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It's love. Let's make no mistake. I love New Zealand.

From the moment I landed in Auckland with my bride on our honeymoon, twenty-something years back, I have been intoxicated by the land, the beauty, the people, the history.

For two weeks we roamed the two islands from top to bottom, pausing in our campervan at scenic beauty points, admiring the raw and rugged mountains, tramping up to glaciers, boating along underground rivers lit only by millions of glow-worms, and simply enjoying the land, each other and happiness.

And for the next twenty years, as we raised a family and settled down, we dreamed of returning.

Which at last we did, retracing our steps, this time staying with friends or in motels, swapping the campervan for a rental car with a couple of teenagers in the back seat.

The magic was there, as strong as ever. For our two kids, it was their first overseas trip, and while I can no longer think of New Zealand as quite the exotic destination it seemed at the time, it was still a suitably foreign land.

Twin manias marked our return visit. Lord of the Rings and BookCrossing.

Top BookCrossers

BookCrossing first. I'll write more about it one day, but basically this crazy American idea is that you go to a website, get an identification number for a label which you stick in a book, which you then leave - on a park bench, in a coffee shop, dangling in a plastic bag from a tree, or, as I did one sunny afternoon, under the snout of a New Zealand glacier. People find the book - after all, a book is a valuable and useful object - read the label which directs them to the site, enter the ID number and read about the book. Who registered it, what travels it has had, where it was "released into the wild". And if they want, they may make their own entry in the book's journal.

The stories build and continue, but though the books have tales to tell, by far the most interesting element of the operation is the half million or so BookCrossers around the world. Well-read, clever, generous and quirky people, they are such a delight to be with that for the past few years of my life I have devoted myself to meeting as many of them as I can, at various meetings around the world. Which is how I found myself sitting at Discoverylover's smiling feet, one evening in Wellington.

I left a trail of books around New Zealand. On beaches, in parks, on the interisland ferry, on hostel swapshelves and by pools of boiling mud. And I got to meet some of the most amazing BookCrossers in the world, people who had released thousands of books.

The Lord of the Rings was the second madness. Peter Jackson had just finished filming his trilogy of movies and the whole country was Lord of the Rings crazy.

In Wellington huge figures of orcs and elves, trolls and Nazgul decorated the buildings, every restaurant seemed to have a themed menu, the Post Office had issued Lord of the Rings stamps, and you could not turn a corner without a billboard proclaiming the premiere of the third and final movie, The Return of the King.

And I must say that New Zealand landscapes lend themselves to the flavour of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The mountain ranges are tall and snowcapped, the hills are green and rolling, the forests dark and impressive. As we drove through the land, we could almost sense the hobbits in the rural hills and groves, the orcs in the wild places, the trolls in the mountains and the mighty armies marching over the long plains.

I enjoyed my second honeymoon as much as the first, taking such pleasure in the experience that I wrote a book about the two trips, called Bookcrossing through Middle-Earth. Self-published on Lulu, it has seen a modest success, and while it is little more than a peek at this small country and proud history, I enjoyed writing it, and there are some patches of humour in it.*

Since that trip. I've been back once or twice each year. Sometimes, a roadtrip, sometimes a week, sometimes a night in an airport hotel. But one thing's for sure - if the New Zealanders are holding a BookCrossing convention, I am there!

The scenery is stunning. I like to say that it leans in the window and says "Hello!", and compared to Australia's largely horizontal vistas, that's what strikes me. The mountains tower overhead, one looks down over glittering lakes, blinding white glaciers, convoluted shorelines of capes and inlets, and everywhere you look, the eye is thrilled by something.

Queenstown is possibly the most beautiful place I've seen on this planet. Looking down over placid Lake Wakitipu from Bob's Peak, the tourist town is a quiet green gem surrounded by water, with the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Remarkables beyond. It is the sort of place where overseas film stars maintain holiday homes, and may occasionally be seen walking amongst the backpackers.

Dunedin, southernmost of the four big cities, has a quaint Scottish charm to it. Chill and dour in winter, the grey stone buildings of this university town evoke the Scots capital. Robbie Burns looks down on the central square and Highland Pipe bands compete each year, marching and skirling through the streets.

Christchurch probably has my heart most of all. This comfortable city has the beautiful River Avon winding through the middle, parkland to one side, old stone buildings and modern office blocks on the other. Boatered punters take tourists out on the shallow river. In Autumn, the leaves are a riot of colour.

Wellington on the North Island is the capital, reminiscent of San Francisco overlooking a harbour with wooden houses perched on hillsides. The city itself is cramped between mountains and sea, and it hosts one of the best national museums in the world. Te Papa holds the soul of the nation, Māori and Pākehā history and heroes in great galleries, the unique flora and fauna beautifully presented.

And, northernmost of the four, Auckland is the largest. Fought over for centuries by the Māori for its strategic position, it occupies a narrow land between two harbours. Aptly named the City of Sails for the yachts that crowd its waters, it has the population and the feel of a great city. For myself, I love the ferry ride across the harbour to Devonport, home to a library of second-hand bookshops and quaint cafes.

Or a meal I once had, of exquisitely tender lamb shanks washed down with Monteith Golden Ale, beside the Viaduct Wharf where the America's Cup competition was held, a gay waiter outrageously camp for us.

New Zealand holds so many wonderful memories for me. I can't do the land justice in a blog post - I should write a book.

Oh wait, I did!


* Mostly in the footnotes.

On a high

Apr. 12th, 2009 06:24 pm
skyring: (Default)
Sunday 12 April 2009
QF560 Canberra to Sydney
B734 VH-TJY "Maryborough" Seat 17F
Scheduled: 0645
Boarding: 0625 (Gate 11, ground)
Pushback: 0645
Takeoff: 0654 to north
Descent; 0710
Landing: 0725 34R (from south after circle)
Gate: 0735 (Gate 2)

QF47 Sydney to Wellington
B734 ZK-JTS Seat 5F
Scheduled: 0915
Boarding: 0855 (Gate 36)
Pushback: 0917
Takeoff: 0936 34R to north
Descent: 1400 (NZ time)
Landing: 1417 (from north)
Gate: 1420 (Gate 28)

You couldn't put a wider smile on my face. There's New Zealand just appeared out of the blue Tasman. What a feeling - back in heaven!

Here's a week and a day of fun with my BookCrossing friends, and all those long nights of driving a cab are paying off. "Beats working," I tell my passengers, when I mention I've still got another nine or ten hours to go.

Snow on the mountains below. A fine tracing of silver on the very highest ridges below, and way off in the distance some real mountains, jutting up.

And then we flew lower and lower over the Marlborough Sounds, Cook Strait, Wellington and onto the tarmac, the single runway jutting out into the ocean at both ends. I was in heaven.

Heaven with a smile. Smiles all round after immigration. I hugged Discoverylover and alkaline-kiwi, and included Kevin and Erik for good measure.

The day began early. Dawn was breaking and the fog lifting as we pulled into Canberra airport. Checkin seemed to take forever, but there was time for a coffee in the lounge, before I gave my daughter/driver a farewell hug and filed aboard.

I read the Qantas magazine, taking an extra pleasure when I saw a couple of mentions of my travelwriting competition win. Breakfast was a muffin and a juice, but there was only five minutes to wipe the crumbs from my vest before the crew was clearing for landing.

Five minutes wait for the transit bus, hustle through passport control and the duty-frees, and then I was at the lounge, passing that incredible living wall and ordering breakfast.

As usual, superb. I had every intention of losing weight this trip, but good intentions were postponed as the aroma of bacon, scrambled eggs, fresh coffee and sourdough toast wafted up from the table. Barely time to do savoury justice to breakfast before it was time to trot down to the distant gate.

Excellent seat. Not quite Business Class, but forward of the wings and oodles of legroom. A quick look over some of Sydney's seaside suburbs as we lifted away, and then the ocean colour deepened and disappeared under thickening clouds.

No individual screens on this flight - a 737 of generous vintage - but the movie sown on the ceiling mounted screens helped me pass the time smiling and laughing at Jim Carey's antics in "Yes Man".

Lunch was served. I asked for champagne and got some sparkling Aussie white. Fair enough. A tiny Lindt bunny for Easter, which I saved to smuggle through Customs for Discoverylover.

And then I pulled out my laptop to make a journal entry, and there was New Zealand rising from the Tasman.


Apr. 12th, 2009 05:03 am
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The adventure begins. Road trip, whales, hot springs, museums and wine. And books, lots of books.

I'm off to Canberra airport in half an hour. I'll have breakfast in the lounge - I'll only get a muffin and some OJ on the plane.
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I'm not the wunderblogger I should be. Time and Twitter are big obstacles.

The last two Saturdays, Kerri and I have been going to a massage course. More on that in a separate post.

My mate Ken has suffered a personal crisis, and this has caused a few long angsty sessions over coffee when I should have been out on the streets. More on that later.

I'm considering WordPress on my Joyent server that is otherwise going idle. That would let me consolidate a couple of blogsites. But that will take time. And skill.

Kerri notes that I'm rubbish at housework, cooking, looking after the garden, decluttering, tax, and a hundred other vital things, but when it comes to travel, I'm all enthusiasm.

Yeah. That's me.

Next trip is New Zealand for the BookCrossing convention. I've got tickets, cars, accommodation and excursions all booked, paperwork for same printed out - all I need do is turn up at Canberra airport next Sunday and let myself be swirled away.

A short transit in Sydney. One and a half hours to make the transit bus, go through security and passport control, and board the plane. Unless I'm very lucky, there won't be much time for hanging around the lounge having a decadent breakfast.

Oh well. Wellington in mid-afternoon, to be met by Discoverylover, on whose floor I shall be sleeping for two days with sundry other BXers.

Morning ferry to Picton, where our group will load into a couple of rental cars and drive down to Hanmer Springs to soak in the waters and do our best to monopolise a hostel.

Next day is whale-watching at Kaikoura. Pricey, but one of those once in a lifetime treats. I've seen humpbacks off Cape Byron and Surfers Paradise, and random whales and dolphins from Aurora, but this is probably my best chance to see the mighty sperm whale.

We finish the day by driving down to Christchurch. The others in the party will be staying with friends and in youth hostels, and honestly, I toid with the notion of sharing a bunk room with my friends, but two things stopt me. First, I snore, or at least there is the risk of snoring, and I am not keen on keeping my friends awake during the night so they don't enjoy the day.

Second, I'm up at odd hours, night and day. That's why being a night cabbie is no great hardship and why I never get jet lag - my sleeping habits are already screwed up. So, I'd be doubly disturbing my companions.

Usually I try to find a private room in a hostel, where I can keep my own hours, and if I want to go from two to four in the morning writing a blog entry, I can. I've got a room to myself in Hanmer Springs, for example.

However, all the private rooms in Christchurch's hostels were booked out - by people more organised than me - so I went hunting up to see what was available. There were some bargains available - one night in "Chateau on the Park" for $19 caught my eye, but eventually I settled on the Crowne Plaza, for its nearby location, reasonable rates, and the fact that I'm a member of their loyalty program.

(After making the non-refundable booking, I find that Newk has discovered a far nicer place, one that offers breakfast and evening drinks, for just a bit more. Oh well.)

Wednesday, we have to be in Christchurch in time for dinner at some swish China place. We'll have about three hours to make the 2:15 hour drive, checkin to our hostels etc and make dinner. Working out who goes in which car could save a little time. Luckily one of the cars doesn't have to be returned until Thursday morning, and I'm keeping the other until Monday, dropping it off at the airport.

Thursday is the Tranzalpine train trip over to the West Coast. Have to be at the station about 0745, and we don't get back until 1800 for dinner at 1900, so that's going to be tight again.

Friday looks to be a rest day, at least in the morning. There's a bookshop tour in the afternoon ("May be a small extra cost if we use public transport to get to the more far-flung bookshops. May be a large extra cost if you buy lots of books," according to the website.) Dinner at five, followed by the meet'n'greet.

Saturday is packed. Release walk in the morning, beginning at 0830, Presentations and talks in the afternoon, quiz night.

Sunday there's a live internet chat with the BC in DC group (and anyone else), followed by the farewell brunch. Afternoon activities include a wine tasting trip and a harbour cruise. I think I'll go for the wine trip, with an eye to writing a story. Very likely there will be some sort of dinner with the diehards.

Monday it all ends for me. My flight is after lunch, and there'll be a bunch of us going at the same time. Two hour transit in Sydney, and I get back home around dinner time. And then I resume work Tuesday arvo.

All up, it's going to be an expensive week for me, but this is exactly why I drive a cab twelve hours a night, five nights a week. There's also the chance to write some great travel stories.

But most of all, I'll be hanging out with my BookCrossing friends. Forget the fancy excursions and dinners - put a bunch of BookCrossers together in a bare room and we'll have a wonderful time.


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September 2010

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