Having had a pretty terrible time with the hostels in Australia and having to battle the relentless chill, it eventually came time to find myself sitting in a window seat looking out at scenery that wouldn't have looked out of place in Wicklow – hilly, green and with roads seemingly winding their way around hills without ever actually going anywhere in particular. We descended further and further, passing just over this greenery, edging ever closer to what I hoped would be an eventual break in the mountains somewhere. Sure enough, we eventually came crashing down to earth and into Auckland Airport, New Zealand. As international airports go, this was particularly small – long corridors with pictures of New Zealand's national treasures (I imagine) and free maps forced us to take a lengthy walk right off the plane, although I slowly became quite sure that we double-backed on ourselves a number of times and indeed, by the time we reached immigration, I was quite confident that we were actually back at our starting point, just on the other side of the wall we'd originally faced. It was now time to face the renewed chill – and it was quite a serious chill. The cold outside was significantly worse than Sydney and although I'd prepared myself this time by already putting on my fleece and coat, it still came as an unwanted icy shock to the system. The hostel room for a change of pace seemed to be quite acceptable, a bit too warm for the weather outside and wait a minute…there was no windows. It was essentially an office block that had been converted into a hostel.
When I returned the first night from my meal with some family relations, the other guy in my room offered some rum to 'round off the night' – this was to become a nightly tradition while in Auckland that became quite humorous after our third room-mate became quite intoxicated the very night he had to rise at 4am to catch a flight. He very nearly missed it, in fact. Auckland on the whole though was quite small as cities go but as I quickly discovered, getting out of the city was probably the best plan and that's where the best things were. One morning we went up a nearby hilltop that overlooked the city – unlike any other city I've seen, Auckland has this strange set-up whereby the city centre, the docklands and the suburbs all connect together through little valleys between the mountains. Looking at the city from this hilltop, you could see another hilltop right in front of us with sheep grazing and a herd of cattle further down, meanwhile, at the bottom of this hill was a (I was informed) very upmarket set of apartments, shops, restaurants and everything else – a city as normal at ground level and suddenly, peace and tranquility just right next door on these mountains that were scattered all over the place. At night, the cold got even worse and I generally retired quite early to the room to continue our ‘nightly tradition' of indulging in the rum. Auckland was strange – it was small and cold, yet with stunning scenery no more than 5 minutes from the city centre. I took the boat across the harbour one day and walked for miles – with no idea where I was going or if I was walking towards anything worth seeing – just for the fun of it, stopping every now and again to take in the sights and look at the grey clouds closing in on the mountains off in the distance.
If I'd wanted a big city with glittering lights and a huge night life, Auckland was going to disappoint me – one night, we went for a walk to try and see what night life Auckland did boast and found very little; two, maybe three places in the whole city – otherwise, everyone was tucked up and asleep seemingly by ten or earlier. What it did boast however was a time to relax, a time to step back and sort out the rest of the travels and a time to get outside the city and see some countryside for a change. For that opportunity, I was very glad I was there. But like all good things, it had to come to an end and eventually it came time to head on to the next place, a city very much overdue an earthquake I was informed; Wellington. To get there required the services of the Overlander, a train service that cuts right through New Zealand's North Island, taking around 12 hours to get from Auckland all the way down to Wellington. A train service that supposedly offered some of the most spectacular views to be seen anywhere. A train service that was actually dropped a few years ago owing to its dwindling popularity, only to be re-instated due to a public outcry. The only problem, and it was potentially quite a serious problem owing to our ‘nightly tradition' was that it departed at 7am, necessitating a 6am wake-up call. I stumbled out of bed, threw all my belongings out into the hallway and slowly packed them, still half-asleep, making sure only that every belonging was either packed in a bag or at least tied to some part of the bag. Similarly, I stumbled still half-asleep all the way down to the train station, where I proceeded to stand for some 20 minutes staring blankly at the information board – don't get me wrong, this wasn't the same effects as those experienced after the ‘family party' in Vietnam, this was just full-on fatigue.
Needless to say, I did my usual unintentional trick and fell completely asleep for the first half or so of the journey, waking up only to go and get a coffee, hope that that would keep me awake (and inevitably it wouldn't) and then fall back to sleep. There was no doubt – the scenery was spectacular; deep green forests rolled right up to the tracks and then at other times, we'd pass mile upon mile of rolling farmland, cattle and sheep sprinting away from the tracks as they heard the train approach. Halfway through the journey, we stopped for 45 minutes in ‘national park' to take in, according to the brochure, some ‘fresh alpine air' – alpine? I could feel right away that my rival, the cold was at hand once again and as soon as I stepped off the train I knew for sure I'd been quite correct; in front of me, a snow-capped mountain, to the right, people huddling into the tiny station restaurant in out of the cold and above me, my breath, clearly visible, dissipating into the air. This time it was definitely cold and I wasn't the only one feeling it. I went for a walk – albeit one of the quickest walks of my life – before retreating back to the train and getting another coffee. There was no doubt the journey was quite something else but as always seems to be the case, day turned to night and very soon we reached what would be my home for the next few days – a small coastal town on the outskirts of Wellington called Plimmerton.
By night it looked nothing special – some small restaurants, a convenience store and then houses. My hostel it turned out was at the very far end of the coast road and probably not something best attempted in the dark with no prior knowledge of the place, but anyway. It was dark and there was hardly any cues as to whether I was heading in the right direction. I reached it however, not knowing that this was to become the very first place I'd have a ‘disagreement' of some proportion with a fellow room-mate. The area itself by the following morning had transformed from sleepy, dark coastal town into a bright, scenic and idyllic haven to relax in for a few days – indeed the window in my room looked right out onto the beach, the yacht club no more than a 4 minute walk and the nightly sunset could be seen as it closed in on the horizon from the yacht club. On clear days, I could even see right across to the South Island – all in all, it was perfect. However on the first morning, during which I'd planned to have a lie-in and possibly take it easy, my colleague decided everyone (there being 4 of us in the room) had had plenty of rest and decided to lash open all the curtains straight away and let the sunlight pour in. I was very much not impressed by this act of indecency. Anyway, I got up, showered, put my towel in the cupboard and went about the day; except at breakfast time, this same man, his irritating grin being the first thing I noticed, appeared right beside me and asked was it I who'd so daringly placed the towel into the one communal cupboard of our room? Of course it was and in response he announced that he wished to keep his clothes in there and was quite sure they'd smell if my towel was still there so would I be so kind as to remove it. I let out a trademark sigh and took the towel and rather than just moving it, I opened the window as wide as it could go, letting heaps of cold sea air into the room, before hanging the towel on the window.
Things like this continued to the point that I was starting to get quite seriously put out by this young man – not only that, but his friends all seemed to work at reception which made complaining not really an option. Finally the last night came around and it was time to hit the bed early, windows closed, for a good night's sleep. Except just as I went to close the window, he appeared again and without delay, found another problem to bring to the surface;
“So you all want to have headaches in this room then tomorrow yes?”, he inquired. Given that I hadn't touched a drop of the ‘social evil' as the Vietnamese like to call it, I couldn't understand at all how I could possibly have a headache the next morning so I asked for some clarification.
“Well it's simple math, four guys in one room, the air…not so good” he announced, seemingly quite proud of his concern for the air we'd be breathing.
“Right, so you want me to open it all over again” I said, preparing to let out another sigh.
“Well yes thank you, just a bit”. And that was it, the window would be open and we'd all near-freeze to death. So I left the window open (but only a crack, I actually nearly closed it completely when he was in the bathroom) and went to bed. Except at 6am, he woke up and proceeded to pack his belongings (even though he wasn't leaving), making as much noise as he could and waking everyone else up in the process. I shouldn't even need to say it, but at this stage I was now ready for a heated argument on the topic of why he was such an irritation. I decided to wait and hopefully catch him later in the day when I was more awake. Needless to say, I never saw the guy again, although he was definitely still staying there – I was sorely tempted to empty his belongings out of the cupboard and place someone else's towel in when I left but that seemed quite childish only a few moments after I had the idea.
That evening, I made my way towards Wellington Airport where I had to stay overnight in order to catch the first flight out the next day (needless to say, it ended up not in fact being the first flight that day) – indeed, like the hostel, this too turned out to be an adventure far greater than I'd bargained for…