A Travellerspoint blog

Lasting Impressions of Blenheim, Second Impressions of Welly

"On strike, on the piss, and on a boat."

Not much changed in Blenheim after the last blog, with one significant exception; working conditions on the vineyard. Our contractor, Kiwi Bunkhouse, refused to pay workers minimum wage if they were too slow, but didn’t give anybody the opportunity to leave without facing the stiff penalties for breaking the contract. At the same time they were real hard up for workers and refused to fire people, so we had no way to get out of a job that was illegally paying less than required. So we went on strike, about forty of us, and by the end of the day had a written agreement that the wrappers would earn a higher rate per plant (they were the ones more heavily exploited, most of the pruners were making more than the minimum) and a guaranteed minimum wage for the remainder of the season.

I left the job a couple weeks later, grumbling about the pain in my elbows. Turns out I’m not built for pruning grapevines... But it got me out of the contract and I spent the next few days kicking around Blenheim, just like when I first arrived. It was a comfortable routine - I’d wake up early, drink coffee and head to the library until afternoon rolled around. Then I’d head back to the hostel to meet everybody coming back from the vineyard – the grumpy, filthy troops coming back from the front. These days were largely uneventful, but in the end the beard came off under heavy pressure from the Koanui Crew.

Dude Beard Crew.

The dumbest joke of the season.

Sunday rolled around, my last day in Blenheim, my last day on the South Island, and a handful of us drove up to Picton for a day hike. A couple hours out to the tip of a peninsula in the Marlborough Sound to spot the typical shapes in the clouds - faces, dragons, birds… you know, the usual. Then back to the ferry terminal to catch out for Wellington. Finally. Three long, miserable months in Blenheim, finally drawing to a close.

Marlborough Sound from the end of the Snout Track, a couple hours before my South Island farewell.

The mustache didn't even last a full day, thank god.

Truly and honestly, I hated Blenheim. The place and the shenanigans that go on in the wine industry, the stress I put my body through and having nothing to do for months but eat and drink. The kids in the hostel are what made it tolerable. I’ve said it before and I’ll maintain it to the day I die (no hyperbole here, folks) – Koanui Crew almost made Blenheim worth it.

A queasy ride across the Cook Straight, three long, miserable hours, and I stumbled off the ferry to meet some Irish friends from Kiwiburn. They offered their couch for a few nights and it was hard to leave, given the heat pump (conspicuously absent from most houses in this country). But I moved on; from their apartment on the Terrace to a tent in a warehouse behind Cuba Street, back to their place for a couple of days (heat pump!), and finally up into a loft in a radical community centre in Te Aro called 128, where I share the space with a bike shop, a lending library, a seed exchange, a community internet space, a couple of caretakers and a cat named Michel. It’s good to live with a cat again. I started looking for work but mostly just found myself wandering around the city, walking back and forth between the library and the massive free museum that houses the café with free unlimited refills (!), climbing mossy staircases and getting lost in the dark in the hills that surround central Wellington, catching up with old friends and making soup and having 24-hour movie marathons. I’m doing a bit of laboring work here and there but really it’s mostly fun and games.

128 Radical Social Centre, where I currently live.

128 Community Space mission statement.

Wellington CBD.

The warehouse where I pitched my tent.

Boat sheds and Mt. Victoria.

Obligatory photo of the Cuba Street Mall.

Back towards the city center from Oriental Bay.

Matiu/Somes Island, where Wellington interned Japanese and German citizens - nazi and anti-fascist alike - during WWII.

Houses built into the steep hills surrounding the harbor at Oriental Bay.

Quake breakers underneath Te Pap Museum. The Wellington region has six active faults running through it, including one right down the middle of the city. Yikes!

Wellington… the city reminds me of Portland, really. The second impression is similar to the first, you know, when I passed through on my way south back in April. This is why I came back and surely one reason why I’ve fallen in love with the place. The architecture, the weather, the filthy streets and graffiti-covered alleyways, the punk shows and bookstores and DIY bike workshops... I’m smitten.

Posted by axcordion 21:04 Archived in New Zealand Tagged new centre zealand te wellington community kiwi blenheim strike aro koanui 128 bunkhouse Comments (0)

Marlborough Madness

The English language has no antonym for halcyon days.

It's been a slow whirlwind since I arrived in Blenheim eight weeks ago. Friends and enemies, piñatas and poverty and the Spanish civil war all rolled into one.

I arrived in the middle of June. Friday the 13th, actually. Surely this was a sign. Over the next few days another twenty five people crammed in to Koanui, our tired old hostel, and we prepared to start work in the vineyards. Blenheim is the center of the Marlborough region, world renowned for its wine - Sauvignon Blanc in particular. The problem with Marlborough wine now is that it isn't exactly cheap and in a global recession people aren't really buying the expensive stuff. So the wine isn't selling, the vineyards aren't making much money, and the workers aren't being paid well. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here.

We started work a week after we arrived, all of us at Koanui working for the same contractor at the same vineyard - Yealands Estate in Seddon. Seddon is about 30 kilometers southeast of Blenheim, sandwiched between the mountains and the ocean. It's beautiful and as winter has progressed we've been watching the mountains get whiter and whiter. We don't see any snow though, we're too low. Mostly isn't sunny and clear, freezing of below in the mornings but quite warm after the sun comes out, although we do occasionally get rained out of the fields. Cause for celebration...

My job is pruning each massive tangle of canes that make up the grapevine. Leave the best two or four or six and strip out the rest. The stripping is the hard part, it's very physical and occasionally quite painful. That is, when you strip out the vines and get whipped in the back of clobbered in the face. I haven't drawn blood yet but plenty of others have.

Dawn over Yealands Estate in Seddon.

West from Yealands towards Tapuae-o-Uenuku/Mount Tapuaenuku, the highest peak in the Kaikoura Ranges at 2880 meters.

East from Yealands to the Pacific Ocean.

This is how the vines ought to look when the pruners are through with them.

Ah, it's such a beautiful place to work!

Living with the same group of people for eight weeks you get to know them pretty well, and I can honestly say the kids I live with are the greatest thing about this place. From the first day everybody got on really well, sharing stories and sharing food, commiserating over hard days at work and homesickness. These days we get up early, eat breakfast and head out. Work, lunch, work and then we head home to make dinner and lunch for the next day, read a book (the Blenheim library has a larger-than-expected collection of books on the Spanish civil war, but right now I'm enjoying Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest") or watch a movie or hang out around the table and head to bed by ten o'clock to do it all over again. Once a week you gotta make sure they paid you what they owe you. Eight hours a day, six days a week for three months. The routine is already old but I'll say this, it's hard to stay in a bad mood when you're always hanging out with your best friends.

Playing MC and at Mexican Night with the Koanui Crew.

Koanui Crew, hands down my favorite thing about Blenheim. I love these kids.

The English language has no antonym for halcyon days. These are not the days that we'll look back on with any sort of overwhelming fondness. These are not the days we'll wish we could go back to live again. These are the days that make us wish to move on and not look back, the days that make us hate New Zealand for doing this to us, and the days that make us homesick for our friends. My days pass by full of pruning and daydreaming, they pile up and make me wish I were in Portland. I miss all my friends back home, I'll see you soon.

Posted by axcordion 02:53 Archived in New Zealand Tagged new vineyard lodge zealand estate marlborough blenheim yealands koanui Comments (0)

Sunny Nelson

"What did I do, anyway?"

I need a job. That's one reason I'm in Nelson. I also need some sun. That's the other reason I'm in Nelson. "Welcome to Sunny Nelson," the bus driver says as we roll in to town through sheets of rain. Not the greatest joke I've heard but surely one I would make as well. Ah, but it won't last. It actually stays quite nice for my first few weeks, facilitating equal amounts of looking for work and sitting in the park along the river, pouring through books and chasing birds.

No luck on the job front, alas, but on the bright side I worked out a cleaning for accommodation deal at a cute little hostel called Shortbread Cottage. The owner sells shortbread to raise money for a foundation that builds schools in Nepal. He's there right now, in fact, so I've been working with two women who are caretaking until he gets back. Sasa and Tanja, a Slovene and a Finn respectively, are probably my favorite things about Nelson.

It's funny to think back on my five and a half weeks here. What did I do, anyway? Just kinda took it easy, really. Climbed a bit in the hills, up to the alleged geographical center of New Zealand (come on, you're telling me the center of the country just happens to be at the top of this big hill?), went to the beach at Tahunanui, had a delightful picnic on the beach at Rabbit Island, lived in a van, gatecrashed a rugby match, realized I didn't actually care about any rugby match and left, drinks at the Free House, experiments with living on six and a half dollars a day, new friends, old friends... Yeah, like I said, I just kinda took it easy.

I'll tell you this, though. It's not so easy working at a hostel. Sure, you're just making up beds and cleaning the kitchen, but here's the thing: your friends are always leaving. And now it's my turn.

Nelson from the top of Botanic Hill.

Shortbread Cottage, home and work for five weeks.

Ellis Street is lined with early 20th century cottages - so cute.

Rabbit Island at the southern tip of Tasman Bay.

Sunset over the rugby pitch across the street.

They're everywhere!!

Posted by axcordion 19:15 Archived in New Zealand Tagged new zealand nelson Comments (0)

So, You're Spending a Month in Auckland?

Or, 101 Things to do in New Zealand's Largest City.

I've voluntarily taken on a new role as a tourist agent for the City of Auckland. Enjoy!

01. Arrive safely, adjust to the jet lag.
02. Learn to look the other way before crossing the street. Practice, because it's harder than you'd think.
03. Find the amazing Hare Krishna vegetarian restaurant on K Road, fill up for NZ$6.
04. Visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum - those are some big birds, eh?
05. Take a stab at Maori pronunciation and fail.
06. Leave a copy of Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" sticking out of your bag and get a free ride from a kid on a pedicab. Later he'll tell you to get a peanut butter milkshake at Sweet Mother's in Wellington and you won't be disappointed.
07. When people ask you about the United States, make up the craziest stories and assure them you're telling the truth. "Yes, we do all carry guns in America. In fact, in some states it's mandatory!"
08. Watch this video, bru.
09. Couchsurf with some Auckland punx, you'll wonder how they can organize the revolution if they can't organize their kitchen.
10. Meet up with your best friend from when you were a kid. What's he doing here, anyway?!
11. Hang out in the park with a fellow traveler and a kid who won American Idol: India. He'll serenade the two of you while you drink wine until the sun comes up.
12. Wear a red bandana and piss off some gang members. Later, in Hastings, your black bandana will piss off the other gang members. You just can't win...
13. Make a bunch of tacos and share them with your friends.
14. Buy a bike, piss off bad Auckland drivers by riding in the street.
15. Get stopped by the police for matching the description of somebody tagging the train station. When they ask to search your bag tell them no but offer to shake it for them. They'll agree, they'll apologize for bothering you and they'll leave.
16. Ask for a large cup and get a bowl, literally a bowl, full of coffee.
17. Hang out at Aotea Square and watch the skaters across the street try to land the big drops.
18. Meet a delightful woman who offers to loan you her touring bike so you can ride around the country. It's a very kind offer but you'll be too terrified of how people drive in this country to take her up on it.
19. Feed crappy diabetes-inducing bread to the birds - gulls, shags, pigeons, pukekos, and so on. That'll teach 'em to trust us...
20. Head out of town for Christmas with friends and their family, you'll learn how to play cricket and spend the night hanging out around a lovely holiday bonfire.
21. Learn about the Maori diaspora and settlement of Aotearoa, it's pretty damn cool.
22. Check out the street art, most of it will be covered up next time you pass by.
23. Drink New Zealand apple cider at the Neighborhood bar in Kingsland.
24. Watch the fireworks downtown on new years. Be sure to check out the waterfront too, there are more fireworks over there.
25. Wander around all the parks, learn the names of local flora.
26. Visit the grave of Fred Evans, one of two people killed during labor struggles in New Zealand. Evans was beaten to death by police and strikebreakers during the 1912 Waihi miners' strike and is buried at Waikaraka Cemetery in the suburb of Onehunga.
27. Check out the blooming pohutukawa trees.
28. Climb One Tree Hill and Mount Eden, volcanos that the Maori used as .
29. Have a hilarious conversation with the crazy evangelical christian guy who gives you a Jack T. Chick comic.
30. Loiter at the harbour and admire the fancy white shoes all the cruise ship captains wear.
31. Get a free mobile phone (don't worry, mom and dad, it's legit) and send anonymous text messages to friends back home.
32. Watch your first rugby match on television, it's brutal and a far sight more interesting than soccer.
33. Get lost. Don't worry, you always find your way home.
34. Admire all the anti-nuclear public art at the corner of K Road and Ponsonby.
35. Learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, everybody's doing it!
36. Lose your camera on new years, you'll be devastated.
37. Buy groceries at the rad Asian market on Dominion Road, you won't be disappointed.
38. Partake in an Auckland tradition by heading to horse races at Ellerslie Racecourse on Boxing Day. You'll win ten bucks but you'll lose twenty...
39. Buy jandals. What the hell are jandals? Ask John McCain...
40. Play an accordion and sing songs while the trains roll by behind the last house standing in an old industrial neighborhood.
41. Throw away your razor and grow your beard out again.
42. Talk American politics with Hamish, a libertarian who's been on his water-only diet for a week. He's nice enough but doesn't seem to have much energy, does he?
43. Take the ferry to Devonport, get drunk below a volcano with a disappearing gun inside it.
44. Have a conversation with a police officer about whether they should carry a gun. Along with a majority of New Zealanders, you'll argue that they shouldn't. Presently they don't.
45. Have a wander down Vulcan Lane, relive the Search for Spock or just admire the architecture.
46. Randomly meet a couple of Italian travelers, eat a big plate of pasta they make for you.
47. People-watch at night on Ponsonby Road, these are the people who refuse to accept that high school is over.
48. Find that fig tree in the park and lighten its load.
49. You like boats? Check out Westhaven Marina!
50. Fight a losing battle to get the flies out of the house.
51. Head over the Waitakares to Piha Beach, hike to Kitekite Falls and watch the sun set into the Tasman Sea on new years eve.
52. Climb to the top of Mount Victoria in Devonport and watch a storm roll in, a storm you'll be stuck in later.
53. Learn the difference between an americano and a long black.
54. Party hard, make Andrew WK proud.
55. Head out to picturesque Rangitoto Island, hike around, check out some shipwrecks and run back to catch the last ferry.
56. Enjoy willful unemployment.
57. Make travel plans and scrap them for spontaneity.
58. Head into the Waitakere Range with a local, he'll have you stomping on your imaginary break peddle the whole time.
59. Explain several dozen times why the Tea Party is not a third party in the American political system.
60. Take the ferry to Waiheke Island, dance to the local hip hop group, drink the local wine, lounge on the local beach and swim in the local ocean.
61. Rent a car with three strangers, drive to the Coromandel Peninsula, swim at Hot Water Beach and total the car on the way home. Don't worry, the police will drive you back to Auckland.
62. Push your bike up that steep-as hill in the park and bomb it!
63. Wonder why everybody has a washing machine but no dryer, and wonder why everybody back home has both.
64. Plan and execute a four-day hike around Cape Reinga. You leave in twenty-four hours, better get started...
65. Don't forget to wash your clothes.
66. Sweet talk the baristas at the mall into giving you their wifi password.
67. Make a huge fruit salad of local and in-season produce and share it with your flatmates.
68. Admire the architecture, reminds you a bit of Portland, right?
69. Eat falafel, heaps and heaps of falafel.
70. Play with the hermit crabs in the tide pools on Waiheke.
71. Hit the beach at Point Chevalier.
72. Drink your first vanilla chai latte, it will change your life.
73. Learn what they mean when they refer to the following: courgette, capsicum, silverbeet, coriander, aubergine, kumara, pumpkin, Jerusalem artichoke, and aubergine. I'll help you out. Courgette, zucchini; capsicum, bell pepper; silverbeet, chard (huh?!?); coriander, cilantro; kumara, sweet potato; pumpkin, squash (squash is a game, you can't eat it); Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke; aubergine, eggplant. A sweet potato by any other name would taste as sweet...
74. Wonder why there are chickens at the zoo.
75. Go dancing at some silly club. Just do it.
76. Meet some friends at the airport, let the battle of sarcastic senses of humor begin!
77. Try to get up to the top of the Sky Tower for free. Good luck!
78. Get overwhelmed by all the tasty treats at the Asian food mall on K Road. Doesn't matter what you get, it'll be great.
79. Find the cafe that leaves their free internet on overnight, use it often.
80. Take a walk around Western Springs park, check out the eels and the dinosaur-like pukekos.
81. Work on your tan, winter sure is summery down here.
82. Eat kue lapis, a gelatinous green dessert from Indonesia. Sedap!
83. Try to find a place that sells drip coffee. The closest you'll find is one that has a french press in the back but you have to ask for it...
84. Check out the Symonds Street Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the city. Half of it has been taken over by vegetation and the other half by kids up to no good. It's fun to hang out on both sides.
85. Wonder why New Zealanders care about the British monarchy at all. Later you'll meet a exceedingly foolish woman who declares she would prefer an absolute monarchy because "the Queen seems like a nice lady, I trust her to make the right decision." Uh, yeah...
86. Abuse the free internet at the library.
87. Learn New Zealand slang, some of it will make you laugh, some of it will come in handy.
88. Hop on your bike and explore some old industrial areas.
89. Head downstairs at Britomart, admire all the little Sputniks on the ceiling.
90. Since you don't have any drums to play, pour your creative energy into taking photos - lots of 'em.
91. Eat some wonderfully spicy Malaysian food for the first time.
92. Check out some awesome New Zealand reggae - Katchafire!
93. It's summertime, admire everybody's tattoos - especially tā moko, it's new to you.
94. Get excited about Irish music night at the pub, only to be disappointed it's a bunch of boring people sitting in a circle trying to play songs out of a songbook. Entertaining in it's own way, but not what you were hoping for.
95. Visit the site where the French government bombed the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior and killed a man in an effort to stop their anti-nuclear activism.
96. Eat bananas straight off a banana tree.
97. Wonder at the high cost of food here, it'll catch you off-guard.
98. Play Jenga, follow it up with Drinking Jenga.
99. Try to learn what these people are referring to when they say fries, chips, crisps, biscuits, crackers and cookies.
100. Say yes more.
101. Leave, you won't regret it. You'll enjoy your time there but know that Auckland has little to offer compared to the rest of New Zealand. Okay. Ready? Go!

Auckland from Mount Eden.

Posted by axcordion 18:25 Archived in New Zealand Tagged auckland new zealand Comments (0)

Rakiura/Stewart Island

"New Zealand doesn't get much more south than this..."

Rakiura - Land of the Glowing Skies. Latitude 47 degrees south. Since 1987, with passage of the Maori Language Act, many geographic features of the New Zealand landscape have been renamed to include the original Maori title. For instance, what was once Aoraki, later Mount Cook, is now Aoraki/Mount Cook. So it is with Rakiura/Stewart Island, a fairly large island about 30km south of the South Island. We were warned that crossing the Foveaux Straight on a small ferry is a bit rough, storm and all, and it was. But the parade of wildlife began almost immediately with sightings of Royal Northern and Royal Southern Albatross, Mollymawk, Sooty Sheerwater, petrels... The rain stopped as the ferry docked but we were treated to gale force winds and some cheeky showers for the next couple days. The storm blew out on Tuesday morning with one last shower and I was off on my adventure.

Royal Southern Albartoss from the ferry.

That's Mt. Anglem (980m), Rakiura's tallest point, hiding behind that cloud.

Halfmoon Bay from Oban, Rakiura's only village.

Fishing shacks on Halfmoon Bay. Fishing is far and away the primary source of income on the island. Well, fishing and tourism. Anyway, it reminded me a lot of the small towns on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Rakiura's oldest structure, Lewis Acker's stone house, built in 1836.

I took a water taxi down the Paterson Inlet and up the Freshwater River to Freshwater Landing. There's a Department of Conservation hut situated here, along the Northern Circuit, a three- to five-day trek around the northern half of the island. I set up camp that morning and went off on a day hike - a 37km day hike... That's about 23 miles for you gringos. I knew it would be long but it wasn't until after I got back that night and added it all up that I realized what I had done. It's 15.5km southwest to the Mason Bay hut and another 2km to the bay itself, a long sandy beach with nothing between it and South America but the ocean. Throw in a couple kms along the beach and do it all over again on the way back and you get sore feet. I walked down the beach for an hour and came to the first dead whale. Apparently it's fairly common for whales to beach themselves in New Zealand. Not sure why, but I've also read that there have been significantly more incidents the past couple years where entire pods will beach themselves for no apparent reason. There is speculation, of course, that it's related to environmental conditions but as far as I've read there are no definitive answers. Either way there were still 109 beached pilot whales, all dead and rotting in the sun. The DOC recommends people refrain from swimming here because the whales have attracted sharks (did you know that Stewart Island hosts the world's third largest population of great whites?), and these sharks probably don't discriminate too much in what they eat. It was sad, all these whales, but a fascinating phenomena nonetheless.

Swing bridge over the Freshwater River.

Much of the trail followed Duck Creek, so full of tannins it looks like tea.

Four hours hiking finally brings me to Mason Bay.

Back to the camp I went, another eleven and a half miles. There were three kids who worked with the Department of Conservation at the hut when I got back. They had been removing invasive weeds and it got too late for them to get back down the river - low tide is just too low - so they were in for the night. Turns out one of the three was on my team a couple nights before at the Sunday night pub quiz. We did moderately well, placing smack dab in the middle of the pack. I was the only one who recognized a picture of Annie Oakley and I'm damn proud! Anyway, I crashed out and in the morning continued my hunt for kiwi. Because New Zealand separated from the larger land mass so early it developed a very unique biodiversity. A lack of predatory mammals (in fact, the only mammals at all were two species of bat) a number of creatures evolved that never would have made it anywhere else. Giant flightless birds called moa for one, small flightless birds like the kiwi for another. Rakiura has a rather large population of rather large kiwi, a subspecies called Apteryx australis lawryi, or the Stewart Island Tokoeka. It's the largest of the kiwi species and sports long legs and quite a long beak. Their other unique trait is that, while other kiwi are strictly nocturnal, the Stewart Island Tokoeka forages both at night and during the day. I woke up at dawn and walked out into the woods along a path until the mud stopped me from going further. There I sat and waited for almost two hours when I heard a massive animal crashing through the bush. That's gotta be a deer, I thought. But soon enough a kiwi popped out of the bush, looked around and started running up the path towards me. It jumped back on the other side of the trail just as a second kiwi popped out and began chasing the first. They pursued each other around me for a minute or so until bam!, the second one pounced. They squawked and jumped out right on top of me, ran over my feet and down the path, back into the bush again. I came here to spot a kiwi and, of course, I wasn't disappointed.

Stewart Island Kiwi, best photo I could take given the conditions. Mission accomplished.

Posted by axcordion 18:40 Archived in New Zealand Tagged oban whales new island bay zealand stewart kiwi mason rakiura beached Comments (0)

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