Chapter the second: ‘…and they went on a journey…’

So the day has finally arrived!! Someone is going to give us a van, and we’re going to get in the van and drive it around…watch out NZ! After schlepping our bags down to the Escape depot in Auckland, we go through the paper work and then it’s time to pick our home away from home for the next eleven days. Greta spots him immediately. 

We have to have this one!” she says. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the ultimate Avenger, the indomitable God of Thunder and Lightning, the mighty THOR himself!!

The mighty Thor!

Yes, he’s pretty badass. Or at least we think so! After chatting to No-Name, (nice chap, never introduced himself though, and as it turns out, skimmed over a few pertinent facts about the van), we get in the van, and promtly drive out into Auckland traffic, in the wrong direction. We are off to a phenomenal start. We are trying to locate the supermarket, which is our first attempt at navigating with Google. We will get better at this, but it is the first day,  so it takes us about 40 minutes to complete a 5 minute journey.

But! We do finally find the supermarket. After buying the weirdest collection of things – toilet paper, kitchen roll, water, an onion, garlic, yoghurt, bananas, tea cakes and tomatoes, we consider it a job well done, and head out properly. Due to timing, we decide to leave Hobbiton for the way back, and instead stop off in Te Aroha, which has an Edwardian spa. We don’t go to the Spa, although it looks like the most modern part of the Main Street (which, incidentally, is the entire town) and considering the spa stems from about a 100 years ago….However, as one of the faded estate agents signs tells us, there is plent of ‘adverture’ to be found in Te Aroha. It will have to pass us by, as we’re heading down to the gentle scents of rotten egg and sulfur, Rotorua, to partake in a cultural Maori evening in one of the biggest Maori settlements in New Zealand, Te Puia.

Our guide is Robert, who takes us to meet his ‘family’ at the Marae (meeting house). First, we pick a chief (male, of course, but seeing as if things go sour, they’re the first person to get their head chopped off’ I’m cool with that) to represent us as the Maori send out their best warrior to scope us out. Things go well, and we’re invited inside, where we sit quietly at the front until the ‘hongi’ has been performed (forehead and noses pressing twice). This means we’re now family! Which means that I can push Greta on stage where she gets to partake in the traditional ‘Poi’ dance! It’s a bit more convoluted than the Haka, but then women always have to do the more complicated things, so she nails it. 

Greta slightly dubious about the Poi dance.

After the Haka (which Greta and I do anyway, from the safety of our seats of course), it’s time to feast! A lot of our food has been cooked in the traditional Hangi style (underground oven). It tastes lovely. We go back for fourths, but then again, when in New Zealand, one shall eat like a Hobbit. That’s what we’re telling ourselves anyway.

Hangi! (Not to be confused with the hongi).

Although it’s late, we drive down to Lake Taupo to start the trip off right by doing our first bit of freedom camping. Let me say this now, setting up your bed at 11.30 at night, in the dark, is not particularly fun, or easy. And it starts to rain. Of course it does. But, we persevere, and finally crawl into bed. 

The next morning, after enjoying the rainy walk to the drop toilet, the rainy reconfiguring of the bed to a seating arrangement, the rainy cup of tea made under the cover of our backdoor, and the rainy, misty view of Lake Taupo (remant of an old volcanic crater), we set off towards Picton. The concerning thing is that we seem to be racing through petrol, and both Greta and I are worried about what this means for the rest of the driving days.

Our aim is to visit Mount Doom (Mount Ruapehu) and have a bit of a walk around to see the views, and the superb example of a volcanic landscape. It’s lovely and sunny at the bottom as we slowly wind our way into Tongariro National Park. However, as we climb ever upwards, it starts to grey, and then suddenly, the road disappears. I kid you not. The fog comes down so quickly that we literally cannot see more than one meter ahead of us. Still, we persevere. However, after driving around the parking lot for ten minutes, trying to find a parking spot and not realising we were in the parking lot in the first place, we have a sneaking suspicion that the ski lifts won’t be working, meaning we won’t be going up Mount Doom today. Sad times. In consolation, we drive through a rapid succession of small towns, famous either for being the Carrot capital of the world (or probably just New Zealand), the gumboot capital of the world, (I’m not joking), and a small town with a street that looks like it stopped evolving in the 1890’s. It is during this journey we make a rather fortuitous discovery.

I’m paging through the little Escape booklet to see if there’s anything cool to visit on our way down when I spot something called ‘the OVERDRIVE button’.

That’s funny,” I say to Greta. “Have you heard of the OVERDRIVE button?”

Huh,” says Greta, “No, I haven’t. But there’s a little light on here saying OVRDRV OFF. Why?

Hmm,” I says, “well, probably nothing, but it says here: ‘THE OVERDRIVE MUST BE SWITCHED ON AT ALL TIMES WHEN DRIVING OVER 50KM AN HOUR, AS YOU WILL LOSE LOTS OF FUEL IF YOU DON’T,’ and…oh dear.

What?” says Greta. “What?!”

The tank might explode,” I read. We look at each other.

FIND IT!” I shout as we press and twist all the buttons and dials at our disposal. It takes a few second, but finally it ends up being the button at the end of the stick. The light disappears. We drive in silence.

Lucky we found out about it now,” I finally venture, “imagine if we’d spent all that money on fuel.

Yes,” says Greta, giving a nervous chuckle, “imagine if the tank had exploded.” 

We pause. 

Bloody No-Name,” we say, and then drive on, heaving a huge sigh of relief. We end up taking a scenic route to get to Picton, which is beautiful:

Manawatu scenic route

It does, however, mean that we almost miss the ferry, and I’m both calling them and furiously trying to find a campsite for the evening that allows late arrivals. As will become the norm for this holiday, I think, we scrape by by the skin of our teeth (what an odd expression), and make the ferry from Wellington to Picton. Parked in the next lane is another Escape van!! He’s called Sir Lancelot, and his owners are Patrick and Jess, a lovely couple from Sacramento, who we will cross paths with and have awesome adventures with repeatedly over the next two weeks.

We dock at quarter past midnight, and drive the ten minutes to our campsite. Excited at the prospect of having access to electricity (#firstworldproblems), at least so we can see the bed we’re attempting to make at half past midnight, you can imagine our disappointment when we plug in our power cord…and nothing happens. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Bloody No-Name!! We grumble, but decide that since we’re driving down to Christchurch the next day, we’ll stop in at the Escape depot there and get a new powercord, as ours is clearly faulty. (Googling how to connect a powercord to your campervan at quarter to one in the morning is a new one). ANYWAY, the bed gets made, in significantly less time than it took us the previous night, and finally, finally, there is bed. And in the morning, there is a HOT SHOWER, yes there is! Of course, it rains again, but you know, you have to take the little victories here.

We drive down to Christchurch via Kaikoura, which is famous for whale watching and things like that. Apparently there’s a place where you can see baby seals!!!! Excited, we head out.

Oahu Waterfall minus seal pups

No baby seal pups. My whole life has been a lie. (Okay, cool waterfall, but still. Baby seals….*sadface*) Actually, it’s still pretty awesome because we see these guys:

Seals!!

And this guy:

And this is probably the most exciting thing we saw!!!!

Orca!!!!

After that, it’s a straight run down to Christchurch, where we end up at our campsite early for once. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to change the van into sleepmode during daylight. Also, it turns out our power cord is not broken, we just didn’t know how to work it properly, but we figure that out too, so quite frankly, it’s only day 3 and we are NAILING this. We go out that night for a leisurely meal, which ends up being a panicked ‘here’s fine!’ as we start to become aware of how early things actually close in New Zealand. In Christchurch, you can still see the remains of the devastating events of 2011, but also how the city has embraced their future and is working towards incorporating the effects into their cityscape.

In the morning, Greta and I make a monumentously important decision that will affect the rest of our holiday in a supremely positive way. We decide to leave the bed as it is. There will be no more folding up of the bed. The bed shall stay the bed, and it shall be the bed forever, or for the next week, anyway. It is a terribly, terribly clever decision, and I am very proud of our foresight.

In honour of our cleverness, the sun has decided to come out, and we spend a wonderful sunny morning in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (a must), having a leisurely, non-fried breakfast.

Ignore the red velvet goodness.

Okay, so I know that’s a huge slab of cake, but I promise we walked it off.

Christchurch Botanical Gardens

We then go up the Christchurch gondola and have a look around. There is a slightly odd seven minute ‘ride’ about the history of Christchurch, but the surrounding walk is cool.

Christchurch Gondola

Pioneer Women’s Memorial Walk

Then, we go on yet another, gorgeous scenic route. (Really, I think the term ‘scenic route’ is a bit of a misnomer because pretty much everything in New Zealand is scenic, but there you go).

Waimariri Gorge

Scenic Route

Rakaia Gorge

Rakaia Gorge

Okay, I’m done, I promise (for now). This route takes us to Lake Tekapo, but by the time we arrive, it’s getting darker, and we’ve decided to free camp again in a place where they reccommend scouting it out first just so you know where it is. Okay….but, as we’re booked in for star gazing at quarter to midnight, and it’s only half past seven, there’s plenty of time (and daylight) to check out the camping ground, and drive back for dinner. This happens next:

It takes us almost an HOUR AND A HALF to drive down incrementally, get stuck in some bushes, reverse out of the gorse of hell, and decide that no, we will NOT be driving here at 2am to find a campsite. We can’t even find it in daylight!! Driving back up (incrementally), we pause for a moment once we’re back on blessed asfalt. 

Hey,” I say, “That bit of flat land looks like the pictures from the reviews of the camping place. Do you think that’s it?”

It is at this point that a very attractive Spanish man happens to drive by (seriously, middle of nowhere, where are you going, dude?). Turns out, he’s going camping here as well, and he says the ENTIRE thing is the camping ground. We’ve basically been driving around it for a bloody age.

If only we’d gone left instead of right,” I lament, but by this time it’s nearing the kitchen cut-off date. Spanish man signs off by telling us he’ll be camping near the gorse bushes from hell, and maybe he’ll see us later. No chance, buddy. We are NOT driving down this bloody road a third time.

Back in Tekapo, all the ‘restaurants’ (yes, all three of them) have closed for the night. It’s 9.01pm. It’s started to drizzle. Desperate, we pull into the parking lot of a posh hotel, as we have eons of time before our star gazing adventure. Luckily, their kitchen stays open til 9.30pm so dressed in our scruffiest clothes, we have steak for dinner. When we can stall our departure no longer (it’s only 10.45pm) we go out only to find we have left our headlights on! Immediately, doom scenarios about empty batteries, and tow trucks and rising costs spring to mind, but luckily, Thor is EPIC, and starts. We leg…erm, drive it out of there.

As we wait for the star gazing to finally start, we finally sort out our porta potti (fun times) and we realise we still don’t have a place to stay tonight, as all the campsites are now closed. Putting that thought away for now, we check in at the star gazing, and get these awesome red jackets which are so warm and comfy, I am never taking mine off. We get into a little van, which buses us up Mount John. At check-in, we were told there was 65% cloud cover, so we probably wouldn’t see that much, but as we drive up, there are some wonderful flashes of lightning! Far away, we’re reassured. The last five minutes of the drive are done with the headlights off so we can acclimatise to the dark. I’m so excited. We pile out of the van, get into the introduction when all of a sudden – the tour is cancelled. The lightning is apparently not quite so far away, and it isn’t safe for us to stay up there. This was our reaction:

No stargazing for Greta and Stéph

Now, while this means that we’re done earlier than expected, we still don’t have a place to stay. Then, dear readers, this happens. I’ll just leave this here. Till next time!

2 thoughts on “Chapter the second: ‘…and they went on a journey…’

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