Ellen

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10 January 2010 Entry: "There and Back Again"

We’re back from a month long trip to New Zealand, and back to the start of a new year, a new decade too. I kept a journal while I was travelling, but internet connections were always a bit fraught on the the other side of the world - counting down the precious minutes I’d bought and my son champing to get his lion’s share of connection with home. Hence no blogs or diary entries for December.
We flew to Christchurch in the South Island, hired a camper van and travelled round, ending up in the North Island and flew home from Auckland. I reckon I clocked up over 3,000 kilometres of driving. But what a place to drive! Every journey was a discovery and a delight: new and varied landscapes round every corner. It’s like Britain in its variety in a small country, yet magnified in every way: chains of snow-capped peaks, even in summer, hugely deep fiords and glaciers next to temperate rainforests humid and jungly, hot sandy beaches next to arid clinker strewn volcanoes.
Not every sixteen year old boy would put up with sharing a camper van bed with his mother for a month, but we got on extremely well. We kayaked in Doubtful Sound, we swam with small, rare Hector’s Dolphins in Akaroa, in the Banks Peninsula, we climbed on the Fox Glacier (the one on the mint packet I presume?) much of it in rain to begin with. The wet made the glacier icy smooth and slippery, rather than granular, and added to the feeling of having stepped from the Turkish Bath of the rain forest into the freezer room of the glacier surface.
Instead of the snowy silence you might imagine, the glacier makes constant noises: the spiralling water gurgling as it drills into the ice in moulins, the crack of the slow shifting of tons of ice as it crawls at 3 cm per day down the mountain, the boom of the boulders coming loose and cannoning down the sides of the valley, along with the constant waterfalls that suddenly flood and destroy the path. The trip is only allowed with an experienced guide and is a fantastic antidote to our Health and Safety world. We held onto chains along narrow cliff ledges, traversed streams and jumped over collapsed paths.
Coming back, the rain had caused the streams to swell and we crossed thigh deep with the help of two men standing in the swift water to steady us if we stumbled. Even so, Johnny slipped and half submerged in the icy water and the last of our party twisted and dislocated his knee. This meant we had to halt, shivering and wet, while the mountain rescue were called out to stretcher him down to the only road in and out. We couldn’t proceed until our guide had a spare ‘Spotter’ - another guide with a radio whose job it is to watch for rogue boulders and to radio ‘Run!’ to our guide who then hurries us out of the path of danger. Very exciting, but it didn’t happen.
The rain had also caused the terminal moraine to collapse - that’s the front end of the glacier - it exploded out a couple of days previously, sending huge lumps of ice all over the valley floor, so it looked like some weird sci-fi landscape, all misty and grey. We kept likening our journey to Frodo’s in Lord of the Rings (the films were one reason we wanted to visit NZ) which was a literary game we both enjoyed.
The next day, we compensated by spending the morning in hot spring pools, wonderful to do in rainy weather. 40 c round your body and cool drops falling on your head, and steamy ferns as a backdrop. Because of the rain, much of the landscape is often glimpsed through wreathes of soft cloud and it reminded me of the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God. Which is not so far wrong, as we were told that temperate rain forest is only found below 43 degrees latitude - shared by New Zealand and South America.

It’s easy to see why many people are trying to settle there, as a last Paradise while the rest of the world goes to hell. But of course, as our friends and Guides all tell you, New Zealand is as much in danger from global warming and other environmental problems as anywhere else. And wherever, and however far, you travel from home, you take your heart with you (to paraphrase someone).
I did achieve my wish of spending Christmas Day on a hot beach - Waihi in the North Island on the east coast. It’s a long golden curve with the Pacific rolling onto it. Weirdly enough, it reminded me of a place I love in Cornwall, it even smelled like Cornish sea air. But as Johnny and I sat in the late sun eating our ‘christmas dinner’ of asparagus, chicken and sauté potatoes, we talked of home and missed our friends and family. And we talked about Keith, how both his boys have gone in musical directions, and he’ll never see or hear them perform, they will never have his support and approval or be able to ask his advice. So you can go round the other side of the world and still end up thinking about what you tried to leave behind.
Thank god for books and scrabble and ipods. They kept us going in the nights sitting in the camper van. I reread the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin and Sean O’Brien’s Afterlife, which I was hooked on, despite Sean saying it was a ‘horrible’ tale. The cultural references were all my era (Sean and I were born in the same year) so it all seemed eerily familiar. And finally I read AS Byatt’s Possession which kept me going on the journey home. Funnily enough, similar in some respects to Sean’s novel - the wicked machinations of scholars.
And then there was the shock of coming back to dark, snowy Newcastle. We arrived in time for New Year, which I feel superstitious about: it was good to be with old, close friends for the turn of the decade’s midnight. And then New Year’s Day brought the arrival of Julia’s first grandchild - Arthur Darling, born 01/1/10, a palindrome of a date, to Florrie and Rob. Although Julia will never see the gorgeous lad, and Florrie will never have her mum’s advice and support, a new life is always a wonderfully positive event.
My resolution: write more, write better. That’s what matters.

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