The first stop off after Curio Bay is Slope Point, the most Southerly protuberance on the South Island, but on this day the rain is intermittent, but mainly lashing down; it is the first time it has rained on our jaunt around the Southern Isle. They are keen to brave the elements and walk across a few fields to see a ‘tourist sign’. You know the type at the extremities of any major jutting landmass that points in various directions: New York, London, Tokyo, McDonalds, salvation, the toilets. I stay in the car and read The God of Small Things. We have already seen the 45 degree angled trees that have tried to cower from the wind; it is a warning sign for me to stay warm, dry and unwindswept. It also cuts down on special effects for the Lord of the Rings films.
They arrive back sodden, exuding equal measures of relief and exhilaration – as if they have just found a penguin egg that Captain Scott dropped. Ultimately they are pleased to be dry – I look at the photos and if evidence needed I had made the right decision, it stares back at me in grey sodden digital form.
We make our way to Invercargill, one of the world’s most southerly Cities – they call it a city, I wouldn’t with a population of 50,000. I’m interested to visit as it the NZ setting for the lovely World’s Fastest Indian film, about a motorbike, not a Native American, the film stars Anthony Hopkins as the land speed record (184mph) setting Burt Munro. I ask Alan Bell if he knows him, everybody knows everyone in NZ. “Yip, met him once, bit if a grumpy bugger, threw a spanner at one of me mates that worked for him.” Not how the film portrays him! When I ask about his world speed record on a bike under 1,000cc in 1967, Alan simply replies. “Yip, he did that as well.”
Also in the film Burt, his real name was Bert, but an American paper spelt it wrong and he changed the spelling of his real name! When he flies away on his travels to the US he gets a neighbour’s son to pee on his lime and lemon trees. It is something Lauren has been making all the men do in her own garden up in the Waitakere Hills, I think it is literally a piss-take, but this film assures me the extra nitrogen is greatly received. It does not amaze me that people would urinate on a citrus tree in Invercargill, just the fact these trees could actually grow there!
The rain doesn’t abate, so we go shopping for books for the children and birthday presents for people back home. We let the children decide what film to watch to keep out of the elements and they choose a Jim Carey one. We drive out west and stay in a lovely place overlooking the sea in Riverton, the South Islands oldest ‘European’ settlement.
On the way to Te Anau we stop off at the Clifden Suspension bridge, a smaller replica of the World famous Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, unsurprisingly we are the only ones there. Te Anau is the gateway habitation to the Fiordland National Park, which contains Milford Sound. We check the availability of the first campsite we like the look of, it is not full, but the woman on the reception tells us Brenda further round by the lake has accommodation. This is another example of the sleepy honesty of New Zealand. Most other places in the world, they would be shuffling and rearranging to squeeze us in and get our custom, but instead she points down the road where they can birth us all within the same lodge. The air and sky are crystal clear and it feels like a Victorian health tonic – like we will live another few months longer by just taking large lungfuls of the ‘elixir of non-polluted atmosphere.’The clear skies give way to a cold night and the next day encouraged by the fresh air we walk part of the spectacular Kelper Trail – if you are a walker or tramper! The Kepler is one of the most enjoyable 37 miles you could ever wish to walk – we only complete six.
We are up early the next day to visit Milford Sound. The drive is spectacular through the mountains to the fiords; there are few tourists, most of which are Japanese. We watch, fascinated as a bus load of Japanese shuffle from their coach, half clad in face masks, like a Michael Jackson tribute fans’ day out, or a tag-team of surgeons trying to break the non-stop operating record! They waddle around the Mirror Lake, so called as you can see a perfect reflection of the snow-capped mountains in its glassy waters. The Japanese look as though they are on a shaky conveyer belt, not breaking stride once on their circular shuffles back onto the bus. We observe them and the boy asks why so many are wearing facemasks, after the obvious aforementioned jokes. I start to espouse some of the/my theories. 1 (and 2). Hygiene reasons, not just to stop aerial contaminants entering, but quite philanthropically stopping others getting theirs. 3. Cut down on communication through facial expressions – some psychologists believe this, and more so in the young, that don’t need to communicate with such outmoded analogue facial communiques, when you have social media for that, and you can marry your compatible computer, or your sexy Tamagotchi! 4. Deindividuation, another psychologists’ favourite, anonymity in the crowd, the comfort of being anonymous. 5. Hay fever. 6. Anti-social, sorry, I mean personal choice reasons – stick a facemask on and pair of earphones (headphones would attract too much attention!) as well, and you would have to be determined and really want to chat to someone to violate their ‘personal space. ‘ If I was a renowned psychologist I would call it: ‘ I just can’t be arsed talk to you ‘syndrome. 7. Popping to shops without your make-up on, apparently so! It would cut down on the Paparazzi getting a good shot! Just when I think I have heard them all, a friend has a Japanese student staying with her, who says it is because Japanese people are modest and don’t want other people to see them (8). The Boy is as baffled as I am when I have gone through all the theories I know of. They all hop back onto their coach like nervous paranoid penguins. I explain to the boy that they don’t get many holidays, the least in the developed world; some surveys suggest that of the 16.5 days holiday they are granted – most only take half! Maybe that’s why they’ve got the masks on, so people cannot see how pissed-off they really are? (9) It might suggest why they always look so austere/miserable as well, even with the Dick Turpin surgical disguises? If you have a ‘theory’ I have missed, let me know and I will add it, although 9 is probably enough, maybe a top ten would round it off nicely? If you are Japanese and married your Tamagotchi – I would love to see the wedding photos. Tamagotchis can be either sex and can now produce tami-babies! I would offer care as you can contract the nasty STD Tamagotchis Sillyfuss from them, but be sure to have your ‘significant other’ checked out before flipping them open before a possible hybrid Ho-no SapIan Tamagotchei.
I digress. The trek up the mountain to the Routeburn is too arduous for the girl, so we turn back like two defeated Hobbits. We eat lunch at the Homer Tunnel and eventually get to Milford Sound to catch the last boat of the day. We are transported to Scandinavia. We stay at The Blue Duck Pub, try and construct a dam in the steam next door, but are beaten back by sandflies. On the way back the next day we stop off at the Homer Tunnel again to meet the Kia parrots – the only Alpine parrot in the world, they are inquisitive/cheeky/belligerent depending if they are sidling up to you for closer inspection/robbing your lunch and coffee/or tearing the rubber seal and windscreen wipers from your vehicle!
They are protected, so many feel obliged to let them destroy their cars while they watch on and laugh, whilst filming the destruction enfolding! These ‘Clowns of the Mountains’ are amazing bizarre creatures, they are not small either, 47cm tall. Like most parrots they are intelligent, and with a ready supply of locals and tourists offering them food and drink, apparently caffeine doesn’t affect them, just who has carried out this quasi-scientific study, I have no idea. They look ripe for their own Disney full-length feature. We are reluctant to leave them behind, but we have learnt enough to surmise these are fickle creatures that will not miss us.
We drive around the next day on the other road through The National Park to Arrow Town, an old nineteenth century gold mining village. It has been done up like a Wild West frontier town to attract tourists like us, but we don’t mind, it’s beautiful and the Thai curry we have is a delight. We walk down to the river, past the tourists’ slouches, where schoolchildren panhandle for freckles of gold in the holidays, to the lovely Arrow River. We read between the lines of the tourist information on the Chinese huts, dislocated from the main habitation of the day and try to envisage how hard it must have been for these men to leave their families behind in the hope of returning prosperity, but finding mainly hardship and racism. It leaves us both a little melancholy, but the hardship of distant others evaporates as we drink our wine and plan the route onward.
Next time: Careful of the Wraiths.
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