New Zealand

Open Water Kayaking (Bucket List #128)

Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand • January 2017 • Length of Read: 3 Minutes

With a half-day to spare in the Abel Tasman National Park before getting a bus to Westport, a small surfing town on New Zealand’s prominent headland of Cape Foulwind, Jake, David, Gadams, and I found ourselves signing up for a three-hour open water kayaking course. Incidentally, this headland is said to have received its unusual name from a historic joke that it is the closest point in New Zealand to Australia and that the horrible scent of the Aussies can be picked up in the breeze.

After one-and-a-half hours of useless tuition, where we were told how to hold a paddle and apply sunscreen so that we didn’t get burnt, we eventually pushed our two-man kayaks into the ocean. Gadams and I were sharing one, he operating the rudder at the back and I steering with my paddle at the front. Jake and David followed in hot pursuit in the yellow plastic vessel of their own. Our instructor, and lead guide, was a strange woman called Lisa who seemed to take a shining to Gadams’ Scottish accent and perpetual profanities. Struggling to navigate our kayak for the first ten minutes, and falling behind everyone else despite hitting a good tempo and rhythm with our paddling, she cruised back to explain that our rudder had been out of the sea the entire time. The expression ‘fish out of water’ has rarely been so apt.

Dropping it, we raced to catch up with the pack, Lisa asking us all sorts of question about Scotland that I had no answers for. When someone asks you about your home country, you feel that you should be able to educate them with a flourishing response. Scottish history is so rich, however, that even scratching the surface can exhaust your brain cells. I apologetically nodded to her and then fluffed a few responses that wouldn’t have stood up long if put under police interrogation.

We all paused at a geographical feature called Split Apple Rock for photographs, binding the kayaks together so that everyone could hear our instructor explain how this wonder of nature came about. It was a big spherical rock rising up above the ocean which had been perfectly sheared into two pieces, remaining faintly connected at the base. It looked like a Pac-man facing skywards, or a split apple in that regards. I imagine that’s how it got its name, anyway. It was pretty cool, but at the end of the day, it was just a rock that had been a victim of thermal expansion, like every rock before it and every rock since.

“How do you guys all know each other?” asked Lisa as we continued cruising on up the coast. She was intrigued as to how David, Gadams, Jake and I were so friendly.

“We’re all members of the International Dutch Rudder Society,” replied David in deadpan sarcasm, referring to the act of men holding their own penises whilst another man moves their arm up and down. This means they are both wanking themselves off, whilst not actually wanking themselves off, at the same time. I.e. No Homo.

“Ah really? What does that involve,” she said, clearly having not understood the meaning behind David’s joke. We burst out laughing in response whilst we continued to paddle further and further, getting frustrated at the lack of structure to the tour and the inability of some other kayaks operators to follow instructions.

“Come on you pricks,” screamed Gadams out loud, his voice a caustic foghorn out at sea.

“Calm down bro,” I said, bursting into hysterics. “There are small children in our floating party.”

We rounded a final bend in the coastline and the beach which our hostel was situated on eventually came back into view. Pulling the kayaks up the sand and loading them onto the back of a waiting mini-van, we were delighted to finally squeeze out of our life vests. Open water kayaking had been a bucket list item which was now crossed off, but I wouldn’t be back in a haste for a second paddle. That’s what a bucket list is, though. A list of things that you want to experience in your life before passing on regardless of how awesome they actually are. In life, I suppose, we really only regret the things we don’t do and the opportunities that we don’t take.



Visit Hobbiton (Bucket List #61)

Hobbiton, The Shire, Middle Earth • January 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

“What is the full address of Bilbo’s house?” asked Rolo, tapping me on the shoulder. We were sat at the back of a tour bus hammering its way along the single-lane highway that cuts down New Zealand’s North Island, and heading towards a rather special location if you’re a big The Lord of The Rings fan. As we got closer and closer to our destination, it was becoming more and more apparent that my travelling companion was just that.

“Easy,” I chimed. “Bag End, Hobbiton.”

“Wrong,” he jibed back, immediately. “The full address is actually: Bag End, Bagshot Row, Hobbiton, West Farthing, The Shire, Middle Earth.”

“Someone’s done their research,” I said, as we passed a sign directing us to the film studios.

“I’ve been looking forward to this more than anything else in New Zealand,” he replied, a coat hanger-wide smile across his face. “I’m a self-proclaimed LOTR nerd.”

This huge fan soon lit up like the sky during a fourth of July fireworks display as our driver pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of the 1250 acre sheep and beef farm where the studio’s reception was located. Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, discovered the Alexander farm in September 1998 during an aerial search for suitable film sites, and immediately knew that it was the perfect location for the fictional village of Hobbiton. After reaching a contractual agreement with the owners of the land, the Alexander family, site construction began in March 1999. Initially, this involved heavy earth moving machinery provided by the New Zealand Army, who built a 1.5km road into the site and undertook initial set development. Thirty-nine Hobbit holes were then created with untreated timber, ply and polystyrene for use during filming before being deconstructed once it was complete.

Following the success of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson signed with New Line Cinemas to then make a prequel Hobbit trilogy. He went back to the Alexanders and requested use of their farm again for the filming. In the period between these two projects the farm had been restored back to its ordinary use, but that had not stopped keen nerds of the books and films constantly passing by, snooping around, and asking to be shown where Bag End had been located. Therefore, when the set was rebuilt in 2009, it was decided that the structures be made out of permanent materials, including an artificial tree which was made out of steel and silicon. The entire reconstruction process took two years, but the set is now expected to have a life of 100 years and is open all year round as a permanent tourist attraction. We had signed up for one of their tours, and after buying our tickets and getting a quick bite to eat in the café, we were led by our guide, Candice, into the magical world of Hobbiton.

“Filming for the original trilogy commenced in December 1999 and continued for three months,” said Candice, leading us along the hedgerow-lined path which young Bilbo famously ran down shouting, ‘I’m going on an adventure’. “At its peak, four-hundred people were on site, including Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Sam), Ian Holm (Bilbo), and Martin Freeman (young Bilbo).”

We gazed in awe at the scenery unfolding in front of us. It genuinely was like we had been transported into a different world. On the surface, Hobbiton is really nothing but a very well kept garden, but the attention to detail of the whole area gave it a mystical air.

“As you may have read in the pamphlet you received alongside your ticket,” continued Candice, “the New Zealand Military was brought in to help construct the original set as volunteers, and they worked painfully hard for nine straight months in order to get it completed in time for filming to commence. For all of their hard work, Peter Jackson offered them each a role in the film as a thank you. Can you guess what characters they played?”

“Orcs,” shouted out Rolo, confident in his answer.

“Correct,” said Candice. “The entire orc army was made up of members of the New Zealand Army. This was good for Peter Jackson in two ways. Firstly, he was able to use locals which, as a born and bred Kiwi himself, he really wanted to do. Secondly, they had all already received combat training as part of their jobs, so there was no need to spend additional time and resources teaching a bunch of extras how to fight properly. There was just one small problem with that, though. The military men, being as they are, took their roles slightly too seriously, and when they were let loose to fight with the cameras rolling they got a little carried away and actually started to punch one another for real. Peter Jackson had to call ‘cut’ before anyone got seriously hurt and a fair few black eyes had to be hidden by the hair and makeup department for later takes.”

We stopped in the main clearing to take it all in, the hobbit holes littering the hillside above. Only two of them actually opened and could be entered, but every single one of the forty-four homes were used in filming. Everyone got happy snappy with their cameras, but getting a photo without other gawking tourists in the background was near impossible, especially considering that we were being shuttled around the set so fast I almost got a stitch. Capitalism always prevails, and the number of tours that were being run simultaneously meant that the paths more resembled the queues at a stadium rock concert than peaceful dirt tracks. Each tour was only scheduled to last for two hours, and Candice may well have had a bloody stopwatch on us. We were soon being told to get on our way again, and everyone was getting a bit pissed off with her. We’d paid a decent wedge of money to visit Hobbiton and wanted to take it all in at a more leisurely pace. Thankfully, though, she managed to redeem herself with more great anecdotes as we made our way up the hillside path towards Bagshot Row. Every single fact she threw out, mind you, made Peter Jackson seem one step closer to belonging locked up in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally insane. Side point, this is where the word ‘bedlam’ originated from.

“The large oak tree that overlooks Bag End was cut down and transported from nearby Matamata,” she said, pointing skywards. “200,000 artificial leaves were then brought in from Taiwan and individually wired onto the tree. They are the only fake pieces of foliage on the set, and each of them was hand-painted a specific shade of green. During pre-filming, however, Peter Jackson was testing his equipment and decided that he didn’t like the colour. Instead of compromising that it would have to do, in a diva-like moment he ordered every single leaf to taken off and repainted. The tree was in the film for a total of ten seconds.”

“Definitely a psychopath,” I whispered to Rolo, giving him a nudge.

“He also went to extreme lengths to ensure the authenticity of the set,” continued Candice, shuffling us along like sheep in a pen. “A professional roof thatcher was brought over from England to make the roofs of all the houses using rushes from around the farm, and a woman was paid a whole month’s wages just to walk back and forth between the hobbit hole entrances and the outdoor washing lines so that a natural footprint trod in the grass would be present.”

“A complete nutter,” nodded Rolo.

Reaching Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo’s home and one of the most iconic spots from any of the films, Smudge had a moment of embarrassment. Pulling a pose to get his picture taken, he complained to Rolo when looking at the resultant photograph that he’d failed to take one without the ‘no admittance except for party business’ sign that hung on the gate, failing to realise that it was actually a prop from the film as opposed to a warning for tourists to keep out.

“We have to keep going, folks,” said Candice approximately ninety seconds after stopping. “Otherwise you won’t have time to get a free mug of beer at The Green Dragon pub at the end of our tour.”

With a heaving sigh, we trudged back down the hill and to the field where Bilbo’s one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday party was held. In order to audition for a role as a hobbit in one of the films, you had to be no taller than 5’ 2”, or 158 centimetres. For the party scene, however, Peter Jackson rightfully thought that a more authentic atmosphere would be created if the family and friends of the Hobbit cast members were brought in to make up the additional necessary numbers. Again, however, as with the colour of the tree leaves and the brutality of the New Zealand Military, Peter Jackson noted a problem. It was all a bit wooden. He needed the cast members to loosen up a bit, get into a more jovial mood, and let their hair down. It was time to introduce some alcohol into the proceedings. Understandably, though, he didn’t want his cast getting completely hammered, so Peter Jackson paid a visit to a local brewery to see what they could drum up. The result was a 1% beer made exclusively for the movie set, which gave the party a proper atmosphere but without the resulting slurring speeches and hammering headaches.

As we reached The Green Dragon and the end of our trip, it was a relief to find that we would not be being served any of this watered down variety, however, but a proper ale. Sitting around a table in front of a large smouldering wooden fire, the team all toasted to Hobbiton and for our own future adventures to be even one-tenth of what Frodo and Bilbo got up to in their respective journeys.


Get Drunk on a Vineyard Tour (Bucket List #146)

Waiheke Island, New Zealand • February 2017 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes

I awoke to find myself covered in itchy mosquito bites. Tara had warned me about how bad they were, with the scars on her skin to prove it, but in our drunken states, Nene, Possum, and I had stupidly forgotten to shut the windows of our dorm room at Hekerua Lodge before crashing out for the night. Whilst my two Dutch girls got changed I applied some cream to the bites and then gave Justin a call to see if we were still on for the vineyard tour that morning; intrigued as to whether he would remember the drunken promise that he’d made to us in the Sandbar the prior night. At the time it had seemed almost too good to be true.

“Crobs,” he answered in a high-pitched ring. “I’ve just picked up my second group and am on my way to get you. Are you still good to go?”

“Of course,” I said, laughing back down the phone. “I was just calling to see if you were actually going to show up or whether it was going to be like a typical date where I’m left twiddling my thumbs at the bar, alone.”

“I’ll be at the bus stop where we agreed to meet in about twenty minutes,” sang his voice through the speaker. “If you guys could be ready and waiting for then it would be much appreciated. There are two others from your accommodation also booked on the trip so look out for them as well.”

“Will do,” I said, before hanging up the phone. “Chop, chop, girls. We’ve got a lift to catch.”

In visiting Waiheke, I was filling an obligation and promise that I’d made to my friend Tara. In 2015, the island that is situated a forty-minute ferry journey north of Auckland was voted as the fifth best destination in the world to visit by Lonely Planet; primarily due to its extensive array of vineyards, golden beaches, and restaurants. Tara had lived on the island for four months at Hekerua Lodge and had worked at one of these vineyards. What better a place to tick off bucket list number 146 then? And on a sweltering New Zealand summer day.

We’d arrived on the island paradise the previous night, but wandering into town to find something to eat after checking in, we instead found ourselves ordering up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at the Sandbar, a lovely open-aired establishment that overlooked the marina bay and beach. Here, we got chatting to the bubbly fellow sitting at the table next to us, and in doing so became acquainted with the one and only Justin Moore.

He wore a flowery Hawaiian shirt which was fully unbuttoned to reveal a sweat-soaked grey t-shirt underneath. His short, receding, hairline had left his forehead a little sunburnt-red and his voice was a little camp. A namesake of the famous country music singer, Justin Moore was about forty-five years of age and had a zestful energy for life that was simply infectious. From behind his prescription designer sunglasses, he informed us that he was born on Waiheke, moved away for a number of years to pursue work opportunities in Japan and the United States, and had then returned to the island a few years previous to live a quieter life.

“I now operate a small business called Waiheke Tour running barbeque, vineyard, and beach tours of the island,” he said. From his slurred speech it was clear that Justin had also had his fair share of vino for the evening.

“Really?” said Possum, attempting to show a fistful of nachos into his mouth from across the table. Hunger had finally taken over and we’d ordered a plate to share between the three of us. “We were planning on doing a vineyard tour tomorrow but haven’t booked anything yet,” she continued, sounding more steaming than a James Watt designed engine. I’m not going to go as far as saying that Possum and Nene are alcoholics, but if they ever met Jesus then the first thing they’d ask was for him to turn all water supplies into wine taps.

“I just so happen to have three spare seats on my wine tour tomorrow, actually,” said Justin, munching down the chips and salsa that Possum had shoved into his pie hole. “We visit three different vineyards and then I cook up a massive barbeque of succulent steaks, juicy sausages, and grilled veggies for everyone. Are you interested?”

And that is how we found ourselves standing at the bus stop the following morning, Possum regaling the tale of how we came to be in such a position to the British couple that Justin had been referring to on the phone. Nathan was a London city boy and Jenny a Northern Irish girl from just outside of Belfast.

The honking of a horn diverted our attention down the road. Rounding the corner, the vehicle that had caused the commotion came into view. Behind the wheel of the beat-up minivan was the man himself, waving so furiously at us with a gaping smile that I was genuinely concerned he was about to lose control of his Anna; so named due to the personalised registration plate stapled to the front grill.

“All aboard,” yelled Justin gleefully, opening up the electric folding side-door.

“Morning,” we cried as we climbed up the steps and shuffled to the five empty seats at the rear, addressing him like a church congregation responding to their minister.

Already onboard was a middle-aged Scottish couple from Queens Park, three Canadians, and three Kiwis. It transpired that the twenty-something Kiwi guy and similarly aged Canadian girl were engaged to be married on Waiheke in one year’ time and that both sets of parents had come together for a holiday, to get to know their future extended family better, and to have talks with the venue where they’d be tying the knot; one of the twenty-five vineyards that littered the island at the time of writing.

If they were still together in twelve months’ time, that is. Even on the short journey to our first of three stops, Batch Winery, I could tell that the incessant questioning from the mother of the bride was pissing off the groom; her status as a control freak having clearly already been stamped on proceedings.

The bride herself was a very attractive girl in a bright white sundress; her jet-black hair falling down her back and coming to rest over the two giant angel wings tattooed across her shoulder blades and spine. I immediately wondered where her devil horns were hidden. This allure both tantalised and fascinated me in equal parts, taking over my thoughts as we rolled into the Batch car park. This term has a double-meaning in New Zealand, being used to describe a holiday home or beach house as well as the quantity of wine produced each time a harvesting and fermentation process is run.

The highest vineyard on the island, we were led by Batch’s Dutch sommelier to a lone tree atop the hill where the on-site restaurant was situated; a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama opening up before us. There was not a cloud in the sky and although this meant I’d had to douse myself in sunscreen that morning, the clear weather meant that we could also make out the spire of Auckland’s Sky Tower as we took shade under the solitary pine. Beneath its branches were two casks, a selection of branded glasses organised neatly on top of one and four different bottles of wine perched on the other.

“This vineyard is the newest on the island,” said the Dutch guy, pouring the first bottle. “It’s owned by a Canadian family and opened for business two years’ ago. They are actually here holidaying at the moment, so be on your best behaviour,” he joked. “Our first batch of wines for retail are expected to be ready in about one year from now.”

“We’re Canadian,” announced the mother of the bride, “and it would be really nice to meet them.”

“I think they're a bit busy for that, unfortunately,” squinted the sommelier, shutting her down in the politest way possible. I’m sure the last thing that the savvy millionaire owners wished to do whilst enjoying some downtime in their own batch was to brush shoulders with overzealous guests; fellow countrymen and women, or not.

I took a sip of the drink that I’d been handed. Despite the large quantities of alcohol that I consume on a far-too-regular basis, I’m no wine expert. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Chilean Malbec and a Cabernet from Mendoza if they both bit me on the same arse cheek. What I will say, however, is that as my eyes took in the scenery from behind the prescription lenses of my sunglasses, I couldn’t help but feel that the views cast over the island were a lot more breath-taking than the wine swirling around my palate. I swallowed it anyway. Hair of the dog.

Peacock Sky was the name of our second stop, confusing considering that the logo for the vineyard stamped on the entrance gate was that of a butterfly; a farfalle. A small marquee had been erected in the garden, with the place settings indicating that we’d not only be getting a sample of five different wines, but also a posh nibble to go with each. Apparently, the couple that owned this particular establishment were wannabe-chefs as well as wine enthusiasts.

I took a space next to the Scottish couple and got chatting to them about life at home. I love meeting fellow Scots on the road, as you can immediately cut through all the wishy-washy bullshit conversations that are far-too-frequent between travellers and get straight to the good stuff. The man was the type of character who I imagined spent a large portion of each weekend sinking pints down his local pub whilst watching the footy, and it was apparent that his wife had brought him on this wine tour as a form of societal education as much as to have a relaxing drink.

“What flavours are you getting through?” asked the Frenchman running the session, directing his question towards my compatriot.

“Alcohol,” he bluntly responded, knocking it back in one large gulp like he was a goldfish swimming in a tank. The stare from his wife at that moment could have burnt a hole in the back of his head, but he was having too good a time to care. We were all beginning to get a little tipsy, especially myself who hadn’t had anything to eat since that shared plate of nachos the night before.

“Oh my God,” squealed the mother of the bride as she took a bite into the tiny square of chocolate brownie that had been placed in front of us. “Yummy.”

I took one look across the table, locked eyes with Nathan, and we both burst into sniggered laughter; the wine acting as a catalyst.

“It’s so creamy,” she then moaned as tears rolled down my face.

“I feel like I’ve just learned what that lady sounds like when she comes,” I whispered to Nathan as we strolled back to the bus, feeling rather jolly.

“Get that image out of my head right now,” he squirmed.

Our third and final stop was where Justin Moore had promised to cook us our barbeque lunch, and despite the hors d’oeuvres served at the previous venue, I was still absolutely ravenous. Whilst Justin fired up the gas, we were treated to a lesson in the art of making a good wine by the owner of Dellows Waiheke, Bill Dellows. A fascinating thing I learned is that in order to maintain balance in the wine, extracts of either eggs, fish, or clay need to be added at the clarification step of the process.

“Are you telling me that wine is not vegan-friendly then?” asked the mother of the bride, sounding appalled.

“You can’t usually tell from the ingredients on the label exactly what was used to clarify it, so it is advised if you are vegan to not drink wine at all, yes,” answered Bill in his softly-spoken accent. His white, Santa Claus, beard indicated that he was tipping retirement age and his demeanour was that of a person who had seen it all when it came to wine, whisky, and spirits.

“I know that some of the cheaper goon sacks, for example, contain up to forty percent fish oil,” I added; Nathan nodding his head in agreement.

“What’s a goon sack,” she asked, annoyed that she didn’t know.

“It’s the boxed wine that you get from liquor stores in Australia,” I informed her. Who knew that something I’d learnt from passing out drunk on a beach one night whilst on a 4x4 trip to Fraser Island would have come in handy at a wealthy vineyard. That’s what I call a tertiary style of education right there. “They make really useful pillows,” I smiled.

“Oh no,” she gasped. “I can’t wait to go home and tell all of my friends. This could be disastrous for some of them.”

“I feel sorry for the people that have to call her their friend,” I mouthed to Nene as the smell of Justin’s cooking drew us onto the patio outside; our awesome day-drinking session brought to a close with an absolute epic spread for lunch that got wolfed down. Justin Moore – what a legend.