This is a series of posts from my old, now-defunct blog, Illumine. Collected here for posterity.
Notes from my Moleskine from our holiday to New Zealand. In mostly non-sequential order.
We awake too early, blearily—the kind of hour one only keeps to embark on an expedition.
Dad picks us up, looking far too alert for this time of the morning. On the way, we’re nervous, and nervously reassure each other that anything we’ve forgotten we can buy there. Passport. Ticket. Each other. The important things have not been left behind.
Dad drops us off and shakes my hand before he leaves—an odd, rare gesture in the context of our family, but not entirely unwelcome. We check our bags in, and find some coffee. It tastes like it’s been scraped from the wheels of a plane.
We pass a computer that provides coin-operated internet access. Amusingly, it seems to be running Ubuntu. Even more amusingly, it seems to have crashed entirely and irredeemably.
In the bookstores, I touch the Moleskines for good luck. I already have all the writing equipment I need, all provided from the gifts of others, a good sign I think. A little bit later, another good sign: the oddest selection for airport giftstore music ever—Battles—comes over the speakers, replacing some wafty sonic fluff.
We take our time getting through customs then the Duty Free, where M. selects some perfume, and I get a storage card for the camera that’s approximately 200 times bigger than the current one. We get to the gate for final call—something that never happens when we’re travelling with our parents.
Once we’re seated, I look out the window, and try and ignore how much a circumference of people and corresponding lack of space can freak me out. An STA bus drives along the runway. A few seconds later, like a live version of a captioned cartoon panel, a man in uniform runs along the tarmac in the same direction.
A group of Indonesians in Scout uniforms are the last to board, and they fill any remaining space with uniforms and skin of different shades in olive.
Eventually the plane begins to taxi and minor miracles happen, everyday miracles that are all the more because they are; the plane hurls/hurts itself forward, panting like a dog out of deep wells of engines, then slowly reverently it tiptoes into the air, up an invisible staircase. The ground drops below us; our perspective enlarges and shrinks. Finally, we break through a sweet layer of clouds that look like nothing but an unbroken, virgin piece of paper.
‘That’s why we didn’t go to the Sanhedrin that one time.’
‘Er, you mean the Sandringham? The Sanhedrin is like the Jewish something. It’s in the Bible.’
‘Yeah … isn’t it also a shape? Like, you know, dodecahedron … san … er, hedron?’
On the bus to Christchurch, the second most important news story on the radio, was how local boats were releasing waste into swimming areas, which says it all really.
Our dessert on the first night is so good, it’d be worth catching a unicorn for. It’s called the Chocolate Marquis. It tastes better than it sounds. It is, essentially, a Tia Maria-infused chocolate cake with a savour that rises and falls into your mouth like a symphony. Not to mention the supporting instrumentation of crisp almond biscotti, cappucino ice cream, fresh local fruit, cream and meringue.
The Avon River threads through the center of Christchurch and is like the people: fresh-faced and pleasant. Christchurch is all flat roads and striking, diverse architecture, jolly rotund busdrivers, and waitresses with charming noserings. The people are wonderfully friendly and nice enough to keep it to themselves until you ask.
I awake to Mary’s prodding, befuddled upon realizing just how good a sleep I have had, at least, that I had once I’d turned the electric blanket down from when Mary had set it to ‘Hellfire’.
We go down to a breakfast that has driven ordinary mortals to insanity, such was the magnificence and opulence of its creation.
Oh, I haven’t yet told you about our B&B so I’ll do that now. It’s beautiful: the accommodation M. picks usually is, but this is a gem. It’s historical, Victorian or something, with wood panels and ambitious staircase and high ceilings and attention to detail. The picturesque courtyard has a two-seater swing so we do.
The only thing bigger than our morning breakfast is the winsome collection, maybe that should be invasion, of teddy bears that overflows two cabinets and a few nearby armchairs and baskets. There is also a panda that snuck in when a literalist wasn’t looking.
After fending off breakfast, we walk into town and trip past the Street of Funky Clothing, which M. has heard about within about 2 seconds of landing. She is mystically attuned to these things and I am not privy to how.
Canoeing together down the Avon River is idyllic. We float, and we paddle. We stop sometimes to simply drift, and to watch the foliage of the Botanic Gardens strut discreetly past on either side. We scatter ducks and navigate past chaotic oarsmen in a double canoe, spinning like a fan. We laugh and drink the sun from our faces.
Dinner is Simo’s: a Moroccan restaurant, despite the name. The meal is sumptous. For entree, we eat olives and fresh bread and dukkah, lamb koftas and fresh falafel and prawns and shellfish. Halfway through our just-as-delicious mains, we call a surrender and get the rest as takeaway.
The next day we walk past a seven year old girl sitting on the grass, a teenaged girl stands close by, the approximate distance and eye-rolling look that indicates to the world that: yes, we might be linked somehow, but no, I’m in no way responsible for that. The seven year old said ‘please be quiet.’ We looked around, and no one had said anything. ‘Please be quiet.’ She said again, and then kept intoning. ‘Please Be quiet. Please Be Quiet. Please Be QUiet. PLEASE Be QUIet.’ With each repetition, she gets louder and louder, even as we keep walking, and as nobody else says a thing.
The teenager ignores the child with an intensity that teenagers usually reserve for brooding. We keep walking.
‘It’s like a modern performance art piece.’ Mary remarks a few moments later.
‘It only needs a kickdrum and it could have been a nineties techno hit.’ I reply, once I recover from my laughter.
New Zealand is impossibly picturesque. Of course, of course, of course it is. At every turn, people have stopped their cars on the side of the road, and are setting up tripods or balancing digital cameras on their car doors.
The sky is as blue and deep as the sea. And the sea is as blue and deep as old songs.
The mountains are whales. They lie sleeping, and they dream of truth that darkens like ink into water. Trees burst from their skin in clambering clumps, ebullient and clumsy.
New Zealand is a vandal and a coward. Liar. Slanderer. Thief.
Spider-like, it shrinks away at every turn. Like a mythical siren, it deceives and deceives.
Like the flirty girl in high school. She turns away from every photo. At the last moment. Calculated. Flaunty and proud.
It shatters lenses and breathes dust into storage cards: the blues will not be as blue as in your memory. The calm is not as calm.
It swallows up words like picturesque and gorgeous — their repetitions would fill one of New Zealand’s many picturesque and gorgeous valleys. It plays a dark magic to your pen: no one will ever see what you see, no matter the way of your telling.
One afternoon, halfway through our luxurious soups (me: fresh seafood chowder, M: tomato) we hear music coming from our left. We look around, but there’s only an old couple there. It takes us both a little while, and then we look around again. The old lady is half-humming, half-singing. It’s that Christmas hymn that goes ‘… and man should live forevermore, because Christ was born on Christmas day.’ She was either singing in Irish, or she’d forgotten the other words.
We stop at a lookout to see the seals. They are hilarious animals: corpulent and slothful. Occasionally they gnaw on themselves, but usually that’s too much effort, so they stretch and moan and otherwise just lie there. M. says they’re the Guan of the animal kingdom.
A short walk away there’s a sign for a waterfall. We go down the path—halfway in, we see three bikini-clad girls coming back the other way. They’re shivering like guitar strings, but they have serene, wondrous smiles.
‘Was it cold?’ M. asks.
They nod. ‘Freezing. But you should definitely go in. It’s brilliant.’ They smile once more and go.
We walk around the curve. It’s not as loud as I thought, like nature’s own feedback loop. It’s idyllic, peaceful though. The water is clear as hindsight. Pools stretch around and down, and ferns stand guard around about us like forgetful old men. It’s green and blue and green again. The sunlight is strained through the canopy.
We look at one another. I shrug. We strip down to underthings and step in. M. first. As soon as she’s in M. gasps and takes one swoop underwater and then goes to come back out but by then I’m in and cripes and criminy it is cold like a Maori has socked me in the gut and ripped the heat from my body cold enough so that your individual atoms put on scarves and gloves so I dip my head under and scamper out. My teeth go chatter chatter chatter.
We drip-dry and pray in the dappled sunshine. And once and again, life is beautiful.
Out on the water taxi, the whales sing loud. Songs of sadness that coruscate through your body. They come from every direction the songs: exhausting and haunting, until they vibrate your retinas every time you close your eyes. Communion songs, they sing.
We arrive at Craglee Lodge, and welcomed at the dock by Rosie. How do I begin to describe Rosie?
She’s warm and gregarious with a sense of humour too large for her body to fill. It’s an inclusive sense of humour too, and cheeky, every third one is about how old she feels, every second one is to test out your reactions, see if you’re in on the joke. When we arrive, our jolly young ferry drive leapson the deck to tease her about the blond bangs that hang over her face, and she takes a playful swipe at him. ‘Mind the grey bits.’ she yelps, then bursts into a low guffaw.
We meet the rest of the lodgers, and M. remarks that it feels like the cast of a murder mystery: John and Anne, a middle-aged couple out from England; their son, Phil, and his pregnant bride Jess; Olivia, a Fulbright Scholarship winning lawyer from Sydney, half-Asian, who met Jade in New York, and now live in Sydney together; and then there’s us. Whoever we are.
We hear this:
“You know that it was a Russian mail order bride filling out the visa application, when in the spot for husband’s name they’d filled in, ‘Yours Sincerely’.”
Jade is a Puerto Rican, Brooklyn-born and raised, who throws her whole body, her tiny self, into reenacting stories. She is hyperactive and paranoid. Everything is a disaster waiting to happen; everything is her overreacting to disasters that don’t. She buries her hands into her schoolboy haircut in mock anguish; her brown eyes blaze with laughter, how ridiculous she is. Words tumble out of her, like dice out of a cup. She swears with increasing volume and frequency, tripping over herself to try and convey her good-natured anguish.
We wake easily: the beds here are exuberant and comfortable.
We laze and eat and sleep our way into the mid-morning, then we take a kayak out into the pureness of the water. The water is silken and calm. Mary steers at the back. I paddle at the front.
On the return trip, we find our kayak surrounded by a fluther of jellyfish — translucent and calmly weird. They flock to our red boat like actors to praise. Their hemispheres wink at us lazily in the light. Half-invisible.
That night, we scurry out in robes to the outdoor baths they’ve prepared for us. By the candlelight, we let ourselves down into steaming hot baths. We peer into the blackness and the stars written within it; we give ourselves this luxury — we let ourselves feel small.
One shop in Nelson has a sign that reads, all in the same font and in all caps: ‘POWER YOGA TAPAS’.
‘Is it stages you go through? Or is it an incentive? One more sun salutation and you get an olive …’
We meet Craglee’s two budgies, called Les and Bo. Their mating capsule has not been used.
We breakfast with an intense young couple who are intense Labor devotees - they met during the election campaign. They are, of course, thrilled.
The drive over to Nelson is Janis Joplin.
Our accommodation here is the top floor of a stately manor near the beach. Everything inside is well-preserved and slightly past its prime, including the owners who live downstairs.
Nelson itself is markets and sun-faded hippies, people who wear straw hats seriously and awkardly named Oriental restaurants and bus tours and deep bookstores and arts and crafts markets. In one cafe, M. has a mug of coffee so large that the barista gives us a verbal warning before serving.
‘They’ve got the One Ring here. Well, one of the One Rings. Heh.’ ‘Huh? What’s that from? Lord of the Rings or something?’ ‘…’ ‘What?’ ‘… Sometimes I think I have accomplished nothing in this marriage.’
We do the Abel Tasman walk over a few hours. It rains on and off. It’s undeniably beautiful - the water stretches so far out to the horizon that it loops back and stretches over you as well and the seeing of so much blue is a kind of baptism, a kind of cleansing.
We stay in ‘The Castle’, but it ends up being a manor with a nickname.
Because of the rain, we throw it in and go to see the Darjeeling Limited: a likeable, diagonal film.
One of the best dinners we have is fish and chips on the third-last night. The highlight is M.’s who, because of her stomach, hasn’t eaten fast and/or fried food in years. ‘Oh man, is this why you get fried stuff all the time? This is amazing!’ etc. Somewhat predictably, later she is sick, and we walk down around the harbour of Nelson to ease her stomach.
And then, by and by, we make our way across the water for home.