Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leaving New Zealand

Being the final part of a three chapter series, in which our adventurers take their leave, and take stock, of the journey had and the lessons (not) learnt.

It’s time to close the book on this sucker, for several obvious reasons. Firstly, fickle memory being what it is, it can’t be long before all involved begin to forget some details, distort others, and quite probably repress incidents best left that way. Everyone I’ve spoken to since returning has already noted the process of forgetting that’s underway. Secondly, there’s no point living in the past and not enjoying the present because there’s a lingering sense of irresolution to the trip. Finally, I just want to get it out of the way. And also I enjoy the writing.

When I got back, or perhaps a bit before, I had a distinct sense that all of us foreigners, and perhaps the kiwis who shared our trip, had learnt things from the journey. I’m sure I did. But when I express this, the question I’m asked is: What? To be honest, I’m not sure, and that’s a bit embarrassing. It’s hard to say you’ve learnt something if you don’t know what it is. I’m pretty sure the others learnt something but I wouldn’t want to say what. For me, though, the evidence is at least observable in our behaviour, or our attitudes since the return. I’m sure it’s different, somehow. Maybe it’s just my perception that’s changed. Maybe I’m paying more attention and noticing how everyone changes all the time anyway. To say that we’ve ‘learnt’ something is probably wrong. It’s something more complicated.

Wednesday is the midpoint of the holiday and it’s on Wednesday that we get trashed and climb a mountain. It’s also one of the most entertaining afternoons in memory. Piling into the tour bus, we make a raid on the supermarket (nine increasingly scatterbrained out-of-towners rampaging through the place with a ten-minute time limit) and head off into the sun with Jules at the wheel. When we stop at the base of the mountain suspicious voices are raised: a sign indicates that we’re about to enter some kind of animal park. Like a safari. But with sheep and goats. This is not the afternoon we had expected.

Ten minutes later we see our first bison, peering in the window. And shortly after that we’re giggling like schoolgirls as we offer lunch to 80s-fringed shetland ponies and the freakiest boar things you can imagine (Marcus stealing Rupert’s boot and attempting to feed it to one of the mutant pigs). The drive up the mountain is decorated by crisply lit fields of golden grass, jagged outcrops of ancient rock, a fresh breeze and a sense of goodwill from that honest earth we walk. At our second stop the group scatters to take photos, relieve themselves or climb to the top of a hillock, and I’m standing in the road with a few others when the goats appear, a seemingly interminable stream of trotting figures swarming towards us. There are cries as others return to see the new friends we’ve made. Goats have kind of evil, Satanic eyes. But these guys were on our side (which may make us evil and Satanic, I guess).

Further up we round a corner to be confronted with a massive temple, one side plastered with the crudely painted image of a Korean dictator. It’s some kind of movie set, and we sneak inside where bombed out trucks and barely-there wooden ramparts give a surreal edge to the afternoon. Also, a massively wired dude greets us, looking as if he’s just shot about ten coffees. We keep on running into him over the next three or four days. It gets a bit weird. But it’s a small town, I guess.

The top of the mountain is, well, yodel-worthy. Looking out over the lake/river and the town and the snowy peaks beyond begs some kind of response. You want to thank the mountain for offering the view. How do you thank a mountain? You can’t, but it’s ok. They don’t do it for the gratitude. They’re good that way.

Why do we climb mountains? Because it gives us perspective, silly.

We descend to the valley and pass through the achingly-rustic village of Arrowtown before hitting the Chinese Village at dusk. A strange, icy walk of ghost trees and empty spaces where goldminer’s hovels once stood. Night is falling. What look like puddles are in fact frozen sheets of glass. We slide on them, the Aussies with no concept of a frozen puddle. It’s fun. We’re in an historical landmark but it’s not really making sense. Sense, I suppose, is for later.

It’s true that close confines breed hurt, and later in the trip tensions, as already mentioned, mounted. I’ll be honest in saying that this account leaves out the occasional negative feelings which arose during our nine days abroad, but the reasons for this are simple. Nothing lasted. Maybe we are slow to learn, on the conscious level, but we’re quick to forget, too, I think. And while I can give you my impressions of my fellow travellers, I can’t get inside their heads. So, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been oblique and one-sided in my description of the others on the trip. This is my view of things, and after reading the first section of this piece at least one other voyager noted how strange it is that one person will remember certain things as pivotal while another will recall a completely different set of events. I don’t want to alter anyone’s own memory of things.

By the end of the trip I was piking pretty early. Zac more than did his part for international relations, outlasting almost everyone else almost every night. While I was back home slumbering, he was enjoying the Queenstown nightlife until nearly sunup, if not later. He generally managed to keep at least one of the others afloat for the duration, but I have to salute the good man for existing on an average of two hours sleep a night.

Rupert often accompanied him on his travels, and it was always a source of entertainment to see him return and try to steal a bed. I’ve never seen someone so devoted to the sourcing of available bedspace. And “available” can here be interpreted any way you want. After being ousted from Emma and Biddy’s double, we saw him make a dash upstairs to the resting place Zac and I had reserved, and we were faced with a raging bull when we tried to relocate him. Sleeping arrangements were never too firm in the house, and you never knew who it was you were stumbling over if you went for a wee-hours glass of water from the kitchen.

Deciding a restaurant between close to a dozen diners isn’t a piece of cake. Zac and Marcus check a Korean eatery and inform us that it looks ok, but is completely empty. I tell them that it might be because they’re blaring disco music. Emma points out that it might be because the music in question is ABBA’s “Take a chance on me”. Not a good call for a restaurant. We don’t take that chance.

In New Zealand, a venue will often multi-task. A restaurant will become a bar will become a band venue will become a nightclub. This is disconcerting, especially when it seems to occur at every spot you visit. I personally find it hard to dance at a place in which you enjoyed some fine fare a few hours earlier. This is just me.

Winnie Bago’s is that kind of place. We hit the one in Christchurch on our first night, and probably should have returned later in the evening, since the predominantly pizza-based place was going to host the Fat Freddy afterparty when the gig at the Town Hall was over. There was a Winnie’s in Queenstown, too, though I didn’t make it there. Mark and Zac did.

Zac: Look up.
Mark: Yeah, I’ve seen it. The flag.
Zac: No, look up.
Mark: Why, what – oh. The roof has opened up.

This is a reconstruction of an actual conversation. It might not convey the mood accurately. But I wish I’d seen the roof of a nightclub open up to reveal the milky way glimmering overhead.

Did you know that stars actually twinkle? In Queenstown, at least. Cheeky things.

I believe Mr T. may be trying to kill us. Yes, he seems intent on our destruction, and if he goes down too he’s willing to pay that price.

Emma’s Dad takes us out on his jet boat. And I suppose there comes a time when every young person wonders if a newly met elder would rather have them dead. This is not a speedboat, a dinky little offboard thing. This is a roaring, face-melting beast that runs on a dime and zigzags its way across the lake in stomach churning fashion. As Mr T. hits the throttle and we speed off into open waters, both Marcus’ and Zac’s hats are left spinning in space like a Warner Bros. cartoon before sinking into the depths. I’m sitting up front in the passenger seat and within seconds of take-off I realise my entire body has automatically repositioned itself to form a kind of human brace – every limb, white-knuckled finger, tensed knee or elbow has wedged itself against dashboard, seat or railing to anchor me to the vessel. We realise pretty quickly that Mr T. doesn’t want us dead, he just wants to show us a good time. And once that’s clear, a good time is what we have. Although he does cut his finger somehow, and I didn’t know jetboating was a bloodsport.

Amidst all of the beauty, New Zealand seems to be a vaguely dangerous place. An elderly Australian skier passes away on Mt Hutt while we’re there. There are crazy killers, just like anywhere, too. The newspapers report on a P epidemic, and I’d never even heard of P. I’m told it’s a kind of pure form of speed without the side effects, which makes it far more dangerous. People can get into P and still go to work, or out with friends, no one the wiser. Except that they can start acting like idiots and it won’t be apparent why. And it’s really addictive. But that’s about all I learn. I can’t really comment.

The other odd thing is how common nitrous is. On the streets of Christchurch we pass shops with big old handmade signs selling the stuff, no pretense that it’s for making soda.

It’s almost time to wrap up. The drive back to Christchurch was, maybe, the most entertaining drive I’ve ever been on. Biddy and Lisette take the station wagon ahead of us, and Mark, Marcus, Zac, Emma, Dylan and I zip up for a half-day on the slopes before the big drive. Mark’s shoulder is playing up from all the damage he’d done over the past two days of skiing, so he decides to take the day off the snow. I’m pretty down and weary from the night before, having gotten to sleep at about 5am (I was tired and emotional) and I’m almost broke, too, so I sit it out with him in the van. It’s good. We have a break. This is good. This is necessary.

We also crank up the stereo and dance in the carpark for some reason.

The drive takes us well into the night. Mark is at the wheel the entire way, since no one else is really in a fit state after a while. Everyone tips over into a mildly hysterical mode, and Zac and Dylan are the tour entertainment, keeping everyone amused for a non-stop 7 hours. As others drift into sleep or reverie, they continue to chatter, sing, joke, etc. We even get a talk on Zac’s favourite topic, the Eastern Volcanic Regions of Melbourne. I still don’t understand what he’s talking about with that. We stop at what Marcus dubs The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and somehow spend over $300 (mainly Marcus’ fault what with the Jagermeister and all). We arrive in Christchurch around midnight, battle-scarred and dragging our cases. A last minute call to Lisette and we’ve secured somewhere to sleep before jetting off back home tomorrow. She and Dylan show us the last of New Zealand’s great hospitality, and that mingling of sadness and relief at our imminent departure makes for a quiet night.

The flight back home is quieter than the one on the way over. We watch the movie or listen to music or whatever.

What have I forgotten? Everything, probably. But whatever is important is still up there, in those mountains, grinning the contented grin of a massive volcanic swell of rock pushed up from the earth millions of years ago. That’s the mountain madness I had on the tour. Joy.

To all my friends, old and new, who made the trip what it was, I have this to say: you are joy and light and rocky terrain, and without you – all of you – along for the ride it would have been a flat and featureless landscape. I hope that I brought something similar to this, myself.


Or, maybe, cheer bro.

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