Travel diary, March 22nd 1999: Flew to Christchurch. Felt nothing about arriving in New Zealand, but mountains look nice, so should be okay.
It was a weary entry in my diary. I really don’t know why I even bothered. I’d travelled non-stop for four months and suddenly I felt like I’d had enough. Another new place. Who cared? All I really felt like doing was sleeping. I found a quiet hostel, climbed into my bunk and slept, long and deep. It was as though the months away had allowed years of accumulated fatigue to finally catch up with me. Fatigue I’d eluded and run from as I hopped around London from job to job, rented flat to rented flat, party to party. A weariness that could surface now that I was no longer in England pretending that everything that looked good, was good.
Lazing in my hostel I couldn’t remember sleeping so well. It was as though my very bones were relaxing, my brain grinding to a slow halt. I let fatigue take me and slept long into the day. When I was hungry I cooked simply and ate in virtual silence, exchanging only enough words with fellow travellers so as not to appear rude. After three days I finally began to feel curious about my surroundings and ambled into the city.
New Zealand has two main islands, named in New Zealand’s typically down-to-earth fashion the North Island, and the South Island. Although Christchurch is the capital of the South Island, it didn’t feel much like a city to me. There was no hustle and bustle, no rush and dash. It felt a bit like the historic English town of Oxford crossed with Bournemouth, a coastal town popular with retirees, only with fewer people. The place exuded a kind of rustic charm with its cobbled central square, its tree-lined roads and old-fashioned academic institutions. The pace of life felt easy, measured. I visited the cathedral, finding calm in the hush of dusty shadows, still candle flames, carved inscriptions, in the shuffle of feet on stone. Outside I was amused to find a man holding forth from a wooden stepladder dressed in long purple robes and a pointed black hat. Against the stone wall behind him was parked a curious vehicle that I was sure could only be his – a kind of motorised Pushmepullyou comprised of two Volkswagen Beetle front ends. The Wizard of Christchurch, as he turned out to be, was an eccentric academic who held regular lectures on a selection of topics aimed at arousing the ire of his listeners and provoking them into debate.
Over the next few days as I continued my relaxed exploring an unusual trend began to niggle at my curiosity. I’d pop into a green grocer’s to buy an apple and emerge twenty minutes later having, without any effort whatsoever, spent the time setting the world to rights with the shopkeeper; I’d jump on the bus and ten minutes later get off armed with the gift of hand drawn map to some local curiosity or the best muffin shop in town. To me, brought up in big English towns and lately residing in London, the idea of someone I didn’t know talking to me in a public place was alarming. If people you didn’t know talked to you on the tube or in the street in London, you either had a good look in their eyes to see if they were insane, or pretended you had neither heard nor seen them and hid behind your newspaper. But here people didn’t appear to be mad nor regard me as such – they were simply and naturally friendly. I felt welcomed, almost as though I was the very person people had been hoping would come into their shop, ask for directions or sit next to them at the bus stop. I began to get the curious sensation that I had arrived somewhere special – that I had somehow, peculiarly, come home. Six days after my arrival I declared myself fit to travel, booked a place on a bus headed north with the intention of circumnavigating the South Island.