Posts Tagged ‘Preparation’

Not wanted on voyage

Thursday, August 18th, 2005
The Sealand Michigan

Reading through the paperwork sent by our international movers this afternoon, I noticed that they have even specified which container vessel they will be shipping our worldly goods on. A swift search on Google produced a good few pictures showing the 75,000 tonne Sealand Michigan, like the one above. Seeing all those containers stacked that way reminds me of nothing so much as a giant game of topple blocks and this image doesn’t sit well with the phrase ‘total loss insurance’ which features prominently in the shippers’ contract.

Pulled in all directions

Sunday, August 7th, 2005

This time next month, we will either be sleeping fitfully or watching cable TV in hotel rooms somewhere in Los Angeles, en route to the Cook Islands and ultimately our new life in New Zealand. Actually, as things stand at present, it is far from certain that we’ll have even got that far on our journey by then. Currently, we find ourselves in one of those Catch-22 situations where everything hinges on everything else and no-one involved seems particularly bothered about the outcome. Therein lies the naked truth of the matter: this is our family choice, not the removal company’s; this is our life-changing decision, not the immigration service’s; this is our leap-in-the-dark, not the estate agent’s. The place we find ourselves in is one of our own choosing and of our own making. We have wished all the chaos and confusion, all the bickering and spousal frustration, all the endless sibling disagreements on ourselves. As I type, we are awaiting news from our prospective buyer’s solicitor as to the date when we might reasonably expect to exchange contracts and move out. This is an improvement on last week, when we discovered that the same person had not only gone on holiday but had done so mistakenly believing that we had chosen not to go ahead with the sale of our flat. In turn, this has meant that we have had to delay the two-day pack and load session by the movers who will ship our belongings to New Zealand. As a consequence of this, there is a very good chance that our provisionally booked flights and connections will now have to be rescheduled, assuming that we can find six seats on the same flights and the same routes we had planned but later in the week.

Sitting in the sun-dappled garden of our friend’s house yesterday, I listened, as if to someone else, as we once again explained why we have chosen to leave all we know and love to move to the other side of the world without any guarantee that we will still want, let alone be able, to stay there. An outside observer might have caught an exchanged look between our friends or heard a slight hollowness in the oft-repeated phrases we trotted out yet, with redundancy just weeks away and a home far too small for a family of six, it still feels like exactly the right thing to do. As I cycled through London’s Hyde Park on the way to work one morning last week, a persistently vague thought began to crystallise and come into focus. As with almost everything in our lives, soon this journey will no longer be part of my daily routine and, although it will be replaced with journeys and activities as yet unknown, there are only a handful of such journeys in London left before me. In recent weeks, I have often find myself thinking “This’ll be the last time I do this” or “I wish I had time to do that before we go”, not so much with sadness as curiosity, as if I’d not expected to feel this way which, if I’m honest, is the truth. I had not expected to feel so attached to places, so bound to people, so linked to things around me.

Is this then an integral part of many an emigrant’s experience, a longing for things not yet lost, a mourning for an old life not yet finished? For me, it is not unlike the feelings I experienced when I knew a friend was losing his battle against cancer; bereft, disbelieving, empty and with so much to say yet unable to find the right words in the short time left. Now, almost a year after his death, I still keep his name and number on my mobile phone, as if I can still just call and talk to him. So, with the time for our departure coming up fast, perhaps I am seeking the emigrant’s equivalent of my friend’s telephone number, a talisman of my old life that I can carry into my new one. For me, with this thought comes a pleasing connection to a small act of kindness by a Kiwi friend a couple of years ago. She was travelling home to see her family before emigrating with her partner from the UK to Canada. Amongst her leaving gifts and good luck cards, I placed a small envelope which contained a small, faded yellow and green friendship bracelet which had recently worn through and finally snapped. This I had worn since the day my daughter made it and tied it around my wrist so, whilst I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, I was unsure of what to do with it. My friend’s departure provided inspiration and so, in the accompanying note, I asked that she bury the bracelet somewhere in New Zealand to act as a ‘magnet’ which, if the attraction was strong enough, would draw us there. I’m not normally given to such gestures or talk of destiny and usually find such sentiment mawkish in others. However, there’s no denying that I find myself more than tempted to believe that that small tattered bracelet, made with a daughter’s love and worn with a father’s pride, beckons our family southwards and will do so until we answer the call. It seems that we simply have to take this step to continue our journey as a family, no matter where it takes us.

Closer to the dream

Saturday, July 9th, 2005

Six or so weeks on from my last post, there now appears to be very little that stands in the way of us moving to New Zealand…other than the fact that I have not been able to secure a job that will allow us to secure right of residency visas there. Whilst this is often the single most important factor in any planned immigration, it is also the hardest to achieve remotely unless one’s professional skills are deemed to be in short supply and qualify for Skilled Migrant status.

After much consultation with friends, advisors and recruitment folks in New Zealand, we have decided to relocate regardless. The deciding factor in this is that I am to made redundant from my position in the UK at the end of August. Rather than focus on trying to secure a short-term position here whilst I continue to hunt for a position 12,000 miles away, we have decided to sell our flat and car, pack all our belongings into a 40ft container bound for the southern hemisphere, buy 6 return tickets and head for London’s Heathrow Airport. Although we have yet to book our flights, we are currently thinking of flying with Air New Zealand as they have generous baggage allowances for emigrees – essential for families that are 5/6ths female and fashion-conscious. Given we haven’t had a family break this year, we are also considering breaking up the journey with a couple of stopovers, perhaps a couple of days in California (Los Angeles is an Air NZ hub) followed by another four or five days in the Cook Islands. The additional costs appear to be small and I feel we’d benefit both physically and mentally from the break.

Once there, I’ll concentrate on getting a work-to-residency or skilled migrant position whilst the family find their feet. Rae and Peter, the parents of one of our Kiwi friends here in London, have kindly offered their bach (beach house) for us to use as our initial base. Located an hour or so north of Wellington, it will provide us with a ‘sponsored’ abode for our visitor and student visas as well as a base for house and job hunting. Furthermore, as I am not restricting my job hunting to just Wellington, the airport at Palmerston North 40 kms away may prove to be handy if I need to fly to Auckland, Christchurch or Dunedin.

Despite all this activity and planning, we are still in a state in bemused denial. Other people emigrate, we say, not us. It is always us seeing folks off on their travels, not the other way around. Yet, all being well, it will soon be us climbing on board a plane, ready to swap years of dreaming and planning for new beginnings in a new country.

Sixty days

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

Sixty days is a significant period of time. Wars are won, fortunes lost, regimes toppled and new hope raised in less time. All of which is my way of acknowledging that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since I last wrote here. In the intervening time, my attention has been almost entirely taken up with the mundane and the humdrum, the ins and outs of everyday life. That said, thoughts of a new life and emigration have always been there, surfacing into conscious thought when time and space have allowed.

One of the key reasons behind the lack of updates was the fact that my blog became more widely known in my workplace than I was comfortable with. For this reason, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and allowed things to cool off for fear of causing problems for myself. Whilst I am keen to resume regular blogging here, I am not quite ready for ‘no holds barred’ posting just yet. Suffice to say, we have been making steady progress with our plans, working away at the myriad tasks and to-dos that need to be attended to in order to even think about moving to the other side of the world.

More, more regularly, soon.

The supermodel in my bed

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

In the week since I have returned home, I have woken in the night more than a few times, bidden by my bodyclock to be doing something other than sleep. The first few seconds of wakefulness have been typified by uncomprehending confusion for, no matter how familiar the surroundings of my bedroom might appear in the minutes that follow, my first thought is a conviction that I am in an airport hotel somewhere in New Zealand. My next thoughts are that I don’t know where the toilet is and, more worryingly, I’m in bed with a woman. In the agonising seconds that follow, one half of my befuddled brain tries to work out where the toilet is whilst the other half desperately ponders on how I am going to explain the woman in bed to SWMBO. After what can be no more than ten or more seconds, there comes the slow and blessed realisation that I am actually in my own bedroom and the sleeping form next to me is in fact the wife and not some Kiwi supermodel who would stop at nothing to prevent my return to the UK.

Having never travelled to the other side of the world and back before, I have no idea whether this sort of behaviour is normal after long haul flights or in fact I’m undergoing some sort of forty-something mental meltdown. After a week, I am seemingly back to normal and confident that the three-in-a-bed activities of the last week are behind me. That said, the disturbed sleep and disorientation has served to emphasise two things to me; just how far away New Zealand is and, somewhat surprisingly, how quickly my consciousness adapted to the solitary existence of such a road trip. Although the phrase is a little over-worn, ‘alone not lonely’ would be a fair way of describing my time in New Zealand for, whilst there were periods of lonliness in which I missed SWMBO and the kids, I was very fortunate to meet some wonderful people. These people ranged from bus drivers and waiters to the siblings and parents of folks I know and, without exception, each and everyone of them enhanced my trip. So, in the fervent hope that I will avoid gushing like a starlet at the Oscars, I would like to mention a few of those who helped make my visit the experience it was.

Linda, Gideon, Susie, David and Amy for their hospitality, friendship and good humour. There are not many busy families who will alter their plans in minutes to welcome a jetlagged semi-stranger so warmly – and then invite him back twice more. If ever there were a family who embody what we envisage for ourselves, we need look no further.

Rita and Steve for their generosity of time and advice. Steve gave up a whole day to give me a whirlwind tour of Auckland’s suburbs and amenities, introducing me to the culinary delights of pies and fresh Kiwi produce then fitting in a quick swim in the Pacific before joining Rita for a wonderful dinner and an evening of great conversation.

Di and Paul for taking me to my first English theme pub to watch my first Super 12 game…and then taking me to an Irish theme pub after Ireland beat England in the Six Nations.

Rae and Peter who made the diversion to Palmerston North so worthwhile, offering me the biggest lunch of the trip and a marvellous drive through the Manawatu-Wanganui countryside – not to mention Rae’s waist-expanding cream tea picnic!

Brenda (to whom I can now put a face after years of swapping emails on a mailing list), who knows a great place for organic coffee and muffins and kindly invited me for Friday afternoon drinks with the open source geeks at Catalyst, with whom I talked computing, politics and semantics whilst playing table tennis with a bat in one hand and a beer in the other before joining Brenda for a late supper with her partner Callum.

Tammy and Mike who took a few hours away from launching their Move2NZ migrant website to show me the delights of Christchurch, Governor’s Bay and Rapaki and provide me with a wealth of advice that only experienced migrants would know.

I spoke to a great many people who, in their professional capacities, provided me with advice concerning immigration, employment and relocation. Although it is my intention to write on the more practical aspects of our emigration experience elsewhere, I would like to especially mention Isobel, Gwenda and the team at SearchWorks who, being great folks to deal with, even lent me a desk and phone when Princes Charles’ visit threatened to make me homeless in Wellington. Honourable mentions are also due to Phil at Candle, Nathalie at Momentum, Shelley at OCG, Brenda at WestPac, Gillian at Drake, James at Comspek and Bruce, Sara, Tracey and Patrick at Duncan & Ryan.

In closing, I would like to point out that the supermodel featured at the beginning of this piece is, of course, an attention-grabbing literary device and nothing else. Really.

my lo-fi ears are listening to Broken Stones/Paul Weller

Vox pop

Tuesday, March 15th, 2005


Christchurch is often held to be the most English of New Zealand’s cities but I have to say that I really can’t see it. I’ll freely admit the River Avon, which runs a curling course through the city, has a certain Oxbridge flavour, but I’d venture that most folks wouldn’t make the the connection were it not for the punts that ply the river. Laid out on a rough grid, Christchurch has more than a little of the North American town feel about it, helped in no small measure by the wide streets, diagonal crosswalks and shopping malls crowded with teenagers. However, for me, the very centre of the city clustered around Cathedral Square and the people I met there said more about Christchurch than the suburbs that lay beyond. Looking at a plan of the city, one can see that Cathedral Square is actually more of a Cathedral diamond, with the perimeter road on three of it’s sides offset from the surrounding network of streets by 45 degrees. The eastern side of the diamond is taken up with the cathedral itself, the two-tone stone work of the bell tower and nave standing out against the hotch-potch of building styles around the square. Elsewhere, trees offer shade to those who pause to listen to the local cod philosopher who takes centre stage with his soap box, whilst police officers watch from their mirror-glassed turret. However, it was on the southwest side of the square, amongst the cafe tables and market stalls, that I found what for me was Christchurch’s trump card – open, friendly people.

Take Diane. A Maori originally from the Wellington area, she moved to Christchurch and now makes a living selling pounamu or greenstone jewellery carved by Maori from raw materials collected from the West Coast. After I had browsed her stall for a while, she came over to tell me I was more than welcome to pick pieces up or try them on. From this inauspicious beginning, we struck up a half hour conversation that ranged from the relative merits of New Zealand cities to the politics of biculturalism. Needless to say, we parted with me a little poorer in the pocket department but a little wiser in knowledge and a lot happier in spirit. In need of a little refreshment, I wandered across to Steve’s Caffeine Machine coffee stand which, it turned out, is a micro-society all of it’s own. The eponymous owner, in a peaked cap and impenetrable shades, is a voluble, one-man marketing campaign for all things Kiwi and, seemingly, defender against what he sees as the gradual invasion of ‘American’ values and culture. Whilst holding forth on the need for continuing re-investment in the New Zealand economy, Steve doles out Seattle-style frappacinos and lattes without irony. He works amidst hand written signs ranging from innocuous observations like “Smiles – they cost nothing and are worth millions” to the more cryptic “Please ask questions – so we can help”. A constant flow of regulars engage him in conversation and it would seem that Steve takes care to retain and recall the little details in their lives in the same way a best friend would. In the space of an hour, I heard folks confess relationship problems to him, ask him for business advice and, in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, a self-professed ex-bank robber complain about his bank – not the one he robbed, one presumes – retaining his cash card. Not wanting to miss out when I stopped by the next day but unable to conjure up a conversational gem, I lamely said “I really liked my coffee yesterday, so I came back”. “Great” says Steve with a dead pan expression “but did you tell 500 other people?”

Feeling the need for sea air, I headed out to New Brighton on the eastern fringe of the city the following day. With summer fading, New Brighton gave off that end-of-season seaside town vibe and walking down the esplanade felt like arriving at a party that was just finishing. The surf school was shut and the air temperature on the cool side of just warm enough, so those restaurants that were open were getting by on a handful of late season punters like me. In an effort to justify a decent lunch, I donned my wind-proof jacket and marched along the town’s pier, which I had last seen on TV when Billy Connolly had used it as a vantage point from which to view an enormous sand drawing. At the very end, I came upon what turned out to be a group of Korean fishermen and, through the universal language of hand gestures and smiles, I managed to gather that they were line-fishing for crab though I could see no sign that pointed to any success in their endeavours. Pausing on my return to read a sign dictating allowable quotas for such fishermen, I fell into conversation with a couple who turned out to be natives not only of my home country but also my home county. Janet and John (no,really), originally from Barnet and Welwyn Garden City but now resident in Hamilton after many years away from England, had flown down to Christchurch to see Neil Diamond in concert and were taking a few days to unwind before heading back to the North Island. We dawdled back along the pier, chatting about places we had in common and what New Zealand had to offer for those raising a family, with Janet and John passing on the wisdom of those who had been there and done that. At the pier car park, we parted with a firm handshake and I went in search of lunch.

Although I spent less time in Christchurch than I did in Auckland and Wellington, I warmed to its charm and its people. From the horse riding waitress at the Olive Tree cafe to the delightfully ditzy Japanese server in the sushi bar, the sophisticated film buff selling cinema tickets to the monosyllabic Chinese chef, Christchurch seems to be populated with people who have a lust for life and a genuine interest in the company of others.

South into autumn

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Picton – Kaikoura – Christchurch

The Interislander Ferry advertising around Wellington asks potential passengers how they would prefer to cross the Cook Strait – ‘zip across or cruise across?’ I had originally intended to ‘cruise’ across in three hours on a traditional ship but I was informed that the crossing I wanted wasn’t sailing (though apparently it did after all). Keen to maximise the time time I had left in Wellington, I decided to book on the last afternoon crossing of The Lynx, a catamaran that provides a high speed service which ‘zips’ between the North and South Islands in two and a quarter hours. As it turned out, this proved to be a good move as my last meeting in Wellington proved to be an interesting one and lasted much longer than I had anticipated, leaving me just enough time to change out of my suit before heading off to hand the car back and board the boat.

The Lynx, with its gun metal grey superstructure and wide bridge, is an unusual looking boat in that it would not be out of place in a science fiction movie. This formidable-looking vessel sits high out of the water on its twin hulls and, once beyond the harbour, the two powerful diesel engines propel it at a impressive rate of knots, leaving two enormous ‘rooster tails’ of spray and foam in it’s three-striped wake. The mostly enclosed design of the boat means that deck areas open to passengers are limited to a rear-facing platform at the back and a small area forward, just behind the panoramic windows of the bridge. The former proved to be fine in harbour but once up to speed in the choppier waters of the Strait, the spray and diesel fumes drove most folks back inside. However, the spray combined with the day’s sun to create rainbows just off the stern of the craft which brought many back out briefly to photograph. Once into the stunning Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound, the Lynx slowed considerably. This, I understand, is in an effort to minimise coastal erosion which many say is worsened by the ferry. The passage between the steep fir-clad slopes was jaw-droppingly beautiful and, as I drank it all in, I wondered just how on Earth I could convey the view without ending up knee deep in meaningless superlatives. After no small amount of thought, I’m not sure I can; suffice to say, the last hour of the crossing was spent passing secluded bays with a house or two at the water’s edge, each having a jetty or boathouse with the vessel moored alongside possibly the only means of visiting some, as the terrain is very steep and there was little evidence of tracks or roads.

Picton itself is a small town with a sheltered bay harbour that looks barely large enough to turn the larger ferries in. It sits at the foot of a valley that winds down between Mt Duncan and Mt McCormick and, driving away from the the town in my second hire car, I found myself (not for the last time) mumbling inanities as each corner in the road produced yet another gorgeous view. With summer almost at an end and autumn moving slowly over the land like the ever-present clouds above, the Alpine meadows, river plain grasslands, gorge scrub and crops have all taken on a variety of brownish or greenish hues. After a while, it occurred to me that I was looking at the sort of haphazard patchwork of colours that must have inspired the invention of camouflage material (or Disruptive Pattern Material in military-speak). Over laying this background were more vivid greens, smoky whites and silvers of the trees whilst the streams and rivers trickling under the road had a milky opalescence, like that of the ‘glacier milk in mountain-fed rivers of the Swiss uplands. Many of the rivers are mere summer shadows of their winter selves, small rivulets meandering through wide expansive gravel beds that show the true width of the river once the rain comes. Each of these is neatly signposted by the roadside with small yellow marked that bear names like Telegraph Gully, Caroline Stream and, most curiously, Jedi Culvert. More often the names are family names, probably of those who settled and cultivated the valleys and coastal plains hereabouts a hundred years ago. I say one hundred years ago for I passed more than one place that proudly proclaimed ‘Settlement Centennial – 2005’ next to it’s name sign with details of planned festivities.

With the bulk of the ‘business’ part of my trip over, I relaxed into a more reflective mood as I drove. The single lane highways here are deceptive and demand respect from local and visitor alike. Although I have seen little of the poor driving some Kiwis warned me of, the new government road safety campaigns on the roadside and the television each evening attest to a death and injury rate far too high for such a small population. With this in mind, lighter traffic than the North Island and with no pressing deadlines, I snaked through steep narrow passes and wafted along arrow straight sections, rarely exceeding the 100kph limit and happy to hold station between the truck up ahead in the distance and whoever was in my mirror. Although cooler than previous days, I kept the window open to allows the smell of the land and the sea, ever present somewhere to my right, to compliment the view. The early afternoon brought me to the towns and suburbs north of Christchurch, which is to be the last city I will visit. Although I had planned to drive further south, my planning from 12,000 miles away didn’t allow for much slippage in my schedule. With it becoming clear early in my journey that I needed to focus my efforts, initially at least, in Auckland and Wellington where the vast majority of opportunities in my field exist, something had to give. Needing at least three more days and a further 750 kilometres’ driving to get there and back to meet folks, it was Dunedin that had to be chopped from the itinerary and I am sad that I shall not be able to complete my trip as planned. Having said that, I deliberately built some flexibility into the trip and it may just be that my ability to stay on longer in Auckland and Wellington when required to do so makes all the difference to the desired outcome. I shall have to wait and see.

Trapped wind

Monday, March 7th, 2005


Like most other things here, Wellington’s views are dependent upon the weather and it’s not for nothing that folks here refer to the city as Windy Wellington. A Kiwi explained to me that, given the predominantly hilly nature of New Zealand, the winds roaring between the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea seek the path of least resistance. As far as the North Island is concerned, other than the lowlands around Palmerston North between the Ruahine and Tatarua Ranges, the Cook Strait offers the perfect tunnel for such winds to follow and this means that most days here are at the least breezy. In just four days, I have experience blazing sun, tropical downpours, sultry & humid nights and 100kph plus winds. That said, I find the general climate very conducive and cannot say that the wind is obtrusive, though it is summer and so I have not felt the worst the winters here have to offer.

The wind is channelled by the surrounding hills so inevitably, if you move beyond the tight confines of downtown Wellington, sooner or later you have to go uphill. On the advice of a Kiwi colleague, I drove up to the summit of Mount Victoria, the hill that dominates the city’s eastern suburbs. From here, you can get a truly impressive 360 degree panorama of the city and the surrounding countryside. Using my digital camera to take a 45 second video clip of this panorama proved nigh impossible, for I was trying to do so in what I later read were winds gusting to 104kph. That said, it was well worth the effort, even if it took a good few minutes to wipe the dust from my eyes afterwards. For those who choose to eschew their cars in order to explore on foot but still wish to get into the hills, the venerable cable car makes easy work of the 1:5 gradient ascent from Lambton Quay in the heart of the CBD to the Botanic Gardens and observatory perched above the city. Once there, the various lookouts allow great views across the city and the harbour beyond. Despite buying a return ticket, I chose to walk back downtown via the Botanic Gardens and the Bolton Street Memorial Park. The former are a delight even for those who, like myself, cannot tell a hardy annual from a Hardy Boys Annual and there are sections that are dedicated to protecting indigenous species that are threatened in the wild here in New Zealand. As with Auckland, everywhere you find greenery, you’ll hear the high-pitched chirrup of cicadas. An expert, answering questions on the radio a few day’s back, explained that louder a male cicada is, the more likely he is to secure a female companion. If that is true, all I can say is there must be some out there who haven’t been getting any for a good while now, for they are loud little buggers.

Half way back, I stopped at the Begonia House Cafe for an ice cream, which is one of the delights that New Zealand has to offer foodies. Here in a large gazebo adjacent to the lovely rose gardens, tea and cakes were being served to whitehaired over 60s by dreadlocked under 20s whilst the cafe’s sound system pumped out a thumping garage/metal soundtrack. Incongruous though it sounds, everyone seemed to be more than happy with this arrangement as I settled down with my gin and tonic flavoured ice cream to take in the atmosphere and soak up the sun. Near a peace garden dedicated to the memory of those killed at Hiroshima and the eradication of nuclear weapons, I watched a cluster of small brown birds cheekily bob to and fro at my feet, awaiting the inevitable crumbs that ice cream cones provide. It was with surprise that I realised I was watching what appeared to be sparrows and it occurred to me just how infrequently we now see them in London, a place where their ubiquity once gave rise to the term ‘cockney sparrah’. Walking on, I passed the imposing statue of R.J. Seddon, a popular reforming Prime Minister who took New Zealand forward into the 20th century with the emancipation of women (despite his own reservations that this might ‘unsex’ them), and entered the Bolton Street Memorial Park. This once served as Wellington’s multi-denominational cemetery with sectarian areas set aside for Catholics and Jews alongside the larger Public area. The construction of Wellington’s Urban Motorway in the 1960s cleaved the Park in two and required the disinternment of the remains of 3,700 people, who were reinterned in a mass grave and their headstones distributed elsewhere in the cemetery. According to the register in the nearby chapel’s exhibition, two of these folks were sisters or mother and daughter who died two days apart almost exactly 119 years ago to the day of my visit have my surname, a small and nugget I shall pass to my father who is an avid genealogist.

Whilst these occasional wanderings and my writing might indicate otherwise, ‘downtime’ has been rare and I spent the majority of my time fully focused on chasing down relocation opportunities. The efforts of two and a half week’s worth of meetings, emails, property searches and telephone calls to recruiters and headhunters have culminated in two firm leads and my last two days in Wellington are dedicated to exploiting these, hopefully through to a positive result. Whilst this trip is definitely not a holiday and I had fully anticipated some low moments, the time and effort expended here has taken a certain toll on my usual positive and humourous outlook. Travelling on business is trying enough but at least then there is a solid focus to your day and the security of a certain structure to draw upon for support. Whilst exciting and notwithstanding the potential for the future, striking out into what is unknown territory for me, without the familiarity of family and colleagues, has been a challenge in some respects. Cultural differences, both of the business and societal kinds, mean that one can occasionally be caught off-guard no matter how much preparation you have done. Subtle differences in conventions and customs often leave you keeping one eye open for signals and signs to keep you on the right track. It goes without saying that, as a family man, I miss the ebb and flow of family life: the roast dinner on Sundays, the ‘what did you do at school today?’ conversations, the little daily rituals we all take for granted and, yes, as one man in a house with five women, even the queue for the bathroom. Such things are uppermost in my mind as I write for, should I secure a position and need to return to NZ ahead of the family, it is something I will have to deal with and quite possibly for a good deal longer. As things stand, I still have at least one more meeting to attend but I plan to spend the few remaining days enjoying things at a slightly less hectic pace as I cross to the South Island and head to Christchurch via Kiakoura and the coastal highway. That said, I will admit to counting down the days until I can see my wife and kids in the flesh, rather than having to make do with photos and voices on the other end of a telephone line.

Sitting on the dock of the bay

Saturday, March 5th, 2005

Wellington Harbour

Wellington is a city that hangs between land and water. Whether looking out from a viewpoint on the steep hills surrounding the downtown area or sitting with your legs dangling over the blue water, one is always aware of the sea and the hills. As with many coastal cities around the globe, Wellington’s growth has necessitated expansion and, whilst some homes here are built on precariously steep slopes above the dowtown area, much of the growth has been out into the bay. On the pavement of Lambton Quay, a thriving shopping street a couple of blocks from the water, brass markers set in the ground mark the shoreline of the original quay during the nineteenth century and show just how much the city has grown. Similarly, Wellington has exploited it’s waterfront in order to provide a wonderful buffer zone where folks can escape the traffic and noise to take in the view and soak up the sun. On a walk along the harbour’s edge the day after I arrived, I was able to get a sense of Wellington, how the hills form a natural arena to the stage of the bay, how the sun always seems to find a way through the ever-present cloud cover and how the water is an every day part of the locals’ life.

Take the school children of Wellington for instance. Whilst my eldest are braving the snow and sleet to battle their way home from school, the young uniformed boys alighting from the Dominion Post ferry sped from the gangplank on their silver scooters like a star burst of clockwork toys, little legs propelling them towards the freedom of the afternoon. Some joined their elder schoolmates on a pontoon where they dived from the stanchions and ‘bombed’ each other in a show of bravado that was half for the tourists but more so for the young girls of the local colleges hereabouts. Mind you, these delicate flowers of Kiwi womanhood were not here to gaze idly at these arrogant fellows for they had converged here on the watersports lagoon to practise for this weekend’s dragonboat racing. Marshalled by jovial but competitive coaches, they were sent on warm-up runs round the area or, in the case of late-comers from one school who had forgotten essential kit, made to jump into the water by way of a good-natured reprimand. Most had a sock tied around one knee like a bandage, presumably to prevent bruising against the boat though this gave the impression of each team being mostly comprised of walking wounded. Out on the water, the dragonboaters jostled for space with more serious-looking peers who had headed out from a neighbouring boatshed on single or double sculls. All of this activity was overseen by a number of safety boats carrying lifesavers and coaches with bull horns but there were others busy elsewhere in the harbour. Attracted by a large cluster of onlookers, I wandered over to find a team of New Zealand Navy divers tugging and hauling an inflatable salvage buoy towards the rocky harbour’s edge. It transpired that they were cleaning up the harbour – though it has been officially denied this was prompted by Prince Charles’ visit next week – and their catch comprised a rusting chassis complete with wheels, which was duly placed on a trailer for removal. This was then surrounded by men who all enjoyed a heated debate over exactly what model of vehicle the hulk was before entering the harbour. As this cleanup was taking place, helicopters from the small dockside heliport spiralled above us whilst transpacific jets slide along an invisible bannister into the city’s airport beyond the hills, the pilots making short work of Wellington’s famous ever-present wind.

The weekend’s local Dominion Post newspaper reports that Americans and Europeans working on kiwi Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong are raving about Wellington and the surrounding countryside, just as Sir Ian McEllern and others working on Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy did before them. Sadly and almost inevitably, they compare it with California and Hawaii, though to my mind and many others, I think that to do so is to ignore the unique feel of ‘differentness’ there is about Wellington. With a strong showing of public art around the area and carved tablets of poetry dotted here and there, not to mention the Te Papa museum, events centre and the many bars and restaurants, it is easy to see how the city’s waterfront captures not only peoples’ imagination, but their hearts too.

In-A-State Highway

Thursday, March 3rd, 2005

Auckland to Wellington by road

To anyone used to the motorways of Britain, the Interstate Highways of the U.S. or the autobahn of Germany, New Zealand’s State Highway 1 might come as a bit of a surprise. In around 660 kilometres, it takes you from one thrusting urban streetscape to another, via bland suburbia, through rolling farmlands, river-worn valleys and even a stretch of tundra desert. However, whilst one is more than prepared for the landscape to change frequently on such a road trip, what is less common is for the road itself to change to a significant degree. Yet, in the space of eight hours, I and my fellow southbound motorists drove along everything from multi-lane expressways of smooth asphalt to dust and gravel.

Leaving Auckland on the Southern Motorway is pretty much like leaving any other city by road with traffic lights, filter lanes and fumes soon giving way to the synchronised lane surfing and whine of tyre noise of high speed trunk roads. This very recognisable system bore me as far as Mercer before the Southern Motorway metamorphosed into the State Highway 1 as I would know it until I reached Mana, 25 kilometres north of Wellington. For the vast majority of the journey SH1, as it is known, consists of one lane and a wide driveable shoulder in each direction, supplemented by slow vehicle and overtaking lane combinations every now and then. In my vast experience of exactly one southbound trip, this set up proved to be more than adequate, allowing me to make reasonable time without getting stuck behind too many road trains and slower cars. This is probably just as well given that, as of last weekend, the NZ Police can now endorse drivers’ licences with ‘demerit’ points for 32 offences, ranging from the usual speeding and traffic signal offences to the seemingly rather pedantic ‘driving too far out from the left hand kerb’ crime. I was periodically reminded to curb any such enthusiasms by passing those getting ‘nicked’ at the roadside, including a coach driver whose charges watched his admonishment from the comfort of their air-conditioned seat while he squirmed. Secondly, a good few Kiwi friends had warned of, how shall we put this, a certain relaxed attitude to car safety and sloppy driving and this was borne out in the Government’s blunt and often graphic road safety posters along the route.

Long stretches through gorgeous rolling farmland and pine plantations made for easy driving with lovely views across the fertile meadows to the hills and ranges beyond and reminded me of my travels through rural Virginia and Maryland in the U.S. In a landscape so pastoral, one is lulled into by the bucolic charm, so much so that the odd rare industrial structure like the Huntly Power Station and the geothermal works north of Taupo hit you like a slap in the face. Conversely, it is perhaps ironic that the grain silos and barn-like farm machinery dealerships dotted along the route only seem to reinforce the American analogy. If any further confirmation were needed, it is readily available in the form of the signs welcoming you to each town along the route. When town elders have gone to the trouble of ensuring that you know that you entering the ‘Peanut Capital of New Zealand’ or that their dot on the map is ‘Hometown, N.Z.’, it seems churlish to do anything but take them at their word. This I had to do as my tight time schedule left me no time to stop and take in the sights or explore the wonders promised by signs pointing away from the highway. Whilst I cursed my lack of time, I also knew that if I kept focused on the matters at hand and the prime reason for this trip, there’d be time enough for such things in the future.

After dropping down into Taupo and skirting it’s eastern shore whilst taking in the view, I passed through Turangi and the road started to climb again, taking me into the Tongariro National Park. Those who have seen Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy would be more than familiar with the view west as you take the Desert Road south from Rangipo. Mount Ngauruho, with it’s snow filled gulleys and cloud-obscured peak is instantly recognisable as Mount Doom and the land on it’s northern slopes as the Plains Of Gogoroth. As I followed a lumbering logging truck up the the switchbacks and onto the plateau, I passed men working on rebuilding the washed-out road over the aptly named, pampas-covered Black Swamp. As I crested the rise, it became clear why the Desert Road is so named. Having passed large gates and a road open/closed/diversion information board back near Rangipo, I was puzzled until I saw the Rangipo Desert. This desert is not of the sand dune Arabian type so beloved by Lawrence but more akin to the vast steppes of Russia or windblown tundra of Iceland. Although this fifty kilometre stretch was without habitation, it was far from deserted as I found out when, driving cautious through a dust cloud, I almost ran over a young lad sitting in a patio chair in the road. The dust made the ‘stop/go’ lollipop in his hand pretty redundant and he waved me on without so much as a glance in the direction I assumed his opposite number was located. Proceeding with some care, I drove on past more guys fixing the road and continued on my way south through the bleak but beguiling landscape. Further on, I spotted the more usual fast moving and camouflaged inhabitants of the desert, namely the armoured divisions of the New Zealand Army, who were about their business far beyond the ‘Do not stray more than 20m form the highway’ signs that keeps Joe Public on the straight and narrow. The army also makes up the majority of the population of Waiouru, the first town settlement south of the desert. Pulling into the gas station to fill up the car, pick the flies from my teeth and answer nature’s call, I felt like a character in a road movie and all that was missing was the tumbleweed. Waiting in line for the fuel pump, I cleaned the windscreen with the squeegee provided and looked down the road towards the Army Museum. Turning back, I was approached by a woman whose reddened face testified that she’d known many hot, windy days and cold desert nights. After filling the tank, she preceded to clean the windscreen and I joked that maybe she thought this Pom hadn’t done a good job first time. She smiled, flushed an even deeper red and we shared a good laugh and a few words before I paid and moved on.

From here on, SH1 is slowly but surely drawn south west towards the coast across flat wide lands which were under grain, crops or pasture. After a dogleg through the wonderfully named Bulls and turning south again at Sanson, a Brit could be mistaken for thinking that the Romans had been here, as the road runs in an almost straight line down to Levin. Foxton, some two-thirds of the way down this stretch, is the home town of Kiwi friends back in the UK and, whilst I was unable to swing east to see their family in Palmerston North, I did stop at the most fine and supremely clean public toilets there by way of homage. Another Kiwi colleague had issued a very clear warning about the heat haze and mirage that occurs on these undulating straight roads. Driving towards the sun, it was easy to see how folks could pull out into the opposite lane to overtake only to have a vehicle suddenly spring from a shimmering patch of silver straight into a head-on collision. Content to take my place in a small convoy of cars, I continued towards the capital, trying to ignore the tempting signs indicating that warm beaches and inviting water lay just a few kilometres to my west. That said, nothing prepared me for the sudden arrival of the Tasman Sea’s vast expanse on my right hand side as I passed the last buildings of Paekakariki at the top end of Pukerua Bay. From here, it was just 20 kilometres until the Johnsonville Porirua Motorway that would draw me, past the superbly-named Colonial Knob, through the suburbs that nestle in the valleys north of Wellington. This changed into the Wellington Urban Motorway without my noticing and, within minutes, my exit ramp spat me down into the narrow streets of the district of Thorndon. Here, I pulled slowly to a halt at the kerb to rub my tired eyes and reach for the city map whilst, outside the car, the famous Wellington wind lifted the skirt of a passing pedestrian in a saucy salute of welcome.