The bed in my van is my sanctuary. More comfortable than sleeping in a tent. If I can keep the bed dry that will be enough. I can deal with the sand, the soil, the unidentifiable plant matter, and the bugs I allow in each night. Just stay dry. The rain is falling again. I’m reluctant to get up. In the end I have no choice. There never is a choice, only the need to pee and the futile attempt to wait for a dry spell. I could have used my own toilet but the waste tank is almost full. I tried to empty it a few days ago but I couldn’t remove the cap. I’m hoping I have over-tightened it. When I finally get on with my day, I first drive down to the dump station in town and spend several minutes trying to unscrew the lid. I try using a teatowel to get more grip. If the lid was metal and I was in possession of a hot water tap I would have tried that trick too. I started to consider me not being the problem. Maybe bumping around in the back of a van has jammed the lid on or off the threads. A man in a lumberjack jacket, with broad shoulders and fingers as thick as Cumberland sausages emerges from the toilet block. I grab his attention and ask him to prove his manliness to me. “Could you try and loosen the lid on this for me please?” He obliged. The lid moved effortlessly under his bear like hands. Suitably embarrassed at my own inadequacy, I emptied my waste. I screwed the lid back on. I unscrewed the lid. I screwed the lid back on. Now I’ve got to run the gauntlet. Will the cap be on tight enough to prevent seepage but loose enough for me to remove later? Stay tuned to find out more in Chris’s Campervan Toilet Adventures.
I was frustrated with myself for not picking up enough heavy objects to put them down again, or not practising opening jam jars, or doing whatever you need to do in order to improve your grip strength. I was annoyed with the weather, the fine days never seemed to arrive. All of the minor challenges I’ve overcome so far were remembered as the problems they were. I needed to do something. I drove down The 309 Road, turning onto the wet gravel. The surface of the road was like an ice rink before a resurfacer cleaned things up. I could feel the back of the van sliding out on corners, the tyres skidding on the loose surface. I passed a sign warning of road work ahead. I reached the gravel road’s equivalent of a resurfacer. I couldn’t see the front vehicle in the line of heavy machinery, some kind of spreader. There was a steam roller, then there was me, and another steam roller bringing up the rear. They pulled in to a parking area, allowing me to pass. I then found myself on recently laid, unrolled gravel. I’d gone from driving on ice to driving on marbles. I stopped in the Waiau Falls car park. I walked in to the calming greens of the forest. The leaves were slick with rain, glistening in the bright light desperately trying to break through the clouds. I gazed up, following the impossibly tall trunks. Nothing quite like being 60 meters below the highest branches of a 600 year old Kauri tree to remind you how insignificant your problems are. I didn’t make it back to the van in time to avoid a soaking. At least I was driving on somewhere. I’ve found my clothes dry quickest while I’m wearing them with the heater on full blast. A rainbow appeared over the forest. A rainbow appeared over the sea. I sat in the van, the sun shining on my face, watching rain form puddles amongst the pebbles. Another rainbow appeared.
Black clouds were held back by dark green hills. The defence they offer does not last long. One downpour follows another. The man in the van next to me asks if I can give him a jump start. A little victory in these miserable, wet days. I had expected to be asking for help before I was asked for help by someone else. I moved my van over, he attached the leads and we got him on his way. I caught the attention of the man from the local council as he did his rounds, checking the vans, making sure they have the necessary certification. “Do I really need to be gone by 9?” I asked. He explained the regulations are really there for the summer, he’s not even bothering to make a note of registrations at the moment. Brilliant. I can wait out the rain. I have booked myself in to the Pinnacles Hut up in the Kauaeranga Valley. The forecast for Friday has the sun behind a raining cloud. Saturday has full sun. All I want is for it to be dry. I don’t care if it’s overcast. I don’t want to be fighting off the damp anymore. I’ve had enough of waiting for the weather to clear. I make no attempts to leave the carpark until I absolutely have to. I only go as far as the town centre. Leaving the van somewhere else for a while. Rain isn’t falling. I chance a walk up the nearest hill. I get wet coming back down. I keep walking, drying out in the next gap in the clouds. I check in to the library for a while, charge some batteries, dry out a bit more. I move to another car park, losing myself in a throw-away crime-thriller for the afternoon which might suggest I’m enjoying it. Eventually enough of the day has passed for me to put myself to bed.
When I wake up, there’s no rain. Finally. I drive in to the Kauaeranga Valley. The blue sky stays on the coast, grey clouds are waiting for me. I drop in at the visitor centre with some important questions. Firstly, how does this work? I turn up at the hut and lay claim to a bed. Secondly, can I take a beer with me? The woman behind the desk gives me the best kind of answer. “I have, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.” she said. I continue further up the road towards the car park. A group of youths pop out of the trees, bags under multi-coloured rain covers. Not a promising sign. I’m supposed to be packing but instead I start faffing. The curtains are open on the van next to me, I can’t help but have a nose inside. The cupboards look like they’ve got living room furniture features. It can’t be but it looks like black iron fixtures on oak doors. I try not to dwell on the comparison to my five-ply pine with holes for handles. Back to the important task of making sure I’ve got everything. I don’t need my tent, I suddenly have a lot less weight and a lot more room. What to bring? What not to bring? Beer. Obviously, but just one. I decide to leave the coffee this time. I pack a sandwich for today, I expect I’ll be back down before lunchtime tomorrow. Another pack of youths are led off up the trail. People are arriving, more organised than me. Ear plugs are a must. I don’t expect the hut to be at the maximum capacity of 80, but with what I’ve seen heading up the night might not be quiet. In the end it comes down to checking the basics. Something to sleep in. Something to eat. Something to cook the food in. Anything else I can live without for the night.
The track begins as an extension of the gravel road, crunching under foot. The branches of trees lean over the path to create a green tunnel. The Kauaerange River ripples alongside. This is going to be easy if it’s like this all the way. It was not like this all the way. The gravel gives way to the old, almost cobbled, skid road. The climbing comes hard and fast. Steps too tall for my little legs, broken boulders and land slips. I pull myself up, sweating hard, breathing harder. I’m down to my t-shirt before I’m halfway. Rain drizzles down. For once it comes as a relief, keeping me cool. I pass a group of women who have stopped for lunch next to a waterfall. I don’t pause for anything longer than a hello. The path continues up. I’ll stop at the top I tell myself. When it flattens out, then I’ll eat my sandwich. I catch up with the group of youths and their leaders sat on either side of the path. They kindly move out of my way as I pass through. Up, up, and up. Passing people all of the time. I was starting to think I’d been underestimating myself. No surprises there. I caught up with an American couple, they had started not long before me. I pass them too, telling them I’ll see them at the hut. It’s only an hour away. I’ll drop my bag, eat my sandwich, then tackle the summit climb to the Pinnacles. When I arrive at the hut there’s a note from the warden. Be back at 3:30. Ages away. I case the joint. The Pinnacles Hut looks like a mountain lodge from the outside. There are two bunk rooms containing 40 beds each, a kitchen containing an island of stoves surrounded by sinks. All the doors are locked. There’s no way in. The American couple, Pike and Kelly arrive. I decide to follow them as they complete the same circuit as me, in case they know something I don’t. No closer to gaining access we take a seat on one of the outer decks and get chatting. They’re planning on going up for sunset. The longer I think about this plan, the better it sounds. I ask if it’s ok for me to tag along with them, and it is. I finally eat my sandwich. Rob the Warden arrives, takes our names, checks us in. He tells us he drinks the water from the tap but the choice is ours if we want to boil it before drinking. He seems of sound enough mind. I take the risk. Rob unlocks the doors to let us lay claim to a bunk. I bag a bottom bunk, away from the door. Minimum fuss and hopefully minimum noise.
Pike, Kelly and I decide on a good time to make our ascent. Those that have gone up are already on their way back down. Some people haven’t gone at all, presumably waiting for sunrise. I’m surprised. Having the opportunity to do both means I’m going to do both. The final climb begins with an infinite stair case. Off to the left the ground disappears into a rolling valley, unfolding like an ocean of waves until it reaches the sea. Legs pushing up, down, up, down. I’m glad I don’t have my pack for this. I’m struggling to breathe between words I share with Pike and Kelly. We get off the stairs to find the first of a series of step ladders. On the bottom hand rail, the Department of Conservation have attached a hand sanitiser dispenser. Another reminder of the realities over the sea and far away. The ladders disappear and we’re left scrambling over rocks, pulling ourselves up on metal staples drilled into boulders. The view spreads out behind us. Ridge lines, peaks, deep green valleys. The wind has picked up too, blowing the mountain cold deep into my fingers. We reached the platform at the top. We’re the only one’s there. I’ve no idea how 80 people would squeeze up here on a busy morning. The view isn’t quite panoramic, the Pinnacles themselves stretching off the end of the platform. What I can see is more than enough, possibly even too much. The sun descends through the clouds. Rays of light shine down, casting shadows of the peaks into the valleys below. The light show over the ranges is incredible, mesmerising. I can’t stop looking. We’re joined by Matteo, who has come up with his tripod and camera. No doubt he will have some spectacular shots as the curtain closes on the day. The sun disappears behind the mountains. We decide to get down while it’s still light enough to see where we’re putting our feet.
The Pinnacles Hut, I am told, is not a very good introduction to hut hiking. This isn’t because it’s a bad hut, or a bad hike. This is because of the quality of the facilities. There’s gas, hot water in the sinks, lights above the tables. There’s a fire going in the communal area. We get to making dinner, eating dinner, drinking a beer. Kelly and I get to talking about all of the things we wished we had in our vans, like black iron on oak living room furniture. Someone had also taken a sneaky peek in the van next door. We agree to show me mine if you show me yours when we’re back in the car park tomorrow. People drift off to bed early. The night is dark and cold. I climb into my sleeping bag, lying down on the rock hard mattress. I suspect I went to bed too early, I started checking the time from 4am. Too soon for sunrise, close your eyes. Try to get some more rest. Pike’s alarm is the first alarm to go off. We’re not the only ones who start moving but the first out the door. The stars are above us, a promising sign. By the time we reach the summit, we’ve climbed into the clouds. Everything disappears. We wait in the damp, in the grey, in the wind. A few others join us. Some smarter, or simply better prepared, come with their stove and make a hot cup of tea. I regret not bringing my coffee. Next time. The clouds part briefly. A glimpse of the valley. A ripple of hope runs through the group but not me. Pike and Kelly decide to descend below the clouds, to see if there’s a view. further down. I wait a while after they leave before coming to a similar conclusion. Spectre-like trees appear through the mist. Mist cascades into the valleys. A window of blue sky opens above us. A shimmer of golden light rests on the edge of the clouds. The coast appears at land’s end. We may not have been rewarded with the sunrise from the summit but we got a little taste of what could have been.
Pike, Kelly, Matteo and I start walking down from the hut together. We’re joined by a couple of others, moving in a group. Conversation flowing easily. The path disappearing quickly. I don’t notice the time, I don’t really notice the descent. I’m starting to feel tired by the time I reach the gravel track. Not enough sleep, too early to start. In the car park Matteo suggests we spend the afternoon in some hot pools. We head back to the visitor centre to see if they can help us out with a recommendation. The pricing of the nearest commercial pools put us off but the tide will be on the way out at Hot Water Beach by the time we get there. At first I’m unsure if I’m going to join. I’ve already covered the East coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. I don’t know if I want to retrace my steps. I skipped Hot Water Beach because how good can it be? In the end I decide to find out. I’ve enjoyed the company, it might be nice to go somewhere with others for once.
There’s a small crowd on the beach when I arrive. I assume they’re congregated where the hot water is. All you have to do is bring a spade, and dig yourself a hole. Better yet, bring some new friends and have them dig a hole for you. The beach begins as all good beaches do, taking your shoes off to feel the white sand underfoot. Things get weird when you reach the hot spring. The water streaming over the sand towards the sea is steaming. People have pink toes, pink feet up to their ankles where they’ve stood for too long in the almost boiling water. The trick (or at least what we did) is to dig closer to the sea. To start with a cold base and allow the hot streams to flow in. Sitting on the sand, in a pool of hot water, under a blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds, almost cold beer in hand. I find myself very relaxed in a hot pool with almost strangers. From here even the sea looks tempting. I’m not sure if my brain is confused because of the hot water but I decide I’m going in. I leave the relative comfort of our pool and wade out into the waves. Diving in, washing off the sweat from the hike, the sand from the beach. This is so much easier to do when you know you can get back into a hole filled with hot water afterwards.
After the beach we met up again at the freedom camping spot in Cook’s Beach. We were anxious about whether there would be room for all of us. One Hiace, one L300 and one Odyssey filed in to the empty spaces. We set up our tables, cooked, ate and drank together. I was reminded of the good ol’ days, of the communal rooms of American and European hostels in my twenties. Here was something that seemed to be missing from the hostel in Auckland. Something that has been missing from most of the designated freedom camping areas. People coming together, sharing stories, comparing situations in a way that brought us closer together rather than further apart. The sky was dark, the air getting colder before it got late. We each retired to our vans for an early night. The weather in the morning was good. Pike and Kelly were going to Cathedral Cove, Matteo was heading back to Rotorua for work. I still hadn’t gotten round to figuring out the next step of my own journey. I decided to stick around, to go back to Cathedral Cove. I really didn’t have anywhere else I needed to be. The sun was shining on us, the sea inviting. For me it was a day without pressure, I’d already seen the sights, taken my photos. I could enjoy the simplicity of being in a beautiful place, the company of people who exist outside of my own head, the warmth of the sun on my face. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with McCandless’s claim “happiness is only real when shared”, but it’s certainly better this way.