New Zealand Odyssey Part VIII – Capital Blues and the Gateway to the South.

With a heavy heart, I dragged myself away from magical Lake Taupo and the wonders of the Tongariro National Park.

Leaving my rental car and the majesty of New Zealand’s active volcanoes behind, I grabbed a cheap bus ride and headed south towards the country’s capital, Wellington, the southernmost capital in the world!

Known as ‘Windy Wellington’, it certainly lived up to its name! Situated in the latitudes of the ‘Roaring Forties’ and perched on a range of steep-sided hills that run down to the harbour and the sea beyond, Wellington is also particularly exposed to the coastal gusts that blow through the Cook Strait. The city also lies on an active geological fault line and has a high degree of seismic activity as a result, with several small earthquakes occurring every year, and was the sight of New Zealand’s most powerful recently recorded earthquake, in 1855, reaching a massive 8.2 magnitude.

Arriving, somewhat weighed down by my now massively heavy backpack, I got a room in a small B&B then set out to explore the wonders of Wellington.

I wandered amongst the harbour and quayside, a picture of city tranquility and civic pride. None of the dirt, litter and graffiti so prevalent in our own capital. Public sculptures and fountains jostled amongst neatly clipped lawns and perfectly manicured flowerbeds. Only the unpredictability of the sea reminded you of the wildness beyond the city fringes.

I took the cable car and drank in the breathtaking views over the city as I passed Kelburn cricket grounds and headed up the hillside to the botanical gardens above and the Carter Observatory and Planetarium. Seeing the stars of the Southern Cross for the first time and a different night sky to one you’ve always known, is strange and thrilling.

The next few days whirled by in haze of sightseeing, but there was always something dogging my tracks, like a whisper on the wind, a feeling of melancholia that I couldn’t shake…

Rarely in life do we realise that we are having the time of our lives while we are actually having them! Yet I was all too aware, as I reached the mid-point of my four-month odyssey, that I had never felt happier, freer and more contented, and that the experiences and memories I was making, would stay with me for a life-time and shape my life in ways I could never have predicted.

Booking my ferry ticket, I posted home some of the encumbering weight of my backpack, before bordering the Interislander Cook Strait Ferry and saying farewell to New Zealand’s North Island!

93km and 3 hours later, for what has been deservedly described as ‘one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world’, I saw the stunning inlets and channels of the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds. A 4000km2 maze of coastal ‘sea-drowned valleys’, of heavily wooded hills and sparsely populated quiet bays at the far north of the South Island, which evoke the best of ancient Scandinavian legends. A heady mixture of mystery, Maori mythology, spectacular landscapes and sweet solitude. Nature at her best!

I arrived at the sheltered harbour of Picton, gateway to the South Island. Grabbing another cheap bus, I headed west through the glorious rolling hills and vineyards of Marlborough’s famous wine region to the bohemian city of Nelson, the geographical centre of New Zealand. A small but wonderfully artsy feeling place, full of galleries, indie record shops and festivals, Nelson became my base for the next week.

Bathed in the highest amount of sunshine per year, making it the ‘Sunshine Capital’ of New Zealand, you can understand why it’s cerulean skies and dry heat are so perfect for making fine wines. And so, despite sadly not being a lover of wines myself (my immature palate makes them taste as disgustingly sour, as when I tried sipping them at age 13), I found myself getting lost down empty country tracks, picking grapes and macadamia nuts from the roadside! Bliss.

After happy days soaking up the sunshine and culture of friendly Nelson, I took my rental car and headed west, as I found myself aching once more for wild places. Branching off from the State Highway, I took the picturesque coastal road past Motueka and onto the pretty little town of Kaiteriteri with its sandy beaches and cafes…But still the wild beckoned me.

Following a twisting road, which can only be described as a single gravel track hardly wide enough for a car, with sheer drops inches from my wheels, I gingerly skirted the forested hills and cliffs towards my destination, Marahau, hoping against hope not to met a car coming in the opposite direction!

Crossing the Otuwhero Inlet, I was immediately amazed by the startling azure of the Tasman Bay and the Pacific beyond and the almost ethereal white of the beaches. Sheer paradise. Marahau, a tiny inaccessible village, gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and outpost for laid back beach bums, surfers, hikers, adventurers and those wishing to get lost, had the most magical feel to it. Artisan and bohemian in the extreme, with only one way in or out, its solitary grocery shop, cafe, post box and the few dotted roads, houses, caravans, water taxis and kayaks, invited you to stay a while…and so I did.

THIS was a place to live and breathe and write! Hemingway, Greene, Kerouac…if they knew this place existed, they would have packed their cigars, white shirts and shades and headed here on the first plane. Du Maurier too…but maybe without the cigars!

I splashed out, booking myself into the rather posh, Ocean View Chalets, self-contained wooden chalets perched on stilts and overlooking the sea. The view from my balcony was nothing short of spectacular. This was the stuff of dreams. If you couldn’t be inspired here, then you couldn’t be inspired anywhere.

Wishing every minute would stretch itself and every hour would become a day, I spent the next three glorious weeks in a heightened state of happy delirium. No drugs needed, just utterly intoxicated on life.

Taking the Abel Tasman walkway and coastal track deep into the rainforest, I was astonished to see a passing group of little wild blue penguins casually crossing the path in front of me, as a cacophony of exotic birds cooed in the canopy above.

Abandoning shoes, I spent most of my days walking barefoot, hanging out on the beach as if it were a religion, beach combing, sketching and horse riding along the surf…yes, as clichéd as it is, there is nothing like it! Writing for hours and hours as the sun hovered overhead, a guiding light for my imagination. Watching the sunset blaze into the ocean, or the drifting embers of a bonfire on the beach, sharing gentle conversation with strangers, all as blissfully happy as me.

Days were meant to be like this…

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New Zealand Odyssey Part IV – Desert Island Discs.

I left the magical Waipoua Forest with its towering kauri trees and took a breathtaking drive eastward across North Island to the Bay of Islands. The sun was shining and the old rental car I’d hired was humming along with the rhythm of the road. I arrived in Paihia, a quiet little coastal town and gateway to the Bay of Islands, surrounded by scenic forested hills and sail boats drifting lazily in the inlets and marinas.

I rented a self-contained unit by the beach, my base for the next few weeks. The apartment had a small balcony overlooking a little garden with an enormous flowering pohutukawa tree, the ‘New Zealand Christmas Tree’, its blooms a suitably vivid red for December. The air was warm and sweet somehow. A tui bird (found only in NZ) was perched outside my window singing furiously, while it proudly puffed its white chest plumage out.

Dumping my enormous backpack for a lighter day one, I headed out into the sunshine and the startling blue skies, apparently the second ‘bluest’ in the world after Rio de Janeiro (but obviously not in my photos!). Leaving the car for the first few days, I explored Paihia, looking every bit the awe-struck tourist. It didn’t matter though, the vibe of the whole place was friendly and ultra relaxed. I followed suit. Going under my own steam, I did the tourist thing, taking a ferry out to see the pods of dolphins that were famous to the area. If it’s possible to see pure joy in a wild animal, this was it. I watched enthralled as the twenty or so dolphins launched themselves out of the water beside the boat, doing back flips and somersaults, little did I know that in a couple of months I would have an even closer encounter at Kaikoura in the South Island!

I spent glorious day after glorious day soaking up the atmosphere and watching the incredible sunsets ignite the sky. Taking another boat, I sailed to Cape Brett and the hole in the wall rock, before returning to visit the historic town of Russell, a picturesque place with a rowdy sea-faring ‘wild west’ past!

But once again, it was my solitary travels away from the tourist trail that proved the most inspiring.

Waking early and packing a small provision along with my sketch pads, I took a ferry trip around some of the 150 islands scattered around, that make up the Bay of Islands. To describe them as miniature havens, islands of paradise, would not do them justice. But, most thrilling, after charting a small boat, and with a bit of persuasion, I was dropped off on a small deserted island just off the coast of Urupukapuka Island.

I was so excited I could hardly speak, as I saw the boat disappear from view. All I kept playing in my head was the theme tune to ‘Desert Island Discs’! Here I was, totally alone on my very own desert island…well, at least until 5:30pm!

Peeling off layers and clunky boots, I wandered barefoot over the island, not much more than a strip of rock with some trees and vegetation and a couple of beaches…but it was perfect! Boats sailed or powered by, but the place was quiet and incredibly serene. I sunk my feet into the sand and watched the light dance off the surface of the water. Life just didn’t get better than this.

I whiled away the day sketching and writing and dreaming, words and images tumbling out of me faster than I could grasp them. If there was a heaven, this was it. Blissful solitude with nothing but the clear sky above and nature around me. Again, snatches of the story that would become ‘White Mountain’ came to me. So as I dozed under the shade of another pohutukawa tree, I dreamed of dragons and ancient hidden civilisations, still surviving in our modern world…