TheSubstream.com, for which I’ve been providing written and video reviews for the better part of 2 years, is going on indefinite hiatus. When I say “the better part of 2 years,” I’m extending that beyond the colloquial to the specific: by and large, working with Mike and Rajo and the rest of the Substream team, since 2011 or thereabouts, has reliably been one of the better, even best, parts of those 2 years. It’s a deep and heavy loss to see the site go.
Matt Price and I ran into Mike and Rajo in line for Midnight Madness at TIFF ‘08 or ‘09 or thereabouts, and for a while they were just those weird dudes that did awesome video coverage of MM - which, as beats go, is one of the best ones. Something flipped over in 2010, though, as they became more aware of what we were doing with Mamo, and we became more aware of what they were doing with the Substream, and suddenly we were all up in each other’s shit in the best possible way. We started doing 2-minute critic reviews and Watch This Instead, and went into the roster of hosts for the same Midnight Madness coverage where we originally hooked up with these guys. Before long, there were seasonal previews of the content at the Lightbox, and more recently, the Very Important! Podcast. At the end of 2011, I started writing reviews for TheSubstream.com itself. I can say quite unabashedly that the whole thing has been one of the best and easiest creative partnerships of my life. Stuff like the Batman video? Bonus points. And I won’t go on at too much length about it because lord knows I’ve pestered you guys enough on this point, but From A To Bond is probably my favourite thing I’ve ever written about movies - ever.
Last year, too, the Substream threw all-in on my elevator movie idea - which would have gone absolutely nowhere without their support - and we besides building a fucking elevator together (well, Rajo built it; I watched), we made a short film that I’m incredibly proud of, and a series of behind-the-scenes how-to videos about the project’s creation as well. Between Kat, Mike, and Rajo, Who Remembers How It Ends was basically a dream-come-true from a production/creative standpoint - and those don’t come along too often.
Mike and Rajo are the sort of friends and collaborators I would follow into a war. No really: an actual war. I’m sad beyond words that the site is going away, but - of course - there on Day One of whatever they do next.
(Being a somewhat spoilery post about Game of Thrones which will discuss all five of the books, not just the TV series)
I’m no huge fan of airlines, but if long flights accomplish anything for me lately, it’s that they let me chop through huge reams of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which itself comes in huger and huger reams. My round trip to Colorado last summer was enough to nick the last five hundred pages of A Feast for Crows, and the return trip from New Zealand this weekend let me put A Dance With Dragons in the ground, just a week shy of the premiere of Season Three of Game of Thrones, which was the goal all along. (Once the series threatened to start using material from the increasingly-interwoven latter three ASOIF books, my earlier strategy of reading one of the books per year went by the wayside.)Read more
Auckland - The fellowship is broken. Dave has taken Chris II overland to Auckland, while Demetre and I have chosen to attack it from the sea, which worked so well for us in Wellington. The ferry runs from Coromandel to Auckland in the evenings, a barnstorming run across the strait under a waxing moon that gets us into port around eleven o’clock. We fly home tomorrow.
The Lord of the Rings got to New Zealand first and it’s obviously the fantasy property with which the country will forever be associated (for better or worse, in a huge jumble of ways). It’s indescribable and marginally alarming to think back on how many different types of environments we’ve moved through in the course of three weeks - flatlands, mountains, river valleys, rain forests, glaciers, deserts, scrub land, farms, coastal villages. That one can frame a series of movies with locations this diverse which are nonetheless all within twelve hours’ drive of one another, give or take, is remarkable, and my most enthusiastic compliments go to Mr. Jackson’s location scouts - it’s one thing to see the finished product on film, but you have to take the drive out to Matamata or Mount Sunday to realize just how genuinely incredible it is that someone found those locations at all, let alone seeing how they could be used for their Middle-Earth equivalents, and making it happen.
But in spite of the Ringsiness of everything, I think I got an even stronger Narnia vibe out of the place than I did anything Tolkienish. Narnia has stuck with me a long time, even if I’ve mostly outgrown it - I now think of C.S. Lewis like a lunatic grandfather who had an incalculable influence on the development of my psyche but whose opinions about the world I now don’t agree with at all. Regardless, the displaced otherworldliness of all my experiences here has that very through-the-wardrobe sort of feel to it. I’m not really referring to the movies, which were shot here but weren’t very good; but I certainly walked in Aslan’s country down south, more than once, as vivid and verdant as anything I ever saw in my mind’s eye when I was twelve. And this week, upon arriving on the Coromandel Peninsula, we hiked out to Cathedral Cove, which was used in the second Narnia movie and nearly approximates the crashing beaches around the ruins of Cair Paravel that lives in my mind. This place gleams, and seems so frequently like a waking dream that after a point one simply stops bothering to question it. I can’t see, really, why anyone would ever want to leave.
Our last hike, yesterday, took us out to Port Jackson (yes - Port Jackson) to do the Coromandel Coastal Walk, a full-day hike that took us out around the edge of the peninsula, over rich green mountains and across sloping sheep-dotted hills, along paths which dropped away sharply in hundred-foot plunges to crashing waves far below, and past jet-black rocky shoals being ceaselessly pounded by frothing cerulean waves. In other words, it was yet another incarnation of heaven, with glistening New Zealand unfolding herself for us once again. When we reached Stony Cove, the end of the hike, we found ourselves in a wide, silent bay, ringed by thick forest enclosing a stony shore. And since I wasn’t likely to ever be back to that place and since leaving any action untaken is a shame under such circumstances, I stripped naked and dove into the bay, and swam around in the sunshine for ten or fifteen of the most perfect minutes of my life. There is peace and freedom here that cannot be bought at any price. At the end of the long walk back to our car and the beginning of a very long trip home, I took off my boots and brought it in Hobbitstyles for the last kilometre of the track - barefoot in the grass. Any exhaustion seemed very far away.
I have seen shades of green in this country that I have never seen anywhere else. Blues too - though I don’t pay much attention to them. Browns - you would not believe the browns I’ve seen. And stars like the light in her eyes that will stay with me the rest of my life.
There is something I noticed way down in the South Island very early on the trip, when hiking the second or third of our many tramps: these people don’t litter. Miles and miles of hiking ground, and on exactly one occasion - ONE - I saw a discarded bottle of Coke. I choose to believe that this is down to the cathedral-like reverence that overcomes anyone faced with such astonishing natural beauty; you take out what you bring in, and don’t fuck it up for everyone else, or for the environment itself, or for yourself. This tells you a lot, I think, about everyone in this country. They don’t litter. There are responsible recycling choices everywhere. Every menu calls out its gluten-free options. And of the six or seven million GIVE WAY signs we passed over the course of the road trip, only one was modified to read GIVE HEAD. Every New Zealander is unselfconsciously proud of the place - and unimaginably friendly about it - and as invested in your enjoyment of their home as they are themselves. They enjoy their riches to the utmost. New Zealand is a kind place, full of adventurers.
To the one who gave me the journal I’ve carried in my bag across every step of this journey, and for all the words that followed, I cannot sufficiently express my thanks. To the others: Dave, who took on every detail, every logistic, every fiddly bit of business that needed fiddling with, and did it brilliantly; Demetre, who is indomitable and really knows how to kiss; and my parents, who coached from the sidelines - thanks all. To them and everyone else, this advice: travel. Far, often, and well.
Coromandel - As we moved through the North Island we found a more and more commercialized, tourist-ized New Zealand; I must admit that this did not leave me in any great hope for the remainder of our last week here, as we approached the Mecca of all Lord of the Rings tourism - Hobbiton - before reaching our final stop on the Coromandel peninsula. But New Zealand, it seemed, had a few last tricks up her sleeve - and these last few spots could be paradise.
Hobbiton is sublime. On walking up the garden path (the one Bilbo runs down while screaming “I’m going on an adventure!”) and catching sight of the Party Tree over the hill, I was filled with the same deep bubble of emotion I felt when seeing the place in The Fellowship of the Ring, twelve years ago - a weird, touching, and very resonant sense that I had walked in this place in my mind and in my dreams, and the people of New Zealand had somehow found a way to build it out of wood and stone. The ensuing two hours were like nothing so much as a waking dream - we bagged a good tour guide, who bent a few rules for us, and we all ended the tour in the Green Dragon, which has been newly built out as a working tavern - meaning that we three, Dave and Demetre and I, concluded our pilgrimage across NZ sitting by the fire in a pub that is both made up and real, one table over from the cat, and enjoyed half-pints of good ale (and a meat pie, natch). It was surreal enough, and powerful enough, to nearly bring tears to my eyes.
That place. The reverence that overcame me and Dave particularly, as we laid our hands on Sam’s letterbox, as we looked up at the ancient Party Tree, as we sat in front of that brilliant green door - whose colour, I swear to you, no camera was able to precisely capture. The silence afterwards, as the bus took us away - I couldn’t bring myself to look back at Bag End, could not allow myself one final incomplete glance. The bus trundled on.
Then it was a long, leisurely drive across country to Coromandel, and up into yet another verdant wonderland of towering peaks and lush green rainforest, before pulling into Hahei as the gloaming fell, and driving two blocks past our hostel to arrive once again at the sea - and those white sand beaches, and those spires of rock out in the bay, and all around, a vast, deepening sky. I walked that beach as night fell, and listened to music, and something I have carried with me all this way finally broke - and I looked out across the sea at Toronto, and looked down at the surf as the push and pull of the tides created the perfect vertigo of the whole world slipping away.
And then I listened to a song - three times - and right then and there, it all felt done. The stars last night - you would not believe your eyes.
Running jokes in need of retirement:
The “ferry/fairy” spelling joke
The “Hey, Mike!” joke
The “Have you ever been kissed, Demetre, like really kissed?” joke
Permanent additions to the lingo:
Lord of the Rings location check:
The Dimholt Road (The Paths of the Dead)
The Old Forest
Stone Street Studios (so, Everything Else)
Rotorua - We’re clattering down towards the end of the road, and every cell in my body can feel it; that juuuuuust-pre-exhaustion of a well timed marathon. We’re ticking the last of the boxes in the North Island, but nowadays when we make friends with other tourists, we’re the ones giving advice rather than taking it.
On that subject - did you know that every single New Zealander is a part-time tourism adviser? This has astonished us through every single day of our journey, up to and including yesterday, when we visited the Mission vineyards for a bit of free wine-tasting, and the guy cleaning the fountain outside had more to say about our route to Rotorua than the woman in the i-SITE. (The apex of this particular phenomenon, though, was the wino who took Dave and I under his wing when we were searching for our restaurant on Friday night in Wellington.) These people are as comprehensively enthusiastic about our maximum enjoyment of their country as we are - more so even. When was the last time you could say that of a Canadian? But then again, Canada sucks.
We’re old hands at driving NZ’s roads, too; that torturous pretzel-logic that sees at least one person in the car chanting “left” multiple times per hour if it seems like the driver is in any jeopardy of pulling out into the right side of the street at any point. Left is right, green is red, the shotgun seat is (of course) called gunshot. Chris II has proved a much more capable hand at the uphill pass than Chris I, and if I continue to have a particular talent for ferreting out massive trucks to fly towards around every turn of every mountain road, well, so be it.
We’re sick of meat pies. Fully fucking sick of them. This is our own fault. By the time I was taking a runner on a cheeseburger pie yesterday - imagine a McDonald’s cheeseburger, baked in a pie, including ketchup - I was quite committed to never laying lips on the miserable things again. If we had started in the North Island and worked south, as originally planned, would the meat pie have even happened? The pies at Fergbakery in Queenstown remain the champions of the whole trip, and that was two long weeks ago now.
Here in Rotorua - which is best pronounced in Scooby-Doo voice, “RO-ROH-ROO-AH!” - we have ended up in the party hostel to end all party hostels - best pronounced “RUH-ROH!”. We checked in to the site of bikini-clad spring breakers in the heated pool, and the advisory that we’d missed the wet t-shirt contest by a couple of days; but then, we and all of our hostel-mates got caught in an unbelievable typhoon last night, so we pretty much got the contest anyway. On hostels, the Adventure Backpackers in Queenstown and the Wanaka Bakpaka (yep) in Wanaka remain the best; this one right here, Base Rotorua, is far and away the worst. The mileage on the rest varies somewhere in the middle, though the overall average has been good.
Finally zorbed yesterday. The experience was about as you’d expect - I yelled “ZOOOOOOOORRRRRRBBBBBB!” at the top of my lungs all the way down the hill. We made up some zorbing codes for use by the staff in case of emergency; “We have a red zorb!” means the occupant of a zorb is bleeding heavily; “White zorb! White zorb!” is a zorb struck by lightning. Unfortunately, neither of these happened - though Dave did manage to jump his zorb out of the track, for which no code words were prepared.
Meat pie count, trip thus far: 12
Napier - We have found ourselves in a bizarre town (to be fair, on a Sunday afternoon) which seems to shut down completely a couple of hours before sunset. Napier is all decorated in an Art Deco style which only amplifies the 28 Days Later vibe of wandering around the downtown core as the sun went down. On a bit of bad advice from our hostel manager we ended up taking a long walk around the mountain to the other side of the bay, in search of food; by the time we got there, the sun had gone down and all vestigial signs of life in the community had drained away like so much blood. The only person we saw - and at a distance, mind you - was a woman in a hoodie and (potentially) no pants, who walked into the black tide water and pulled a rubber tire out of the depths. There was also the small matter of a ballistic missile, spotted lying unattended in the shipping docks, pointed at a railway crossing where several alarming signs promised doom to any cyclist who attempted to cross.
There was nothing for us to do but turn around and hike over the mountain, through a graveyard of sleeping houses (this was at 7:30), none of which had lights on, which provided a rather exceptional view of the stars above, but did make it feel like we were under constant threat of alien attack. Napier slept, and we wandered among its ruins.
We befriended a father and his impossibly skinny daughter at the hotel in Lake Ferry over breakfast before we left yesterday morning, who told us that the principal draw of that tiny little spot on the map was the fishing - but given that neither we, nor they, were there for the fishing, we couldn’t verify this. From Lake Ferry we set out to a glow worm cave, which I expected to be a relatively small affair (it was on a farmer’s property, who charged ten bucks for a gander), and turned out to be an extraordinary underground tunnel where the glow worms themselves were far and away the least interesting element. I doffed my boots and crept through the river-carved passage barefoot, Gollum-style, into total blackness before emerging, maybe a half hour later, in a deep chasm in a silent forest, surrounded by greenery (and flies). Flies were everywhere upon our entry too - and cows - and the pervasive sense that (at ten bucks a gander, in the back of a farmer’s property) we were in prime Deliverance territory, or at least, under threat of encountering a pig-fucker hoedown. Instead, an endlessly fun, endlessly weird experience delving under the ground in search of forgotten gold. Demetre brought a head lamp - he is, it turns out, a caver - whereas I entered the underground completely unprepared and wearing no shoes. But, I’d argue, gripping those slippery rocks with my toes brought me into the place much more than my hikers would have anyway. I did a number on the soles of my feet - the innumerable barefoot kiwis we run across suggest that toughened foot-pads are inculcated into their people from childhood - but it was worth every bruise.
Lake Ferry - Our Mount Doom hike has been scuttled, because the Tongariro crossing is in permanent nastiness, weather-wise, for the next several days. This has left a rather gaping crater in our final week in New Zealand. We’ve ended up in Lake Ferry - a bleak stretch of sand out near the pinnacles, where the hotel (a lovely, barren motel overlooking the sand spit) could be the gathering place for anyone within twenty miles.
Have I mentioned the food here - the food in New Zealand is one hell of a best-kept secret. With exactly one exception, we have not failed to find UNBELIEVABLY good food in every restaurant we’ve visited, largely sourced from local products, and always plated with an aesthetic solvency that would blow the hair off half the Food Network hags. Last night at the hotel restaurant it was prawns and fettuccine tossed in tomato sauce with chorizo sausage and pine nuts, and it was - yet again - one of the better meals I’ve had in my life. No one talks about this place as the culinary centre of the world? Is it because they’re too busy talking about the propensity to jump off bridges?
Have I mentioned the drought? It’s stunningly dry here, and all the highway “fire hazard” signs (of which there are many) are set to “EXTREME.” But more than that, you see it as you move through the land - driving down here, across mile after mile after mile of sun-blasted scrub land, one begins to worry. Demetre was saying that the country is within a stone’s throw of water rationing if they don’t get a good downpour soon. (They should go to Tongariro.)
Wellington turned out to be a compellingly livable, friendly city, with a solid strategy for public art, and walkable streets that are - for whatever reason - replete with pregnant women, suggesting that they have lots of sex there and/or are as fertile as the average fruit fly. Wellington also puts Chicago’s quaint notions of itself as “the windy city” in striking perspective - especially down by the bay, that town has WIND, man. But no one seems too bothered about it. Friday morning the folks heading to work did not seem in any particular rush about it, and Friday night the streets exploded with nightlife to a degree that was more than a bit startling.
We went to the Weta Cave and then I did my Obi-Wan Kenobi straight-line walk to Stone Street Studio without any plan or navigational assistance. The highlight of the stay, though, was going to the Embassy Theatre for a midnight screening of The Hobbit in 48/3-D/Atmos, which would have been a treat in itself, but… THIS THEATRE. Quite legitimately the best movie theatre I’ve ever been to a movie in, with a stunning lobby, tony nighttime bar under the screen (which creates the rather surreal visual of walking into the lobby and seeing no ticket counter or concession stand, but rather a vulva-ish tunnel leading to a brilliantly designed room full of flappers drinking Old Fashioneds), an upstairs cafe and lounge area, and then - of course - a brilliant theatre, with a gargantuan screen, the best sound system I’ve ever heard, and wide leather armchairs bearing the names of the benefactors who sponsored them. (I sat in Liv Tyler’s.) If they played Return of the Jedi on Saturday mornings, it would be like all of my life’s ambitions had crashed together in one place. The Embassy is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and puts Wellington near the top of the list of places in New Zealand now vying for my permanent residence.
The big draw out where we are right now are the pinnacles, which served as the Paths of the Dead and must be seen to be believed. Made up of dissolving towers of compacted scree, the pinnacles seem like a winding labyrinth of crumbling castle turrets and proud, erect penises stabbing the darkening sky. (Also: if the metaphors in this entry any indication, I’ve spent too long absent the company of a woman.) We were in the pinnacles as the sun went down, and the encroaching chill and preternatural silence - broken only by our exhausting efforts to scramble over the voluminous piles of skull-like stones - was immense. I would love to return with a good set of speakers, and bounce the Raiders march off every corner of that large, natural echo chamber.
Wellington, on a 2-day furlough from the Larger Adventure As A Whole - Once upon a time, there was a man named Demetre, who wanted to punch a seal in the face. I do not know why this obscene lust dwelled in him, but to look in Demetre’s eyes was to know the True Terror. So when, in the small and beautiful coastal town of Kaikoura on the South Island of New Zealand, Demetre learned that there was a hiking trail nearby where fur seals were known to come right out of the water and bask lazily within feet of passers by, he jumped at the opportunity and made a beeline for that trail right away with punching fist ready.
Here is what I witnessed, as relates to this story: down on the rocky shore of Kaikoura, under a huge cliff looking out on the Pacific Ocean, Demetre wanted to explore “around the corner” to see if there was a seal there that he could punch in the face. No sooner had Demetre disappeared around the corner, though, than I saw him come running back towards me as though the devil himself was behind him with a machete and five ninja dominatrixes carrying machine guns! Demetre, who is at heart a very calm and kind man, is not known for this sort of behaviour.
This is what was related to me, regarding what happened “around the corner”: Demetre went around the corner and saw a seal sitting there. He decided to get a little closer to it. At which point the seal reared up like an angry cobra, barked, and took two gigantic leaps towards Demetre with the intention of ripping his left hand clear from his body, rendering Demetre “Busterized” for all time. Demetre, who is in heat but at heart a calm and kind man, finally saw the wiser of his “punch a seal” ambitions, and got the hell out of there as fast as his two legs would carry him.
Moral: DON’T PUNCH SEALS, DEMETRE
FIN. We ride north. No seals were harmed in the making of this blog post, or in any danger of being harmed, although Demetre (who, to be fair, probably never really wanted to punch a seal in the first place) was in danger of having his hand bit off by a seal.
Kaikoura - Was this the day we all made silent promises to move down here? We were about halfway between Christchurch and Kaikoura, on the highway, passing through wide golden pasture lands and arriving at nearly the exact middle of nowhere, when we decided to stop at the next roadside restaurant for a snack… and just as randomly as that, found the freakin’ Secret Garden - an old train station in Domett, converted to a cafe, which served the most extraordinary food on its private back patio, wreathed in flowers and shrubs. Mainline Station, it’s called - get the chicken filo pie, if you’re in the area. Which you probably never would be, because this place is, again, in the middle of nowhere - an hour and a half in either direction to the nearest large town - and yet it’s possibly the most beautiful, perfectly realized cafe I’ve ever been to. The food is locally sourced, the chef comes out to talk to the customers, and in every direction is paradise.
I’m not much of a car guy, but I proceeded to have quite possibly the most fun I’ve had driving in my entire life, after leaving Mainline. The highway climbed up into some low mountains and snaked around corners and turns, and here we are in Chris, our crappy rental Subaru station wagon, and I’m driving on the wrong side of the road, mind you, and around EVERY corner - I swear to you - there is a very large truck charging towards us… and it’s AWESOME. We got in behind a tractor trailer who was driving even more batshit fast than we could and followed him up the mountain. I tried to execute a Tokyo Drift but I haven’t seen that movie. I did, however, come screaming around a hairpin sharp enough that my passengers weren’t sure we’d be able to pull out in time - just like Beggar’s Canyon back home. And when we were all just about losing our shit entirely from the sheer euphoric fun of it all, the mountains opened up - and there was the Pacific.
Kaikoura is like someone dropped a piece of Tahiti in a sheltered piece of the coast here on the South Island. Again, paradise. Main street is twelve stores long. The fish is superb. We went to a place called the Green Dolphin, all had the catch of the day, and for desert, there was fig salami with candied walnuts and goat cream cheese. I can hear the ocean now as the sun comes up, calling me home. Today we hike around the bay, eat more of the local food, and then jump on the ferry to the North Island. Further up and further in. I still don’t have my sword.
There was a point in the planning of this trip where we were only going to come to the South Island for a single day. Now I’d never leave, if I came here again.
Christchurch - Screaming out of Aoraki yesterday morning with a wet sky behind us and the buzz of the helicopter flight still on our mind lead to a quick chat about the quest for the Perfect Life, which, if it can be found anywhere, can probably be found here; we were thinking of the helicopter pilot, who shuttles fat tourists up and down a glacier five times a day and yet claims never to tire of it. Why? Because he loves flying helicopters. And every time he goes up there, he gets to see dorks like us completely freak out about the glacial cap and the mountains and all the other things he’s seen a million times; he sees them with fresh eyes five times a day. The perfect life, then, is simple if you can hack it: find a thing you love doing. And find a way to do it for the rest of your life.
It will come as no surprise that this place is apparently curative - I kicked an annoying little cold out of my respiratory tract in something like sixty hours, end to end - but it is endlessly surprising to me that for whatever degree the epic-awe-inspiringness of New Zealand has been caught on film in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere, I would still say that (in those specific locations) the films manage to put, at best, 60% of the total onscreen. Arriving at Mt. Sunday after a long and bumpy ride down an unpaved road, giving way to the first view of the long blue valley ringed by snow-capped mountains and with that strange divet right in the middle of it - Mt. Sunday itself, Edoras in The Two Towers - we weren’t struck by how much it was like being in Middle Earth; we were struck by how successfully Andrew Lesnie uglied the place up to serve as the home of the Horse Lords. There are colours and shades happening in that valley that I have never seen before and will never be able to reproduce - a poisonous river running past the eastern face of the rock (which became my favourite vantage point) contained versions of green and turquoise that I’ve never laid eyes on and possibly never will again.
Mt. Sunday also afforded something else - solitude. It was the first stop on our long tour where we were not thronged by sun-baked backpackers, tour buses full of senior citizens, or inexplicable congregations of Japanese tourists. We were - the three of us - alone on that thing for a solid half an hour before another two hikers showed up. For that time, we might well have been the only humans in the whole valley; us, and the sun, and the sound of the streams far below.
“Marjorie” - the GPS voice here in New Zealand, who joins Linda (U.S.A.) and Wendy (Canada) on the list of people I shout at endlessly.
“Orcs” - other tourists, seen at a distance, approaching wherever we are.
“Chris” - our rental car.
Lord of the Rings location check:
Gondor - The White Mountains
The Plains of Rohan