After getting everything squared away, we had two weeks to be tourists before work started. For Gary’s 30th I bought tickets to a mini festival in Christchurch where we partied with all ages, from little babies with noise blocking headphones to scantily clad octogenarians. I didn’t know the headliner but still danced like a maniac for two hours, the eight piece ensemble put on an amazing show.
I “felt a bit dusty” the next day, my new favorite kiwi phrase, but after spending a day in repose nursing a hangover we managed to get out to Castle Hill for a weekend. Leaving Christchurch we wound through the middle of mossy green mountains, their tops obscured by cottony grey clouds. I half expected to see a dragon flapping overhead, or round a bend to find a knight galloping down a hillside. Eventually the mountains opened to a tranquil valley, criss-crossed by streams and dotted with wildflowers, hulking grey boulders scattered across the hillsides. The climbing was not my favorite (too hard!) but the location really couldn’t be beat. For the first time since our arrival the sun finally came out, and while Gary tired himself out, I dozed on the grass surrounded by perfectly sweet little white daisies and soft pink clover.
After our trial weekend living in the van we set out to work our way north. The challenges of van life became evident pretty quickly, these next five months are sure to be full of high highs and low lows. Our first day driving back the scenic way from Akaroa after swimming with Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest in the world, endemic to New Zealand) we got a flat tire. To access the spare we had to take apart our entire setup, and this process slowed us down so much that we opted to stay an additional night at a different friend’s place to reconnoiter. As frustrated as we felt, that extra night wound up being really wonderful. We were spoiled and treated like family, fed freshly caught smoked fish and venison (I was told you could taste how happy the meat was, and Bambi really was delicious), presented with a fancy cheese plate, and I had my first ever pavlova, which was basically like eating a cloud.
On our second official attempt to leave we spent the night on the coast in Kaikoura. After a sunset dinner we sat on our roof watching thunderheads pass across the full moon, enjoying the warm breeze off the water. When we got back in the car to sleep for the night, we found it brimming with mosquitos, hovering hungrily overhead around our twinkle lights. After committing mosquito genocide we calmed down with the help of the waves singing us to sleep, and waking up maybe twenty steps from the ocean was wonderful, but then gale force winds made cooking breakfast miserable. Later while driving up towards the Tasman our aircondition-less vehicle became a sauna, eventually causing us to resort to stripping down to our underwear. Finally we gave up trying to drive through the heat and stopped to stand in a wide, meandering river, staining our lips red with freshly picked cherries and skipping stones in the shade.
I feel like we are really getting a full experience, seeing plenty of sweet and just as much sour. I will say that on our drive north we were able to start to appreciate the country, it feels somehow like the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii had a love child. The water is a shocking electric blue that butts up against lush volcanic mountains. The roads are lined by towering ferns that run along black beaches, the sand like millions of tiny chia seeds. But then you’ll round a corner and be in a pine forest, alive with humming insects, encircled by wide, lazy rivers. And in between all that, tons of agriculture (sheep outnumber people!). Lucky for us right now pastures are filled with baby animals, horses and cows and sheep, sometimes even deer. It is a magical and slightly disorienting combination.
In an effort to skip the tourist mayhem of Abel Tasman National Park we instead spent five days rock climbing nearby. The crags were some of the most scenic I’ve been to, after belaying between ferns at Payne’s Ford or alongside dramatic ocean cliffs at Pohara, there were plenty of refreshing clear swimming holes to cool off in at the end of the day. On our rest day we did a short but challenging hike to Rawhiti Cave. Pronounced raw-feety (wh’s sounds like f’s here, just for an added challenge), it was full of phytokarsts, basically stalactites covered in lichen that actually causes the rock to grow towards the sun. Nature is so neat! We also visited the crystal clear Dancing Sand Springs (aka Pupu Springs, heehee), so sacred to the Maori that you’re asked not to even touch the water. Finally, we drove out to Cape Farewell, the northernmost point on South Island, and after watching the sea lions surfing the waves spent the day getting blown around on the sand dunes of Whariki Beach.
Some of our nights have been spent in meadows surrounded by the sounds of chirping birds or on beaches where we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze and starry nights, but an equal number have been spent in super glamorous stripmall parking lots or in the alley alongside a bar. You haven’t lived until you’ve shaved your legs in public, or used a converted port-a-potty cold shower (which I actually loved), or tried to fall asleep while listening to people drunkenly warble “The Girl From Ipanema” on karaoke night.
Right now I’m writing from a laundromat in windy Wellington while Gary buys groceries at the cheap shop on the other side of town, this is practically the first time in 2.5 weeks here that we’ve been farther than an arms reach from one another. Taking the Interisland Ferry across the channel this morning was basically a religious experience, the sun rising to greet a clear, cloudless summer day, our boat nestled between emerald mountains as we glided serenely across placid turquoise waters, gently scattering the occasional group of sea birds nestled together on the water. Today will definitely be chalked up in the ‘sweet’ category, and I’m looking forward to exploring a little of the North Island in our final five days before work begins.