juliamhammond

Oceania

East vs west: routes to New Zealand compared

I’m just back from my latest trip to New Zealand and this time took a different route, flying west from London to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland instead of the easterly route I followed before which took me via Singapore. Both flights were on a Boeing 777 but how do the routes compare and which do I recommend?

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West: via Los Angeles

I was tempted by an excellent Black Friday deal offered by Air New Zealand. By signing up to email alerts with Secret Flying (you might remember their tip off saw me travel business class from London to New York for under £350), I learned of a special offer. Fifty flights were on offer for just £399, which is exceptional value for a trip that takes 26 hours in the air westbound and 24 coming back. I went online and uploaded my details to the Air New Zealand site in preparation for the offer to go live, saving valuable minutes and ensuring I was one of the lucky recipients.

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In practice, one of the downsides to travelling in this direction is of course having to go through the US immigration process. An ESTA is required for UK passport holders even if they are only in transit; this costs about £10 but is valid for up to 2 years. I’ve just renewed mine and incidentally, it’s a more detailed form than before. On the outbound leg, passengers transiting on NZ1 were fast-tracked to some empty kiosks and desks which saved a fair bit of time on the regular queues. This wasn’t the case on the inbound leg, NZ2, when we were all directed to the main queue, adding about fifteen minutes to the process.

Though it isn’t necessary to fill out a customs form or clear customs, there’s still the requirement to queue through security. This took about fifteen minutes on both legs. NZ1 and NZ2 use the same plane for both legs, with suitcases remaining in the hold. Passengers must alight and take all hand luggage with them while the plane is cleaned and restocked. Some passengers only fly one of the legs. I found that the London to LA (and vice versa) part of the flight was considerably less full than the LA to Auckland segment.

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I had hoped to be seated in a Skycouch row. Air New Zealand’s trio seats on either side of the plane are fitted with pull out, sturdy padded footrests which can be converted into a couch. You have to pay extra for this and not all reports are good, with some travellers saying it’s hard for a couple to get comfortable enough to sleep. For a comprehensive review of Skycouch, why not take a look at this excellent review from etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/air-nz-skycouch-flying-cuddle-class-to-san-francisco/

As a solo traveller, to be able to guarantee the use of one of these would have signifcantly increased my fare. On the inbound LA to London leg, the Skycouch adjacent to my centre section aisle seat was vacant. Cabin crew did not permit me to use it, however. Instead they moved a mother and baby there which is fair enough as they were more in need of the space than me. However, this kindness resulted in the family being split on opposite sides of the aircraft. Throughout the flight they came and went, knocking my seat and making sleep difficult for me. The baby slept soundly like, well, a baby.

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The outbound leg was quicker than scheduled, taking 10 hours 30 minutes from London to LA, followed by a layover of 2 hours 5 minutes and then an onward flight of around 12 hours 30 minutes. Auckland Airport was very busy when we touched down around 5.15am and I wasn’t on the bus out of the airport until well after 7am. However, I was fortunate that my hotel room was available and after showering, enjoyed a pleasant day’s sightseeing without the need for a nap. Julia 1 Jetlag 0. Now I’m home, I can report to have been very tired for a few days but not very jetlagged as I was going to bed and waking at normal times.

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Verdict

Though transiting the USA wasn’t an issue and there was no danger of missing the second leg of the journey as it used the same aircraft, the short layover wasn’t enough to stretch my legs properly, take a shower or have a sleep in a proper bed. The food and entertainment were both above average, yet over such a long time in the air I found the time dragged, particularly on the second half of the journey. Also, so many seats required additional payment (for extra legroom, priority boarding or of course the Skycouch option) it meant that the availablity of my preferred aisle seat was very limited. I checked in online immediately the systems opened but even so, only three aisle seats were showing as available and no window seats.

East: via Singapore

I’d call this the classic route for Brits travelling to Australia or New Zealand. Asian stopovers are a popular choice, and especially Singapore as Changi Airport has such a stellar reputation. I used Singapore Airlines in 2013 and wasn’t disappointed.

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Outbound, I opted for an 8.30pm departure with Singapore Airlines, an overnight flight which reached Singapore at 4.30pm the following day. As my second leg flight didn’t depart until after 9pm, there was plenty of time to enjoy an unhurried dinner, a shower in the airport hotel and a stroll around the airport’s orchid garden. I could have visited Changi’s cinema to catch a movie, but figured there’d be plenty of opportunity for that on the flight itself.

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The inbound flight departed Auckland at 12 noon, arriving in the Asian hub at about 7pm. I chose to extend the layover to facilitate a night in a nearby hotel. My second leg thrrefore left Singapore at 9am the following day, reaching London by about 3.30pm that afternoon. This didn’t come at any extra cost, and the chance to stretch out in a full length bed with decent bed linen was very much appreciated. I came back to the airport the following morning considerably more refreshed than I did arriving from LAX.

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On both legs, I was easily able to secure my preferred aisle seat and would have been able to get a window seat if I’d have wished. Meals were good and the inflight entertainment system as good as you’d expect from an airline which regularly secures high approval ratings from travellers.

Where this option falls short, however, is the increased risk of jet lag affecting the first few days of your holiday. Some people swear by a stopover to give them time to adjust. Personally I think that just means you need to put your body clock through two changes in just a few days which isn’t ideal. However, it’s a good way of seeing a bit of Asia if you haven’t visited before. As well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are conveniently located. Hubbing through Dubai is possible but the two legs are pretty uneven and it is hard to psyche yourself up for that second leg from Dubai to the Antipodes as you’ve barely covered a third of your total journey time at that point.

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Verdict

I found the overnight layover with a hotel stay made the Singapore option considerably less arduous. The lengthy outbound layover was also helpful. I’d done something similar with Malaysian Airlines to Sydney, hubbing through KL. That time, however, the jetlag was fierce and I remember stumbling around Sydney as if drunk on the first day before crashing and sleeping it off. I’ve read that for every hour’s difference in the time zones travelled, your body needs a day to recover. In practice, if you keep hydrated and try to sleep on the plane it can be considerably less than that. Arriving in Auckland from Singapore, I expected the jetlag to kick in, but in fact enjoyed a pleasant day pottering about Ponsonby before heading off to bed about 8pm.

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So would I choose east or west next time?

Price would be a deciding factor but unless I got an especially good deal I’d pay a little extra to fly eastbound and a bit more on top to be able to have a night’s sleep en route. As I get older, I really need the rest, though as a twenty something, getting to NZ as fast as possible would rank higher in the list of priorities. I was lucky not to have to suffer a middle seat with Air New Zealand so I’d look for an airline which permitted seat allocations at the time of booking, something which is increasingly being phased out as airlines seek to raise income. What I would say is that the US immigration and security procedures and staff which tend to put a lot of travellers off transiting via an American airport really shouldn’t. I’ve noticed in the last few years that staff attitudes have improved immensely and the norm is now a polite and friendly welcome.

Have you flown from London to Australia or New Zealand? Did you do it in one go? Which route gets your vote?


Explosive Mount Yasur, highlight of my Vanuatu trip

I’ve been reminiscing about a trip I made to Vanuatu as the BBC Travel website commissioned an article about Bislama, the language spoken there.  Some people might question the amount of money spent on travelling, but in my opinion it’s money well spent as you treasure those memories forever.  So, beneath the link to the article, you’ll find some of my favourite photos from that unforgettable trip.

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170814-how-one-language-unites-83-islands

Man on the road to Lenakel

Working in the fields is a tough job

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Women in Mother Hubbards at the market

Lenakel market

Produce at the market, in the foreground is taro

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Lenakel petrol station

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AIDS awareness poster in Bislama

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The Air Vanuatu tea towel

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My ride to the volcano

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Post box on the side of the volcano

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Dusk on Mount Yasur

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Terrifying, enthralling, spectacular


An island for every month of the year

For many of us, an island holiday is the ultimate in escapism.  There’s something about it which engenders a kind of “pull up the drawbridge” mindset perfect for recharging the batteries.  What follows puts together those islands that for one reason or another have made a lasting impression on me, with a suggestion for a good time to visit weather-wise.

Gorée – January

Senegal’s Île de Gorée is at once a melancholy and vibrant place.  The focus for the country’s remembrance of those lost to the slave trade even though few were ever shipped from its shores, it’s also colourful and charismatic, a favourite of artists and craftsmen.  It’s an easy day trip from the Senegalese capital Dakar.  In January the weather is sunny and mild, making this the perfect winter escape.

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Roatan – February

Honduras might have a hellish reputation in terms of safety and security – its largest city San Pedro Sula is considered to be the murder capital of the world – but the languid island of Roatan off its northern coast is about as far from trouble as you can get.  It has all the characteristics you’d expect from a Caribbean island: a laid back welcome, turquoise warm waters and fresh fish dinners.  In February, it’s busy enough to feel buzzing, yet you’ll have no problem finding space on the beach to soak up those tropical rays.

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La Digue – March

The Seychelles has a reputation for luxury – and all the costs that come with achieving it.  The good news is that La Digue manages to offer accommodation for all budgets.  Better still, it’s one of the prettiest islands on the planet and compact enough that you can explore it by bike in a few days.  In March, the weather’s on the turn, but unless you’re really unlucky, visiting La Digue in the shoulder season means you’ll dodge the worst of the crowds as well as the rain.

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St Lucia – April

One of the lushest islands in the Caribbean, St Lucia is also one of the prettiest.  But that verdant setting has only been achieved with rainfall totals higher than many in the region.  April is statistically the driest month, so time your visit to the island’s cocoa plantations, hot springs, iconic peaks and of course fabulous beaches to hit the best of the weather.

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Gozo – May

Malta’s firmly on the beaten track when it comes to Mediterranean escapes, but visit Gozo before the main tourist season kicks into gear and you’ll be impressed.  This rural and characterful island combines fascinating historic attractions with impressive coastal scenery.

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Lanzarote – June

If you’ve ruled out Lanzarote on account of its nickname, Lanzagrotty, then you need to have a rethink: this place is seriously cool.  Avoid the crowds of tourists tied to school holidays and get in ahead of the crowds to explore Cesar Manrique’s fabulous architectural legacy and some of the hottest volcanic scenery on the planet.

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Zanzibar – July

There are few islands with names that conjure up as exotic an image as that of Zanzibar.  The reality is as satisfying: the narrow alleyways of the capital Stone Town are lined with mansions made from coral stones held together with lime mortar, built by merchants who traded spices, silks and slaves.  To the north of the island, you’ll find plenty of excellent beaches where you can enjoy the dry, hot July weather.

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Tanna – August

Faraway in the South Pacific lies the archipelago of Vanuatu.  Its most fascinating island is without a doubt Tanna.  Dominated by one of the most accessible active volcanoes on the planet, visitor interest is piqued by the John Frum cargo cult, and in particular the offshoot Prince Philip movement that think our Queen’s husband is a god.  Toast him with kava, the local firewater which numbs your mouth and sedates your brain.

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Bali – September

Well on the beaten tourist track, Bali offers a winning combination of culture and relaxation in one neat and tiny package.  Its resorts make the best of the sandy beaches and September sees the crowds thin ahead of the October to March wet season.  Watch the sunset over the ocean at Uluwatu temple or head inland to the green rice terraces that encircle the pretty town of Ubud.

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Kyushu – October

The most southerly of Japan’s big four, Kyushu packs a punch.  It’s a good choice for those wishing to get up close to the country’s tectonic action, with mud pools, hells and hot sand baths at Beppu and the active volcano Sakurajima an easy ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima.  By October, the humidity that plagues the summer months is long gone, but temperatures are still high enough to make sightseeing a pleasure.

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Easter – November

Despite its isolation, remote Rapa Nui is recognisable the world over for its moai, the oversized stone heads that gaze out over the Pacific from all parts of this mountainous island.  The five hour flight from the Chilean capital just to get there is arduous, but when you do, you’ll agree it’s well worth the effort.  Its history is fascinating, but it’s the location that  blows your mind.

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Cuba – December

Go there before it changes, they said.  So I did.  But that was well over a decade ago and the tour companies are still saying it.  Nevertheless, I haven’t yet met a visitor who was disappointed.  Cuba’s one of those places that gets under your skin, from the old ladies in Havana who’ll puff on their cigars for a dollar to the horses that you’ll still see trotting down the cobbles of backstreet Trinidad.  Forget generic Caribbean, this place is unique and special because of it.

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So there you have it, my favourites.  What are yours?


Are these the world’s best railway journeys?

This week, in preparation for my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve been booking train tickets to explore the country’s beautiful hill country.  The Man in Seat 61 has, of course, been an invaluable tool as ever, and I’ve been very impressed with the service provided by Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a recommendation gleaned from Seat 61.  It’s got me thinking about previous rail journeys I’ve taken.  These are my favourites, but are they yours?

Peru: Cusco to Machu Picchu

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Machu Picchu, Peru’s mighty Inca citadel

Before tourist numbers reached epic proportions, to reach Machu Picchu by train you used to have to crawl out of bed in the dark to catch the early morning local train from central Cusco’s gloomy station, travel for five hours as the wooden bench seating slowly petrified your buttocks and emerge blinking into the middle of the market at Aguas Calientes to find your diesel-belching ride to the famous mountaintop Inca ruins.  Periodically, the train halted in the dark to facilitate trade.  Hands used to appear through the tiny windows to offer roasted corn and alpaca wool hats.  It was one of those iconic travel journeys that is better relived from the comfort of your armchair several months later.  Taking the journey again years later, this time in a glass-roofed backpacker train (boy, hadn’t backpacker expectations grown?!) I was delighted to see that snow-capped peaks lined the route and that the PeruRail authorities had built a fancy new station.  The increase in comfort was worth the hike in the fare and best of all, the switchbacks to enable the train to haul the train out of Cusco’s bowl-shaped valley were still the most fascinating stretch of the journey.  Then, in 2010, flooding and landslides caused severe damage to the track and when repairs were completed, the train began from Poroy, just outside the city, rather than from Cusco’s Wanchaq station.  Despite the changes, it remains one of the best railway journeys in the world.

Switzerland: the Bernina Express

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The Landwasser viaduct from the Bernina Express

It’s hard to pick a favourite amongst so many standout lines, but if forced to choose, then the Bernina Express gets my vote.  Run by the Rhaetian Railway, the Bernina Express covers two lines which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site – Albula and Bernina.  During its 122km run from Chur to the Italian town of Tirano, the train passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts including the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct pictured here.  To fully appreciate this engineering marvel, take a local train (the panoramic picture windows don’t open), head to the back and lean out of a right hand side window.  The train loops and glides over the Bernina Pass, with the Morteratsch and Palü glaciers and alpine Lago Bianco darker Lej Nair lakes providing the glamour in terms of scenery.  With no cogwheels aiding its descent, this impressive adhesion railway has one final wow up its sleeve: the 360° spiral that encompasses the nine arches of the century-old Brusio Viaduct.

Kenya: the Lunatic Express

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Mombasa’s beach, the prize for those surviving the Lunatic Express

I first read about this railway in Bill Bryson’s African Diary.  His descriptions of being flung around as if being tumbled in a washing machine were as compelling as you’d expect from the undisputed king of humourous travel writing and I decided there and then I’d make the same journey.  This narrow gauge railway runs from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa, cutting through Tsavo National Park on its way.  It gained its unusual nickname as several workers involved in its construction ended up as dinner for the hungry lions, dragged from their tents as they slept exhausted from the day’s hard labour.  I didn’t see any lions, just a beautiful sunset over the savannah plains, though I was plagued by hungry mosquitoes and arrived in Mombasa covered in bites.

The best of the rest!

Russia: Trans-Mongolian

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Omul on sale at Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal

The longest rail trip I’ve done, with a trip that took me from Moscow to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator by train.  I saw a lot of trees, but I also learned first hand what a warm and welcoming bunch of people the Russians are: a special mention here for Aleksander the army officer who fed me smoked omul and showed me his family photos.

New Zealand: Tranz-Alpine

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Serene Lake Brunner

Not the Alps in Europe, but instead, New Zealand’s South Island.  Crossing from Christchurch to Greymouth, this scenic ride crossed Arthur’s Pass and chugged alongside pretty Lake Brunner.  Wrap up warm if you’re going to ride the open air viewing car in winter as I did – it’s freezing!

Update: I’ve just booked a ride on the Northern Explorer to see more of North Island out of a Kiwi Rail train window.  Watch out in 2018 to see how I got on.


If it’s geysers you’re after…

If it’s geysers you’re after, then here’s where you need to be heading.

Iceland

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Strokkur on the verge of blowing

The original, in name at least, can be found a short distance from the country’s capital Reykjavik. The original geyser, Geysir, has decided it’s had enough, but Strokkur puts on a show every few minutes delighting those who visit.  It’s easily accessible as part of the Golden Circle tour, or if you prefer to go it alone, then download my Unanchor Kindle guide from the UK Amazon site here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Iceland-Unanchor-Travel-Guide-self-drive-ebook/dp/B017SDBNE8/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1452095658&sr=1-8.

It’s also available on the US site here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B017SDBNE8/ref=s9_simh_gw_p351_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=152KPS2974X3G9P0D5RQ&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=2079475242&pf_rd_i=desktop

New Zealand

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Pohutu, Rotorua

For a small country, New Zealand packs in a lot of geothermal sights, from other-worldly Craters of the Moon to photogenic Orakei Korako.  But for sheer wow factor, then join the crowds watching Pohutu, located in the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley on the outskirts of Rotorua to see the jet of boiling water shoot high into the sky.

Chile

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Atmospheric El Tatio

El Tatio geyser field might not have the dramatic gushers of Iceland or New Zealand, but it has atmosphere in spades.  It’s essential to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night (don’t overdo it on the pisco the night before like I did) but watching the sunrise illuminate the steaming geysers is well worth the effort.

USA

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Old Faithful

I couldn’t blog about geysers and leave out Old Faithful.  It’s been drawing the crowds at Yellowstone National Park for as long as the park’s been in existence and has had its name since 1870.  It erupts on average 50 metres into the air about every 90 minutes or so; check the ranger’s board on arrival to see when the next show is expected.

And finally, one on the wish list…

Russia

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Kamchatka by Einar Fredriksen via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Kamchatka’s Valley of Geysers has the second largest concentration of geysers in the world after Yellowstone, packing over ninety of them into a 6km long valley.  It’s difficult to reach, and therefore expensive, but it’s a trip that’s on my ever-growing bucket list.  You too?


Blog post live: the Kapiti coast of New Zealand

I’ve been blogging for Go4Travel about the Kapiti coast this week. You can read my suggestions on what to do in the area here:
http://www.go4travelblog.com/kapiti-coast-new-zealand/

Sunset at Porirua Harbour by Karora (Public domain)

Sunset at Porirua Harbour by Karora (Public domain)


The bus drivers of New Zealand

So often, it’s the people that make a place memorable more than the sights themselves. To really engage with a place, there needs to be a connection, and it’s the human interactions that facilitate that. I’ve been thinking about which places have the warmest and most welcoming locals, and I have to say New Zealand comes high up the list. I spent a week in South Island using the reliable bus system to see the main sights, but didn’t realise just how much I’d enjoy the journeys between those places. Here’s a piece I wrote for myWanderlust not long after I returned.

Inside the man there was a scruffy boy itching to get out.

The commentary as we edged down South Island’s west coast may have been aimed at adults, but tales of Australians landing planes upside down in the swamp came right out of Boys Own. With his untamed mop of greasy ginger hair, Dave was one of those people where you could still vividly imagine what he’d have looked like as a lad, scraped knees and all. Heading south from Greymouth into country country, everyone got a cheery wave, but then Dave knew most people. When it came to the drop off, he flicked the rolled up newspaper expertly through the window hatch as he once had from his push bike, slowing only slightly before checking his wing mirror to smugly inform us it had landed accurately.

“Yup, that’ll do ya. That paper’s printed at midday. If I didn’t run it through, they wouldn’t get it until tomorrow. No point in old news, is there?”

Bridge between Greymouth and Hokitika as navigated by Dave the bus driver

Bridge between Greymouth and Hokitika as navigated by Dave the bus driver

Dave told us he had the best job in the country but salt and pepper haired George disagreed. Picking up the baton from Franz Josef, he made sure everyone had visited the glaciers, threatening to leave us behind if we couldn’t tell him enough about what he insisted we should have seen.

Yes, I passed the test! Proof I visited Franz Josef glacier.

Yes, I passed the test! Proof I visited Franz Josef glacier.

He wound us expertly round impossibly tight turns to deposit us at viewpoints framed with the ubiquitous but elegant tree fern, fronds shimmying like a Twenties flapper. Jovial when on the move, he was quick to chastise anyone who dared hold up the coach. At breakfast, out of serendipitous necessity swapping a motorway service station for a salmon farm deep in the forest, he joined me at my table. The conversation flitted back and forth as George downed his second cup of tea. Gruff George, it turned out, was a gentle man underneath; having lost his wife to cancer, he confided that meeting people on his bus had helped him through the tough times.

Wheezy Pete, with a capacious belly nurtured over many years supping good beer, shook our hands as we returned from a roadside hike to a waterfall. George introduced his replacement and pointed to the bus parked on the opposite side of the road.

Awesome NZ just about sums it up!

Awesome NZ just about sums it up!

“You lot are hard work,” he chuckled, “there are only four on that other bus, I’m off back to Franz for a quiet life.”

And so the thirteen of us headed for Queenstown, encroaching steadily on snow-capped mountains as we edged alongside Lake Wanaka. Pete pointed out the world’s oldest bungee jump, offering a free ride to anyone who took up the challenge.

A few days passed before I met Dione. Dione was different, the first driver under forty, with a baseball cap and an exceptionally good knowledge of sheep. When not talking farming, he spoke incessantly of the weather.

“We have two hundred days of rain down here, bringing seven metres of water every year. For you folks that measure in millimetres, that’s a lot of rain!”

But he had the most spectacular drive, through the mountains down to Milford Sound. Skirt folds of Rimu trees parted to reveal the tiniest slivers of silvery petticoat cascading into puddles that blurred onto the water below. Our day was sunny, the deep azure of the sky framing the sheer cliffs of the fjord and diamonds pricking the water.

“Jeez, you guys are lucky. Even the keas are behaving today – yesterday those bloody parrots flew into the bus and shat all over the dash.”

Kea inspecting the bus for Dione

Kea inspecting the bus for Dione

Wiry Tom knew he had the rough end of the deal, for it was he who would remove us from the crisp air of the mountains and carry us across the Canterbury Plain in all its sheep-strewn monotony. He tried his best with Mount Cook, but our wonder at the beauty of New Zealand’s highest peak was tainted by the knowledge of what was to come. I passed the time trying to figure out which Hollywood movie actor he reminded me of; a cop, no, the President? It was a twelve hour ride and I reached Christchurch none the wiser.

The road to Mount Cook

The road to Mount Cook

Yes, Dione was indeed different. He was the only one who wasn’t a scheduled bus driver, our driver-guide on a coach tour to one of the country’s best known attractions. In New Zealand, buses aren’t just there to take their passengers from point to point. To be a bus driver on South Island you needed a sense of humour and a good head for facts. I’d say a good aim and experience as a paper boy got you a long way too.