The great New Zealand road trip (part II): More tales of a campervan named Vancy

New ZealandTales

The ride of your life continues.

In Part One I regaled you with a slice of the story. You came to know my hopes, my dreams and a girl named Vancy. In return, I earned your trust as a dutiful storyteller. Where was I? Queenstown.

First world refugeesLake Hayes in Queenstown New Zealand

We rest our bones at the postcard-perfect Lake Hayes, a camper’s delight nestled between quaint wineries and the Otago ranges. 

With the zeal of a 65-year-old RV owner and the youthful strength of an 18-year-old building a hut on his gap year, I whipped out the picnic table and tossed a mad salad. I scared off my fellow van dwellers by playing my latest true crime podcast aloud, but I befriended the duck family trying to pinch my dinner.

Our campsite was around the corner from the film set worthy Arrowtown. While the town is known for its bakery pies, the 1860s Chinese settlement proved more interesting to us. North Island may have Hobbiton, but the flirty South has these mud brick huts.

The next day we snaked through the hills into Queenstown. It was a town I immediately liked, unlike Christchurch, which took some time, and Invercargill, which I instantly dismissed. Surrounded by The Remarkables ranges, Queenstown attracts adventurers and snow sports enthusiasts from around the world. I used to think snow-related ventures weren’t my style, but my heart was frosting over. It was in Queenstown that I could see myself in a cabin for the winter, finally writing my one woman, one dog play as I downed mulled wine with people from places like “Freiburg” and “Narnia”.

Most people we met in Queenstown had come as backpackers and had stayed on as bartenders. The millennial experience. After overhearing drunk Poms professing their love of the town and disinterest in returning to the motherland, I deemed them all unnecessary evacuees. A kind of first-world refugee. They were these youngbloods bolting from problems that weren’t all that dire; overbearing parents, unfinished university degrees, illegitimate children. Queenstown was their foxhole.

As Ellen, Emily and I were there for a good time, not a long time, we bungee jumped the Nevis, rode the Skyline luge, visited the bars on the cobblestone streets and got on the drink at the notorious Crate Day party, which we eventually learned had caused the town some shame. Here for a good time, not a long time.

Cruising Milford Sound in New ZealandDown the rabbit hole

We began our 300 kilometre journey to Milford Sound. Despite leaving at first light, we were cutting it close.

On the way to Milford Sound we had time for just one stop, the Mirror Lakes. By the time we reached the Sound and bolted to our boat we were already Captain’s Enemy #1. Talk about making an entrance.

He personally met us at the wharf and simply said “LATE” before rushing us onto the boat. Craig* reminded me of the waistcoat-wearing, pocketwatch-toting rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. The man had places to be. We ended up leaving port three minutes before the scheduled departure time. Craig made an announcement over the P.A. apologising profusely for the delay.

Fortunately, we were soon distracted by the vastness of the fjord, the sea lions idling in the sun, the surging waterfalls and the opening to the ocean which had me yearning to morph into a whale, like in my Animorphs manual.

Once we returned to land we turned Vancy south. A Kea, a New Zealand alpine parrot, rode on our roof for a little while.

*Name has not been changed.

Kathy with a K wants you to carb-load with a C

As we entered Invercargill, my heart sank. The thud reverberated through Vancy’s chassis. Lonely Planet had indeed warned that the town “inspired ambivalence” in the hearts of most visitors, but after the scenery of the South Island I just wasn’t ready.

Invercargill was awash with industrial whites and greys occasionally dotted with a brand logo. The roads were, at my best guess, 2,500 metres wide. At any moment I expected a plane to touch down right in front of Vancy. I doubt anyone knows what the town planner had in store for Invercargill when he designed those jumbo streets. Something grand, no doubt.

Cruising through the industrial wasteland city of Invercargill, I pictured the sun going down and the town springing to life. Guys named Terry performing mainies on the central/only drag. Mulletted heads bobbing out the front of liquor stores. The maintenance crew carrying out the daily tumbleweed clean-up. It sounds harsh, but if Keith Richards can call Invercargill “the arsehole of the world” then I, a pretty rock ’n’ roll chick in my own right, can surely do the same.

True story. Richards said that. Not to me personally, but he said it. It’s nasty, but the most important thing we take from this is that Invercargill managed to get the Stones to perform in their town.

We rolled into the petrol station and there we saw her. A woman of nondescript age, she could have been 40 or 102, offered to fill up our van. She introduced herself as “Kathy, with a K”. I felt an instant connection, like I do with most Katherines with a K.

Soon she was shuffling to us with gifts, unsaleable products on the brink of expiration. I finally knew what the baby Jesus felt like when he was given myrrh. What the heck was a baby going to do with myrrh? What would I do with all this old bread? If I didn’t eat white bread before, I sure as hell did now.

Kathy had a power over me. She was the kind of person you knew had great stories to tell, but probably rarely got to. Kathy bolted back inside to get us some maps. She pointed out the “hot” spots and we said our thank yous and farewelled our pit-stop angel.

That evening we visited Greenpoint shipwreck and little Bluff, the southernmost town of New Z, before having a roadside dinner of salsa and beans. Kiwi hot sauce is sensational, I wish customs let me bring all my bottles back.

The Catlins in the corner
The haunting Cathedral Caves of New Zealand's South IslandVancy throttled along the Southern Scenic Route, venturing into the sparsely populated coastal region of The Catlins.

We followed the road and were fortunate to encounter sea lions on Otara Beach and the Cathedral Caves before high tide. All was well until I was defeated by cramps strong enough to put your bleepin’ lights out. I retired to Vancy’s bedroom/kitchen/rec room as my friends pulled up their bus driver socks in the front.

We found our next campsite in the middle of nowhere. Most of the South Island can be classified as the middle of nowhere, or the corners of nowhere, or the fringes of nowhere, but this little haven was extra. It was a farming property with a small house and three demountables out the back. The rest was parking space for vans like ours. Sorry, similar to ours. No one was Vancy. Anyway, this rural gem surprisingly had WiFi, a menu, DVDs and one more thing.

When I went into reception to have my hourly chai latte, the 50-year-old owner sprung up a conversation with me. As the woman behind him, presumably his wife, took one of the guest’s meal orders he began venting about how his 20-year-old girlfriend kept snatching his goddamn money. He showed me a photo of her. It was a hardcopy, a relic in these times.

Before I could tell him “fool you is being played!”, it struck me: was the woman currently making fishcakes not his wife? She was the only other person living in the house and probably the only other person for kilometres. It was all extra difficult to comprehend when a sign reading “Free Condoms!” shrieked at me from the table.

Being a slick, highly resourceful Asian, I maintained my poker face. The manager chuckled and asked, “Did you lose something?”as he pointed to the lost property hook. On it hung a lone flesh-coloured g-string. It wasn’t mine, for I wear only anime-printed Y-fronts. Before a Kiwi rendition of Wolf Creek played out, I fled back to Vancy’s arms. I stayed up late that night, whispering sweet nothings to the sheep by the fence. I kept an eye out for the manager.

Dunedin's Baldwin Street, Steepest Street in the WorldSteep streets, steeper glaciers

We were out of the Free Condom campsite by dawn.

The bumps in the road wrestled me to consciousness as Ellen drove us to Nugget Point Lighthouse. On early morning drives we had made a habit of staying in bed while one of us volunteered as tribute to the wheel. It was illegal and cushy.

Despite being overcast, sunrise at Nugget Point was atmospheric. Rocks scattered into islets from the bluff, seals dozed on the shore and gulls circled ahead.

110 kilometres and two stops to feed our bakery pie addiction later, we reached Dunedin. Dunedin is the South Island’s second largest city, with the largest being the pile of bodies the campsite manager had beneath his house. Dunedin is known for its student population (I learned this from watching Scarfies), proud Scottish heritage and for having the world’s steepest street. This last fact was really all that interested me about Dunners, but I wanted to give the town a fighting chance.

Lucky I did. That day we found all the Scottish paraphernalia shops we had (n)ever wanted. We left soon after.

Emily, Ellen and I coasted to Mount Cook, stopping at the Moerkai bouldersLindis Pass and Omarama Cliffs. We snoozed in Vancy and brushed our teeth in cafe bathrooms along the way. Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki, was magnificent with its rugged, icy peaks. At 3,724 metres high it’s New Z’s tallest mountain. I’m not a fan of saying “blah blah is the Southern Hemisphere’s version of blah blah” but Aoraki might be our Matterhorn.

We walked the Hooker Valley track, a breeze compared to our other hikes. We sauntered through scenic grasslands, performed chin ups on the hanging bridges and tried to guess whether the boulders in the lake were rocks covered in ice or ice covered in dirt. Same shit, very different stank. We also spotted the country’s longest glacier, the Tasman, which glistened through the peaks for a cool 29 kilometres.

Aoraki in New Zealand

Last stop: Lake Tekapo

Just one hour round the corner was Lake Tekapo. Tekapo won our affections with its fresh air, lupin filled meadows, and the lake which twinkled at the foot of the mountains. We had saved the best for last.

In the 80s, New Z Prime Minister at the time Robert Muldoon was asked to comment on Kiwis immigrating to Australia. He said: “It raises the average IQ of both countries.” And I’ll give him that, just a little bit. There certainly are ways in which we are inferior.

To our stretches of arid desert and fire-prone bush, New Z raises us fertile valleys, snow-capped mountains and rushing springs. I know we’ve got some of these, to a degree, but we don’t have them around every freaking corner like in Kiwiland. If I were to fashion a Murray Hewitt style poster to lure Aussies to NZ, Lake Tekapo would be front and centre.

That afternoon, we ventured to the Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd . It was teeming with tourists and a Korean goth who hogged the church’s exterior for her glamour shoot, but still, we got to see the setting sun tickle everything pink. It was the ending I needed to two weeks on the road.

The stunning Lake Tekapo turning pink at sunset
ChCh-changes

It was on the last day that we found ourselves hungover in the Air New Zealand exhibition at Canterbury museum. 

After enjoying Fred and Myrtle’s paua shell house, I slumped by a wall of handwritten reflections. The crowdsourced “Most Memorable Flights” exhibition told achy-hearted tales of parting with long distance lovers and of leaving home before the digital age. Manipulative ad for commercial flying or not, it struck a chord.

Feeling deliciously emotional after a night of heavy drinking, I decided to add to the wall. If anyone was going to get uncomfortably pensive on the final day it would be me, dogamnit! I put pen to postcard and wrote about my most memorable flight, when I left Australia to live in Asia.

Revisiting this memory on my last day in New Zealand saw me through to ChCh airport to fake my carry on weight and jump on that plane. I’m usually reluctant to fly home after an adventure. Once I’ve done a Tiddalik and drunk the plane’s booze stores, I’m left pressed against the window, overthinking as everyone around me grotesquely yet peacefully sleeps. This time, though, I didn’t think about what I was coming back to, I thought about all I had experienced on the road. I took the soppy advice I’d written in the museum. I didn’t write the advice here but if you’d like to know it, I can tell you later.

I watched the sun set at my window, electric hues spiking pillowing clouds. I thought of plunging headfirst into the Nevis canyon and remembered the goosebumps on my skin as I swam in the icy Siberia Valley. I thought of “chilly bins” and how Kiwis call shopping trolleys “trundlers”. I thought of how many one-way bridges they have in rural areas and how like, wow, isn’t that just so weird and kind of an invitation for trouble.

I thought of the first time I saw Vancy. In her old frame I saw dilapidation and I calculated the likeliness of her breaking down. And that had changed. Now when I thought of Vancy I could see only opportunity and the boundless road ahead.

By Serena Coady

New Zealand Road Trip: South Island Itinerary

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