New Zealand: Canterbury

The final stretch of the Lewis Pass is magnificent. High rolling burnt yellow hills. The braids of silver stones and milk-blue rivers appear as a reflection of the bright blue sky and pure white clouds. I get to Hanmer Springs to find the public holiday in full swing. There are people everywhere. No matter, I head to a campground for a hot shower. The man on the desk at the Hanmer Springs Top 10 does the decent thing and gives me the single person discount and still proceeds to charge me $38 to park on a piece of grass next to someone else. I need to learn to ask how much a night will cost before I commit to it. Maybe it’s a holiday price, maybe I’m too used to off-season prices. I’m baffled by the number of other people who have also paid to stay here. Particularly those in buses and motorhomes. You can stay in all of these other places for free. You have all of the amenities on board. Why are you paying $50 a night not to use them?

Hanmer Springs is a popular holiday resort due to being snuggled up around the toes of the St James Range, and because there’s a commercial thermal pool operation in town. I spend the afternoon lying down, thinking about going to the pools for a hot bath after the children have all gone to bed. For whatever reason the pools close at 6pm so I decide to go in the morning and ruin the rest of my day. In the morning I wake up early, there’s absolutely no way I’m queueing behind all of these people on site for a shower. I enter the kitchen to find two parents and a young child. Awake before everyone else but not through choice. We have a chat. Mum, unbelievably or otherwise, is from Basingstoke. She can’t be much older than I am. I don’t recognise her. We don’t exchange names, or school history so neither of us have to worry about having forgotten the other existed. The population of the kitchen swells, a sure sign to hit the road.

The high street of Hanmer Springs is still empty enough for me to park easily for the day. There’s already a queue building ahead of the as yet still not open hot pools. I’ll go later. I walk up Conical Hill. A woman tells me I’m hardcore for wearing flipflops. I laugh because a gentle gradient walk up a small hill isn’t hardcore for me anymore. I’ve got nothing on my back and it’s over in no time. My flipflops do let me down. I catch the dodgy one on a rock and it unflops around my foot. Still laughing, I reflop the rubber and walk down. I picnic in the park for lunch with my book, waiting for the day to quiet down, to cool down too, before going to the springs. I knew what I was letting myself in for when I approached the mega industrial tourist complex. Multiple concrete pools, several plastic slides and too many families. Why I thought this would be relaxing is beyond me. Warm water on a warm day is a lot less refreshing than the cold crash of snow melt water in the nearby rivers. I find a spot in the shade and stretch out enough time to justify the $35 entry fee. There is a time and a place for hot springs, both of which are winter. I probably could have got away with not bothering. Still, the town of Hanmer Springs is nice, the setting pleasant. Then again, I am missing another day on the trail. The fewer, friendlier people. The relative ease of spending a day on the move. The movement through a place slow, gentle. Waking up every day in a new place. Ok, so I do get to wake up in a new place every day in the van but for whatever reason it doesn’t feel as easy, as simple. 

For a change I head out of town to the near empty freedom camping area. Size being no excuse for bus drivers, motorhomes or even caravans. A few other vans pulled in over the course of the evening but the field never filled up. In the morning with clouds still thin and high, I went to Mount Isobel, behind Hanmer Springs, way above Conical Hill. On my way, traffic poured out of town. The weekend crowd moving back to Christchurch. This time I pulled on my boots, boots with even more holes in. At least today is dry, several hot days in succession. I’ll be surprised if I find any water on the trail. The ascent begins on cleared slopes. Pine trees felled some time ago. The late morning sun begins to draw sweat. I’m glad to reach the remaining trees higher up. The temperature dropping significantly in the shade. The trail weaves tightly, rapidly gaining altitude. From this distance, the town is revealed as a village, surrounded by farmland, pine forest and naked mountains. The emerging environmental extremist in me bristles at the wasteland. Climbing higher more mountains emerge in deepening shades of blue. Is that wobbly blue line on the new horizon the Pacific Ocean?

The dry rocks underfoot are loose, giving way under my shifting weight. The channel cut into the soil no doubt a torrent of water after rain. You can’t beat the weather. I arrive on the ridge to find the breeze, the pleasant views over the alpine terrain, the summit trig stark against the backdrop of blue. The last of the plants recede to leave lichen and moss the only hangers on. The worn to sand rocks that make up the track slip slide down under every step. Care required no matter the conditions. You have to go gently. From the top, the view North is preferred. Rolling peaks, patches of snow, the glimpse of a river in the next valley. The Hanmer basin is all too human. Time to come down but I’m not finished. Way ahead of the suggested time I know I’ve got more in me. There’s a link track to a waterfall. Several weeks at least must have passed since I last deliberstely sought out a waterfall so why not? The sign warning of 200 meters of challenging terrain doesn’t mislead. Half the track has collapsed, washed away perhaps. I crash and slide down to the Dog Stream Waterfall. A narrow tube of water coming from somewhere. I don’t remember snow or a stream in the tops. Am I impressed or have I just had to work hard to get here? Regardless, I’m pleased to enjoy the moment. I scramble and climb back on to the Mount Isobel track. Now what? Back to the van for a lazy afternoon. I should have made more of an effort to find a swimming hole. I’m sticky with sweat. On the bright side everything inside the van is at least as filthy as me.

I tell myself to get up and go. Get the two hour drive to Christchurch done so it’s over. The sooner I get there the better. The road is long and straight, flat out across the Canterbury Plains until I hit the sprawl. Strip malls, garages, traffic. I weave steadily towards the centre, to somewhere I can finally lay my laptop to rest. Or more hopefully, repair. The man behind the desk give me the impression I’m likely to be waiting several weeks. Fine, I guess. Without it, at least I don’t have to worry about my device being stolen from the van. I’ll have to make a 7 hour journey back to collect the damned thing. Then he tells me a 6 year old piece of technology counts as vintage. A vintage laptop. Ridiculous. So it might take weeks if they can source any required parts. Brilliant. I move on to the Botanical Gardens, the only place I can seemingly park and even then I only find space at the furthest end. I park like an arsehole in the hope it prevents anyone else parking too close to me. Something is wrong here. It’s me. My plans have been disrupted. The idea I had of how this might pan out over the next few months is gone. Or at least seemingly gone. I have to leave Christchurch. I have to be 650km away in a week. There are things I want to do between here and there. Now I’m going to have to come back, but when? It’s all gone wrong. Only it hasn’t gone wrong at all. The catastrophising of a minor crisis has to stop. I have to be in Te Anau on the 23rd of November. This is the only thing that has to happen. Everything else is optional. At some point, I will have to collect my laptop from Christchurch. This doesn’t have to happen the day it is or isn’t repaired. I made the decision the laptop is important. Now I have to live with and adapt to the consequences of that choice. 

Christchurch then, in a bad mood and not really wanting to be here. The city doesn’t help. Still in the rebuild stage following the 2011 earthquake the place feels off. The few remaining tall buildings are spread out, some of them fenced off and cladded with scaffolding. Other old, boarded up buildings nestle up to the shiny new structures of glass and chrome. Massive plots of empty land have either been left vacant or filled up with cars after whatever remained had been demolished. Whole areas of the centre feel empty, because they are empty. In the corner of one such empty block are 185 Empty Chairs. This is a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives in the earthquake. The chairs don’t take up a lot of space, enough space for 185 people who will never sit in those chairs again. Showing the scale of lives lost impresses me. I am moved, if only slightly. I still have my own question marks over why people still choose to live in a country that could explode at any second. I head in to the most solid looking stretch of the city. People file in and out of the high street brand stores. Office workers take their lunch, but where are their offices? The city is lonely despite the masses of people. It’s too early for me to have a drink, there is nowhere I want to go. The closest place to camp for free is half an hour away. I leave Christchurch. Impressed but fed up. 

In the morning I enjoy a minor episode of anxiety in another supermarket car park that is full. I could find an empty carpark to practise in some time, but whenever i’m in an empty carpark, parking is easy. There aren’t any cars about. I don’t want to practise in a full carpark because it’s full of cars and I might hit one of them. I manage to find a space not next to a trolley park and don’t crash into anything else. I’ve managed to slip into a funk and I can’t shake it. Do a couple more jobs I tell myself. Fuel is cheap in Christchurch so I fill up. I need to get my wheels realigned so I phone a man and book it in for the following morning. A mistake, I should have seen if there was room to get it done this afternoon. Now I have to leave and come back again. I should start shopping for new hiking boots. The gap between the leather and the sole is growing, the number of holes increasing. They’re not going to get through many more multi-day hikes. Another hit to the budget. This isn’t working. I need to go somewhere, to stretch my legs. To let my mind run free. Akaroa seems a long way, Godley Head is closer and I can fit a little walk in. Thin, high clouds cover the sky. The air sticky warm. Being outside isn’t helping because it’s gross. Godley Head is ok, there are a few abandoned World War 2 batteries. I always think these would be better if they left the guns behind as well. What there is, is a hut. Placed, seemingly at random away from the concrete, in the middle of a sheep-grazed pasture. Scott’s Cabin in a tiny piece of Antarctic history that was never used. For the first time in days I’m interested. A planned weather station on Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition that went all the way there, only to come back again. I remember walking past the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Maybe I could go there, that might be enjoyable. Of course it’s $50 and I find I’m not that interested after all. 

I leave the city again, I come back in to the city and drive around the block several times looking for a place to park by Budget Tyre where I’m due to have my wheels aligned. I realise on the 4th pass I’m supposed to park inside. I drop between the low ceiling and narrow walls and hope this doesn’t cost me too much money. I wander around the few shops in the area, buy a new journal, start to feel better. The time passes and I return and all my good work is undone. The wheels are sorted, the price is low. I’ve now got to manoeuvre my way back out of the tiny garage. I feel my heart-rate increase. Can I do this? How do I do this? I start reversing and I stop breathing. I’m moving backwards, around a corner. There isn’t enough space. I don’t know what I’m doing. Please stop the ride I want to get off. One of the mechanics watches me struggle, offers to move a car. He doesn’t move the bins and the cone until I’ve already knocked them over. I move backwards, forwards, backwards forwards. Objects looking a lot closer in the mirror than they actually are. In the end I escape without doing any further damage. I park on the roadside, out of sight of Budget Tyre and remember how to breathe. That was not a good experience. I check my phone, still no word on the laptop. Fuck it, I think. I’ll just go. It’s going to be ages. I drive back out on to the endless stretch of State Highway 1 to Timaru. I arrive after what is a long, straight, easy drive. Because that’s how driving is, most of the time. Easy, on empty roads, with plenty of room. Not inside a garage. On arrial in Timaru I receive a message to tell me my laptop has been repaired now can I please come and get it. Fantastic.

The laptop will have to wait until tomorrow. I’ve already checked in for the night. I need to do laundry. I wash everything together, which is fine. I can’t hang anything out on the line because of the rain. The tumble dryer is and always will be a problem. Socks, pants, my hat, t-shirts get balled up in a corner of the fitted sheet and never, ever dry. I iron t-shirts for the first time in my life in the hope the heat will help them dry faster. Everything else gets draped over various surfaces in the van. There’s something else I’m supposed to do this evening, the whole reason I came to Timaru. With rain set to continue long into the night I’m reluctant to go out again. In the end I decide this might be my only opportunity. I put my waterproof trousers on, tucking my boot laces up inside. I pull my waterproof on, tightening the hood over my hat. Warm enough, and mostly dry I head for the coast. A heavy grey sky sits over the town. Drizzle sweeps across the beach. Trucks burst through roadside puddles. The field of grass squelches underfoot. My left boot begins to fill. The floodlights from the port light up Marine Parade and a stretch of the beach beneath. Two other people, decked out in waterproof gear are standing at the rope barrier, looking down at the incoming tide. I join them. We wait together. Waiting for bodies to wash up. The woman doesn’t need much invitation to talk, and having spent the last few days stuck in my own head I’m glad of the company. She is the 1000th person to tell me if I’m into birds, I must go to the island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi. Her husband sits in the car, out of the rain. She’s thinking of giving up. “You can’t go yet,” I said. “They aren’t here yet.” On an incoming wave, two flashes of white surf in. The bodies hit the shore, stagger upright and begin waddling across the sand. Little blue penguins. There is a small colony living in the rocks, in the corner of Timaru’s beach. Undisturbed by the port activity, undisturbed by the three people watching over them from the footpath. The pair of penguins slowly make their way up the beach. Stopping on rocks, nosing around. Trying to remember where they left their chicks. The woman, having seen the penguins has had enough of the rain. She offers me a ride back to the campsite but I want to keep watching penguins. In the end I don’t stay much longer, one more bird floats in on the tide. Finally, I realise, I’m starting to feel better. I walk back past people’s houses in the dark. I don’t remember the last time I was out after dark. Darkness is usually an indicator of bed time. Lights from trees illuminate windows. Fairy lights hang from Windows. Inside a shopping centre giant wreaths hang from the ceiling. I keep forgetting. Christmas is coming.

In the morning while I’m packing away to drive all the way back to Christchurch one of the old boys comes over. “Did ya see the news last night?” he says with a smile. I assume he’s going to tell me something about the coronavirus situation in the UK. I don’t know why. We’ve never spoken before, he’s got no idea where I’m from. “No, I haven’t seen the new.” “They’re going to take these vans off the road,” he informs me. I must look confused, which I am. Toyota have issued a recall? Ah, no. It turns out he’s seen a speech from the new minister for tourism who has said people shouldn’t be able to hire camper vans that don’t have a toilet. What he’s gone and done is assumed I’m part of the problem. He tells me they’ll need to have a toilet, a bin, enough water. Which, funnily enough is the current certification requirements. I tell him “I have a toilet, and I can use it. I’ve got a bin, I’ve got all the water. They won’t be taking my van off the road.” “They will,” he says, “this government can do anything they like.” He seems less happy now he’s remembered the current government prioritised his survival over the economy. We’re edging towards an argument. What is it with old white men who are so keen to celebrate the end of freedoms they were able to enjoy themselves? “Anyway, have a nice trip.” he says before wandering off to ruin someone else’s morning. I spend most of the drive back to the city telling myself to forget about it. He’ll be dead soon anyway. I pick up the laptop, turn it on, it turns out. Get back in the van and drive all the way back to Timaru. I’ve recently discovered Little Blue Penguins are an exceptional antidote to a bad mood. The evening is dry, more than a handful of people are stood at the ropes, waiting. A couple of volunteers in high-vis jackets wander up and down. Checking nests, keeping count of the ocean-going parents as they return. They come in pairs, two, then one, then another two. The volunteers point out the nests. The chicks have emerged from hiding, demanding a dinner. Some have moulted already and can’t be long from heading out to fish for themselves. There are still two tiny little balls of grey fluff waiting for a feed. Some people stay only long enough to watch the first two come in. I find I’m out for an hour, wandering up and down after the volunteers enjoying every single moment.

I wake up the next morning in more clothes than I remember going to sleep in. The temperature crashed over night. I’ve lost another day now and it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve got one spare, the rest I need to get to Te Anau. I hit the road. Heading inland, past Geraldine, towards the velvet covered foothills of the Southern Alps and their soft toes. I move through Burke’s Pass. The massive saw tooth ridge stretches as far as I can see in both directions. The mountains appear more like sand dunes collapsing under their own weight. No trees holding them together. A layby triggers memories of the first time round. This was one of the first stops; the Mackenzie Lakes. I park up in Tekapo to stretch my legs. Cloud hangs in the Hooker Valley. The electric blue of Lake Tekapo doesn’t really explode the way I remember. I rub sunscreen into my face, lace up my boots and start walking. Taking in the Mount John Summit loop before the clouds unroll over the lake and drop more rain. I work my way up to the summit with a sweat building. There’s an observatory where they do gravitational microlensing which is as nuts as it sounds. You line up two stars and the gravity of the nearest one warps the space around it, which acts as a magnifying glass which lets you focus on the further star and identify planets around it. I don’t think tonight will be clear enough for such ridiculous behaviour. A cloud of dust hangs over the gravel road on the distant shore. I stroll back to the van. I make a cheese and pickle sandwich in a different car park. A male mallard duck comes to see if I’ve got anything for him. I don’t, which doesn’t put him off. Twice I have to swat him away as he flies up in an attempt to grab the sandwich out of my hands. I’m almost impressed.

I move on to the swimming pool blues of Lake Pukaki. I can’t work out if the patches of cloud are rising or falling. Grey streaks smear across the sky. The impression I had in the Nelson Lakes National Park of black walls of rock rising straight up is repeated here. White streaks of snow around the peak of the distant Aoraki Mount Cook blend with the sky. The summit completely obscured. I walk down to the Church of the Good Shepherd to find omnipresent God isn’t home and I can’t have a look inside. Pink and purple lupins line the lake shore. Invasive imports brought into help beautify the place. I can’t help but wonder what the people were looking at when they decided this was a necessary move. The colour of the water alone is enough for me. If I take the time to look up from that, mountains stretch possibly for ever, it’s difficult to be sure where they end. The only question I have is did trees ever grow here? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell if an area is an agricultural wasteland or a glacial one. With the weather being less than ideal I decide I’ll come back for Hooker Valley rather than rushing up there this afternoon. Instead I find somewhere to park up, positioning the window of my bedroom/kitchen/bathroom with a view over the lake. Finally, I recognise I’m feeling better. Decisions have been made, the journey has started up again and I am on my way.

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