It was a cold Sunday afternoon, very regular, very monotonous. My father called to ask if I had about fifteen days of leave in November. I was so excited; I thought he’d finally decided to come visit me in Bangalore. He hasn’t ever in the four years I’ve lived here.
He said he wanted to do a road trip across New Zealand for two weeks. I thought he’d lost his mind, considering he turned 70 just last August. But well, this was for real.
He told me it would be an expensive one. I told him he could use the money he was (unnecessarily) saving for our (my sister’s and mine) wedding, which isn’t happening right now. Maybe not at all. Who knows. Who cares. He agreed readily, and in November we took off.
I’m supremely scared of flights, or anything to do with heights. I’m in constant panic mode hoping I make it alive. Every single time. The idea of a 4 + 12 hour-long flight was freaking me out. I haven’t ventured out much on long flights, just a little bit in the Middle East and South East Asia.
This was the first time I was going so far, into the Southern Hemisphere, or as my friend Vega rightly put, to “a white country”.
To be honest, New Zealand was featured nowhere on my bucket list, but in retrospect, I believe it should have been.
My father’s best friend of sixty years Uncle Ajit and his Chinese wife Auntie Helen were joining us from Hong Kong, apart from three other friends Michael, Auntie Alice and Auntie Norma from Australia, and one of his friends from Calcutta, PD. We were ten of us.
After a tiring six-hour layover in Bangkok, we were finally in Auckland, in North Island. The lemons my mother was carrying for her tea were ruthlessly taken, and that made her very very sad. No fresh fruits and vegetables are allowed in the country. Oh and a single chili is 100 INR.
Auckland is a charming city, but nothing like what was ahead of us. We walked around town, took a ferry to Devonport. It’s so old school, yet so contemporary. My sister and I hiked up this tiny steep hill called Mount Victoria, which my parents decided to pass. Upon reaching the top, we met four teenagers, chilling, drinking, laughing. In India, one would get arrested for drinking in public. We talked a lot, and they were particularly interested in knowing about Indian hemp. We had amazingly long conversations and before I was leaving, this very sweet chap Matt, slipped something under my sleeve. You can only guess what it was, and I tell you, it was divine.
I walked around Devonport by myself, stared at the beguiling houses, and dared to look inside many of them while admiring the delightful interiors.
I took a walk to the jetty and made friends with this 54-year old French guy, Tory. We spoke about the recent Paris attacks, politics and religion. He was on a six-week long vacation with his wife. I was sad I had only two weeks.
I was mostly by myself that day. I skipped dinner with my parents to jive on the streets with these two strangers, to this dance form from Brazil called Foha. Who knew I could break a leg.
We didn’t hire a driver since Michael offered to take us around everywhere. He didn’t just drive; he even cooked all the delish barbeques that he spoilt us with on a regular basis.
From Auckland, we went to Hobbitton, Matamata. This place is paradise for any Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit fan. We spent an entire day, absolutely awestruck. I actually felt like I was a hobbit living in one of the hobbit holes in the Shire, the Party Tree was absolutely unputdownable. I couldn’t believe it was real and the butter beer was beyond phenomenal. I’ll just let the pictures do all the talking.
We made our way to Rotorua, to take a tour of Hell’s Gate. It literally was that, with bubbling pools of mud and steaming craters — it really felt like we were visiting the devil at his crib. The sulphur content in the region is extremely high and there’s a constant pungent smell, which we eventually got used to. We even took sulphur baths and swam in mud pools that tarnished my shiny silver nose ring.
From Rotorua we drove down to Napier, and this was easily my most favourite place in North Island. On our way we stopped by the Huka Falls, and I haven’t seen water that icy blue. I stood there and stared for as long as I could. What I loved most about New Zealand was the days were so so long. The sun shone until 9.30 in the evening. I mean, we were eating dinner while the sun was out. It was unreal, so from the movies. In Napier, we went around the massive vineyards of Mission Estate Winery and binged on umpteen varieties of wine, of which you can read here.
The idea was to do one town per day. We were constantly on the move, very often tired, but full of energy, nevertheless. While traveling, I spent most of the time staring at the clear blue skies, reading my favourite author, chatting with my mother or taking short naps. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I couldn’t help but be engulfed in the enchanting beauty of the countryside. I could see the lush green meadows till my eyes could take me, and I lost count of the number of sheep and deer that moved around so lazily, so carefree.
Our last stop in North Island was in Wellington. Everybody was tired from all the traveling, so I decided to wander about by myself. I met my friend Mrinalini, my senior from college, who lives in Welly. Had some beers on Cuba Street and ate at a Korean restaurant on Courtney Street. We drove up to Mount Victoria and saw the whole of Wellington from there. The entire city was lit up and the billion stars in the clear sky seemed to merge with the city lights. It was freezing cold, but we sat there till we were numb. We then went to a nearby park and did some things that we weren’t supposed to do.
The best part is yet to come, and at this point we don’t even know of it.
We left our van in North Island and took a ferry to South Island. South Island is pretty as a picture. I could really get used to living there. Every direction I looked was absolute beaut.
We stopped by this small town in Abel Tasman, Motueka. It was so cold and all I wanted to do was be in the sun for as long as I could possibly be. We came across a surreal rose garden, with not a single person there. I felt like I was part of a story in a children’s book. We took a tour of the Abel Tasman National Park and saw a flock of albatross birds and even a few dolphins!
Our next stop was Hokitika. This town was as empty as empty can be, which is why it was that much more fascinating. The population of all of New Zealand is 4.5 million. Calcutta’s is 4.6 million. So you can imagine. Like my mum says, the farmers don’t even look like farmers here.
We walked around the beach and were so tempted to swim, but the intensely cold water made us change our minds. The Hokitika Museum was one of my favourite places in the town. It was so gorgeously vintage, surrounded with paintings depicting the history of the place.
Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere, so surreal. It was a slightly rainy day, and there was just fog all over. Everything shuts at around 5 in the evening, so there’s not much to do in small towns on weekdays, but we managed to catch some time at the glass and jade factories. Our room, which we eventually retired to, opened to the abundant green lands outside, where many a lama and seagull could be seen.
The most sunning thing I witnessed was the Southern Alps. I mean, I couldn’t even believe I was in a place I had only read about in my Geography textbooks. I was there. We flew over the Franz Josef Glacier in a helicopter, so close, it was almost unreal. We landed there, and although we didn’t find powder snow, it was enough to make snowballs and throw at each other. The glacier itself was without doubt incredible.
We also swam in the relaxing heated pools just across from our hotel. There were three pools with different temperatures and we kept hopping from one to the other.
We made our way to Wanaka, and on our way we stopped by Lake Matheson for breakfast and hiked up the trail around the lake.
Wanaka was easily one of my favourite destinations, only because I skydived there. I’m very very afraid of heights (I think I mentioned before), and although I was mentally preparing myself for the plunge for two months in advance, it was nothing close to the real deal. Sitting on the edge of the plane and literally jumping out of it was when I really thought I was going to shit my pants, but well, I survived. The 40-second-or-so freefall was absolutely life-changing. The wind was in my face, and I was falling into nothingness. I couldn’t feel gravity. But I could see the whole of Wanaka from atop. The green green grass, the gorgeous lake and the beautiful blue sky. There! One thing off my bucket-list. I can now die in peace. (Also, please ignore the nose)
In Wanaka, on one of my early morning walks, I met this bunch of 10-year old kids, playing in the neighbourhood, so intrigued about Indian culture. They made me say words in Hindi, which they constantly repeated. They said their seniors from school dig Indian girls. One of them, Stan, told me I was the most beautiful thing he had seen and asked me if he could kiss me. I agreed. He shut his eyes and just when he was about to kiss me, I told him I was 27. He felt so shy I could see him blush.
Our final destination was Queenstown, just an hour away from Wanaka. We were in this remarkable city for three full days. On the first we went exploring town, did many a ride on The Luge, which is this crazy cool electronic vehicle you take and drive around this particular circuit, which overlooks Lake Wakatipu. From the cable car, you can see all of breathtaking Queenstown.
On the next, we took a tour to Milford Sound, and I promise you the pictures don’t do half as much justice to the beauty of this place. We saw a bunch of lazy seals basking in the sun, cold waterfalls that drenched us, and we sailed away into the Tasman Sea. And if we had gone a little bit further, for a little bit longer, we would’ve reached Australia. It was a rare, sunny, almost-spotless sky. We were really really lucky. On our eight-hour bus journey to Milford Sound, I happened to be sitting next to a 54 year-old German justice, Wolfgang. He’s traveled everywhere in the world apart from a few countries in the Middle East. I didn’t realize how my eight hours flew by. He told me enticing stories of his gazillion journeys. We spoke about Germany’s socialist policies and his yearly skiing trips. He even gave me his cardigan to sleep on. It was by far, the most engaging conversation I’ve had with someone in a long long time. We hugged each other tight and said out goodbyes. He’s invited me to Hamburg, and hopefully I’ll visit him someday.
We also took a short daytrip to this quaint town called Arrowtown, and I swear I felt like I was in an Enid Blyton book, or more like fantasyland, where we made-believe everything. Even the goddamn trees, you know!
On our final day, my sister and I walked down to Lake Wakatipu, which was 30 seconds away from our hotel, and enjoyed some greens. The place is nothing less than a painting. The view was jaw dropping! We sat there for hours without realizing what time it was, and ended our day with getting pissed drunk with our parents. They made sure not a single drop of alcohol was left.
We flew to Auckland the next morning to take our flight back to India. In Auckland, I met my childhood friends Ketana and Kyash, who I traded stickers with and played hide and seek with all day long. I was meeting them after 14 long years. As a child, I had always wished I’d get to see them someday. And here we were. Kyash was my childhood crush, and pushed me down the stairs many a time. He said that’s how boys showed their affection. He was getting married in two days. We played some drinking games and finished an entire bottle of smooth tequila like there was tomorrow. To old times, and the ones to come — I hope I get to see them sometime again.
New Zealand is full of life, and yet so dead sometimes. The entire country is an irony. I loved the quirky stores, the musicians in every nook and corner and churches that stole our heart. I even imagined myself living in the multiple surreal houses we came across.
I haven’t been able to put everything in here, and how I wish I could. But I can tell you this country is worth every penny (which was quite a lot).
As I write this in my Bangalore apartment, sick and weak, going through the pictures over and over, I cannot help but lament.