Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there


Days 25 to 28 – from Wellington to Stewart Island

I’m sat at the scarred oak dining table of the Bunkers hostel in Oban, Stewart Island, a fleck of savage rock and fauna 20 miles off the tip of New Zealand. It’s like Site B in The Lost World, but with fewer Hypsilophodon and a single pub serving the 400 inhabitants called the South Seas Hotel, one of the most friendly, drunkard locals you could ever care to topple into. Local fishermen slap each other hard over the back while recalling their tales for tourists, while last night’s talent quest discovered a gentleman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul McShane’s dad belting out Burning Love to the tune of In The Ghetto, although not in a manner that suggested it was intentional.

I’m about to head back to Invercargill on the mainland and see out my remaining time there. If the offer of a flight or a boat comes through, that’s most likely where I’ll need to be to take advantage of it. There’s so little Twitter activity now that I’ve reached the last outpost of my journey, I can’t really see my journey progressing. In recent days I’ve been frustrated that my quest might stop short of its destination, but now I’ve come this far, my view is more pragmatic. The aim was always to travel as far as I can from my home; wherever I manage to reach will invariably satisfy that aim.

I arrived on New Zealand’s South Island after departing Wellington on the InterIslander ferry, courtesy of @ExploreMoreNZ. Smaller than the ferry that had chugged me across the North Sea to Amsterdam all those days ago, this particular vessel possessed a curiously sharp aroma of farmyard that singed the nostrils. Parked near the stern were several cattle wagons, lacking their cargo of sheep but retaining a journey’s worth of dung; just what the captain ordered for a three hour ferry crossing. Fortunately the seas remained calm and the stench of my bile didn’t add to the already viscous fumes.

The voyage across the Cook Straight into Picton was breathtaking, and not because of the smell. Now, that may appear to be a lazy description and indeed, it’s a word that is vastly overused to describe everyday, mundane occurrences that do no such thing. Trust me when I say the sight of dolphins jumping across the path of your ferry while travelling through the forested magnificence of the Marlborough Sounds will cause your jaw to loosen and your lungs to be gently squeezed empty of air.

And it won’t be the last time you experience this very real sensation of Mother Nature applying a firm hand to your sternum. This country is the world in high-definition – an infinite wash of shapes and colours, a cascading stream of contours and textures that overwhelms the senses, too much for the eye to comprehend or the brain to process. That is in no way a criticism, but rather a celebration of New Zealand.

In Picton I was met by Smiley – not his real name, obviously – a driver from Kiwi Experience who was to be my chauffeur on the South Island. Built like a brick outhouse, accompanied by a mouthful of teeth that made friends everywhere they went, Smiley was a rugged Kiwi who’d driven tourists up and down New Zealand for years. Like half the population here, he’d worked as a production assistant on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but after years of a career in film production he’d discovered bus driving to prove far more satisfying.

In our Maui Rentals campervan, we travelled the lonely coastal road to Kaikoura that evening. In fact all roads on South Island are lonely; a land mass the size of the UK with only one million inhabitants means you’re unlikely to suffer road rage. As the sun set over the rolling foothills of the Southern Alps, ash-blue mists swirled in over the charcoal grey beaches. The occasional surfer tried their luck in the twilight, but otherwise we were alone on our travels.

Because of the kilometre-deep Kaikoura Canyon that lies off the town’s coast and the unique transition of ocean currents found there, Kaikoura is renowned for whale-watching. The canyon is also home of the mythical giant squid; although proof of the submarine sized beasts is scarce, remains are washed up along the beaches from time to time. As it transpired, the sperm whales that are commonplace to these feeding grounds remained just as elusive as their squidular nemesis. On our catamaran cruise the following day, we saw plenty of horizon and the occasional albatross, but otherwise it was very much a whale fail.

From Kaikoura, we continued south to Christchurch; our intended route had been to head straight on to Invercargill, but we’d had to take a later trip for our whale watch, and the road to Invercargill was over ten hours long. Instead, we decided to break the journey up by heading to Queenstown, smack in the heart of New Zealand and a journey that took us through the broken land of the Southern Alps. The sight of dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds had brought tears to my eyes; the distant Mount Cook seen from the shore of Lake Tepako caused them to roll down my face.

By contrast to that regal view of peace and splendour, there was Queenstown. It’s the destination for 20 something-year-old adventure junkies who want to throw themselves into canyons by way of bungee jumps, parachute over glaciers and seek out other adrenalin-spurting activities I hadn’t the slightest wish to indulge in. If that sounds like your dream of Mecca, you’re very welcome to Queenstown.

Unfortunately, it also means you deal with hundreds of 20 something-year-old adventure junkies when they’re smacked out their skull on drink every evening. Perhaps I was too old to appreciate the scene, perhaps I was too tired to embrace a lively night out, but I can go to the Bigg Market in Newcastle any night of the week for that experience, and at least there I won’t find gobby Essex chavs taking the piss out of me for showing a little common courtesy when ordering a late night snack, although the burgers at Fergburger made the abuse from the spindly framed gobshites almost bearable. Almost. Every place needs to let its hair down, and for South Island it’s Queenstown; it’s an easy place to lose in the vast emptiness of New Zealand if it’s not your thing.

Yesterday saw Smiley and I arrive in Invercargill early for a radio interview on local station More FM. Invercargill is rather unfairly referred to by the rest of New Zealand as the arsehole of the country;  perhaps that’s a purely geographical reference, because from our brief time spent there it looked like a perfectly pleasant small town going about its own business. I did see one or two mullets, however, which is one or two too many, whichever continent you happen to be stood on.

Throughout the week I’d told people of my intention to at least reach Stewart Island, and to a man, not one person in New Zealand had a good thing to say about the ferry crossing. Smiley told tales of wall-to-wall vomit on one particular trip, to the point that he swore he’d never step foot on board again. Let me tell you that Smiley is a particularly fearless bastard, so anything that scared that man troubled me no end.

On this occasion, the crossing was relatively smooth, at least according to the locals; that is to say it was still comparable to necking oysters while downing tequila on the back of a bucking bronco. After 45 minutes of sea-sawing across the Foveaux Strait, I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts by an angry horse. I staggered from the port into Oban and up to the hostel, clutching my guts as the island and my head swirled in opposite directions. I was officially sea-sick and about to say hello once more to the morning’s eggs benedict.

24 hours on, I’m still wretchedly ill. As I type this, the living room of the hostel is spinning and I can feel myself gently rocking back and forth. In two hours time I’ll be back on the ferry to Invercargill; Stewart Island Experiences (@StewartIslandEx) can’t guarantee me a spew-free return, although they were kind enough to bring me here so it’d be rather rude to return the favour by throwing up on their boat.

Once I reach Invercargill, I’ll wait and hope that Twitter pulls one final rabbit out of its hat. If it doesn’t, I’ll be satisfied I reached this point, having travelled this far, meeting the wonderful, gracious people I have, seeing more of the world that most people see in their lifetimes and having raised a healthy amount of money for Charity: water.

Privately, there’ll be the tiniest flicker of disappointment and hopelessness in my mind, that I’ve come so close and fallen at the last hurdle. But I can live with it. I can.




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