Freesteel Blog » New Zealand February 2001


New Zealand – February 2001

Becka had a sabbatical due to her this year. I generally work away from office. It would be rude to waste this opportunity, as many otherwise intelligent people do, and not move abroad temporarily, especially to avoid February in England. As I have explained repeatedly to people I meet, I am just a programmer doing a boring job in Cambridge, and I am working slightly further away from the office than usual. Now let’s talk about something else because you really won’t be interested in hearing about it since it doesn’t relate to my visiting New Zealand in the slightest: there will be nowhere to take the conversation once I have explained what a CNC Machine Tool is. But it pays wages enough to buy a nice digital camera and travel a little between working days.

Becka asleep in Heathrow for half a day, ten hours into our miserable journey. We got these seats because we arrived at six in the morning. Everywhere else is just retail outlets.

We have money. The misery of the seven hour overnight packed out bus journey from Liverpool with an unstoppable smoker’s cough case in the seat in front was therefore unnecessary. However, the trains were too unreliable to get us to the airport by midday, and I can’t bring myself to waste the kind of money they want for airport hotel accommodation in rip-off Britain (it’s not so much losing that amount of money, it’s them getting that amount of money that seems wrong). Our bags were well overweight with my work computer, caving and diving gear, and absolutely no spare clothes. We were deliberately flying via the US for the ludicrous baggage allowance you get under the rules. We spent a bit of time at the check-in desk with their accurate scales shifting kilos from one bag to another to get them all simultaneously under the allowance.

I think this is Greenland. The views were spectacular the whole way to California, so Becka got the window seat. I had it for the Pacific leg where it was nighttime and over the ocean.

The flight was overbooked and Becka tried to get us “bumped” to the next day for the free money. This would have wiped out the change-over day in LA where I was hoping to meet some friends. She had wanted to get the journey over with in one straight go, and I wanted to stay for several days. A single day was the compromise and for a while it looked as if I would lose even this as we were left off the plane until the very last minute.

From end to end, the journey from Liverpool to Dunedin took us a week. Without the day in LA I would have been ragged. Santa Monica is such a comfortable little town with perfect air, perfect beaches and perfect mornings. Jet lag had us wandering the streets early in the morning while our friends were asleep, but the joggers were out. I don’t think anyone in that district uses the pavements to go places. You cross it to get from your car to your house, but if you go along it you are exercising. We took a shortcut up a public staircase and were swept along by a stream of lycra-clad people with their pocket stereos, jogging to the top, then round the block to the bottom again.

These cats could use a little exercise too. Don’t they know they will die young if they sit like that? There’s plenty of fat squirrels in the neighbourhood that need eating, but they moved too fast to get a good picture.

The overnight flight from LA stopped in Tahiti for one hour. We were all taken off the plane to sit in the hot sticky night. My hard disk drives, which I took out of my computer and carried in my hand luggage to protect them, got X-rayed yet again.

The New Zealand customs in Auckland were fun. They washed the mud off some of our boots and caving gear, and shook out our tent in case there were seeds in it which could have polluted the native fauna and flora of their “pristine” islands. Nice try, but a hundred years too late, not counting the deliberate introduction of rabbits, deer, stoats, possums, cats and singing frogs over the years. There are no controls on exports back to the old world, of course, with garden centre plants complete with their shipments of New Zealand flatworm showing up in Britain and eating through the local earthworm population.

It was a crisp early morning as we rolled our overloaded baggage trolleys across the carparks to the domestic terminals and checked in. Travel by land and sea is so slow between Christchurch and Auckland that most people fly. Our plane arrived and spewed an oily cargo of slick business suits into the departure gate in time for Monday morning. Becka got the window seat again with amazing views of mountain ranges, volcanic cones and little islands. New Zealand has the greatest variety of landscape in the smallest space.

The wizard of Christchurch pontificates at noon every week day. New Zealand was only established in around 1860, so your wizards are not very old yet.

We stayed at a friend’s house in Christchurch for a day, trying to get a grip. It was sunny and chilly like the Californian morning. We visited a small piece of native bush, Dean’s forest, out in the middle of the suburban sprawl, then went shopping for handy things like clothes, boots and sleeping bags. The sleeping bag purchase was an ordeal. I’d lost my old one in a car theft back in Liverpool. In the camping shop district they tried to give me a hard sell with some overstuffed bags suitable for Antarctica. Meanwhile, Becka couldn’t see why I couldn’t make do with a crappy eighteen dollar one from the bargain shelf, and why I had to have an expensive down one. All my sleeping bags until the last had been that kind of junk, My house is full of them. When I’d finally bought a down one two years ago it was such a relief to own something small and light that worked. While it would have been natural to buy the cheapest thing going, I still could remember that bus ride down from Liverpool and paid the price necessary for something that wasn’t going to become one of those bad memories in the past. I did, however, purchase the cheapest walking boots on sale in the entire city, and then accidentally left them outside of a pub in the evening and lost them. In the long term, I don’t think it was a mistake.

Cars are a different matter, because so much of the cost goes just on the appearance. A friend of our friend had a spare one he didn’t want to use any more. It didn’t have its Warrant of Fitness, but he kindly forced it through in the next couple of days and put us on his insurance.

The Dunedin landfill. New Zealand’s green eco-friendly recycling image is a sham and they know it. There are articles in the paper about how the tourist and food export industries will suffer when the rest of the world wakes up to this.

We headed south in the evening until falling asleep in the car in a layby in the dark. I didn’t know it, but I had parked only metres away from the rail road. I woke up to a howling freight train with its headlights glaring through the steamed up window. It changed course in the very last second on account of a turn in the rails leaving me struggling to get to sleep for the next few hours.

We set off at 5am down the “boring” highway connecting Christchurch to Dunedin and passed through several towns, failing to get breakfast at any of them. Like in England, the towns have to have slogans. There’s “Oamaru has a future”, which is a bit depressing because it’s like what you would say to a suicidal teenager who’s having a hard time. And Dunedin’s is “It’s All Right Here”.

Unable to find the second hand market, we bought new bikes for getting around town. I’m hoping that this pair of matching bikes doesn’t make us look too couply.

Many of the place names in New Zealand are uninspiring. It’s almost as if the first few parties to map the land, named the places after themselves, their dogs, their home towns, their wives, daughters, boots and the time of day they stopped for lunch. It takes a certain amount of effort to fix these mistakes, so the names have only been improved where people are living. Out on the West Coast is an area called Fiordland where the land is just too severe to have anyone living on it long enough to realize that it makes the place sound manufactured, like Legoland or Disneyland. There are many Fiords, but they are called Sounds. The most accessible (it has a road to it) is called Milford Sound, the location of the famous Milford Track. This is actually named after Milford Haven in Wales, which is almost as bad as naming your nice seaside village after Warrington. But then, new colonists can be homesick about the strangest things, such as gorse which they transplanted here and is doing very nicely out in the bush where it doesn’t belong.

This is High Street halfway between our flat and Becka’s office. As you can see, this town is not suitable for bikes. The town road map comes with no hills marked on it, so we had a hard time for the first few days until we discovered the monotonic routes.

Dunedin is a university town on the edge of nowhere, when you look at the map. It doesn’t feel so isolated, though. The next biggest city, Christchurch, is five hours drive away, and you don’t get any bigger than that unless you go to the North Island. The trains don’t work effectively (NZ is currently in the process of abolishing them by following the British model of privatization and asset stripping), so there is not much connection with the outside world. In Britain they believe that this type of isolation is inefficient and economically disastrous, so that in the deprived areas such as Liverpool they have built a vast motorway network to service the city. As a consequence, companies like the post office are able to consider relocating their sorting offices away from the city to bigger centres because it is now more “efficient”. Also, those people who do hold good jobs in the city are now able to live fifty miles away from it, commute in and take their money away and spend it elsewhere. There is no such commuting into Dunedin. If you want to live in the countryside and have a “lifestyle” you only need to drive for ten minutes to the other side of the hill.

Becka’s idea of cool surfing gear. She says it’s because of her contact lenses.

We arrived before the academic year began. None of the landlords wanted to rent to us because we were only here for four months, and they were holding out for students who would take their places for the whole year. We would be leaving in the midwinter, so there was little chance of getting new tenants. Back in Bristol, the rental situation is so tight the landlords are able to insist that students start paying their rent at the beginning of the summer, two months before the start of the year, otherwise they won’t find a place anywhere in the city at a reasonable price. Of course, if you’re willing to spend the money, you can always find a place there. In Dunedin it was not like that: the higher the rent, the larger the house. There was no room for profiteering. We seriously considered taking a room in a motel for four months as that seemed to be the only place willing to hire short term.

We got a flat after week. It’s probably the only place in the city without a good view because it’s at the back of a house. Becka signed us up to the local underwater hockey club as soon as possible and we got to know people surprisingly quickly. For a cultural experience we went to a big rugby match in town and stood on the terraces watching everyone else drinking their six-packs of beer, and were not beaten up. We were spotted by three of the underwater hockey players at the match. Another of them has already taken us out diving to Green Island from his tin boat. We have had meaningful conversations about work in the pub, gone to a party and are hopefully going on a week’s trip to Stewart Island. We have not reached this level of sociability in Liverpool after three years of living there, and this has happened in less than three weeks. Normally, with the English, a visitor who is not going to be around for more than a year, doesn’t get to know people because people just can’t be bothered. It’s so much effort and it’s all going to “waste” when they leave, and you then have the awkward problem of knowing whether you should keep in touch with them or just “drift apart”, because you have so few friends you have to preserve the ones you have made, and maybe they don’t have too many friends either and are relying on you to stave off the universal loneliness.

We’ve repeatedly told everyone that we’re only here for four months, but it doesn’t make a difference. Either they haven’t listened, or we are extremely lucky.

You always hear that Fiordland is more impressive when it is raining than when it is sunny because the waterfalls are better. This is a tourism brochure lie because it rains nearly all the time. If you could have rain without the clouds in the way, then it would be impressive.

I work on the internet most days for NC Graphics back in Cambridge. Due to the 13 hour difference, when I start work, they have finished for the day and are having their supper. When I finish work on a work day, they are just coming in in the morning. My work deadline is 10pm to be in time for 9am in England. Normally I cycle into town to have lunch with Becka. The journey in takes ten minutes, the journey back takes more like forty minutes up hill. One of her colleagues (for whom it was the excuse to come here for her sabbatical) lives on a road parallel to the “Steepest Street in the World”. I’ve not dared take the car down it when we visited.

We’ve interrupted a few work days for activities. We’ve taken surfing lessons and learned how to stand on a board. We’ve been out horse riding at a place north of Warrington along a sandy beach and up a precipitous peninsula. (After that, I don’t think I’ll bother horse-riding in East Anglia ever again.) We’ve walked to “The Tallest Tree in New Zealand” (which was about as impressive as “the largest fence post erected by one man”). And we’ve been diving in Milford Sound.

The unreasonable landscape of Milford Sound. Notice the ferry-sized sight-seeing boat at the bottom of the water fall.

This nearly didn’t happen because Becka left her qualification book back in her office in England. The dive shop running the trip won’t take people out unless they can prove they are divers. In the end we had to take a diving test in the pool in the morning, and then we were on our way. Milford Sound is over five hours drive away. It’s the only fiord you can drive to since they built the tunnel in the 50’s. When you come through the tunnel, the place is unbelievable because you are at the bottom of a half-bowl with sheer rock around you and absolutely no way over. This claustrophobic valley shoots straight down to the fiord and the water. It’s a major stop on the NZ package tour for the Japanese, for some reason. The bus traffic is fast and heavy. Between 10am and noon it comes in, and between 3pm and 5pm it charges out. The road ends at a ferry terminal (the architecture is just the same as an airport). The only thing missing from it are baggage trolleys because the ferries don’t take the tourists anywhere except up and down the Sound. It’s hard to comprehend how the business of sightseeing can be structured as efficiently as a mass transport operation without deleting the whole point of it. The busses drive so fast through the wonderful scenery. On the Saturday morning, since we were only going to dive in the afternoon, we went for a walk up this road and were almost flattened by them. The hostel we were staying in had no notices about where you could go walking, so we had to find something ourselves. About a mile up the road is a sign pointing to a path, saying: “Tutoko River, time to bush edge, 2 hrs 30 min”.

Sometimes Becka is happy before a dive.

We walked back along the road in the rain, got changed, jumped on the boat and were driven halfway up the Sound to our first diving spot. The landscape above the water was like a Middle Earth fantasy with waterfalls pouring through impossibly steep forests and terrifying overhangs everywhere. Rocky mountain tops poked through the clouds overhead. There were bare patches in the vegetation where there had been land slides because it actually is impossibly steep, but the water is so deep it hasn’t been filled yet. But it will be.

Underwater, it was like diving in a lake with a steep mud slope and low visibility. Unlike a lake, there was actually stuff to see apart from newts and junk that people had thrown in. The fish were as friendly as village ducks and would come up and stare at you. I was unfamiliar with most of them. The brittle stars which, in England, are about the size of a spiders, are called snake-stars here and are the diameter of a dinner plate.

The diving schedule was quite tight. We had about an hour between each thirty minute dive. On the second day we crammed three in before two o’clock. The dives outside the Sound were almost tropical with puffer fish and leatherbacks. It was very memorable, but nothing went wrong so there is nothing to write about.

The boat was loaded onto the trailer and taken back to the hostel between dives. This task was made efficient by skillfully driving it onto the trailer.

When we got back to the slip another boat was being launched for a set of divers who had driven over simply to fish and search for crayfish. Fishing is an important aspect of diving (as opposed to just looking at the scenery) which is made possible by the presence of fish. Back in England, things are a little different. Divers can never fish because the local fishermen think they own everything in the sea, and if they suspect you are taking away any of “their” fish you will be dealt with as severely as they do with the seals and porpoises who are also responsible for their misery.

The bush in Fiordland is held together by moss. The giant tree ferns are a wonder to behold. The sandflies, however, do their best to spoil it.

This brings me onto one final rant about fisheries management: The theory is that the scientists go out and take stock of the fish and their breeding patterns and estimate a sustainable quota of fish that can be caught each year. Somehow this quota is allocated to those who “deserve” it, but that’s another matter. Nearly every year, a commercial fish population collapses somewhere in the world, so what’s going wrong? Could it be that there are lessons to be learned from the theory of building bridges? When a bridge is designed, the engineers complete all their calculations and models based on physics and materials behaviour, and then aim to make their bridge six times stronger than it absolutely has to be. This is known as a Safety Factor. It can cover up for mistakes in the design no one has thought about, and hidden deficiencies in the materials (because when you buy twenty tonnes of steel girders, there will always be one that’s a bit dodgy). This practice is because a bridge collapse is a very embarrassing thing; it’s almost entirely the fault of the designer whose name is on the plate. As a result, people are supremely confident of the strength of bridges. They will even walk on them if they are a bit wobbly, because such things never collapse. When they do, it is such a surprise that whole books get written about it, and the lessons learned from it are taught to student engineers for centuries. No one wants it ever to happen again.

Fisheries collapse, and no one takes the blame (except maybe seals or divers). There is no safety factor to account for the vast inaccuracies, holes and outright lies in the data, not to mention the frequently flawed population models with its mistaken assumption that you can manage a single species of fish at a time without considering the food it eats. Without a safety factor, the chance of failure is 50%, because you will fall on either side of the line. Just occasionally, there is a miscalculation and a safety factor is inadvertently introduced, and so a sustainable fishery may result. However, if there is a safety factor in the catch limit, then by definition, you could be catching more fish and still have a sustainable fishery. Therefore the quotas will be revised up until the limit is found experimentally, and the fish stocks collapse. The logic is complete. There is no alternative. The end is inevitable.

Because NZ is such a fresh country, I feel like an intruder on the landscape, a bit of a rat wrecking the environment wherever I go. Once I can accept that it’s all doomed anyway once the population explodes here, I will be able to enjoy it more wholeheartedly. In the meantime there are pictures to take and more work to do.

Riding on Karitane beach. These type of rock formations are similar to the Giants Causeway in Ireland. There it is denoted as a World Heritage Site. In NZ the stuff is just lying around the place.

Julian Todd 23/2/2001.