April 08, 2004

the antipodean times, vol. 2, no. 1

Aotearoa

I spent all of 72 hours in New Zealand, which is long enough to realize that the whole country is clearly some kind of elaborate scam. The people are too friendly, the landscapes too beautiful, the atmosphere too agreeable. Actually I think they're overdoing it. I mean, who hears bus passenger after passenger call out "Goodbye, thank you," to the driver when exiting - during rush hour, no less - without getting a little suspicious? I don't know whether they're trying to lure settlers in order to sacrifice them in some kind of Shirley-Jackson-esque unholy blood rite, or if the body snatchers have taken over, but there's clearly some kind of catch.

A three-day stopover in NZ is a bit like taking a single sip from a single bottle from one of the world's great wine cellars. All I really had time for was a quick rentacar drive to the to the Coromandel Peninsula, where I took an increasingly narrow and windy road north, ocean to my left, Mirkwood to my right. The road shrank from two wide lanes, to two narrow lanes, and repeatedly to single-lane bridges and, during one especally exciting bit, to a single lane shared by both directions around several blind turns. Thence up into the hills, where occasional SCENIC VIEW signs were completely unnecessary. New Zealand is so insanely picturesque that my return to the standard-issue urban blight of downtown Auckland was actually something of a relief, like a pimple on Gisele Bundchen.

It's an interesting mix of two worlds. Large portions of what I saw were verdant rolling hills, farms and grazing fields and trees and sheep and cattle that wouldn't have looked out of place in northern England, but every so often - particularly in steep, difficult-to-cultivate places - I encountered pockets of the country's original vegetation, straight-out-of-Gondwanaland giant ferns and palm trees in which a munching brontosaurus would not look out of place. My hike down to majestic Cathedral Cove repeatedly took me in and out of each ecosystem. It felt a bit like I was flickering between parallel dimensions.

Sydney

My 48 hours in Sydney were spent engaged in extremely alcoholized reunions with old friends; for reasons of brevity, (and as per the advice of my lawyers) I won't bore you with the details. I escaped while I could still walk. And I do mean escaped. Monday morning, I entered into my hosts' bathroom, only to find upon attempting to exit that, while the doorknob rotated just fine, said rotation no longer had any effect on the latch. And my hosts, hereafter referred to as "my attempted kidnappers," had long since gone to work. Fortunately I foiled their cunning plan by dint of their failure to realize that the bathroom windows were big enough for me to squeeze through. Just. There was one bad teetering moment where I feared I was going to fall and destroy their barbeque, their garden plants, and my entire spinal column, but I managed to land catlike (that is to say, on all four limbs) and limp my way to the airport.

Melbourne

...reminds me a lot of Vancouver. I don't want to praise it too much for fear of offending my Sydneysider friends (there is an intense Melburnian-Sydneysider rivalry) but I liked it a great deal, very laid-back and neighbourhoody. Spent a night and a whole day just about walking my feet off wandering around, and yesterday took a one-day Great Ocean Road tour.

The tour itself was terrific, down one of the world's most gorgeous highways (though personally I still give the overall crown to the stark remoteness of California's Highway 1 near Big Sur) with stopovers to watch koalas, hike down to incredibly dramatic gorges and beaches near the Twelve Apostles, travel a circuit path through temperate rainforest, wade on the beach and play with local canines, and so forth.

It also exemplified what I like about travelling in Oz: not only is it cheap, and easy, but it's amazingly social if you want it to be. There's such a critical mass of backpackers that on any given day you have a choice of a half-dozen one-day trips (and dozens of longer ones) you can take, all of which stuff twenty or so people in ones and twos in the back of a van and drive you around to the sights and hikes and events for not much money, and by the end of the day, inevitably, you've got a few - or many - new friends to go for a few beers with when you finally return home. I'm getting a little old for the backpacker scene, but not, I am pleased to report, quite over that hill yet. (In large part because the scene itself is advancing in age. There's going to be an interesting "post-backpacker" travel demographic in about five or ten years, for people who don't want lager-soaked party places, but are equally repelled by the Holiday Inn.)

Anyway. Tomorrow I'm off camping in the Blue Mountains for a few days with a couple of old friends; Monday night I stay with another friend on Collary beach; and Tuesday I fly off to the Top End for some diving and a three-day camping trek through Kakadu. If you haven't heard from me in two weeks' time, it probably means the crocodile won.

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