Stories from New Zealand

I once went to New Zealand.

I was backpacking around the world, on my own, and landed in Aukland. I didn't expect much - New Zealand is small, perhaps not geographically, but in terms of population. There's only about 4 million of them.

There was actually a huge new modern hostel for backpackers there, called Auckland Central Backpackers. It was easily the nicest hostel I stayed in. Underneath was a club/bar sort of thing.

One night I was down drinking a few pints with a small crowd of fellow travellers. Some guys just finished up a karaoke song on stage, and passed us by. We laughed. Not actually because of them. We had complained about the noise at the start maybe, but you know, we'd moved on. We were laughing about something completely innocuous. However, one of those karaoke guys took offence.

At closing time, we left and found our karaoke friends again, who attacked us. The guy in front of me simply folded up after one punch. The other got into a protracted fistfight. After the bouncers had chased them off, we found him on the ground, his face smashed up horribly. Turned out they'd used knuckledusters.

I thought it was time to move on, and on a whim, went to a bike shop. On impulse, I bought a bike, a helmet, a speedometer, and a book of cycle trips.

The next day I decided to try out the new wheels. I set out for Auckland Harbour Bridge. It's big. It's famous. They do bungee jumps from it, so I knew there'd be a safe walkway.

I head for the bridge. As I take the last turn, it says "Motorway starts".

I don't turn back here, because the traffic is too busy. Besides, do they really have motorways here? It's a tiny place.

And the sign is green, not blue. Blue means motorway. At least in the UK.

And anyway, I can always hop off onto the walkway if things get tricky.

Forty-five minutes later, I reach the other side and pull over in front of the waiting policeman, as the police car escorting me for the last third cruises off.

"What was that in aid of?" he says.
"Why, what do you mean?" I ask, all innocent.

It all got sorted out in the end, but it turns out that, yes, they have motorways, yes, the bridge is one, and no, they do not have a walkway of any kind.

At this point, I decide the leave the city. I decide to cycle the Northland for ten days. It's all planned out in my book. Point to point. Hostel to hostel.

The first day went without a hitch. I got a train to the first hostel and cycled a few miles. Next day, I was doing fifty miles.

I woke early, filled my water bottle and headed out. It was a glorious cycle. I loved the exercise, since so much of travelling involves sitting around, or walking and gawping. Proper cycling is good for me.

After a few hours, I realised I was in trouble.

The bike was fine. It was me. I'd run out of water.

I wasn't thirsty, but my legs had stopped working. I started walking the bike up the hills, and then just walking all the way. I was getting worried.

What do I do? Flag down a passing car? But there weren't any! Do I look for streams? Can I suck water out of trees somehow?

Eventually I found a farmhouse, And, rather red-faced, I asked for some water. They obliged. The next day I prepared better.

On the sixth day, I cycled across the top of some hills. It was really hard work, cycling at forty-five degrees into the cross-winds laced with rain. The only traffic were huge double logging trucks, always going too fast, too close. It was horrible.

Eventually I got to my stop, and got some bad news.

Firstly they were closed. Secondly, they were now a luxury retreat, not a hostel. Rooms cost $250, and that's if they were open, which they were not. They said I should stay at the camp down the hill for $10, and called for me. But I had no tent or bed, so they wouldn't let me camp.

I was in a pickle, and there was no way I was going back the way I'd come.

Luckily they caved, and let me stay. For the discounted rate of $200. And I have to say, it was pure luxury: sipping brandy from a large glass in front of the fire luxury. I slept well that night.

But not so well the next night.

I found the next hostel. But the sign had been painted over. This place had lost its International Youth Hostel mark. Hmm. And everywhere else was booked up. Hm. So I went in.

The manager emerged in a cloud of smoke. And not cigarette smoke. The more exotic kind.

I found the place inhabited by the homeless. By drunks. It was not pleasant. I got a single room anyway, and stressed about the twin beds in there. They wouldn't sneak anyone else in would they? The room had a bad smell.

At about two am, I woke to find one of the oldest smelliest drunks, just lying next to my bed by the window. Watching me. He stank. I froze.

All night I froze, I wondered what to do. I fumed. I tried not to breathe. I was outraged. How could they do this?

As early as I could, I decided to just get out. Not stay for breakfast, for shower, nothing. Just get out, get away from this guy.

And that's when the curtain moved, and he turned out to be just a shadow.

I'm sure there was more to New Zealand. Hobbits and scenery and beaches and huge trees.

But these are the stories I remember.

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