Updating the blog has proved harder than anticipated. I had envisaged that the long bus journeys would be an ideal time to sit and tap away at my dinky new netbook. In fact, the journeys so far have been filled by chatting to other travellers, singing along to a succession of increasingly tragic road-trip soundtracks, livestock-spotting, and, of course, drinking in the spectacular scenery. Today everyone’s asleep, the weather is cloudy, and I’ve landed a double seat, so it’s all hands to the laptop.
The UK is certainly not without beauty. Whenever, if ever, I escape the city, I’m invariably surprised and mildly distressed to be reminded of the glorious countryside that is apparently going on all the time while Londoners fight over seats on the tube. I have particular fondness for Scotland and Cornwall where I spent most childhood holidays with my grandparents. For many of these trips I was more interested in my Gameboy than anything else, but the point stands: the UK has regions of quite outstanding natural beauty, even if you do have to travel a bit to find them.
You don’t have to travel far to find beauty in New Zealand. It’s everywhere you go. I’ve been in the North Island for 7 days and have already explored clouded mountains, lush rainforests, rippling dunes, sun-drenched beaches, intricate subterranean caverns, and acres of verdant farmland. I’m in a state of near-saturation. Every new view and experience brings with it a surge of happiness. Some even prompt tears of emotion. More cynical readers might attribute this reaction to nine-bed-dorm-induced sleep deprivation, but that shouldn’t detract from the main point of this paragraph, which is that New Zealand Is Awesome. Sweet as.
The Kiwi and Maori people I’ve met are hugely and deservedly proud of their country. The best part is that they seem to be more than willing to show it to foreigners, in their own relaxed, wry way. Tourism is huge, but so far appears to be respectful, ecologically sound, and for the most part locally-owned and run. I’ve seen and done so much in recent days that I just don’t have time to write about here, but see below for my top ten thus far. The New Zealand lifestyle has done nothing to cure me of my obsession with list-making.
1. Hugging a Kauri tree 7m in diameter: barely a teenager in Kauri terms
2. Learning about marine life on a glass-bottomed boat at the Goat Island Marine Reserve
3. Watching the clash of oceans where the Tasman Sea and South Pacific meet at Cape Reinga
4. Seeing wild horses grazing in the vast solitude of 90 Mile Beach
5. Surfing down sand dunes at 30 kmph
6. Swimming with a pod of wild dolphins in the Bay of Islands
7. Splashing in the crystal clear waters off the white sand beach of Cathedral Cove
8. Staying in a rainforest hostel on the slopes of Mount Karioi
9. Body-boarding at Raglan’s world-class surfing beach
10. Exploring caves illuminated by glow-worms at Waitomo
The tourist industry here simply doesn’t need to go for the hard sell, except when it comes to the more contrived ‘Adventure’ activities. So far, most of my dollars have been spent on accommodation, access and guides, save a few necessities such as hire of snorkels, flippers and boards. This afternoon, however, we reach Taupo, and all this changes. Today is Skydive Day.
D For Dalrymple readers who spoke to me before I left the UK might recall that I expressed feelings of mild trepidation as regards leaping from an aircraft in mid flight. During the extensive pre-skydive consultation process, I spoke to several people with skydiving experience ranging from one jump to thirty. They were unanimous in their praise for this improbable activity, with varying degrees of persuasion. My brother, Tom, was the least reassuring:
‘Didn’t you have to pay, like, a million pounds to do skydiving?’
‘Yeah. It was so worth it.’
‘For 45 seconds of free-fall?’
‘Best 45 seconds of my entire life.’
‘Could you just be saying that because the massive adrenalin surge caused by hurling yourself from a plane and living has wiped your memory of the fear you experienced and the utter abstract stupidity of the entire concept?’
‘Yeah, probably. I’d do it again, though.’
A gentleman I met a at a party by the name of Jamie was more helpful. Although his opening remark – ‘only 20 to 30 people are killed every year in skydiving accidents’ – was not exactly calculated to inspire confidence, his subsequent reassurances as to the computerized systems that guarantee the safety of novice jumpers were of some comfort. Less so was the YouTube video I watched immediately afterwards of a man whose parachute failed to open.
My travel insurance doesn’t cover this afternoon’s activity. Tandem skydiving counts as a UK Grade 3 Hazardous Activity, and adding it to my policy would have meant paying an additional £78.99. £78.99 is a lot of money. It’s not that I didn’t understand my parents’ argument: of course, preparing for all eventualities could have given me more freedom and peace of mind on my travels. It’s just that I honestly can’t understand how forking out an extra 80 quid could benefit me in the event that I hurl myself out of a plane at 12,000 feet and my parachute fails to open. Unless – as I drop, stone-like, towards a rapidly expanding landmass – I have the presence of mind to shout instructions to waiting ground staff to convert said 80 quid into cash in say, Zimbabwean dollars, and have it arranged into some kind of landing pad.
No, the extra money on the policy would most likely cover the repatriation of my mortal remains to the UK – an expense which, quite frankly, I am more than happy for my parents to cover. Plus, as several kind friends have pointed out – I love you guys – if you fall from high enough, further interral may be unnecessary.
UPDATE: it’s probably too cloudy in Taupo to do the jump. I feel like I’ve been spared from execution.