The Banana Bread Walk—a Tribute to Brisbane

Brisbane
Photo by Brisbane Local Marketing on Unsplash

The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.

If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.

The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.

Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.

Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.

With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.

We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t care thank-you-very-much.

Bellissimo Cafe

Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.

We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.

A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.

Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.

Brisbane Powerhouse

In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.

The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.

We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.

The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.

The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.

New Farm Walkway

As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.

As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.

The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.

Customs House

As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.

It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.

As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.

Brisbane’s City Botanic Gardens

We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.

With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards). 

The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:

  • Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
  • Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
  • Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)

You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.

As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.

We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.

Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.

South Bank Bougainvillea

We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.

We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.

The Banana Bread Walk Route

References

  1. 2018, Emma Atkin, “A Timeline of the Teneriffe Woolstores’ History,” eplace
  2. 2016, Jessica Hinchliffe, “Where did the original Brisbane Riverwalk end up after the 2011 floods?ABC
  3. Customs House, Brisbane,” Wikipedia
  4. 2019, “City Botanic Gardens attractions,” Brisbane City Council
  5. Story Bridge light colours,“ Visit Brisbane
  6. 2019, “US NAVY BRISBANE SUBMARINE BASE, CAPRICORN WHARF, MACQUARIE ST., NEW FARM, BRISBANE DURING WWII, ” ozatwar

New Zealand Trip – Part Seven – Te Anau to Christchurch

Seagull sizes

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We’d decided to check out the east-coast city of Dunedin on the second-to-last day of our trip, as it had some awesome nearby wildlife spots, but once again we were foiled by persistent, chunky raindrops, so we didn’t get to do much at all. The little ambling that we undertook revealed an old-fashioned, almost run-down city, which seemed in desperate need of some love. The most entertaining thing that happened was a seagull fight over an apparently invaluable black bag of rubbish, waged by a gang of normal-sized seagulls, and one gigantic specimen which looked like it spent all of its spare time pumping seagull iron. You can conclude which side won.

IMG_20181108_184506Arnie gull

We left the city the next day, disappointed at our luck. Our final destination was Christchurch, which we arrived at after another lengthy five-hour drive. As it was our final night we decided to dine somewhere a little classier, and I discovered a wondrous bottle of merlot by a winery called Pegasus Bay, a rouge plonk that delighted all of the senses. We had a quick toxic cocktail after dinner, and because we’re lightweights, went to bed early again.

Our flight home wasn’t until the afternoon, and the elusive sun had revealed itself to us again, so we spent our last few hours exploring the city. Christchurch is the biggest city on New Zealand’s south island, and suffered a series of massive earthquakes between 2010 and 2012, causing 1500 buildings to be demolished. The center of town still has large empty swathes of space where the buildings used to stand, lending an eerie, lifeless feel to those areas. Construction noise filled the air wherever you went, in the continued effort to rebuild what was lost.

Despite this, Christchurch is beautiful in its own way – a mixture of older grey stone and red-brick buildings, and modern stylish designs that seemed to fit well within the city. Anachronistic red and black trams circle the central part of the city, carrying smiling photo-happy tourists to the many sights on offer. We wandered past the severely damaged ChristChurch cathedral, which had a charming austerity despite its crippled state.

clone tag: 1645740101791025541ChristChurch Cathedral

An hour was spent in the natural history museum, with a “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” section housing some absolutely stunning photographs.

_97776042_mediaitem97776041.jpgArctic Treasure by Sergey Gorshkov

Our time was finally up, and we Uber’d our way to the airport, ready to return to our daily routines. The flight home featured an enormous teenager seated in front of me, who spent most of the ride shifting and smashing his sizeable bulk into the gudgeoned seat. I turned to Em out of frustration and asked whether he was retarded or something, and like a skit from a comedy sketch, it turned out that he actually was. I felt the briefest pang of guilt before quickly moving on.

It’s difficult to describe the splendour of south New Zealand without swearing, and in fact I spent much of the holiday involuntarily muttering “fuck” under my breath from sheer disbelief at the environments that we found ourselves in. It’s as though every single gorgeous natural landscape that exists has been collected and deposited in a single place, and in a location so remote that it isn’t spoiled by over-tourism. If this country were in Europe, every improbably blue glacial lake might be festooned with mile-high hotels, and circled by four-lane highways. I’m extremely thankful that it isn’t.

Travelling from one spot to the next usually revealed something completely new, and equally as beautiful. The terrific diversity of the country makes it continually fascinating and endlessly surprising. From the distant, swooping mountain valleys of the south, to the sloping, fertile wine valleys of the north, every part of the island had something amazing to offer. We adored the numerous chunky brown birds that effortlessly bounced their way around, just as we loved the mischievous mountain-parrot Keas who stomped across the tops of convenience stores and yelled at tourists for food.

If you’ve yet to visit New Zealand, what are you waiting for? It’s a destination that is sure to leave you amazed.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed what we shared!

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New Zealand Trip – Part Six – Queenstown to Te Anau

Rob and Emma-Lea

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Gone are the days of our youth when litres of alcohol could be drunk with little consequence. These days, a hangover feels like having your stomach replaced with an over-jealous washing machine, and a head that’s being jabbed by a malicious leprechaun. Despite this, we were going out on the town, and we were going to get properly fucked.

We skipped out of the hotel entrance like a couple of excited children, ready to guzzle all of the booze available to us. We hopped from bar to bar, consuming red wine, golden beer, blackened Guinness and rainbow cocktails, with a good measure of cod and potato half way, for that extra fishy boost. At one bar, while Em was in the bathroom, a fellow drinker assumed that I was alone and was kind enough to ask me to join them, such is the friendly comradeship of Queenstown tourists. In another bar, the niceness was relinquished by a gaggle of petulant silver-haired Americans, who felt it necessary to state in no uncertain terms how terrible the service was in this very casual Irish pub. Personally, I’d rather an honest smile than a fake one.

IMG_20181104_204047Drunk in Queenstown

After a few hours of wayward drinking and plodding, we reached our final destination – a club that promised good underground house music. Unfortunately, the excessive alcohol had broken my weary, aged limbs, and I could only dance for half an hour before whining incessantly about going home. No amount of red bull or thumping kick drums could rejuvenate me. We left and purchased some mightily delicious venison puff-pastry pies, gobbling them with glee as we swayed our way back to the hotel.

The hangover was every bit as disgusting as anticipated, so not much was achieved that day. We caught up with my old pal from Ibiza over dinner, who like everyone else my age except me, has settled down into a family life, complete with adorable smiley toddler.

The next morning we undertook our one and only thrill activity of the trip – the famous Shotover Jet. The driver of our boat was an unbelievably handsome bastard; if I’d have thought it possible to blindfold Em for the duration, I would have. He sped down the Shotover river like a bat out of hell, aiming the gunfire red boat as close as physically possible to the sharp canyon rocks without actually hitting them. He described the boat itself as a giant jetski, which sucks water and then savagely spits it out in order to create massive, fear-inducing amounts of thrust. The result was superb fun.

Our next destination was Te Anau, a town that exists purely for the spectacular nearby Milford Sound – the unofficial eighth wonder of the world, which is essentially a gigantic sea-filled fiord carved out by glaciers. It took a couple of hours to get there, with the blasted rain returning once more to spite us. Te Anau also sat on a beautiful far-reaching lake, and I was beginning to wonder whether that was a requirement for a New Zealand settlement. The town was fairly large and seemed to consist mostly of lodges, hostels and hotels. We stayed in a modest hostel because the prices were high due to the remoteness of the town, forking out $120AUD per night for what was basically a crappy, worn-out room. The shower curtain was the kind that wanted to get up close and personal whenever you turned the water on; it wrapped its slimy fabric around my calf more than a few times. The bed was comfortable, at least.

Our Milford Sound boat trip was the following day, a two-hour coach trip from Te Anau. The driver made a pleasing stop at a hidden lake along the way, which on sunnier days acts as a mirror, reflecting the impeccable surroundings. It was splendid regardless.

clone tag: -4262830837674072178Mirror Lakes – Te Anau to Milford Sound

The closer we got to our destination, the more the rain intensified, and as we descended into the fiord we could see nothing aside from blanket fog. No eighth wonder of the world for you today! Haha!

Thankfully, after the boat departed and bobbed closer to the mammoth mountains, they became much clearer. The colossal rock faces were blackened by the steady rain, which caused tens of individual waterfalls to cascade down them, of differing size and intensity. The tails of some smaller waterfalls were being blown in another direction entirely by the wind, creating a delicate fairy-dust mist that clung to our jackets when we braved the top deck.

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clone tag: -7056128515594891531Milford Sound

As we approached the exit of the fiord, the fog broke in the distance, revealing a delightful water-valley of sloping sierras. Milford Sound was undoubtedly impressive, despite the weather. The captain noted that this was a typical sodden day for them, with the area receiving a jaw-dropping nine metres of rain per year.

clone tag: -3708302892534112610Milford Sound

We returned to our lifeless hostel a few hours later, and prepared ourselves for our final two days in New Zealand.

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New Zealand Trip – Part Five – Queenstown

Queenstown paragliding

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Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand – almost every pant-soiling activity created by man can be undertaken there, if that’s your thing. The town centre is littered with adventure shops whose staff openly declare that they’ll take pleasure in throwing you out of a moving plane. Their glossy, hungover eyes inspire little confidence.

The town itself is located on the country’s biggest lake – Wakatipu – and homes around 16,000 people. Many of the town’s residential buildings have made their way up the surrounding mountains, which after the sun falls, bathes them in sparkling light. Atop a few of the tallest mountains are patches of snow leftover from winter, with the ranges being prime ski locations during those colder months. Many of the buildings look like they’ve been lifted directly from a Swiss town, giving the entire place a cozy Alpine feel.

We arrived late morning to a town packed with people. The spell of non-rain that we’d been blessed with was continuing, so we decided to ride the town’s gondola before it was due to turn again the next day. It slowly limped and shuddered its way up the mountain, offering spectacular views from the top.

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Also on top of the mountain was a winding luge track that was included with the gondola ride, which was basically a low sitting go-kart that used gravity instead of petrol. They moved surprisingly fast considering that you weren’t strapped in, adding to the Kiwi’s apparently nonchalant attitude towards health and safety; a refreshing change to the cotton-wool-wrapping societies of certain places. After we finished our run and were watching from above, a young bespectacled Asian gentleman with a penchant for speed hit a rubber barrier and sprang himself out of the cart like a kangaroo on amphetamine, ending up on a different track entirely.

We spent the next couple of hours exploring the town, finding ourselves in the picturesque Queenstown Gardens, which jutted out onto the lake opposite the town centre.

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Like the park in Blenheim, it was adorned with perfectly kept lawns and mirror-like lakes and rivers. Unlike Blenheim, there were lots of people, including an old chap calmly performing a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a public walkway. When we walked back past him later he was being accosted by a rowdy stag party, but was obviously too nice to deftly jab their drunken throats.

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We checked into our hotel and was greeted with a bottle of rose wine to celebrate our arrival, courtesy of an old friend who worked there. That night we went to an awesome place that had the cheapest and probably the tastiest food since we’d been away, called Muskets and Moonshine. In the men’s bathroom was a racing game above the urinal, the car for which could be controlled using your boozy discharge. I crashed multiple times and retired with wet hands.

After a little more wandering about town, we went to bed, ready for another day.

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It was due to rain again the next morning, so we decided to go for a drive to an old gold mining place called Arrowtown, which seemed an odd mixture of a one-street American town you see in the movies, and an English countryside. Every building was dedicated to selling food or souvenir tat to tourists, but it had a certain charm to it regardless. We bought some fudge from what had to be the busiest shop in the southern hemisphere, and quickly left before an accidental pregnancy occurred.

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Once back in Queenstown, we queued for a famous Fergburger for 45 minutes in the rain, only to discover that they were about as tasty as most Australian burgers. The Aussies are patty-spoiled it seems.

The next day we woke to gloriously sunny skies, so we hopped into the Mazda and made our way towards Glenorchy, another tourist town that also straddles Lake Wakatipu, to the north. The road followed the lake the entire way, and as usual, the views were stunning.

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There wasn’t a great deal to do in the town itself, so after a brief amble we drove back to Queenstown, and prepared ourselves for the first rip-roaringly drunken night of the holiday.

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New Zealand Trip – Part Four – Lake Wanaka and Isthmus Peak

Isthmus Peak climb

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We arrived at Lake Wanaka in the afternoon, and drove to the water front to do a little exploring. The lakefront of Wanaka is a stretch of trendy restaurants and shops, permeated with party-prepared young people, sipping their first vessels of booze for the day. This seemed like a town in which you could satiate your festive tendencies, if you were so inclined. Stretching out into the distance is the navy-blue lake itself, again accosted by picturesque snow-capped mountains. At this point, we expected nothing less than sublimity with every new place we arrived at.

When arriving at our hotel, a young Irish girl who had a sing-song voice like Luna Lovegood checked us in, and assured us that next week’s trip to Milford Sound would be just as dazzling as everything else we’d seen in this fairytale country. Luna seemed a credible source of information.

After a tasty dinner at a lakefront bar, we retired to bed in preparation for the next day’s hike up Isthmus Peak, a merciless 1385-metre mountain about half an hour away.

The drive towards the hike’s starting point took us alongside Lake Hawea, which appeared as a patch of brilliant blue on the horizon, backed by mountain valleys, and flaring with a million glittering sparkles in the morning sun.

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Luck was clearly on our side with the weather, and we started the hike in excellent spirits. It started with gentle slopes through lushious green hillsides, with sheep, cow and deer fields surrounding us on each side. A small family of cows eyed us wearily as we scampered through the little verdant patch they called home.

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After about half an hour, the gradient gradually increased, with the track looping left and right up the daunting mountain. At certain points, it became so physically exhausting that we had to stop every couple of minutes in order to get some air into our wheezing, asthmatic-like lungs – this hike was breathtaking in more ways than one. I frequently challenged our apparent lack of fitness by declaring that we were making good time compared to the reviewers on Trip Advisor, but as a couple of Germans bounded their way past us halfway up, we cursed their efficient Aryan legs.

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As we gained altitude, the flora took on a more stark, yellow look, with spikey porcupine-like bushes scattered all over, and a great deal more bare, dark-grey rock.

The walk was incredibly deceptive – we reached what looked like the peak of the mountain, only to be presented with another horrifying upwards stretch on the other side. This happened three times. At one point we passed a girl who was sat on the side of the path, looking like she was done with this torturous shit, and possibly also done with her boyfriend who was desperately trying to coax her onwards. After three hours of what was undoubtedly the toughest exercise we’d ever endured, we reached the peak’s summit, which offered 360 degree views of both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, surrounded by snowcapped mountains – a spectacular and rewarding sight.

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All was exposed to icy winds on the peak, and we hunkered down away from its nippy bite, indulging the views while refuelling with fruit and energy bars. We started to make our way back down, and the descent somehow seemed even steeper; we were amazed that we’d even managed to make it to the top of such a demanding mountain. Tramping downhill puts a lot more pressure on your knees, and by the time we reached the car two hours later it felt like they’d been worked on by a gang of vicious slick-haired Sicilians.

That night we ate at a delicious tapas-style restaurant in Wanaka called Kika, consuming the necessary excessive amount of lamb and duck-fat potatoes. Happy and full, we hobbled back to our toasty hotel room, ready for Queenstown.

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New Zealand Trip – Part Three – Arthur’s Pass to Lake Wanaka

Mount Cook National Park

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The vengeful rain continued to fall as we snaked our way towards the exit of Arthur’s Pass. The mountain tops were shrouded in blotchy grey clouds, lending a mysterious Jurassic Park like aura to the landscape. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum’s mischievous grin was nowhere to be seen.

 

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Our next stop was Lake Tekapo, and it took us about four hours to get there, the wet weather following us for every kilometre. Glaciers within the headwaters of Tekapo grind down rock and create a fine dust, which when mixed with the lake’s water, colour it a magnificent turquoise blue. Unfortunately for us, the grim sky dampened the effect considerably, and we left the lake cursing the weather.

We continued onto our next stop for the night, a small sugary-treat-sounding town called Twizel, which was originally built in the late 60’s to house construction workers for a local hydroelectric project. Today, as with many south island New Zealand towns, its survival relies on tourism, and it seemed incredibly quiet. Shops and restaurants were concentrated in a small central area, with wide curved roads winding their way around everything. We were checked into our hostel by a man that looked like an offended bulldog, but thankfully didn’t act in accordance with his appearance. The hostel was cheap and crappy, and the heater rattled like an old man with bronchitis. Our room number was 707, which when turned upside down appropriately spelt LOL.

In the morning, we checked out and made our way towards the biggest mountain in the country – Mount Cook – passing Lake Pukaki on the way. Like Tekapo, Pukaki is a glacial-fed lake, and it shimmered lucent blue in the early morning sun. The mountains in the distance looked as though somebody had very carefully ran a white-coated paintbrush along the top of them.

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We drove north along its west bank, the mountains to our left gradually getting taller. Eventually the colossal, 3724-metre Mount Cook appeared, a snow-laden giant in the distance.

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Things of such immensity often imbue me with a quiet humbleness, such is their unfathomable size and extensive existence. Every petty, tiny worry that might once have dulled my soul is vanquished in the face of such wondrous natural greatness. All falls away except for the spectacle before my eyes. It’s truly awe-inspiring; one of the most pleasurable emotions to experience.

As we drove deeper into the mountains, the landscape became even more dramatic, with whitewashed mountains soaring high into the cloudless sky. Our destination was a walking track that ended close to the foot of Mount Cook, and as we pulled into the car park, it was clearly a popular attraction. The track led us through Hooker Valley, walled by mountains and criss-crossed by a turquoise blue river, which was overcome by a handful of suspension bridges that could only hold twenty people and bounced as you went across them. Nervous laughter floated through the air as we tentatively trod its wooden planks.

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The temperature dropped steadily the further we walked, and by the time we reached the end of the track our ears were like strawberry ice-poles. Mount Cook was towering over another beautiful glacial-blue lake, like an eternal watchman.

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This is without doubt the most amazing place I’ve ever visited. Trying to describe its magnificence is impossible, and the pictures are equally mediocre compared to the real thing. It has a stark and unerring majesty; an unapologetic perfection, without a shred of ostentation (unlike my writing).

We slowly made our way back to the car, dodging hoards of Chinese tourists who seemed to have the spatial awareness skills of Ray Charles after a hit of brown sugar. Wanaka was our next stop, a bustling alpine town that ran along a southern section of yet another beautiful New Zealand lake.

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New Zealand Trip – Part Two – Blenheim to Arthur’s Pass

New Zealand lake

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The boundless rain clouds that had wetted Blenheim yesterday evening were gone by morning, and the town was bathed in glorious yellow sunshine. We aimed our vehicle westward through the valley, surrounded by vines and gently sloping mountains. Sports mode was activated for the Mazda 6, initiating a sudden lightness to its bulk, and a new sensitivity to the accelerator that made the car infinity more fun to drive. The excessively winding roads, the fortuitous lack of cars, and the spectacular landscape made it thoroughly enjoyable.

After about an hour of driving, we spotted a sign for a lake and decided to take a quick look. We were met with a huge, crystal-clear body of water enclosed by sky-reaching mountains, and families of ducks gently quacking their way to and fro. If you were a duck, you’d probably want to live here. There were only about ten people with us in total; it was mostly silent and peaceful.

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We reached the coastal community of Punakaiki after about four hours, the car quietly ticking in protest at the workout it had been put through. My imagination rarely does a good job of visualising how a place is going to look – it was less like a traditional, compact community and more like somebody had taken a bunch of buildings and placed them as far apart as possible while still being able to call them a collective. Punakaki is backed by looming limestone hills, which comprised the western edge of Paparoa National Park. The main attraction of Punakaiki is an assemblage of sea-jutting rocks that look like the biggest and most unappetising pancakes one could muster. At some points, they formed small coves which were filled by the Tasman sea, relentlessly swirling and smashing furiously against the edges. According to the educational signs, scientists still aren’t entirely sure how the pancake-like formations occurred.

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We stayed in a tiny Amazon village-like “retreat” that night, which like Punakaiki itself, was a collection of buildings spread out across a short distance. Our night was to be spent in the “Te Nikau” house, a wooden structure that had four bedrooms and a large communal area downstairs. Ambling around the area with a stick in its mouth was an old brown labrador-looking dog, who had the most spectacular eyebrows and moustache I’d ever seen on a canine. He snuffled happily as he approached us and I gave his chin a pleasing scratch. Sat on the porch of the Te Nikau house was the most Kiwi person we’d met so far, and when we got up to our room we were unintentionally regaled with meticulous grand plans for the building, in rough but entertaining fashion.

When the Earth span to such a degree that the sun was no more, we realised how eerily quiet it was compared to city-living. If a cricket chirped, you heard every stridulating decibel; when the wind blew, you could hear the dog’s facial hair rustling. My tinnitus was more apparent than it had ever been while in Punakaiki.

Despite the quiet, we woke early after having slept well, and jumped back in the car for our next destination – Arthur’s Pass. After about an hour’s worth of driving, snow-capped mountains appeared in the distance, but were mostly obscured by the ill-timed rainclouds that surrounded them. They looked magnificent regardless. We entered the huge sloping valley of Arthur’s Pass, gigantic mountains closing in upon us.

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We were headed for a hike trail called Bealey Spur, just past the township of Arthur’s Pass. Upon arriving, it became apparent that the rain wouldn’t relent. We trudged our way up the mountain regardless, reaching the top after two hours of sweating and cursing. It would have been a breathtaking walk had it not been for the expansive rainclouds; the best view was when returning to the starting point after four exhausting hours.

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Soggy and tired, we checked into our accommodation in the township of Arthur’s Pass, the owner chuckling at our sodden appearance. The heater in our room got an equally tough workout over the next 20 hours, after which we packed up the car and made our way south, to the famous inland lakes.

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New Zealand Trip – Part One – Christchurch to Blenheim

Blenheim

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The necessary airport milling that occurs while waiting to go on holiday is usually tackled with excessive, excitable drinking. The soulless, black and white marble bar that we found ourselves perched against was a picture of commotion, its occupants scrambling to drink as much alcohol as possible in order to ease the discomfort of their upcoming flight. A caramel-skinned Aboriginal lady with eyes like golden orbs was tending to her customers with great ease and effectiveness. About ten minutes in, a hoard of towering grey gentlemen descended upon the tiny area and displaced us with little effort, but with the utmost politeness. We didn’t mind at all; they seemed like lovely old folks. Classic eighties records exited the bar’s speakers and made their way into our receptive ears, which when merged with the effects of the booze, added to our already jovial mood. We were going to New Zealand!

The Jetstar flight was awful beyond measure, due to the inevitable hangover that ensued. There was little chance of beverage service to stave it off, with the neon-clad attendants taking a full hour to make their way down the small plane. A tiny, disturbed nap made things immeasurably worse; my head felt like it was being squeezed by something extraordinary. Croaks for water fell on deaf ears, and every passing minute felt like an hour.

When we arrived at Christchurch Airport, I was fully prepared to fight anyone who got in my way. But only if they weren’t Maori, because those fuckers are huge. The cab driver fitted this description and my dire state was temporarily forced into submission; I did swear at him for charging us $50 for a ten-minute ride, but only when he was out of earshot.

After a decent sleep at our temporary hotel, we picked up our gleaming-black Mazda 6 from the car rental company, and after the fifteen minutes of confusion that usually occurs at such places, we started making our way towards our first stop – Kaikoura. The sky was painted vibrant blue, and a crispness permeated the air; it seemed a perfect day for driving. I was prepared to receive the visual feast that had been promised to me, and after passing the boundaries of the city, was not disappointed. The first part of the drive north was filled with luscious verdant hills, splattered with swathes of blinding yellow flowers, which towered over the road like beautiful, watchful sentinels.

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As we made our way into Kaikoura – a tiny coastal town famous for its rotund seals and whales – we were met with long, level stretches of gleaming-white serrated rock, as though something gigantic had decided to run its comb through it. This stretched on around the u-shaped peninsula of Kaikoura for miles, including thirty-metre high cliff faces topped by gorgeous, bare-faced greenery. This town was one of the hardest hit by the monstrous earthquake in 2016, with many tourists having to be rescued via helicopter and boat. The coastal roads are still peppered with roadwork traffic stops, with the Kiwi construction workers showing unending politeness by smiling and waving when you they finally allow to continue.

Next stop was Bleheim, in the heart of Marlborough wine country. This region is famed for its Savignon Blanc wines, for which the cold nights are best suited. We wound our way down into the sumptuous valley, abounded with perfectly straight vine rows as far as the eye could see. Every hill glowed with a healthy vibrancy, brilliant hues of green against a perfectly blue sky. This place was absolutely gorgeous.

Our accommodation was a house that had been split into separate guest rooms, and was run by an excitable, fair-haired older lady who enjoyed talking about cyclones and how the weather people just couldn’t seem to predict them. Her large husband stood behind and quietly agreed. He had a red-face and a beaming smile. We liked them both a lot. While checking in a scruffy white-haired pooch pushed his nose through a gap in the wall and identified us with quick, sharp sniffs. It disappeared before we could offer a scratch.

The next day we wandered around Pollard Park, which had the same level of dazzling vividness as everything else in this region. There were tiny bridges arching over cute rivers, and small, long-tailed black birds that ran away in a manner that suggested they’d just stolen something.

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We reluctantly left the park to wander into the city centre. Blenheim is a hushed town with only 30,000 inhabitants, and has a similar feel to all small towns. Its streets are sleepy and quaint; the center of town is lined with coin-operated parking meters, installed in the 80’s and then forgotten about. The most eye-catching thing in Blenheim is the white-stone war memorial clock tower, the guard of Seymour Park.

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Later that day we did a wine tour, and when the bus turned up we were greeted by a handful of smiley wrinkly faces – what did we expect? Everyone had a friendliness that usually accompanies older people who like to travel, and it made them a pleasure to spend time with. After a short spell of driving, it became apparent just how beautiful this region was. The wineries themselves were a gorgeously-designed mesh of stone, wood and glass, with a good amount of symmetry thrown in. They looked spectacular against the backdrop of the rolling green landscape. We enjoyed the buildings just as much as the wines themselves.

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One of the winery hosts was an older English chap who reminded me of a quieter version of Michael Palin. His accent was still perfectly English apart from when he answered a question with the typical Kiwi “Yis”. Our guide for the tour itself was an older Maori lady who was nice enough, but had a glint in her eye which suggested that she might quietly murder you if you put a foot wrong. Needless to say, we were all well-behaved.

Tomorrow, we’ll be cutting West across the top of the island, to Punakaiki.

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