Chocolate excess, and sunny non-cricket days
March 2 For a web journalist my technological skills are severely lacking. I've been known to struggle with (apparently) simple things like wrapping up electrical cords, switching things on and off, and uncapping pens. But this time I outdo myself. After 40 hours from Cape Town to Auckland, via Dubai and Brisbane, I arrive so disoriented, I leave my cellphone on the aircraft. While standing in the passport-control queue, I realise my mistake and unsuccessfully try to get back on the plane to retrieve it. The Emirates ground staff reassure me that the phone will be found when they clean the plane, and they will return it to me before I've left the building. A month later, I'm still waiting.
The first few hours without my phone are quite zen, but after informing the office, panic hits. No, I did not back up my contacts. No, I cannot log into my WhatsApp account without that number, and no, I didn't bring the video camera just in case. Just when I feel the world is ending, a friend comes to the rescue. She has an old phone that I could use for the duration of the tour. Crisis averted.
Armed with my new technology and almost no one's number, I head to Eden Park for what is being billed as an epic. It's the ODI decider, effectively a final, at the same venue South Africa lost the 2015 World Cup semi-final. This match feels nothing like that one, there's much less expectation and only about a quarter of the crowd. South Africa win easily. Afterwards I ask AB de Villiers if he wasn't tempted to stay on, given how well the team is doing. He doesn't take the bait and confirms his Test hiatus remains in place.
Unlike in Hobart last November, I am fully prepared for Dunedin. I've brought a coat, boots, three jackets, and eight long-sleeved tops, and on arrival, I realise I may have to wear all of them at once. It's no accident that New Zealand brings teams here first - they want them to feel as uncomfortable as possible. The South Africans have team-issue softshell jackets, beanies and gloves. Good planning.
I first visited Dunedin in 2012, during orientation week, when it has become a tradition for new occupants of student accommodation to leave the previous dwellers' couches outside, and if they are unclaimed after a few weeks, to burn them. There's a couch on almost every porch I pass, and I can definitely use a fire. Instead, I have to settle for light entertainment, like students shouting "Don't screw the crew" at each other when they walk down the street. Essentially, don't sleep with your flatmate. Sound advice, I guess.
The Cadbury factory in Dunedin is set to close early next year, despite its profitability. Most of its small output is exported to Australia anyway, so the suits have decided to move operations across the ditch. More than 300 people will lose their jobs, so in some sort of solidarity, I decide to tour Cadbury World.
The hour-long visit starts with a brief lesson in chocolate production, and a small glass of melted chocolate with a topping of your choice, before moving on to look at the products made specifically in New Zealand. There's things like Pineapple Lumps and Pinkys, and I feel like Charlie in Wonka's factory, especially when the tour guide confirms there are Oompa Loompas who hand-coat the Jaffas with syrup. All guests are given chocolate at every stop, to provide strength for the journey, which at one point involves a climb of 200 steps to watch a chocolate fountain. A ton of liquid yum drops from the purple tower; some of it splashes on us.
My Test match morning starts at sunrise with a run along the Otago Peninsula. It's spectacular to watch the rays dazzle on the water, and I wish I had the time (and the legs) to be able to go all 28km (and back!) to see the albatrosses at the Royal Albatross Centre. For now, my wings take me as far as University Oval, where the final contest of a summer that began in August for both these sides and me, with New Zealand's tour of Zimbabwe, starts.
A stubbornly sluggish pitch makes for heavy going. The scoring rate struggles to get above two runs an over. Dean Elgar and Kane Williamson have made for contrasting batting heroes so far. One scores run by attrition, the other by art. Geoff Clements, a local cameraman shooting his last Test, prefers the latter. In the course of a chat about his career, he tells me the Nawab of Pataudi Jr was the batsman he enjoyed watching most.
I've noticed a tiny café called OCHO (for "Otago chocolate") on the way back from my running route that advertises itself as Dunedin's largest chocolate producer. I ask them if they're just being a little cheeky, and the waiter/barista/front-of-house man is not amused. "Cadbury's make confectionery, we make chocolate."
In light drizzle, the start of play will be delayed, which leaves time to go to the Otago Farmers Market, next to the railway station. It's a fairly small set-up, with some fruit and vegetable sellers, a butcher and food stalls. It reminds me a little of the market I do my shopping at back home, except that this time I'm the tourist watching the locals stock up. At the ground, I catch up with Rob Walter and Anton Roux, two Saffer lads who have moved down here to coach Otago.
I've been shot in this movie before. Five years ago. 2012. We'd got to day five of an interestingly poised Test. It rained then and it's raining now. I wonder if it's even worth the charade of going to the ground and sitting around for three hours waiting for the inevitable but I do it anyway.
Before leaving Dunedin, there's time to take a short street-art walk, one of the best I've been on. Works by local and international artists are featured. The level of detail is outstanding. My favourite is one of several penguins surrounding a woman with mouse ears.
March 14 Wellington. A drop of sun. There is a god. There is also a yoga studio next to my hotel, so I am sure the planets are aligning. I sign up for a week's pass and go to my first class that afternoon. Before we begin, I am asked a bit about my practice at home, which is usually in a heated room and always a dynamic flow. No one tells me this will be the exact opposite. This class is mainly static poses and muscle openers. It's very different to what I am used to, but I still feel good afterwards.
Trent Boult is ruled out of the Wellington Test, robbing New Zealand of a second star player after Ross Taylor was forced out with a torn calf. Mark Geenty, a local journalist, invites us all out to his local for the evening. It's in Kelburn Village, a cute locale with restaurants and shops on the way to the Botanical Gardens. We don't get far up the hill, though, and spend the evening socialising instead. Colleague Andrew McGlashan is here for a brief stint and we enjoy a good natter.
On a good day, the Basin Reserve is one of the best grounds to watch Test cricket in. Like today. There's sunshine on the grass banks and the food trucks - everything from the Smoothie Operator to a South African one selling boerewors rolls and biltong - are doing a roaring trade. I look at the picket fence to see if any more plaques have been put up. It's a people's place, and I am glad so many are enjoying it. Henry Nicholls gives them even more to be happy about with a first century. Having watched him in Zimbabwe and South Africa, I didn't think he was up to much but am pleased he has come through.
South Africa's top six prove worryingly porous and they fold for 94. New Zealand have a firm grip on the match before Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock prise it open and replace it with one of their own. These two did the same thing in Hobart. Back then, I wrote a piece on the bright batting future they showed South Africa. Just four months later, that future is here.
New Zealand's collapse derails a summer of hard grind. Williamson tries to explain it as "one bad day", but it feels worse. South Africa's dominance has shown the difference between the two sides is bigger than it seemed in Dunedin.
It's the best weather of the week but there's no cricket to watch. Instead, South Africa have allowed us to enjoy the sunshine at Harbourside Market, next to Te Papa museum. It's much bigger than the Dunedin one, with an enormous variety of fresh fruit and vegetables and all kinds of cuisine, including Hungarian chimney cakes - too towering for me to even contemplate - and haggis. There was also the self-proclaimed world's smallest publishing company: one man, who hand-stamps poems onto recycled Readers' Digests and sells them for NZ$5 a pop. He writes about topical issues like modern-day diets and current affairs. I buy one titled "Migration".
Dane Piedt arrived a day (or maybe two, he is too jet-lagged to remember) ago to bolster South Africa's spin stocks. We chat about his recall. Piedt has had an interesting season, which started with him being dumped from the Test side and contemplating a Kolpak move, after which he became Cobras captain and found his way back into the national squad.
Five years ago, I took the Overlander from Hamilton to Wellington. This time, I will do the opposite. The train has been dramatically upgraded - and I'm told that took place in June 2012, so I missed it by just a few months - with more comfortable seating, a café, and an open-air viewing carriage, all the better for enjoying the scenery. There are several viaducts but the highlight is the trio of snow-capped volcanoes and the Raurimu Spiral, an engineering feat in which the track climbs 139 metres along three hairpin bends and a horseshoe curve. The journey takes all day but it's worth it.
New Zealand schedule an early-morning press conference with BJ Watling, who repeats Williamson's message about Wellington not being "a calamity". At Seddon Park, we all think the covered unprepared pitch is the one the match will be played on, but Russell Domingo informs us it's the green one next to it that will host the season finale. Maybe New Zealand are finally playing to the strengths of their pace pack, even though South Africa are similarly strong?
If they are, it will be without Tim Southee, who has been ruled out with a hamstring tear. It's frustrating that the decider will be robbed of some of the contest's key players, but perhaps this is the price paid for a season that began nine months ago for both sides. De Kock has hurt a tendon in his right hand, and even if he can be strapped up to play the Test, it sounds as though he will miss the IPL. JP Duminy has also pulled out of the premier T20 event. All these things are telling us cricket needs to look at its calendar afresh.
And now, Trent Boult has been ruled out after failing to recover from the groin injury that kept him out of the Wellington match. It will be tough for New Zealand, but they seem upbeat. Even the usually deadpan Williamson cracks a few joke at his pre-match presser. That afternoon I spot him and Tom Latham having a coffee at possibly the only hipster place in Hamilton. Latham has been under pressure both with bat and in the field, and I wonder if the captain has some words of advice.
Hating on Hamilton is as common in New Zealand as bitching about Benoni or being less than complementary about Canberra, but this morning, with several hot-air balloons decorating the sky, and the gorgeous Waikato River Walk to run on, it's as good as anywhere. It's also the start of the last match of the summer - my busiest so far: in total, I'll have covered 13 Tests this season.
Clearly, whatever Williamson said to Latham two days ago has worked. Latham takes a blinder to dismiss Faf du Plessis and then starts well in the reply. In between that New Zealand have let another advantage slip - South Africa were 190 for 6 but de Kock took them over 300 - and the weather is threatening to have the final say. Yesterday, I met a ten-year-old called Lucy, a New Zealander who is a South Africa fan. Her favourite player is David Miller, followed by Morne Morkel, but she's fond of everyone from du Plessis to Kagiso Rabada and she is on an autograph hunt. Today she completes her set and sends me a picture to prove it.
The forecast is for rain all day, and a drizzle at around 8am does not leave me optimistic. I've never been so pleased at a prediction being wrong. Heavy clouds swirl in the sky above us all day but just keep moving along. So do New Zealand. Williamson scores a century to equal Martin Crowe's record and it's game on. If the rain stays away.
There's not a cloud in the sky, as the weather forecast continues to provide fake news. The game is set up for a thrilling finale to a summer that has seemed wonderfully endless. Later this year, colleague Melinda Farrell is planning to run 501 miles in five months, which has got me counting what I clock. I have already done 90 and will finish 100 before leaving. I will return to Auckland to hand back the borrowed phone. Not sure how I will communicate with the wider world. Carrier pigeon perhaps?
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent