Meanwhile, in the land of chilly bins...
I hope you enjoy love stories because this is the very true account of a green Aussie girl learning to love a new country, an old van and her unshowered body. Think Gone With The Wind meets Showgirls set amidst the cool icy peaks and glassy lakes of New Zealand’s South Island.
First stop: Stop right there
I clambered down the ladder, weary-eyed. My matronly hips wreaked havoc on the bunk beds of the airport hostel we had melted into five hours earlier.
My coven (Ellen and Emily) and I gathered our mess of belongings and walked to our car rental company in Christchurch. With the deposit on the desk, a twinkle in our eyes and what I think was Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country” playing secretly in my mind, our adventure was mere moments away.
“Yea, um, so, we don’t actually have your van today,” said the intensely eyebrowed desk honcho.
Excuses were made and dreams were dashed, the van wouldn’t be ours until the late afternoon. And so we implored her, insisting that losing an entire day of our trip was out of the question. Did bookings made five months in advance mean nothing in these times? Next up was the raven-haired lady. She tried to buy our silence with a Nissan sedan and the suggestion that we check out the nearby mall. She mentioned the mall three or four times before my neuroses descended like a rabid fruit bat.
“We. Don’t. Want. To. Go. SHOPPING!” Eyes burned into me. “Uh, yea. Ahem. We just didn’t come all this way to go to a mall. That’s all.”
After a compelling yet unrewarding performance, we were handed the keys to the Nissan. The keys burned into my hand as if it were a crucifix made of silver. We made off into the hills.
On the way, the street signs revealed that Christchurch was officially shortened to ChCh, which sure was fun to say. We explored the Cashmere Hills, Rapaki Track and Governors Bay. It was our first peek at the natural beauty of New Zealand. We spotted sheep, rolling green hills, elderly cyclists and a massive lake. We could’ve gone home, we had seen it all. Or so we thought…
We returned to the rental depot and were pleased to meet our new friend the Toyota Hiace. My heart told me it was a girl.
My mind set to work. I imagined my ugly, Birkenstock-clad feet resting on the dash as the sun set over our campsite. I pictured two weeks of unending summer days, similar to ones you’d see in a Corona ad. I also pictured fierce displays of sisterhood, like in the Libra tampon ads. This almost dilapidated van, that almost was not to be ours would be my place of rest, my vessel, my one constant for as long as its matured chassis would endure. Or you know, until the end of our two-week trip.
After claiming the driver’s seat and setting off, I knew with certainty that Vancy was a beast.
Beast she was, responsive she was not. Her brakes required a teenaged foreplay session of heavy petting just to get juiced. You can bet your bottom dollar the accelerator wasn’t any different.
I had already bragged to my friends about my ability to drive long stretches without getting tired. I had cheerily given the go-ahead to “Nap the crap out of this trip ladies! I’ve got you.” I may have even thrown in a wink. So I wasn’t about to carry on with the rental company’s flavour of the day “over-promise, under-deliver”. To the highway I turned, up the coast we then flew. Well, for about 60 kilometres until we needed to cut inland for the earthquake detour.
Entering the land of lochs
We bore North. The New Zealand landscape seemed to stretch ahead forever.
Life in the captain’s chair was bliss. As Stevie Nicks whirred through the van’s tragically bassed speakers, some of my real world troubles started to feel far away. Motoring down New Zealand’s scenic highways also gave me my first point of comparison to the motherland.
While Australian road signs stress that drivers stay alert, revived and sober, Kiwi signs emphasised motorcyclist safety. Also, one recurring sign read: “Enjoying our sights? Stop first.” It was all so whimsically badass. This was a country hell-bent on protecting their biker baddies, it was a nation who knew their land was so beautiful it caused accidents.
We blitzed through the snow-capped mountains and I soon became aware of changes in my dead heart. As the odometer crept up, so did my love of Vancy. The old girl dutifully carried us through the wineries of Waipara to the ski town of Hanmer Springs, eventually settling us into a mountainous campsite for the evening. It was there that we discovered the rental company’s second folly. They had stocked the camper van with one single blanket. The three of us would come to know it well over the next two weeks.
In the early hours of Day Two, we reached Lake Rotoiti. Of all the region’s lochs, we had chosen the most unpronounceable one. Rot-o-witty, ro-toy-tee, it’s still a mystery waiting to be solved. Post a comment, why don’t you, and put an end to this living nightmare.
As Vancy bounced into the carpark like an unvaccinated ferret, I knew we had at least ventured to the most scenic loch. Snow covered hills framed the shore opposite us and ducks pottered about like they had a town to run. Swans mingled with eels around the scenic jetty which Instagram had warned us was a popular nudie jump spot.
Cabernet stallion cum
We made for the East Coast.
A unique feature of these small Kiwi towns were the community book exchanges in painted phone boxes and fridges. I desperately wanted to contribute to these communal stockpiles of words – a sharing economy! altruism! – but all I had was Touching The Void. I had barely touched the void of that one and wasn’t exactly going to swap it for one of the millions of inexplicably German books in the fridge.
Next up was Hokitika Gorge. I began to deploy every bus driver turn and Fury Road tactic in my artillery to get us down the dirt roads before sunset.
Hokitika was a town which had me all kinds of excited. One reputable website had recommended the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival as an event where “you can gulp down a shot glass of horse semen”. I was tantalised to say the least. I was still a vegetarian at this stage – not an aspiring vegan – so I could enjoy as many animal by-products as I wanted. My tastebuds were ready. Except the festival was in March and I would sooner eat a horse’s flesh than its jizz.
Unlike horse semen, Hokitika Gorge turned out to be a turquoise-coloured vision.
Where the sea meets the snow
Hugging the coastline and weaving through the Southern Alps, Vancy rolled us into the idyllic alpine town of Franz Josef.
Franz Josef’s natural surrounds were incredible, plus their quaint bars were lively and their WiFi was fast. One should not underestimate the luxury of being able to keep your ‘gram popping and also stalk your ex’s social media while on the road.
We spent that night repeatedly failing to find a campsite. It didn’t matter too much, though. In the morning we would have our helicopter ride to the glacier, and that was all I needed.
Fast-forward to the following AM and the events rolled out in a similar fashion to Day One’s. Matronly hips, shuffle shuffle, go go, sorry not today, you can go home now, byeeeee. Our heli and hike to Franz Josef Glacier was cancelled due to poor weather. I was distraught, and so was Vancy. She had hoped for a kid-free morning.
We ended up being very adult about it all, and we headed to SnakeBite Brewery which happened to have WiFi on tap. And booze. I lifted my spirits with spirits, knocking back a few before breakfast bourbons as I wondered whether the pretty bar girl would go gay for me.
By noon we were out of there and off to Lake Matheson. Though it had a lush forest walk and a pronounceable name, the lake was no Rotoiti. It did, however, have a clear viewpoint of the glacier we never got to set foot on.
Even if Franz had failed us, my troupe and I were not stopping there. Emily and Ellen were persistent devils, and I loved them for it. We tore down the highway to the neighbouring town of Fox Glacier. We were embarking on a dangerous game of chicken. Which town’s helicopter companies would brave the weather for us?
Three shopfronts later we had a winner. It was 5pm and the weather was still sketchy, but Mountain Helicopters were taking us up. Before I could scream “Get to the choppa!” we were driven to the helipad – sounds flashy but it was a barn – and were soon spotting the Fox River and glacier from above.
After touching down, we began driving the 200 kilometre stretch to Makarora. Vancy soared along the coast as we marveled at the Southern Alps surrounding us. We were headed for what would be the jewel in the crown of our road trip.
The Siberia Experience
After spending the night at Cameron’s Flat, a roadside gem next to the famed Blue Pools, we journeyed to Makarora to begin our wilderness adventure.
We had booked a “Siberia Experience” with Southern Alps Air, but we extended our trip by one day to cover more ground on foot. At the base we were introduced to our pilot and plane and we set off for the remote Siberia Valley. We flew over the Southern Alps, gliding up the Wilkin River until we descended onto the grass strip. Looking around, I noticed the valley was a diverse set of environments unlike any I’d ever seen. Glacial peaks melted into surging waterfalls which flowed through to ocean-bound rivulets. There was nothing quite like exploring New Zealand at its most beautifully remote.
We spent the entire day hiking to Lake Crucible. Much to my dismay, it was frozen over. So I swam in the freezing but not frozen streams and waterfalls nearby.
That night we stayed in one of New Zealand’s most isolated mountain huts. Picture the lodge in The Shining without the size, opulence and murder.
We spent the next day trekking to a river on the other side of the mountains where a jet boat picked us up. We hooned all the way back to town. While I enjoyed the epic nature of the flight and the highly rewarding hike, ripping a mean 360 spin in the jetboat could not be beat.
Back to Vancy and back on the road! We filled our days by taking side roads like they were side quests. We also spent a little too much time inspecting what the sandflies had done to our unshowered and – I think by this point we’ve earned it – uncivilised bodies.
Our next stop was Wanaka via the blue pools of the Makarora River. The lakeside town of Wanaka looked as if it were plucked from a Wes Anderson dream journal. It was a borough of vibrancy propped against the alpine backdrop of Mount Alta. Our personal hygiene, however, was far from Wes worthy. After our few days in the wilderness, I felt more like a Lars Von Trier nightmare.
I peeled off my layers of mountain wear, shaved my legs, combed my brows and pulled on my hottest non-hiking, non-pajama attire. That night we hit the town. Well, we walked down the two flights of stairs to our hostel’s bar (yes, Vancy was on sabbatical!) and played ‘Boozy Bingo’. We were in bed by 11pm.
We hit the Roy’s Peak trail early the next morning. As the mountain loomed over us, we thanked our lucky stars – and I thanked Zorp – for how lackluster the previous night was. We were well rested for the horrors ahead.
The 1500 metre climb to the top was an absolute whore. Calf muscles burned. The lambs grazing around us spurred us on with their bleats. Our toils were eventually rewarded with a sweeping panorama of Lake Wanaka and the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. 77,000 mid-air “I made it!” photos later and we were back down. We hoped Queenstown was ready for this jelly.
Here’s Part Two.