New Zealand: Farewell North Island

The time has come to leave New Plymouth. The scent of the Great Walks is strong. I need to continue the journey South. I have options, the coast road to Wanganui or The Forgotten World Highway. The few people I know who have done the highway tell me to do it. Kelly sends me a guide she’s put together. I’ll try and stop at every location. I brave the supermarket before leaving town. One with a bigger carpark, with bays further away from trolley parks, with more empty bays on either side. On the straight road out the traffic clears. The buildings disperse. The rolling hills return. The endless pasture begins. The green fields are flooded with white. Spring has begun, lambing season. The sheep population explodes. I stop at a couple of saddles, taking a photo of the rolling hills that disappear into the downward reaching clouds. I drive off the main route to look at a tunnel. I play at being a nightmare tourist, leaving the van in the dark with the lights on. I hope that no cars come. I run to the other end of the tunnel, look back, take a quick picture. I get back in the van, drive out of the tunnel, turn around and drive back the way I’ve come. To begin with I wonder if the forgotten world referenced isn’t the land the highway passes through but the world outside. We have forgotten these farmlands. Do they have internet here? I don’t have mobile coverage. A sign notifies a hole in the road has been left awaiting repair for 15 months. A rusted out steam engine lies beside a carpark, much like the collapsing barns and tumbledown houses by the roadside. Everything is forgotten. A pheasant tumbles into the road, a desperate plea for a quick death before a last second change of mind. I drive in to Whangamomona. The small town is the closest civilisation gets to a foothold along the highway. The hotel is closed so I don’t get to use another of the otherwise completely unnecessary pages in my passport collecting a stamp from the self-proclaimed republic. Everything in town is closed. I expected to spend two days driving but with half the day still ahead of me and being halfway already, I might as well keep going.

I turn off again to find Mount Dampner Falls. The signs at the gate warn this track passes through private farmland. I don’t expect to be shot, I have come to take this as an advance warning the path will be slick with poo. A brown stream flows through the farmland. New born lambs run from the fence as I pass. Older babes have poked their heads through the wire, snacking on the slightly greener grass beyond. At some point I’m going to come to the waterfall. I always assume I’m at the bottom of the falls, walking towards them. I’m surprised to find the same brown stream hurling itself over a cliff to become the second highest waterfall in the North Island. I look for a moment, feeling the rain. It’s fine isn’t it? I fear that waterfalls don’t do it for me. Seen one, seen ’em all. On my way back to the van I hear a swoosh. An Australisian magpie flies overheard. On the second pass I feel it scrape against my hood. I’d heard of this behaviour when I lived in Melbourne but never experienced it. Along with the baby sheep, there must be some baby magpies nearby. I jog through the rain, through the poo, away from the bird, back to the safety of my white metal box. After feeling disillusioned with Mount Dampner Falls I find myself wondering if I’ve seen too much. I’ve become desensitised. The trouble with travel is you’re still chasing a high. The next oh wow. The Forgotten World Highway leaves the asphalt behind. The gravel road descends into Tangarakau Gorge. Orange cones indicate either too much or not enough road. I hear the oh wow slip out of my mouth. Steep cliffs of dense forest. Walls of green on either side of the road so thick I wonder how anyone penetrated the bush to build the road, or even why. Giant trees extend out of the already ridiculously tall canopy. Eastern rosellas fly off from the trees. A jazzier flash of green against the forgotten trees. This is a scenic drive indeed. The gorge ends in other walls of green. Empty hills stripped of all life but the sheep and the grass.

The final section of the Forgotten World Highway is familiar to me. I stayed somewhere off here on my way to Paraparumu for the first lockdown. My second fuel stop at the BP garage on the corner, Taramunui loses its familiarity after this. I don’t know this town. The road leaves with me onboard. I’m nearly at my spot for the night. I drive past the bridge despite all of the comments on Campermate screaming don’t go past the bridge. I’m sure there must be an actual spot where the app says. I get there, there’s nothing. I make a 16 point turn and go back. Rain patters down on the roof. Puddles form outside all of the doors. I haven’t yet got stuck in the van, I wonder if tonight might be the night. I get out my stove, boil some water. Things have progressed since those early days. Three minute noodles really are fast. I’ve come to appreciate the speed, the big bowl of spicy soup at the end. Only two dishes to wash, the pan and a fork. With dinner done, I have no more jobs to do.

I told myself I’d do the loop track here in the morning. Regardless of the weather. Rain is forecast perhaps for days. I wake up to silence of the van roof. The rain floating rather than falling. I make the trip to the toilet, come back and the rain accepts gravities control. Easy to say things like “I don’t mind getting wet until you have to.” I’m in no rush, not that I think the weather will clear. I get outside anyway. The river is home to whio, a rare native only to New Zealand blue duck. I haven’t seen one yet. In the time I’m outside I don’t tick the duck off my list. I do find myself considerably wet. I whack the heater on. The engine does a good impression of the hot rocks of a sauna. My wet waterproof and saturated shorts play the role of the spoonfuls of water poured over the top. The back of the van becomes a small mobile sauna. The rear windows steam up and never clear. Instead of making things worse, finding somewhere to settle in early might be a better plan. The road disappears into nothing. The sky sitting low. I keep driving in the hope I get out of the cloud. There is, just for a second, definition in the blanket of white, grey curls. Perhaps a break. I eventually pull into a car park next to a field surrounded by trees. I listen to the bird song, the mooing of cows in distant fields. The pitter patter of rain through the branches.

I thought maybe I’d go somewhere, do something today but I don’t. I sit around the van with all the doors open, the windows too. The moisture I brought in yesterday still hasn’t left. I change my plans. Tomorrow is Saturday. The Kapiti Coast park run will be happening. I send off a couple of inquiring messages to the heroes of my story so far and arrange to spend the weekend back with Jason and Andrea. I tell myself I can use the rest of the time to clean the van, to clean everything in the van. I arrive in time for dinner. Returning to somewhere I know, where the plates are, which drawer the cutlery is in is strange. Although it shouldn’t be that strange, I’ve been back to places before. This feels more like coming home, even though it isn’t. In the evening I take my seat, because I really did get that comfortable, for a movie with the boys. Come the morning I go out for a run, get an official time for the route I ran relentlessly during the lockdown. The rest of the weekend slips by playing video games with Luke, watching more movies with Bobby. I don’t clean the van, or anything inside. It is nice to be back, but I refuse to let myself get too comfortable, worried again I may never leave. 

I drive to Wellington for the first time. The roads become busier, the hills covered in houses. I pass through the centre of the little capital. Cars park on the roadside, everything feels narrow. I can’t wait to get parked, to get out of the van. I go up Mount Victoria first. At less than 200 meters I’m not sure how they got away with the prefix. Victoria Hill presumably not impressive enough. I drop over the far side into the city proper. I’ve been set up to like Wellington by people telling me I’ll like Wellington. The first thing that hits me are the sounds. Music from every era spills out of the open front bars, restaurants, cafes. Pockets of people move through the streets, the city busy but not crowded. I meet up with my friend Dave who I realise I can’t have seen in over 5 years. Not since I left Melbourne. I wonder if I’ll recognise him. Fortunately we all look the same. He takes me on a brief tour of some of his favourite bars and we consume some delicious beers. At the end of the day I follow the road around Mount Victoria, watching the city lights reflect in the deep, black water of the harbour. I’m looking forward to some time in the city. Back at the car-park on the outskirts of the city I notice the lingering surprise. This is allowed. Cars, vans, and motorhomes line the edges, all carrying the blue sticker confirming they are permitted. I notice too, a familiar car. Keeping to my unintended two week schedule I realise I’ve run into Ellie and Harper again.

Wellington, much like Melbourne, is a city to experience rather than a city of sights. I was glad for company for some time in the city. Walking this time through the tunnel beneath Mount Victoria. For what it’s worth, I don’t recommend this method of getting into the city. I came out of the tunnel coughing up exhaust fumes. Harper had a couple of interviews at some of the local bars. I decided, it being a nice day, Ellie and I would go to a roof-top bar until Harper was done. She convinced me to wait until happy hour so we could get a deal. We drifted through the streets, walking Cuba Street; the home to many of the vintage clothing stores and cafes. In the back alleys and side streets, bars and cafes spilled out into the road. In reality I had neither the time, nor the money to fully explore Wellington. We made our way over to the Arborist to grab a drink on the roof. The views of the city leave a lot to be desired, but being above the street meant not sharing the air with traffic. The girl behind the bar told us made up prices and then charged us something else altogether. When Harper came to join us we met him outside, I let them lead me to other bars where happy hour continued for several more.

The next day I rose slowly, having consumed the most amount of beers on this trip so far. I made my way down to the supermarket to find the caffeine Gods were watching over me. I don’t know if it was national coffee day, or international coffee day, or just free coffee day at the shop. Regardless, after I’d done my shopping I was rewarded with a free coffee. By the time I got back to the van I was feeling a little more human and ready to spend a few hours pretending to care about history in Te Papa; New Zealand’s national museum. This is one of the places I remember coming to most last time around, mostly due to a family misunderstanding. Things had changed and also they hadn’t. There was no real structure, no easy way to follow one exhibit to the next. I’d also made the catastrophic error of being there during the school holidays. The queue for the earthquake experience was unreasonable. Considering I’ve experienced the real thing now I probably didn’t miss much. I took in the Gallipoli exhibition with impressive models, stories detailing the experiences of individuals making thing that more personal, and some cool visual effects displaying troop deployment and movement. In the end I felt myself being drawn towards the art on the upper floors. Apparently bright colours and flashing lights are of more interest to me than the past. After my fill of culture I made my way back to the van. Exhausted from drinking, from walking in and out of the city, I needed an early night. In the morning I was leaving, catching the first ferry South to Picton.

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