There are times when the countryside is familiar, Scottish or Welsh, even a little Peak District-y. A winding road following a stream. Hills stripped bare for pastures. Sheep, cows fill the fields. In the distance, pine plantations help to make things appear more natural. In the next valley they do the opposite. A logging operation clearing the hills again. Without the softness of grass, the land looks scarred, damaged. Beyond, a pocket of native forest in a deep gorge. The squeaks and cheeps of birds. I drove for over an hour and saw only one car. I head towards the gorge to Waihi Falls. Having seen some serious waterfalls in my time, expectations are often low. How good can it be? After a day of heavy rain, pretty good. There’s a sign in the carpark advising of plans to improve the facilities. I feel like I’m in the back end of nowhere. The fact there’s even a toilet block surprised me. Someone has scrawled on the sign “please don’t sanitize it anymore already!!”. The ugly wire fence at the first lookout suggests why someone feels that way. Protecting the people rather than the place of interest. The staircase down into the gorge looks almost new. The handrail still smooth. Not yet weathered by the sun and the spray. I don’t stay for long, it took an hour to get here and it’s at least another hour on to Porangahau.
The hour or more drives a day are crushing me. I don’t like driving at the best of times. While these roads are new, scenic, and for the most part empty. They’re hard. I have to concentrate on the corners, the hairpins, the ute with hazards ahead of cows being herded down the road by three men on motorbikes. The almost classic “traffic in rural anywhere” shot. I drive slowly through, spreading piss and poo up the weren’t clean anyway white walls of the van. By the time I reach Porangahau Beach, I’m tired. This is my excuse and I’m sticking with it. The toilet block is being redeveloped, the nearest alternative is at the other end of the road. A 10 minute walk according to the sign. No problem. No problem until I flick the lock on the sliding door and close it behind me. My keys are on the other side of that door. I know all the other doors are locked but I check them again anyway just in case I was also an idiot earlier in the day. At least, at least I say to myself I have my phone on me. There’s good signal. I can call the AA. All my documents are in the glove box on the wrong side of a locked door. I don’t remember if this account was set up on a hostel address in the South Island, and if it was, I don’t remember which hostel I picked. Security questions are going to be fun. Embarrassed, humbled, I’m informed someone will be with me in an hour to let my stupid self back in the van.
What am I gonna do for an hour? Everything I have is inside the van. I can’t leave the van because the minute I’m out of sight, someone from the AA will arrive. I pick up a few pine cones and start juggling. They’re not the easiest juggling balls in the world. Flaking, breaking, spraying dust into my eyes. They’re a good weight for it though. Not long into it I’m accosted by a small dog. She doesn’t know about social distancing and certainly doesn’t care for it. Her paws are on my thighs, her teeth nibbling at my thumb as I give her a pat. “Like it or not, everyone gets a pat.” The dog’s owner, Rod, emerges from the other side of my van. We talk for a while about where we’ve come from. I explain why I’m stood outside my van, not that you really need to explain this sort of thing. Free country and all. Rod laughs, tells me we’ve all been there. He drives a bus, but before that he used to have a Toyota Lightace. You used to be able to stick a thing in the window and pop the lock he said. There’s always a way to get back in. He takes Furby, the dog, for a walk along the beach and I continue to wait. As Rod returns, so rolls up The Man from the AA. Not in a bright yellow van as I expected, but in a ute branded with the local garage details. The Man from the AA has a couple of tricks in his car, after a bit of jimmying about he pops the lock and I’m reunited with my keys. Rod invites me over to his bus, The Dragons Liar. Not my typo but the one on his business card. The bus has a double bed in the back, separate shower and toilet. A dining table for two, gas stove and oven, a fridge, a sink with hot water on tap. A sofa and a TV. There is an awful lot of room. I take a cup of tea with Rod and he tells me about the bus, where he found it, the work he’s done. The power supply. It sets me to dreaming about what another van might look like in the future.
My second van is a pipedream. I’ve got one. It’s not the best van in the world but it is my van. Love it or not, we’re in this together now. I make an appointment for an auto-electrician to take a look at the battery, to hopefully clear my worries once and for all. Might as well try and make a go of this thing. I drive back towards the town of Waipukurau ready for my appointment the next day. Mountains appear in the distance. I think it’s the Ruahine range. They look straight out of a geography text book, the tree line obvious. Grey peaks still without snow. I’m not going all the way, not today anyway. I’m going into the woods. Bursting through cobwebs face first. Pulling strings out of my hair, my beard, hoping there’s nothing on the end of it. I’m surrounded by the chattering of what I think is parakeets. A keruru, the native pigeon, launches out of a tree, wings pounding. A little brown and white bird I don’t yet know the name of flutters across the trail. A tui gurgles somewhere in the canopy. Something else bursts from the understory. Tree roots lock together like embracing arms. Trunks rise straight up to the canopy, branches spreading like tentacles. The forest is alive.
As I park up for the day the sun comes out in full force. The air is genuinely hot. I open all the doors on the van, knowingly letting the bugs in but also letting the air out. I can shed layers, get a chair out, open my book. The good times don’t last for long. The temperature begins to fall. The day becomes inevitably harder. Peaking at maximum discomfort when the light has also faded. I could go inside, to the cramped, comfort of my van. The push lights aren’t quite good enough to read comfortably by. I’m limited on what I can do. There’s no power, no WiFi. I’m reluctant to use my phone. Too often I find myself sitting in the dark, thinking about better outcomes to past decisions. Having conversations that might have gone better. Listing the tasks I didn’t do, but probably should have done before I left home. Dinner is no longer just a source of nutrition but also a distraction. Something to pass another half an hour. Another second closer to accepting the decision to get into bed. In this way time stretches out. The first week has been made up of long drives and longer evenings.