I stepped out of the van at Kaitoke Regional Park into the cold of a mountain valley after the sun had already left. This is it, after a 58 day hiatus, it is night three in the van. In the afternoon I could already see my breath. The coast, and the luxury of a house, had deceived me into thinking winter would be warm. I had to think about where I’d packed my hat. I knew it was in one of two bags. I really hoped I hadn’t left anything important behind. Not that I couldn’t go back, but I am trying to do my own thing now. The offer of a hot meal followed by a fresh baked crumble with ice cream would be too hard to refuse. Before leaving Otaihanga, I found my fresh water tank leaked. The waste tank is the same. Pestering Jason for the final time, I ran some sealant round the bungs in an effort that even my father would be disappointed with. Fingers crossed the next time I fill the tank all of the water stays in. By 5pm it was dark. I haven’t seen the sun in several hours now. I thought it was cold earlier. In the gloom I washed my dishes, dragging out tasks so I wouldn’t find myself in bed too early. I don’t want to wake at four in the morning having had enough sleep for the night. I think through the logistics of being hydrated enough to sleep but not needing to get up to pee after I’ve commited to going to bed. Night three, it’s gonna be fun. Hat on, snuggled under duvet and blanket, all but my nose was warm. My breath clouding in front of me. I knew condensation would be forming on the inside of the roof. I hoped it wouldn’t freeze.
In the morning the blanket was damp. The ceiling wet to touch. No ice. Light creeped in through the gaps in the curtains. For now I was warm but my water based calculations were about to expire. I snatched on all of my layers and dashed to the toilet block. These light weight made mostly out of mesh trainers were soaked through by the time I got back to the van. Because of the wet grass, not the toilet. Ok, so I’m awake, I’m outside. Let’s get the day started. Stove out, pan on. Half an hour later the water boils. Not ideal. Those two minute noodles I bought for emergency can’t be bothered to cook nights are going to take 32 minutes. Fortunately I don’t have to be anywhere later, but you do become accustomed to the speed and convenience of a kettle. I take my coffee down to the river. I’m here, I’m doing it. This is actually happening. There is a trail through the forest from my portable doorstep. Surrounded by beech trees and tree-ferns that probably have a more exotic name, I forget my worries, the doubts, the one lingering fear. Will the van start? There’s at least two other people in the camp, will either of them have jump leads? Key in, twist. Life! Relief washes over me in an awesome wave. I take it for a sign and hit the road. Driving towards the most southernly point of the North Island, Cape Palliser. The roads are quiet, which is nice. I can pootle along in my own time. A car, coming the other way, lights flashing veers into the middle of the road. An arm waves me into a driveway. Am I being pulled over? It’s not the police, but a pilot car. Further down the road someone is moving house. Literally. Two halves of a house on the back of a truck block most of the road. It passes and I continue on my way.
On route I planned to stop at the Putangirua Pinnacles. I’ve downloaded all of Google’s map of the North Island to my phone, which is fortunate because the only signpost is at the entrance. I could have easily driven past. Attached to the sign is an Alert Level 3 warning advising the camp is closed. There are cars up there, I can see them. Also, we’re in Level 2 now. I am allowed to be here. So I drive in. The trail up to the Pinnacles begins in the riverbed. The going is slow until a track emerges from the bush and climbs the ridgeline. At the lookout I find myself feeling that glorious awe you get in the presence of something magnificent. From the trail head you have no idea these fang-like towers of limestone are here. Pleased with the sights of my first day I descend into the riverbed to journey on. There’s an optional detour out to the base of the pinnacles. I have to see. The towering cliffs, the narrowing gorge. If you close your eyes, squint a bit, and completely imagine it, you can see Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli walking the Path of the Dead. On my way back to the van, I step on a rock in the river. I quickly learn this rock doesn’t want to be stepped on and I put one foot thoroughly underwater. Thankfully, these light weight made out of mesh trainers dry quickly.
Cape Palliser lighthouse is a red and white barbershop striped, at the end of the road, on a rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere lighthouse. There are 252 steps to the platform on which the tower sits. I didn’t count, I was too busy watching the people at the top to see if they started to come down. They didn’t. At the top I stopped to catch my breath, stifling a cough. The views are unremarkable. You can see the South Island. You can see a small stretch of coast. I didn’t realise at the time but the real draw of Cape Palliser are the seals. What I’d taken for rocks on the way in were moving. Rearing their heads, flopping about. Massive fur seals. I left them to it. The sun has dropped below the closest mountains. I needed to get parked up for the night and get dinner on.
Ngawi is described as a quirky township in several guides. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic or people have misunderstood the word. There was nothing quirky about the Ngawi. There are tractors on the beach for pulling boats in and out. Perhaps the writers had never been to a fishing village before. (I looked it up, it’s quirky because it has more tractors per head than anywhere in the world. So random). As for the campground it was ideal. I drove in, facing out to sea. I got my kitchen set up, which at present takes far too long. First I have to layer up. Then I have to get my kitchen out. The table fortunately (also only) fits between the cupboards and the cabin. I’ve been keeping the stove in the rear storage. My pans and utensils are in a box under a box under a bag. I ate as the sun went down for good, pastel colours filling the sky. Once it’s dark there’s really nothing else to do but get into bed and keep warm. I find it’s not as cold, but unprotected from the wind the van rocks like a baby’s cradle under the careful watch of a heavy handed toddler. Hardly relaxing.
The following day I retraced most of my steps. It should come as no surprise to learn the one road that leads to Cape Palliser is also the only road back. I was heading into the foothills of the mountains again. Today though I didn’t really have any plans. There wasn’t anything to do on the way and didn’t appear to be any trails at the site I’d picked as my destination. I arrived at lunchtime, with a good five hours, likely less due to aforementioned mountains, of sunshine left. The campsite is deserted. Nothing but me, the buzzing of the bees, the paddle of the river, the breeze in the trees. I walked down to the river, deep, clear and perversely inviting. I have everything I need for a swim in the van. On the way back up, I talk myself into it. I come back down, walking hesitantly into the waters of the Tauherenikau river, I’m amazed I even made it this far. I keep walking, the depth increasing rapidly until I’m up to my shoulders. Cold water shock sets in, I try to calm my breathing. Accept the chill and swim. I plunge beneath the surface, fully aware of my entire body rejecting my decision. The cold is refreshing, invigorating, and unbearable. I swim back to my towel. The sun remained for several hours. I put my chair out, opened my book and relax into it. I find I’m having the best time when I have nothing to do with the van. Nobody tells you that you’ll be hunched the whole time. The van isn’t tall enough to stand up in. The table is too low to chop vegetables at. Want to go to the toilet without putting all your clothes on first? Not anymore. I find I’m already counting down. Only 19 months, if I even last that long, to go. I have to remind myself, this is only day four. I’m also doing it on hard mode. We’re going into winter, in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m alone. It is probably fine to find living out of a van after you’ve spent two months being looked after a little bit challenging. It’s been dark for an hour, and all I’ve done in that time is criticise my life choices. Time to go back to my book until I can reasonably consider going to sleep.