I stare up at a thin crust of white over grey plastic. A night so cold the condensation formed ice crystals on the ceiling. Outside, the grass glistens. Crystals of frost already beginning to thaw. I tried to park where I thought the sun would hit but I’ve missed, managing to land in the shadow of the solitary tall tree. I stand in the morning sun like a meerkat on sentry, hands clasped around the first cup of tea. I don’t expect to be going anywhere fast. I put the keys in the ignition just to see. Lights come on. That’s more than I got in the snow. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. I don’t go all the way to action, but I’m confident the van might actually start when I’m ready to go. I eat breakfast, drink more tea, warming up as the sun climbs higher. The engine bursts to life. I have to drive back the way I’ve come to find the cheapest fuel I’ve seen in months. Then I drive all the way back again. The price of the fuel making me feel significantly better for making the round trip.
I’m on what is widely recognised as a scenic route, which I’m sure might be estate agent for challenging mountain pass. I’ve driven the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, Te Urewera Rainforest Route, the Pacific Coast Highway. This is the first one I’ve been on that doesn’t have a name. There are no recommended speed signs on the corners, there are unsealed sections between farms. Less than two hours from Auckland, things are starting to feel remote. On one of the higher climbs I lose sight of the road as the mountains of the Central Plateau come into view. The wide, snow covered slopes of Ruapehu and the icy cone of Ngauruhoe. I feel the rush of excitement, the mountains are getting closer. I stop at Marokopa Falls for long enough to see it. The walk down to the lookout is less than 5 minutes, I don’t feel like I’ve worked hard enough. I continue driving, passing through grass-green pastures of grass clinging to the naked slopes of the surrounding valley walls. Ferns and manuka scrub rise out of the grass. The fields disappear, replaced by impenetrable forest. There’s nowhere to stop, no opportunity to explore. At first I’m annoyed, the landscape appears untouched. Of course it does, there’s no where to stop. Leaving the forest untouched is probably for the best. The forest fades away, the empty fields of grass returning. On the high, steep slopes curves of sand show where the hillside is beginning to collapse. How long does a mountain take to wash away?
I drive for close to an hour and see no other cars. I pop out on the West coast to my first real view of Taranaki. The white tipped black cone across the sea. I hope this isn’t the last time I see the summit. The mountain is majestic. A smooth curve up to the picture perfect peak, then a slope down to a jagged plateau before the final drop off into the sea. I stop to walk along the beach. After the idyllic, sheltered white sand coves of the Far North, the black sand appears mysterious, exotic. Something strange happens in my brain where I suddenly want to know what the sand tastes like like. I don’t try it. The iron rich grains sparkle in the sun like silver giltter at Christmas. If I had a magnet I’d like to check how much iron there really is, but on this day, like all others, I don’t have a magnet on me. I’ve been on the road for too long today. I need to find somewhere to stop. Tongaporutu Domain seems to the next place on route. Perfect for checking out the Three Sisters sea-stacks and Elephant Rock. What I should have done, was check the tide times when I returned to civilisation for fuel and had some signal. Instead what I did was approach the man wearing waders in the car park. “You look like a man who might know when the tide times are,” I say, expecting somebody who’s dressed like they’ve been in the sea to have some knowledge of it. “Sorry mate, I’ve got not signal out here so I’m not sure. High tide may be around 6pm looking at it,” he suggests. We look at the sea coming up the small estuary, the beach round the cliffs underwater. I don’t think I’ll be getting out to have a look today.
I park up, considering the other jobs I could do this afternoon. The sun is out so anything is possible. I sit in the doorway and begin to take off my boots. These are probably the priority. As I’m in the process of getting comfortable another man wanders over to me. “Where are you from then?” he asks, in a definitely Northern accent. “From the UK,” I reply as is my standard response, knowing already what’s coming next. “Ah yeah, whereabouts?” We always think we’ll know where someone is from if they’re from home. “Basingstoke,” I tell him. He stares at me blankly. We rarely do. “About an hour outside of London,” I clarify. We get to talking about all manner of subjects, starting with vans. Ben’s bus holds four children, two dogs, a wood burning stove and a fermenter for his homebrew, suggesting that you can in fact have it all. When he revealed he’s making his own beer I had to see how, expecting something fantastic. I was surprised at the simplicity. In the rear storage, tucked away in the corner stand two fermenters. He buys the pre-made kits, adds sugar and water, and leaves the wort to do its thing. The temperature is fairly steady, the bumping around in the back is a good thing he assures me. There’s only one way to find out, a taste test. For something rolling around in the back of a bus, the beer tastes pretty good. The kit was for a pale ale and I definitely get some hints of passion fruit. There’s a little fizz, and then the homebrew burn. Somehow I don’t think Ben knows the alcohol content but you sure can feel it. As darkness falls Ben returns to his bus, the warmth of his wood burning stove. I take my beer glow off to bed, wrapping myself up for what feels like another cold night.
Clouds rolled in overnight, adding their warmth. I wake up to find the ceiling clear of ice, which is the preferred way to start a day. In the morning somebody approaches me to ask if I know the tide times are. Hot tip for the Three Sisters, check the tide times before you arrive. Nobody knows what they are. We can tell the tide is going out as more and more sand becomes visible. In a couple of hours we’ll be able to get beyond the cliffs. I join Ben and his family for a walk out along the slippery rocks to the open ocean. Elephant Rock is a tiny island at the edge of the river mouth that sort of, in the right light, if you’ve already been told, looks like an Elephant. There’s a trunk, a big ear, a front leg and a back leg. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see. The gap between the legs is a tunnel piercing the base of the rock. I pass through into the unsheltered wind blasting off the sea. Away from the shelter of the cliffs the windchill is freezing. I’m glad to have put on several layers for this little adventure. I pull my hat a little tighter over my head to be safe. The Three Sisters are a set of sea-stacks. When one topples another seems to carve out of the cliff face at the same time. Or maybe there are always more than three and you’re supposed to guess which ones are related. Is it all of then? I think it might be. I head back to the shelter of the grass field in which the van is parked. I wave off the brown bus as it leaves the parking area. Everyone is on their own slow moving journey to the South Island for the summer. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I see Ben and his family.
I make a stop at the White Cliffs walkway. There’s no formal car park, a few pickups scattered on the road side. I barely make a tight turn, wheels spinning on gravel, before finding a place just far enough off the road. The sign says the track is closed because of lambing. There probably aren’t any lambs below the cliffs. I’ve still got no idea what the tide times are, it might still be going out. I’ll chance a short walk along the exposed sand before heading back. I’d seen the cliffs from a distance. A towering block of white marking the land’s end and the ocean’s beginning. Up close the description of white is definitely a lie. Green algae, red minerals, grey rocks. The cliffs are everything but white. This doesn’t stop them being impressive. The walls stretch out along the coast in dramatic fashion. I walk as far as the next cliff fall, telling myself I’ll turn back then. I pass the cliff fall, picking a waterfall tumbling on to the beach as my next marker. I pass the waterfall. At some point the tide will turn, I’ll be better off not being beneath the cliffs when that happens. I eventually turn round and head back to the van. The closer I get to the city of New Plymouth the less I see of Mount Taranaki. The weather does this magic trick where it makes the mountain disappear. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t know it was there.
I settle in for a few days, waiting for clear skies, for at least a chance of a good view. I pull into a camp ground in the city. The woman in reception informs me she hasn’t seen British people in ages and she’s just checked in another couple. She’s put me next to them. “What are their names?” I ask, thinking I know who I’m next to. “Eleanor was her name,” she said. I drive in next to a familiar Estima, I seem to be running a two week schedule of bumping into Ellie and Harper. We catch up, as you do, over places visited, trading off the differences between traveling alone and travelling together, plans for the coming days. Their warrant of fitness is due on their home, the New Zealand equivalent of an MOT test. They’re booked in for the next day. I know sooner or later it would be of great benefit if I booked my own van in for a service. I know I’m not really taking enough care. I tell myself it’s because I don’t know how, but I suspect I also don’t want to know how. Nothing knowingly has gone wrong in a while so I’m convinced everything is fine.
I spend a day wandering the streets of New Plymouth. I’ve come to recognise in cities something I perhaps never noticed before is how much they smell like food. Frying onions, hot fat, fresh bread. I’m not hungry but I want to eat. I walk the Coastal Walkway, a shared path which, to the surprise of nobody, runs the length of New Plymouth’s coast. There isn’t much of a beach in town, the rocky breakwater leads directly into the waves when the tide is in. Like most urban centres across New Zealand, New Plymouth is no City of 100 Spires but I like it. The open walls of industrial buildings are painted with murals of native bird life, of deep sea divers, of elephants and rhinos. There are small, hip looking cafes along the main streets. A diverse mix of cultures spill inviting aromas of their lunch menu out on to the street. I spend some time in Puke Ariki, a small museum covering the geology, ecology and cultural history of the local area. At some point I realise I’m not really reading any of the information boards. I pay some attention to some of the artefacts behind the glass but I don’t think I’m interested. I drift towards the exhibit on local fauna where I’m met with a “hello”. I didn’t come into the museum looking to socialise. I find myself drawn into a conversation with a woman who reveals herself to be a local candidate in the upcoming election. Being unable to vote, I remain unclear on why she decided to first engage and then continue to discuss events with me. We talked about the current government’s response. Was the lockdown a success? Does the track and trace app work? Benefiting from following along with the unravelling of the UK’s response I find it perhaps a little easier to support the current local government’s decisions. I am still free to travel. Most places of business are open. I can stand within two meters of another person in a museum and talk without having to wear a mask. New Zealand’s response to the virus has cost me nothing but time, and time is the one thing I still have in abundance. After leaving the museum, I concede defeat to the enticing food options available to me and buy a burger and chips from Gamma Ray’s. Only in living in a tiny space do I come to really appreciate the value of eating out. I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean up. I only have to eat, which is ultimately the best bit.
My spot for the next few nights is in the car park of a local sports club. One morning bands of rain pass over. Droplets spread across the rear window like flies on the highway. No sign of the mountain. In the evening, first children, then adults turn up for training sessions. I watch this semblance of normal life, wondering how good you can really get at something with practise of only an hour a week. I take another day, going nowhere, doing nothing. Thick clouds come and go. Along the coast the weather remains dry. Mount Taranaki remains beneath a heavy sky. The clouds seem drawn to the peak, circling like sharks. The forecast tells me I might get one shot. At the weekend. The fine weather for Saturday shifts to Sunday. While it means waiting another day, at least I might avoid the crowds of normal, every-day working people. I float around New Plymouth, keeping my legs warm on the pockets of bush in the outskirts, in the parks in the suburbs and along the coast. Looking inland, looking at the swirling mass of grey I catch a glimpse of the white cap. All I’ve seen of the mountain’s top since I arrived in the city. A storm is forecast for tonight. Unlikely that I’ll see anymore. Lightening flashes, illuminating all the gaps between my curtains and windows. Nothing is quite a perfect fit. Rain beats down, fierce winds strike the van. The rough nights remain the hardest to sleep through. I find brief delight in my decision to go the toilet block moments before the rain began. I made plans to spend the wet morning in town, doing shopping, visiting the library, staying out of the weather. I find myself in a moment of calm, at peace. It isn’t always easy but I’m definitely enjoying this lifestyle more and more.
I wake up, slowly setting myself up for the day. I make breakfast, brew coffee. I wash up, pack away the van. Making sure there’s nothing left out that can fall too far. I drove into town where one of my worst nightmares was realised. The sat-nav had first tried to take me into the multi-storey car park. I’m not 100% sure on the height of the van so don’t take the risk. Instead I end up circling the 30 or so bays outside. They’re all full. Usually I’d park as far away from the entrance as possible, sliding into a double bay I can drive all the way through so when I come to leave I can drive all the way out. The one bay that frees up is almost next to the front door. With a car on one side and no space to drive through. It looked a tight squeeze with a trolley-park on the far side but I was sure I had room. I remained optimistic until I felt the bang. I’d hit the trolley-park. I experienced limited relief in the fact I hadn’t hit somebody else’s car. Maybe I hadn’t hit it too badly. The wing-mirror was pushed up against the van, I’m sure I could push that back. A few other shoppers had heard the crash. Someone says “that’s going to cost you one-hundred-and-forty dollars mate.” What is? The side light and indicator are cracked open, bits of plastic scattered amongst the trolley wheels. Shit. I walk around the van, assessing how much room I have. The woman in the space next to me tells me “You’re a bit close.” Yeah, thanks. She manages to pull out, I quickly adjust so that I’m actually in the bay. Someone else pulls immediately into the vacant bay. I realise there’s nothing I can do now. I still need to go shopping. I let one of the members of staff know I’ve hit the trolley park. They’re not interested. I do my shopping and leave. In the minutes it takes me to get the van out of the bay and on to the road I feel like a new driver again. You want me to pull this metal box in front of all those other, faster moving, metal boxes? My nerves are all over the place. I’m trying to check all the mirrors at once. What if I miss something else? What if I don’t see someone coming? I realise I never pushed the wing-mirror back out. You idiot. New Plymouth suddenly feels huge and full of cars. I need to get off the road.
I find another car park, away from the crowds of early morning supermarket shoppers. I pull the mirror out and look at what I’ve done. Two smashed lights and a dent in the panel above. Brilliant. I have no idea what to do next and yet I start doing things. I begin with the AA who tell me to take it to their recommended repairer down the road. A man looks at the van, tells me it’s going to be at least two weeks before they can book it in and it’ll be off the road for four days. “Couple of problems, I live in it so can’t leave it with you and I need to be in the South Island at the start of October.” He suggests I go to a parts place on the other side of town, they’ll definitely have the lights and will be able to replace them for me too. I arrive at the parts place to find they don’t have the parts and don’t fit them either. They might be able to get them by Monday and there’s a garage down the road that might be able to fit them. “I’ll give you a call,” he says. I don’t know if he’s going to give me a call later today, or on Monday. There’s nothing I can do now, they’re closed for the weekend. I carry on as though nothing has happened. I find somewhere to spend the night, waiting for the weekend. I hope being in the shadow of a 135,000 year old volcano will help me to remember how quickly a tourist driving into an inanimate object fades from the collective shopper’s memory.