It seems to be a general rule on New Zealand’s South Island, that the further South you get, the more tourists there are. Or rather, the closer you get to a location from the Lord of the Rings, the greater the amount of people you’ll see. Either way, as you travel south the amount of tourists continues to grow.
We got our first real taste of the negative energy of other tourists when we found ourselves in Lake Tekapo early one afternoon. With its turquoise blue water, hemmed in by mountains on almost all sides, Lake Tekapo is an obvious lure for tourists. Add to that the fact that it’s slap bang in the middle of a dark sky reserve – perfect for star watching – and it’s almost too much to resist.
As we booked our stay in the holiday park reception we noticed three people working the front desk. For three different languages. Almost unheard of in a holiday park. Then there was the map. So big that it spanned a whole A3 sheet. Our spot was a tiny dot right in the middle. It was more of a holiday town than a holiday park. I knew straight away that I wasn’t going to like it at all.
It’s strange how the most disgusting thing to a tourist is another tourist. We all go to a place and feel sick at the sight of other travellers. Maybe it’s because it diminishes our own experience. Our journeys and adventures seem to be less worthy because we know dozens of others are doing the same thing. Yet this seems silly. The amount of tourists don’t make the colour of the water any less blue. The mountains don’t grow smaller with each new person that arrives.
Or maybe they do. The whole point of visiting natural surroundings is that you’re doing so to experience the world in its beautiful, original state. The irony is that the more people that come to these surroundings, the more unnatural they become. Lake Tekapo may be as blue and wonderful as ever, but everything around it is so developed that it ceases to have any beauty at all.
One argument is that any good experience is better when shared. The classic “The more the merrier.” But the addition of people to a surrounding that should be free of them is jarring.
When we go to a football match or the cinema, we don’t bemoan the fact that others are there, because these are communal activities. Other people amplify the experience and are part of the atmosphere. No game would be complete without the cheers or deep sighs of thousands of others around you. No movie is the same when watched in a cinema alone.
But when you’re standing at the top of a mountain having people there with you destroys the mystique. People mean noise, not quiet, which is what I’d consider to be the true state of the world.
There’s something to be said for the tranquillity you can find, once tourists have disappeared. The experience is our own, even if just for that moment, and we are in control of it. We don’t have to contend with others.
The Noisy Tourist
It’s the noise that gets to me the most. Much like with my noisy neighbours, I hate the sound of tourists. A shudder passes through me every time I heard a loud, obnoxious American voice in a tourist destination. Usually pointing out the complete obvious: “HEY BOB! HAVE YOU SEEN THE LAKE! IT’S SO BLUE!”
American tourists are rare in Lake Tekapo, replaced with the Asian tourist. You’re travelling through the country. Have barely seen anybody from Asia in weeks. Then BAM! You come into Lake Tekapo and it’s like you may as well be in the middle of China.
Maybe the travel agents in Asia find it easy to sell tickets to Lake Tekapo. After all it looks amazing in photos. Yet, I think that the photos probably crop out all the other tourists.
Some guy in Korea has no doubt been sold the lovely idea of the peaceful Lake Tekapo. Only to arrive and realise everybody else in Asia has gone there with him. He’s surely thinking the same as me, “Fucking tourists!” Complaining to his wife about quiet, miserable looking Englishmen. “Jeez, those guys never smile.” He’s thinking, “Sit them in front of an amazing lake and all they can do is complain!”
So here we are, in Lake Tekapo. If you stand on the shore, where the water meets the sand, looking out you’ll get the best experience possible. Beautiful water. Stunning. Calm. Serene. Not a tourist in sight. Just you and lake. Just close your ears to sound and don’t turn around or you know what you’ll see.
Hiking up Mount John
In an attempt to escape the hustle and bustle of our holiday park we decided the best solution was to travel upward. Most tourists are lazy. Travelling from place to place in their RVs, looking for cheap thrills. Only a small few can find the energy to walk more than 50 metres away from their mobile home.
The perfect solution was a hike up Mount John. A small mountain beside the lake with a few large telescopes on top. With each sweaty step up the trail, I could feel the tourists getting further away and the only thing I could hear were the birds in the trees.
Halfway up the mountain we were overtaken by a couple of Koreans in sleek hiking gear, hands attached to poles. I thought for a moment we’d made a huge mistake. How could I forget Korea’s most popular pass-time (after getting drunk on soju) is hiking! But as luck would have it, we didn’t pass any more extreme Korean hikers. Relief.
Or so I thought. You see the problem with this so called “mountain” was that you could drive to the top. Which I’m sure leads most tourists to the thought: Why hike up to see the view when I can just drive? (A thought we now never entertain as we fear our car will break down again.)
It was with a double groan that I reached the top of the peak.
Groan one: I’ve just hiked for an hour almost completely uphill, now I’m tired.
Groan two: Only to find the peak is covered in tourists taking selfies.
I couldn’t enjoy it. There was a photographer taking wedding photos. Families lining up at the edge of summit to get a photo with the lake. A dozen couples with selfie sticks standing on rocks. All talking, smiling, laughing.
How could I enjoy the beautiful view with so much noise around me? (Even if it was joyful!) If it were acceptable I would have loved to just tell everybody to SHUT THE FUCK UP! Instead I dragged Jamie to the side, “Let’s go.” “But we just got here, can’t we stop and enjoy the view?!” My answer was to walk off, further along the mountain.
Our short walk up the mountain, soon turned into a long walk to get away from other people. After half an hour we were far enough away from the summit (and pretty much everything else) to be alone. Just me, Jamie, and the view. The only sound was our footsteps.
When we stopped walking it was to be met with an eerie silence. When you find yourself on top of a mountain alone, and you stop and listen you’ll be surprised by what you don’t hear. No traffic, no voices, barely a bird. Maybe the wind and little else.
It doesn’t feel right because there’s always noise. Always. Wherever we go. Just stop and sit for a minute with your eyes closed and you’ll see what I mean. Right now I can hear a bird chirping (nice), the low hum of a refrigerator (not nice), the loud sound of children playing (grumble) and far off a dog barking (double grumble). But on top of a mountain there’s nothing. Just complete silence. Peace.
Soon the track took a turn and we found ourselves heading back to civilization. The closer we got to our campsite, the more the noise grew. The more people we saw. First a few joggers, then a family. Soon we were watching a Korean couple by the lake trying over and over to take a “spontaneous” photo of themselves jumping in the air. The crash of feet landing on pebbles.
That next day, I was awoken by the sound of a man clearing the phlegm out of his throat and spitting. I pulled the pillow into my head and muttered the always hypocritical words: fucking tourists.