NZ10+ : Day 14 : NELSON to WESTPORT

Sunday 30/03/08

(Writing on 31st April)

So yesterday was mostly driving. I broke out the PSP at one point to watch a film and play a few games, but the bright sun made watching the screen a bit of a nightmare.

The main event yesterday was the jet boat. It was a good job I had signed up for it yesterday, else I’d have done no official activity all day. Koru gave us the sales pitch about the jet boat experience. Invented by a Kiwi for the express purpose of going upriver at ridiculous speeds. Jet boats have no rudder, and so only a minimum of 10cm water depth is needed to get around. Great for long shallow river beds.

The “Buller Canyon Jet Tours” are run by a fellow called Doc. An ex-customs drug officer, with an ex-sniffer dog to match. So, he came on the coach and was jokingly telling us to quit whilst ahead and hand over any drugs that could be aboard before the dog found any!

Those of us who had signed up got off of the boat and suited up with life-jackets and goggles. The experience started off just fine. Gently cruising up the river, nice and easy, so that we could take photos and hear Doc’s running commentary. Mostly, he was talking about the river levels. It was quite scary and a real eye-opener as to the power of Buller River and rivers in general. When the river overflowed and reached its highest points, the road is often submerged, and in nearby Westport, entire pubs had been washed away!

We continued cruising the river and waiting in anticipation for the 'spins'. A Jetboat can turn ‘on a pinhead’ but the side effect of that is, of course, a good soaking. A smaller jet boat overtook us at one point, and so we had a playful dash in its wake, getting a small soaking. Upon turning around to head back down the river, we heard a loud “popping” noise. Turns out Doc’s new engine was playing up. So we had to shore up on a pile of rocks to stand and wait until Doc and Mark looked at the problem.

I stood apart from the main group, wondering how to a) build a raft and b) Who to eat if we got stranded... Standing apart from everyone else also had the unexpected bonus of me being left relatively alone by the sand-flies, as they were already attacking the main group. I thought with a dodgy engine, Doc would cancel the trip, and arrange to get us back to base using a different boat, and to possibly refund us. But no - back in the boat with engines fixed. So, we take off and do our first high-speed spin, which soaks us and… breaks the engine. Again.

Another stop and even more sand-flies later, we were eventually back on the way downriver. Whilst stuck waiting for the engine repairs the second time round, I saw a guy trying to balance as many rocks as possible on top of each other. Not to be outdone, I immediately thought of building my own cairn. But I had to stop myself. This wasn’t an English Nature Trail. The part of the river that we were stood on, is only accessible by boat, and should really be left alone. To leave an artificial structure of any kind, felt a bit wrong to me. It would be the stone-based equivalent of leaving a graffitied “Col Woz Ere.”

Once we were back on the boat and spinning around, we all got a proper soaking. I was fine until water began pooling on our bench, giving me a soaking wet bum. Right at the end of the trip, he HURTLED towards the rocks at the embarkation point, at the same high speeds he had been using the whole trip. He slammed the reverse brakes on at THE LAST SECOND and the biggest wave of all rose over the boat and over our heads… only to collect itself and bring its full fury down upon Doc and the four guys in the front row. Karma?

Went back to the base for tea and I broke out the biscuits for everyone. Back at the hostel, I went out and bought a pizza to bake. It gave me the urge to make pasta from scratch… We chatted to the owner to check that we were okay to have a few beers (some English backpackers the week before had ruined the place) and then we played Pontoon. I picked it up quite quickly, and with my safe betting and selling a beer to Tom, I was up by about 2 dollars. Bonus!

SOUNDTRACK: “River” by Joni Mitchell (Though I love the Travis cover)


Not mentioned above, but we did stop off en-route for another scheduled activity at a very picturesque location. I could not for the life of me tell you where it was, but I did get an epic picture or two, including one of me sat on the end of a jetty. It's one of my favourite ever pictures - the colours, the mood, the perspective, all just work.

Anyhow. Batteries recharged, I remember it being a glorious day as we headed towards Westport and Doc’s jet-boat adventure. What should have been a fairly short but exhilarating jaunt down the river at breakneck speeds, turned into an extended nature tour. If the scattered diary notes did not make it clear enough, Doc’s “brand new” jet-boat broke down mid-tour not once, but twice.

Fortunately, Doc and my new mate Mark had enough mechanical knowledge and improv skills between them to coax the engine back to life. Again, made for great memories and a great payoff once the boat finally worked properly and took us on a series of 180 degree hairpin turns. Flying towards the jetty at crazy-miles-an-hour is still terrifying though, even if you have 100% confidence in your vessel. After two breakdowns, that last stunt was still quite a leap of faith in the repair work, trusting in the boat’s ability to brake itself, and not break us!

The rest of the day seems fairly chilled out, but I do have a very vivid memory of being on a main street, perhaps the only road through town? The memory feels very 'American'. Not that I had ever been to rural America, but the West Coast of New Zealand and its residents do refer to their part of the world as a Wild West, complete with their own Cowboys (Deerboys does not have the same ring to it) and all the associated trappings, clothing, accommodation, buildings and machinery that go with that lifestyle.

I remember being stood on a very, very long road that went right through the Town – in fact, I think the road was town. I only went out to buy the aforementioned pizza and beer, but the sun had not long set, the sky was cloudy and dark blue, and a few buildings had (in my mind’s eye, which could be romanticising this) gigantic red neon signs. It was atmospheric, edgy, desolate and... cool as fuck.

I’ll have no doubt attempted to find this place and others on Google Street View since writing this, to check if my memories match reality. Of course, we never had Google Maps back then, nor smartphones. In this instance, if the reality does not match the real Westport, then I’ll keep the one in my mind's eye, where the veil of reality broke down and I was transported to a neon Wild West, before the Storm…

I’ve made mention here about checking with the landlord of the hostel if we were ok to drink. There have been a few references to this, and possible ‘illegal’ drinking, and so I best explain here. We were told by Koru and various hostel staff throughout the trip, that drinking in Hostels is a big no-no, if it does not have an alcohol license. This is where most humans shrug their shoulders and think ‘well, only if you get caught, and it wouldn’t be my problem, right?’ WRONG. In New Zealand, both the venue accommodating any non-licensed drinkers, and the drinkers themselves, are both liable for prosecution. I am not confessing to anything here, but I did feel uncomfortable when some of the gang wanted to drink indoors on their own booze, before heading out to a normal bar.

This was always for budget reasons, not to flaunt the law for its own sake. As stated, many of the backpackers were budgeting to go around the whole planet. If a few of them could chip in together and get a box of white wine (the infamous Goon!) for a dollar each, why wouldn’t they chance it? Due to my trip being time-bounded, and with me having budgeted more-per-day than the international bunch, where I could, I would head straight out to a real bar and meet up with the larger group later.

This game of Goon cat-and-mouse, sneaking drinks into hostels, was an almost daily occurrence. In some places the hostel would have a license though, and so the legality was not an issue. In other places, some of us nearly came a cropper, including myself... But more on that later!