Chapter 4: ‘…what was that?…’

Greta really hates me. And I don’t blame her. This is the second day in a row I have made her get up at 5.15 so that we can be on the road at 6am. Especially important today (Sunday 13th November – just keeping track for myself) because we have a hell of a way to drive. I take first shift. We’ve started early enough to do a detour towards Hokitika Gorge, and we are the first there. However, something terrible happens on the way – I think I hit a bird. There is a LOT of roadkill in New Zealand, and we’ve been very careful to avoid running over anything (birds in particular are infuriating as they don’t move until the last minute). But I see the small bird too late and I hear a thunk…it is a terrible, tragic moment. We turn off the music and drive in silence for the next 20 minutes. The weather is miserable and the sky is overcast, and quite frankly, this is a real low point in the trip. Here’s a picture of Hokitika Gorge:

Hokitika Gorge

It’s absolutely stunning, but we’re a bit melancholy. Greta takes over, and I anxiously look out the window as we double back to the main road.

“I don’t see it!” I say to Greta as we drive past the spot. “Maybe it survived? Maybe I hit a stone instead?” I cling to that hope and breathe a little easier.

In rapid succession we have breakfast in Greymouth, drive up to Punakaiki where the famous Pancake Rocks are, and then drive back inland via Reefton and Buller’s Gorge. The Pancake Rocks, just fyi, are not flat. Yeah, who knew? (Not me, in any case). So here is a picture of what they actually look like:

Punakaiki Rocks. Stacked, not flat. Just fyi.

Apparently they have layers that are stacked like pancakes. Right. In Reefton, we try and hit up a lady called Bev, who apparently owns a doll museum with some Harry Potter dolls, but when we call her she seems a bit confused, and unfortunately, can’t open up the museum (it’s actually a museum, totally thought it was just her living room or something) until two hours later. Unfortunately, we can’t wait that long, as we have a ferry to catch.

Jess and I have been messaging, as she and Patrick were hoping to catch the same ferry back, and spend the next day driving up to the Waitomo glowworm caves, which is our plan too. However, the ferry is booked full, as there is a one out of commission, but luckily they manage to book with a different company, and will only be 15 minutes ahead of us. We also decide to go black water rafting together as a nice last day activity in the Waitomo caves, and they take care of that.

“Don’t miss the ferry,” says Jess. “Because the others are all booked full!” 

Sound advice. Our check in is at 6pm, and it’s about 2pm. We’ve each been driving for a WHILE, and we’re flagging. By the time we get to Buller’s Gorge, it’s 3pm, and it’s still two and a half hours to Picton. However, we need to get out and do a walk, otherwise we’ll fall asleep at the wheel. Considering we’ve recently thrown ourselves off a bridge, the swing bridge at Buller’s Gorge is actually a bit nervewracking.

Strangely terrifying.

The land here jutted up in the late 1920’s when a massive earthquake hit the area, and it’s cool to actually see where the earth has moved. But we’ve spent too much time wandering around, and now time is very tight in order to get to the ferry on time. (Just realised I’ve used ‘time’ 3 times in that sentence…)

We race through the beautiful landscape of the Malborough wine region as we hasten to make it to Picton. I should mention that this is the last ferry of the day, so sort of important. Also, we’re running low on petrol. I try to reassure Greta that we’ll be fine, we’ll definitely manage the remaining two hours. To distract us, I take pretty pictures of the route, which is probably the only time we haven’t stuck to the speed limit. We must come back here.

Malborough Wine Region. On the ‘next time’ list.

The petrol light is flashing,” says Greta, who has been very good about not saying ‘I told you so’. Shit. We’re still 50 minutes away from the ferry terminal. We need to fill up. I look at the rows and rows of vineyards and endless road and panic. A little. 

“Google,” I command, “show me the closest petrol stations!”

Success! There is one only a ten minute detour drive from us. We turn to the right and drive in a circle and come…to a closed petrol station. Shit. Right. Next one. That one isn’t even a petrol station! Thanks, Google. Finally, we see a 3rd one down the road. 

We fill up a bit, hoping it will get us to the BP 35 minutes away, where we can use our special fuel card (I know, I know, priorities). But we’re filled up (a little) and back on the road. I call the ferry company and once again tell them we are closer than we are, but we are on our way!! 

The light comes on again. It’s gone 6pm. We cannot miss this ferry, but we have to fill up. THE BP! We jump out, fill up and I have a quick scout. ‘Ferry Terminal’! I see it! Jess and Patrick  tell us that we’ll be fine, it’s only trucks boarding so far, as far as they can tell from their ferry. Panicking, we jump back into Thor, do a loop, and speed down the road to the ferry. 

“Greta?” the lady says as we roll up. Oops, we must be late if they know us by name. But we’re here, and we’re in the queue, and as we wait until the very last cars are boarded (clearly being stuck in the naughty row for being late), a car pulls up behind us.

“Aha!” I say, “We’re not the very last ones!” Greta, to her credit, doesn’t smack me. But we make the ferry! Huzzah!

Then, we come to the next hurdle. Wellington to Waitomo is about 6 hours in the car. Unfortunately, the caving people got back to us and said the only available space was at 2pm. So unless we want to get up ridiculously early *again*, it’s in our best interest to maybe drive up a bit after we dock. Neither of us are particularly excited about this, seeing as we’ve both driven about four hours each already. Also, there is this awesome free camping spot right on the beach in Wellington, which is supposed to be beautiful, and you can hear the waves crashing against the shore. We won’t dock till 10.30pm either, so all these things are making a case for staying on the beach in Wellington. I message Patrick and Jess. They reply they’re going to try and drive a little to mitigate the next morning drive. Damn.

“We’ll think about it,” I say to Greta, as we lie on the ugly, black leather couches. The ferry has a delayed start and as the time goes on, I keep thinking about the drive tomorrow. We’re tired. It would be sensible to stay put and start early. But, on the other hand, another big drive will be a pain. Also, the camping ground Patrick and Jess have picked is an hour and a bit up the road, and one I’ve considered as well.

“I’ll drive,” I say to Greta, “but I really think we should go the extra hour.” Although I’m gutted to be missing the beachside free camping spot.

We don’t dock till 11.15pm and it’s another 20 minutes before we’re off the boat. So it’s actually only 11.40pm when we start driving out of Wellington. The reason for the timings will become clear in a bit.

We put on the only cd we haven’t played yet – Heart Feel Good CD 3, 90’s dance hits. Bopping along to ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ and Dario G, we finally make it to the campground around 12.40am. There should be toilets, but when we finally find them, the word ‘toilet’ is a bit generous, and it seems other people think so too, as they’ve not even bothered to piss in the hole, but rather around it to Greta’s horrified discovery.

These are…no…,” she says pointing at her tracky bottoms. “I can never wear these again.” 

Exhausted, we get into bed. I allow us a full six hours before we’re on the road again, waving hello to Sir Lancelot (Jess and Patrick still blissfully asleep). With no signal at the campsite, it’s not weird to hear a ping when we get back onto the highway. But it’s not just one ping…it’s a veritable dawn chorus. The first message is from our friend Scott.

Just heard there’s been a quake in NZ, are you two all right?

We look at each other (well, I only briefly look, as I keep my eyes on the road like a good driver). 

“What do the rest say?” I ask.

Apparently, they are all from worried friends and family, wanting to know if we’re okay after a huge earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scsale, has hit Kaikoura/Blenheim with shocks going up and down the faultlines, hitting Christchurch (previous earthquake was 6.3!), Picton, and Wellington.

We are silent. Then…

When did it hit?” I ask.

12.02am,” Greta says. Literally twenty minutes after we drove out of the city…we look at each other again.

“Why didn’t we feel anything?” I say, and Greta shrugs. We find out that the last ferry to dock at Picton had to be pulled back, as the earthquake destroyed the dock. It’s currently floating in the Cook Strait. Also, the dock at Wellington has been severely damaged. No ferries are currently going anywhere. It begins to dawn on us that had we missed that ferry…had we decided to stay right on the beach in Wellington, had we docked 20 minutes later…well…suffice to say, we’re very lucky, and very thankful.

On that note, we meet up with Patrick and Jess for breakfast (which, quite frankly, could have fed a small army. Portion sizes still insane) and Patrick leads with:

How about that earthquake? I woke up and thought, why are Greta and Stéph rocking the van? Glad it wasn’t you! That would’ve been weird.”

Yes. Yes it would. We are momentarily concerned that our new friends have a slightly bizarre impression of us, when we get back to the matter at hand and wonder whether going canyoning in a cave system hours after an earthquake is a smart thing to do…

The lady in the café takes a strange delight in telling us that Wellington is ‘completely shut down’ (which Greta and I have a moment about, because we’re going there in two days) and saying that the aftershocks are going to be so widespread we should feel it all the time.

We feel nothing. At no point, during our entire NZ trip, do we feel a quake, a shock, a tremor, a wobble…not that we’re ungrateful, but it seems like we’re always in the van when it happens, which, they say, when you’re driving, you don’t feel the shock. Well. That seems to be true. 

After reassuring all our friends (specical shout-out to Ros for the 6 minute WhatsApp voice message detailing your action plan on how you were going to save us if things were bad – I love you) we get back on the road, and have a last sneak peek at Mount Doom.

Tongariro National Park – now without mist!

Our campsite for the night is literally across the road from the Black Water Rafting company, and Jess and Patrick join us there before we check in, and get ready to explore the depths of the Ruakuri Cave. Getting on a wetsuit is not fun – usually because it is still wet. Greta, of course, is a pro due to her awesome diving skills, but once we’re suited and booted, it’s a little like we’re encased worms ourselves.

We get a tube and our two lovely guides tell us there will be one or two occasions where we have to jump down an inside waterfall backwards. Excuse me?

Oh, don’t worry,” says one of the ridiculously competent girls, “It’s only a little waterfall.”

Oh good, it’s not like I was getting worried, or anything. ARGH! They make us practice, and it goes spectacularly not well for about 50% of us (including a guy who can’t actually swim) but as they say to us in the beginning, even if you’ve got all the illnesses/conditions on the sign-your-life-away form, we’ll take you anyway. Great, let’s go then???

It’s actually really fun and mildly terrifying. If anyone has seen The Descent, there is a moment not unlike the entire film, where Greta, Patrick, Jess and I are at the back, and the group disappears in front of us. Crawling through the increasingly more narrow tunnels, I come to a T-junction and neither right nor left are a good option, and quite a bad ten meter drop. I can hear voice and laughter echoing off the walls, but still, I see no one. Greta calls back for directions, and gets no answer. Finally, after a few agonising minutes, Jess finds a narrow (more narrow then the previously narrow bit) sharp left turn and finally we are reunited before the backwards waterfall jump. The water, by the way, is bloody freezing, and apparently (though Greta and I did not know this at the beginning!) there is an eel keeping us company…

Then, however, we all link up our floaty rubber bands, turn off our helmet lights, and like a big, ungainly watersnake, float down the cave, and look up.

Breathtaking. Thousands of little lights dot the ceiling, and it is like you have a direct view of the galaxy only a few meters above your head. Endless trails of starlight stretch out into the distance, and in the quiet of the cave, it feels like you are a speck of dust in the eye of a universe that reaches on and on.

By the way, glow worms aren’t worms, just fyi. They’re maggots, but that doesn’t sound as nice. They create the light so they can trap flies to lure and kill them to become fat and round and flies themselves, who lay eggs before getting ensnared in the light of their fellow maggot fly babies and die to provide them with food.

After this latest adventure, it’s hot showers and soup, and then, it’s a last dinner with Patrick, Jess and our new German friends, Julia and Bernd.

The dream team. L-R Patrick, Julia, Bernd, Greta, me, and Jess.

It is also steak o’clock. And dessert time!

Peanut chocolate dessert. To die for.

It went down very well. The evening is spent hanging out at the campsite with the six of us, and playing card games like Spoons, which Greta is hilariousy bad at.
And then, after a night’s sleep, the time has come to say goodbye to Patrick and Jess, which is very sad, but as we’re going to come visit them at some point (hey, you guys offered, we’re making it happen!) it’s just till we meet again. They’re off to drop Sir Lancelot, while Greta and I try to squeeze in Hobbiton as a last thing before we have to hand Thor back.

It’s raining so badly by the time we rock up at 9.26am, that it’s almost a relief when they say we can’t join the 9.30am tour as they stop selling tickets 5 minutes before, which seems like a bad business decision on their part, but whatever. By this time, Greta and I are fully committed to coming back, so I scoff at your silly time rules, Hobbiton, for Greta and I are wizards (witches, whatever) and we’ll arrive PRECISELY when we want to. (Yep, went there.)

We decide to just head towards Auckland and drop off Thor (with pain in our hearts). It takes us slightly longer as we have to clean out the toilet (fun! Actually super easy) and fill up for the last time. We’re a bit nervous about handing back the van as we may have had a few ‘ka-dunks’ during the driving but Thor has a mighty bumper, and the guy who checks us in barely looks at him. Apparently, though, we are the only people in 3 years to actually use the toilet?? Weird. AND, he also tells us how awesomely far we have driven.

Ladies and gents, our 11 day drive around the North and South islands racked up a total of 4205km!! Not too shabby. He is certainly impressed. Then it’s off to the airport because we laugh in the face of danger, and we’re off the Wellington for our last two days in New Zealand, before heading off to the land of OZ!


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