trendy cafes, during which I first heard the Buena Vista Social Club. Oh, and a sleepless night courtesy of the inconsiderate amorous couple who occupied the bunk above mine.

Unsurprisingly, I have no photos.

With only fleeting memories of the city, it seemed strange to read any kind of recollection by another. I was embarrassed at not having seen any more than I did.

Imagine my shock, then, to discover that Wellington possesses a mountain. 

Well, it's more of a big hill, but sizeable enough to have a cable car. How did I miss that?

In researching for this post I have made extensive use of Google Maps and Google Street View, but using such visual aids I can still only remember a handful of streets and sights: the alien creature statue on Courtenay Place (which casts an ominous shadow when viewed by satellite), for example, and the half-bus, half-tram trolleybuses. I pride myself on remembering details, often scaring others with details they have long forgotten, but when it comes to Wellington I remember nothing. As far as I am concerned, I might as well have not existed for three days.

In truth, the memories of the entire New Zealand trip are a bit hazy. We were reaching the three month mark - I was tired, I missed home, my family and Rachel, and my travelling partner had essentially given up on me. The crowd we were with for this leg of our grand expedition were not my usual type of company, and though I struck up some friendships, it was nothing like Australia had been just a few weeks before and my loneliness was eating into my enthusiasm. It says a lot for the scenery of the country that, in spite of these difficulties, I still look back on this leg of my trip fondly. By the time we reached Auckland, early one morning, I was left alone, hungry and woozy. Delirious and unsure of myself in yet another city I resorted to the ultimate default - McDonalds, a company I had insisted repeatedly along the way that I would not patronise. I slept for the rest of the day, exploring (alone) again later that evening, to discover waiting in the hostel's lounge a familiar face. I had last seen Aaron, a twentysomething Californian, on a ranch some weeks before in the heart of Queensland. To his appearance in Auckland I owe my sanity. And a session in a massage chair.

I never did get that job, and now I am determined as ever to make up for lost time. I want to see Wellington properly. I want to catch the cable car to the very peak of the city. I want to join in with efforts to protect the insects and bird of the country. I want a fancy cup of tea in a fancy cafe. And I want to make the absolute most of everywhere I visit in the future.


Dennise said...

It is really nice to see beautiful places.

Exmouth tours

Unknown said...

I love that this is now your resolution. And how you evoke a time so well in this post.

Simon said...

Thank you Siobhan!

And Dennise - it is indeed, and you seem to be based in Exmouth which I visited and fell in love with a few years are very lucky to live in a beautiful place!