This afternoon I arrived in Picton, gateway to New Zealand’s South Island and home to another scion of the Berry clan. Tessa welcomed me with open arms, which was jolly nice of her considering that I rocked up not only on her doorstep but at her workplace. While Tessa is busy teaching children about the marvels of the ocean (and keeping the little buggers out of the snapper tank), I’ve spent a beautifully lazy afternoon browsing in the small town centre, doing laundry, and sitting listening to old Adam and Joe podcasts on the foreshore beach.
I should probably explain how I got here. A popular way for backpackers to get around NZ – and for non-drivers like myself, perhaps the only feasible method – is by using one of several bus companies. I chose Stray, attracted by their unusually broad itineraries, smaller group sizes and relatively advanced age of its customer base (mid-twenties to thirties). Plus, in all honesty, travelling with an operator known locally as ‘The Fuck Truck’ didn’t particularly appeal. Stray buses are also easily identifiable by their colouring, a particularly garish shade of highlighter orange which makes spotting them easy for the navigationally-challenged.
Stray drivers, too, tend to stand out from the crowd. Most go by a ‘Stray’ name (complete with back story) in addition to the one on their birth certificate. Scratch, Metro, and Uncle Fug-Fug explained their names on the first days of their respective legs (the latter’s was fairly self-evident: ‘are all of youse, fuckin’, on the fuckin’ BUS? Fuuuuuuck’. I thought I swore a lot). Novice drivers Sue and Nick had yet to earn their Stray titles. I voted ‘Roadkill’ for Sue, given her habit of simultaneous driving and filing. Meanwhile, Nick seemed set to stick with with ‘Pops’ at our last meeting, due to his entirely admirable habit of turning in early the night before a big drive.
Stray’s ‘Max’ pass allows me to travel a fairly extensive route which I can book online or by telephone (or, at a shove, by turning up and hoping for the best). If I particularly like a place and want to stay longer than the current bus, I can ‘hop-off’ and re-book my itinerary at my leisure. In summer the buses comes through every one to two days, but the year-long expiry date of the pass means that people can, and do stay in places for weeks or months at a time. So far I’ve used three of my nine free days: one for this stop-off in Picton, and two days at National Park.
The latter aberration from schedule could not have been more fortuitous. When we rose early on Wednesday in Taupo, it was already clear that the adverse weather conditions that had prevented our skydive – shame – would also prevent us from walking the famous Tongariro Crossing in National Park. The Crossing is reputedly the best one-day walk in New Zealand and was one of the anticipated highlights of my trip. So, while the majority of our extremely convivial group left the next morning with the bus, a smaller group decided to remain for two days in the National Park in the hope that the weather would improve.
The gamble paid off. Not only did were we able to relax for three days in a venue more hotel than hostel (for less than £10 per night), but we had a wholly unexpected rainforest adventure, discovered my hitherto hidden talent for massage (a nice little earner and almost entirely non-seedy) and walked the Crossing in glorious weather in just under 6 hours. All things considered, a marvellous end to an action-packed week.
It seems strange that I’ve known most of my travelling companions (all of whom have now gone on ahead) for less than eight days, yet already feel so close to them as to have been genuinely moved by every goodbye. Denise from County Clare, Liz from London, Wendy from Holland, John from Southampton, and Noah from Michigan are just a few of the people whose acquaintance (read: Facebook friend) I’ve made, and who, more importantly, who might read this blog and whose blushes I will spare by omitting their innumerable character flaws from my copy.
Partings are made slightly easier by the knowledge that, sooner or later, you’re likely to catch up with friends made earlier on in the trip. Conversely, there are some people you can’t lose quickly enough (of whom more later). In some quarters I’ve witnessed serious tactical planning going on as people attempt to avoid buses that are likely to carry undesirable passengers. Either way, journeys are made more exciting by the knowledge that you are likely to meet with people whose reputation, good or bad, precedes them. I am, for example, hopeful of joining a bus carrying the Three Steves, whom I remember as being particularly good value during our recent stay in a marae.
I bring this altogether underwhelming entry to a close in Tessa’s boxroom, where I sleep tonight. It has been a successful evening. Not only was I permitted to watch Precious by myself in the aquarium’s deserted cinema – feet on seats and everything – but I have been mauled by a blue penguin (pictures to follow) and fed chicken and wine by an entirely like-minded new relative. Tomorrow: Abel Tasman National Park for adventure and, hopefully, more entertaining material.