The scenery. The scenery. It's easy to photograph and exhausting to describe. Big. Muscular. Overpowering. Outstanding. All words which don't do the job.
The South Island is all about drama.
Fox Glacier is an impressive thing. Its face (terminal, geography fans) rises about sixty feet off the floor of the valley, and rises over eight thousand feet into the southern alps. The ice flow itself is thirteen kilometres long, and the terminal can move up to four metres towards the Tasman sea per day, which in glacier terms is positively supersonic.
You can't go near it without a guide. Glaciers are tricky things for the unwary.
The biggest challenge was actually the temperature. In the sun – go on a day with good daylight, not cloud, to get the most from the blues in the ice – you sweat profusely as you clamber over the ice. Dip into the shadows and the sweat freezes. Wear clothes that breathe.
What's the most exciting thing you've ever done to break up a long car journey? Stopped at McDonald's? Bought a magazine? Written a friend's phone number in a toilet stall under an inventive description?
Stopped for a few hours, donned a parachute and a trained skydiver and dropped out of a plane?
I've done three of those four things.
Lake Taupo is the southern hemisphere's largest lake, and it sits prettily against a backdrop of towering, snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. The road runs against the side of the lake and, with a following wind and a cool breeze, you could drive forever.
So why not pull over, climb into a plane and then hurl yourself out again without waiting for it to land?
Most skydiving institutions in New Zealand offer you two choices: twelve thousand feet or fifteen thousand feet. The difference is a few seconds of freefall, so we opted for the lower of the two, and signed our health insurance away on the contract, which included a clause that said that if we got into the plane and decided not to jump, we'd pay anyway.
Has that ever happened? I asked, ever so casually.
Not that I know of, replied the teenager. "One woman got up there and started crying and everything. Eventually she was persuaded and when she got down she said it was the best thing she'd ever done."
Crying and everything, I thought. I can top that.
Suddenly, I was wearing a jumpsuit.
My tandem partner was a German named Albert. Luckily, Albert seemed like a reasonably well-centered individual. As well-adjusted as you can be, I suppose, when your day job is throwing yourself from planes. Mendy did less well. She was tied to a Brazilian wearing a fluffy blue helmet who introduced himself as Jam.
The view, I recall, was incredible, all tiny forests and winding, quiet roads, capped by mountains and occasional glimpses of the lake. This was ok. The plane was a bit shakey, but this was, all in all, fine.
Suddenly, the door at the back of the plane was thrown open and the wind rushed in. Three professional skydivers moved to the back of the plane and stood on the ledge.
They paused forever. I noticed the wind whipping the edges of their jumpsuits. They looked inexplicably happy. Then, abruptly, they were gone. One minute they were standing on the edge of the plane, and the next they had vanished . It looked violent and very, very dangerous. It struck me that this was what skydiving was: paying a great deal of money to come very close to having an appalling accident.
Mendy was next. She and Jam shuffled to the front door and she sat for a moment with her legs dangling over the edge. Then, they tipped forwards, and fell.
It was the falling that surprised me. I think I expected them to hover gently in the slipstream of the plane for a moment or two before descending. Instead Mendy vanished beneath the plane: if you blinked you would miss the entire thing. It was less of a jump and more of a tumble.
We were next.
Just before you jump out, a camera in the corner of the plane pops off a quick shot of you and your tandem partner. I'd like you to take a moment to compare and contrast the difference between Mendy's shot and mine. Mendy has her thumbs up, a big smile, and looks for all the world like she was born to fall from a plane:
Mine? Eyes wide, pupils dilated, mouth dry and slightly open, manically unfocussed stare. It is not the look of a man having the time of his life. It is the look of the man about to be savaged by a pack of dogs.
I sat, heart thumping, on the edge of the plane. My legs dangled over the edge and I became aware of the very real possibility of my shoes blowing off in the hurricane whipping at my face. The single saving grace was that Albert didn't ask me if we ready again, because I'd have said no.
Then we were out the door. My eyes were welded open and I caught a split-second glimpse of the plane and horizon spinning madly away. The acceleration was unlike anything: imagine taking off in a jet plane and times it by, I don't know, a million. It was like being roared at by God.
Once you're out of the plane, there's nothing you can do. Whatever self-preservation instincts might tell you not to jump vanish because... that's it. Your life, for a few seconds, is basically over; your future as long as it's ever been and simultaneously very, very short. At that moment, at two hundred kilometres per hour and hurtling towards certain death, I could not have been happier.
Then the parachute snapped open: it was like being lifted at the shoulders by a giant. The roaring stopped, and we hung in the air. We landed and, very discretely, I was the teensiest bit sick on the grass. Job jobbed.
Ever seen a rabbit being shaved? Me neither until we went to Waitomo.
Without further ado:
People will tell you that the reason for going to Waitomo is to see the world-famous caves, populated by galaxies of luminescent blue glowworms, but the reality is that if you have half an hour you should really go to the Shearing Shed, which is two minutes up the road, is free, and gives you the chance to watch a German Angora rabbit have a shave.
The whole thing was hosted by a pair of middle-aged women, one of whom gave a blow by blow account via a rather unnecessary microphone and speaker assembly. We met Garth, an enormous Angora rabbit, who belatedly realised what was about to happen and scrabbled around frantically on the smooth shearing table, desperately trying to find enough grip to scoot free. It was too late, and before long he was stretched out on the table by four elasticated cables.
Angora rabbits, it was pointed more than once, die if they're left unsheared during the summer, but there's little more pitiful than watching a sad rabbit go from the size of a fluffy hatchback to that of a small dog. Still, you can always buy a sweater on the way out.
Our Kiwi rental car was a nine year-old Nissan Sunny with a quarter of a tank of petrol, creaking suspension and a knackered drivers’ side door lock that could only be undone from the inside.
At Karekare we had miles of black sand and ocean almost all to ourselves. That’s the thing about New Zealand: we were very nearly as far from London as it’s possible to be without getting closer again. Not many people come here and the crowds are easy to lose.
After Australia, driving in New Zealand was a real pleasure. Not only is the weather better suited to being encapsulated in a plastic and aluminium and glass capsule for a few hours, but the roads and views are rarely less than breathtaking. Think of the best scenery you’ve ever seen (this doesn’t work if you’ve been to New Zealand already, mind). Now make the hills higher and the valleys deeper. Make the grass greener and, every now and then, pop a tractor or two on a distant hill. Populate the fields with a million sheep and, finally, roll a perfectly smooth road through the middle of it, winding its way through the countryside in sympathy with the hills. Add a few cars every ten miles and prepare to stop every time you crest a hill to take pictures. It’s a strange thing to drive somewhere where the view improves with every mile, but there you go.
We rolled off the ferry on the island with a few other cars, which promptly roared off and left us nervously purring across the sand. Fraser Island’s eastern beach is paradise. We drove along firm, tightly-packed sand with the ocean roaring to our right and the horizon clear. Every now and then we’d thump through a freshwater creek, and I tried to ignore the sticker on the inside of the windscreen that said “No insurance for immersion.”
The alarm trilled while it was still dark.
We’d organised a thermos from the hotel kitchen the night before, and we sipped still-warm tea as, breath visible, we wandered down the road.
We reached the viewpoint, a mere 2km through the village, in under half an hour, just as the sun was rising. In Cemoro Lewang the sun rises over the town, before angling down into Tennger massif and Mount Bromo. The top of Mount Bromo, steam rushing from its crater, was capped with gold when we reached the carpark, and the rest of Tennger massif was a perfect sea of black. It was like being on the moon; we were the only ones there.
Man, did I love Sydney. We've left now, but three months in one of the friendliest, cleanest, best-looking cities on the planet was ace. If only it was a bit closer to home.
We spent nearly two weeks in Kuta, and frankly it isn’t surprising that my notebook struggles to account for the time spent. We ate at several of its many excellent restaurants, slept in, swam in its beautifully-warm water and surfed.
Attempting to reach Taratao underlines its remoteness. We rose at five and presented ourselves to the first tuk-tuk driver we saw. He waved away our attempts at bargaining, and pointed us in the direction of a dilapidated red pick-up truck with an even more dilapidated driver. He agreed to our lower price, and we rode to the bus-station in the back of the truck with – I swear I’m not making this up – his zimmerframe.
From the bus station we rode for 90 minutes to Satun where we wandered aimlessly until another tuk-tuk presented itself. We hopped in and were whisked to La Ngu, where we hopped out again and waited for our third tuk-tuk of the day. This third one finally dropped us off to the pier at Pak Barra, from which the islands of Lipe and Tarutao are reached.
No sooner had we sat down on the boat than we were joined by Tim, an ex-Derby man on his way back to Malaysia via Ko Lipe. I asked him what he did for a living. “Fuck all,” came the cheery reply, which I took to mean journalist. Close: he was working on a documentary about a Malaysian woman who formed a one-person resistance to the Japanese during the second world war.
Suddenly he leaned forward, earnestly. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone about this place, ok? Word of mouth is fucking murder for places like this.”
When we arrived on Tarutao I saw what he meant. The island is a designated national park with a single road, wide enough for a single truck; no houses and no permanent population. We arrived at the quay with a huddle of holidaying Thais; our boatload contributed the only people we could see to the footprintless beach.
Tarutao is as close to untouched as it’s possible for a place to be and still have links to the rest of the world. There are no internet cafés or bars, just a few miles of trails through the jungle. Wandering no more than 200 meters from the camp, we saw lizards the size of dogs, monkeys swinging in the trees, and heard enough strange snuffling noises to have us nervously clutching each other every night we were in the tent. It even has resident eagles, which we caught fleeting glimpses of.
Even when we were there, the signs of construction were there. I recommend that you go, of course, because deserted, kind-of accessible tropical islands aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but it might be best if you go sooner rather than later. Sorry, Tim.