New Zealand: The Space Coast

Surfers roll in. They watch the waves, clearly seeing things I can’t. The ocean floods into the lagoon. Waves boom over the wild beach beyond. Black dots in the white surf, patiently waiting for The One. A pastel rainbow rests on the horizon. The few clouds begin to glow. Soon the sky will be dark. The surfers are back in the morning before I’m up. Before even the sun is up. Paddling across the lagoon towards waves that look bigger than they did last night. Bodies bob like seals in the swell. I leave them to the ocean, driving back into Wairoa to make use of the free WiFi. I make bookings for the Heaphy and Rakiura Tracks for October. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I have a plan. Somewhere to be at a certain time. Only four months to go! Following this success, I hit the road. Heading East towards Gisborne. My next stop is the Mahia Peninsula.

Wairoa Lagoon

I come into the town of Mahia and leave it almost immediately. A gravel road leads out into the peninsula. There’s yet another rare remnant of coastal forest here. I step out of the van and watch the crescent moon of raptor drifting above. For the first time I’m certain I’m looking at a falcon and not the more common swamp harrier. It’s smaller, built for speed. It’s cries out kee, kee. Yep, I think to myself. Tapping my pockets. Keys, wallet, phone. I lock the van. Emerald grass lines the choppy hills surrounding the scenic reserve. The wind rips through a clear sky. I can see for miles. I unlatch the gate and disappear into the bush. The dry floor is novel. Sticks pop, leaves crack beneath my boots. Tui song echoes in the valley, the ever present squeak of fantails follow me, and something else I don’t recognise whistles in the trees. The trail descends, the ground underfoot becomes damper. The path crosses a stream multiple times. There’s a convenient crossing over well placed stones. Once, the first stone is a little less well placed and I wobble off into the stream. Thankfully I’m wearing my light weight made out of mesh trainers. After a while the track leaves the valley, climbing back to the carpark. I go back into Mahia to climb up Mokotahi lookout. Fresh wooden steps carry me rapidly up to the low summit. The grid of holiday homes, the white cliffs, the naked hills. I’m transported to the South West Coast Path. So far away. I become aware that I’ve been thinking less of home. Less of the future, less of the past. I’ve been busy in the present.

Mokotahi Lookout

There are lots of rockets painted on things and references to the Space Coast in Mahia. I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t really stop to think about it, or even ask. I received a message from Dave in Wellington to tell me there’s a launch happening soon. I still have no idea what’s going on. He elaborates, at the end of the Mahia Peninsula, Rocket Lab have based their Launch Complex 1. They have been sending things into space from here since 2018. I check the date, two days until the next launch window opens. What this means I realise, is there’s a chance of the rocket launching in two days. There’s a greater chance of it launching at some point in the next two weeks. I debate with myself, and ask others for advice. Should I stay or should I go? Initially I go. There’s some caves on the way to Gisborne and I’m running out of supplies. I have to go somewhere.

A Field Full of Sheep

The Mangaone Caves are within half an hour’s drive of Mahia. I park my van on the side of a gravel road, lace up my boots and head up hill. On the information board I am advised to take a torch and a hardhat. I have one of these two things so I’m really hoping I don’t bang my head again. As is apparently the standard here in New Zealand, this point of interest is on private farm land. Yellow posts mark a route that weaves across the hillside. I reach the top of the hill. Staring straight at me is the biggest flock of sheep I have ever seen. Parts of the field appear white. Stretching out across the hilltop there are dots of white everywhere. All those dots have faces, those faces have two little black eyes and for now, they’re all on me. I look down to find that once again I am ankle deep in shit. Brilliant. I march through the field. The sheep, deciding they don’t too much like the look of me, scatter. I enter a sheep-free enclosure. There’s another information board explaining a bit about how the caves are formed and that’s it. No ticket office, no health and safety. Just a set of stairs that disappear into the underworld. I grab my head torch out of my pack and begin my descent.

Inside the Magaone Caves

The temperature is the first thing to fall. Almost immediately the air feels colder. I can hear the drip, drip of water followed by the drip, drip of the echo. I’m relieved to know this cave doesn’t go anywhere. At the other end it ends. A pinhole of light burns in the darkness. I step into the thick mud on the floor of the cave. The sludge sucks at my boots, trying to hold on to me. I pass two ladders that rise up to smaller off shoots. I decide to go as far in as I can first. Reaching the back wall I turn around, eyeing the ladders. I climb the nearest one first, stepping off the top and walking up into the tunnel until the ceiling becomes too low for me to comfortably continue. I back out, moving on to the second ladder. This one I don’t even step off, the descending stalactites hiding what may be another tunnel deeper into the hillside. I’ve seen enough. Counting this as doing one thing that scares me for today, I head out of the cave, up into the bright sunshine and blue sky.

I drive on into Gisborne. On my way into the city I pass Sunshine Brewery. I decide to turn back. A few people are drinking tiny little beers on the deck. I’ve only got a short drive from here, to the shops, and then to camp. I decide I can probably treat myself to a tiny little serving of the light pilsner. I realise this is the first poured beer I’ve had since I was in Auckland. I wonder if the beer tastes better because of it, or if it is actually quite good. Once I’ve ticked off my chores I head down to Kaiti Beach to park up for the night. I reverse in so I can open the back door to a view of Poverty Bay. Looking to my left, there’s another van. Without the luxury of parking sensors, I really am in the dark over how long my van is. How do people know how far back their vehicles go? I slowly back up until my cab is almost in line with the one across from me when I feel the bump. Turns out my van is a little longer than the other one. I roll forward. More caution required next time. The bay is filled with sea spray, around the coast Norfolk pines stand out in the fading light. The evening is beautiful. More and more vans fill the parking area. For a while I have a van-sized space on either side of me. They don’t last. Mr Netherlands doesn’t notice me when he steps out of his van. He walks down on to the beach to take in the view. On his return he sees me perched in the back of my van and stops to chat. He’s come off the East Cape. I’m heading out that way. “You must go to Anaura Bay,” he tells me. I make a note and share it with everyone I know.

Blucks Pit Road Beach

I take the next day incredibly slowly. I convinced myself that it was ok to go back the way I’d already come. Time is what I have in abundance. Time to wait for a rocket launch. What I need is something to fill that time. There’s nothing else to do between Gisborne and Mahia. The hot springs in the area are closed, I’ve seen the caves. I stop in a couple of rest areas, walk the beaches, watch the waves. Eventually I get tired of waiting and head to Blucks Pit Road. The place to watch a rocket launch. Driftwood pebbles and bones are scattered across the beach. More sitting, more waiting. The vast emptiness of blue sky lies above. The dusty green of pasture on distant hills. The occasional patch of dark green where trees remain or have been replanted. The Mahia peninsula glows pink in the dying light. A crowd has built on the beach. All of us hoping the launch happens. Green waves fight against gravity, rising up before crashing down in defeat. The pink lifts off the land into the sky. The wind picks up. Around I can hear people listening to the launch broadcast. I’m desperately trying to refresh Twitter to get an update. The countdown is being held. They’re waiting for the wind to ease. The countdown starts up again, then stops. The wind is still too much. One last attempt is marked. The stars rise. From here the night is perfect. The final launch is aborted. The next window of opportunity opens in 48 hours. The small crowd floods the car park. We disperse.

Driftwood Shelter

Go, don’t go. My decision in the morning reflects yesterday evening’s launch. How many opportunities am I going to have to watch a rocket take off? Probably not many. 48 hours isn’t that long. How am I going to stay occupied for two days? I start driving to Gisborne and then decide actually, Wairoa is closer and there’s free wifi in town. I turn around and head even further back the way I’d already come. I didn’t stop in town immediately but drove out to the beach, beyond where I’d slept amongst the surfers. The black sand is littered with driftwood. There are two shelters and one pyramid already made on the beach. I find myself picking up the longer bones of trees. Making my own lean-two. I realise I’m playing, in the same way you might try to dam a stream with the pebbles from its bed. It feels good. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I found a stick with a broken branch and laid another in the nook. I started laying more sticks on to the apex. Eventually I had a small lean-to. Too small a lean-to for me to sit under. I wandered back over to the first shelter I’d found that had four walls and a little stool in it. I sat in that for a second. I wondered who made it, what they knew about shelter building. Maybe it would have been helpful to study resistant materials. Rather than knowing how to colour a shape so it looks like 3D object I’d know how to use a hammer and nails. I might have a better idea of how to build a shelter out of driftwood. Having had a bit of fun, I decide it’s probably in my best interests to do some chores. I mix up my routine, returning to the Riverside Camp Ground a night early than my usual three for free. Clean bedding, clean feet. Almost clean boots. I’ve managed to get through the first day.

Rocket Lab Launch

An infinite bucket of nails is poured over the roof of my van, or it’s raining. If a rocket can’t launch in the wind, I’d be surprised if it can launch in the rain. I drift from the campsite to car parks, somewhere to sit and read. Somewhere to watch rain dribble down the windscreen. I end up back at Blucks Pit Road even earlier than before. Last time the car park already looked full when I arrived. Tonight I’m the first one in. A few more cars and vans pull in as T-0 approaches. The weather is less agreeable to sit out in. The crowd is much smaller. A cold wind blows in off the sea. There’s rain over the Mahia Peninsula. I can’t help but feel another abort is on the way. The clouds are too thick. The countdown is held again. 12 minutes. I wait, we all wait. I check the time on my phone. A minute past launch. The must be holding again. As I think this a blast of light appears at the end of the peninsula. I hear the “oh wow” escape my mouth over the cheers from the crowd. The light lifts off up into the clouds where it disappears for seconds. As it emerges, the crowd cheers again. The rocket arcs away to the south, still climbing. A vapour trail appears behind the blazing light. Then the light is gone. I sit and watch a while longer with no idea what I’m waiting for. People trickle back to their cars. Eventually I follow the and we all disappear into the night.

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