Monday, October 28, 2013

New Zealand: Land of the long white cloud, & the black dog...

For all of it's ups & downs, 2013 has had some really magical moments. In February this year, Birta & I set off on a 5.5 week awe inspiring road trip around New Zealand. Land of hobbits, ancient forests, flightless birds, rugged mountains, glaciers, grassy plains, thermal waters, golden beaches & deep fjords. The land of 4 seasons in 1 day - & to me, home.

I have really been thinking a lot about this holiday recently, it had so many layers of meaning than just temporarily repatriating. This trip was so significant to me, because it would be the first time that I would get to see my mum in almost 3 years. Aside from all the usual holiday nerves, & excitement of seeing new things, & catching up with long lost friends & family, I was actually very scared about the fact I hadn't seen her for so long, or just how I would feel about finally going home. I was excited of course, but there were also so many questions on my mind. What if I realised that I didn't want to leave New Zealand, what if my mum has aged drastically, or maybe become more mentally unstable than when I had left? My mum suffers from severe anxiety & depression, as do a lot of people in my family. Before going back, I'd recently found out that she had developed a kind of habit with sleeping pills in the last year, something the doctor had been describing to A: get some sleep, & B: zone her out to stop her from having panic attacks & getting so nervous. As it turned out, mum was indeed much older & a bit crazier than when I had left, but it was still fantastic to have the opportunity to spend so much time with her, & who wouldn't be a bit crazy after everything Christchurch has been through. That brings me to the other aspect which made this journey back so odd - & it was knowing that my home city had been largely destroyed by 2 huge earthquakes a few years earlier, & that this would be the first time I'd see the effects firsthand.

I felt like I was prepared for this to some degree. I had left Christchurch with a pretty foul taste in my mouth, dissatisfied with life in this place & I had made the city the scapegoat for my dissatisfaction (even though it wasn't the sole reason) - I had a weird bee in my bonnet about this place, & had convinced myself that any sentimentality towards it would just be for the people I knew who were affected. What I wasn't prepared for, was the actual scale of devastation (which is much, much bigger than the impression I got from abroad), & how heart wrenching it would be to reunite with old friends who were still persevering to live on shaky ground, many who had lost family homes & businesses from this awful natural disaster. I really wasn't as prepared for it as I'd thought. The twist of irony was that Birta had been given a grant from a Danish arts council to do some research on temporary post-earthquake projects & architecture, which was essentially funding her trip with me. This purpose of earthquake tourism/research made being her part-time tour guide for this project quite a strange experience. I was equally curious to see what had changed, but also much more personally affected by things I was seeing, as this was the place I had grown up, & I knew what it had been before this disaster. Having Christchurch as s a starting point to our trip, really robbed me of my desire to document what I was seeing, I didn't want to remember this city as a fucked-up ghost town with whole suburbs of abandoned houses & a city centre that had been almost entirely leveled. It was just incredibly eerie & sad to think of all of these displaced people, & unfortunately these feelings would revisit me a few times during the remainder of our trip - it's just not an easy thing to let go of when you're seeing something you're so familiar with in a such a devastating condition for the first time.

Having said that, almost every day of our trip outside of Christchurch was filled with wonderment, new experiences, loving companionship & adventure. I am so happy to have shared this time with Birta, who is not only someone I love dearly, but is also just an amazing travel companion, & she was also really in desperate need of a getaway herself. Her absolute awe of every place we went to was so rewarding to me, & really soothed my anxious heart & let me at least for a time slip into the holiday mode, forgetting the devastation I had come home to, & for some moments the mounting uncertainties that awaited me back in Berlin. Hard to believe it, but even on an amazing holiday I was still nerved-up about joblessness & VISAlessnes. But for Birta alone, I was a proud tour guide, showing off every postcard location that was within our reach, sharing everything I could to make her happy, & kicking aside the black dog who had been gnawing at my heels. I look through the following photos & feel so many thanks for the amazing memories that I will cherish forever.

Akaroa - a day trip to the old French colonial town of cute villas, & the search for decent Fish & Chips.

Christchurch Botanical Rose Gardens. One of my favourite moments was taking Birta for a ride on the "horse tree" an amazingly bowed branch of a Californian Cedar tree that is just high enough off the ground to bob up & down on, & has been that way ever since I can remember.

I took so few photos on the way down, but our next stop was Wanaka. I'm so thankful to Brigit, Susie & Mike for having us to stay in Wanaka, taking us out on their boat on the lake & giving us directions to walk the beautiful Rob Roy Glacier track.

Sadly the next stay of our trip is one that I didn't get any photos of, but it was the wonderful Kansas ranch style getaway of the August clan, in New Zealand's own 'heart of the desert' Bannockburn (it's as hot as the name suggests. This is vineyard country, we spent most of our time just kicking back, & doing a couple of vineyard tours & eating good food . I tried to pretend that I like wine enough to know what I'm drinking (I haven't a clue), & also trying not to get so drunk that I couldn't drive to the next vineyard (also probably failed!).

We headed further south to a place I've always wanted to go, the Fiordland national park. This seriously feels like the edge of the earth. We took a boat out into Milford Sounds, which is one of a number of deep fiords, whose faces drop hundreds of metres vertically into the sea. The sea here is unique, composed of a dark layer of fresh surface water that is coloured by the tannins that drain off the trees. Camping about 20 minutes out of Te Anau in our first Department of Conservation campsite, which was sublimely picturesque. The only thing that somewhat makes this paradise hard to deal with, is the sheer volume of winged-bastard-bitey-things, sandflies & mosquitoes which inhabit every square metre of this national park. During our first night cooking at the campsite, we thought that we'd be safe since we'd covered head to toe in clothing, it wasn't until the next morning that we realised those little fuckers will bite you through your clothing if it's tight. As a result, poor Birta's legs & ass became a buffet for these little bloodsuckers, they must have developed an addiction to exotic Icelandic blood. One evening in our tent, we were playing a game of last card with the torch hanging from the tent roof - during a pause in our conversation, we both thought we could hear a bee hive in the near distance. Concerned that we'd set up camp under a beehive, we pointed the torch towards the roof of the tent, & saw a black cloud of mosquitos buzzing in a frenzy above us. It was unreal.

I wish I had been able to capture more of this amazing forest scenery, the drive from Te Anau up the Haast road was just incredible, open empty roads for eternity, often flanked by these windswept beech trees that look like something from a Dr Seuss book, they are just so otherworldly. Unfortunately my foot was to the floor most of the way, to try & get us to our Department of Conservation campsite before nightfall, in the middle of nowhere, which we just managed to do - the photo lakeside is just after we got our tent up, it was dark 15 minutes later!

Our next brief stop on the South Island whirlwind, was to Franz Josef Glacier. It was the first time that I'd been so close to a glacier, that I could hear the ice cracking & rocks grinding. Powerful nature.

Our first photostop in small town New Zealand was the town of Greymouth. One of the many West Coast towns that my mum grew up in, it has the reputation as being a "boom & bust" town, meaning that money comes & goes from these places, usually because of temporary economy & industry, primarily gold & coal mining.

Our next stop to recharge our batteries after mega amounts of driving was Reefton. My family have a holiday home in this quaint guessed it, mining town. There is something special about Reefton, it's got this wild west feeling about it, & even though there is nothing at all going on there, it has a sizeable population for a small town, & because it's location, the amount of passers by are able to sustain one main street of nice little cafes & pubs. We spent our time here mostly walking around old mining ruins, gorging on the abundant blackberries in my aunties garden, soaking up the sunshine, followed by a day trip to the Porari River & the Pancake Rocks.

The Porari River. I think Birta & I both felt like we were canoeing upstream in some kind of Jurassic Park location set. The guy who rented us kayaks was so stoned he probably would've forgot to mention if there was any real threat of velociraptor attacks...the closest thing I saw was a goat, which was also exciting.

The Pancake Rocks. I don't know much about these, but that's ok, because neither do scientists! What they do know is that they are mysterious limestone formations that were probably pushed out of the sea bed somehow, but they don't know why they are layered in this way. They always make me hungry for pancakes though.

Our next small time New Zealand stopover was Murchison. I really love these small towns so much, they are just so dead peaceful. I managed to get a few excellent bargains from the Somebody's Treasure thrift shop, including a 1960's Weetbix card album of famous New Zealand icons. 

Our next stop would be the lovely Motueka to stay with an old family friend of mine Dave. Dave is someone I have always really looked up to since I was a kid. He & my mum had been teenage sweethearts, but remained friends for many years later. I had always remembered him as a really kind natured hippy dude, who was encyclopaedic in his knowledge in all areas of science, maths, nature, mechanics & engineering. He's like a D.I.Y guy on steroids, & professional bargain hunter. It was nice to finally get the chance to hang out with him on my own terms, & anjoy many a bottle of red wine together. His hospitality & generosity was incredible, & I think that both Birta & I owe him our sanity after trying to pack way too many kilometres into too short of a time. We spent at least 4 nights in sunny Motueka, & one of those days traveling up to a really special remote property that he spent some years making a building on. It's an incredible hilltop only accessible by a 30min quad bike ride, & it's surrounded by hectares of virgin native bush & trees. It's not even a humble building considering how insanely remote this place is.

Our last days in Motueka before heading back to Christchurch were spent eating as much fish as humanly possible, including this pan fried Gurnard with saffron sauce, & ceviche which we made for Dave as a thank you for having us. The last great nature experience was walking 10km of the Abel Tasman. I was so amazed by the beauty of this walk, that I have promised that I will go back to New Zealand & do the whole thing one summer. It was hard for Birta & I to tear ourselves away from sunny Nelson & return to cooling grey Christchurch warzone.

Mum & Birta at Samo cafe in Lyttelton, for a hangover breakfast.

The months following this holiday were really tough for me, I had to face the reality of the tail end of Berlin's winter, & returning to a set of obstacles which I couldn't feel calm about until they were dealt with. Somehow setting myself up in this city where I was pretty much still a tourist felt too overwhelming. I didn't cope with it well, & slowly descended into a rut of depression. I went through the exact same growing pains in London too, a circumstantial bout of depression bought on by large life changes which seem to be wrought with overwhelming challenges. The shitty thing is being unable to REALLY see oneself in the thick of it when one is there. I am incredibly sad that the anxiety-ridden person I became, took such a toll on my relationship. I couldn't shake this dark cloud off of me that obscured my real personality & oppressed my senses. I sip on a weird cocktail of emotions when I look at these photos, amazing memories, heartwarming nostalgia, mixed with sadness & regret for the slippery slope that followed. Nonetheless, it was a time of immense personal growth, and I am thankful for it. You never know what the future will lay before you, but you can be certain that things never stay good OR bad for long, change is the one true constant.
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