The next time we'll be on a bike will be navigating the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh, and the next English speaking country we'll be in will be ... England (unless you count India) in eight months time.
Planning is well underway, a highlight so far has been applying for the Myanmar online visa. Once you've paid the $50USD, you get an email confirmation of your submission:
"In unfortunate case your application is rejected, no refund will be given, and no reason will be provided or can be requested"
Right then...cheers lads.
Fortunately our application was successful. Phew.
New Zealand has been a beautiful place to finish our cycling in the so called developed world. It's a unique place with every conceivable landscape and natural phenomenon; from mountain ranges to endless flat plains, soaking wet rain forests to dry sunny beaches - it's all here.
Volcanoes smoulder and hot pools bubble, whilst giant spherical rocks appear washed up on beaches, and the lakes are so blue (caused by glacial melt) they shine like precious stones.
Part of the last week we've spent on a road trip with our friends from home Lucy and Joe. We camped at the foot of Mount Cook, and in the morning jumped in Lake Pukaki (pictured above), which is formed of glacial melt water. It was very cold! For the full gallery of pictures from our New Zealand road trip click here.
It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places either of us have been, but it comes at a price.
New Zealand is an expensive place to visit.
As a visitor here, it would be easy to spend a fortune, quickly. There are a multitude of activities you can do at every turn, bungee jumping, sky diving, boat trips, helicopter rides. You name it, it’s possible to do here – at a price.
A quick google of UK bungee jumps show you can do the Bungee Club jump which is 48m high for £60. Granted it’s not in as cool a location as Queenstown, but the price per metre on the UK jump is £1.25, vs £2.65 (Kawarau) – over double the price.
We didn’t do any of that stuff, but even trying to get by on a small budget is hard. Buying the majority of our food from supermarkets, and cooking up as much as we could, we still spent a lot on food.
Take the humble iceberg lettuce.
In Tesco it costs £0.50 – here it’s $2.79 (£1.64). We’ve no intention for this blog to turn into a price comparison website… but 3x the price of normal groceries! Seems extortionate, and it’s unfortunately not just the humble lettuce that’s expensive. Fruit/veg/dairy, and the general cost of living seems higher than the UK.
We tried to find any stats that compared wages to see if they reflected the higher cost of living for the average Kiwi. It’s hard to verify their validity, but the average UK salary is apparently £27,600 according to this website, in New Zealand according to economist Bill Rosenburg (bottom of this article) the average wage is approximately $49,000 (£28,800).
That’s a 4% higher average salary, to afford a 228% more costly salad!
Many young people have similar problems to those faced by people in London. There's a lot of talk about the “Auckland housing crisis”. According to this, Auckland is now the world’s fourth most expensive city to buy property relative to income, and this one reckons New Zealand is the most expensive country in the world to buy a home, based on prices vs income.
The high cost of living has been a double whammy for us, due to the fall in the value of the pound. In February 2016, for every pound we would have got $2.20 NZD. At the time of writing, for every pound we get $1.70 NZD, that’s a fall of 23%.
It’s an expensive time to be a Brit abroad.
The cost of our entire trip increased over night on June 23rd 2016 by about 20% as Brexit has affected the pound against most major currencies. It was still four months ahead of our trip and we weren’t organised enough to change currency in advance of the vote. Every time Theresa May opens her mouth it seems to get more expensive as the pound drops further!
Bit of a blow, but at least we’re taking back control guys…
In some ways, New Zealand is brilliantly set up to travel round. There are heaps of hostels and backpackers, the roads are full of camper vans and tourists having a great time. Each town has an “i-site”, or tourist information centre (some more helpful than others, see previous blog), and as mentioned above, there are near enough unlimited things for tourists to do and things to see.
In other respects though, it’s quite hard to be a tourist here. Some peoples' attitudes towards tourists are quite negative.
Some of the time there is good reason. Over the last few years, the number of tourists and people “freedom camping” (camping not in an official campsite) has increased.
Although the vast majority of visitors are responsible campers, there have been issues with freedom campers going to the toilet in “the bush”, and self contained camper vans disposing of human waste inappropriately in urban areas. This has understandably caused a real problem for locals, and as such an act in 2011 was passed banning freedom camping in many areas.
We’ve seen some pretty disgusting examples of “human waste” in inappropriate areas, and are all for protecting the environment so can completely understand why there are these restrictions in place.
Unfortunately however, the actions of a few have tarnished the reputation of tourists in the eyes of some kiwis. Some people say things like:
“Everything was fine until we started to get all these tourists..."
Tourism is the country’s largest industry and employs 7.5% of the workforce, but not everyone is delighted about the number of visitors - especially the number of Asian, particularly Chinese, people which you often hear complaints about.
In our view, some business aren’t making the most of the influx of tourists that descend each year.
For us kids on the road, it’s important most days to get on wifi to do things like check our route, check the weather/wind direction, check the upcoming elevation – and check in with people from home, or email people we’ve arranged to stay with etc.
Quite a few businesses like cafes and coffee shops have signs up saying things like:
“No, we do NOT have wifi”
“Wifi is for staff use ONLY”
The reality of traveling in the modern age is that people want need to get online. A few places we’ve asked, the person on the counter sighs as if they get asked this question 20 times a day by these bloody tourists, before giving you a blunt.
“No. Are you going to buy anything?”
Neither of us claim to be Lord Sugar… but if I owned a small business that relied on tourists… and 20 tourists a day asked me if I had wifi… instead of complaining about getting asked the same question… I would … get wifi!
In addition to asking for stupid things like wifi, tourists also are blamed for a lot of the problems on the kiwi roads.
Almost daily, we’d get warnings from people telling us to be safe on the roads:
“Be careful on the roads, there are lots of tourist drivers around”
“These tourist drivers don’t know how to drive on our roads, be careful”
There are undoubtedly hundreds of camper vans on the road, and loads passed us every day. Apart from one occasion, most the campers we saw were actually quite cautious drivers who gave us plenty of room and passed slowly.
A bigger issue for us was the giant trucks that occasionally steam past without slowing their speed at all. Many of the roads are so thin there’s no shoulder, so you have to cycle on the white line. Huge logging and freight trucks sometimes pass so closely that the wind caused by their movement is enough to seriously shake you on your bike.
It’s not just the trucks, but (some) Kiwi car drivers are reckless.
Graeme, the nice guy who gave us a ride from the airport in Auckland on Christmas day said:
“You’ll find Kiwis to be some of the most kind and friendly people in the world – until they get behind the wheel…”
Ewan spent some time in New Zealand back in 2007 and has a few friends who still live there. It’s been great to meet up with them again over the last few weeks.
A lad Ewan knew when over here, Jarrad, was tragically killed in a car accident just over 18 months ago.
He was in a five seater car with six people, none of them wearing seat belts, and the driver had reportedly been drinking following a rugby win. Jarrad was 23.
It was an absolutely devastating for the family and community and has impacted everyone we’ve met who Ewan knew from 2007.
Unfortunately it’s not an isolated incident. According to this website youth drink driving is one of the largest causes of death and injuries in New Zealand.
Andy, a teacher who has been in New Zealand 15 years after moving over from England said:
"I taught nine years in England and went to one kid's funeral, here I've been teaching 15 years and have been to 11, including former pupils."
Friend Ash says:
"I think there is a real issue with drink driving culture in rural New Zealand. Some people don't want to admit it. Since Jarrad's accident I think his family have been frustrated that the community hasn't recognised there is a problem"
The headline from the New Zealand Herald on the 8th January this year was “Three dead adds to holiday carnage”. Between the 23rd December and the 4th January this year, 19 people died on the roads which is the highest for four years.
It’s terrible, but not altogether surprising. When we were leaving Auckland on boxing day, we saw a car full of lads screeching around, each one of them (including the driver) with an open beer.
The lads who we hailed when the siren went off (see this blog) looked very stoned. It could be they just had very red eyes and massive pupils due to it being late at night… but unlikely...
According to this article, although it's not clear where they get their source from, foreign drivers account for 6% of accidents on New Zealand’s roads.
The roads here can be quite scary at times, and yes there are undoubtedly some dodgy tourist drivers - but from our experience some Kiwi road users could do with looking in the mirror, literally and figuratively, before apportioning all the blame to Asians.
Another challenge of cycling in New Zealand has been the changeable weather. We moaned about the weather enough in the last blog, but it's worth describing a quite funny day we had on the West Coast, that wasn't altogether unusual.
It started off pouring with rain, so we left in full rain gear. It then dried up, so rain gear came off, but it got super windy. The wind then died, which meant the bugs came out, so bug spray had to come on. It then got beautifully sunny, so sun screen and hats went on - all in the space of about three hours!
The sun here is very strong so we've been wearing hats and sun screen most days. New Zealand has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world due to the strong sun and thin levels of ozone.
Perhaps the scariest problem that Kiwis face, is the threat of earthquakes. We spoke a bit about this in this blog, but only after seeing Christchurch can you appreciate the scale of the damage.
In 2011, a 6.3 hit the city centre, and flattened most of the buildings and killed 185 people. Six years on it's still being rebuilt.
Then in November 2016, a 7.8 hit Kaikoura, north of Christchurch, killing two people and causing extensive damage to the road network.
The Richter scale is what's called a "base 10 logarithmic scale", which means each point on the scale is 10x greater than the point below. So a magnitude 6, is 10x greater than a magnitude 5.
That means the earthquake in Kaikoura in 2016 was 15x bigger than the one that devastated Christchurch.
Our friend Joe was living north of Christchurch when it happened:
"It was the scariest moment of my life. I was lying in bed, and it started moving so much it felt like two giants had taken hold of each side of my bed and were shaking it."
"I got up and headed to the kitchen where my housemate was, we were hanging onto the island in the middle of the kitchen whilst the floor was moving so much it looked like waves in the sea."
"Once it stopped I was going to head to bed, then saw the tsunami warning. We were going to stay put until we heard a car door slam. We looked into the street and saw that all the cars had gone."
"We jumped in our car and headed out of town, it was surreal, in the middle of the night this small road was absolutely packed with people all going out town, no one coming the other way. All you could see in front was red lights, all you could see behind was white."
A guy we met in Taupo said of the Christchurch earthquake:
"I looked outside and the lamp posts were swaying like spaghetti."
We stayed with our friend Amy, her husband Mike and their daughter Martha in Christchurch.
"The 2011 earthquake is the biggest insurance pay out ever - for anything. They've basically had to replace the entire city centre"
According to this article the cost is $40 billion, with over 1,000 buildings having been pulled down.
The rebuilding process is well underway now, and there is a temporary town centre with all the shops and food outlets in shipping containers.
"There are new places opening up every day. All the time people say: "I went to this new really cool, quirky bar in so and so street." - in ten years time, this is going to be an amazing city."
In the midst of all this disaster, everyone is just cracking on.
Something that we found in Christchurch, and across the entire country, is how resourceful and friendly Kiwi's are.
The famous kiwi hospitality is alive and well, and we've experienced it first hand.
In fact, in the last five weeks the legendary kiwi hospitality has come dangerously close to derailing the trip and turning us into alcoholics!
Almost every day someone says:
"You guys want a beer?"
Just in the last week, we've stayed with Roger and Nina, Miles and Rachel, Amy and Mike each of whom have been wonderful hosts and great fun to hang out with.
Perhaps someone who sums up how welcoming the people of New Zealand have been, is Rachel who owns the "Coastal Co-op", a small burger and ice cream cafe in the sunny town of Hahei in the North Island.
We pedalled into Hahei, and were looking for somewhere to lock our bikes whilst we checked out Cathedral Cove, below:
Rachel let us lock them in the back of her store. When we returned, we started chatting and explained we were cycling down to Dunedin.
She couldn't believe it, and offered us a free sandwich. We carried on chatting, and eventually explained the full trip and that we were trying to get all the way round the world.
Upon hearing this, she had a tear in her eye, hugged us, insisted we stayed and eat a free pizza, and offered to put us up for the night.
We've seen she's signed up to receive these updates, so hopefully Rachel will read this.
Rachel - you epitomise the kind of warmth and kindness we've experienced all across these islands, so thank you, and thanks to all your fellow Kiwis for making our stay so enjoyable.