World Travels

Chapter Six: Down Under

Today is six months since I started this adventure (and 2 days after your six month anniversary, Robbie, just to remind you, buy Kate flowers…) Last night, I celebrated by going to a traditional dance show here on Easter Island. Who knew that the young blonde female they seated between two old men would be the one pulled up on stage to join in?! What a surprise!
Back to Thailand: the last few days were some great local touring. A highlight was visiting Pai, a hippie town in the mountains. There is a farmer there whose land opened up in a huge split in 2008 as an aftershock of an earthquake. His response to losing most of his land was to turn it into a tourist attraction where you can go and hang about on his hammocks, sipping hibiscus juice, and wander up to see the wondrous split in the hillside. I ate some amazing street food in the night market, but the street food lasagne shows they may be catering more to tourists’ tastes than locals.
Australia was a lovely time driving from Sydney to Melbourne and back seeing friends and family. I stayed with Adina in Sydney, a friend from studying in Denmark, and had an enjoyable 5.40am wake-up to go triathlon training with her. It turns out that I can’t actually swim in the real sea. I met up with Sissi and Georgi, friends from Egypt/Jordan- really appreciate seeing you both! Sydney seemed very clean and organised. I must admit that I did gasp seeing the pure sand of Bondi Beach and the cute Opera House- it is actually quite small! Melbourne seemed very classy, clean and civilised. I definitely felt my clothes weren’t smart enough to walk about. I took a trip to the Gaol and learnt that one of their hangmen in the 1800s came from Athlone: such a claim to fame. Special thank you to cousin Matthew and family for the best dinner I had had in about 5 months: was great to meet you all!
I must admit to wishing the last few days in Australia away until the day I was flying to New Zealand, telling every poor person who caught my eye that I was seeing my boyfriend that day. New Zealand, unsurprisingly, hit the top three of countries so far. This can be illustrated by our first day when we met up with our uni friend Tash, spent the day on the beach, drinking wine and picnicking in a vineyard, and hanging out on her friend’s boat in the harbour. Not a bad start at all.
As expected, there was a lot of outdoors to come. Via Hobbiton (where I am proud to say my LOTR knowledge was as good as the guide’s and George struggled to distinguish LOTR from Harry Potter), we spent three days on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. This hike circumnavigates the volcano which starred as Mt Doom and it is certainly a photogenic cone. Strong winds filled our ears with volcanic dust. We camped in a lava field and wondered at huge rocks lighter then polystyrene. Emerald lakes smelling of sulphur and huge craters completed the landscape. We finished off North Island seeing an amazing giant carrot and even more amazing giant welly boot before spending a few days with Ocean, an orienteering friend, in Wellington. Te Papa museum there provided most of our knowledge for the rest of the trip.
The crossing to South Island necessitated some inventive geographical games to occupy my mind away from seasickness. We found an incredible second-hand book shop in the ferry town of Picton which kept us in books for the rest of the holiday- the start of my love affair with Edmund Hillary. We drove Queen Charlotte Drive (some more rolling, this time side to side rather than up and down) to my friend Keith’s father’s house in Nelson. This was a wonderful stop: Piers filled us up with maps, guide books, family news, local knowledge and fish&chips. Our next stop was to be the Abel Tasman trail, which runs along the coast. We decided not to do the whole 5-day trek but spend some time on the beach instead. This was a very good decision as our one day ferry-taxing to a point on the trek and walking back found the trail to be beautiful but rather monotonous. Instead, we ended up at Nelson Lakes, hiking up 1000m in pouring rain (at least the rain got rid of the evil sandflies) to Lake Angelus: a lovely site the next morning when we could actually see it. The hike along Roberts Ridge to descend was the best on South Island: one long, sun-soaked photo shoot.
Our weather window was short so George drove four hours to bring us to Arthurs Pass, a tiny village in the heart of the mountains, from where we could climb Avalanche Peak the next day. That’s when we met the kea: cheeky, intelligent, beautiful birds that have a habit of stealing everything they can and have a particular taste for campers. The tent next to us had its guy ropes cut and we escaped with two tiny beak-shaped holes near the base of ours. We hiked up and down the mountain for views over to a distant glacier. On our way to town for a well-deserved shower, we saw a sign for “Cave Stream”: a caving adventure following a stream underground for an hour. A sign at the entrance helpfully suggests that you might want to carry a light, spare batteries and not to attempt to go through if the water was above your waist at the start. I have to admit, being completely against the whole idea and scared of the eels, it was rather fun.
Rain was promised so we hid out at Lake Tekapo, sampling its hot pools, before looking at where Mt Cook should be (it was hidden by cloud) and travelling onwards to Wanaka. There, because of the rain and lack of a 4×4, we were restricted to a little 1000m ascent hike up Breast Hill to see sunrise. George thought I hadn’t tried enough activities that scared me yet so we went to Queenstown for mountain biking. The town itself is one horrendous tourist trap of adrenaline with all shop signs screaming at you to get bungee jumping, rafting, sky-diving, helicopter-riding, jet-skiing… Having rented bikes and crash equipment, we took the gondola up the hill to discover these were not tourist trails but very steep downhill biking of which I am not a natural. But when the rain started pouring and the mud churning, my arms shoulders legs hands pounding, it bizarrely started to feel almost like fun and the views over the lake were incredible. To finish up our own adrenaline ride, we went kayaking the next day until the man supervising pulled us back in from extremely choppy, almost surfable waves.
After all that excitement, a peaceful time was required. We gold-panned at Arrowtown before heading to Dunedin: NZ’s only castle (a stately home really) and a great individualised tour of Otago University from Gregor, Dad’s old uni friend. I felt almost nostalgic for a place I had never visited before but had heard so much about. Then off we went to Christchurch via the surprising highlight of Oamaru. We spent most of a day on two streets of this town, wandering around antique shops and model railways, chatting to the owner of an adventure bookshop wonderland, and being introduced to the world of Steampunk (very Dr Who).
Christchurch is a fascinating place to visit right now in a morbid way. All cranes, car parks where buildings used to be, street art and shipping crates. The cathedral lost its spire and most of its vestibule in the quakes and stands forlornly in a steel exoskeleton. Everyone is arguing what to do with it. To try and tick off another continent in theory, we visited the Antarctica centre and experienced a storm while making friends with penguins and huskies. Our last day was spent in Akaroa: originally a French settlement and they do like to remind you of that with every street name. There is a artist living there who has turned her garden into a Gaudi-inspired paradise of ceramic and concrete mosaic figures. A relaxing end to a adventure-filled trip.
I had a brief and soft introduction to South America, staying with a uni friend’s brother and his girlfriend in Santiago. They live outside the city in the foothills of the Andes- perfect spot for a stroll up 1800m Cerro Pacheco to see my first snow-capped peaks and my first snake! Then I flew here, to Easter Island. The flight brings you over the whole island and beyond, swinging back around to hit the runway over the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the only town on the island.
I think I will sound like a guidebook if I start on everything I’ve learned here. In a sentence (or two), the moai and ahu (iconic statutes and their platforms) were a form of ancestor worship. When resources started dwindling and wars between tribes broke out as a result, it seemed to that ancestor worship wasn’t working so the statutes were thrown down or were thrown down by a victorious tribe as a symbolism of defeat of their enemy. Then the new warrior-religion of The Birdman grew stronger until 1868 or so when Catholic missionaries came along and put a stop to this inventiveness. I find the rebuilt ahu beautiful and photogenic but the real attractions being the still-ruined ones with the moai facedown on the stones that once supported their glory. The inhabitants here thought they were the last people in the world; much more disturbing than thinking you are the only ones. Imagine being the last people on earth, resources diminishing, the gods failing and anarchy unfolding- with no way of escaping…
On that happy thought, it’s time to steal the only working WiFi connection on the island to send this. Chile, Bolivia, Peru to come; must learn Spanish pronto.

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