Thursday, 9 January 2014

Meet the Mittons (New Zealand part 2) - Chapter 18

Glenn's mum was waiting for me when I arrived at Auckland airport. It felt great to actually have somebody there to pick me up. There's something kind of lonely about walking past crowds of happy faces at the airport arrivals and not having anybody to greet you. God knows I'd experienced it enough times over the past years.

I stayed with Glenn's family for three days before heading to the South Island where I planned to meet my parents the following week. Despite my experience the previous year I decided to try my luck at hitching again. This time I would be going all the way to Christchurch some 763 km away. I was looking forward to the randomness of who I met get picked up by.

Fortunately Glenn's dad was heading down south for at least a short part of the journey so he was able to give me a lift. He dropped me off in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the slip road to a main highway. It was a Monday morning and it felt so nice to be heading on an adventure rather than heading to work.

No sooner had Peter dropped me off than a truck drew to a halt next to me and the driver told me to jump in. He informed me that he would be able to take me as far as Hamilton around 113 km away. The view from the truck was fantastic. I could see so much more of the wonderful New Zealand countryside from up there. No kidding there's a lot of sheep in New Zealand, they littered the landscape in every direction. Despite my best efforts to make conversation, the driver hardly spoke two words to me for the entire journey.

I was dropped off in a village somewhere close to Hamilton and as luck would have it there was some sort of show going on there. No sooner had I got out of the vehicle than somebody was offering me a free sausage sandwich and a mug of mulled wine. It was all going so perfectly. I couldn't have written a better script.

Ten minutes later and I was back on the road. A lady in a decrepit old car picked me up and asked me where I was going. She said that she could take me as far as Waiouru. I had no idea where this was but she assured me that it was in the right direction. The lady was friendly enough but after a while I started to pick up on the fact that she was a very active Christian and that she may be using the journey to try to convert me. This was confirmed when she asked me the dreaded question "Do you believe in God?" I half thought about lying about this to try and shut her up but I was pretty certain that she'd want to talk about God if I did. "No, I don't," I told her. Her questioning continued for the rest of the journey by which time she'd discovered that I was in fact a devout atheist. As I waved goodbye to her I noticed a "Jesus Saves" sticker in the back window of the car. He didn't save me, I mumbled to myself before vowing to look for similar evidence before entering the next vehicle
The next car pulled up within minutes and after scouring the car for religious paraphernalia I jumped in. The guy was going all the way to Wellington which is where I needed to catch the ferry to Picton on the South Island. His name was Chris and he was a computer programmer who lived in Wellington. He had been up to Auckland on business and was now driving back. A friendlier chap I couldn't have wished to meet. On our journey we passed an old DC10 aircraft which had been turned into a restaurant, and Chris insisted on buying me a meal there.

"You're gonna love my apartment," he told me. "It's an old warehouse that has been converted. We've even got a stage in our front room where bands play." I couldn't wait to see it, it sounded so cool.

We arrived in Wellington just as dusk was settling in and Chris drove us straight to his company where he had to hand in some paperwork. There was a full blown party going on in the office which he informed me was the norm for a Friday evening. The place looked more like a nightclub than an workplace, with people drinking, dancing and freely smoking weed. 

"You wanna bowl?" I was asked by Chris's boss. I had no idea what he was talking about to be honest but I agreed anyway. It had been a day of freebies so why not! He thrust a packed pipe full of weed into my hand and gestured for me to take a puff of it. Experience told me that this wasn't going to turn out good for me. I'd smoked pipes before and it had always ended up in me having a coughing fit. This time was no exception. As I lay on the floor trying my best to breathe, with tears streaming from my eyes, all I could hear was the intense laughter of the people in the room. It appeared that I was the source of their amusement.

"Having a tough time down there are you mate?" Chris's boss asked me with a smile on his face. "Here's a beer for your mate, you'll be right," he advised me as he headed off to dance with the office floosie.

Before I knew it I was stoned off my face and having a torrid time even moving, never mind making conversation with people. This was unfortunate because everybody wanted to make conversation with me. All I could do is mumble and smile. I must have looked rather special. It didn't take Chris long to pick up on my reduced mental capacity and he drove me home. "You'll be right here mate," he said as he guided me to the sofa. "I'll be back later. If you're not asleep I can show you around the pad." 

The next thing I knew it was morning and daylight with flooding through the large window next to my head. I had no idea what time it was and nobody seemed to be awake. Unable to find a clock I grabbed my stuff, let myself out and headed for the ferry terminal.

If I thought that I had been lucky so far on my little hitching adventure, my luck was to get even better. As I speed walked towards the terminal a lady pulled up in a car and shouted out to me through the window. "Hey! Are you trying to catch the Picton ferry?" she inquired. "Yeah, am I going the right direction?" I replied. "You are. But it leaves in seven minutes, you'd better jump in," she said. As it turned out she'd seen me dashing for the ferry and turned her car around to give me a lift. What a wonderful country this was!

I made it to the ferry with seconds to spare, and I headed straight for the bar. As I sat at the bar the guy next to me initiated a conversation "Alright buddy, only just got the ferry there hey!" he said. He'd seen me getting dropped off and my mad dash to catch the ferry. "Want a beer buddy?" he asked me without waiting for a reply. "Two pints of DB," he ordered the bar man.

For the duration of the three hour trip across the Cook Strait my new mate Phil, not only insisted on paying for all my beers but he also gave me a t-shirt with the name of his local pub on it (The Thornton Arms). Not content with his own generosity he negotiated me a lift to Christchurch when I got to the Picton. The last day had without doubt been one of the best days of my life.

Once in Picton, I said my goodbyes to Phil and jumped in the car of my new lift. Christchurch was still four hours away, but four hours of amazing scenery, as we wound our way along the coastline. Fortunately the driver (whose name I don't recall) recognised the necessity for silence, to absorb the sheer beauty of the view. However, as we drove through Kaikoura his vocal chords loosened in direct correlation with his admiration for the place. "If you see only one place in New Zealand," he told me, "then this should be it." I vowed to return there with my parents, and I stuck to my promise.

I had a couple of days in Christchurch before my parents turned up. I used this time to find a good hostel and familiarise myself with the city. This was going to be my parents first time in a hostel so I wanted to ease them in gently. They'd be happy with anything as long as it was cheap, if the truth be known.

A few days later and the big day came. I was actually looking forward to this immensely.  It had been ages since I'd seen them and they were always a good laugh. We were going to hire a camper van to drive around the North and South Islands for a month. I couldn't wait to hit the road. As I headed out to Christchurch airport I was practically exploding with excitement.

I arrived at the airport in good time for their arrival and from the moment I got there I couldn't keep my eyes off the arrivals board. When I saw that their flight had landed I sprinted to the arrivals entrance and got ready for the big moment. A minute or so later the doors slid open and people started to amble through. An hour later and my excitement had turned to anxiety because they still hadn't emerged.

Just as I was about to give up, my mum appeared with a huge smile on her face. "Where's dad?" I asked her, as I gave her a big hug. "Oh god! Don't ask!" she told me.

We'd always know that my dad hated flying ever since we went to Ibiza in 1984. What we didn't realise, was just how much he hated it. My mum told me that he'd had his head in his hands since they left Manchester and had spent the most of the flight hidden under a blanket whilst holding my mum's hand. Things got so bad in Singapore (their stopover) that my dad got down on the airport floor and refused to get back on the plane. They'd had to call for a doctor to sedate him before the airline staff dragged him on the plane Mr T style. When he finally made an appearance he looked totally bewildered.

If I had any illusions that this was going to be the end of my parents bad luck then I was sadly mistaken. This wasn't even the reason that they had emerged from the plane late. My mum had tied a sleeping bag to her rucksack which had somehow become detached during the flight. It was brought to the hostel by a courier a day later. This was only the beginning of what was to come over the next month.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Christchurch absorbing the very British feel to the place. My parents couldn't believe it. "We've come all the way across the world in a bloody tin can to see what I could have seen on my own front doorstep," my dad joked. I knew that he loved it really. He was especially struck with how much it looked like Britain did 30 years ago. "Look at all the old British cars," he shouted every 30 seconds. "Bloody hell, there's a Morris Minor and a Morris Traveller," he continued. He was also intrigued by the fact that all the school kids wore old fashioned school uniforms. "Look at their long shorts and their long grey socks pulled right up to their knees," he chuckled.

When I took him to see the Wizard of Christchurch in Cathedral Square, I thought he was going to join him on his soap box, so much was his excitement. The Wizard, was a guy that originally came from England but had become somewhat of a tourist attraction since his arrival in Christchurch in 1974. Among other things, the Wizard was a politician, magician, and general social commentator. I think that he still does his rounds in the square today (2013), twenty years since my family and I visited.

When we got back to the hostel, the owner came rushing out to meet us. In his hand was my mum's travel bag. "Did you lose something?" he asked her. "Not that I'm aware of," my mum replied. Guess who was right? My mum had only gone and left it on the airport bus back to the city. Here's a list of what was inside; two passports, $5000 in cash, two flight tickets and any other travel documentation that was necessary for the trip. Only the honesty of the bus driver had saved our holiday.

The next day we picked up our camper van and headed down south into the luscious green countryside. We hadn't been on the road long when my dad crashed the camper. I was wondering why he'd decided to enter a single track bridge when there was blatantly an oncoming vehicle already halfway across it. What followed was a five minute stand-off during which my dad refused to move despite the the blasts from the horns of all the cars around. When he eventually decided to admit defeat he rammed the camper in reverse and drove straight over the front of a car behind that had blindly followed us over the bridge.

We all jumped out to examine the damage and were shocked to see that the car had been totally crushed, right up to the windscreen. The German driver meanwhile, who had hired the car earlier that day, was shaking like a leaf. We got him in the back of the camper and drove him to the nearest police station. As he sat in the back of the van my mum turned to me an said "we've captured a German prisoner," at which stage all the nervous tension of the traumatic event came out, resulting in me and my mum getting the giggles. We howled so much that we had to shut the curtains behind us so that we could no longer see our German prisoner.

That night we parked up somewhere between Christchurch and Dunedin. That's the beauty of a camper you can just pull up wherever you want to sleep. That was in theory anyway. The reality was a little different. At 2 am, a bunch of local layabouts pulled up next to us in their car and started shaking our van while shouting, "wake up you dirty fucking hippies!" This continued for at least five minutes until they got bored and drove off. If I ever thought that this part of my journey was going to be boring, those thoughts had well and truly disappeared.

The drive to Dunedin the next day would have been incident free had a small stone not have bounced up and hit the windscreen. A crack of about four inches immediately appeared which we predicted would be much bigger by the time we returned the van in just under a month's time. Our predictions unfortunately turned out to be accurate.

Apart from that we had a good time in Dunedin. Glenn's sister was studying at the university there so she agreed to show us around. We were happy to have a guide.

A few days later we were back on the road again and heading towards Queenstown. Queenstown, being one of, if not the best places for high adrenaline activities in the world. I just had to get involved. I signed up for something called the Gruesome Twosome, which was basically jet boating up the Shotover river and then bungee jumping from the then highest bungee jump in the world (Skippers Canyon). The jet boat was so scary that the bungee seemed tame in comparison. Although things became a lot more nerve wracking when my t-shirt flopped down over my head. I bounced around 98 meters above the river with my arms blindly flailing around.

I could write a whole chapter on my time in Queenstown, but I'll refrain because this chapter is reserved for the sheer genius of my family's incompetence. Needless to say Queenstown was fantastic but nothing went awfully wrong. Of course, there were some minor hiccups but on the whole things were fairly quiet for a few days. I guess that we could call this time, the calm before the storm.

From Queenstown we headed to the charming gold-rush town of Arrowtown. The town looked more like the American wild west than anywhere I've ever seen. It actually felt like we were on the film set of an old John Wayne film. Here we went panning for gold, but first my dad and I chose to cross the Arrow River on a old Flying Fox contraption. Basically this was a cable car which was propelled across the river by turning a lever. As it trembled and shook its way across the ravine I was convinced that we would fall to our death. Ironically enough, much more convinced than I had been when I'd bungee jumped a few days earlier. Once we were safely on the other side we spent a few hours panning for gold in the hope that we'd make our fortune. In the light of what was going to happen in a few weeks time we could have done with some extra cash.

I'd always wanted a camper van in the same way that I had always admired tortoises. Tortoises chug along at slow speed and when they're tired, or something pisses them off they retire into their shell. We were doing exactly the same thing. By day we'd chug along seeing things and by night we'd retire into the back of the van. I loved those times in the back of the van; the chatting, the cooking and the catching up with my parents. Within 18 years they would have both passed away and I'd be left with these precious memories of them.
We chugged along over the next few days towards the absolutely stunning Milford Sound in the far south west of the South Island. On the map Milford Sound didn't look far from Arrowtown, but in reality there was no direct road. We first had to drive south to Lumsden and then head west to Te Anau before heading north to Milford Sound.

In Te Anau we pulled up for a rest next to a small conservation area which was surrounded by a knee high fence. "I wonder what's over here?" my dad enquired as he stepped over the fence. We were soon to find out. The area was home to a rare bird called a takahe which had once been thought to be extinct. The birds were still extremely rare so we we thought it rather bizarre that this one was so lightly protected. "If this were in England it'd be on somebody's dinner plate by now," my dad said. Before we knew it he stuck his hand in his pocket and was feeding the poor thing a wine gum (candy). "You can't do that dad," I shouted at him. But it was too late. The bird had taken the wine gum and was struggling to eat it. "Bloody hell, I think I've stuck its beak together," my dad cried out. Followed by "Let's get out of here quick before anyone sees us." " You're a bloody idiot Malcolm," my mum chirped in. "It's no wonder I worry about our Andrew with you as his role model." The bird meanwhile had managed to free its beak and thankfully had digested its offering. 

Milford Sound was named by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, and it was not hard to see why. With it's wonderful sound (long body of water), waterfalls and mountains it made for a splendid few days sightseeing. The highlight being a trip down the sound on a boat where we were entertained by dolphins as they followed us all the way. That night we slept in the car park which had a glorious view of the sound and surrounding mountains. My dad, who was never one to be shy, got talking to one of the local boat owners and we were invited for dinner on his boat.

Somewhere between Milford Sound and Jackson Bay we lost the chemical toilet. It needed cleaning for sure but none of us wanted to touch it. In the end I gave in and attempted to empty the cartridge. I say attempted because what really happened was that I got spray coated in my family's effluence. There's something quite disturbing about being covered in your own parents shit. With haste I staggered off towards the river whilst trying not to puke all over myself. Once there, I dived in and stayed there until I felt clean again. I was so busy trying not to think about my predicament and my parents were so busy laughing at me caked in their shit that we completely forgot the toilet. By the time we remembered it we'd gone too far to turn around.

We were walking along the beach the next day at Jackson Bay when we spotted a lonesome penguin. As we were trying to get a better look at it, a guy with a gun came running over the crest of the hill and shouted "I'll catch the bugger for you!" He immediately ran off after it and returned with it under his arm. For one moment I thought that he was going to shoot it and my stomach sank to my feet. After a few minutes he let it go again and invited us to his house for an abalone dinner. Kiwi hospitality, I must say, was proving itself to be second to none.

He'd caught the abalone himself and it tasted quite wonderful. Over dinner we chatted about the penguins and we were informed that if we got up early enough the next day we'd see hundreds of them. The following morning we followed the guy's instruction and wished that we hadn't. We saw hundreds of them alright, as they snapped away at our ankles from their hiding places on the hillside. I practically shit myself in fear.

Our next destination was Franz Josef Glacier located about halfway up the South Island on the west coast. My sister had been there on her trip and had reported it to me as a must see place. She wasn't wrong. Of course, I'd heard of glaciers but I didn't really know anything about them. I found it hard to get my head around the fact that the glacier was in a constant state of advancing and retreating. It had been advancing since 1984. As we got closer to the glacier it almost felt like it was alive. We could hear it groaning and cracking as the ice broke off it. My mum was too scared to get near to it, but my dad was daring me to climb it. "You're a bloody idiot Malcolm," she screamed when my dad hoisted me onto a big chunk of ice. And she was right, just as I got up there, there was an enormous crash as a lump of ice broke off not 20 yards from me. "I think we'd better get out of here," my dad suggested.

As we pulled up to our motel that evening, I asked my dad if I could have a go at driving the camper van. He told me that this was okay but that I should be careful. He went inside to dry his clothes off and I went off to practice my driving. Within seconds I had crashed the van into the side of the motel and destroyed the drainpipe and guttering. I forgot that I was driving a high vehicle and drove straight into it. My dad, who had just put his shoes in the oven to dry, came rushing out to see what all the commotion was. By the time he remembered that he'd put his shoes in the oven, smoke was pouring out of the kitchen window and his shoes were a smouldering pile of ashes. Somehow the whole scene went unnoticed by the motel owner and we were able to dispose of his burnt shoes and prop the drainpipe and guttering up so that it looked like nothing had happened. There was no doubt about it, the Mittons had arrived.

By the time we had reached our next destination of Ross, the crack on the camper van window was almost halfway across the windscreen. Crashing into the motel the day before had obviously not helped this situation. My dad was awfully excited about this part of the journey because Ross was a gold mining town and a huge open cast mine was still in operation. He was convinced that he would be able to negotiate himself a tour of the gold mine. And he wasn't wrong.

My mum and I chose to have a rest day whilst my dad was checking out the gold mine. I awoke earlier than my mum though and decided to take the camper van out for a spin. After my performance the previous day I was determined to prove that I was capable of driving it. As long as I remembered that I was driving a high vehicle I'd be right, or so I thought! I was so busy looking up to make sure that I didn't hit anything above me that I fell off the side of the road. I'm not even exaggerating. There was a meter deep drainage channel on the left hand side of the road which I quite literally fell into. For a few nervous seconds I was convinced that the camper was going to roll over. So I was more than a little relieved when it came to rest, albeit at a ridiculous angle. Thankfully a group of men came rushing to my attention and up-righted the vehicle, which had somehow managed to evade damage.

We spent the following day driving through the beautiful Arthur's Pass. This was by no means the best route to Kaikoura but we'd been told along the way that we simply must see it. As we drove through the pass a cloud of fog enshrouded the camper and we were unable to drive any further. We were forced to park up until the fog had lifted.

We arrived in Kaikoura the next day buzzing with adrenaline. It was time to go whale watching, I couldn't think of a better way to spend the day? We jumped aboard the boat and headed off into the bay, full of expectation of what the day would bring. What we hadn't realised was how fast the boat was going to go. As it jetted along, bouncing over the waves my mum lost all her inhibitions and started screaming "ride em cowboy." Her shrieks became so loud and embarrassing that I headed to the back of the boat out of shame. My dad followed in close pursuit.

When the boat eventually came to a halt I was more relieved than excited. The way that it worked was that they dropped some sort of sonar device into the water that picked up on the noise that the whales made. To be honest I was quite sceptical if we would see any whales or not. The journey out there had been so entertaining though that I wasn't too bothered. It wasn't every day that you got to hear your mum wailing like a banshee, and besides which we'd been followed by a school of dolphins for most of the way.

My scepticism was thankfully proved wrong though and we were treated to a quite magical show of nature. A massive killer whale popped out of the water no more than 100 meters from us. It arched its back, flipped its tail in the air and submerged again in a most majestic fashion. As I clicked my mental camera I felt happy to be alive.

The last week of the trip was spent in the North Island. Once we're across the Cook Strait we drove for four hours straight up to Lake Taupo. My dad was especially excited to see the glow worm caves there. We arrived at the entrance to glow worm caves around early evening and eagerly signed up for the trip. As we waited for it to begin my dad walked around the reception area checking out the information on the glow worms, in a most sceptical manner. "I don't believe that they're real," he informed us, "I'm sure that they just spray a chemical on the ceiling of the cave to try and con us," he continued. As he went back to sit on his seat somebody removed it by mistake and he fell flat on his arse. Everybody who witnessed it stifled their laughter as my dad shouted out "bloody hell Kathleen, that didn't half hurt."

Our guide then gave us the rules before our group of around ten people headed off into the cave on a small wooden boat. Rule number one was, DO NOT under any circumstance touch the glow worms. As we headed through the pitch darkness of the cave the ceiling was suddenly totally illuminated by the most beautiful incandescent glow. Silence enshrouded the group as everybody got taken in by this amazing experience. Then all of a sudden a solitary glow worm came floating through the air towards us. I sat there (as I am sure everybody else did) taking in this wonderous sight. That was, until our guide suddenly jumped up and shone his torch in the direction of the maverick glow worm whilst shouting at the top of his voice "what do you think you're doing you bloody idiot? I told you not to touch the glow worms." I knew straight away that it was going to be my dad's face that was illuminated by the torch. I wasn't wrong. The illuminated image of my dad with a glow worm on the end of his finger will live with me forever. As will his words "I told you're they not real."

The next day we headed to the Craters of the Moon Park close to Taupo. The area was only born in the 1950s when geothermal activity bubbled up through the ground. In total contrast to the previous day my dad was gob smacked by the area. Or maybe he realised that he had been a fool the day before and wanted to make amends. As we wandered around the park watching the land bubbling and hissing away he gave me and my mum a running commentary; "Bloody hell Kath, look at it, it's like we're back with the dinosaurs! It doesn't feel real does it! I can't believe it!" My mum turned to me and whispered "He's just trying to make up for the glow worm cave yesterday."

Things were going so well for a few hours on our drive up to the Coromandel Peninsula the following day. This was serious fruit growing country and as we stopped off to buy apples, kiwi fruit and pears life never felt so simple. Pity it didn't stay that way

We arrived at Hot Water Beach just as the sun was setting. The car park was empty so we parked up the van and headed for the beach. It was the perfect end to the perfect day, or so we thought.

Hot Water Beach was not called Hot water beach for no reason. A quick dig in the sand soon revealed hot water. My parents and I dug ourselves a trench each and immersed ourselves in nature’s free spa. "This is wonderful," my mum shouted out to us. Anything free was always wonderful to my mum.

When we returned to the camper an hour later we felt revitalised. But something was amiss. "Did I leave the door unlocked Kathleen?" my dad enquired. "You must have done you bloody fool," my mum replied. As we entered the van my rucksack fell from the overhead bed and landed at his feet. "Feels like somebody's been in here," my mum said. And I had to agree.

We were halfway to the town of Thames before we realised that we'd been robbed blind. My mum needed to get something from her handbag and couldn't find it. "Malcolm, Malcolm!" she screamed. It all made sense. Not only had they taken my mum's handbag, but they had also taken my dad's rucksack and some other bits and bobs. For the second time on our trip my parents had lost everything; passports, flight tickets, thousands of dollars - the lot. Fortunately, they had left my rucksack untouched. They probably could see that it was full of dirty travellers clothes.

We got holed up in Thames for a few days while they sorted everything out. The fact that I remember very little about Thames probably speaks volumes about the place. Two funny things happened there though. My dad only had the clothes that were on his back at the time of the robbery, so he wore my mum's clothes for the day. This would have been all good and well if he would have stayed in the van but he decided to walk around the town in them. The people’s faces as we walked into the launderette were a sight to behold.

The second funny event happened a few days later, on a Sunday evening as we were leaving the town. During our time there we'd hardly seen a soul. So when we saw a large group of men all standing in line, naturally our curiosity was aroused. "Let's drive back around the block to see what's happening," my mum said. She always was one for a bit of excitement. As we drove around the block for the second time we spotted a sign above the door, and the sign said "Marriage guidance counselling." Once again, it all made sense.

By the way, the local police knew who had taken my parents possessions but they were powerless to do anything about it. A couple of rough Maori guys and a young Kiwi girl (who was the daughter of the local doctor) lived in a caravan which was permanently parked up on the car park at Hot Water Beach. Each evening they would wait for a lonesome vehicle and then strike. They struck gold when we arrived.

And then it was back to where it all began, for me at least. If we thought that we were home dry though, we were sorely mistaken. On the way to the camper van hire company in Auckland my dad pulled up to go to the shop. When he set off again he put the van in reverse and for the second time on trip he drove straight over the front of the car behind. Failing to recognise his crime my dad drove off. "Dad, you just wrecked that car behind you," I informed him. "No I didn't," he replied in complete denial of his act. What followed was a slow speed car chase around Auckland as my dad tried to escape. When we were eventually cut off at some traffic lights the guy was livid. "You just wrecked my car," he shouted," to which my dad replied "No I didn't." "Well, why are the people next to you laughing then?" he screamed. Once again my mum and I had the giggles. My dad was forced into admitting his crime.

We handed the camper van in a month after we had left Christchurch. In that month, we'd crashed the van four times, been robbed, lost the toilet, and windscreen was cracked from one side to the other.

As I waved goodbye to my parents a few days later I wasn't sure to be happy or sad. One thing was for sure, at least I would be able to relax a little.

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