“Auckland is pleasant, the people are pleasant, the salt water pool, ‘Parnell Baths’, is pleasant, but I’m not quite sure what I am doing here.”
To the reluctant traveller, there is nothing quite as soul destroying as wandering the streets of a strange city – especially when there’s no prospect of being able to pack up and go home any time soon. Plus, what with this being New Zealand, there were no castles to visit.
I’m from Brixham in Devon which is – or was – an important fishing port and is now a slightly faded, ever-tacky tourist hotspot. William of Orange landed there when he came over from Holland to take the throne and his seagull-shit streaked statue stands on the quay to this day – a reminder to wear a hat whenever in town.
As a teenager working at Oscars Coffee Shop, one of the many cafes which served the hordes of tourists from up north, I was no stranger to the dark side of holidaying. Rainy days were the worst; the cafe would be rammed with half-soaked families, plus animals. I remember the steamy atmosphere, the pungent smell of bacon grease mingled with the sugary waft of cheap cash-and-carry jam and fake cream. Most of all I remember the dirty plates with their half-chewed leftovers which it was my job to clear away and wash up; that plus the bickering, complaining customers, my aching feet, and the sense that holidaying wasn’t necessarily the happy experience it was made out to be.
Then there were our own family holidays which mostly took place in rainy North Wales and which mainly involved being lost in the mountains, arriving at tourist attractions after they’d closed and – yes – bickering over orange squash in steamy, overheated cafes.
Now here I was – on holiday – lost and bored to death in Auckland. Here’s what I wrote of my visit to the maritime museum:
“Managed to spend an impressive five hours at the National Maritime Museum – mostly spent looking at boats.”29th November, 2007
A sight for sore eyes
After the night porter had ushered me from the museum, I wandered around to Prince’s Wharf, and there they were: two ships – a black one, and a white one. Now here was something worth a second look.
Ship One: Spirit of New Zealand. Trim, taut, her officers in smart blue shirts strutting about with poise and purpose. Safety lines rigged… everywhere.
Ship Two: Soren Larsen. Faded, rust-streaked. Music blaring, a ragged, tattooed bloke with bare feet lounged on the main hatch twiddling a bit of rope. The whiff of tar and other, less identifiable smells.
Obviously I tried for Ship One.
Scouts at sea
Now I’m sure the Spirit of New Zealand is a fine vessel but, to me, having secured a quick tour from the officer of the watch, a young woman with a slightly military manner, it all felt a bit ‘scouty’ for me. Everything shipshape and Bristol fashion but a bit dull. I tried for Ship Two – the man had disappeared but the stack of slightly limp fliers attached to the signboard did advertise a phone number which I wrote down and promptly lost. Next time I visited, the ship was gone, but the fliers remained. When I rang the number, a harassed-sounding chap answered with a brusque “No, sorry, we don’t need any volunteers”.
So that was that. Or was it? I had based my decision to move to New Zealand on the poem, ‘The Old Gray Squirrel’ and a flow chart. Now here I was and my new resolve was to try stuff – just try, give anything I fancied doing a really good go. I decided to pester this chap, Ian – and Rosie, who picked up the phone the next time I rang, and so I did. As an added incentive there was this really spooky dream I’d had before leaving for for Heathrow. I’d even written it down in poem form, as you’ll see below. If that’s not the call of the sea, I don’t know what is.
Dive in, just bloody dive in, I thought and wouldn’t take no for an answer. It turned out that the reason the ship was no longer alongside was because part of the rudder assembly had fallen off. The next time I called, Rosie answered and explained that everyone was too busy to talk to me. I waited a couple of days – noted on my next foray into the city, that the ship was back – and rang one last time.
“How about if I come down to the ship?”3rd December 2007
Answer: “Oh God, OK, OK.”
I put the phone down and turned to survey the cluttered lounge of City Garden Lodge backpackers. What a place. A mecca for young yoga enthusiasts, there was a meditation tent in the garden and the kitchen floor was gritty with spilled lentils. Now here was that Spanish chap with the pony tail and the self-identified ‘large aura’. He approached the whiteboard and wrote upon it:
“Yellow electric human”City Garden Lodge, December 2007
The Germans gravely nodded their approval, a couple of Brits with faux-Kiwi accents emitted wise “uh-huhs” of agreement. I pulled a face and muttered: “What the fuck does that mean?” I had to get on that ship!