New Zealand: 2

Time to introduce two of the most important people on our New Zealand holiday.

Suzanne by the front door of the coach, Denis by the rear

First, Suzanne, our tour guide. We first met her at Heathrow and she flew with us to Singapore, where we were joined by the others who had flown from Manchester. She was then with us through the flight to Auckland, all the travels around New Zealand, and on the three flights back to the UK. It’s hard for me to imagine the life of a tour guide. Suzanne doesn’t only do New Zealand: she has also acted as guide on tours to Japan, South Africa and elsewhere. You must have to like people a lot, and be very patient, well-organised, and efficient, to do this job. Making sure that everyone arrives at places when and where they should, that hotel rooms are ready and keys assigned, that nothing and no one gets left behind (she also had a story about the time a man deliberately left his wife behind, saying he’d had enough of her…) When Suzanne first took the job, her father told her, “You’ll never be a success at this: you’re much too bossy.” But bossy is just what you have to be. With so much to fit into the schedule, punctuality and early starts were essential. Many tours I’ve been on have one or a few people who can be relied on to be late whenever possible, and who infuriatingly keep the whole group waiting. Not Suzanne’s group! The credit goes to the good people in our group, naturally; but also to Suzanne, who didn’t allow unpunctuality.

Second, our patient and indefatigable Kiwi driver, Denis. (“Why only one N? Were your parents French?” We still don’t know the answer to that one.) Much more than a driver, he was also the principal guide and explainer throughout the tour, about where we were going, what we would see and were seeing, New Zealand history and politics, the best places to get something to eat (which may also have been his own personal favourites, or places he could get a discount for sending people – who knows?) The summer in New Zealand – just like here in the UK – is the season of roadworks. Over there driving is made even more complicated by steep mountain passes, and diversions because of earthquakes and rock falls. Denis took them all in his stride, including the steepest gradient I’ve ever been driven down, where the road passes under a waterfall… though it should also be mentioned that in most of New Zealand, “quite a lot of traffic around here” means there are two or three other vehicles in sight.

I mentioned already the early starts. In many of the places we stayed, we were only there for one night. So we lived out of our suitcases, and in the morning it was “Bags out at 7; leave at 8”. (Once or twice, even earlier.) It wasn’t long before we were saying, “This doesn’t feel like a holiday; more like hard work.” Suzanne encouraged us: “Don’t think of it as a holiday: think of it as an Adventure.” Well, it was.

New Zealand: 1

It was Alison’s idea, and big wish, to go to New Zealand. It was right at the top of her list of Ways To Spend Our Savings While We Still Can.

Me, I didn’t want to go so much. “But it’s so far away! It’s such a horrible journey!”

But she talked me round. Somewhere deep down, I always want to do what she wants to do, especially if it means doing it with her. And she also reminded me that New Zealand was where Peter Jackson filmed LOTR, so I would see the Shire, the Misty Mountains, Lothlorien and Edoras, possibly even run into Galadriel and Eowyn. How could I resist? So we booked a three-week tour of both North and South Islands with Riviera Travel. We had a really good experience in September 2016 with their Heart of Europe river cruise on the Danube, Main and Rhine. And their video of the tour to the Land of the Long White Cloud gives a really good (and faithful) impression of what it’s like.

And yes, New Zealand is very far away, and it is a truly unpleasant journey. For me, one of the worst parts of any overseas travel is getting to the airport in the first place; so we set off from home the day before and stayed overnight at one of the airport hotels. It sure takes the worry out of getting there in time to check in.

The outward journey involved a stopover in Singapore after the first 13 hour flight. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Singapore. It rained. The Raffles Hotel is closed for refurbishment, so we couldn’t even get an authentic Singapore Sling in the place where it was invented. It has a history that reminds you of so much of British imperialism and colonialism, which always makes me feel uncomfortable. But, it had its moments. It certainly is a remarkable place. We visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and witnessed a time of prayer which in some ways feels like a Christian monastic prayer office, but in other ways is so very different: the constant repetitive chanting, the amplified sound, the extravagant mass of images…

We also saw a Hindu celebration of their harvest festival of Pongal, with colourful dancers. Alison had a go too:

The evening of the next day we set off for our second flight to Auckland. A ten hour flight, with another five hours’ time difference, making a total of 13 hours difference from GMT. If anything this bit of the journey was even more horrible, because it was all overnight, it’s always so hard to sleep on planes, there was a fair bit of turbulence, and you arrive early in the morning feeling unrested and unrefreshed. It wasn’t like this back in Captain Cook’s day; though it’s true we didn’t have to suffer the seasickness or the danger of 18th century sea travel. Airplane meals were bad enough, though, and upset my tummy more than a little.

But how extraordinary it is, that in such a short time you can travel halfway around the world! Leaving out the overnight stops and the waiting in airports, the actual travelling time from home to New Zealand was about 25 hours: a distance of what Google tells me is some 11,700 miles (18,830 km).

And so we found ourselves on the fourth day of our trip, and our first day in New Zealand, in the city of Auckland.