Published: August 14th 2010August 14th 2010
It’s two days since my last haunted little missive and things have radically altered. Actually, that’s not true at all. After the latest camera debacle at Greymouth on the West Coast, I boarded the bus for Fox Glacier. I spent the whole journey chatting with the driver. This was because I wanted to sit in the best viewing seat. This is, naturally enough, the seat next to the driver at the front of the bus. The bus is a fifty-seater luxury bus. There are a total of nine passengers on board.
Over the course of the next few days I am going to get this same seat three more times, and consequently find myself engaging in conversation with a total of four different drivers. The driver’s names were Dave, Maurice, Paul, and Ed. Dave told me all about 1080. Soon I will tell you all about it, too. Quite a shocking story, in my opinion! Maurice and Ed were almost identical to each other in the spookiest sorts of ways: both married for fifty years, both with zillions of kids (Maurice: five sons, one daughter, Ed: five daughters, two sons), both on the edge of retirement with the old ‘Unforgiven’
sense wrapped around them like a scarf: ‘the younger drivers wouldn’t have been able to deal with this job twenty years ago’, whispered Maurice, wistfully reminiscing about the good old days. Ed and his wife were old time fruit-pickers who travelled from job to job in a caravan for years: Ed said, ‘gypsies, we were - I guess you should say nomads today’. I replied that ‘gypsy’ sounded more romantic to me! Ed was about to get his knee replaced. Maurice had already done his. Ed looked a bit like Donald Trump but older and fatter, with a wicked, but good-natured laugh. (Maurice looked like Ronnie Barker, for you English readers!) I really liked both of these chaps, I must say. Paul was a Queenstown man who had never travelled much, was knowledgeable, but just slightly snippy. Ed was Queenstown too. Maurice was born in Hokatika - a genuine West Coaster -(‘You could live on the West Coast for fifty years, but you still ain’t a coaster to most of the people’), but lived in Nelson, the sunniest spot in all of New Zealand, apparently.
The thing about all these chaps is that none of them were alien abductees. None
of them had bit parts in bad movies about replacing people and wives with plastic, surreal fakes. All four were normal workaday Joe’s going about life with a certain dour coal-miners air. All were down to earth Kiwis: all said, ‘fash and chaps’, all were just doing their jobs and going home. This helped to ground my speculations in the sod of the everyday. No more alternate realities for this boy, no more sliding through the ether slightly out of sync with everyday reality - or was there?
You see, even my earthy, normal bus drivers didn’t take away this slightly other-worldly sense that has been a big part of my New Zealand social experience. Let’s be clear here, the oddity extends only as far as my interactions with the people of New Zealand: The scenery, on the other hand, has been extraordinary: it has been utterly, drop dead- dramatic ever since the train left Christ church. To be honest, it’s even more spectacular and astounding than I imagined it to be - and I already expected it to be utterly amazing. The train ride was just stunning. Some of the landscapes seemed to be ripped straight from the
heart of dreams. That’s been true of each day. The bus ride from Greymouth was through one of the wettest areas in New Zealand, so the vegetation reflects that fact and is huge, exotic, and bounteous. By the time the sun is setting on Monday and we are pulling into Fox Glacier there can be no doubt that we have travelled through one of the World’s most beautiful places; the white snow capped mountains have been alongside us for most of the journey, the sky has been crystal blue, and the Tasman sea lay shimmering along on our right side as the hills tumbled in from the left. We have had a lunch break at Hokatika, and I have had another full-breakfast. It’s been a lovely and warm day.
Outside this town, after our lunch break, I start to see signs objecting to ‘1080’. 1080? What’s not to like about 1080, I wonder. High definition TV - 1080i - gotta love it! I mean, if you’re a news broadcaster, then perhaps your crow’s feet are going to look like an elephants arse, but surely all these cheesy, angry posters can’t be produced by some secret group of surly, aging,
radical TV broadcasters. I decide to ask Dave, the driver, about it, and his reply is perhaps even odder than my own speculations.
Apparently, 1080 is not only a reference to HDTV formats, and probably a bleak year in medieval Europe, but it is also the name of a poison. It has been imported in from America in the form of deadly pellets and sprays (by a member of the groovy environmental Green party of New Zealand, according to Dave) and has liberally been sprayed and dumped all over this area only one month ago, in the face of massive public-opinion outcry - 92% objecting to the program. Opossums were introduced into New Zealand and escaped to become a major environmental problem. Since New Zealand had no native Mammals, the opossums’ population went totally out of control. There are twelve million of them now munching their way through New Zealand’s heritage. When Dave was a boy, young chaps such as he used to trap and kill opossums for their pelts - a good one could earn a boy five dollars. This culling helped keep populations under control. Such hunting was outlawed as cruel by the Green party and government, and
as a result, the opossum population sky-rocketed. Time passed. Suddenly some big wig has the get rich quick idea of importing this deadly poison, 1080, and dropping it everywhere along the West coast to eradicate opossums. Wait a minute, cry the local population, but the government doesn’t wait. Suddenly it happens - first they seeded the area with cinnamon pellets to trick the creatures into becoming pellet-eaters, then they dump the poison - tons and tons of the stuff. They claim the other animals and birds won’t eat them. Ninety-two percent of local people disagree. There are riots. People arrested. But the clowns do it anyway - and put up skull and crossbones posters where they have dumped the crap. Do they think the local birds can read? Dave concluded his story-telling with a rueful shake of the head. I returned to my seat to watch the glorious countryside sliding past the windows, appalled. I found this story utterly shocking and depressing. I had always imagined New Zealand to be a place of rationality, a place where the highest order of government could be found. Looks like I was dreaming. So much for my paradise country with rational and compassionate
Saying goodbye to Dave, I slithered back into my other world - this was the Korean/Japanese situation I described in my last post. The Heartland Hotel was this surreal ‘Lynchian’ place. I propped up the bar that evening and chatted to the bar staff. There were four or five rowdy locals at the bar, the bus drivers Dave and Maurice (who I was to meet again in two days) played on the pokies (winning $250, apparently), and the only females were Sandra and Freya who made sure that the rowdy people’s glasses were refilled at the exact moment they emptied a glass. I ate a strange salmon dish that looked like it was something you make up when you have three tins of food left on a camping trip, and a couple of Coronas. Sandra is in her late fifties, with short gray hair teased into fashionable sprays by her proximity and motherly relationship with twenty-year old party girl Freya. Sandra gets excited by our jocular, rambling jests and seems to want to show me around the sights the next day, so I agree. By the time I get back to my room I am already questioning the
wisdom of my three-beer decision making process.
Next morning, after the spectral events at the breakfast table previously described, I get ready to meet Sandra. It’s another fabulous crystal blue sky day. The snowy mountains rear up right outside of my hotel window. It’s going to be a great day. I sign up for a half day walk on the glacier, since Sandra has to work in the afternoon. She shows up at ten, as arranged, and we drive away to the nearby lake where we take a two-hour stroll. It’s a gorgeous, delightful, and deeply dramatic scene, with the backdrop of snowy mountains like some Alpine out-take from ‘The Sound of Music’. It is spectacularly beautiful. The lake is famous for its mirrored reflections of the mountains on a calm day. For us, however, the image is shattered by the skidding landing of a duck on the surface of the mirror. This is the perfect metaphor for the morning. Unfortunately, you see, Sandra turns out to be a similarly odd duck flapping across the serenity of the scene. I should have guessed - and I guess I did - that my time in the alien Universe with the
Koreans was a mere aperitif for what was to be the main course with Sandra.
I should have guessed from the easy way she farted and said, ‘excuse me’ as soon as we arrived at the car park. This was a sign that all was not what it seemed for Sandra. She was nervous, really nervous, and fidgety, jumpy tense. She kept on telling me how beautiful everything was, and how relaxed she was feeling. Meanwhile, everything about her gave off this awkward, tense tightness. She was conscious about not giving away personal information then spilled a load like diarrhea, then clammed up again. Clench then release. She walked too fast, talked too fast, was dizzyingly uptight. She’s in her late-fifties and is about to leave this job and head across to the other side of the mountain to live leaving her forty-year old friend, Bogs, behind. By the time we’ve gone around this lake, had some coffee and driven back to the Hotel with the first streams of clouds now draping from the peaks like scarves, I’m exhausted from her energy and can’t wait to get away. Alien vampires! Ahhh! I have the dreadful thought that she is expecting
me to spin her off to a room like George Clooney might. Good Lord, I think I’m right. She reaches her tentacles towards me. They wave like river weed for a moment. We have an awkward, clammy hug, and I’m out of there as if I’ve been tazered in my privates. I’m galloping off to my afternoon walk on the glacier. How much stranger could things get?
Mercifully, and thankfully the morning with Sandra was the peak of the alien weirdness. From there things have calmed down and become more terrestrial. For example, the tour onto the glacier was a lovely five-hour walk with a group of normal human people. We all got kitted out with gloves, coats, crampons, and the like and drove to the edge of the glacier. Here we walked across the moraine for thirty minutes, clambered up the steep green hillsides for an hour before descending down, attaching the crampons and walking out onto the glacier for an hour stomping and pouting like angry three year olds (to make the crampons stick into the ice). This was exciting and spectacular for me. We walked up a crevasse, found ice-caves to photograph ourselves in, and watched
as, first the clouds rolled in, a light rain fell, and then finally, the clouds lifted dramatically as the day wove towards its spectacular end.
The whole walk was a cleansing experience, washing away the accumulated weirdness of the day. Frosty, our young and knowledgeable guide, and his even younger assistant, Elle, were normal and friendly. The Malaysian/English family was pleasant, even if the young girl was a cry-baby who desperately needed braces, a good stern word or two, and a solid spine. The Australian lawyers were friendly and nice to be around. All in all it was a nice way to end the day.
Back at the Hotel, I had one awkward drink at Sandra’s bar - I had to, didn’t I? I don’t mean to be uncharitable to her in this piece - she was trying to be nice, I suppose. She just got the wrong idea. She did take me out to a local beauty spot on her morning off - and let’s face it, I have been known to let out the odd fart here and there myself. It’s not her fault that she has no sense of humor; that she’s nervous and stressful to
be around. Actually, you know what, f**k it. It is her fault! Anyway, after one drink, I split. I took her email with no intention of ever checking it, and head out for a solitary dinner in a different bar - but at least this one is filled with fellow tourists rather than the local tough-guy rowdy male-only clientele at the bar at my hotel! Poor Sandra. I hope she never reads this.
Interlude: A Cheap Guide to Speaking Kiwi:
Excerpts from, ‘New Zealand’s next Top model ’
‘Ixcillint. You’re going to be tisted for tin minutes. Thirty siconds to gow. Druss yoursilf, now. That outfeet is the kiss of dith in the Fishion Industry. It’s veery simple. Put your bist foot forward. Put your iggs in one biskit. It’s a missy biznis. It’s bitter to be in the pewl.’
The next day starts with another awful cold breakfast and the next bus ride. We leave at 8:30am and don’t arrive in Wanaka until 2:30pm. This is the day when I get to meet Maurice (for the first half the journey) and Paul (for the second half of the journey). The weather forecast is not so
good from this point on.
The scenery continues spectacular throughout the ride despite the increasing cloud, which eventually becomes light rain. By the time we arrive in spectacular lakeside Wanaka, surrounded by snowy crested mountains, the rain clears, the clouds stick to the mountains in morphing, exotic, fanning shapes.
After checking into my giant size room, I head off for a lovely walk alongside the lake. At first, the wind is blowing ferociously. All my layers end up on: My hat, my scarf, my rain coat. Eventually the wind dies down (because this side of the lake on which I walk is protected from this particular wind direction). The walk is delightful and picturesque. I’m snapping away like a mad thing. The clouds drape so gorgeously in a constantly evolving landscape. Across the lake are snow covered mountains. Every direction is just more beauty. On the way back the wind snaps back into focus. I have a bizarre moment when the strength of the wind is such that it hurts my back; when I pick up my left leg, the wind catches my baggy trousers like a kite and it snaps my leg back, wrenching my back. I chuckle to imagine having to try to explain my incapacity being caused by the wind to a local doctor. Didn’t happen though. The walk is a very pleasant eight kilometers, and by the time I get back, it’s sunset.
I shop at a supermarket and eat in my family-size apartment. I have a spare bedroom - that’s how big the place is. I sleep well and sleep late.
I don’t check out until the last minute, and then I go for another excellent walk - this time up a two-hour loop to the top of Mount Iron where I am rewarded with utterly fantastic panoramas, cloudscapes constantly changing from one stunning picture to the next. Snatched from deep dreams. Sometimes so incredible it made me gasp. I came back down from the hill slowly to keep absorbing the constantly changing landscapes, the staggering fantasy of it all.
Back down from the panoramas over Wanaka, I visited the slightly disappointing ‘Puzzling World’, where rooms tilt oddly, water flows uphill, faces follow you, holograms emerge from frames, and an impossible maze frustrates me quickly so I cheat my way out.
I get back at 2:30pm in time to catch the bus, meet my last driver Ed, and take a rainy, dreary, increasingly gloomy-day ride to Queenstown.
It’s 8:00pm. I have another giant room. The rain is tumbling down now. I haven’t been out to the town yet - it’s a bit too ‘wit’, but I’m getting hungry, so I’ll have to go get something.
Tomorrow, I have an all day trip to the fabulous Milford Sound, then another day to check out this Queenstown, hopefully under slightly less leaden skies! After that, there is the epic return to Christchurch via Mount Cook, the last leg of the tour.
From Christchurch I begin the epic return journey to Boston: Christchurch to Auckland, then Auckland to Brisbane, overnight in Brisbane, then Brisbane to LA, LA to Charlotte, then Charlotte to Boston. The vagaries of time travel make it difficult to know how long this actual journey is, but one thing is for sure: The trip is drawing to an inexorable conclusion.
See you on the flypaper.