The opposite of flying

It is impossible for people over a certain age to travel on the Interislander ferry without having their travel accompanied by the involuntary earworm soundtrack of the Waratahs’ 1990 song “Cruisin’ on the Interislander” (or “Sailin’ to the Other Side”, depending on how your googling works out), used on a successful ad campaign for the Cook Strait ferry.

I’d decided to take the ferry to the South Island because I was feeling all jaded about air travel and, well, didn’t that old ad make it seem like a fun adventure? More enjoyable than a cramped plane trip, at least.

Sailing conditions

The golden sun is rising, and Barry Waratah hitch-hikes along an empty road, guitar in one hand, suitcase in the other. Along comes a vintage car driven by a lovely old couple. They pull over and Barry excitedly jumps in.

For foot passengers, the journey to the Wellington ferry terminal is perilous. It’s actually not recommended to walk from the railway station to the terminal due to the narrow footpath and busy traffic along Aotea Quay. Instead there’s a $2 bus that does the trick.

Two dollars might seem cheap, but it caused another traveller to exclaim it was “daylight robbery” to anyone who would listen, and many others who wouldn’t. Ignoring her, I board the bus and soon I’m heading for the terminal.

The car drives towards the ferry terminal, and we catch a glimpse of the Interislander docking in Wellington Harbour. At the terminal, Barry gathers his belongings and bids the kindly old couple farewell.

Looking at the various other passengers waiting at the ferry terminal, it soon becomes obvious that only certain types of people travel by ferry. These include:

  • Travellers to the Marlborough Sounds area.
  • People taking the slow route.
  • People who can’t fly for medical reasons.
  • People who can’t fly for mental reasons.

The Wellington ferry terminal also has a cafe called Cappuccino Harbour, which probably does cappuccinos with giant ’90s-style mountains of froth. Give it a few more years and it’ll be retro cool.

Cappuccino Harbour

The Interislander begins its journey out of Wellington Harbour. Barry is on his way. On deck, the old couple appear and give Barry his hat that he’d left behind. Maybe they weren’t even planning on going on the ferry, but as Barry was such a nice young man, they decided to do have a day in Picton.

There’s a bit of a rush to get a good seat. On the lower deck, there’s a choice of rows of seats or tables. I score myself a rather good table, but soon after that I need to pay a visit to the ladies’. When I come back, my table has been claimed by a group of surfer dudes who are scarfing down fried breakfasts.

Oh well. It’s not like I even wanting to sit there anyway, dudes. I find a new position by the window.

Barry meets up with a fellow Waratah and together they spy Barrett’s Bar – Te Tangihanga-a-Kupe. They exchange eager glances.

Ol’ Barrett’s Bar doesn’t exist any more. The area it previously occupied isn’t even publicly accessible now. But there’s still the Queen Charlotte Cafe and Bar. I go upstairs to check it out.

It’s full. Every table is occupied, particularly with middle-aged and elderly travellers. That combined with the bar atmosphere makes it feel like an RSA. All that’s missing is a wall of pokie machines and a raffle for a meat pack.

The Arahura Interislander glides past the proud working class suburb of Seatoun, where one Hector Street resident mows his lawn with a push-mower and another works on his Cortina.

Obviously I need to check in on Foursquare or the journey won’t count. There’s 3G in Wellington Harbour, but it’s patchy and my iPhone is only showing one bar. The surrounding suburbs fly past, but I’m so fixated on getting a decent internet connection on my phone that I miss most of it.

On an outdoor deck, other Waratahs engage in high jinks. One slaps awake a snoozing bandmate, another feeds seagulls some white bread. An Asian father points out a sight to his son looking out through binoculars.

Man, it’s windy. These aren’t typical Cook Strait winds – Metservice has noted their intensity, though it’s not strong enough for a warning.

Not only is it windy, but it’s also a bit cold, so there aren’t many people out enjoying the sights on the viewing area. Most people come out on the deck, are physically assaulted by the wind, exchange glances of horror and amusement, then quickly leave.

I don’t, however. I plonk myself down on a seat and admire the view. It’s quite nice. Well, what I can see of it through the unwanted Beiber hairstyle that the wind has fashioned for me.


The Arahura passes another Interislander coming in the other direction. Barry and two of his bandmates toast each other with lager and orange pop.

The Arahura passes a Bluebridge ferry, on its way from Picton, and I wonder what might have been. The Bluebridge leaves from a more central wharf and their ferries seem quite nice. They probably have free wifi and single-original coffee.

A father and son wave at a colourful fishing boat as it passes by the ferry, a gay vessel in orange and blue.

The palette du jour is light grey, dark grey, and green. There was a fair bit of blue sky earlier in the day, but as the ship does travels north-west (as the trip to the top of the South Island goes) the sky turns more steely and things get a little less cheerful.

Inside the ferry, Barry gesticulates the shape of mountains to an attractive young tourist couple, as the three of them look over a map of the South Island.

I’ve found myself accidentally blocked in by some passive-aggressive parents, whose parenting style is to bark commands, followed by a ‘please’ to make it good manners. “Eat your chicken nuggets now, young man, please!” “You will do your homework and stop whining, please!”

I decide to not put any further burden on the kids and stay in my seat until all the nuggets have been eaten, not wanting a “Get out of the way of the lady and let her pass now, please!”

Back on the viewing deck, two of the Waratahs continue drinking their lager and orange pop, laughing as they chat in front of the frothy ocean trail.

The interior of the ferry feels like a bus depot. I thought taking the ferry would be a cool nautical adventure, like a public transport/pirate mash-up. But really it’s just like spending three hours in a bus depot. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

In an aerial shot, the Interislander continues its path across the Strait.

Don’t ask me how I know this, but there’s a website that lists public places where gay men can meet other gay men for anonymous sex. In the late ’90s, one New Zealand location listed was the lower deck men’s toilets on the Arahura. “These are particularly cruisey and will ensure you’ll be ‘cruising on the Interislander'”, the entry noted.

I’d always meant to check this out, to see if there were any nervous looking fellows sneaking off for a suspiciously long wee, but I forgot.

It’s time for some food. Two Waratahs enjoy some delicious roast meals, served hot from the heat-lamp carvery.

I know the food place was serving cooked breakfasts earlier, but that looks to be off the menu now. In fact, the menu now seems to only consist of chicken nuggets and…. “Chips?” The chef offers me his speciality. Oh, all right. How do they deep-fry chips on a boat? Wouldn’t there be a risk of the oil slopping out of the fryer, causing a slip hazard and/or hideously disfiguring third-degree burns?

To complement the chips, I choose a rock-solid tub of ice cream, which appears to have actually been in a state of cryogenic suspended animation. It’s so hard, the plastic spoon breaks, but I fashion a shiv from the remaining handle.

The ship has entered the Marlborough Sounds, and sales past two old codgers fishing on a dock. They wave.

The ferry has made its way to the Marlborough Sounds. I thought this would make a welcome change from the monotony of the open sea, but it turns out it’s a new form of monotony.

Travelling along the sounds, it’s like driving down a country road, but with nothing much interesting to look at.

I feel like I should be learning from this in some sort of Zen state. Oh, the rolling hills will teach me to appreciate simplicity. But I’m bored and the alternative to this is watching “Cop Out” in the cinema or “Come Dine with Me” on the mini CRT telly bolted to the wall inside.

Oh, hey! The ferry has just passed a small wharf with a couple of boats tied up. Hi, boat guys!!!

Back on the viewing deck, the Waratahs have sat down for a game of cards, still enjoying their lager and orange pop.

I sit down with my iPhone and stick the iPod on shuffle. There’s no mobile internet out here, so my automatic flick to Twitter brings an error message advising a fruitless yield. There’s only one other thing I can do – play games of Solitaire.

Inside the bar, two of the Waratahs are getting refills on their lagers and orange pops.

A final coffee? Yeah, why not. A return trip to the bar produces a perfectly adequate latte. I’m tempted by a “hangi pie”, but decide against it. A boat isn’t the place to experiment with new cuisines.

The ship is docking and Barry finds the best-looking band member flirting with three womens – a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. Too much orange pop for him.

The ship is docking and I join a group of elderly men and women watching the ferry slide into place. It’s amazing how precisely such a large boat can be controlled.

In fact, I’m so captivated by the docking of the boat and extending of the gang plank that I end up being one of the last passenger’s off, confusing one of the crew who wonders if I’ve come back for a lost item.

Oh no, sir, I’m not lost. I’ve just found my way off this thing.

Picton at last. The band wanders past the war memorial arch as the oldies in the vintage car hoon past, waving farewell again. They band set their bags and instruments down on London Quay. They’re in Picton – now what?

The ferry terminal at Picton seems to be a similar vintage to the Wellington one, complete with a ’90s style cafe called Pier Cafe. Out on the street, I follow the clearly marked path to the city, only to get a little lost and having to reorientate myself with Google Maps on my iPhone (only 2G in Picton, but that’s better than nothing).

There’s a shadowy shot of Barry playing his guitar as the next Interislander pulls into Picton. He seems to be surrounded by an arch, but surely it’s not the war memorial – that would be disrespectful.

I find the Picton War Memorial arch, which is at the foot of High Street, along which is my motel. Beyond the War Memorial arch are the two strange concrete statues of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as if trying to take the edge of the solemn memorial.

Creepy Mickey

Finally the Interislander is seen travelling on the ocean blue, with a big white mountain looming in the background.

Finally I’m settled into my hotel with its welcome pack of chocolate caramels and its gigantic spa bath.

Later in the evening, I go for a wander down to the local aquarium-cum-cinema, and notice the Interislander is waiting in the dock for its evening sailing to Wellington.

I’m glad I’ll be flying home to Wellington at the end of my holiday. While the Interislander has its charms, it wasn’t any cheaper than flying and being able to get up and walk around doesn’t outweigh the monotony of the three-hour trip.

And 20 years on, the Interislander experience is clearly different to how it was for Aotearoa’s country-rock kings. Or perhaps I just wasn’t drinking enough Fanta to get the full Waratahs Interislander experience.

Taking the ferry instead of flying made me feel like a bored housewife who’s had an affair with her mechanic, only to realise her boring old husband wasn’t so bad after all. Oh, air travel – will you take me back? I’ll brush my hair for you.

4 thoughts on “The opposite of flying”

  1. I’ve only taken the Interislander to Pictomn once, and I made the mistake of trying to walk to the ferry terminal. Aside from the almost non-existent footpath, the other peril is that as you can’t see the ferry terminus until the last minute, you end up thinking “I’m in the middle of an industrial wasteland; surely they didn’t locate the terminus this far out,” which caused me to backtrack a bit, wander around wharves and almost miss my boat.

    Good times.

  2. Every table is occupied, particularly with middle-aged and elderly travellers.

    Do Winston’s Wanderers get free trips on this line, like they do on the Wairarapa trains and the Waiheke Island ferry?

  3. Loved this. I’ve made that trip several times – five or so? – and each time has been different, all due to the weather. I must say I enjoy gliding through the Marlborough Sounds, but I agree that the boat and facilities leave a lot to be desired… I feel similar about Picton; I’ve had fun adventures up in the bush and hills surrounding Picton, and found the town itself to be either an end-of-the-world bizarre place or a quaint place that doesn’t really know what it is besides a gateway to the South Island. Intriguing.

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