Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2.9 The End of The Road?

Papamoa Beach is very pleasant, and I’d love to stick around, but I’ve only got a week left, and there’s so much of this wonderful country to see. Plus, I’ve got a night out with two gorgeous young Kiwis tomorrow in Auckland.
The question is whether I have time to drive round the Coromandel peninsula on the way. It’s supposed to be very scenic, but it’s going to mean two days with quite a lot of driving and not much chance to enjoy the beaches. Maybe I could skip it and just hang out at the beach?
But Friday morning is somewhat overcast, not ideal beach weather so I head up the coast. The road travels inland, meaning I can’t just enjoy the shore as I go, I have to guess which spots to visit. I stop for lunch at Waihi Beach, which is also very pretty. Then drive north to Hot Water Beach.

The descriptive name is due to the natural heating of the water from under the sand. If you dig a deep enough hole, and get sea water in it, you can sit in your own natural hot-tub on the beach. However! You can only do this on a very small stretch of quite a large beach. So I arrive to find a half-mile stretch of completely deserted beach, except for a twenty yard stretch were fifty people are gathered in and around holes. I didn’t fancy all that digging lark, so I enjoyed a run down the empty beach, then when a couple got bored and abandoned their hole I had a quick go. It’s a larf I suppose, but no Kerosene Creek.

I rang up and booked a spot at the Top 10 in Coromandel Town, hoping beyond hope that there’d be some life on a Friday night, though it’s unlikely in a town of 1700 people. But the drive across is something else.

The morning’s clouds have dissipated throughout the day and as we reach Golden Hour the sun is free to shine. (I don’t know if everybody knows about Golden Hour, it’s the term film-makers use to describe the last hour before sunset when the light is particularly beautiful). Well, I’m heading East across the Coromandel, towards the setting sun, I have my “Awesome Lenses” on, and the scenery is just beautiful. Not spectacular like much of the South Island. Beautiful.
The road twists and winds endlessly up a climb. I’ve about 20km to go and I’m tired of the turns, they’re hard work in a campervan, but I’m not bothered. I’ve got Bob Seger on the stereo, and he’s singing about “The Fire Inside” as well as when he felt “Like a Rock”:
“I stood arrow straight, unencumbered by the weight, of all the hustlers and their schemes.
I stood proud, I stood tall…”

It’s an incredible Road Trip moment. The drive, the music, the light, the scenery. For at this point I reach the top, the viewpoint, and the eye-melting vista. Down to the glittering Coromandel town, out across the shining sea, and up into the golden sky.

“…high above it all. I still believed in my dreams.”

And if the guitar solo doesn’t make you shed a tear, well, you’re probably not standing on top of a mountain, on your own, twelve thousand miles from your friends and family, and watching the sunset into a beautiful bay.

Down to earth, with the descent down the other side into Coromandel town. Indeed it is very small, but I’m pleased to find a lively-looking pub at the top by the campsite. No bloomin’ barstools though! I walk down the main street and find another bar which has stools, but nobody in it, and then a fairly large pub, but with not many people and no barstools.

Time to play Friday-night-Roulette.

Go for the barstools, says my inner voice. So I enter the “saloon bar” which has maybe 5 people in it and sit at the bar. There’s one girl sitting on the end of the bar, but she looks barely 18, so I sit close enough to be within conversation distance but far enough to not look like I’m hitting on her.
Luckily, the barman is quite chatty. Eric has a Maori dad and is barely 18 himself. He’s leaving in two weeks, to go and work in the big city. I get Fish and Chips. A couple more guys and a girl enter the bar and sit on the end with the first girl. But the body language isn’t helping me say hello, it’s all elbows and backs. I’m out of food and out of beer, but decide to hang in there for another pint and watch the rugby.
“Can you turn the rugby off please?” the second girl asks Eric.
I pull a startled face.
“Oh, were you watching that?” she asks me in a Scouse accent.
“Yeah, but I don’t need the sound. Are you a Scouser?” I reply, demonstrating my knowledge of accents and keen ear.
“Nah, I’m from Middlesbrough”
“!” and “?”
“But I lived in Liverpooool”
A-ha! I know everything about Liverpool, having lived somewhere near there, once, when I was about five, so I’m able to engage her in conversation. Emily is late twenties and works out here. She wants to get a job down in Queenstown. I ask what’s good to do in Coromandel on a Friday night.
“Well, we’re heading down to the Bottom Pub”
“Excuse me?”
“Oh, there’s the Top Pub and the Bottom Pub. They’ll have Live music, you should come with us”
And so begins another night of intellectual debate about politics, history, relig…
Something called a “barmaid”. Which holds several pints and has a tap and I last saw in Hooters near San Diego.
Some wannabe bodybuilder friends show up, eager to display their manliness by downing pints. Thankfully I’m too mature for that kind of..
We drag in the rest of the bar, which turns out to be a couple from Adelaide. I play some guy at pool, and finally we head for…
…we head for the Bottom pub.
The band are really rather good, though after a few Jagers it’d be a surprise if they weren’t. They play covers from all sorts of bands. The usual stuff, plus some cool choices, like my favourite Pink Floyd song, and don’t flinch when Emily yells at them to “Play Kimbra!!”
We have a good dance and a great night and all too soon it’s closing time, but outside the others are piling into a car with barely enough room for the locals so I don’t get an invite, or the chance to wish Emily goodnight.
Ah well, just another brick in the wall.

Sunday was predictably slow to start, and oh, wait, it’s Saturday. I’ve got a night out in Auckland to get to.
But the roads. Uurgh, the roads. Give me a Lotus Elise and this would be fantastic. But a long wheelbase transit with cupboard-loads of pots and pans rattling around?
The road snakes along the shore, seemingly forever, before finally reaching the mainland from the peninsula, and open land. I deviate through a place called Miranda, for reasons which should become clear later, hoping to collect a souvenir, but it’s less than a hamlet, without even a town sign to photograph.
I battle on towards Auckland. After a good night out it’s a tiring drive, but eventually I reach the motorway and head into the City.

It’s been four weeks! Four weeks of driving almost constantly. Mountain roads. Small towns. Lake sides. Deserted highways. For four weeks a traffic jam has meant coming across two cars together. Now I find myself surrounded by five lanes of nose-to-tail cars, with five lanes heading the other way!
And buildings: Huge, vast, tall buildings, everywhere!

Last time I arrived in Auckland after London and Tokyo. It felt small and quiet. This time it’s big and frightening. Luckily Sat Nav and the Motorway take me straight through the city and dump me on the North Shore.
With thanks to Catherine I’ve found an incredible campsite, right on the ocean but yards from the North Shore bars. I run on the beach and look forward to a crazy night out with a couple of youngsters and who-knows what crazy friends. Friday night in a small town was good, Saturday night in Auckland is going to be…
“It’s not a pub”
“It’s a Japanese food place”
“No, it’s not a pub”
Cat’s been doing something called “Work” all day and is tired. Elena’s also tired. What’s wrong with kids these days?
So we have a nice meal, and go for a drive to a Kiwi-yo for some nice Ice Cream. I’m introduced to a plethora of sweet and crunchy toppings, but none of them are beer, and dropped back by my campsite in a bit of a daze.
It’s fantastic to see the girls again, but disappointing that we’re not sharing a crazy night out.
There’s still time for me to spin that roulette wheel on my own, and I think I’m in luck when the Irish bar are showing the Warriors (Rugby) league game. But nobody’s watching it and there’s nobody to talk to.

My stomach’s a bit off since my lunchtime meatball subway, so my sensible side is glad it didn’t turn into a big night. In fact I’m still feeling rough in the morning. So I decide to stay put.

But the campsite’s a bit noisy and unpleasant for staying put, and there’s a Top 10 just outside of town. Maybe just a few miles.
Off I pootle, and am reminded of one upside of motorways when I get a half-decent brekkie at the service station.
I reach Orewa Top 10, but it doesn’t look great. My breakfast is helping. Maybe just a few more miles?
Magical Mangawhai is next. That’s what the road signs say, but they’re wrong. So I head on to the next Top 10 at Whangarei. It’s not a great place, but the campsite’s nice and by some woods, so hopefully I can get a decent run. The guy in the next van is sitting with his headphones on and his laptop. He turns out to be from Estonia.
“Are you travelling alone?” I ask.
“No!” he seems startled. “My girlfriend was with me, then she cheated on me with a guy, now I wait for her to decide if she wants to be with me”
“Oh. How long have you been in New Zealand?”
“A Month”
“Wow” I say, “Have you been to the South Island?”
“No. Just round here”
“Well, I’m not going to go by myself am I?”
“Why not? I just did. Had a great time!”
“I must learn to do that” he says, and returns to moping.
I go for a run, and it’s a great run. The woods lead to the Parahaki Scenic Reserve, and a path up to the Lookout. The sign says “40m”, presumably 40 minutes, but is that return or one way?
Only one way to find out!

Well, you know the story by now. Lots of struggling, sweating, climbing, running, battling, and generally complaining about how hard it is but how good it feels at the end.
I did manage to overtake the local fire brigade who were on a training jaunt up the hill. But then those boys were wearing their heavy jackets, trousers and boots!

I fancy a walk into town to watch the Chinese Grand Prix, and I invite the Estonian.
“No. My girlfriend might come back”
It’s a bit of a hike to town, but there’s a Legends Sports Bar so I’m looking forward to massive HD screens, flowing beers, chicken wings and attractive young waitresses.
Closed on Sundays.
I utter a word, which is technically a body part close to a leg end, and look for somewhere else. There only appears to be one pub open, in a town of fifty thousand people!
I walk in the door and there’s half a dozen locals playing a pool tournament with some Jonny Cash blasting from the speakers. On the screens, grown men are being pulled round a dirt track in little buggies behind horses.
The woman behind the bar looks like an Eastenders Bar owner.
“Er, can I watch the Grand Prix?”
“The what?”
“The Formula One? ….motor racing?….from China?”
“What’s it on?”
“Sky Sports 2” (Rule 1 of watching sports abroad - Do your research!)
Suddenly, the old dear becomes very helpful. Puts the telly on, and offers to put me out back where I can have the sound.
“Ooh, I think I can get the sound on in here. Yep, there”
So she cranks the volume to ear-bleeding levels. The guys playing pool now can’t here Jonny, and are being deafened by some Scotsman banging on about tyre-degradation and heat-cycles.
Bar lady: “This fellow here wanted it”
Oh great, now I’m hated by the locals, and I don’t suppose they realize it’s a two hour race. At least I’ll get some food…
“Nope, no food.”
Uh-oh. This could be a problem.
“But I can do you a toastie for two bucks”
So instead of a shiney sports bar I find myself watching the race at my newest Nan’s. The picture’s fuzzy, in the wrong aspect ratio, chopped off, and the sounds distorting. Meanwhile I’m expecting to get a pool cue wrapped round the back of my head any second. Still, the toastie’s nice.

I survive to rise another day, and as I leave the campsite the Estonian is still sitting alone.
Who knows, maybe she’ll come back to him, they’ll enjoy the rest of their holiday and rekindle their relationship into a wonderful life together. But I can’t help thinking: “So long Sucker!” as I leave the campsite in search of more adventures.

But my spirit is soon dampened. It’s chucking it down. Proper chucking it down. Once again I’m tempted to stay put. But do what? Sit in my van waiting for Estonian romance?
If I head North East I’ll pass the fabulous Bay of Islands. But visibility is so bad it will be the Bay of Murky Grey today. So I head North West. From what I can tell there’s not much there, even on a good day, until you reach Ninety Mile Beach. So I plod on, making myself a new paylist with Luke Bryan singing “Rain is a Good Thing”
Eventually I get to Ninety Mile Beach, but with visibility more like ninety yards it could be any old beach.
There’s a campsite, but it’s being battered by the wind and rain. That’s going to be a problem anywhere round here. But the Top 10 promises to be in a sheltered cove, so I head there. It’s on a smaller peninsular, called Kari Kari, which turns around on itself offering beaches facing North, West, South and East within a few miles. But today they’re grey, wet, windy, and miserable. The campsite’s OK. So I huddle up with some baked beans whilst my van gets blown around, and I’m very glad of the internet, facebook and online friends.

The thought of quitting enters my head. I can’t be bothered with this for 4 more days. Maybe I can get an earlier flight and have time to recover in Vancouver before the weekend. I’ll decide in the morning.

But in the morning it’s a little brighter, and it’s almost stopped raining. OK, let’s finish the job.

The final 100km of State Highway 1 runs parallel to Ninety Mile Beach and ends at Cape Reinga, where there’s a lighthouse and a signpost, and hopefully a burger bar. But the land’s only a few miles wide the whole way. So I’ll have to drive back down again. Worse, there’s only a few turn-offs to the beach. I take one, drive 6km to find that, yes, there’s still beach.
Visibility has plummeted again, and the rain is back, so there’s nothing in the slightest bit remarkable about the beach.
There’s nothing remarkable about the road either, no real twists or turns, climbs or drops, just a long boring plod northwards. My only moment of excitement is coming across a herd of sheep in the road, and watching them be herded around my van.
I stick Creedence Clearwater in the CD player. “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” and count down the kilometres.
Hey, there’s some prat hitch-hiking! I wonder how he got this far and no further. The poor sod is getting soaked. And looks like a woman. A cute woman at that. Well, until she scowls at me for failing to
Now before you go thinking (to quote the bumper sticker) “I only brake for Hot Chicks”. A small woman is less intimidating than a lone guy, and I’d feel worse about leaving her standing alone at the side of the road. Besides, it’s my stuff, my neck, my risk. So yeah, I only brake for hot chicks!
There’s no point asking where she’s heading, as there’s only one place left on the road.
She asks: “Are you heading for Cape Reinga?”
“Er, yeah, there’s nowhere else down this road!” I answer, smooth as ever.
She rather considerately puts a towel on the passenger seat before hopping in, and she’s wielding a huge, expensive camera, so probably not a thief. (Unless she’s nicked the camera)
I introduce myself.
“Brooke!” she answers, in a cheery Canadian accent.
“Where ya from Brooke?”
Brooke’s around thirty, witty, smiley, and a masseuse.
The miles fly by. It’s great to have a travel companion for a while. People ask me:
“Do you like to travel by yourself?”
“Hell yeah!”
But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy company. I’ve never said, “No, it’s OK, don’t come, I’ll go on my own”.
It’s different though. With someone to focus on inside the van, what’s happening outside the van is less intense. Whereas on my own I live every curve, every climb, every car, every view, with company it’s just a road and scenery. I’d never be bored with an interesting companion, but would I be brought to tears by a hillclimb if I was nattering all the way up?
We reach the end of the road, or at least the sat nav says so. The fog has descended and enveloped us, and we can barely make out the car park ahead. No signpost, no lighthouse.
I offer Brooke a lift back and she accepts gladly. It also saves her lugging her bag around while we search for the lighthouse.
We park up, get out and find a path.
I spot a bloke heading towards us out of the mist and ask:
“How far’s the lighthouse?”
“Eeee, it’s aboooouuuuut teeeen miiiiinuuutes from heeere” comes a familiar-sounding reply.
“Where’re you from?” I ask.
“The North of England” he replies, redundantly.
“I got that, but Lancashire?”
“No. Morecambe, well, Heysham”
Within a five mile radius for accent spotting! Back in the game!
Brooke and I head on through the murk, several people pass us in the other direction, but nobody’s going our way. Finally a lighthouse looms out of the mist in front of us.

We’re here.

I’ve made it to the end of the road. And I’m here at a lighthouse, surrounded by fog, with only the sounds of the waves, and my new friend for company. I’d have loved to come here on a clear day and admire the views. But in it’s own way, this is pretty special.

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