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;Β  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.


15 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What an amazing adventure you have had Paul! Fingers crossed that the rabbit comes your way. If not, then it wasn’t met to be. What y0u have done is awesome.

Comment by Ladyexpat

I second what Ladyexpat said. What an amazing odyssey and huge accomplishment to have made it so far!

You never know, that rabbit might just appear when you least expect it. πŸ™‚

Comment by Francoise

Well done for making it as far South as Stewart Island. What a trip!

Comment by MsBehaviour

Wow what an amazing journey. We’d love to take you boat with us if your still around on the 29th March ps no one has ever been boat sick with

Comment by Joyce Kolk

Paul, what an adventure! I also have to congratulate all Tweeters who assisted, enjoyed meeting you and shared hospitality. Many of them belong to the wonderful world of professional travel experts. AirNZ, Anastasia, all the Kiwis and others deserve kudos as they displayed the generosity and expertiese of the grand old club of those in the travel trade.

Comment by SpainVirtuoso

You should be so proud of your achievement, you did achieve your goal. You traveled further south than probably 99% of the world population has, and likely further south than 99% of the New Zealand population has.

thank you for coming to visit us. you have made me so proud of my home, I am so glad to have meet you.

(ps: I am planning my own trip to stewart island now, always wanted to go but never go that far south)

BIG hugs.


Comment by Astrid

“whale fail”


This Wichitweep (i.e. from Wichita, Ks) is keeping her fingers crossed for Campbell Island.


Comment by amy dee


I am so proud of you that words fail me (never! I hear you cry). I’ve watched your travels with true excitement and amazment every step of the way. Though I can’t say I’m surprised since this is exactly the kind of thing I have come to expect from you, all in or all out is certainly your way. Though it’s killing me now because I know you’ll be coming home soon (I’m practically willing you here) I know in my heart I’d rather miss you yet another day than have you miss out on reaching your target.

I hope the Twitter folk will somehow manage to come up with some last minute magic and help you reach your goal.

Wife x

Comment by Jane Smith

Paul, the more I read these posts and see your amazing photographs the more I am convinced this has to be turned into a book. It’s an amazing story and one I’ve enjoyed following. Even if you don’t reach your goal you’ve proved that the world is an almost decent place to live in.

Comment by Rich

Wow!!!! You made it to the other side of the world…how cool is that! Kudos man!!! :o)

Comment by gemmak

Stay longer on Stewart Island next time and experience the bush, birds and wild beauty on another level. It’s worth it!

Comment by starpath

I came to your quest late in the piece via the Leo Laporte podcast and I am amazed at your achievements. I have learned more of the world through your quest and am stunned and amazed. Well done and I am hoping for a final miracle for you. πŸ™‚

Comment by Mundoo

Your Journey has not ended yet …..Kia Kaha(be strong) chin up!

Comment by Pure_Kiwi

You are the ultimate “Cyber Traveller” Congratulations on your magnificent journey. Can we expect a book, detailing your adventures, in the near future?

Comment by Zoe Feast

Paulo Smithiano

When I read your wife Jane’s post it brought a tear to my eye and Rich is right, this is going to make a fantastic book and I think you just might have your own red carpet moment one day too…

If you ever sit and think ‘Poop, I didn’t make it to Campbell Island’ remember where you were working 12 months ago, remember your wedding in NY, re-read Stephen Fry’s Re-Tweet, watch the clip from Good Morning America and smile.

Your Twitchhiking travels may have ended but an epic journey is just about to start. You’ve certainly learnt how to make the day more fun and interesting πŸ™‚ and all of your friends back in the Toon are very proud of you.

Now may I suggest Ewan McGregor for the lead role? And Liv Tyler to play Jane? I’m emailing Paddy Power now…

Comment by Duff

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