A great deal of nonsense has been written about travel, and today I intend to add to that.
My problem is not so much the subject of travel but which of my many adventures am I to recount? Am I to tell you about mud wrestling with the other Pythons in full drag in a pigsty on the Yorkshire moors? Or recount the day spent as a humble woodcutter’s wife with John Cleese dressed as Little Red Riding Hood in the forests outside Mad Ludwig’s castle in Bavaria? You see my dilemma: A significant number of my travels have involved dressing up, often in female clothing, and being, quite frankly, silly. That is why today I have decided to tell you the true story of my attempt to be the first Python to climb Mount Cleese in New Zealand.
John, on one of his tours down under, had reached the city of Palmerston North, in the southern part of the North Island, where he became so bored he publicly described it as “the suicide capital of New Zealand.” Hardly surprising, this upset the locals, and, in revenge, the local council decided to rename their rubbish dump after him. Quite a witty response, really. And so Mount Cleese was born.
In spring 2016, John and I were in New Zealand on the last leg of John Cleese and Eric Idle, Together Again at Last … for the Very First Time. We had already giggled our way around Australia and now were en route to Wellington for our last night. Learning that we would pass near this legendary site, I decided to find Mount Cleese and attempt a daytime assault. Sure, it was only 45 meters high, but this climb would be made by someone over the age of 70, without oxygen, without Sherpas, before lunch, without alcohol, and accompanied only by a blond female New Zealand driver called Sev. Time was short, and so was Sev. “Don’t mess about with Kiwis,” was her comment. But she was up for trying to film the climb so I could surprise John at our last show.
The quest for Mount Cleese took us through the center of Palmerston North (which was disappointingly pleasant), around a perfectly sweet square, and off into the lovely suburbs. John must have been in a very bad mood the day he came.
We finally found ourselves at the foot of Mount Cleese, impressive in the pale sunlight, before an advert for fertilizer, surrounded by recycling units, piles of smashed cars, modern waste disposal facilities, and a faint smell of sewage. If you’re going to have a rubbish dump named after you, Mount Cleese is a beauty.
I decided to make the attempt right away. There were moments when I wished I could abandon the whole endeavor and perhaps come back next year with a stretcher party and be carried up, but I put such thoughts aside and fearlessly struggled on. It was a very New Zealand day—it couldn’t make up its mind which season it was—but after perhaps 10 minutes the clouds parted and I found myself at the summit of the famed sewage site. It was a joyous moment, which Sev bravely recorded on camera.
I met John onstage that night and surprised him by playing the footage of my successful climb. It was definitely worth the detour just to see his face. I could see tears in his eyes as he proudly thanked me. John may be lofty, but he is still a softy underneath. We don’t do emotion—it’s not a British thing—but I could see that he was moved.
I’m proud to say that I’m the first Python to conquer Mount Cleese. Michael Palin, who has been to many dumps, cannot claim this one. I think it deserves a special plaque commemorating this achievement. For a recycling center, Mount Cleese is well worth the visit, because it’s in a beautiful park. So take your recycling, your garbage, and your old cars and then have a picnic where you can legitimately leave your litter behind. (No single-use plastics, please.) And bravo, Palmerston North: the irony center of New Zealand.
Eric Idle is a founding member of comedy troupe Monty Python and the creator of the Tony Award–winning musical Spamalot. His new book, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography, is out this month from Crown Archetype.