Ever Increasing Collins – A Cartoon

Ever Increasing Collins – A Cartoon

Ever Increasing Collins

… A Surreal Trip Down Memory Lane…

Ever Increasing Collins by Rob Gregory Author

Ever Increasing Collins in all its glory!

Adolescence. It’s a funny old thing. Hormones sloshing wildly around a body which doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. Hair sprouting from funny places and a voice box that goes from bass-baritone to soprano at the most inconvenient of moments. And then there is Ever Increasing Collins, a blast from the past, which took me back to those terrible days of teenage longing, when I stumbled upon it, while sorting out some old papers a week or so ago.

Once upon a time, I was an adolescent and not a very good one at that. I found the whole process extremely troubling and in addition to all of the biological inconveniences alluded to above, I developed a social awkwardness, which took me decades to bring under control. In the end, I resorted to living in a cave, far from human scrutiny and mastered Zen Buddhism, which I now loathe with a passion. You can find out why, if you click here.

Anyway, I digress. Back then, when I still had hair on my head and a body that was more than the flabby, worn-out organ carrier that it is now, I used to doodle. Exercise books, A4 refill pads, postage stamps, nothing was sacred and that included the margins of any piece of paper I could lay my hands on. Most of the time it was stuff copied from whatever anarchistic, Indie publication I was reading at that particular moment.

Favourites included the wonderful ‘Bugs and Drugs’ and it’s predecessor ‘Skate Muties from the 5th Dimension’, as well as ‘Arnie’ and the ever so dark ‘Harpy’ by Nick Mackie, which, as far as I know only ran to two editions… a terrible shame, because it was shaping up to be a fantastic cartoon series of epic proportions.

However, on occasion, I would be assailed by brief flashes of surreal brilliance and pump out images and situations worthy of commentary by the world’s greatest sages. Ever Increasing Collins is not one of those.

Where it came from or why, I have no recollection, but I am glad that it has not seen the light of day until now, because if it had, then I would probably be writing this to myself from the safety of my very own padded cell and the only commentary it would have attracted would have been from criminal psychologists and the male nurses guarding my rubber-walled accommodation on a 24/7 basis.

Happily, I am now a recovered doodler and direct my creative urges towards writing, rather than drawing, so I will leave it up to you to interpret the meaning behind Ever Increasing Collins. A commentary on Shakespearian character definitions, a much loved, yet missing scene from Pride and Prejudice or just the ridiculous scratchings of a bored English student, you be the judge. I very much look forward to your replies.


Note: Ever Increasing Collins will shortly be available as a limited edition print, with T-shirts, mugs and other useless paraphernalia following close behind. Please contact me directly should you wish to purchase the original artwork. Prices are negotiable, however, you will probably need a rich Nigerian uncle or a recently deceased foreign dictator to have left you some money beforehand, in which case, you can just leave me your bank details and PIN numbers and I will do the rest!


While you are at it, here are some of the magazines referred to above. Enjoy!

Cover of Bugs and Drugs - Rob Gregory Author

Bugs and Drugs – Issue One.


Cover of Skate Muties From The Fifth Dimension - Rob Gregory Author

Skate Muties From The 5th Dimension – Issue Nine.


Harpy 1 & 2 by Nick Mackie - Rob Gregory Author

Harpy – Issues One and Two. Check out Nick’s latest stuff here.


Arnie - Rob Gregory Author

Arnie – Issue Five.

Do chickens have faces?

Do chickens have faces?

Forget about them crossing the road, this is the big one, folks!

A semi-serious anecdote from a former student of poultry behaviour…

The rise of facial recognition technology

Today, we live in a world dominated by technology, one particular part of which is facial recognition. Whether we are passing through an airport, walking down a city street or simply unlocking our mobile phones, our faces are being captured and used to identify us.

Facial recognition technology is based on using the geometry of the face, i.e. the relationship between features such as the distance between your eyes or where your nose sits in relation to your ears, to build a unique map, which can be used to identify you.

But it wasn’t always like this. Back in the late 1990s, facial recognition, the way we know it today, was a dream. Pure science fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that a commercially viable product using iris recognition was available on the market.

Now, turn your attention to a young scientist, working towards his doctoral degree at Oxford University at around the same time. Poor fellow. He was investigating social discrimination in laying hens, which in plain English means: how the heck do chickens recognise each other? This might seem like something of an unusual pastime, not to mention use of taxpayer’s money, but it did have a serious point…


Cover of my doctoral thesis on chickens - Rob Gregory Author

My doctoral thesis. Yes, I did complete it and am still rather proud of it.


Facial recognition and the pecking order

Chickens have long been believed to have a strong pecking order. Indeed, the very phrase ‘peck order’ comes from work done by a Norwegian scientist, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, back at the turn of the twentieth century. I have my own thoughts on the validity of a strongly linear pecking order, i.e. one where the top dog dominates all those below it, the second in command dominates all but the top dog and so on, as indeed did Schjelderup-Ebbe, but I’ll save that for a future blog.

Suffice to say that scientists have long believed that the way chickens recognise their place in the pecking order is through the comb on their heads and to a lesser degree, the wattles that hang from their throats. The question I was grappling with, because it was indeed me who was that poor young scientist, was whether chickens used individual recognition or what was known as a ‘badge of status’. Think about a sergeant’s stripes and you’ll get the idea. You don’t need to know a sergeant individually, to know how to behave around them!


Head of a chicken showing the comb and wattles - Rob Gregory Author

Traditional wisdom says that the comb and wattles are what chickens use to recognise each other.


Where it gets serious, at least from an animal welfare point of view, is when you look at commercial flocks of hens, which can number in the tens of thousands. If chickens have to rely on individual recognition, then the cost of trying to remember several thousand one-on-one relationships just isn’t worth it and is likely to be highly stressful, which is not good for poor old Chicken-Licken. On the other hand, if they can switch to badges of status, then everything should be hunky-dory, and we can all sleep soundly at night, thank you very much.

So, there you have it. Took a long time to explain, but at least you now know why I was spending an unhealthy amount of time in the company of poultry. And as an enquiring young researcher, I had a question and it annoyed me…


How do chickens recognise faces?

At the time that the peck order is being formed, the comb and wattles are in a juvenile stage, i.e. they are still growing. And growing rapidly. The effect is like trying to remember your place when everyone around you, including yourself, has a new haircut each day. Of course, you could argue that on a day-to-day basis, the change is gradual and so the chickens don’t notice it, but as you can see from the images below, over a seven-week period, when all of the peck order action is happening, the change is really quite substantial.


Picture of a chickens head at different ages - Rob Gregory Author

The same chicken before and after puberty. Look how the comb changes but the other main features do not.


An alternative idea is that the size of the comb and wattles reflects the amount of testosterone the chicken has and so the bird ‘knows’ how strong it is without ever having to see its own features. But that doesn’t really work because there are diseases that cause the comb and wattles to enlarge and change colour, even when the amount of circulating testosterone is low.

And that’s another thing, the placement of the comb and wattles means that a chicken can almost certainly never see its own! It’s like that card game where you slap a card on your forehead and then try to guess what it is, based on what the other players tell you. I’m sorry, but there has to be a better explanation than: chickens use something that they can’t see, and which is changing rapidly, as the basis for settling all of their future arguments about food, water, access to mates etc. After all, if God doesn’t play dice with the universe, why should chickens play cards with their social status?

So, I set out to investigate, taking lots of photographs of chickens as they progressed through puberty and measuring various facial features with a ruler. No particle accelerators or whizz-bang tomfoolery here… just belt and braces British science at its best. And what did I find?


Schematic of a chickens head showing measurements made - Rob Gregory Author

Back then I was a brilliant artist as well!


Chickens have individual and distinct faces

Lo and behold, chickens have faces! Things like the diameter of the eye, the length of the nostril, the length of the ear feathers and beak length changed, on average, less than a millimetre during puberty, in contrast to the comb and wattles, which increased by several orders of magnitude during the same period. Furthermore, after puberty, the same facial features that I had measured essentially stayed the same, giving the animal a consistent set of cues with which to recognise other individuals as they progressed through life.

While this in itself, is not absolute proof that chickens are using those features to recognise other individuals, or indeed, even using individual recognition, it certainly called into question the use of the comb and wattles alone for recognition, which was good enough for me.

And of course, I took it one step further, which is where the link to modern-day facial recognition technology comes in. Consider the following paragraph lifted from my thesis:

Excerpt of text from the doctoral thesis of Rob Gregory Author

Perhaps I was ahead of my time for once? This was written in late 1999.


Unfortunately, I never did that particular piece of follow up research. If I had, then possibly I wouldn’t be sitting here today, writing this blog for you. But nonetheless, I can still get some small satisfaction out of the knowledge that my hypothesis, made on the basis of looking at the humble chicken, has since proven to be validated on a far more complex animal – us!




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Thank you!

Back again in the USSA

Back again in the USSA

Back again in the USSA

… or ‘New York, New York’. ‘New York, New York’…

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, I was on my way to America, to New York to be exact, to visit a good friend of mine who was working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. It was a job that involved ‘seeing dead people’ on a daily basis, although in his case, he didn’t have a sixth sense, they were all just lying there in the mortuary. He’s since gone on to become a renowned forensic consultant and is also a well-known forensic entomologist in his spare time. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s someone who looks at bugs* on dead bodies in order to work out how they died (the people that is, not the bugs).

New York as seen from the Empire State building in 2000 - Rob Gregory Author

Downtown Manhattan in early 2000, as seen from the Empire State building.

Anyway, I’d never been to the States before, let alone one of the most famous cities on the planet and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did know one thing. Although London and New York are roughly on the same latitude, New York doesn’t benefit from the Gulf Stream, a warm body of oceanic water that flows up from the Gulf of Mexico, past Florida and into the eastern side of the Atlantic. What this means is that while London in January is usually just cold, wet and miserable, New York on the other hand, is absolutely bloody freezing, with lots of snow and a sub-zero chill that will not only steal your toes and run off down a subway tunnel with them, but also rob you of the ability to call out for help.

The Empire State building in New York, shrouded by mist - Rob Gregory Author

The Empire State building. So tall that you can’t see the top!

So, before departing the UK, I made sure that I had packed all of my best winter woollies and upon arriving in New York, discovered that they were completely inadequate. Cue a quick trip to an ‘Old Navy’ department store, where I picked up a bright orange, duck-down bodywarmer for, believe it or not $2.50, which helped keep me snug and toasty during the daylight hours and also ensured that I wouldn’t get lost on my travels, because I stood out like a lighthouse beacon on acid.

Rob Gregory Author wearing a bright orange bodywarmer in New York

Now that’s one bright jacket!

I have to say at this point, that I had an absolutely wonderful time in the ‘city that never sleeps’. During the day, when my friend was working, I would plod around Manhattan, exploring the various neighbourhoods in a typically British fashion, i.e. not having a clue where I was going and assuming that everything would be fine, which, of course, it was. As a result, I skirted the edges of Stuyvesant Town and the East Village, drifted through Wall Street without really knowing it, popped over to Staten Island, waved to the Statue of Liberty and walked more of Park Avenue that I thought was humanly possible. But to be honest, the city was so vast that I ended up spending most of my time on the east side and midtown areas, venturing as far west as Times Square and as far north as Columbus Circle.

Columbus Circle in New York - Rob Gregory Author

Columbus Circle. It hasn’t changed very much in almost two decades.

During the evenings, we’d either head across to Queens on the subway, where my friend had a very small apartment and find somewhere to eat, or stick around Manhattan, taking in the nightlife and bar scene, i.e. getting drunk and not realising it until we had to settle the bill at the end of the night. I do recall going to one place that had a frontage made out of a school bus, with patrons sitting on stools, staring out of the bus windows, looking for all the world like grown-up children going home. I wonder if it’s still there? I also realised, alas too late, that despite talking and writing very similar languages, it is still possible to very easily cause confusion when you are an Englishman in New York …

Rob Gregory Author and James Clery on top of the OCME building in New York at night

For some reason this picture always reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel.

We were at a well-known diner in Queens one night, famed for its desserts. I ordered a double cheeseburger because I was hungry, expecting the British variant, i.e. one bun with two burger patties and a small side serving of salad and French fries. So, you can imagine my surprise, when the double cheeseburger turned out to be two of the biggest burger buns I had ever seen, each with two enormous patties stuffed inside them. There must have been well over a pound of meat between them. And the salad and fries’ combination that they arrived with was so large that it must have decimated America’s annual lettuce and potato harvest for that year. I did my best, honestly, I did, but I there was no way that I could finish it all and to add insult to injury, I never got to try their delicious looking cheesecakes!

The Chrysler building in New York - Rob Gregory Author

The Chrysler building. Yours for only $1bn.

Looking back on the trip, I know that I missed a lot, but then you have to remember that, at the time, for me at least, the whole experience was an adventure and an amazing one at that. Being asked if I knew the Queen by a fellow in an Army Surplus/Gun shop (not something you get very often in the UK), nearly getting myself shot by a police officer on the subway because I was looking at his sidearm too intently, sleeping next to my friend’s pet Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches and seeing a blind man, standing in the snow outside Radio City, trying to make a living by selling pencils, of all things, to passers-by. Just having had the privilege of experiencing the whole, crazy melting pot of humanity that exists in New York, for a few days, was reward enough for me.

And the fact that my return flight had to make an emergency landing at JFK airport just after take-off, was the icing on the cake, but we’ll save that story for another day, I think!

Scroll down for more images

Chinese style building in New York - Rob Gregory Author

Definitely not the Empire State or Chrysler building, but not bad nonetheless.


Ice at the top of the Empire State building in New York - Rob Gregory Author

Now that’s cold! Ice over an inch thick on the Empire State building.


View looking down from the Empire State building in New York - Rob Gregory Author

And the view from the top of the Empire State building is pretty impressive too!


Shops on the east side of Manhattan in New York - Rob Gregory Author

Canal Street, Lower Manhattan. I wonder how much those shops would be worth today?


Street scene in the east side of New York - Rob Gregory Author

Another street scene. East side of Manhattan, I think. Wouldn’t it be beautiful, indeed?


Painted building and chinese beer advert in New York - Rob Gregory Author

I must have ended up in Chinatown at somepoint.


Chrysler building seen from the OCME building in New York at night - Rob Gregory Author

The Chrysler building at night. Taken from the roof of the OCME building, with no camera flash!


The southern edge of Central Park in New York - Rob Gregory Author

Central Park. So beautiful, if it wasn’t for all of the steam getting in the way!

* Strictly speaking, the word ‘bugs’ should only be used when talking about the class of insects known as ‘Hemiptera’, which possess piercing, rather than biting mouthparts. They include aphids, shieldbugs and cicadas. Sorry, but I used to study entomology and it’s just one of those things that I feel people should pay more attention to.


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Taking the Road Less Travelled

Taking the Road Less Travelled

Taking the Road Less Travelled

… or, an unexpected surprise at the Southward Car Museum…

Here’s a nice little yuletide story for you… For those readers not resident in the southern hemisphere, it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Christmas south of the equator falls, not during mid-winter as it does in the north, but slap bang at the height of summer. Consequently, snow tends to be a bit thin on the ground and the temperatures lend themselves more towards shorts and T-shirts than long trousers and woolly hats, but on the other hand, there is usually plenty of grass for Santa’s reindeer to munch on.

Rob Gregory Author and quad bike in NZ

Standard Christmas attire in the southern hemisphere. Rock under foot optional.

Anyway, I digress… It was during the Christmas holidays, way back in the dim and distant past, when one of my cousins from the UK decided to spend some time travelling around New Zealand and naturally, I offered to put her up while she was visiting the Capital. Well, we had a grand old time of it on Christmas Day itself, wandering around the deserted city trying to find a bar that was open, before settling down to a traditional roast dinner, festive movie… Quadrophenia, I think it was that year and the obligatory half-dozen bottles of sparkling vino.

Scene from the movie Quadrophenia - Rob Gregory Author

Quadrophenia. Essential viewing in my opinion, maybe just not on Christmas Day after several bottles of wine!

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I have guests, I like to make sure that they have a good time and don’t get bored. So, in anticipation of her stay, I had all sorts of activities planned. However, what I had not bargained on was the fact that we exhausted my ‘fun things to do’ list far more quickly than I had anticipated and consequently, we faced the prospect of either sitting for hours on end in one of Wellington’s many fine hostelries, which wouldn’t actually have been that bad, or skulking around the windy suburbs, waiting for excitement to pounce, which would have been a bit tedious, to say the least.

In desperation, I decided that I would fall back on an old Kiwi favourite; a trip to the beach. So, after a bit of cajoling, it was an overcast day at the time, I drove my cousin up the Kapiti coast towards one of my favourite beaches at Otaki. We’d probably been driving for about forty minutes and were just cresting a small rise when I saw a small brown and white sign advertising the Southward Car Museum, which was apparently tucked away a short distance down a side road. Now, I’d probably seen this unassuming little sign more than a dozen times on my various journeys along the coast and to be honest, I’d formed the impression that the museum was probably little more than a small garage, with a couple of exotic cars in it, owned by an overly enthusiastic man, who loved to talk about his motors.

Entrance to the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Definitely not a small garage with a couple of exotic cars in it!

Normally, I would have driven straight past it and continued on to the beach. But this time, things were different. I wasn’t alone. I had a guest with me and nothing to lose, so I took the plunge and headed down the small side road, with the idea that at the very least it would kill twenty minutes and possibly give us something to laugh about afterwards.

So you can imagine my surprise when, after a couple of minutes, we saw another sign on the opposite side of the road to an enormous walled compound, which looked as if it was filled with decorative aircraft hangers. This was no back-yard operation, but a fully-fledged enterprise, so we wasted no time in parking the beast and paying the ridiculously small entry fee to see what was inside. And boy, were we in for a shock…

Inside the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

As I said, there’s definitely more than a couple of cars here!

The place was jam-packed with relics of motoring history. From the 1950’s Cadillac Fleetwood, with two-inch thick bullet-proof glass, to the imposing Mercedes Maybach from the second world war, it was a car lover’s heaven. They had a very early electric town car, a whole mezzanine floor dedicated to motorbikes and scooters, and even a DeLorean (the car from Back to the Future) on display. Add to that a multitude of classic cars from the 1950’s and 60’s, as well as a plethora of memorabilia, including a wheel from Donald Campbell’s ill-fated Bluebird, the car which attempted the world land speed record in 1960 and crashed, nearly killing its occupant and we were set for almost three hours of intense motoring reconnaissance.

Wheel from Bluebird at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Wheel from Don Campbell’s ill-fated Bluebird.

It turned out that Sir Len Southward, the founder of the museum, was a leading light in the New Zealand motor industry and even held the Australasian water speed record for a short time. An avid collector of cars, he amassed one of the largest private collections of vintage cars in the southern hemisphere, over a period of some fifty years. Had I been aware of that fact, then I would have visited the Southward Car Museum long before. As it was, I’m pretty sure that my cousin enjoyed the experience and I am pleased to say that since then, I have spent many more happy hours, both on my own and with friends, exploring the many delights of that fantastic automobile collection.

Limousines inside the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Even more cars and we haven’t got beyond the first room yet!

And it just goes to show… you never know what’s going to be at the end of one of those plain little signs you see on the side of the highway, so why not take a chance? Maybe you’ll stumble on a hidden gem like the Southward Car Museum.


Below is a small gallery of images taken from my various visits to the museum. You can find out more by clicking here.

Black Cadillac at Buddha image - Rob Gregory Author

1950 Cadillac Fleetwood, originally owned by American gangster, Mickey Cohen.


Humber Super Snipe at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

A Humber Super Snipe. The original british bank manager’s car.


WW2 Mercedes Maybach at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Mercedes Maybach limousine from the Second World War, dwarfing everything around it.


Front door of a BMW bubble car at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Another famous german marque, albeit not quite as impressive as the Maybach.


Ariel Atom at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

An Ariel Atom donated by Mr Ron Ekman, who incidentally taught me project management!


British Layland Princess at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

British Leyland Princess with cutaway showing the engine detail. They don’t make them like that anymore… thankfully!


Non Skid tyre at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

The original ‘non-skid’ tyres? I’m not sure that I’d like to try them out!


White Bristol 401 at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Bristol 401. Still going, they now make the Bullet, one of the most beautiful cars in the world.


Early electric town car at the Southward Motor Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Early electric town car, which sadly didn’t catch on.


Classic racing cars at the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

A fair few bob’s worth of classic racing cars.


Cars inside the Southward Car Museum - Rob Gregory Author

Yet more cars! There are thousands of them here and most in working order.


If you liked this post, then please feel free to share it and why not have a read about my own love affair with cars below?

Tales Of The Beast – Part 2 – The South Island

Tales Of The Beast – Part 2 – The South Island

Tales Of The Beast – Part 2 – The South Island

Tales of the Beast – Part 2

… The South Island Initiative…

Last time I left you, I had arrived in Picton with my best friend and the beast, ready to begin a ten-day road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. I’m pretty sure that it was 2003 back then but given that my mind has more holes in it these days than a Cabinet Minister’s alibi, it might have been 2004. Consequently, I would advise you to take the following account with a healthy pinch of salt and hold fire on sharpening your pitchforks, at least until you’ve given me a decent head start!

Picton harbour c.2003 - Rob Gregory Author

Picton harbour c.2003 – Could have been the capital of New Zealand.

So, Picton. It’s a bit of a jewel really. At least it was back then. Sheltered, unspoilt and basking in the glorious Pacific sun, it always makes me wonder why they decided to make Wellington the Capital instead, which tends towards the cold, wet and extremely windy. You do get the occasional nice day in ‘Welly’, I should know, I lived there for almost seven years, but it doesn’t seem to happen quite as often as it does in Picton.

Entering the South Island - Rob Gregory Author

Entering the South Island of New Zealand.

Anyway, despite its glorious climate, back in the day Picton didn’t have too much to offer two twenty-something lads in search of adventure and so after a night in a guest house and a couple of ales to recover from the ferry crossing, we set off down the East Coast towards Christchurch.

The Interislander - Rob Gregory Author

The Interislander ferry. Image copyright: J Gregory.

Along the way, we stopped at the little town of Kaikoura, which suffered a devastating earthquake a couple of years ago, but which was famous for its whale watching well before that. Built on the edge of a natural deep-water channel, Kaikoura was stunning, with ocean views on one side and mountains on the other. We stayed in a hostel that night, with the intention of doing a whale watch the following morning, but what we didn’t anticipate was another of Kaikoura’s many talking points: the sand-flies…

View of the mountains from Kaikoura - Rob Gregory Author

View of the mountains from Kaikoura.

As soon as the sun had gone down, hundreds of them emerged and we were faced with a dilemma. In a baking hot room bereft of air-conditioning, or even a decent fan for that matter, it was a question of whether to leave the window open to keep cool and let the sand flies in or banish them and roast alive in the dormitory. In the end, I think we opted for the former, hiding under the duvets to avoid the little so and so’s. Not that it made much difference. The following morning, I was covered in bites on my ankles, shins, hands and arms, and boy, did they hurt. My friend, I recall, fared rather better than me and as a result, I think that he enjoyed the whale watching more than I did. We did see a couple of Humpback whales, as well as some Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest in the world) but I have to admit that I was quite relieved when we took the beast beyond the Kaikoura city limits and continued on our way to Christchurch.

View of the sea and mountains from Kaikoura - Rob Gregory Author

Another lovely view from Kaikoura.

There isn’t too much to say about Christchurch, other than we visited some of my family friends who were living there and took the obligatory wander around the city, including the cathedral and River Avon. Both my friend and I were originally from Bristol, which also has a River Avon, so I suppose we got a giggle from walking along a river of the same name, almost twelve thousand miles from its namesake. Nowadays, Christchurch is rather different, following the devastating earthquakes which shook the city to its core back in late 2010 and early 2011. Whether it will ever be the same again remains to be seen, but what happened there is a stark reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how quickly it can be changed forever.

After Christchurch, the beast took us on a quick soiree to ‘Ash Vegas’ or Ashburton to give it its proper name. I can’t remember why it’s called Ash Vegas, but the name has stuck and although it was nothing like its namesake, it was pleasant enough. It also had a fish and chip shop that served the most enormous servings of hand-cut chips, which I discovered on a subsequent trip there some years later, much to the dismay of my waistline!

River in the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Just another beautiful river at the side of the road.

We certainly covered some distance in the beast, which performed magnificently, despite having no air-conditioning and a rather bothersome warning light for the catalytic converter that kept coming on when you least expected it (I had it disconnected when I got back to Wellington). So, with windows down and the tunes blasting out of the portable CD player that I had bought specially for the trip, we hurtled past lovely Timaru and off into the interior, towards Queenstown via the Lindis Pass.

Southern Alps, New Zealand, seen from the roadside - Rob Gregory Author

On the way to Queenstown.

Now, Queenstown is spectacular. A thrill-seekers paradise, it is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and boasts huge, cliff-like hills rising dramatically from the lake itself. In the winter, it is famed for its alpine sports and in the summer, when we were there, it was just plain beautiful. Shunning the tried and tested activities, such as the high-speed ‘jet-boat’ rides and bungee jumping, we opted instead for the ‘street luge’. Think go-karts, but with much less control, racing down the side of a mountain and you’re halfway there. I’d done a similar one in Rotorua when I first arrived in New Zealand and to be honest, I thought that it was better than the Queenstown one, but we still had a good time crashing into each other and generally mucking around.

Person from the rear looking over Lake Hawea, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

My friend, being reflective and mysterious by the dam at Lake Hawea.

That night, we went to a little bar called ‘The Bunker’, which was hidden away in an alley off the main drag. I’d been there a few years earlier during a conference and was delighted to find the tiny place still open and complete with a roaring fire in the fireplace, despite it being the end of summer. I’m afraid that I can’t give you too many details of what happened that night, everything is a bit hazy, whether from the passing of time or the consumption of alcohol, I’m not sure, but what vague recollections I have are happy ones.

Flowers and detail of the Lake Hawea dam - Rob Gregory Author

Flowers and the base of part of the Lake Hawea dam. How blue is that water?

A couple of days later, we left Queenstown and made our way 350km north, past Lake Hawea, to the Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast. Along the way, we passed a sign saying: ‘Last petrol for 110km’, which was an indication that we really were entering the wilds and were rewarded by nothing but endless countryside and the occasional small hamlet. Even when we arrived at Franz Josef itself, it was little more than a collection of small wooden houses and local shops, surrounded on all sides by wonderful dome-shaped hills that looked like they had been drawn by a child. How isolating it must be during the winter, I could only imagine, but the locals were extremely friendly, and we quickly found ourselves booked on a glacier walk the following morning.

Rob Gregory Author on the Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand

One man and his glacier.

We spent the whole day on the glacier, wearing spiked boots and clutching ice-axes, to help us navigate the treacherous terrain. Despite it being summer, it was extremely cold in amongst all that ice and we were especially glad of our ski-jackets. We did have a bit of fun, sliding down ice-holes that had been opened up as the glacier slowly (almost glacially, one might say) made its way towards the sea. All in all, it was an amazing experience, especially seeing the ‘blue ice’, which gets its name because it has no air bubbles in it, making it extremely dense and only reflecting blue light.

Sliding down an ice tube on Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Sliding down an ice tube. Great fun but very cold!

Exhausted from all the exertions of the day, we slept well that night and early the next morning, began the trek up to Nelson, right at the top of the South Island. Hugging the coast road through Hokitika and Greymouth, with only the occasional camper van getting in our way, the scenery was truly breath-taking. It felt like we were in paradise, with the azure blue of the Tasman Sea on one side and vast tracts of wilderness on the other.

River creek in the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Can’t remeber where this was, but I think it is just stunning.

It was here that we did have one close call. We’d been driving for quite a few hours and despite having the windows wound down and ‘Rob Zombie’ playing at full volume, the air in the car had become quite stuffy, with the result that we nearly drifted into the back of a flat-bed lorry, as a warm fug of weariness overtook us. Luckily, we avoided a collision and after a short break to get some much-needed rest and a shot or two of caffeine inside us, we were back on the road, driving with a lot more care and counting down the miles to Nelson.

Park and lake somewhere on the outskirts of Nelson, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Park and lake on the outskirts of Nelson, I think. Great place for a rest after a close call with a truck!

Nelson was a bit of a pit-stop for us and looking back, I wish that we’d spent more time there. But to be honest, I think by that time, my friend and I were starting to show the signs of having had enough. After all, we’d pretty much raced around the entire South Island, covering almost 2000 km in ten days and had hopped from one hostel to another, boozing and revelling like Withnail and I along the way. So, the following day, we made the short hop back to our starting point, Picton and took the Interislander ferry to windy Wellington where, for me at least, lay the comfort of my own bed!

Seagull flying above the top of the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

On the way back to Wellington from Picton.

Looking back on it, the whole road trip was a great experience and I’d love to do it again someday, although I would probably spread it out over two or three weeks so that I could really take in the sights and appreciate my surroundings. I’d also like to get off the beaten track and visit some of the more remote places on the map that we didn’t get to see the first time around. Unfortunately, it won’t be in the beast, as she’s no longer with us, but I’ll always remember how well she served us on that particular trip, which turned out to be the first of many long-hauls she did with me.

Wood and rope ladder on the Interisland ferry, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

On the way backto Wellington. I just can’t get over how blue the water is!

Stay tuned for more ‘Tales of the Beast’ in future and in the meantime, why not share this blog or the first installment with your friends?