I arrived into Abel Tasman National Park for the second time two days ago and realised that the last D For Dalrymple missive had been written about the very same place. It has been far too long. To the fans, I’m sorry. Please, keep buying the merchandise.
In the intervening period, I completed my loop of New Zealand’s South Island; participated in a messy costume party in Barrytown (population: nine and one dog), climbed the Franz Josef Glacier, traversed the Haast Pass and Mount Aspiring National Park via Lake Matheson, performed competitive kareoke in Makarora, celebrated my birthday twice in Queenstown with dancing and cocktails drunk from teapots, sailed the Milford Sound, braved three-metre waves on the Stewart Island ferry and angry sea lions on the island itself, visited Dunedin’s chocolate factory and inflicted further kareoke on its blameless residents, had a curling lesson (of the icy variety), spent two further and altogether more sedate nights in Queenstown, stargazed at Lake Tekapo’s Mount John observatory, zipped in and out of Crimechurch as fast as possible, walked the beautiful Kaikoura peninsula, rested two nights with Tessa in Picton, and headed down to Abel Tasman National Park again where I did an 8-hour hike and, best of all, was reunited with the towel I left on a catamaran three weeks ago.
With a list like that you’d have thought I would have ample material for today’s post. Yet I’m struggling. The longer you leave writing, the harder it gets. I’m reduced to writing about writer’s block before even beginning to assault my store of experience. It doesn’t help that I have a cracker of a cough that rigorous exercise and two nights of drinking cheap boxed red wine around the campfire has done nothing to ameliorate.
In general, blogging conditions are looking good – not only because of the beautiful setting, but because of the lack of distraction. Yesterday I waved the southbound Stray bus farewell and made my own way north to Nelson, where I write from a balcony of a beautiful backpackers’ hostel at the base of the Cathedral. Thus far I’ve managed both to nab a bottom bunk – sweet as – and almost entirely evade contact with my new room-mates. The hostel is pretty quiet, but it seems unusual that I’m the only one taking advantage of the amazing balcony. Perhaps word has spread about the cough. I’m not particularly bothered. For one thing, I woke up this morning with no voice. More importantly, it’s really quite nice to have some time to myself.
It’s hard to believe that I could ever have been worried about not meeting anyone on my travels. With so many people travelling alone or in small groups on the buses and in every hostel, i-Site, bar, or tramp, making acquaintances or acquiring whole groups of new friends is a doddle and a pleasure. In my last post I mentioned the intense intimacy its possible to achieve with travelling companions you have known for a few days or even less. There are a few people – Wendy, Denise, Liz, Alex, Steve, Sheena – with whom I travelled for weeks one way or another, and whose friendship extends to the realm of Facebook and therefore to eternity. But it’s easy to make even more transient friendships.
Take my bus of two days ago. When I boarded at Picton, it was with the intention of travelling the short distance to Nelson. Then I got talking to Jerry (24, Tipperary) and Holger (46, Frankfurt) and within an hour decided to come along with them to Abel Tasman to walk a day’s worth of the track, something I missed out on the first time around. The next day, Holger and I teamed up with Kate (29, Liverpool) and Creepy Simon (approx. 15, Germany) and walked 22K from Bark Bay to Marahau. We left at 8.30 and by noon I knew Holger’s birthday and Kate’s preferred bikini-line maintenance habits. Creepy Simon spoke to Holger exclusively in German and unveiled an eye-wateringly skimpy pair of Speedos when we went for a swim at Anchorage, as a result of which I know more about him than I would strictly prefer. In the evenings we drank an unwise volume of the aforementioned boxed wine and stayed up until the early hours chatting with others staying in the farm hostel. Yesterday morning I hopped off the bus at Motueka with a parting warning about Barrytown and a couple of new names in my diary. Over the next couple of days faces will be booked and I’ll have a couple more locations on my mental map of places I can stay for free. It’s fantastic.
Although lately I’ve been spending more time away from the Stray route, it has been the easiest way to meet people so far. The bus attracts all sorts, but like any other company, seems to target a distinct demographic. While the youngest Strayer I’ve met was 18 and the oldest 72, travellers are generally in their late twenties and are predominantly British, Irish, German and Dutch. Most are professionals who are either taking extended leave from work or who have ditched their jobs to go travelling. Nearly all have money. D For Dalrymple feels rather left out in this respect.
The company’s marketing material depicts its customers hiking, relaxing in natural pools, participating in ‘cultural activities’ such as bone carving, and sitting around campfires. While outdoorsy, Stray isn’t as adrenaline-fuelled as Adventure Tours (whom the company owns), and while it pushes its social activities, it’s careful not to appear as outrageously 18-35 as Kiwi Experience (whom Stray’s founder used to run). It’s a safe middle ground.
Stray – and all who board her – exercise a pronounced snobbishness when it comes to customers of rival bus firms Magic and Kiwi Experience. The latter is colloquially known as ‘The Fuck Truck’ (or variations on that theme) and is notorious for catering to its gap-year clientele’s demand for binge drinking and casual sex. This is a running joke for Strayers, whose own drinking sessions (while just as extensive) tend to end with less vomiting and teenage pregnancy. Waddling onto the bus with aching muscles after a gruelling hike, for example, we compare our gait to that of the Fuck Truckers. Sex definitely happens on the Stray bus, but its generally not in a shared 9-bed dorm.
Yet different buses have their own dynamics. My North Island bus with Metro was a brilliant group. We got on really well, had the occasional few too many drinks but got up early the next day regardless and got on with exploring this incredible country. One of the buses I boarded in the South Island, however, was of a different bent. The bus was unmistakeably ruled by a clique of The Three Lads. These three, all in their mid-twenties, had met in Auckland and travelled south together. They were a good laugh during daylight hours, but come evening, they put on their fifteen-year-old hats and started to drink like there was no tomorrow. Additionally, and inexplicably, they were shagging their way around the bus. I wasn’t involved. Perhaps this is why I’m so sore about it.
It came to a head at the Barrytown costume party. This happens at a pub owned by Stray and run by two affable Maori stoners, who run five costume parties a week and greet each new busload of Strayers with the maxim ‘what happens in Barrytown, stays in Barrytown’. So far, so fun – until you get to midnight and one of the coven has collapsed, there’s young girls being sick into rucksacks and you fall asleep to rhythmic banging noises coming from the showers. The next morning when I got up to go for a walk, it was to meet a girl from the room next door who had woken up to find her five-bed dorm empty and devoid of mattresses. The room had been so lavishly decorated with vomit that its other inhabitants had been obliged to sleep elsewhere.
Still, what happened since Barrytown more than made up for it. You get out of an experience what you put into it, and I’ve generally been aiming for around 110%. This couple of days off from talking, alcohol, late nights, long walks, all the endless sex, is just whizzing past. My laundry should be just about cooked by now, so I’ll attend to that, then go and take a stroll to New Zealand’s central point. Perhaps this evening I’ll see if anyone wants to go and see Alice In Wonderland at the local cinema. If I’m lucky I could be in bed by nine thirty. Bliss.
By the way, I changed my flights to include a trip to Australia. I may never return.