Psycho Chicken Crosses the Road

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New Zealand; The Longest Possible Journey - Part Nine

Raglan - Party Like The Aussies Do

When I reached Raglan, at the end of a stunning four-hour drive along twisty mountain roads and through narrow passes towards the sunset and the West coast of the North Island, I couldn't find Dave's house. I found his street on the map I'd printed off the 'net before departure, but there were no houses on his side of the street; just a sheer drop into dense vegetation. The town wasn't well provided for in terms of streetlamps and we were beginning to lose the light and with it the chances of finding the house by low-tech means. I gave up and called him on the moby. When I heard a phone ring in the vegetation below I knew I was close.

Dave welcomed me with a warm handshake and a cold Monty's. There was no time for gassing though, only drinking. There were a couple of cases of beer to get through, and time it was a-wastin'. You see we both had invitations to an 'Australian' party, where an Aussie mate was celebrating going home to Oz. I decided that passing myself off as an Aussie using the contents of my rucksack was a futile exercise, so pulled on the trusty drinking abroad uniform - the Scotland rugby top.

The party was an absolute blast - from the bath full of ice and bottles of beer, to the 'roo steaks and pavlova, and ending with the rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda complete with accompaniment on didgeridoo - no stone was unturned in the decimation of the Australian culture. We stumbled back to Dave's late, singing all the way back up the hill, and crashed out big style.

The next day dawned a little dull and cool, which given the sunshine and heat I'd enjoyed for the last week or so it would have been more than a little churlish to complain about. It did, however, put paid to Dave's plans to get us both out in the water, surfing or kayaking. Instead we took a tour of the area, taking in a stretch of New Zealand's official rally course in Dave's car (not sure the Mazda would have survived it and it had a long journey to get through yet) and took in a rugby game and a few beers in Hamilton. Dave seemed to feel a little guilty at not lining up an action packed weekend for my visit, but I was only too happy to spend a day or two chilling out in surfer's paradise, drinking beer, eating sushi, and shouting at sports.

The Desert Road is OPEN

Sunday morning was spent with a large quantity of coffee, pouring over maps to plan my route for the next phase of the journey. My flight to Christchurch left Wellington on Monday afternoon, which meant that I had to drive practically the whole length of the North Island in a day if I was to get there in time to see Sue before moving on to the South Island. Only one way to do it - get in the jalopy and get on the road.

I said my goodbyes, wound down the window, turned on the radio, and headed South, initially to Te Awamutu and then down the Western side of Lake Taupo (the big hole in the middle of the North Island). Lake Taupo is awesome, and I really wish I'd had time to stop off there, but this section of the country was the main bit I was going to have to miss out on having spent such a long time up in the Bay of Islands. Such is the price of a three day stay in one place.

The road from Te Awamutu takes you from the lush woodlands of the North, towards mountains and moorland more like what you'd expect from the south. The 'desert road' is a long, straight stretch of extremely exposed highway which runs between the Kaimanawa Mountains to the East and the majestic Mount Ruapehu, which rises alone in the middle of the moors to the West; its peak permanently capped with snow and, while I passed it, shrouded in an equally solitary cloud. Agoraphobics need not apply - at times the view all around seems not to change for minutes and it's impossible to judge speed or distance. There really is a big stretch of the country with absolutely no-one and nothing in it. The roads around here are frequently closed by bad weather and there are large displays at regular intervals which tell you which stretches are safely passable and which aren't. It's easy to see why many rural kiwis carry basic overnight and survival kit in their cars: break down out here at the wrong time and you're stuck.

It was when I reached the town of Taihape that I made the decision to (a) stop and have a coffee and then (b) push on all the way on to Wellington for sunset. It's impossible to stop in Taihape, though, without noticing their strange affection for rubber footwear - or the gumboot as it's known 'round these parts. Taihape is the home of the annual World Gumboot Festival when the alarmingly serious sport of gumboot throwing is the centre of attention as the self-proclaimed gumboot capital of the world goes welly mad for a week. Men and women from all over New Zealand compete for prize money of over $5000 for breaking the New Zealand record, which at time of going to press stands at an impressive 38.66m for men and 24.92m for women. It's worth noting, however, that the true kings and queens of welly flinging are the Finns; Finnish men have been known to throw the boot up to 63m, and even the ladies have managed a kiwi-male beating 40m. I don't want to know what they can do with a well-aimed stiletto heel.

Outside of the festival, however, you can always marvel at the giant corrugated iron welly-boot; conveniently located near The Brown Sugar Cafe, where you can enjoy marvellous coffee and the best cakes ever in their beautiful courtyard if the weather's nice, or in front of their lovely open fire if it's not.

It wasn't.

Rubber Boot City

I once worked with someone who'd lived in Wellington. Mere words always seemed deficient when describing her absolute hatred of the place and she always had to resort to screwed up facial expressions and wretching sounds, although granted that was normally when drunk on a Saturday night in Singapore. Sue, however, was a friend from my consultant days who'd left her home of Wales behind a long time ago and settled in New Zealand. She was far more complimentary about Wellington so I was keen to give it a go.

The town is situated right at the very bottom tip of the North Island, on largely re-claimed land in what can only be described as a lost Norwegian fiord. Most notably the airport is right in the middle, on a man-made island. The city sprawls up the steep sides of the hills on either side, meaning the arriving or leaving from Wellington airport can lead to some close encounters with the locals in bad weather. Seemingly local TV news regularly has a fun slot where they show the latest 'exciting' landings from Wellington airport. Right on two fault lines, Wellington will be the first bit to sink when 'the big one' hits.

Sue's house is again an absolutely amazing property (why does everyone in New Zealand live on a hillside with amazing views?) and, true to form, was right on the flight path to the airport. Planes flew in at exactly eye level which was quite a surreal sight. We didn't hang around for long, though, before heading into town for dinner. No sooner had Sue taken the roof down on her little convertible number that the heavens opened. We got soaked even before we were able to stop to put it back up again.

The rain stayed all the next day and I once again got soaked (I'm sure Janelle complained about the weather in Wellington, too) taking the car back to the depot. To kill time before heading for the airport I took in Te Papa ('Our Place') - the new multi-million dollar museum complex in town. Whole days could be whiled away in Te Papa, with exhibitions ranging from the sublime (Maori art and sculpture) to the ridiculous (a display of Kiri Te Kinawa's dresses and a exhibition telling the glorious story of wool) but I focussed on the Maori exhibitions and the art displays in the highest galleries of the building. They also have a really clever area outside, where they have re-created an area of natural New Zealand bushland, which would probably have covered the whole area before Wellington was built. Protected from disturbance, it grows naturally and voraciously and visitors can wander around the area freely and experience a little of what New Zealand was like just a couple of hundred years ago.

A quick lunch with Sue, though, and it was time for me to bid goodbye to the first leg of my trip, which I had christened The North Island Adventure. I made my way to the airport and sat and played some music in the lounge for a bit - it gave me a chance to gather my thoughts about the last week and re-live a few of the high points. Frankly, I couldn't think of any low ones. This was becoming the best trip I'd ever been on and I hadn't even begun to prepare myself for the wonders that awaited across the narrow, treacherous Cook Strait on the South Island.

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