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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Fear and Loathing in Nelson

Some days ago, having little or no money in my bank account, nothing in particular to interest me in Wellington, and it being a damp, drizzly, err, May in my soul, I thought an adventure was called for. Perhaps I should take to sea? Visit the South Island? Fortunately, Nakedbus graciously offered me a trip to Nelson via the Interislander. I quietly accepted. This is why I arrived at the ferry terminal at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, hopelessly tired, under-caffeinated and ready for anything.

Seafaring aboard the Interislander ferry offers within its decks a treasure trove of viewing platforms, reclining lounges, and cafés. In order to make the most of being at sea, I spent the majority of the time outside and I was rewarded about halfway through the journey with a school of dolphins merrily diving just metres from the ship. “Avast,” I cried, “tharr be the most majestic sea-beasts I e’er did gaze upon! Man the harpoons and ready the first mate; we have bounty to catch!” My pride in picking up the sailor vernacular so quickly was tempered by a bored-looking worker informing me that I was disturbing other passangers. Alas and alack!

I did, though, spend an inordinate amount of time admiring the exquisite New Zealand scenery (something of a recurring theme during this trip), and leaning over the side of the balcony to take in the salty breeze (not a euphemism). I actually find the lulling rocking of ships more relaxing than nauseating, but this might be down to a fortunate sailing time—apparently, the day before, there had been six-metre swells in Cook Strait, and a classroom of schoolchildren were left “holding a pot of chips in one hand and a sickbag in the other”. That, I discovered, is the nature of Cook Strait; renowned for being mercurial at best and treacherous at worst, swells in the two-digit range can “come from nowhere” according to a crewman. Fortunately there are a number of herbal remedies available from the in-boat shop.

In any case, by the time the ferry stuttered and lurched its way into the Picton port I was quite sorry to depart so soon. There was no time to sight-see in Picton. I was ushered straight from the ferry to my Nakedbus (Legal disclaimer: do not attempt to enter one of these vehicles in any state of undress. Trust me.) run by a driver whose adherence to the rules of the road can only be termed ‘liberal’ (by my count, we careened through three red lights during the trip, while the poor French woman behind me grew a particularly bright shade of green). His bedside manner hardly redeemed him. When I arrived in Nelson, I asked him politely how to get to my backpackers. “Falkjlsl-isle dflkfdl” he mumbled, gesticulating me away as he would a pesky fly. Not even this brush-off could dampen my spirits though. I was in Nelson!

What a place it was. The township is surprisingly small, more Feilding than Palmerston North, but it contains both chain stores (Whitcoulls, Brumby’s, etc.) and charming little locals. I was particularly besotted with a very cheap second-hand bookshop on Hardy St, where I talked with the skinny-jeans-wearing elderly owner about Thomas Pynchon and William Faulkner at length (hipster cred: maximised) and gushed over his first-edition Steinbecks. And the food, oh the food! Hardy Buggers offered me the best steak burger I’ve had the pleasure of eating (a bold claim, but one I’ll happily back up) along with enough fires to feed a family of four. Staying in a backpackers also gave me the opportunity to meet a host of quirky characters, from a professional blues guitarist to the thickly accented Scottish couple I shared a room with (and who were less than taken with New Zealanders’ standards of decorum: “there was a lass in [another hostel] who got ‘erself really stoned, sat down on a chair and jus’ star’ed fartin’! O’er and o’er, aye!” one of them said, appalled).

Don’t even get me started on the scenery. I must admit that I tend to take New Zealand’s unique landscape for granted, but the South Island displays it in such abundance and in such a diverse palette that it’s breathtaking, even for cynical bastards like myself. Put it this way: if I lived elsewhere, I can see myself spending hours on Google Maps trawling through New Zealand scenery, transfixed. During my stay, I traipsed up to the ‘centre of New Zealand’, and seeing the vista that spread for miles before me would require Nabokovian powers of prose to do it justice. It may have been a steep hike for my less-than-athletic bod, but mother of God did I get recompense.

The downsides of such a place are the toll taken on the nightlife. Admittedly, I didn’t quite make it out on Saturday (see the ‘Handy Tips’ section for more), but I ventured out on Sunday evening to an eerily quiet, profoundly empty ghost-town. Only one bar remained open by 9.10 pm. I conducted interviews, which confirmed that this was the status quo. Though one resident, Jay, said of some Saturday nights:

The streets are packed, like fucking Mardi Gras… I see girls pulling the crotches of their panties over to piss in the street and blokes getting into fist fights, fucking each other up.” His girlfriend retorted: “Don’t listen to anything he says—he’s from Blenheim.” A popular hypothesis puts this down to the weather—the sunshine and heat of the day means that few want to face the chill of the night. Whatever the case, though there are a lot of things to love about Nelson, “there’s just not that much to do” (quote: barmaid). The upshot of this is “a problem with minors getting pissed off their faces” in lieu of other entertainment. Idle hands, as the adage goes, are the Devil’s playthings.

Speaking of: thanks to the barrenness of the town and the kindness of the aforementioned couple, I was privy to a truly marvellous experience that I will recount here. In a back-alley that runs off the main street, there lies a strategically placed crate next to a steel hand-hold that those with agility and upper-body strength can use to reach the roof of a first-storey kitchen. From there, one can climb up to the top of all the buildings on this main street, and take advantage of being rebellious and see astonishing views. My two guides were seasoned experts (both had been arrested for performing the task, being accused of unlawfully entering public property. “What the hell right?” said a very indignant Jay) and gave me a helping hand up to the first rooftop—and though my chronic fear of heights prevented me from going any further, looking down at the uncollected rubbish bins of the alley, illuminated in the dim artificial light of a faraway street light, being staggered past by someone who looked very, very drunk—in that moment, I was infinite.

On the ferry-ride home, I did an Ethnohydrology survey for an American exchange student in exchange for a couple of beers, which I took to one of the decks while I mulled over the weekend I had just spent. I felt bereft, almost—the foray was all too short—but as I got half-drunk in the winter sun the moment passed, and soon I saw Wellington on the horizon—in her retracing search for new arrivals, she only found another child.

P.S OH and thank u Nakedbus u r the beez kneez <3


Handy Tips:

– If you decide to stay at a backpackers, I recommend you bring your own towel/shampoo/other amenities. The owners generally charge a fee per item; that’s where they getcha.

– Travel by Nakedbus; it’s the cheapest and fastest service available.


– Shop around if you’re going out for dinner, even if it is late and you’re absolutely ravenous. Your bank balance will thank you and you’ll get to discover some out-of-the-way gems.

– A French place in Nelson does a breakfast deal that involves a fuck-tonne of crêpes smothered in maple syrup and adorned with bacon for $7.50. You’ll be full for hours.

– Take the Interislander when and where possible. Its aesthetic merits and student discount more than make up for the slightly long voyage.

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