Do you remember when you were young, you used to fight over who was going to get the top bunk? There was once a time when the top bunk was the place to be. Spending nights in hostels around the world as a young man, I realised there’s absolutely no reason to be pleased about winning that battle. Sharing a camper van with your family throws up a rather similar scenario. I am the youngest which, despite being at least a head taller than everybody else, means they all think I am the smallest. I draw the short straw, indefinitely. I get to squirm and struggle in the claustrophobia inducing bed above the cab. We’re 700 meters above sea level, nestled away on a dried up lake bed at the foot of some mountains. The temperature drops massively over night. The plastic roof is coated in condensation. I am the only one who wakes up in the morning, sitting up inches away from smashing my face into the ceiling to cop a face full of water. Thanks, family.
If nothing else, at least it gives me a good reason to get out of bed. Dad’s already on his way out the door as I struggled to get dressed in my confined space. Excitement levels are high for our first morning. I clamber down the ladder so I can comfortably stretch out into a standing position. I emerge into the crisp, fresh morning mountain air. The sky is clear. Mist is rising at the base of high hills on the opposite shore. The kettle goes on. All of us wander out in to the dusty, cracked, moist mud, cup of tea in hand. It feels like we’re on holiday now. Intrigued by our surroundings, we descend further into the lake bed. There appears to be seals, or fishermen out in a line. Neither make sense. Black tree stumps line what may have once been a stream. The mist becomes hazy as the sun crests the hills. The heat is on.
The other campers who have spent the night here have mostly packed up, heading on to their next destination. We’re taking it easy. It is after all only day one. Lisa starts breakfast. Pancakes made with eggs and bananas. She fries them up with some blueberries on the gas barbecue. They’re paleo friendly for Mum and Dad, and delicious for me. Win win. In the meantime, Mum’s been finding a place for everything, making the van a little more homely. The last caravan pulls away. It’s just us under a blue sky.
Eventually we’re on the road. Heading into the nearby town of Farlie. The south island of New Zealand is sparsely populated. The town, if it even qualifies as a town is tiny. The main street has few shops. I pop into the information centre, I’m in need of a sim card and I haven’t seen anywhere resembling a phone shop. The woman behind the counter advises me “I don’t think Louise does ’em, but the electrical store down the way might.” I’m none the wiser as to Louise is, but head down the way anyway and pick up a sim card at the electrical store and at the supermarket just to be safe. It’s a proper country town. 5 minutes in any direction the buildings disappear, rolling hills begin.
We head out of Farlie into Burke’s Pass. The land opens out, the hills spread, rising into the distance. There, glistening under the blue sky are the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps. We pull over. Buses and cars are all doing the same thing. The sight of snow on the mountain tops is doing good things for all of us. The guide book didn’t lie. We’re really here.
Back on the road a few kilometres later there’s a strange shade of blue much too low to be the sky. Lake Tekapo. The first of three vast glacial lakes. I was getting excited now. We stopped close to the water’s edge. I was straight out of the van, stumbling over rocks making my way to the water. I had to know if it was wet, is it cold? The pounding of the sun was going to make any body of water look inviting. The blue water, the golden yellows and browns of the arid lands around. It was difficult not to dive right in. I’d already blasted my family for only buying factor 30. The sun is different here, you have to cover up! No points for guessing which of us burned the worst.
I sat down on a rock, waiting for everyone else to catch up. I’m not sure if I’m too eager, or neglecting responsibilities. Ask Lisa, she’ll tell you it’s the latter. I’m not overly bothered either way, I’m on holiday too you know! As I waited, I stretched myself out on the rock, getting my face as close to the water as possible without submerging it and I scooped up a mouthful.
Look, that’s not something I’d recommend doing at any lake, ever. Curiosity got the better of me. It didn’t taste too bad, and I’m thankful I didn’t swallow enough to get sick. After a spot of lunch, Dad and I took a stroll to see if there was a toilet nearby. An old, slate building on a hill, close to where the tour busses had parked looked promising. As we approached we realised the promise was of eternal salvation and not the immediate relief of an empty bladder. We decided we’d just use the one on the van, seeing as that’s what it was there for.
There’s another lake a couple of corners away. Lake Pukaki. It was the same copper-sulphate, definitely don’t drink this blue as Tekapo. Out at the far end where the Southern Alps. Mount Cook or as it’s known to the Maori; Aoraki stood perfectly framed in the centre. The moisture in the air gave the rock a shimmering blue colour, topped with the erratic white shapes of snow across the peaks. The surface of the lake a mirror image. I could sit here for days. There’s a small shop in the car park selling salmon products, so we pick up some dinner. Lisa got stung by a bee while we were hanging around. No big deal, she’s not allergic. Everything’s fine. By the time we leave the car park, I’m fairly certain everybody knows about it. The people in the shop were gave her an ice pack. I swear she asked “is it wasps or bees that leave their sting in?” to anyone who stopped within earshot.
We follow the lake’s edge for another 60km until we enter the Tasman Valley, pushing on towards Mount Cook itself. There’s a small tourist village and a campsite where the road ends. It’s getting late in the day when we arrive. There are plenty of people here. It’s a stunning place to be for the night. Tucked up in the folds of the valley, the snow covered mountains behind us. The excitement of being in the mountains was too much for Mum and I. We had to get out on the track while the sun was still up to really make the most of our surroundings. It was our first mother-son bonding in a long time. What a place for it! We walked and talked, finding ourselves at the memorial for those who had lost their lives in the national park. It stood in full view of Mount Cook.
This is what I live for. Admiring a fantastic structure created by the architecture of time. We walked on, drifting between serious conversations and remarks of awe at the landscape around us. We came to Mueller’s viewpoint and saw the glacial run off tumbling down cliffs into a basin. The thundering torrent would shift it from a milky grey to the thick blue lake beyond. The money, the long-haul (not for me obviously), it all seemed more than worth it now and it was still only our first day! Heading back to the van, the sun was just creeping behind the Southern Alps casting shades of pink on to the surrounding snow. We went back to the memorial and made it just in time to watch the sun kiss Mount Cook good night. It was time for us to go back to the van, eat some delightful salmon and head to bed ourselves.