Day M102: Treasured Island

Sat 07.01.12:

Samoa! What an awesome place! Captain Andriy had me up at 10am to head over to Valima, the home of the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the chap wot wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Taking Filipe the ship’s steward with us, we met with Richard the local port agent and hit the road into the interior.

Back in the 1890s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s health was waning and he believed that a more tropical clime would be conducive to his general well-being, or at least more conducive than the frigid night air of the Scottish highlands or the smog-laden streets of London at the height of the industrial revolution.

When Stevenson visited Samoa in the 1880s, it was love at first sight. He built a home for himself and his family in the middle of a beautiful forest clearing in the village of Valima. Stevenson lived with his wife and step-daughter in Valima for the last four years of his life, bringing with him his not inconsiderable talent for telling stories. The local people soon fell in love with Stevenson, one of the few white men to turn up in these parts who was genuinely interested in the ancient culture of Samoa and who wasn’t there to plunder the natural resources, enslave the population or convert the islanders to one of the many competing flavours of Christianity. His native name was Tusitala, “the teller of tales”. By the time of his death in 1894, Stevenson was so adored by the people of ‘Upolu that they spent the proceeding three days cutting a path from Valima to the top of nearby mount Vaea: a not inconsiderable task, considering the mountain was over 500 metres above sea level and covered in dense jungle foliage.

The people of ‘Upolu lined the path. Pretty much every single islander turned out for the funeral. The Samoans passed Stevenson’s coffin from person to person all the way from Stevenson’s house to the top of the mount, which should give you an idea of how many people were in attendance. And there, looking out over his treasured island, Robert Louis Stevenson remains until this very day.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

This self-penned eulogy was translated into Samoan and is still used to this very day as a song of mourning for the loss of loved ones. This beautiful story was only matched by the beauty of the house itself: Valima, a place so magical that the Samoans named their national beer after it. We were given a tour of the place by a softly-spoken local girl who guided us through the many airy, sunlit rooms from a time when humans still had the capability to render beauty in three dimensions. Valima is a place where life slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in a sunbeam, and here we are, nestled in tranquil gardens a million miles from anywhere, a perfect retreat for any aspiring weaver of tales both tall and short.

After Valima, Richard took myself, Captain Andriy and Filipe up to the Papapapaitai Falls (which I had fun singing in the style of Pearl & Dean’s Asteroid), a magnificent cataract slap bang in the middle of the island. Then we pressed on to the south coast, through villages and towns. Traditional Samoan houses have no walls, just a roof held up by thin wooden pillars and heavy fabric ‘curtains’ which can be unfurled should the occupants require a little bit of privacy, perhaps to make more Samoans.

The Samoan outlook is so diametrically opposed to the typically American paranoid view of the world (‘everybody is trying to kill me and steal my stuff!’) that I’m rather looking forward to seeing American Samoa – will there be alarm systems on people’s curtains? Will guard dogs understand human territory that is not demarcated by a ruddy great big concrete security wall? Will these simple huts be fitted with a panic room? We’ll have to wait and see.

After lunch in a splendid coastal resort, decked out in traditional Samoan architectural styling, we drove along the mighty wind-swept coast of this rather remarkable dot in the Pacific Ocean. Waves travel uninterrupted for thousands of miles east from Australia, west from South America, south from Russia just to dash themselves on these shores. The people of Samoa, like all Pacific natives, are the descendants of the Lapita, brave souls who ventured out 2,000 years ago from what is now Taiwan with nothing but an outrigger canoe, balls of steel and an incredible knowledge of the sea. There are still people alive today who can tell you which way to find land just by observing the shape of the waves. And find land they did, populating not only Samoa, but Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Nauru, The Marshall Islands, Hawaii, The Gilbert Group, the Line Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tuvalu, Wallis and Fortuna, The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Nuie, Tokelau, The Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Pitcairn, Henderson and – yes – even as far east as Easter Island, ten times closer to Chile than what it is to Taiwan. These guys explored millions of square miles of the biggest and most dangerous ocean on Earth 1,500 years before the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria even dreamt of crossed the Atlantic.

Needless to say, these guys had some mad skills.

As evening draw near, Richard dropped us off at the port and after a hearty farewell, Filipe and I hit the town. As the ship was scheduled to leave at 4am, Captain Andriy could not join us as he had ship’s business to conduct. I had sent out a few CouchSurfing ‘let’s meet up for a beer’ requests, and one requestee, a Brit named Jenny had responded. She met us in Paddles bar and was one of those fascinating people raised in foreign lands, in her case East Africa, blessed with a view of the world that too few of us share – the not-so-secret knowledge that we’re all in this together and that the oh-dearism, it’s a long-way-from-here-ism and they’re-their-own-worst-enemy-ism is the thinking of dinosaurs and scoundrels. Her dad works for the United Nations which segued into a delightfully heated debate about the net worth of the UN (my estimation: zero). Jenny was due to join her mates for din-dins, and as Filipe and I had already grabbed some tucker on board the Lily, we said our goodbyes and headed up the road to Club X, which was surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) not a strip joint.

There Filipe and I met with Bill, the ship’s fourth engineer, and the three of us flung ourselves (with heroic disregard for our own safety or indeed sanity) headlong into the Beer Vortex. Huzzah! A great end to a great day.

Looking for somewhere to get away from it all and write the next great American novel? One word for you, Benjamin: Samoa.

Day M103: A Tale of Two Sundays

Sun 08.01.12:

As the good ship Southern Lily 2 was scheduled to be leaving Apia in the wee small hours I left my passport in the ship’s office with a note saying “this is my passport, please do not wake me unless strictly necessary”. As I was three sheets to the wind when I wrote this note, I had no recollection of the event the next day when for a terrifying few moments I thought I had lost my passport somewhere in the midst of last night’s ridiculousness.

I need not have worried, for not only had my passport not gone anywhere, neither had the ship. Since Samoa is still quite a god-fearing country, the loading operation stopped last night at midnight for the Sabbath Day. My hopes of having a Saturday night in Samoa, crossing the International Dateline and having another Saturday night in American Samoa were dashed like sailors on siren-infested rocks. Instead, I would have to brace myself for A Tale of Two Sundays.

Apia on Sunday is a quiet little place. The weather, still not playing ball, was content to spend the day in a drizzle-soaked mist. I spent the day strolling along the promenade and looking for somewhere that was open. The Italian Kitchen and Aggie Grey’s (presumably the Pacific counterpart of Maggie May’s) breached the Sunday trading rules, but aside from that everywhere was bus-up-shut.

I felt like I was in one of those situations in which you say goodbye to a good friend only to have to hang around for another hour or so because the bus doesn’t leave. Without any easy way of getting around the island and utterly failing to find the Yacht Club (which I’m assured was open), I was content to spend the day beavering away on my laptop, cut off from the outside world. Sans phone, sans internet, sans problemo.

Day M104: This is Yesterday

Sun 08.01.12:

Yesterday was Sunday 8 January 2012. Last night I went to bed and got I good night’s sleep. This morning I awoke to find it Sunday 8 January 2012 again. While I was sleeping the Southern Lily 2 left Apia, crossed the (newly redrawn) International Date Line and now it’s Sunday again. That’s not a typo. Welcome, friends, to American Samoa.

Divided countries, especially ones divided by Western Powers, always strike me as deeply unfair. Samoa and American Samoa share the same language, culture and religion. The only thing separating the two is the conceit of politicians thousands of miles away and more than a century ago. Britain, France, Germany and the US all wanted a slice of Samoa. After some kind of contest (presumably a pissing one), it was agreed that the Samoan islands of Savai’i and ’Upolu would be given to the Germans and the island of Tutuila and surrounds would be given to the Yanks. This seemed fair at the time, but then again, so did the death penalty. Thank God the civilised nations of the world have moved on from those dark days.

What? The state is still allowed to murder its own citizens in the USA? Blimey. How medieval. Next they’ll be trying to teach kids that the entire universe was created by some kind of big magic invisible space wizard with a beard who occasionally grants wishes. From space.


The international community took Samoa off the Germans after World War I (along with Togoland, Tanganyika, South West Africa, German New Guinea and a few other bits and bobs) for being ‘very naughty’. ‘Western’ Samoa was subsequently handed over to New Zealand. But this is before New Zealand got good at rugby and made Lord of the Rings, so Samoa pushed for independence. Meanwhile, American Samoa (shouldn’t that be The US Samoan Islands?), happy at the fact that the USA was pumping out blockbusters like Gone With The Wind and Battlefield Earth, elected to stay with their big bothersome brother, presumably to rule out the chance of being randomly invaded at the behest of a corrupt banjo-playing President of the future.

We arrived in the port of Pago Pago around 10am local time, and I am jolly glad I was awake for it. No natural harbour I have seen in the world so far compares to the beauty of Pago Pago. Surrounded on all sides by the greenest mountains imaginable (the highest is called ‘Rainmaker’, and it does it’s job very well – they have over 60 METRES of rain here every year) it is an experience to compare with sailing along the shoulder of PNG, between the storms of the Sepik and Manama, the mountain of fire.

Once ashore, Captain Andriy and I met with Nolani, the port agent. She took us on a tour of the island of Tutuila. First up, we headed west past the airport to the blowholes on the southern side of the island. “This is nothing – wait until you see Tonga” grinned the captain. Then we headed over to the east, to a town called Tula and the END OF THE ROAD.

I don’t capitalise lightly. For three years I have been travelling in an easterly direction: across the Atlantic, down through Africa from West to East, across to India, China, through PNG to Fiji. Now I’ve hit the most eastern part of The Odyssey Expedition: Tula, the most easterly point of Tutuila: the most easterly island I’ll be visiting, 10 degrees east of the International Date Line.

From here on in, I shall be heading west, west, WEST… back home to Liverpool, England. Back home without flying via Tonga, New Zealand, Nauru, Micronesia, Palau, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and South Sudan. As I keep stressing, it ain’t going to be easy, but by God it’ll be fun.

After Tula, we headed over to Tisa’s Barefoot Café. A rustic wooden bar set out on the water: at last, the bar I’ve been looking for all this time, here at the end of the Earth. A boozer built by local people out of local materials, a place to chill out, meet the Fockers and one that is entirely at one with nature. Well, provided that nature, like I, likes to watch the last sunset of the Earth’s day over a big bottle of Vailima Export.

Ahh… My kinda place.

Days M105-106: The Friendly Islands

Mon 09.01.12 – Wed 11.01.12:

After quite literally skipping Tuesday, we arrived in the port of Nuku’alofa in the Island Nation of Tonga two days after Sunday… on Wednesday. In what is becoming a bit of a tradition for us us Lilynauts, the port agent came out to greet us off the ship and then took me, the captain and Joe (the ship’s cook) on a tour of the main island of Tongatapu

I should point out that ‘Nuku’alofa’ means ‘Abode of Love’ in English. How much better is that a name than ‘Hull’, ‘Grimsby’ or (urgh) ‘Skegness’? I should also point out that Tonga is the Scandinavia of the Pacific. By that I mean they substantially added to the gene pool by totally stealing the best looking women from Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tokelau, Niue etc. in days of yore. Much in the manner of the Vikings (hence Danish/Swedish/Norwegian girls being hot to trot). This sits in stark contrast with Bolivia, where all the best looking virgins where sacrificed to the gods, thus diminishing the overall totty quota of said Andean nation. Silly ancestors!

Also, possibly in an echo of what went on in Sparta, the men here are built like the proverbial brick shithouse. The words ‘you lookin’ at my bird?’ would have me on a rowboat fighting the current back to Fiji before you could say ‘eek!’.

First up on our sojourn around Tonga’s main island: the blowholes. Captain Andriy had promised me a show, and by god these babies did not disappoint. A mile-long stretch of coast where every time the waves crashed against the rocks below, small but perfectly formed holes in the basalt allowed the salty brine to shoot ten metres into the air. AWESOME!!

After watching nature’s fountains, we toddled off to go and see the bay where Captain Cook landed in 1773. So overwhelmed by the hospitality and the generosity of the Tongan people, Cook Christened the country ‘The Friendly Islands’. What Cook didn’t realise is that the natives were just buttering him and his men up, ready to murder them all and steal their ships. However, a dispute occurred as to whether to strike during the day or at night and the plan was called off. Cook never found out how close he came to an untimely end.

Well, that is until he actually did come to an untimely end upon his second visit to Hawaii…!

There’s a monument to Cook’s landing, and a breadfruit tree where I learnt what breadfruit actually is from Joe the ship’s cook. Funny that I was there with a Captain and a Cook eh? Only just thought of that. Wakka wakka wakka!

We then headed to the east of the island in order to go see the Ha’amonga ’a Maui (Burden of Maui) – the Tongan equivalent of Stonehenge. The irony being that I’ve never visited Stonehenge, but I have been to the Burden of Maui. Debate has raged over the origin of this magnificent trilithic monument, but the consensus is that, like Stonehenge, it is a calendar for setting the exact dates of midsummer and midwinter. Hey: great minds think alike, eh Tonga?!

In the evening, Captain Andriy and I had a sad duty to perform. I had promised the guys on the Southern Pearl that I would go and see the late Captain Mafi’s family to pass on our condolences. It was with a heavy heart that I met Mafi’s widow and his two daughters. We sat outside their family home and chatted about Mafi as the sun set in the west. They asked me if he had appeared ill while I was on board to which I had to give the honest answer of no: he was faster getting up the stairs to the bridge than I was. But he did smoke like a chimney and the smokes will kill you if something else doesn’t get you first. That’s (sadly) the way they’re designed.

Captain Mafi’s grave was (as is traditional in The Pacific) placed at the front of the house. So, so sad – Mafi was due to return home to his family on the day he died.

Captain Andriy and I headed back to the ship and got ready for tonight. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet followed by a traditional song and dance display going on at one of the resorts to the west of the island. Joe The Cook came with us and I have to say, the place did not disappoint. After filling up our leaves (not dishes!) with tasty seafood, you almost needed to roll me down the beach into the cave where we could watch the dancing.

It was pretty good, but it was the finale that really kicked ass: full on fire twirling, breathing, swallowing and craziness. I loved it. So, Tonga, what can I say? You, like pretty much every Pacific island that I’ve been to so far, ROCK! Us three Lilynauts got a lift back to the ship standing on the back of a Toyota pick-up truck, the night wind whistling past our ears. Man, I could get used to this.

Days M107-110: Towards The Long White Cloud

Thu 12.01.12 – Sun 15.01.12:

The ship was due to leave Tonga at midday, so I made good use of the morning looking for some internets that would allow me to update my much-neglected blog. Looking being the operative word, for I did not find any. Never mind, I enjoyed the walk. So farewell, then, Tonga, you beautiful place. I’m sure I’ll return one day.

Out of the port and out towards the Land of the Long White Cloud, Aotearao. Or ‘New Zealand’ as you heathens insist on calling it. It would take a couple of days to get there, time to kick back, relax, back-up my tapes and work on my inane scribblings.

We arrived on Sunday morning, in good time. Mandy would be arriving in New Zealand tomorrow to begin our North Island Odyssey. This would be our first holiday together since Egypt back in January 2010. As the ship I’d be taking from New Zealand to Australia (in order to then reach country 195, Nauru) would not be leaving until the end of the month, why not eh?

We glided into Auckland harbour at around 10am. Perfect.

I took my leave from the good ship Southern Lily 2 and, after hopping on the courtesy bus to the port entrance, walked to the nearest backpackers. Happily, this was a journey of about 200 metres. Had a come from the airport, the same journey would have taken half an hour and cost $26 one way… on the bus! Considering all of the cargo ships I’ve been on so far have let me on for free, this is how to travel, kids!!

I spent the day re-familiarising myself with the city of Auckland, a place I have not been to for almost a decade. Very like Melbourne, I have to say, but I think I might just like it a leeeettle bit more. Don’t tell anyone 😉

After a blissfully sunny day, I met up with Captain Andriy. We would have one last night out on the tiles. Today was the day that the Costa Concordia sank, and so HOW THE HELL DID THAT HAPPEN?!! dominated the conversation somewhat. With the amount of modern technology available to these large cruise ships, this was already looking like human error par excellence. Sonar, Radar, GPS, Collision Detection Systems… hitting ROCKS off the coast of ITALY?? Nah. What? Nah.

That captain is going down for some time for this, you bet your bottom dollar.

After experiencing the delights of The Occidental, an eye-wateringly expensive (but breathtakingly beautiful) Belgium beer bar, we opted for the Irish Pub: Father Ted’s. Oh yes. There is a Father Ted’s. Although, somewhat disappointingly, you can’t get tea and rollerblading is not allowed.

Somewhat less disappointing was the live band that played. After a few rather decent Beatles covers, I asked the barmaid where these guys were from. ‘Liverpool’ was her reply. ‘My Liverpool?’ I asked. ‘Yeah – Your Liverpool.’

Awesome!! Even better: the lead singer used to go to Bluecoat. My school. Here we are on the other side of the planet and I’m running into people who remember Mr. Hayes, Tittershill, Holt and all those nefarious reprobates who taught me nothing but the Dark Side of the Force.

Small, small world eh? Unlike Melbourne, Auckland stays open past midnight, so Captain Andriy and I made the most of it, there may have been a kebab involved at some point, but I’m pretty sure that those Burger King micro-burgers are the work of the devil. Goodbye, Captain Andriy. It’s been an absolute blast.

Days M111-112: The Mandster Cometh

Mon 16.01.12 – Tue 17.01.12:

Mandy, my long suffering girlfriend, had arranged to fly over and meet me in Auckland around 4pm today. By that time I had just about shrugged off my hangover from the night before and was almost looking human. I went to the airport to meet her (the airport being located a thousand miles away from the city, as always, but then who wants to live under a flight path?) and after two months of trundling around the Pacific on my own, it was wonderful to back in the arms of my beloved, even if it was only going to be for the next 10 days.

We had NEW ZEALAND to explore and PETER JACKSON to stalk!! But being Graham and Mandy, we decided to spend our first evening going to the cinema to watch the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Funny that – when Mand came to meet me in Egypt in January 2010, we went to see the first Sherlock Holmes movie. Maybe we should make this some sort of tradition.

The next day we jumped on a ferry to explore Devonport on the other side of the bay, mounted Mount Victoria, a rather nice extinct volcano with a lovely view out over Auckland city, and then, for no other reason than it was being shown the oldest purpose-built cinema in the Southern Hemisphere, we went to see Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia at the Victoria Theatre. Urk. I hate Lars Von Trier at the best of times: a misogynistic goon whose idea of a film is to have horrible people do horrible things to each other for two hours and then for everyone to die at the end. Why you would want to waste your time watching this garbage is not for me to judge, but I’m nothing if not a well-informed critic: I don’t dis films I haven’t bothered to watch. With the exception of anything to do with Glee.

That night Mand and I stormed the pub quiz at Father Ted’s, coming one question away from beating quite literally everybody else in the pub. No prize for second place, unfortunately, but we managed to make the most of it before launching ourselves HEADFIRST into the sing-where-you’re-seated karaoke. Our rather unique version of Proud Mary (was that originally Credence or am I dreaming?) actually had people dancing. I even got asked to sing another song by a punter. A bit of a coup for Monsieur Tone Deaf here, maybe I should have been a rockstar after all.

Day M113: In A Hole In The Ground There Lived A Hobbit

Wed 18.01.12:

And so it came to pass that Graham and Mandy picked up a hire car (it’s a legal move so long as I return to Auckland!) and headed south down through the Barrowdowns of New Zealand, past Tom Bombadil’s house and the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I rather like going south, it feels like going downhill. We thundered along the road as fast as Mr. Bliss, and after a hour or so, we came upon The Shire. Mandy reckons we were late, but I maintained that a wizard is never late, he arrives precisely when he means to.

When the outdoor set for Hobbiton was built for the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was scheduled to be destroyed once filming had wrapped. Fortunately, the mischievous weather gods had other ideas and a period of prolonged heavy rain prevented the bulldozers from doing their job. ‘We’ll come back in six months’ thought the bulldozers. But they were wrong. In those six months a fan campaign to save Hobbiton had built up such momentum that New Line Cinema thought ‘sod it’ and told the bulldozers to bugger off (much to the delight of the landowners, I’m sure). Soon enough, the Hobbiton set became a major tourist attraction.

Now when they started pre-production on The Hobbit, fingers were crossed that Peter Jackson and his posse would use the same location again, but, you know, beef it up a little, add some more Hobbit holes. And, sure enough, beef it up they did, raising the number of Hobbity dwellings from just over a dozen to over forty, as well as putting back the original door finishings (before all that remained of many of the homes were just white plyboard) AND replacing the fake old oak tree on top of Bag End with a new one that looks 60 years younger – complete with over 100,000 fake oak leaves stapled to the damn thing.

It’s that kind of attention to detail that sets Peter Jackson out from the hoi polloi. Could you imagine Brett Ratner going to such lengths for the sake of authenticity? Chris Columbus? Michael Bay? Joel Schumacher? Nah, you’re right: don’t be silly Graham. Ridley Scott would. And James Cameron. And Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton… bring it on fellas – death to the also-rans!

I would love to show you photos from Hobbiton, but we all had to sign a thing before we entered saying that we wouldn’t put any photos or footage up on the internet. As I know damn well that New Line would be happy to employ some poor schmuck whose job it is to spend his or her days trawling through Facebook accounts firing out CEASE AND DESIST notices every verse end, I have (wisely, I think) elected to keep my AWESOME content off the internet. The last thing I need is Freddie, Jason and the many killers from Scream coming after me.

But Hobbiton was nothing short of amazing. A must for anybody who is visiting New Zealand and/or alive. The bridge, pub and the mill on the Brandywine (actually a lake) look amazing (the waterwheel turns!), sadly, we weren’t allowed to stomp over there in our big size tens, something to do with the bridge not meeting some kind of government regulation for movie props. Mand and I got to pose outside Bag End as well as outside Sam’s big yellow door from the very end of the trilogy.

The only thing that made me sad was that the holes don’t actually have little Hobbit houses in them. That would have been great. And if you could go to the pub and buy some pipeweed (keep puffing that magic dragon Uncle Tolk!), that would be good too. But as it is, a living, breathing move set the size of a village, you ain’t going to find a finer example.

What is double awesome is that after your tour of the set, you inexplicably get to watch a guy shear a sheep. STRANGE BUT TRUE!! I guess it’s a New Zealand thing, like saying ‘sex’ instead of ‘six’, ‘tin’ instead of ‘ten’ and ‘swum’ instead of ‘swim’.

That night Mandy and I reached the city of Rotorua, famous for its hot mineral springs and powerful erupting geysers. The whole place smells of bad eggs from the sulphur, but you soon get used to it. We hired a little cabin in the local campsite and grabbed some yummy Chinese food for din-dins. I like this.

Day M114: Gushing Meadows

Thu 19.01.12:

So then, Rotorua, I’ve missed you for a decade, but you’re still not smelling no sweeter. You see, New Zealand is SLAP BANG on top of one of the most shifty-slidey tectonic fault-lines in the world, which goes some way to explaining why over 80% of NZ’s power comes from renewable resources. In fact, when it comes to green credentials, New Zealand is painfully ahead of the competition and a rather sound bolt-hole for you to run to when the oil runs out or your entire nation gets flooded to death.

But you’ll be dead by then, right? Right.

In Rotorua, the Earth’s crust is as thin as a poppadom and so hot sulphuric water bubbles up to the surface with great alacrity. This was good for the local Maori people who used these hot thermal springs to cook, to bathe and to possibly dispose of irritating enemies such as Justin Bieber. The naturally high mineral content of the springs meant the place was of great interest to the Victorians, who loved all this natural hippy remedy alternative medicine stuff. A few months ago I was approached by a girl selling Dead Sea Salt stuff in a shopping mall. She was quick in inform me that the stuff contained ‘only natural ingredients’ and ‘no chemicals whatsoever’.

I pointed out to her that Arsenic, Polonium, Mercury, Lead and Uranium were all 100% natural and things I would in no way like to rub on my skin and that one could probably find at least two chemicals in the NaCl that made the frikkin salt in the salts that little bit, um, salty in the first place. She acted as though nobody had ever thought to mention these most elementary properties of chemistry to her before. Or maybe they had, but so long as the pharmaceutical companies and snake oil salesmen keep banging on the natural = good, chemical = bad line, there’s going to be at least a few people that fall for the con. Well sod that, accost this ranga in a shopping mall and start spouting utter gibberish at him in order to sell an overpriced tub of mud and you should expect a good old fashioned verbal lashing. Same goes for you, vicar.


Sorry, I digress…

Mand and I tottered over to the Whakarewarewa, the ‘Living Thermal Village’. If you think Whakarewarewa is a bit of a mouthful, try the full name: Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, meaning ‘The gathering place for the war parties of Wahiao’. Thankfully, the village name is often abbreviated to just ‘Whaka’ by locals (pronounced ‘Faka’). Whaka is a Maori settlement that’s been around for centuries, the people here living off the free energy provided by the hot springs dotted around the town. We were shown around the town by a lovely Maori lady called Sue.

One thing that I should point out here: there are next to no indigenous cultural experiences open to tourists visiting Australia. In fact, the massive difference in attitudes between the way the Maori and the white New Zealanders treat each other and the way the Aboriginals and white Australians treat each other could not be more pronounced if it climbed up to the top of a flag pole and danced the Charleston. I will return to this topic a little later on.

The tour around the village was great and ended with a free cultural dance show in which we got to experience the ancient and modern songs and rhythms of this particular neck of the woods, together with the Villager’s take on the modern Haka. All good stuff. I then wasted a good half an hour of my life standing there like a lemon with my cameras waiting for the big Geyser, Pohutu, to erupt. A German guy had been waiting for over an hour. A British girl called Loretta was going to miss her bus to Lake Taupo if she hung on any longer.

Ah, miss it. We’ll give you a lift, I say, being all cavalier: we’re heading to Lake Taupo this afternoon anyhoo.

New Zealand is actually an excellent place to hitch-hike around, by the way. It doesn’t seem to suffer from that creeping sense of paranoia that so afflicts the rest of the westernised world and, well, it’s a lot smaller than Australia or the US. If your hiker is boring, stupid or uninteresting, you can happily kick them out after an hour: they’ll invariably be at their destination by then.

Eventually Pohutu went pop, just in time for everybody who was waiting with baited breath to have just run out of battery power for their cameras. Grr!!

Oh well. Mand and I tottered off for some lunch having arranged to meet Loretta a little later on. After gallivanting around the beautiful, beautiful, BEAUTIFUL museum (around, mind you, we didn’t go in – it was too expensive) for a couple of hours, we checked out of Rotorua, dragging Loretta with us.

Along the way down to Lake Taupo we stopped off so the girls could have a dip in the confluence of a scorching hot thermal pool and a freezing cold mountain stream, the Goldilocks Zone, if you will. I didn’t partake in the activities since, like a Mogwai, it is unwise to get me wet, subject me to bright light or feed me after midnight. After a quick dip we piled back into the car and thundered down to Lake Taupo, the biggest lake in the bottom half of the planet.

We dropped Loretta off at the backpackers, but no ’orrible bunkbed nonsense for us: Mand had arranged to stay in a fancy spa resort, complete with luxury self catering cabins with a view out over the rather splendid lake. Ahh… I told you we were on holiday.

Days M115-117: High Tea in Mordor

Fri 20.01.12 – Sun 22.01.12:

Lake Taupo is one of those must-see sights in New Zealand, and it’s not hard to see why. Situated slap bang in the middle of North Island, you’d be a fool not to stop off here on your way between Auckland and Welly Town. Today the weather was as fine as fine could be. After a lazy morning, Mand and I went for a walk around Haka Falls, a stupendous piece of natural engineering: gigalitres of water THUNDERING through a narrow chasm, one that looks at once exciting to try to go down sitting on a big rubber donut, but one that your common sense circuits are screaming DON’T BE AN FOOL, HUGHES!!

At the falls I was jabbering away into my camera (as I have a tendency to do) and a lady standing nearby asked Mandy if I was making a TV show or a really good home movie. Mand explained what I was doing and the lady, Natalie, asked if we were hitting Wellington any time soon. Yeah – we’ll be there next Monday. Would you like us to show you around Miramar (the peninsular that Peter Jackson has his home, film studios and special effects company in). Hell yeah! We swapped details and told her we’d be in touch.

After our walk, we headed back to the resort for a private spa. The water is naturally so hot that you’re not allowed by law to stay in the spa for more than 15 minutes since there’s a good chance you’ll overheat or even die. Which is not a good look.

All this luxury…! I totally don’t deserve this, but I better start getting used to it: next week I leave New Zealand on the Sea Princess, a five star luxury liner, lightyears away from the floating nightmare that was the Shissiwani II.

The next day Mand and I visited the awesomely-named Craters of the Moon, just north of Lake Taupo. What started as a geothermic cock-up (the power station down the road caused the craters to appear in the 1960s) is now one of the top unnatural wonders of the world.

In the afternoon we jumped in our little car (which in hindsight we should have called ‘Bertie’) and headed towards MOOOOOOOORDOOOOOOR!! Well, the volcano south of Lake Taupo that doubles as Mount Doom in the movie. It was a spectacular day weatherwise, I wish we had realised how rare a spectacular day like this could be, I would have taken more photos of Mount Doom.

That night we stayed in a place called ‘National Park’ which is quite a clever name for a national park, I have to admit. The place we stayed in was not as luxurious as the Lake Taupo Resort, it was more of a base camp for backpackers, ramblers and ‘trampers’ (as they say in New Zealand) looking to scale the mighty volcanoes nearby.

Far too much like hard work for us lazy badgers, Mand and I elected to just do a one-hour waterfall walk the next day. We might have done more, but the weather turned and we found ourselves struggling to see through thick fog and valiantly attempting to fend off the drizzle with a little umbrella. We dried off the best we could and then and then headed over to what looked like the Overlook Hotel from The Shining… for a spot of high tea. No, seriously, high tea with cakes and scones and stuff. It was all incredibly posh, looking out of the wonderful 1920s glass windows at Mount Doom, growling at us through the fog. I could quite imagine Gandalf sitting there in this exquisite dining room, puffing away on his pipe and commanding The Eagles to go rescue Frodo and Sam from the erupting volcano out yonder. And The Eagles yes I mean the band wot sung ‘Hotel California’.

After our marvellous tea, it was back in the car and Welly Town here we come!!

Day M118: Fly, You Fools!

Mon 23.01.12:

Got up nice and early in order to move the car off the street before the Monday morning Wellington parking regs kicked in only to find out that it was a public holiday and so all parking was free! How awesome is THAT?!

After an unhurried breakfast, Mand and I drove over to the Miramar Peninsular to start our day of Peter Jackson stalking. The official Lord of the Rings tour was full, so we’d be making it up as we went along. After a scenic drive along the seaside, we invaded the The Weta Cave, the small shop-cum-museum that shows off the stuff Jackson’s FX company has been working on for the last twenty years.

No relation to Nick.

From humble beginnings making the puppets for Meet The Feebles, the zombies for Braindead and the ghosts for The Frighteners, Weta is now the world’s leading FX company, eclipsing George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Its CV is second to none: Lord of the Rings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, District 9, King Kong, Tin-Tin and the special effects bonanza that was Avatar. They even did some effects for the latest Indiana Jones movie: in your eye, Georgie Boy – that’s what you get for making those damn awful Star Wars prequels.

Fookin' Prawns!

Weta Cave is a film nerd’s paradise, the only problem is that it’s just too damn small! After playing with some of the props and watching a geek-tastic behind-the-scenes video, we give Natalie, the lady we met at the Huka Falls, a call. We met Natalie and her two daughters, Valentina and Sophia at the café the cast of the Lord of the Rings films where known to frequent. We looked around for Martin Freeman and Sir Ian McKellen, but they were sadly nowhere to be seen.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Natalie asked if we were up for an unofficial tour of Wellywood, to which the answer was a slightly more polite version of ‘f–k yeah!!’. First up: Sir Peter Jackson’s house, on the promenade drive just around the corner from the café. I was outside, as usual waving my camera around like a loon and talking into it as though I’m channelling the spirit of Steve Irwin when a rather tall chap called Sebastian from Wingnut Films appeared and asked me what the hell I was doing. Suddenly feeling rather sheepish, we explained that we were trying to find Mandy’s housemate’s mum’s house, which we were told was a couple of doors down from Peter Jackson’s house. This rather improbable explanation was (strangely enough) the truth: only what we didn’t know was that Matt Hounsell’s mum, Rachel, lived next door to the house where Peter Jackson grew up, half a mile down the road.

You’re not putting that on the internet are you? Asked Sebastian, somehow growing even taller. Nope – not allowed, as it happens. Copyright and all that jazz. Incidentally, I’m going to every country in the world without flying ISN’T THAT JUST RAD? Nah, I didn’t really use the word ‘rad’, but I did want to change the subject. I was worried he’d confiscate my tape – or ask to watch the footage, impossible as my camera’s touch screen controls haven’t worked since Papua New Guinea. Luckily, I don’t think he had the power to do confiscate tapes from annoying fanboys, and so Sebastian and I ended up having a good old natter about all things Hobbit. I found out that “PJ” is currently in the US for the Sundance Film Festival and that principle photography is scheduled to go on until about next August.

A house, yesterday. Nobody's in particular.

Eventually Sebastian let me go, perhaps sensing that I’m not Kathy Bates in Misery, that naughty little bird, and our impromptu tour continued with a trip to the Roxy Cinema, an Art Deco Movie Theatre built in the 1930s that until very recently housed some tatty old shops and a veterinarian’s. Luckily for the Roxy, Weta boss Richard Taylor and a couple of his buddies bought the place a few years ago and restored it to something way beyond its former glory… they turned it into what I can only describe as one of the most incredible, most beautiful and most ingenious cinemas in the world. Check out the ceiling…!

Eat your heart out, Sistine Chapel!
C'est Ne Pas De Photoshop

After falling in love with the Roxy (and doubling my determination to save and restore the old Futurist cinema in Liverpool), we headed round to Wingnut Studios, built from the abandoned factories and warehouses of Miramar’s industrial past. And there in the car park, poking out from behind the biggest greenscreen I’ve ever seen was quite possibly the Laketown set for the climax of the movie when that bloke what shoots the dragon shoots the dragon.

Something I would like to say about the adaptation of The Hobbit, I hope to hell that when Smaug The Dragon speaks (he’s going to be voiced by Martin Freeman’s auld mucka Benedict Cumberbatch) it’s done telepathically without his bloody mouth flapping about. There’s something resoundingly cartoonish about animals talking in films, and unless you’re making Kung-Fu Panda, it’s not something that needs to happen. How crap where the daemons in The Golden Compass? In fact, how crap was The Golden Compass? Just sayin’…

We climbed a hill covered in signs telling us not to take pictures and looked down over Peter Jackson’s little empire. Impressive. Most Impressive.

I own a little black book which has the words “Development Hell” daubed on the cover on in Tipp-Ex. Inside are over a hundred concepts and ideas for films, TV shows, expeditions, plays, musicals, advertising campaigns, monuments, pubs, cinemas, public transport, the United Nations and rocket ships to the moon. If only a fraction of that book ever becomes a reality, I’d have the money and the power to do something similar – but even better – to what Peter Jackson’s done here, but in Liverpool. Then us Brits can start making our own damn movies based on our own damn stories instead of waiting for Hollywood to do it for us. Watch this space…!

So then, we said our grateful goodbyes to Natalie, Valentina and Sofia and decided that it would be an idea to actually track down Hounsell’s mum, something that we actually did! And yes, she really did live next door to the house where Peter Jackson grew up. We enjoyed a cup of tea and sat on the balcony watching the people walk by. Almost every one of them worked for Peter Jackson in some way. Why don’t you ask if you could work for him? asked Natalie earlier in the day.

Because I want HIM to work for ME!!! was my hilarious reply. I was only half-joking.

Derek, Not Running, outside the house where Peter Jackson grew up.

After tea and a natter, Mand and I returned to Wellyton proper and enjoyed a tasty curry on Cuba Street. I like New Zealand. It can stay.