New Zealand; The Longest Possible Journey - Part One
'Aotearoa; rugged, individual
Glisten like a pearl
At the bottom of the world.
The tyranny of distance
Didn't stop the cavalier
So why should it stop me?'
- Split Enz: Six Months in a Leaky Boat
Six Months on a Jumbo Jet
The First Thing You Need To Know™ about New Zealand is that it's really (really) far away. So far away in fact, that if you tried to go any further away you'd just end up coming home. That pretty well means it doesn't really matter if you go east or west, you'll still end up in New Zealand. In the interests of fewer planes, and a better time split, I elected to fly west, via the US. This involves a transatlantic flight from London to Los Angeles and a hop, skip and a jump (on the same plane) across the Pacific to Auckland.
Now, I am something of a scientific sceptic as you know, but I have accepted that the world is round and, as such, falling off the western side of the map results in you arriving on the east (just like old Spectrum platform games, remember?) but when the plane started going northwards (the icebergs were a giveaway) I started to wonder if in a similar way heading north resulted in a prompter than anticipated arrival in Antarctica. Science I'm no good at, but I know what a sphere looks like and this just isn't going to work. Still, this apparently is how you get to LA from London. Via Greenland.
Los Angeles airport, or 'LAX' as we frequent flyers like to call it (the title 'Gateway to Hell' having already been taken) is an experience to be missed. To start with I was really disappointed to find that the cool 'Tracey Island' thing that you see in all the movies is actually really titchy. I thought that was the main terminal, but to be honest you'd be pushing it to fit a café in. Not that this was a problem for me because I, as a transit passenger (read 'potential terrorist'), was to be herded like a goat and treated like sh*t by Gestapo-esque US immigration officers, who seem to think it's entirely reasonable to have a 747 full of people queue for 2 hours at 3am to go through a single immigration booth for a country they have no intention or wish to enter. Not only that, but having gone through the pointless and belittling ordeal of US immigration, being held in a holding area patrolled by an armed guard and watched through a one-way mirror, with nothing but crap coffee and even crapper American crisps for sustenance for another hour before being allowed to re-board the plane you arrived on in the first place tops off the post-911 US experience. It seems that Osama Bin Laden need do nothing more to reduce the most powerful country in the world to a terrified paranoid mess of beaurocracy and suspicion. As I handed my departure card to the agent (who stood 4 feet from the entry guard) I asked if this kept someone in a job. He flatly ignored me. Perhaps he didn't understand my accent or perhaps he was just being ignorant; it is also possible he had been instructed not to speak to the suspects. 'I'd hate to think it was completely pointless' I said, as I left the United States for potentially the second-last time. Come September they'll be looking for retina scans and finger prints. Here's one finger to start with...
Next time I'm going through Bangkok - they're much more reasonable there.
It's all worth it though, because I'm going to New Zealand. Yay!
Upside Down Again
I arrived in Auckland tired, disoriented and more than likely a little on the ripe side. After the relatively simple operation of going through NZ customs and immigration (you do plan on going home, right? Great. You don't have any animals or plants with you do you? No? Perfect. Have fun!) I set about trying to work out what time it was.
Now I hadn't been stupid enough to reset my watch in LA, so it should be a relatively simple process of bunging 11 hours on the time back home in the UK. But then there was the matter of crossing the international date line (did the 11 hours take that into account?) and to make matters even worse, the clocks went back this morning. They're not due to change in the UK till next week, and when they do, they'll be going forward. This is complicated enough now, but after 30 hours of travelling it was a conundrum that Stephen Hawking would have to have a good think about. The fact that the airport arrivals board had 'broken down' (they hadn't put the clock back and thought it better the turn the whole thing off than get people confused) meant I had little or no chance. I asked someone in the café, who replied 'aven't a clue, luv' in a broad English accent. 'Ah've jus' gor'ere meself.'
It was, I decided, early. And if I was to use today in any way shape or form I had to humanise myself. That meant wash, shave and change clothes, then pretend I'd just got up and have some form of caffeine-based breakfast before venturing into town.
The bus into town leaves the airport every 20 minutes or so and, for NZ$12 (less than a fiver) will take you wherever you want in town, although generally it's used to doing an extended loop of the major hotels. I arrived at my hotel at about 8am (I think). Unsurprisingly my room wasn't ready, but I could have a coffee in the lounge (at no charge) and leave my bags - there would be a bed and a shower available at around 11am.
The City of Sails
I decided to wander down towards the harbour and chill out. I'd try and stay awake by doing stuff, which is a problem, because there's precious little to actually do at 8:30am on a Sunday morning. Everything is closed and there are very few people around. Look at it this way; what were YOU doing at 8:30am last Sunday?
I bought some coke and a Mars bar (gotta keep those caffeine and sugar levels up), found a little bench on the waterfront and watched as the city woke up to a beautiful Sunday morning. A few over-keen joggers were my only human contact for the first hour or so, until the world's cheeriest council worker swept up the trash around me and went on his way, whistling along to his iPod. The numbers of joggers increased as the morning progressed and soon they were jostling for position on the brick patterned pathways with cyclists, roller-bladers and harbour workers. All seemed happy and polite; all at least smiled as they passed and many actually said 'g'day' or 'how ya goin' (I was to get used to this greeting over the next week or so). The sun was getting hot and I watched as a yachting event unfolded on the other side of the marina. There were very impressive yachts from all over the world preparing for whatever was to happen and, surreally, a huge inflatable penguin was slowly erected to watch over the proceedings. Cafés, restaurants and bars slowly began to open around me and, by 11am, the harbourside was buzzing with Sunday morning people out doing their Sunday morning thing, munching on fresh bagels and croissants and generally soaking up the kiwi-yuppie style. Some hadn't even had to leave their chic-chic apartments to do so; they simply fell out of bed onto their private balconies to do what I'd essentially flown around the world to do - soak up the sights and sounds of Auckland harbourside.