New Zealand [week 3]

Merry Christmas! Week three wasn't quite as photogenic as the first two, but here are some highlights anyway.


The Moeraki Boulders are a group of large, unusually spherical rocks on a beach between Dunedin and Oamaru. They look like a community of giant, partially-buried turtles.


Our second couchsurfing experience was a bit different to our first. Our accommodation lacked luxuries like intact windows, bins (all waste - including plastic - was burnt for heat) and lighting (head torches had to be worn at night). Our hosts had as much character as the house they occupied and shared some incredible stories I will never forget, even after the necessary counselling.


Oamaru has an excellent children's playground which includes an extremely disorientating hamster wheel-style device I'm sure has claimed a few front teeth in its time.


"Historic Oamaru" is an attractive precinct of Oamaru built in Victorian times from locally-quarried limestone known cleverly as "Oamaru Stone". The area hasn't changed much in a hundred years and still features many lovely boutiques and specialty stores selling grain and wool and timber and other things that aren't iPads.


Oamaru also has a nice harbour with a nice pier you can't access for nice safety reasons.


Little Blue Penguins, the smallest species of penguin in the world, are common around New Zealand's coastline. Oamaru has a special penguin sanctuary and viewing dock which tourists can pay 28 dollars to enter and watch the penguins return from the ocean every night at dusk. Fortunately, we were tipped off by a local that the penguins are also visible crossing the road just outside the sanctuary for free. Great to watch!


My third Christmas Day abroad was spent back in Christchurch, having been invited to a couple of gatherings by different groups of friends. Pictured are the attendees of the first party, orphans from an impressive nine different countries. Sam and I had a brilliant time. (Photo credit: Marc Plato)


A seemingly easy hitch from Christchurch to Blenheim quickly became the low point of our trip so far as we spent an hour getting completely drenched and completely ignored. I'd normally expect a bit of rain to improve our chances but not this time. Our problems really started when we crossed the line from "aww look at them" wet to "I don't want something that wet in my car" wet.


We ended up catching a bus the next day, which was much nicer.

New Zealand [week 2]

I have a feeling someone has been tampering with my calendar because what feels like 6-8 weeks has passed in the space of just two. Here are some photos from this suspiciously short period of time.


In a stroke of blind luck, we arrived in Invercargill the day before the biggest event of the year: The Races. Our couchsurfing host, Gary, was due to attend and he was kind enough to invite us along. The idea was to meet some of his mates (whom he warned us were "a bit rough round the edges") and get a real taste of Southland hospitality. On arriving at his friend Nicola's house at 11am, we were handed shots of liqueur, which set the bar for the rest of the day. It was lots of fun and we were treated very well by our new friends.


The secondary attraction at The Races is horse racing. The primary attraction is getting completely wasted. I wanted to bet, but the more I drank, the less the endless sequence of numbers and names made any sense, so I gave up.


Standing by the side of the road for long periods of time brings out your creative side. Decorating a hitchhiking sign with flowers is a great idea because, if you think about it, cars are very much like bees. I won't elaborate any further because the parallel is obvious.


About halfway to Dunedin from Invercargill lies the small farming town of Gore, where we were deposited by our first ride. Soon after arriving, we discovered the Gore Christmas Parade in full swing, another stroke of blind scheduling luck. In any other part of the world, anyone claiming to celebrate 150 years of Gore would be a real cause for concern.


I had wanted to visit Gore's famous brown trout statue ever since watching this video on youtube.


Dunedin is a excellent city with lots of nice old buildings and a bustling octagonal core. It houses New Zealand's first university which gives the place a nice young feel. I think Christchurch probably once resembled Dunedin before everything happened.


Sam spent some time pondering fluorescent tubes at the Public Art Gallery.


While I looked like a massive idiot pouring glasses of beer at the finale of the Speight's brewery tour.


We both found the expression on the face of this unfortunate statue as he came to terms with the sheer volume of bird shit dripping down his face completely hilarious.


From Dunedin we were taken to our first helpx placement at the Sinclair Wetlands in rural Otago. We spent 4 days there working with the manager who taught us all kinds of amazing stuff about New Zealand conservation. His job is to try desperately to reverse the terrible decisions made by the early European settlers who introduced rabbits, stoats, ferrets and weasels into New Zealand to make it feel more like home. These predators went on to wipe out entire species of native birds which had evolved in a completely mammal-free environment (the only mammals in New Zealand until a few hundred years ago were bats).


Sadly, the conservation woes don't stop with animals. Many introduced plant species like broom and gorse are capable of growing significantly faster than their more relaxed native cousins, starving them of light and suffocating them. Our main job on the first day was to hack away at broom in areas where it threatened native plants. At one point it rained and we took shelter in an old hunter's hut. (Photo credit: Glen Riley)


Another job was individually plucking hundreds of worms from decaying food waste which was ready to be used as compost. Sorry if you were eating.


We had plenty of downtime and one evening our host treated us to a BBQ/kayaking extravaganza with our fellow volunteers, an Italian couple and a German couple.


In summary, our first helpx experience was really awesome. I can't wait to get more involved in this stuff later in the trip.

New Zealand [week 1]

Welcome to the first weekly batch of photos from my trip around New Zealand with Sam. It's been a busy week so let's not dilly dally any longer.


Despite my recent betrayal, I was still invited to the SLI Systems Christmas Party, which is just another measure of how awesome my ex-employer is. It was hosted in Lake Tekapo and involved staying in a fancy hotel, eating free food, and getting very drunk in a barn. I will miss this bunch. (Photo courtesy: Wayne Munro)


While in Tekapo we climbed Mount John which has a famous observatory at its peak. Tekapo is known for its dark night sky and all street lights in the town are shielded from above to minimise light pollution. The view from the top was incredible. Here is Sam looking introspective.


I also took some time to ask myself the bigger questions.


Queenstown was next, home to the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, the world's first commercial bungy jump. It was terrifying and wonderful. Instead of hoisting you back to safety after jumping, two men on an inflatable raft float down the river with a large stick you have to grab. Easier said than done while dangling upside down with a head full of blood and adrenaline.


Our first hitchhike from Queenstown to Te Anau was a huge success. We waited less than 30 minutes in total for two separate rides.


The second car didn't have seatbelts or even seats. It was like an extremely downmarket limousine. The German girls behind the wheel were very considerate though and promised not to crash.


Te Anau is a quaint little lake town used by most as an access point to Fjiordland, one of New Zealand's least populated and most naturally beautiful regions.


Milford Sound is the region's main tourist attraction and we spent a day exploring the area by bus and ship. It was one of the most unique and stunning places I have ever visited. Everywhere you looked, giant waterfalls spilled over rainforest-covered cliff faces, fuelled by nearly constant year-round rainfall.



Milford has some of the tallest mountains in the world to ascend directly from the sea floor. It's tricky to get your head around the scale of this place.


Everything you've heard about sheep and New Zealand is true.


After another successful hitch from Te Anau to Invercargill, we met up with my friend Beccy, who gave us a brief tour around her often-mocked hometown. We established that Invercargill "wasn't that bad", which I think would be an excellent town slogan if the mayor happens to be reading this.


After nearly a week of paying for accommodation like suckers, we decided to try something new. Couchsurfing is a website that allows "hosts" all around the world to list any sleeping surface (generally a couch) they happen to have available for travellers to sleep on for free. In our case, the couch turned out to be a double bed in a beautiful house on a small farm just outside town, owned by a lovely man called Gary.


We shared 2 relaxing days on the "farmlet" with two dogs, many sheep, and a two-headed cow.

More photos next week!

Loose ends

Sixteen happy months after I first arrived in Christchurch, I find myself with less than a week left on the clock. Let's face it: this blog has been pretty desolate while I've been living here. I had a feeling this would happen as I made the transition from ski bum to office drone, but I did at least hope to continue the weekly photos, something I have utterly failed at. This post attempts to catch up on some recent events, ponder my time in Christchurch as a whole, and set out what you can expect to hear from me over the next few months.

First thing's first: I made a new video. It's about winter - a sequel to the one I made about summer. You've all seen it but here's a link for the record.


Second thing's second, some photos. These don't correspond to the weeks I've missed, they're just a random assortment of ten things I've pointed my camera at recently.


Like everything else in the area, the Christchurch Gondola broke during the 2011 earthquakes and only got fixed fairly recently. I visited with my mum who was here for three weeks in October. We had a lovely time.


The Hilltop Tavern is an incredible restaurant overlooking picturesque Akaroa Harbour. The scenery was so perfect I began to suspect it was merely a giant postcard erected by the manager every morning to cover up the actual backdrop of a disused oil refinery.


My first ever professional basketball fixture ended in bitter disappointment as the New Zealand Breakers narrowly lost to the Melbourne Tigers. It might seem odd that a country was playing against a city, but apparently that's how basketball works over here.


The port town of Lyttelton is separated from Christchurch by the Port Hills, which I was standing atop when this photo was taken. The port accounts for 61% of imports into the South Island, which is a boring fact but I really wanted this caption to be two sentences long.


Diwali is the biggest Hindu festival of the year. I crashed the celebrations because I suspected there would be a lot of good Indian food, and I was right. There was also ice carvings, speeches from dignitaries, dancing, live music, and pyrotechnics. Very cool.


Akaroa Harbour a bit closer up.


Pictured: Just about anywhere on the South Island. Every time I leave Christchurch, I'm reminded of how ridiculously beautiful and uninhabited this place is.


The Nelson Jazz Club played a gig in the Cardboard Cathedral as part of the Christchurch Big Band Festival. Having built a number of buildings out of cardboard during my childhood, sitting inside a real one was quite an unnerving experience.


Strolling around the Port Hills with Pollyane and Marcos, a couple of Brazilians from work.


I didn't actually take this photo but I needed an excuse to mention the event somehow. It was taken during "Canterbury Tales", a bizarre and wonderful Middle Ages-themed procession through the centre of Christchurch late one night. The utter weirdness of it, coupled with my complete lack of expectations made the whole experience very surreal and dreamlike. Look at the official website for a more coherent description.

***

With my time in Christchurch rapidly drawing to a close, it's time to reflect on the last sixteen months. Much like a football match, my time here has been split into two quite different halves. These halves lasted around eight months each, considerably longer than most regulation football matches. There were also no goals or free kicks and the analogy only goes downhill from there.

I spent the first half living in a large, creaky wooden house on the east side of town with earthquake damage and poor insulation. My six housemates changed on an almost-weekly basis as they arrived in Christchurch, found short-term jobs on farms and building sites, and left again. None of them were from New Zealand and we spent many weekends exploring the South Island together. We built a BBQ in the garden out of bricks and it was used continuously. I really liked the lifestyle but the house itself was a bit crap and I decided to move.

The second half was spent living in a fancy apartment in the centre of town with a couple of kiwi mates from work. No longer surrounded by foreigners, I started behaving less like a tourist and more like a local. Life in my new house was more stable and I sometimes missed the chaos of the first one. I travelled less, aside from a couple of big trips to England and California.

Something which has remained constant between halves has been my job at SLI Systems. When I first arrived in New Zealand, I never expected to end up working a "proper job" (i.e. one related to my degree). The threat of getting a proper job was one of the main reasons I fled England in the first place. It only started to seem like a legitimate option during my disastrous time in Auckland where I spent a lonely month being rejected from every shop, cafĂ© and bar in the city.

I held many prejudices against "proper jobs" from a year-long work placement I did at university. Suits, cubicles, managers, photocopiers, politics, words like "proactive", water coolers, all that Wernham Hogg bollocks. Working at SLI has made me rethink all that. I won't go into details (you don't care) except to express how very lucky I feel to have landed in a job where I was treated so well and got to work alongside such wonderful, smart people. In future, I will be far less cynical about working in the industry I spent three years studying towards thanks to good old SLI.

Christchurch is known as "The City that Rocks" and during my stay it's done its fair share of rocking. While none of the regular aftershocks have compared to the huge shakes of 2010 and 2011, mother nature has been careful to ensure everyone knows she is still the boss. Earthquakes creep into everyday life through conversations and almost-daily headlines in the local papers. They wake you up at silly hours and inconvenience every journey you ever attempt through the medium of roadworks. Having missed out on the trauma of the horrible ones, I've always found them very exciting and will almost miss living in a city where the ground isn't static.

I think that's probably enough for now. Before I go, a quick note about what you can expect to hear from me over the next four months. In the spirit of packing light, I've decided not to take my laptop around New Zealand with me. Instead, I've bought a tablet and the machinery required to siphon photos from my camera onto it. So, with any luck, photos of my travels will materialise here periodically with the usual silly captions. Hopefully weekly, but we've all heard that before.

Bye!

Summer plans

I've been living in New Zealand for close to a year and a half now, much longer than I imagined when I first arrived. I've been thinking about my exit strategy for a while, and with summer fast approaching, now seems like a good time to put it into action. Gather round and I will tell you what I've got planned.

I leave my job on December 5th. The day after that, Sam arrives in New Zealand from California. The day after that, we leave Christchurch together and spend several months travelling the length and breadth (and depth, since we will be moving in three-dimensional space) of New Zealand. We haven't decided the exact duration yet but it's likely to be between three and five months. After that, we're going to move to Australia together, assuming we can both still tolerate being around each other by this point, which is anyone's guess.

I've come up with this incredibly exciting map of the route we intend to follow:

Fucking hell

Being on the road for months on end has the potential to get quite expensive, so we'll be taking a couple of financial shortcuts:

1) Hitchhiking. We're going to try and avoid paying for transport altogether, instead relying on the good will and mental stability of New Zealand's road users. This has worked spectacularly in the past so I'm fairly optimistic about our chances. If all else fails, we can always pull the "girl as bait" trick that worked so well in Alaska.

2) Volunteer work. There is a website called HelpX which aims to bring together "Hosts" (those who need work doing, generally on farms) and "Helpers" (those who are willing to work in exchange for free accommodation and food) which I'm very keen to experiment with. It sounds like a lovely way to meet interesting folk and learn cool stuff. The money is almost incidental, but very handy nonetheless.

That's the long and short of it anyway. I can't wait.

California

Two weeks ago on Sunday I was faced with the miserable task of returning home after two glorious weeks road tripping around sunny California with Sam. This post attempts to document those two weeks with the help of 50 digital images. About half are mine, half are hers. She has plenty more on her Flickr if you fancy it. Okie dokie, let's go.


Christchurch → Sydney → Los Angeles → Santa Barbara

Sam scooped me up from Los Angeles International Airport early on Saturday morning. After an emotional reunion and a short period of getting really lost in obscure LA suburbs, we began our way up the coast to her home in Santa Barbara. We stopped in Carpinteria, a lovely little seaside town where I ate the first of so many delicious Mexican meals. The options for meat included "chicken", "steak", "tongue", "head" and "marinated".



Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is exactly the sort of utopian wonderland that ought not exist but somehow does anyway. Wedged comfortably between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, its perfect temperature varies by less than ten degrees between seasons. I could easily have spent the whole two weeks here but that wouldn't have been particularly fair on Sam. She showed me some of her favourite spots, including pelican stronghold Goleta Pier, and the awesome "Lizard's Mouth" lookout point.



Santa Barbara → Big Sur

The drive up the coast to Big Sur got more and more beautiful the further north we progressed as the landscape transformed from farmland into cliffs and forests and rocky beaches. It got dramatically less beautiful when we stopped at an elephant seal colony. Elephant seals really drew the short straw when God was deciding which animals should be remotely appealing to look at. Even their method of getting around - dragging their fat bodies along the ground with frequent stops to catch their breath and sink their ugly faces into the sand - is completely repulsive.



Big Sur → Santa Cruz

Camping in Big Sur was a bit of a mess (we forgot to pack basic things like a torch) and we opted out of a second night, instead continuing north to Santa Cruz. Sam let me drive some of the way, my first experience in an automatic, and I had a great time. Something you might not know about automatic cars: they don't have gear sticks! I think if more people knew about this, automatic cars would be a lot more popular.



Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a seaside town with a lively boardwalk containing all manner of rides, amusements, and deep fried food. We rode the "Sky Glider", a gentle cable car ride from one end of the boardwalk to the other. It gave us lovely views of the beach, where crowds were gathering for a free screening of "Footloose" that evening, an event surely impossible to stage on UK beaches without the need for paramedics stationed to the treat the audience members whose core temperatures have dropped below the required level for watching films/consciousness.



Santa Cruz → San Francisco

The short drive from Santa Cruz to San Francisco cut through Silicon Valley, a region famous for the hundreds of tech companies headquartered there, among them Adobe, Intel, Oracle, Yahoo!, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Visiting the headquarters of Google constitutes a sacred pilgrimage for a computer science graduate like me. We managed to infiltrate the campus and walk around freely for at least ten minutes before a security guard, whose sole job appeared to be shooing imposters like us, asked us to please leave. A very cool place from the little I saw.



San Francisco

San Francisco became my favourite American city when I first visited two years ago and it still holds that title. We spent most of the day wandering around with no specific agenda, soaking up Little Italy, Chinatown and Union Square. The hostel was packed with Outside Lands festival goers, where Nine Inch Nails were playing that night.



San Francisco

Our second full day in San Francisco was a continuation of the first, with possibly even less direction than before. We spent a while exploring the most dense record shop I've ever been to. The sign above the narrow staircase leading down to the basement boasted a collection 50,000 records, and I doubt they had the floorspace for 50. It was mostly just a cramped maze of plastic crates full of vinyl stacked from floor to ceiling with no room for one person to pass another, or escape in the event of a fire. I wanted to buy something but the choice overwhelmed me and I had to leave and have a sit down.



San Francisco → Sacramento → Lake Tahoe

We left San Francisco across the famous Golden Gate Bridge and set our compass to "east". Somewhere along the way we reached Sacramento, the state capital of California, where we stopped for lunch. We left Sacramento undecided whether "Suckramento" or "Excremento" was a more appropriate pseudonym for the boring town, which might have been slightly unfair given the length of time we spent there. The food was alright though. Continuing east, the landscape quickly gave birth to mountains, and after an impressive 7,000ft climb, we arrived at Lake Tahoe.



Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe was really amazing. We met up with Sam's parents and family friend Jim, who'd kindly offered to host everyone at the lakeside property he'd built himself twenty years ago. We spent the day exploring the area, swimming in the crystal-clear lake water, and floating down the Truckee River in a dinghy, sipping watermelon-flavoured beer. Lovely.




Lake Tahoe → Mammoth Lakes

The beautiful drive south from Tahoe drifted briefly into the state of Nevada, where, unlike California, gambling is legal and casinos are rife. We stopped at "Sharkey's", a particularly grungy-looking establishment, to try our luck. Midway through a winning streak on one of the slot machines, a Sharkey's employee approached us and asked to see our ID. It turned out you have to be 21 to gamble in Nevada and Sam isn't. We cashed our $1.25 profit and made for the exit, which felt like starring in a particularly weak episode of BBC Three's "The Real Hustle".




Mammoth Lakes → Yosemite National Park → Santa Barbara

The daunting eight-hour drive across the state from Mammoth Lakes to Santa Barbara was broken up by visits to different parts of the extraordinary Yosemite National Park. My photos can't do the vast scale of this place any justice. They're also out of date, given Yosemite has since become a giant inferno.


Santa Barbara

I didn't take many pictures during my last full day in California, but that's okay because I did manage to capture the single most important event of the day, the trip, and arguably my whole life. Sam prepared this masterpiece of tri-tip (a type of steak), pepper jack cheese, grilled onions, salsa, avocado and mayonnaise from the deli she works at. Words failed me at the time and words continue to fail me.


Santa Barbara → Los Angeles → The Sky

Stearns Wharf is home to a community of seriously entrepreneurial homeless people who have set up games along the beach, challenging tourists to throw coins off the pier into a series of elaborate targets drawn on scraps of cardboard. A smart idea that was working very well for them. We pottered around for a while, trying to delay our drive back to the airport. Eventually we gave in, and after an emotional deunion (a new word) at the terminal, we parted ways. I miss Sam, and we're already planning our next trip together.


The Sky → Sydney → Christchurch

The image of Sydney's iconic skyline came as a welcome relief after fourteen hours spent not sleeping and being fed gruel by the surprisingly hostile United Airlines cabin staff. A shorter, less awful flight whisked me across the Tasman Sea where I caught my first glimpse of rainy old New Zealand, home sweet home for the next few months.