New Zealand road trip: part one.

I’m writing this in Christchurch, having finished my little drive around the South Island. I didn’t blog at all along the way, mainly due to either a) no electricity/internet b) being hungover c) didn’t have time d) no motivation. So it’s all in my head now, waiting to be written. I’ll get there. Handily, my trip naturally split itself into different parts:

  • Part one: Christchurch to Queenstown
  • Part two: Queenstown and Wanaka
  • Part three: Queenstown to Milford Sound (and back again)
  • Part four: West coast to Christchurch, via the north

A total of nearly 4000 km (just over 3000 miles) in 5 weeks.

But before I start on part one, I’ll tell you about how it came about. I met a guy called Mike in Hong Kong last September. We first met when I insulted him by asking where in Australia he came from. Back then I couldn’t tell the difference in accent. Now I can. Luckily, he’s a laid back guy and didn’t get offended, and we hung out for a couple of days before I flew to Thailand and he moved on to China. I happened to mention to him that I was going to New Zealand in 2014 and he offered to lend me his ute to drive around in. At the time I thought what an awesome offer but it was a long time to go until I would be in NZ so lets see how things go. Fast forward and we kept in touch, and lo and behold, Mike was a star and not only lent me his truck but also camping stuff AND arranged for me to stay with his mum while in Christchurch. Amazeballs. Just one more example of how great and kind strangers, especially in the travelling world, can be. Restores your faith in humanity somewhat, especially because there is no agenda, no reason for it other that just be be bloody nice. Sometimes you can never pay these acts of kindness back, all you can do is pass it on. And pass it on I will.

So, after a few days of sorting the car out (getting it re-registered, warrant of fitness etc) and picking stuff up from Mike’s house (and scaring his cousin’s partner half to death by appearing to be, on the face of it, a burglar), I was ready to rock and roll.

I hadn’t driven in over a year.  For a fleeting moment I wondered whether I’d remember how to do it, but then reminded myself not to be so stupid, I’ve nearly been driving as long as I’ve not been driving so forgetting how to drive would be similar to forgetting how to speak or dress myself (although you’d maybe question these two things if you’ve seen me at 3am after a night of tequila). I did get confused with the handbrake in the ute though. It’s a pull out lever thing, not a stick. Luckily, I got shown where it was. Pretty sure I’d still be trying to figure it out now if I hadn’t.

So, one Monday morning, 5 weeks ago, I set out from Christchurch with the sun shining, music on the stereo, a map and the open road. Just me, the ute and a tent in the back. There’s something pretty special and liberating about travelling alone, but even more so for me when I was driving myself around. I could stop anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted. I made my own route with no time scales, no dates to be anywhere, no pressure.

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The first bit of the drive was through countryside that looked fairly familiar to Lincolnshire. Yep, if I shut my eyes I could have pretended I was back at home. Obviously didn’t do this, what with driving and all. But it didn’t last long, we don’t have mountains in Lincolnshire, and it soon started to get a bit hilly, and the scenery started to look like what I’d imagined the South Island to look like. I still remember the first photo stop I did. I don’t know exactly where it was, but it was a river that was stunningly blue, flanked by hills and trees. I thought it was beautiful. I soon learnt I hadn’t seen anything yet.

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My first proper stop was Lake Tekapo, where I camped for a couple of nights. Lake Tekapo is beautiful. Hang on, before I go on, let me say this: the whole of the South Island is beautiful. It’s more than beautiful. It’s stunning, amazing, incredible, inspirational, breathtaking, varied, different, outstanding, welcoming, magnificent, awe-inspiring, exquisite and fascinating. I, and all of the people I met along the way, regularly ran out of words to describe it. On more than one occasion I was speechless (yep, it does happen occasionally). So, I’m just putting them all out there right now, in an attempt to not repeat myself in the rest of these posts. It’s safe to assume that all the places I’m going to write about are covered in one of the words above.

Lake Tekapo: a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of walks. Which is pretty much how I spent a couple of days here. It was the first outing for my new tent, which I put up in the rain. Amazing how quick you learn what goes where for an unfamiliar tent when it’s raining and your bed for the night is in danger of being waterlogged (maybe a slight exaggeration, it was only drizzling).

I climbed to the top of Mount John, where the world famous observatory is (Lake Tekapo is said to be the clearest place in the world to see the stars. I didn’t go up there at night, but on my second night the sky did indeed put on a pretty good show), sitting at the top for over an hour just admiring the views. My first time being almost overwhelmed with what nature had laid out before me (and well worth the bloody hard slog up the hill as my rib was still pretty painful at that point, making breathing a little bit difficult). I saw the Church of the Good Shepherd (maybe the church with the most picturesque view in the world) and walked around the lake in the morning eerie mist, with clouds shrouding the whole mountains and lake, making me feel like the only person around for miles.

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On the morning I left, I chatted to an older chap called Anthony, an extremely well spoken older gentleman in the wine trade, who had just been for a chilly dip in the lake. It was a most pleasant conversation, only made slightly odd when he proceeded to change out of his swimming trunks into his shorts and t-shirt under a very small towel, all the while holding a conversation with me. Not forgetting the part where he’d got out of his trunks and said he’d ‘drip dry’ for a bit. Awkward? Not really, I’m starting to see it all while travelling. Literally.

I headed onward to Mount Cook National Park. A pretty spectacular drive along blue Lake Pukaki, snow capped mountains in the distance. This is what I imagined it to be like. This is what took my breath away.

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Another couple of days here, just walking this time. There’s not a lot here; a very basic DOC (Dept of Conservation) campsite and that’s about it, but it’s all about the walking. I did the Hooker Valley glacier walk (so very pretty), and the Sealy Tarns walk, 2200 steps up the side of a mountain. Amazingly hard work as I was still suffering breathing issues due to my broken rib but totally worth it for the view and the chat with Tim from Shropshire. Lovely chap who had come to NZ on his own, his first solo trip and was loving it. One of those people that you can just chat with for ages, about all kinds of things, and I had a lovely dinner with him and Oliver from Germany that night. It beat the night before where I ended up packing my tent up at 2am in the rain and howling gale force winds because if I hadn’t, my tent wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I abandoned sleeping outside and slept in the back of the ute, which was swaying about in the wind all night. Not the best night’s sleep I’ve had, but, while travelling, I’ve not had a proper good nights sleep in over a year now. I can’t remember the last time I slept the whole way through since I’ve been away. Well, apart from any night where tequila’s been involved anyway. See, tequila has it’s uses. Good tequila.

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Mount Cook to Arrowtown. Probably two of the most different places I’ve been to. Mount Cook: remote national park with huge mountains and snow and stuff. Arrowtown: small historic mining town that’s straight out of a country and western movie. Honestly. It’s like a film set. I actually loved it here, and ended up staying 3 nights. Spent the days walking, eating and just lounging about. Lovely little place to do it, especially as the sun was out (although, bizarrely, I had my coldest nights in the tent here). I also nearly ate myself into a sugar-induced coma due to the creme brulee fudge they sold in the sweet shop. Also, anyone thinking of coming here, get a pie from the bakery. Del-ici-ous. Just maybe don’t follow it with a huge block of fudge. Although really, as I’m on holiday, there’s no calories right? No wonder I have a nice little layer of travelling fat. I did try and make up for it by going on a little jog.

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Arrowtown is only just down the road from Queenstown, home to all things adrenaline; all those things I couldn’t do thanks to that drinking session in Sydney. Queenstown deserves it’s own post as my time there was certainly adventurous, although not in the adrenaline sense. That’s part two.

Vietnam vagabond adventures.

The second bit of my Vietnam adventure took in the cities of Hue (pronounced h-way, not huey, like the guy from Yorkshire on our sleeper bus insisted it was), Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (and a lot of loooooong bus journeys in between each one). We’d already booked our sleeper bus tickets in Ninh Binh before we saw on the news that the super typhoon was due to hit Vietnam right on the central coast – right on Hue, the next day – exactly the time we were due to get there. Hmm, not exactly ideal. Luckily for us, it decided to change it’s course and ended up missing the coast completely, although the first day we got there it was very rainy and windy all day (some remnants from the typhoon) so we could do nothing more but have a chill out day. Part of a rainy day in Hue for us resulted in an Indian FEAST because the local Indian restaurant was only a few doors down. Exactly what we did on the first day in Luang Prabang in Laos so we decided to make a tradition. I felt more stuffed than a shop full of teddy bears afterwards but, damn, it was worth it. After weeks of noodles and the like it was bloody lovely to have a change, and reminded me when I was in India back in July.

Hue is an old city with a lot of history, and an imperial city that’s not dissimilar to the Forbidden City in Beijing (although nowhere near as big). Over the couple of [dry] days we had there, we just spent a fair bit of time wandering around the city and hired bikes to get out into some small villages out in the countryside. It was one of my favourite places, mainly because I just had so much fun. My Hue Highlights:

  • Hiring bikes and getting out into the villages. We didn’t have a set route, we just set off down one of the roads out of the city with no map, just a vague sense of direction. We ended up biking through some really small little villages, where I guessed they don’t see many Westerners. Or indeed any at all, judging by the amount of children shouting hello, waving and running after us or taking photos of us and the adults who would nudge the people they were stood next to, and point and stare, mouths almost wide open. Which soon changed into big massive grins when we shouted “hello” to them in Vietnamese. Add to that pretty incredible scenery, the best hire bikes we’ve had so far, and you’ve got one of my most special memories of Vietnam. The real Vietnam.

  • The baguette lady just down the street from our hotel. She did the BEST egg baguettes for breakfast which were cheap as chips, and she was lovely and happy and smiley too. I don’t know what she did to the eggs to make them taste so good but I think it was all in the salt and pepper. We went there every day, and I might have even had two some days, they were that good.

  • The little cafe just down the street from our hotel. We managed to strike a deal with them to get cheap Bia Saigon. They even moved one of their tables and chairs for us so we could sit on the pavement and watch the world go by. We might have just gone there both afternoons for lazy afternoon drinking in the sun.

  • The hotel. We stayed in a really nice place. We managed to bargain the price down making it super cheap (around £2.30 each a night) but it felt like we had splashed out and treated ourselves. It was nice and clean, had air conditioning, the best shower yet, and they even came in every day to make the beds and give us fresh towels! The luxury!

  • The architecture and history. The city, especially the old citadel, is very pretty, in a bit of an old run down kind of way. Lots of old buildings and stuff to look at and photograph. Lots of flowers and green stuff too.

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After Hue, Hoi An was a completely different kettle of fish. Old and historic, but in a completely different way. Very French-colonial and quaint, with lots of old wooden and coloured buildings along the river covered in lanterns swaying in the breeze. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site, just like Luang Prabang in Laos, and it reminded me of LP too. Even down to how touristy it was, Yep, the few old streets near to the river were just full to the brim of tourists strolling round, and all the shops were either art galleries, tailors, handicrafts or bars and restaurants. Vendors from pretty much every shop would shout out as we walked past. When we sat down to have a beer or some food, people would try to sell you stuff while you were sat there, or even eating. I found it a pain in the arse, and I’m even more patient nowadays. Luckily we had learnt the Vietnamese for ‘No thank you’ and ‘I’m not interested’ so once you trotted that out they soon disappeared, but imagine saying it 50 times a day over and over again (and I’m not even exaggerating). Arrghhhh. That aside, it’s a very pretty place, but I couldn’t help but have the feeling that it wasn’t the real Hoi An. Those pretty 3 streets down near the river just all seemed to be geared towards the visitors. The real Hoi An was away from the river, which we managed to explore a little bit before the floods. We found lovely baguette sellers (the Vietnamese like their sandwiches), a smashing little cafe with the friendliest people and the cheapest beers (only about 15p each and buy 2 get 1 free) and the best food stalls for dinner. We never got to explore the beaches because of the floods which is a shame, but all in all I enjoyed my time here, and in fact those few days ended up being a proper little adventure, that I couldn’t have predicted, and that’s what makes Hoi An memorable for me.

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Heard of Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? It’s the same place, a big sprawling city in South Vietnam. It was renamed HCMC in 1976 but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon (which I think I like better). It’s a 24 hour bus journey from Hoi An. Yep, that’s right, 24 hours. Honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Really. It was actually two 12 hour journeys, split with an hours wait in the middle to change buses. After all my travelling this year, long journeys are now the norm. It’s short journeys that are out of the ordinary. My next flight, from Cambodia to Singapore, is only 2 hours. How exciting, I can’t wait! It’s going to seem like a bit of a treat, haha. I then have a 6 hour wait in Singapore before a 7 hour flight, but hey, that’s not the point.

HCMC is big, loud, brash, noisy, hot, dirty, a bit seedy and IN YOUR FACE. Just how I like a city to be. Well, maybe not the seedy part. The traffic is a nightmare, there’s thousands of scooters and trying to cross the road is like running the gauntlet. Moto drivers and bar owners constantly shout at you to get your business, and the usual baguette and noodle stands line every corner. I have to admit, I was getting a bit ‘city-ed’ out by the time we arrived here. Still, in true travelling style there was a big city out there to be explored, so we spent a few days walking lots, eating, finding cheap beers (naturally) and visiting a museum and war tunnel or two.

In no particular order, my favourite things about Saigon:

  • The scooters. Thousands of them. I love just stepping out into the road and crossing, having them all weave their way around you. I love watching as people transport everything under the sun on them, as well as trying to eat, drink, talk or text all at the same time. I love the scooter helmets and all the different designs.
  • The food. Oh the food. We found some places that were so good we didn’t really go anywhere else. I had one of the best chicken noodle soups I’ve had, only 50p for a huge bowlful, in a little local cafe that would show films opposite a glass factory and a place that sold ice. We spent a few afternoons just sitting, eating and watching Vietnamese life go on. We saw a woman delivering a massive pane of glass on the back of a scooter (at first glance you couldn’t see the glass and we just thought she was throwing her hands in the air like she just didn’t care). We saw the young guy delivering ice on the back of his scooter, dripping water and soaking from where he’d been sat up against the bags. We watched a bit of Terminator 3 and drank iced tea after our soup. We found a little family run egg baguette place where we’d go every morning; they’d bring stools out for us to sit on, give us water to drink, and sometimes a bit of fruit. While eating some of the tastiest egg sandwiches I’ve had we’d try and have conversations with them but none of us spoke much in the other’s language.
  • The war remnants museum. It was heavily propaganda-ised, however there was an excellent display of press photographs from the war and some related articles, which helped balance it all out a bit. After this last trip here I finally felt like I’d learnt what I wanted to learn about the war.
  • Cheap beer. We found a great little cafe on one of the main streets where they served cheap beer and we could sit and people watch from the tables outside on the street. We went here a few times; the first night resulted in many beers here, then to a lively bar where we drank loads of rum buckets, met some strange people and had a 5am bedtime. Another time we had to move from the front tables on the street because the police came round and were enforcing the pavement space rules (which seemed slightly strange, as the bar was opposite the police station and they saw the tables there every day, and then saw us get up and move the tables away while they were watching. A bit of a bizarre practice.).
  • The people. The local people in Vietnam are cheeky, spirited and generous to a tee. I very much enjoyed the interactions I had with them, especially some of the street hawkers that would come and pester us when we were sat outside drinking beer.
  • City wandering. We had a good old wander and saw parks, cathedral, the post office (we scoffed at people taking photographs inside until we went in ourselves and did the same thing – beautiful building!), statues, skyscrapers, Christmas decorations, posh hotels, the river and other general city stuff. Saigon has a lot of old and new architecture, and quite often both are side by side, and make quite a stunning view.
  • The Cu Chi tunnels. You can go and visit the tunnels made by the Vietnamese during the war, where many people lived underground for years. They were incredible. They’ve been widened by 35% and lights added but blimey, how people lived and used them is beyond me. They are really hot and humid, claustrophobic and even just going about 100m through them was enough for most of us. Seeing the booby traps they used to maim and kill American soldiers was pretty sobering too. A lot of people died in those tunnels. Hugely saddening.
  • Meeting people. We met some interesting people in Saigon; people who were travelling or just on holiday, and people who were living and working there. We also bumped into a few people we’d met in Laos previously. It’s a small travelling world, especially the North>South Vietnam trail so it’s not really surprising, and a wonderful bonus. I love meeting all different kinds of people when travelling; the conversations to be had can be anything from light hearted and fun, to serious, challenging and in depth. I get to find out about how people live in other countries, how they travel, what their beliefs are, what their viewpoints are and it just keeps on opening my eyes even wider to understand all the things that make the world go round.

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I loved Vietnam. I really, really did. I’ve wanted to visit for years, and I’m well chuffed that I now have. I learnt loads, had lots of fun, met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery and had a brill adventure. It’s been my most favourite SE Asian country so far but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just a feeling. I think I’ll be back someday. There’s so much more of the country to explore, and maybe next time I’ll make it even more of an adventure. And get me one of those scooters.