The Blue Ringed Octopus

Heaving couples, bad air and the lunatics of travel.

Auckland to Sydney, Australia
28th January, 2002

I've been in Australia six hours. So far, nothing has got me. I have not been bitten by any snakes, spiders, sharks, taipans, scorpions, stonefish, jellyfish, sea snakes, ticks or leeches. I have not stepped onto, or into, or have been entered by, or been chewed, or gnawed on by any of the thousands of poisonous, disgusting, cross-tempered or at least surprising creatures that this land is amply stocked with, lying, I am certain, waiting for me. I can't check every toilet for a blue ringed octopus, lurking, ready.

It can only be a matter of time.

Deja Nuthead

The Duke of Wellington, on hearing that a General Erskine was being sent out to him, wondered at the decision, as he had "generally understood him to be a madman." The Military Secretary at Horseguards replied that "no doubt he is sometimes a little mad, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow; and I trust he will have no fit during the campaign, though he looked a little wild as he embarked."

Nutters, the eternal problem. Hostel dorms are always a laugh. If it's not some loon staring at you and giggling to himself, it's a Japanese mother's boy who insists on closing all the windows in an eight-man room on a 20C night, and then farts all night like a bilious wildebeest. I booked a special treat in Auckland, a four-person dorm. Merely three other bodies to contend with! Of course, the Fat Camel hostel, noted for its modern conveniences, neglected to mention that my room had no windows, not any other means for air to enter.

I lay on my bunk measuring the air as it grew rancid. There had to be a moment of equilibrium, I thought, a time came when the air could not grow any denser. I thought, this is it, the worst things are going to get, and I'm not choking on it yet. I was wrong. My top bunk was occupied by a guy with a special condition: whenever he fell asleep he started thrashing around, more and more wildly until the whole bed rocked violently, or until he banged his head off the wall and woke himself for a minute. Some sort of epileptic I thought, hope he doesn't hurt himself, or die. Two hours later, I was still lying there, staring upwards, and murmuring under my breath, die soon die soon

Lurid Nightmare

The next night I wanted him back. I was now in a ten bed dorm, nine other people. And the modern couple who'd just met, and were now trying to have it off on the top bunk directly opposite me. The furtive groping, whispering and salivating sounds would cease whenever someone came in - trying to be discrete I suppose, ha ha - and then start up a few minutes later. Perhaps with some background xylophone music and dialogue it could have been amusing - "Oh you're early, plumber, and, oops, I'm just wearing this sexy negligee, hey here comes the postman...", but as it was, it was just sordid.

I was determined not to watch, and kept my head resolutely to the wall, until my ear slowly went numb. At least one part of me got to sleep. As you might expect, in a ten bed dorm room full of interruptions, nothing went to completion, and so the flapping and groaning went on all night. Lying. Staring at the ceiling. Muttering under my breath. Just - get - it - over - with

Haere ra, New Zealand

And then, of course, the sun came out. Auckland was transformed. I went for my morning run across the bridge to the Domain, past the Winter Gardens and the museum through the trees, breathing in the clean air of a city that knows nothing of the fumes of the congested world. Downhill, weaving through the trees, along silent roads to the waterfront. The sea glowed azure under the forest of silver masts.

It's not a bad place to be, New Zealand. The weather is not perfect, but it's of a sort I was designed for. And the sun was out for the last week, just in time for body surfing and the golden sands of Manganui, for diving in Whitianga and Paihia. We went dived on the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior, yes, that Rainbow Warrior, in her final resting place, a perfect patch of white sand 26m under the Bay of Islands. It was bombed by the French (who else would you expect?) in 1985. Fittingly, perhaps, nature has payed a tribute to the old soldier of the environment, covering her in an irridescent shroud of anenomes, and using her, not as a tomb, but the host and shelter to thousands of living marine creatures.

New Zealand has everything, except people. There is noone here my age, at all. The entire age group 23 - 35 is just gone, all off working in London (100,000 I hear). New Zealand looks as if the native population aged normally till about 20, and then gained 20 years (and children) in some overnight catastrophe. (That did happen to some people I knew, outside the Gorteen House Hotel discotecque in the back seats of Toyota Corollas late on a Friday night. Not pretty.)

The hot pool in Mount Manganui was the worst example of this. Everywhere I looked I could see pretty young girls in skimpy bathing costumes, lounging, promenading... and absolutely every one far too young for me. And instead of this being the steamy fantasy that you might think, it was my own vision of hell. I stared at my toes and wondered, where are the grown women for me to leer google-eyed at, in the appropriate gentlemanly fashion? Tired of feeling like some kind of grotesque pervert, I stomped off to the changing room, to wonder where it had all gone wrong.

New Zealand is a beautiful country, but it was time to go. Sydney is a proper city, with more than two streets, it has an adult population and the shops open late. I can go to see the Bridge and the Opera House, the only bits of Australia that I know, and then figure out what else to do, with an entire continent at my disposal. If the things don't find me first.

What on earth is a blue ringed octopus?




Rainbow Warrior


Rainbow Warrior Dive


Rainbow Warrior Underwater


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
Mount Manganui: Pacific Coast Backpackers. Beautiful, open hostel covered with murals. Friendly staff, close to beach.
Thames: Sunkist Lodge. Nice enough place in an undramatic stopover.
Coromandel: Baywatch Backpackers Whitianga. Good hostel with terraces overlooking bay, helpful owner.
Auckland: Fat Camel. Yuck. Windowless dorms.
Auckland: YHA. Clean, civilized hostel compared to backpackers'.
Paihia: Peppertree Lodge. Backpackers' hostel with outdoor patios. Bar next door. Large dorm.

How I got around:
The Magic Bus. Good value hop-on/hop-off service that goes all over the two islands, arranging accomodation and activities for you. There are so many backpackers in New Zealand, it can be overwhelming at times.