Thursday, October 30, 2008

Here's the Beast

Life In The Freezer

Back to Christchurch, then.
We dropped the car back at the airport, surreptitiously standing right in front of the newly-formed dent in the back of the bumper where Louise had reversed the car into a wall the night before.
Standing in front of the golf ball-sized stone-chip in the windscreen, however, wasn't an option, as this would have meant splaying myself across the front of the car like a starfish. And that kind of thing just attracts attention.
Fortunately, the Antarctic Centre was only stones-throw away from the drop-off point, although by that point if anyone had have mentioned the words "throw" and "stone" to me, I wouldn't have been best pleased as the broken windscreen ended up costing me $350.
So, The Antarctic Centre then. Now I've visited a lot of museums over the years, so wandering round I felt an overwhelming sense of "same old-same old" wash over me. You see the centre succumbed to a few of the banal museum-cliches. So, cue the Fluff Freeman music pop-pickers, for here's what Museums do wrong.
What Museums Do Wrong........
10. In at 10, the misapprehension that putting things behind glass automatically makes them more interesting. To make them even more fascinating, why not shroud them in darkness, and have visitors press a chunky button to illuminate the exhibit?
"Ooh I wonder what it is" (presses button) "Oh, a sepia photo of a quarry. Wow, didn't see that coming!"
9. New entry at 9 - shonky Marks and Sparks mannequins half-heartedly dressed in appropriate/period attire like some pikey Madame Tussauds, whilst an out of work "ac-taw" hams it up via concealed speaker, opining on the subject of wiping Edward II's arse or something, with a BBC special effects LP clattering in the background like it was recorded in an airing cupboard. Grrr.
8. In at 8, walls and walls and walls of writing. No one has the time or inclination to read what amounts to a chapter of history book. If they did they'd go around nailing Simon Schama books to the wall.
7. Down from 9, it's out of date technology. Flashing LED lights, green screened monitors, chunky Acorn Electron-style keyboards all seek to reinforce the fustiness and anachronistic nature of the exhibits. Anything that looks like the set of Blake's 7 is not good.
6. In at 6, barely-audible looped VHSs, burning themselves out on a 1980s TV in a deserted corner of the museum. People always miss the start, and are not exactly compelled by the bloke with big sideboards and leather elbow patches wandering through marshland pointing, whilst Dr Who-esque primitive synthesiser music buzzes in the background.'ve run out, but you get the general idea.
The Solution
We live in the information age. The internet can provide in-depth video, audio and text for anyone interested in any subject. So the museum must provide more: They must provide true interactivity and real experience. They must provide sensation and immersion.
I'm not singling out the Antarctic Centre in particular as, in fairness, it did go someway to addressing these issues:
First the Storm Chamber. Clad in an oversized Arctic jacket, we were ushered into a freezing frieze festooned with fake snow, where the temperature was slowly lowered to -8c, before the mighty fans started up, lowering it further, through windchill, to -18c. I felt like a freezepop, but it was an experience you would have been hard pushed to recreate in a library or sat in front of your PC.
Second, the Hagglund - a Swedish-designed, double-trailered, tank-tracked exploration vehicle. The Hagglung was advertised as providing an authentic Arctic experience on specially prepared hostile terrain adjacent to the musuem.
Better Than A Volvo
Louise sat this one out, so myself and Claire (an Auckland friend who had recently relocated to Chch) clambered in. It was only after we'd bought our tickets that we saw the warning sign saying "you must be fit enough to brace for impact".
By the time I was being rammed and slammed against the pointy metal interior and by the time the vehicle was powering down pyramidial mounds of earth at breakneck speeds, creating that stomach-churning drop felt during aeroplane turbulence, and by the time I remembered I didn't like rollercoasters, or anything like a rollercoasters, and despite the Geordie drivers alarmingly calm commentary about how explorers spent 5 hours straight in this thing spanning crevasses and tipping right over on their side, and by the time we submerged door-high in ditchwater, it was too late.
I was hoping Claire's rictus grin was also one of mild panic, echoing my own "why did I think this was a good idea?" sentiment.
But despite the fact I'd just spent the last 12 minutes violently lolling my head from side to side like Stevie Wonder in a Sherman Tank, it was an experience that could not be created elsewhere. And above all it was authentic - a window in to a different world. Literally virtual reality.
And that's what I want from a museum.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


One night in The Jailhouse and then we were off to Akaroa, a beautiful headland off the South East of Christchurch.

We checked into the deserted but homely hostel, snuck out for fish and chips, ice-cream and post-cards, and then readied ourself for the penguin safari.

Christ, that was hairy. Talk about expectation versus reality. I thought we'd just be driven to a beach, pointed at some waddling throng, and that'd be it.

This is actually what happened. A 60-year old woman turned up in a van, and then preceded to drive us up gradients so steep that only 4x4 were permitted along the path. If I'd let go of my camera it would have hit the back windscreen.

As time went by the path got narrower, the floor fell even further away, the engine note changed from a low D to a high C sharp as it struggled against the gradient, the concrete turned to chippings and everyone started to look a little bit uncomfortable and tighten their seatbelt. As if that would make a difference.

"Don't worry," said the ageing driver through her mounted mic "I've been driving along this road 30 years and I've never had an accident". Yes, I thought, but you weren't 65 for most of those 30 years.

After a 45 minutes of 45 degree ascent and then 45 degree descent along a track barely wide enough for a car, we arrived at her homestead - a remote shack in the wilderness - whereupon she ushered us out along a darkening cliff path to glimpse blue, yellow eye and white flipper penguins through binoculars. Hmmm... not exactly Attenborough. Don't think I'll ever become a twitcher.

After 30 minutes of squinting and pointing, it was back into the van for a less fraught return as, in the pitch black, I couldn't see the 200ft drops either side of the track. As Akaroa came back into sight, it was like coming to land at an airport -the Christmas lights of the town sprawling out in front of us.

Go To Jail

It seemed fitting that upon arrival in Christchurch, we were met with a torrential downpour. Four weeks ago, in this very city, and fresh off the plane we had been pelted by the elements.

We made straight for our hostel, The Jailhouse, through road-spray and the smudge of brake lights. The Jailhouse, as the name suggests, is a converted jail; the structure minimally altered, the rooms preserved, the modern concessions (internet/DVD lounge) hidden away.

Naturally, the rooms are former cells: whitewashed with a high-arched ceilings and a huge cast iron door which close with a jarring clunkthunk. Look down from the gantry and you'll see a long row of of dining tables deep in the bowels of the building. "Norman Stanley Fletcher...You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner"

Actually, though the Jailhouse was immaculate, well-maintained and, indeed, a novelty, it was a bit depressing: Cold and functional. It was an involving experience, but ultimately I wouldn't have fancied spending too much time there.

Later as I was packing the car to leave, an Maori bloke cutting the grass wandered over. "Is it still a prison" he asked "" I replied. "Oh" he continued "Only I used to live in that house there" he said pointing to a nearby estate ".... and prisoners who had escaped used to jump into my back garden".

I recounted this story to the guy on reception as I was checking out "Oh that's nothing" he added "We sometimes get former inmates back here, asking if they can have a reminisce. They wander round going 'Aaah, I was beaten senseless by a guard just where you're standing.....them were the days'"

Monday, October 06, 2008

North Of South

The next week saw us skittering across the North coast of the South Island, bouncing between towns, rarely staying anywhere for more than a night.

The Mad Mile

Motueka was first, a night's stop and up to Marahau to catch the water taxi, a deceptively fast boat which scythed through the waves and bombed and slammed along the surface of the water.
"Right,", said the driver after 15 minutes of spine-jarring, stomach-churning, slam-bangs into the water, "this stretch of water coming up is called The Mad Mile. It gets a bit choppy now". Great.

After being dumped as close as possible to the beach, and having leapt from the stern on to the sand (one woman, about to embark on a 6 hour walk, mistimed her jump and landed knee deep in the sea), we followed the Abel Tasman track for two hours from beach to beach, before having to reverse the process and, this time, wade out to the boat, floating nearby and trying desperatelty not to get stuck on the sand.

Climb Every Mountain

After another session in the water taxi, divebombing into the sea from what seemed an ever-increasing height, we were dragged to the shore by a 1920's tractor, and piled into the car ready for Takaka.

I had already mentally prepared for journey, as when I'd booked the hostel a few days previously the (Scottish) hostel manager had warned "Go steady on that hill, won't you?".

And, yes, Takaka Hill was steep. It's at times like this you wonder whether Chris Bonnington lives local and runs a taxi firm. Wishful thinking, maybe.

Tight turn after tight turn and identical hairpin after identical hairpin, I had an overwhelming sense of climbing higher and higher towards something significant. I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if the International Space Station had drifted past.

Now, as I reached the peak, the clouds were in, and soon I wasn't so much under the weather, as in it, and then above it. Solitary outhouses loomed out the mist, and road snaked away into wispy nothing.

1st gear, 2nd gear, 1st gear, 2nd gear, by now my arms and legs were getting tired: Accelerate and change up along the straight; brake and change down at the 15kph corner; full lock then accelerate away. Repeat the cycle every 30 seconds.

Suddenly the front of the car was pointing downwards; this was the descent. After another 5 minutes of vertiginous, downwards spiralling, I had reached the "other side". After the dingy ascent through crescent after crescent of hazy mist and grey drizzle, I had broken through, and there in front of me lay the greenest valley, speared by lattices of sunlight.

Spurred on by the sight, I continued to steer the car round the bends, diagonal double-back after diagonal double-back, filled an overwhelming sense of "coming into land", as I spied the main road through the base of the valley.

An amazing sight, but behind me the steady procession of drivers locked in concentration, prevented me from stopping to take a photo. And Louise was fast asleep through of this.


After a 3 week run of great hostels, right from homeliest of homestays in Te Anau to the semi -hotel in Nelson, we were beginning to think that maybe the South Island knew nothing of the cramped room, the dodgy bed linen, the all-night raver, the apathetic hostel manager.

Ha. That changed when we arrived in Takaka. I found the hostel owner at the back, splayed out on a plastic chair, wearing a battered straw hat and smoking a fag and looking for all the world like she was on a sun-lounger in Benidorm.

She ushered me to the double room, and the moment the door swung open, I was just filled with a deflating sense of disappointment. The "room" was essentially a conservatory nailed on the front of the house, comprising 90% window (even goldfish have more privacy) and double bed wedged so tightly between the walls that to climb into bed you had to stand at the foot and scabbled on to it.

I can imagine the conversation that spawned that room: "I reckon I can get a double bed in there" says the first "You're joking. It's a conservatory, we're supposed to put whicker chairs and fit it out with Kerry Burgundy Tiles" says the second "Nope, I reckon I can do this" says the second, and then spends the afternoon taking all the paint off the room trying to shoehorn the bed in.

An early night wasn't the answer either: the staff decided to have a rave up with some French people until 3 in the morning. Brilliant.

Nelson -Blenheim -Kaikoura - Hanmer

We bolted from Takaka the next day, back over the mountain and back to Accents where we were guaranteed of a decent room. We picked up Louise's fixed lens from Peter and went out to celebrate our 1 year anniversary at a fish restaurant, The Boat Shed Cafe, located on its very own pier.

The next few days were all too brief. First, a short hop to Blenheim, permanently stuck in 1981 with its Tamworth-esque town planning, where I acted as taxi driver, ferrying Louise from tasting to tasting, before heading off to Kaikoura for the night.

Kaikoura was stunning. It's certainly the only place where I've ever seen snow-capped mountains fall into the sea. But, yet again, considering our previous whale watching trip in Sydney and with time running out on the hirecar, Christchurch was calling.

Another stop at Hanmer Springs for a full body massage (no happy finish, thank god), and we were heading back to where it all started at Christchurch.
Soon our South Island adventure would be over. We needed a plan

Kaikoura Beach

Friday, October 03, 2008

Coast To Coast


The plan was to carry on up the coast to Greymouth for an overnight stop, before we had to peel away from the shoreline and head towards Nelson.

Greymouth was indeed preceded by its reputation. Louise's friends Jye and Angie had recently moved away from the town, and had given it the moniker "Greyhole", and then used it so frequently that a third friend, not a Kiwi, walked into a travel agent and asked how to get to "Greyhole" , and was met with a blank stare.

And, as if to confirm Greymouth's status as an undesirable location, upon entry we were met by a huge hoarding stating "Kids who are into sport, stay out of court". But if this was indeed a hole, we saw little evidence: it wasn't particularly dirty, or down at heel. It was just, well, a town. Like Leek in Staffordshire, except with a few more Maoris.

Admittedly, the hostel, Noah's Ark seemed misplaced. A huge wooden manor house with mid-air verandas on every side, massive and deserted. Each of its rooms featured an animal theme (ours was festooned with zebra stripes), and entertainment was provided in the shape of an old piano, log fire, the biggest TV I've ever seen in hostel and finally, Bez the four month old labrador, who came with an accompanying health warning magnetted to the fridge: "please do not give Bez milk - it gives him the shits".

Lord! Nelson

We left early next morning, after having another quick squint round the town and headed for Nelson.

Nelson's had a reputation too as, nestled in the North of the South Island, it had been dubbed "the most liveable city" in New Zealand. We arrived after 4 hour drive through the rain, saw little of the town and made straight for the hostel, Accents On The Park.

Accents On The Park. Best Hostel Ever. Fact.

Imagine your typical backpackers: run down building, former nunnery/Victorian manor house/borstal, crammed full with cheap bunk beds and even cheaper bed linen, kitchen consisting of a few electric rings and a microwave from 1983, and one dedicated "entertainment" room with a old TV overbalanced on a bracket high on the wall.

Not Accents On The Park. This was to be an exercise in what a backpackers COULD be if hostel staff weren't too drunk/idle/absent to do anything about it.

We entered onto a thick shagpile carpet, and approached the huge gold trimmed mahogany desk, certain we had accidentally stepped into The Ramada Nelson. Our double room was down the corridor past the thick armchairs in the lobby. Lobby. In a backpackers. The bedroom had bathtowels neatly folded on top of the snazzy, new bedlinen. There was a sink, his and hers bedside lamps, a wardrobe, a parking space and, the best bit, a double-sided Do Not Disturb/Make Up My Room sign to hang on the door. All this for $33 each. That's 12 quid a night.

Nelson didn't disappoint either. The next day the Sun was out, revealing a compact but pleasant town with some great cafes, and a beach 15 minutes from town. Indeed, it was a very liveable town. Big enough to attract a host of supermarkets and shops, but small enough to retain a sense of community and small town buzz.

Mr Fixit

A trip round Nelson's camera shops had proved disappointing: Louise's broken lens was eliciting a fair amount of gurning and whistling from the experts: "Hmmm.....I think that's going to have to go back to Auckland. Might be cheaper to buy a new one" some of them said before gesturing to the new lenses tucked inside glass cases in their window displays.

That was not an option and Louise maintained that we needed "a little man", meaning a boffin, an expert, an enthusiast, and not some Kodak-sponsored camera shop who had no real on-site expertise.

Luckily one shop knew "a little man", and scribbled a name and a phone number on a piece of paper, adding "Go and see Peter". After a phone call we were off round some more first gear corners, zig-zagging up a steep incline to the summit of a hill, possibly an old volcano, only a few minutes from town.

I pulled up on the 45 degree driveway and wrenched the handbrake up firmly. If the car rolled away here it wouldn't stop until it was back in Queenstown. I also stuck it in gear for good measure.

The house was dug into the side of the hill, and was simple and residential. It was opened by a man, in his mid 60s, with greying hair. He was wearing glasses with a tiny binoculars attached. We presumed he was Peter. He ushered us into a tiny room, which was dominated by a desk with a white handkerchief spread across it. Minuscule cogs and machine parts were painstakingly laid out on the handkerchief in excrutiatingly neat fashion. There was a pile of lenses stacked at the side, and disguarded camera backs lay in one corner. Yes, this was definitely Peter. This was the boffin, the expert, the enthusiast that Louise wanted.

He chatted easily for a few minutes and examined the lens with his keen eye. "I think I can fix it, but I need to have a proper look" he said, in a clean, almost English accent, and we agreed if it was to be more than $100 he would call us before he started the work.

There was something reassuring about a man who does what he does for the love of it, and not for profit. And we agreed to call him upon our return from the Abel Tasman coast.

We left Nelson the next day, and due to return a few days later. And of course, we had already booked ahead for Accents On The Park......

The room at Accents. Jacuzzi not in shot....

Thursday, October 02, 2008


From Fox it was along to Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks, a renowned rock formation on the West Coast, notable for two two reasons:

First, its appearance: like a million rock-grey beer mats stacked randomly and precariously in an elongated strata-esque formation . Second, it's name : that it's called Pancake Rocks, when in reality, the only time Pancakes ever looked this was when Fred Flinstone had that job at the diner.

The only way I can describe it is bloody weird, but interesting. Like jam on mashed potato. Or Bjork.

Later we visited a beach lagoon a few minutes down the road. I honestly can't remember what it was called. Something like Lake Poghognusnakakakakaiekaiakeiskapaokapolepaos. Maybe it has an extra "s" on the end.

Again, weird and interesting were the only and inadequate adjectives I could conjure. It was a beach where the tide had no so much come in, but trickled up, in , around, down and through, seeping in at angles and melting into vast, strange patterns and eddys around sand banks and rocks.

The upshot of which meant far away on the horizon, beneath the hue of the setting sun, we could see people seemingly walking on water, but actually jogging or taking their dogs for a stroll. Like Haast Beach this was another magic moment. Annoying, then, that upon opening her camera bag, Louise found her favourite wide-angle lens in pieces in the bottom. It would have to be fixed. That much was clear. As to how and when, that was more difficult. Amazingly, there are no Nikkon specialists in Punakaiki. Or the South Island. Hmmm......

And so to bed. We were staying in nearby Te Nikau Lodge, a collection of corrugated huts scattered throughout the cover of an adjacent rainforest. Clean, cosy, authentic but caused problems if you needed a wee in the night. I took a torch and pittled in a bush. I think Louise just held it and went back to sleep.