Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2L4C - Too Late?

I managed to complete my run on the beach before the sun disappeared behind the clouds. It decided to stay there, so the rain showed up to keep me company.
I’ve said it before, but there’s nothing quite so grim as rain at the seaside.
First stop of the day was at Punakaiki “Pancake Rocks”. Well, they have rocks, which look like a stack of pancakes. But they also have a café serving actual stacks of pancakes. Guess which I preferred!
The rain continued to fall, and after two days of jaw-dropping wonderment my feet were back on the ground. The scenery turned into trees. Miles and miles of trees. Occasionally there was something amazing – a ridiculously blue river for instance. But it was all a bit glum. I rolled on into the descriptively named town of “Franz Josef Glacier”.
I took a quick look around town, but there wasn’t much to see. There was a new Mountain Bike track on the map but nobody knew how to get to it. The rain finally lifted and there was even some light in the sky, so I figured I’d have a quick nip down to the glacier that evening, instead of chancing what the weather would be doing in the morning.
Stunning. Mesmerising. Spectacular. Awe-inspiring.
These are words I’d expect to be using to describe a glacier that has a whole town built for it, on an island where every bend unveils a new wonder.
But the only word that sprung to mind was: Grubby.
The white ice is cloaked in a layer of black debris, which kind of spoils the magnificence. The glacier on the Icefield Parkway is far better, and it has the decency to come down to the car park, where Franz Josef, and his mate “Fox” down the road, require you to hike for 40 minutes to even get to the viewing spot 500m away from the face.

Which is why the following morning, with the clouds and rain still hanging around (well, the clouds were, don’t suppose rain can hang) I decided to keep rollin’.

But I should mention the surprise encounter at the campsite. I got back after grabbing dinner to find my new neighbours were my old neighbours! Rob and Kerry were parked next to me again. They were talking to a couple of “Clockers”.
I’d best explain that: There’s not many roads round the South Island, and most campers seem to be trying to see all of it. So everybody does a lap, and you’re only choice is which way round you go. Hence there’s a tribe of people heading the opposite way to me who I’ll only ever encounter briefly, the “Clockers”, and my tribe, who I keep running into, the “Antis”. It’s weird, you find yourself checking in at the campsite next to the German lady you saw in the layby when you were both taking the same picture, or the old guy you said hello to at the lake.
So we had a nice chat to this particular pair of “clockers” but I didn’t remember their names. Those guys are just not worth it.

In the rain I reach Haast, which seems to entirely consist of a café. It is at least a nice café, with a roaring fire and décor reminiscent of Northern Exposure, with animal heads protruding from above the bar.
I stodge up and roll on. The incessant rain and monotonous trees require an aural remedy, I select “The Javelin” by Blue Amazon. It’s an album that’s basically an hour of not particularly remarkable trance music which serves to heighten the impact of the final tune, their big hit: “..and then the rain falls” which seems appropriate.
So for an hour I drift along in a contented daze. The road meanders and traffic is sparse. I’m enveloped in the music as I reach the final track. The synthesized strings swell to a roaring crescendo, then fall away leaving one kicking bass drum, followed by that glorious vocal:
“…and then the rain”
Bloominheck! I’ve been building up to this point for an hour. Coping with the drudgery in anticipation of a glorious climax and now the weather has ruined…
Hang on, the rain’s stopped!
…and at almost the exact same time I emerge on to a glorious lakeside road. Twisting and turning, clinging to the steep slope at the side of the lake. Above me, the arboreal monotony has given way to a dry cragginess. Incessant green has been replaced by browns, reds, yellows and black, reflected in the blue lake below.
This is better. This is more like it. This… is Otago!
Around Lake Wanaka I skirt, then Lake Hawea, equally beautiful and into the town of Wanaka.
First stop, “Puzzling World”. Almost like a museum, where all the exhibits are optical illusions, but so much more. There’s a hall of faces, where all the faces follow you around the room. There’s a perspective twisting room, that looks square, but makes an adult on one side appear smaller than a child at the other. I particularly liked the sloping room. The floor slopes steeply, but the walls don’t, giving you the impression that the floor is level. This makes it hard not to topple over, and indeed a Japanese tour group entered, literally fell through the room, then left!
After more mind-bending exhibits, and the chance to play with a stack of puzzles and games from around the world there’s a 3 dimensional walk-through maze.
“As long as you start the maze by 6pm you’re OK” says the guy on the desk.
“Will you come and rescue me if I get lost?” I enquire, half joking.
“We’ll bring you tea and a sandwich”.

But I needn’t have worried. The maze sign says it takes 30 minutes to 1 hour. I reckon I can beat that with my top-secret maze-solving strategy!
In 19 minutes I’m within sight of the exit when a guy stops me and asks me to photo him and his wife! Doesn’t he see I’m against the clock?
“smileonetwothreeclicklovely!!........what ANOTHER ONE?!”
But I make it to the exit and crash through, at 20 minutes on the dot, to rapturous applause!!
(Funny, the looks people give you when you crash through a wooden gate in a sweaty mess and rapturously applaud yourself. Oh well!)

Brilliant place that Puzzling World. And I’d steamed round so fast I still had time to find the local mountain bike park, and navigate my way round it without a map. Which turned out to be considerably more difficult than the maze – and the maze didn’t have huge drops to fall down!
Fortunately I found my car and emerged just as a young couple of bikers were loading their bikes onto their car.
“Is there a map for this place?” I pant.
“Sure, have mine” says the guy, and explains that they’re on their way to Queenstown for Mountain Bike Week.
Which I knew nothing about a week ago, but now find myself heading inexorably towards!

At the campsite I have a quick look around for Rob and Kerry, but they’re not here. Well, I didn’t ask where they’d be next, so it was pretty unlikely.

…until the morning, when there they are, getting their van ready for the day!
OK, I should point out I keep staying in the Top 10 chain of Holiday parks, as do they, so it’s less extraordinary, but still nice to see familiar faces. We compare plans, they’re doing 2 nights in Queenstown, then 2 in Te Anau, I’m doing 1 in Queenstown, then 2 in Te Anau, then back to Queenstown…
Wait, that sounds like planning!!
Well, yes, but only because Easter weekend is approaching so I’d better have something booked.

It’s raining again. I don’t have far to go to Queenstown, and I’d like another go at the Wanaka track, armed with my sweaty second-hand map, but it’ll be ridiculous in the wet (the track, not the map!). So I kill some time wandering round sports shops in a bemused attempt to see if anyone stocks XXL helmets.
Lucy doesn’t but she has some very nice jackets for half price, and I don’t have a really good waterproof so I buy one. She says I should ride the “Dean Bank track” before I leave town.
Their helmets are too small.
I try another shop.
“Good Morning, no, sorry those are all the helmets we have”
“Sigh. It’s not that good, what with all the rain”
“True, but you have a nice jacket”
“Ah, thanks”
…and another 2 shops, but no protection for the cranially well-endowed.

It’s still pouring down. What to do? I don’t want to leave town without a ride, but yesterday’s track in the rain will be lethal. I decide to head out to the start of the Dean Bank track, just to have a look. It’s only 2km out of town, but what do you know, the rain stops as I get there, so I give it a go.
Well, thank you Lucy!! Another truly awesome mountain bike track. No decision points or clumsy maps on this one, just 11km following a twisty, turny track across desert sands, up cliff faces, into the woods, down to the river valley floor, up slippery slopes, over jumps, under tree boughs…fantastic. And thanks to the rainfall I got a good spraying with mud as I went!

Luckily I have my awesome van and my own portable shower which …isn’t working. Hmmm. The taps are coughing and spitting up water and the pump is making an awful racket. I manage a quick wash in the tepid dribble but this is not good with weeks still to go. Hopefully the tank’s just empty, but I filled it up recently. Then I remember, there’s a Britz rental place in Queenstown, and I’m going there next.
I take the scenic route to Queenstown via Cromwell, and there’s lots more beautiful views of lakes and craggy desert hills, but I press on and make it to Britz. They shut in 15 minutes but the mechanic is happy to take a quick look. While I wait the girl on the desk says, “oh the water tanks are very small. One 2 minute shower and you’re pretty much out”
I’d have expected more from a 2 person van, but sure enough the mechanic tops it up and it all works fine.
I apologise for wasting their time (better than wasting mine coming back if it needed fixing) but they’re very pleasant and I’m in Queenstown.

After a week of campsites a few km from small sleepy towns it’s fantastic to stay a few hundred metres from the centre of a bustling young town with so much to do. And Rob and Kerry show up again.
But I’m coming back for the Easter weekend so tonight I take it easy and find a pub with a live singer. No stools at the bar though. It seems the Kiwis don’t tend to adopt the American sit-at-the-bar-and-talk-to-strangers habit which is a real shame for a stranger in a strange land like me.

Tuesday, and a quiet day in store. Next stop is Te Anau, a small town of no real consequence, but the start of the 120km road up to Milford Sound, the biggest attraction in Fiordland. So I take my time, fill up with diesel, and set out on the leisurely 2 hour drive.
I’ll get to the campsite in the early afternoon, then spend the rest of the day sorting out a cruise around the Sound on the next day. The guidebook warns that the road to Milford will be packed with buses heading for the popular midday tours, and that booking is essential. I don’t fancy an early start so I might as well aim for a late afternoon tour, and try and get one of the smaller boats. I’d rather tour with 75 people than a couple of hundred, and at least the drive back will be quieter.
It’s a really beautiful day today, barely a cloud in the sky… what will it be like tomorrow?
Hang on, if I’m going for a late cruise anyway, why wait? It will be awful if the weather’s grey tomorrow and I could have gone today.

Have I got time?

Suddenly my quiet day vanishes and I’m against the clock. Luckily the roads are as deserted as the land. If I push on I can reach Te Anau around 12.30. Plenty of time you’d think, but the 120km drive with all the buses and tourists takes two and a half hours, and that’s without stopping for views.
I’m in luck, one of my brochures has a small boat going at 4pm in “Late December-March”, check in 20 mins before departure. That gives me 40 mins to call at the campsite and maybe grab a quick lunch.

So I screech into Te Anau at 12.30 and find the Cruise centre.
“Sorry sir, we’re not running the 4pm cruise anymore. It’s only Decenber to March.”
“But it IS March!”
“Exactly, so it isn’t running”
“Eh!! ….er…..OK, when’s your last cruise go?”
“How long does it take to get there?”
“Two and a half hours”
Maybe I ain’t cruisin’ today.
But there’s another company, offering a 4.30 cruise, so I call them:
“Do you have space on the 4.30 cruise?”
“Yes, certainly. But we need six people to go out”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with you, we only have three people booked, and we need six before we’ll go out.”
“It’s a nice day, I’m sure we’ll get more and go out though, don’t worry”
But I do worry. It’s what I’m best at. They’re at the end of a very long slow road, where there’s nothing else to do. How many people are going to drive all the way down there without booking?
It’s such a beautiful day though, I’ve got to take the chance. So I duck into the campsite because I’ll be late back, and the girl on the desk – some oddly spelled name like Danniyell – recommends another tour group, who do a 3.45 sailing.
“Thanks, but I wanted the smaller boat. Besides I don’t think I’ll make that one”

If I’m going to drive another 2.5 hours, then jump on a boat for 2, then drive 2.5 back, on top of the 2 I did this morning, I’m gonna need lunch. Thankfully Te Anau has a Subway. So I munch down a footlong and hit the road soon after 1pm.
But there’s nobody on it!
And there’s not much to see for the first 60km. I mean it’s fabulously beautiful, but only in the way most of the South Island has been. So I push on. In a car I’d be tempted to plough on, but in a campervan it’s a bit more tricky. At least I don’t feel like I’m missing stuff by not stopping…
At about the 30km part the road emerges from the trees into a valley. And what a valley. The floor is flat and wide, but there’s mountains soaring into the sky. As Tennyson might have put it:
Mountains to the right of me.
Mountains to the left of me.
Mountains in front of me.

Hang on… in front of me? How’s that going to work? No time now, keep pushing on.
I’m making good time. The 3.45 is easily do-able even with 20 mins check-in. But I’m heading towards the face of a cliff. Surely that’s going to slow me down?
On the upside, there’s a tunnel.
On the downside there’s traffic lights and a sign saying “Wait up to 15 minutes”.
To the right there’s a countdown clock. 5 minutes 15 seconds to go.
“Come on, come on”
If they need six people and there’s 3 of us, can’t we pay double?
I’d pay double not to have to come back again, not to have to pay for diesel, and we’d get a tour with just the 3 of us. How cool would that be? Surely the others will pay double? How much would I pay not to have to come again? Could I buy 4 tickets?
Great tunnel. No messing around with any bends, or a ceiling. Just a straight drop through a mountain, getting dripped on.
Out blinking into the sunlight.
Onwards and downwards.
Come on, come on!!
The road twists and turns, but luckily there’s still nobody on it. Of course that means there’s nobody to join our cruise.
How’re we doing?
3 o’clock.
Ten km to go.
Good, I’ll have time to bag up stuff for the trip. Have a quick pee. Ask about the 4.30, and if it’s not going, still catch the 3.45 - If there’s any places left.
Except there’s something funny about the destination on the sat nav.
No time to look now. The road’s still twisty, and beautiful, …look at that view…
No, watch the road!

I’m there!
Except I’m not. I’m in the car park, but there’s still a “ten minute walk” to the cruise terminal
Quick, quick, quick.
The drive was great, but I really don’t want to do it again tomorrow.

Into the cruise terminal. I spy the desk with “Next cruise 4.30pm” and gasp the question:
“Is the 4.30 going out?”
“We still don’t have 6 people, but we’ll get them, it will most likely go out, it’s a nice day.”
“How many do you have? Still 3? Or have you got more”
“Oh, the other 2 came earlier and decided to catch another cruise. It’s just you”
“I see” I yelled over my shoulder, running for the other desk.

“Have you any space on the 3.45?”
“Oh yes”
“It’s a big boat then?”
“Oh no, it’s a small 75 seater”
“Oh great, how many people are going?”

And there I was. I’d made it. And after a long frenetic dash there was nothing to do but wait.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

2dot3 - Going downhill fast

…and savage my helmet.

Now some of you may be shocked that I would deliberately dismember a piece of safety equipment, but think about it – carving a few millimetres of polystyrene to produce a shape custom-moulded to my head has got to be better than something which is going to focus any impact on a point previously weakened. Plus an impact is far more likely if I’m distracted by painful headgear. The only other alternative was to spend a large part of my holiday searching for a bike shop big enough to stock an extensive range of helmets, and I know from experience I’d still end up having to doctor one. So I carved up my rental helmet, which is probably a second illegal activity for the day, but I’ll just buy it off them.

In the morning continue Due South. I decide to detour via Palmerston North, a place John Cleese described thus:

If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick

But fortunately I know someone who went to University here and she can tell me what’s good to do:
So I only stick around long enough to discover they have the most incredibly nice Burger King, in the world, ever!
There’s nowhere left to go but Wellington, and since the aim is to get there on the way up on a weekend, it seems wrong to go there now. The thought of catching a ferry that day creeps into my head, and before you can say “stupid bloody idea” I’m in a headlong dash down to Wellington, concocting numerous justifications:
…if there’s a 3 o’clock ferry, I could get across to the South Island, get to a campsite and be sitting with my feet up a day early!
…the weather’s nice. If I wait a day it might be horrible!
But wait! This is silly, I have the technology, I can just pull over and check. So I pull over, turn my phone into a wifi hotspot and whip out my macbook. Modern day camping eh? Gotta love… What? No signal!? But it was there a minute ago!!
So I try on my phone, and learn there’s no 3 o’clock journey, and my phone tells me I can’t book on a ferry for 3 days!! What the hell?
I’ll just get to the local Top 10 campsite, use their wifi and stay the night.
But my phone can’t even get a signal to ring the campsite and book, so I bang the address into my GPS.
“Number 95 does not exist, use 103?”
Yes, whatever!!!!
But when I get there I see the problem. The road starts at 103! Several minutes of head scratching and three point turns later, not easy in a long wheelbased campervan, I discover that the other half of the road lies on the other side of the river, and requires a half-mile backtrack to get round!
Some days eh?
But the campsite’s really nice. It’s in “Lower Hutt”. The town is right across the bay from Wellington and has a bit of a beach. Not much to lie on, but good to run on, and only a couple of km from the campsite, so I get to use my bike again, and my nicely fitting custom helmet. And I get the boat booked for the morning.
I finally have a camping interaction. My camping neighbours Tony and Trish are from somewhere near Vancouver, towards Kamloops, so I probably drove past it last time. They’re in their 60s or so, and met because both their previous partners were suffering from the same kind of brain tumour. But that’s far too poignant, moving and downright real for this blog.
Terry’s son has shot some videos for Australian TV explaining scientific concepts to laymen, which is apparently very successful. (Google “Veritasium”)
By heck it’s a cold night. Britz provided me with a duvet, but it’s no match for the cold night here so I have to keep the van’s internal 240V heater blasting all night. In the morning there’s a line of vans with frost on their windscreens, except mine which is suspiciously clear!
I’m up early for my ferry, but I needn’t have worried as the ferry is an hour late. Well, the sun is shining out of a clear blue sky and I have a comfy van with a loo to use while I’m sitting on the dock of the bay, and this means I can finally read the guidebook I’ve carted halfway round the world!
In fact I get so caught up in planning that I’m actually annoyed when the ferry is finally ready! Boarding is fun though, the traffic is segregated, then carefully filtered onto the boat, to fit the right size and shape vehicles in every available nook and cranny on the deck. I haven’t seen such clinical procedure in loading a boat since I was hanging out with Noah and it started raining.

With my home tightly squeezed into a spot I went upstairs to get my full cooked breakfast:
“We’re not doing breakfast on this voyage, sir”
“But, you said you were?!”
“Yes, but now we are an hour late it’s too late for breakfast”

So I got a crappy Lasagne, but soon cheered up when I found “The Cove”. For 30 bucks extra you get access to an executive lounge that seats only 8 people. Oh, and you get 5 bucks worth of wifi, and 15 of vouchers for onboard spending, making it good value for a bit of seclusion in my book. However, I did wonder if I would have more fun remaining in the public bit and finding someone to talk to.

But even that was available in the Cove. The only other person there was a young lady who turned out to be named Janelle, and was driving a Ute from Auckland to Christchurch for her company’s use.
It’s a 3 hour 20 minute journey across the Cook strait, but the time flew by as we talked about New Zealand, Christchurch, Life after the Earthquakes, Metallica and all that, and I pretty much missed all the views. Ah well, I’m coming back this way.

And so, I found myself in Picton, the gateway to the South. It’s a very pretty seaside town, and I know exactly what to do next – acquire a sleeping bag.
Done. Now what?
“Er… oh look there’s a Scottish pub! You see loads of Irish pubs, but a Scottish one? I’ll get some grub at the “Flying Haggis” and figure out where to go.”
If the bangers and mash is anything to go by, I know why you never see a Scottish pub!
But at least I have a plan. Head for Nelson.

The road out of Picton is called the Queen Charlotte Drive, and what a road it is!! It clings to the cliff edges and climbs, swirls and dances back and forth above bays and coves for mile after mile. There’s plenty of gorgeous views out to sea, and down to the shore, or across to the harbor, but little time to look at them as the road heaves itself into the next sequence of hairpins.
Oh to have a nimble sports car to dance between the curves, scamper over the rises and falls, skip daintily from one crest to the next…
But my huge van brings its own entertainment. Working the gearbox to keep up momentum, following the racing line to reduce the swing on the corners.... or  as Waylon Jennings would put it: Straightening the curves. Flattening the hills.
For the next two hours my jaw didn’t leave the floor. What a drive! What an island!! The North island had been underwhelming but this was overwhelming. Every bend brought new scenery to gawp at. I should be taking pictures, but when?
What about now?
You could stop every 10 metres and capture a stunning image. But I’m in the zone. Paul Oakenfold’s Goa mix on the stereo and nobody on the road. Heaven.

Eventually I reach Nelson, and barrel on through to Richmond, where the Nelson Holiday camp is(?). I’m tired, but it’s right in town so I don’t want to waste the opportunity to walk to the pub, the receptionist points me at four. They’re all empty.

No, Thursday.

Up early and North towards Abel Tasman National Park, renowned for its golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, and its world-famous coast track. Except I’m going to the less famous Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Track. Yeah sure if I had someone to talk to I might spend all day hiking along a coastal track, but on my own? No chance!
But bombing round a forest? That’s more like it!
The car park is like a scene from a movie. One of those “beware of American yokels” flicks. It’s actually a clearing in the forest with line after line of empty caravans, and my campervan. I have the track to myself. I take a quick picture of the map: lots of squiggly lines with odd names, and I set-off up “Half pipe”.
Holy cow it’s steep!
Yes, any rise is a shock after 9 months in Amsterdam, but this is ridiculous. I stand up to get some strength into the pedals, and the back tyre spins up. I lean back to get some weight on it and the front wheel lifts off the ground!
“Aarrggh! So this is what all those gears are for!”
The hairpins are incredible, practically vertical. It’s a test of will to carry enough speed to get round, knowing that if I go wrong I’ll plunge off the cliff. By the time I reach the top of “Half pipe” I’m panting like a dog, and grinning like an idiot.
Next is “Sidewinder” a less mental version of “Half pipe” and I can make it round the hairpins. Then comes “swamp monster” and the track finally levels out for a bit, and I start to feel like I’m getting the hang of this.
There was no indication of distances on the map, so I’ve no idea how long the loop I’ve chosen will take. It’s another glorious day and the sun is peaking through the trees, trying to fry me. I emerge into a clearing by a gate and am thankful there’s a water fountain for idiots who don’t bring water with them (oops!) and plunge on into “Glade Runner” and along “Revelation”.
The tracks are graded for difficulty, and apart from “Half Pipe” I’ve ridden the easy tracks so far, but to complete the loop I need to continue on the intermediate stuff, and that means mounting “Ziggy” and ascending “Big Airs”.
Well, crikey what a climb. My lungs are bursting, my legs are burning, I’m wishing I’d brought food, when the unthinkable happens…

I run out of gears!

Fortunately I’m only yards from the summit and there’s nobody to see me quit and walk.
The ascent had come close to killing me, but the descent was definitely going to finish me off. The track becomes ridiculously narrow. There’s barely half a bike’s width between the track below and the cliff on my right, but if I lean left there’s a plummet that looks like a hundred foot drop through bushes and trees.
This is fantastic!
No intelligence-insulting safety briefings, no plodding along between grannies and kids on an “Adrenaline-fuelled fun ride”. This is where it’s at: surviving on your wits, living on your reactions… if I make a mistake there’s nobody to help. And if I fall into a ravine all alone, and have to hack off a limb to survive, I can write a book about it (slowly).
But I don’t. I eventually make it round in one piece, with two thoughts:
If I lived near here I’d be a Mountain Biker for life.
It wouldn’t be for very long.

Back to my van and “Wahoo!” I can have a nice hot shower here in the scary caravan field.

Southbound and down, loaded up and truckin’.
I stop at Murchison, home of New Zealand’s longest “swing bridge”. Think Indiana Jones, only with fewer scimitar-wielding natives.

I wind up at Carter’s Beach, near Westport, and it’s a great campsite, right by the beach. My neighbours are from Newcastle. Not the “Why aye man” one, the one near Sydney. They started in Christchurch and are doing the loop anti-clockwise, same as me.
“Most people go the other way round” says Jenni.
“Really, how do you know?” I ask.
“Because we see more people going the other way”
“Er, right”

They point me at the local pub for some grub, I get a friendly hello, some ok food and a welcome beer.
But the best thing about staying here is the beach. I don’t know which was more incredible, the glorious sunset, the wondrous star filled night sky, or my dawn run along the sand, but I know it was an incredible first two days on the South Island. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Don’t Mess With My 2.2

OK, where was I?
Ah yes, stuck.

Well, they finally got the train moving and I was back at my hotel by 10.30pm for some desperately needed sleep… but not yet!!
I was still hoping to go out with my friend Catherine who I met in Amsterdam. As the clock ticked toward midnight my resolve ebbed away. But having so little time to see someone who lives on the other side of the globe spurred me on. Well, that and 2 cups of coffee and a late night steak and cheese subway!!
I was glad I hung in there when Cat showed up around midnight. She’d also picked up two Kelseys on the way …or maybe two Kelsies? ...actually, I think it was one of each. Anyhoo, we went to the Casino complex in the base of Auckland’s Sky Tower. Not to gamble, oh no, we’re not morally corrupt, we went to laugh at drunken people dancing.
As a frequent performer of inebriated jigs this seemed harsh to me, until I witnessed it for myself. I don’t know if it was that club, that night, or a genuine Auckland thing, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the International Crazy-Legs Rodeo was in town!
I’m looking forward to being back!

The great thing about staying up late was that I got a good 8 hours exhausted sleep and woke up on Sunday morning feeling like I might have actually beaten the jetlag!
I went for a run around the world famous Albert Park, which was nice, though small, and I couldn’t quite remember what it’s famous for.
Then back in my hotel room I felt the earth, move, under my feet!
Was that…?
Best text a local: “Here Cat, was that an earthquake?”
“Wahoo, that was my first!!”
It was a noticeable, but not particularly exciting wobble, about a 4.0 I decided, based on my vast experience.
The next day’s paper was full of Auckland people getting excited about the ‘quake, (a 4.0 would you believe?) and I wonder what the people of Christchurch thought!
Then I met up with Elena – Cat’s long time travel buddy, and it’s weird to see them individually – who asks what my plan is.
“I dunno really, all I know is I’m heading South”
“Oh, OK. But wouldn’t you be better heading North and enjoying the end of the Summer on the beaches?”
Oh, bollocks.
Elena has to dash off and I return to my mountain of guides to think of a plan, whilst keeping half an eye on the TV coverage of the Melbourne Grand Prix from Albert Park (d’oh!). But it’s St Paddy’s day and there’s a ticking in my ear.
“Screw it. Let’s go South.”
With all that planning done I’m ready for a drink. Donny Doolan’s was a great place to have one. They had two live bands, (no, not at the same time!) and a raucous crowd of drunken revelers dressed in the usual green “Irish” nonsense.
I’ve met plenty of Kiwi nutters in Shepherd’s Bush, and always assumed they were acting up because they were abroad. Based on Sunday, I guess not!
Some random girl swooped the drink out of my hand and proceeded to help herself. It soon became clear she didn’t need it. Several blokes gave me a cheery slap on the back or a too-familiar hug, everybody seemed in a great mood. Finally I met a relatively sane girl, who turned out to be from London.
“I have to be at work at 8 in the morning to teach kids!”
“Oh, that’s tough, ….want another drink?” (I did say “relatively”)
Oh yeah, and I saw a Leprechaun, naturally.

Monday. Time to hit the road. I got another lift from my former colleague, now chauffeur, Ben and arrived at the Airport Campervan rental place fresh as a daisy. Albeit a daisy with a hangover, but I don’t know how anybody makes it through the rigmarole if they’ve just got off a plane!
First up, I have to watch a 15 minute video about my van. This obviously saves staff time, but is a bit confusing if this is your first time camping and you don’t know your grey water from your waste water from your gas canister.
Then I get to “self check-in”, except the amounts were wrong and there was no way to correct them so I had to wait for a harassed looking member of staff. She looked at my list of options, corrected the price, then tried to send me on my way.
“But what about my GPS”
“Did you pay for one?”
“Yes, it was in that list of options you just checked”
“Oh, yes, sorry, I’ll get it for you”
“Thanks, but what about my Road Atlas”
“Did you pay for one?”
“Yes, it was in that list of options you just checked”
“Oh, yes, sorry, I’ll get it for you”
“But what about my table and chairs?”
“Did you pay for one?”
“Yes, it was in that list of options you just checked”
“Oh, yes, sorry, I’ll get it for you”
“But what about my bike and bike rack”
“Did you pay for one?”
“Yes, it was in that list of options you just checked”
“Oh, yes, sorry, I’ll… no, you have to drive to the bike place to get it”

So I go outside, check over the van, get my stuff in it, hand another lady the random screwdriver which has been left on the floor, and I’m finally on my way!!

Except I’m not. First stop is the supermarket next door. I was never very good at shopping for food, then I spent 9 months eating out. And foreign supermarkets take forever, since you have to actually read the packages to know what they are, your brain doesn’t just know all the colour combinations. I also kept throwing in random items I might need in my van, and somehow ended up with 350 dollars worth. That doesn’t happen at the Albert Heijn!!

At least I’m finally on my way! Oh no, best get a Kiwi sim from the shop next door.

Right. Finally… Oh, bother, still got to get the bike.

I find the bike place and he’s got a nice looking mountain bike ready for me. Not sure how I’m going to cope with all them gears and brakes, but good to have a bike again and I’m looking forward to the freedom…
“And we’ll need to get you a helmet”
“Er, OK, just fetch the largest one you have”
You see, in order to contain my inordinately large brain I have, of course, an inordinately large head. Which is bad enough, however it is also streamlined, which means helmets are never long enough. But if that wasn’t bad enough, I also have a lump on the front of my head from a bike accident as a kid. Now you’d think a lifetime disfiguring scar might make me a fan of helmets, but actually it taught me to stay on a bike, and also how to come off one.
So, no, I’m not a fan of helmets, because it means putting my head in a vice. Go ahead, try it, it’s not like wearing a tight belt, it pretty much stops you enjoying anything.
Well, bike dude brings me several helmets, and none fit. I’m fed up, and want to get on the road, so when he claims that one “looks OK” I pretend not to feel like I’m having dinner with Mr Lecter and take it. I’ll figure something out.
Finally, finally on the road…
But where to? Well, I have to come back to Auckland, and I really want to take my time down South, so I might as well just get down there. Somebody mentioned Waitomo Caves, no idea what’s there, but it’s about the right distance.
So off I crash, bash and sway, and then stop to nail everything down again. I went for a campervan with a loo, figuring if I’m going to have a van, I might as well have all the amenities, but it’s a bit big!!
The views are rolling hills rather than anything spectacular, the traffic’s light, but there’s no motorway, barely any dual carriageways, and 100kph limit is your lot, so it takes a while to get anywhere!
I make it to Waitomo and the caves, and the Top 10 Holiday Park, one of 52 in New Zealand! How does that work?
Nice place though, and I get a freshly BBQ’d steak and some local beers at the store across the road.
Tuesday dawns over Waitomo. Pretty good night’s sleep, despite being woken by the rain showers rattling my tin roof.
Now the woman at reception gave me some pamphlets, including “Campervan hire - Driver goes free” to the Glowworm caves. But there’s no way they’ll let me in for free without any paying passengers. Oh yes they do!

It’s a moderately interesting poke about in caves for half an hour, including a large one called the Cathedral Cave with fabulous acoustics in which Dame Kiri te Kanawa has performed a concert. We then sail to daylight in a boat. About 20 of us sit in the darkness and silence, as the guide quietly pulls our boat through the final cave, and we gaze at the hundreds of “Glow worms” on the ceiling of the cave, resembling stars in the night sky.

We then emerge into daylight and it’s time to head south. I’m saving the big touristy stuff for the return journey north, so I head out to the West coast. It’s pretty uneventful, the weather’s fairly grim, and there’s only a couple of snatches of shoreline to lift my spirits before I finally wend my weary way into Wanganui. Fortunately the campsite’s right on the riverbank which makes for a nice view, and there’s some good running tracks on the riverbank a few kilometres down towards town – the perfect opportunity to try my bike out.
So I hop on my bike, spurning my crappy lid for the short ride down a vastly wide suburban street and have a great run. It’s been a good end to a reasonable day, when I get busted by the law:

“HELMET, MATE!!” yells the copper as he stops his car.
“SCREW YOU, FASCIST SCUMBAG!” yells the voice in my head. But oddly it comes out more like “yeah, ok”
So I get off and walk for a bit and don’t get a ticket, but back at the campsite I’ve had enough. I reach for a sharp knife…