Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Dom Post

The Wellington Dominion Post is asking for well-written travel articles, so I wrote this. No idea whether they will print it - it's difficult to know what they are looking for.

We had a quick skim through their travel section for the past two months, just to make sure we didn't duplicate, and much had already been covered: Queenstown, Nelson, Chch, Dunedin.

So I chose to write about Haast because I think it's not an obvious destination, and because I think I'd found an interesting angle. Anyway, here it is:

Haast : Magnificent Desolation

Remoteness, isolation, desolation – three things you’re unlikely to demand from a holiday, I’m guessing.

Yet for some desolation can be inspiring and romantic. And so, yes, whilst New Zealand offers its fair share of extreme sports and snow-capped vistas, it also possesses something oft overlooked: nothing. Glorious, beautiful nothing.

If you’re someone who finds the idea of being miles from anywhere appealing, of being free from tinnitus-inducing ringtones and irate motorists, of finding space, then Haast, on the West Coast, maybe for you.

Myself and my girlfriend, travellers from the UK and Ireland respectively, never intended Haast to be more than an overnight stop en-route between Wanaka and Fox, but were soon won over by its rustic charm and magnificent desolation.

Nestling unassumingly on the West Coast, Haast consists of three main hubs: Haast Township, Haast Junction, Haast Beach. With a population of 297, the majority of “Haastafarians” live in the Township, a small pocket of civilisation, where you’ll find accommodation for most budgets, restaurant bar, mini-supermarket and, just up the road, the Visitors’ Centre.

But it’s not about Haast itself – it’s about its position within that beautiful nothingness. It was only when my girlfriend and I ventured out we really began to get a sense of the surrounding environs; the emptiness, the light, the space.

Heading South, we drove along a straight road that disappearing into the vanishing point, the ocean crashing on our left, clouds of wind-swept heather to our right.
Vast banks of wetlands soon scrolled into view, no doubt hiding a multitude of species. From bird life to seal and penguin colonies, nature is everywhere in the Haast region, as evidenced by the many organised river safaris running in the area.

Within a few minutes we had arrived at Okuru Beach, a deserted fishing hamlet, and took a walk along its craggy beach, the tide not so much coming in as seeping in from obtuse angles, sweeping into strange puddles, melting and eddying around jagged ancient the rock formations. We were the only people on the beach until a local resident joined us, a bright-eyed Labrador who insisted we play fetch with him. Soon he was gone, and we were alone once again.

From there it was on to Jackson Bay, about 45 minutes from Haast, and the southern-most point on the West Coast where the road just literally, well, ceases. Passing relatively few cars on the journey, we entered the village itself with a feeling that this really was New Zealand’s ultimate cul-de-sac. Not in a bad way, though; from Farewell Spit on New Zealand’s South Island to Land’s End back in the UK, there’s something inherently appealing about going as far as you can, venturing to the very edge, and this really was a frontier of sorts.

As if to echo my sentiments, hanging from shack, a splintered wooden sign, hand-painted in greasy green paint stated, “The End Of The Road ?”. I was intrigued by the question mark as, for me, there was no doubt – we really could go no further. Actually, it felt more like the end of the world.

Jackson Bay is another fishing village of some historical significance. Originally settled in 1875, immigrants hoping to start a new life found their hopes drowned as relentless downpours destroyed their farms. Pleas to the government for assistance in building a wharf were ignored, meaning the town was soon isolated and in need of vital supplies. Today, it is a privilege to actually enjoy that sense of isolation, for it was exactly that remoteness, that desolation that was be the downfall for those early settlers. Incidentally, a road to the village was not built until the 1960s and by then, the farming communities were long gone.

The modern day Jackson Bay has fishing very much at its heart. Rusted, salt-encrusted metal contraptions sit alongside all manner of hulking, spike-adorned paraphernalia. Meanwhile, below the wooden jetty, and amongst the frolicking seals, fishing boats bob on the grey water, their pilots clad in grimy waders and gum boots , their weather-beaten faces telling more than a thousand shanties ever could.

The Cray Pot provides the centrepiece to the village: a cafĂ© in a portacabin serving fish and chips, whitebait and other locally-caught seafood. Totally authentic, it’s the perfect place to sit and tell tall tales of giant squids and mermaid sightings, and its reputation is such that blackboards advertising its wares can be found along the main road nearly all the way back to Haast.

After a day of big skies, near-silence and solitude we made our way back to Haast, calling in at Haast Beach on our return. A huge swathe of shale along the line of the coast, Haast Beach was, as expected, deserted, and strewn with oceanic bric-a-brac, the only sound the blustering wind and the crashing waves.

As the Sun cast long shadows in the golden twilight, and myself and my girlfriend meandered aimlessly along, I realised that Haast provided the perfect antidote to our previous two locations, Queenstown and Wanaka. Haast was quiet time. Haast was thinking time. Haast was alone time. Haast was great.

Friday, November 07, 2008

When IQ Stands For “Idiotic Questions”

For as along as I can remember I’ve been a know-it-all. I’ve always liked knowing things. Facts, figures, nuggets of information - there always seemed to be something comforting about certainty, about the reliability and solidity of the truth.

I am aware that upon hearing talk of “truth” and “facts” the undergraduate-90s-me would immediately baulk, and claim ultimately a “fact” is something someone has subjectively deemed factual, and that in reality, truth is fluid and borne out of individual perspective.

Oh shut up. Bollocks to undegraduate-90s-me, frankly. Get back to your terraced house with the hilariously ironic posters and play Resident Evil instead of writing your essay.

I think it’s important to distinguish between contentious facts which would benefit from being challenged (eg The Vietnam War was a draw), and information which it benefits no one to over-analyse:

For instance, the following are definitely true:

* The UN replaced the League of Nations
* Czechoslovakia was split in two by The Velvet Revolution
* Spongebob Squarepants lives in Bikini Bottom

….and if any doubt remains, I looked them up on Wikipedia. And that really IS the truth.

But although my ability to retain facts, on occasions, impresses people, there’s always a few who apportion less value. In addition to dubbing me Rain Man and asking “how many matches?” at inopportune moments, Eavesie would also rib me by claiming I didn’t appreciate the difference between knowledge and, well, simply knowing things. I was good at trivia, he would declare, whereas he was knowledgeable. Knowledge was useful. Trivia was not. Ironically, I refused to accept that as fact.

But whereas Mark would claim there is only use for knowledge and not for trivia, I would draw his attention to that very British of institutions: The Pub Quiz.

Where else could fellow Smart Alecs demonstrate their skill? The sportsman has his field, the motoring enthusiast has his track, the artist her gallery. The pub quiz, then, is the domain of the Smart Arse.

We Don't Need No Education! Wait, Yes We Do

Now, I’ve been in a few pub quizzes in my time, and I’ve won a few too. But I don’t think I’ve been to any quite so poorly run as The Establishment on Courtenay Place.
Seeing as we’ve set up shop in Wellington for a while, we thought it would be good to have a regular social outing, and so Louise and I set out to find a pub quiz.
A regular team soon came into being, comprising myself, Louise, Katie and Tom (both who we met at Rowena’s) and we settled on The Establishment.

However, it soon came apparent, I think, within the first 8 minutes that, given the two “quizmasters” were seemingly about 12 years old, they should have probably concentrated on mastering reading, before they considered mastering quizzing.

Not only that, but despite my thoughts on the efficacy of the “fact”, I’m sure the undergraduate-90s-me would have been able to use their quiz as Exhibit A in demonstrating his case, for it’s been a while since I’ve seen facts being used in such a cavalier fashion.

We’ve attended a few times for the unintentional entertainment value and, over the weeks, the catalogue of errors has continued to build.

Crimes include, in no particular order:

* Reading out answers to questions not even asked, eliciting a unison chorus of “ Whoa! Eh?”

* Repeating the question, only to change the question second time round. “What’s the largest stone sculpture in the world?” was changed to “What’s the largest stone structure in the world?”.

* Playing music videos on the video wall for the “Name The Song” round, only for the captioned title to appear moments later, causing the gathered throng to throw up their arms in despair.

* Secretly dropping hints to teams at their table and then having to dash back to that table to exclaimed they’ve just realised they hinted at the wrong answer

* A reading age of around 7. “Answer to number 10……the capital of North Carolina is…..er…..oh….erm…… what’s that say?…..‘Relay?’”

* And then this beauty from earlier this week. One of them reads out: “The next round is the Linked Letter round. The first letter of each answer goes to making up a name. I’ll leave it up to you whether to tell the teams that the name is a recently deceased soul star turned actor….ah ….um……don’t think I should have read that last bit out”

….and of course we worked out quite quickly that the star was Isaac Hayes, meaning we now had the first letter to every answer. Nice going boys.

I think the problem is clearly that they are considerably less smart than the teams. Not that Stephen Hawking regularly attends or anything ( I imagine he could cheat by accessing Google from his chair ,anyway), but when you’ve got a room full of people who pride themselves on knowing things, on having the facts at their disposal, I suppose you need to be on your game, These two jokers are just completely out of their depth.

And now word reaches us that, down the road, the Cambridge’s Pub Quiz has a $200 first prize. So maybe we’ll give that a go. Who knows, maybe “trivia” will prove to be useful after all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Faulty Towers

So we needed somewhere to live.

When we set off the next day in search of a new hostel, armed only with a mapful of scribbles, there was something gnawing insistently at the back of my bonce; a half-remembered thought or an idea trying to burrow to the surface. A bit like when you think: Did I leave the gas on? Or did I remember to Sky Plus Top Gear?

Speaking of burrowing, Louise had woken to find herself bitten by bedbugs in the night; a fitting send-off, I think. Double Vs flicked up to Worldwide Backpackers then. And a raspberry. I don’t know how you type a raspberry. Probably: “plbbbbbbblpblbplbpbb”

First contender for our new home: Lodge In The City - a dusty, balsawood museum of boredom with rooms straight out of a 70’s porno - 1870s that is (“Good morning Ma’am, I have come to fix your traction engine”).

Next were YHA and Wellywood, neither of whom would allow a longer term stay, and so finally, on the basis that initial examination deemed it “adequate”, we settled on Rowena’s.


Over the course of the coming week, however, it became apparent that Rowena’s, too, was a nuthouse: There were huge bowls of fuzz hidden at the back of the fridge. There were ants in the kitchen. The TV room closed at 10.30 because a week previously a disagreement over the TV channel had resulted in someone being lamped.

The clientele were “unique” too, the most notable of which was “Star” the Samoan, who every night would sit at the piano (where did that come from?), turn on the radio, and start hammering enthusiastically away at random keys, as if playing along to the song.

It was clear, however, that Star had had little musical training and probably thought A Minor was someone who worked down a pit, B Major was the one in charge of the Bee Army and A Flat was what his Mum lived in

The result from the man who didn’t know one end of the piano from the other (and I suspect the difference between left and right), was a cacophonous jumble of mad, stomping, out –of-tune piano and the New Zealand Top 40. It was funny for the first 10 minutes. Then it wasn’t funny.

And then there’s Murray, the manager. Murray is a puckering sphincter of a man. A 65-year-old elephantine, hatchet-faced shitbag. A man so miserable and unhelpful he makes American Customs Officials look like The Red Cross. A man who views his guests like a boil on his cock. A man who reminds people their rent is due by accosting them with “You owe me money!”. A man who keeps the Sky remote behind reception and responds to guests requests to change the channel with “I’ve got better things to do than change the fucking channel”.

And the thing that had been knocking on the door of my brain, finally crawled in through the back window. I remembered, weeks ago and 500 miles away in the relative comfort of the Brown Kiwi, Bev had warned me that there were no decent hostels in Wellington. None.

And now I could see what she meant.
Give It Some Welly

So, sadly, our South Island adventure was over. The plan was to make like Jonathan Ross and lay low for a bit.

Wellington beckoned, where we would set-up shop, restock the coffers and rest-up after a tough month of tourism. I say “tough” when, really, I suppose I mean “nice”.

Where There’s A Welly There’s A Way

Things didn’t go according to plan right from the off. We had decided to go all Phileas Fogg and use a combination of train and boat. Sadly, hot air balloon and camel were vetoed at the last minute.

We said goodbye to Louise’s friends and perfect hosts, Jye and Angie, at 6.30am, boarded the train at 7am, and by 9am we were already late. The only saving grace was that apparently the boat was late too. I bet Michael Palin didn’t have to put up with this.

After an uneventful boat journey where I was charged so much for a papercup full of chicken nuggets, I considered writing to Gordon Brown for a bailout, we drifted cheerfully into Wellington harbour.

Within an hour, we had already found our hostel, and already been disappointed. Steve, the bloke behind reception looked like he had been awake after a night at the Monster Truck Race, with his baseball cap and Castrol-stained lumberjack shirt. He charged us for our bedding, looked confused, confided in us that he “ran a Mickey Mouse operation”, and went back to looking confused again. This was the highest rating hostel in Wellington, by the way.

And he’d put us in Room 1. Room 1 is never a good room. Room 27 is a good room. Room 43 is a good room. It’s usually far away from other rooms, on a higher floor, or perhaps out back where it’s quiet. Room 1, however, is always next to something, like the reception, the kitchen or the TV room. In this case, we were slap bang in the middle of all three. And it was a Saturday night. And the rugby final was on. Not good if you’ve got up at 5am. Shit.

Put The (Wellington) Boot In

I think Steve knew I wasn’t happy. Maybe he was a people person, maybe he had a highly-attuned sense of empathy and was eternally hypersensitive to customer satisfaction. Or maybe he saw me continually re-shutting the kitchen door every 5 minutes to block out the noise and slowly twigged.

He found me in the TV room, and played it all matey. “Is it too loud?” he asked. “To be honest – yes” I said, being honest. “Oh I’m sorry” he started but then, just when I thought I had him onside, he changed tone “only I didn’t think with being in New Zealand’s most social city on the night of the rugby final, anyone would want to go to bed at 9.30”
“It’s a democracy” he added with a hurt expression “And I have to go with the majority, Phil” He added my name on the end in a passive-aggressive attempt to portray himself as the “reasonable one” – as if to say “I’m doing my best here – you’re the one who’s making hysterical demands” role.

But this wasn’t a democracy. It was more like tyranny of the majority. And we all know what majorities do. They do things like vote in George Bush. Twice. Imagine if Steve ran a pub: “Can I have a white wine please?”, “No sorry. Everyone’s getting hammered on tequila shots. I’ve got to go with the majority, Phil”

The best hostels are run so residents are free to fill their time how they wish without imposing upon each other. Steve should have been able to say: Want to spend the evening speed-reading Harry Potter? Be my guests. Want to get drunk with those other guests? Knock yourself out. Want to knock yourself out? My pleasure. Want some of my pleasure? Well I draw the line somewhere.

Democracy is also about choice. And I choose not to get hammered and watch the rugby, so can I go to bed please?

And I did get to bed eventually after a room swap and an elaborate system of sound dampening involving both my earplugs and my iPod. There wasn’t a lot of room in there when I’d done.

It was clear we had to find alternative accommodation. And so that would be our task for the next day.