New Zealand: The Otago Coast

I leave Rob and Dave’s. Thankful to have had a place to rest, time to reflect. An opportunity to catch up with life at home. I stop on my way out to buy a pair of Chacos. Walking sandals. A pair of footwear that I hope will get me across the river estuaries of the future without unfolding around my foot. I fill up my food storage. Now what? Over Christmas I’d spoken to Iain For Scale, we’d arranged to meet up again in Wanaka before walking the Young-Wilkin/Gillespie Pass Circuit in mid-January. My only plan then is to be there in time. I want to at least drive through Arthur’s Pass and down the remainder of the West Coast. I’ve already accepted I don’t have time to do any of the recommended routes in this part of the country. So what now? Make my way back towards Christchurch, cut back inland and find my way out West. I don’t get far out of Dunedin when I decide to stop. Warrington Domain is on the beach and sounds like as good a spot as any. The large field accepts self-contained, non-self contained vehicles and tents. Being the summer holidays, the domain is busy. Not so busy that I can’t find plenty of room in which to park. A suggestion of what life might have been like, had everything not gone horribly wrong for everyone but me. I walk along the beach, wrapped up in layers. Despite summer having started almost a month ago, the bottom of the South Island still isn’t and might never get warm. The longest day having passed, I can at least rely on the nights coming in sooner. The next day I drift up the coast, stopping anywhere I might find a short walk. Having done almost nothing for close to a week, I’m starting to feel the need to launch myself back into semi-serious hiking. The Otago coast doesn’t really provide this. Men and boys stand on the shore, arms folded and stare at the sea. What are they looking at? I still don’t know. Sometimes they see it, the message is clear. “Grab your board lads,” and they trot into the breaking waves. Seagulls assert their dominance over strips of empty sand. Oyster catchers submerge their carrot orange beaks face deep in the tidal mud. The North Easterly wind turns anything not pinned down into a kite without strings. I hide away in the van, fall asleep in the afternoon and wake up to find nothing has changed. I walk down the beach, being blown along by the gale. I turn around to let the front of my legs receiving a free sand-blasting and return. Being back in the van is good. I prefer the circadian rhythm of a natural night and day. I like my morning routine. I am happy to be on the road again.

There is one major point of interest (as far as I can tell) between Dunedin and Oamaru; the Moeraki Boulders. I’d been well informed that I should try and get there for sunrise, or spend sunset there. Maybe, if it was winter and the sun came up at 8am and went down at 5pm this would be manageable. A 5am start is unlikely, and I’m almost always falling asleep as the sun goes down. I settle for visiting in the middle of the day. I parked up in the hamlet of Moeraki with the intention of walking along the beach. I made the sensible decision of putting sunscreen on my face but neglected my arms and my legs. The beach, unlike the bush, is totally exposed. I had done well, at least I think I’ve done well, in not getting sun burn so far. Having suffered in places as ridiculous as Iceland and Scotland, getting burned in New Zealand really wasn’t going to be a challenge for me. 10 months in is an achievement. The beach is littered with knots of green seaweed. A seagull picks up a clamshell flies over the compact tidal flats and lets go. The clam falls, bounces but doesn’t break. The gull comes down and goes again. This time the shell cracks open. I’m amazed none of the other gulls have come in to fight for the prize. I reach the Moeraki Boulders. There’s a small crowd on the beach, standing on, leaning on, taking photos with the boulders. I am not impressed. Not with the crowd, but the rocks. There are several, maybe 10, quite round boulders half sunk into the sand. There are no other rocks in any direction. This is enough to justify a cafe and a pay and display car park above the sand. I sit on one of the boulders, to make sure I’m not missing anything. Nothing happens. I notice the skin on my arms is hot. I should probably get out of the sun, which doesn’t happen until I’m back at the van. My right arm remains in the sun while I drive on again. By the time i reach All Day Bay, I have a Neapolitan streak of strawberry pink between the vanilla white and chocolate brown of my under and upper forearm. Only one of these colours is an exaggeration. At least, I hope anyway, I have learned my lesson before the promised heat of late summer. 

I wake up on New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow is January. My last, full uninterrupted month of freedom. This little piggy needs to go to the job market, the bank, and whatever government organisation issues tax file numbers. But not yet. I walk the length of All Day Bay, enjoying the silk of sand and the sharp of shingle. The refreshing chill of the Pacific laps at my shins. Yesterday I got sunburn and today I’ve noticed my hands are a cold purple. This country. I brush the sand off my legs. Soon I am going to need a shower. Maybe tonight? Time to move on. Public gardens are a safe place. They generally offer free parking, flush toilets with soap, and if you’re really lucky, an aviary. The aviary in Oamaru is particularly good because it is mostly home to chickens. I do not know if this is deliberate. I keep walking into town. Much of the historical waterfront of Oamaru is made out of limestone, the former warehouses shine white in the afternoon sun. The old stone buildings are now mostly cafes and galleries. For whatever reason Oamaru is also home to the Steampunk Headquarters. Steampunk, as far as I can tell, is a weird nostalgia for the Victorian period of ’style’. Having the misfortune of being both British and self-aware, I don’t get it. This doesn’t take the edge off my appreciation for Oamaru. The heritage is sensible, the architecture stunning. Having obviously stated I don’t get weird nostalgia I land myself in trouble when I step in to the Craftwork Brewery. A proper, old-fashioned, we do it all in house (apart from the bits we don’t), Belgian style brewery. The building is beautiful, the beer is delicious and I find myself longing for a driver. I take the tiniest, lowest percentage Red Sour and sit with a bowl of pretzels in the shade and read about the various beers and brewing styles. I leave in the afternoon to close another loop.

I cruise along the coast road. The ocean shimmering turquoise beyond fields of golden wheat. Over the dark grey hills, black clouds amass. All the weather, all of the time. I arrive in Timaru at an acceptable to park up in Caroline Bay to stay the night. There’s something like a carnival in the nearby park with all the associated paraphernalia. I notice there are buses, vans, trucks, all lining the waterfront. I’m not sure if these are holiday makers or to do with the New Year festivities but again, plenty of room for me. I wait for the fireworks. Standing on a busy pier, waiting for the countdown. The voice on the megaphone is distant but everyone knows whats going on. 7, 6, 5. People pull out cameras. 4, 3, 2. The first rocket goes off. Happy new year! Boom. Explosions in the sky. It’s all over. It’s only just begun. I retreat back into the van. Tomorrow we start again. I’ve been feeling flat these last few days and I know exactly why. One of the benefits of spending a lot of time with myself. I got comfortable. Doing nothing. Going nowhere. I find it easy so it must be good. And for a while it is but the lethargic fog sets in. At least now I know what to do about it. Step one, head for the bush. If available, step two, go up something big. I forget to take that shower. I leave Timaru for the last time. Goodbye forever Fairy Penguins. 

I turn inland, away from the coast. Heading towards Little Mount Peel, no matter what. Two weeks have passed, maybe more since I last put on my hiking boots. Too long. Hills rise up out of the relentless flat of the Canterbury Plains. Finally. I pull into the car park, lace up my boots and start marching. The bird song echoes down to the farmlands where the cockerels scream back.  As I set off up Deer Spur Track I think of a word; steep. The Southern Ridge Route was the one labelled as steep in the track notes and I’m coming up the other way. I’m going to regret that on the way down. Deer Spur Track is steep too. The climb comes fast, up on to the ridge line, recover, climb again, the next ridge. Mothers and sons, fathers and sons are going up, coming down. A handful of others making the climb up into the clouds. No views promised. None required. Beyond the bush line the buzz of invertebrates. Crickets of some kind chirping. Flies, incessant. Today is about the suffering, the endurance, the sweat. I need the burst of whatever chemicals are flowing through me. I need to feel like I’m alive, not merely existing. The ascent feels good, a challenge but not hard.

The summit trig appears as I start to think of when I’ll arrive. I give it a quick tap. At the top vertigo hits me like never before. Directly ahead is blue sky, below that nothing. A total white out. Either side of the mountain ridge drops into the grey abyss. I scramble down to the shelter for lunch. The clouds continue to climb, amassing around the summit. The temperature starts to drop which I take as a cue to get down. I’m not comfortable. Maybe it’s the height, maybe it’s the steep drop down. The only thing I can do about either is keep moving. I can see both too much and not enough. A something I don’t see enough of bounds down the mountain side. Deer or goat making short work of the descent. Dropping out of the cloud helps. I can see more. None of the comfortable contouring of a formed track. The Southern Ridge Route drops straight down. Thankfully none of the plants I use for brakes are speargrass, but I am battered by everything else. Scratched arms, scratched legs. Never have I been more relieved to slide off a tree root into the bush line. The network of roots, the still buried rocks slow me down. I detour to a small waterfall, wondering if I could get fully into the plunge pool beneath. I settle for a quick rinse in the stream. Something is better than nothing. I get back, drive down the road, park, read, relax. I’ve earned it. At last.

Rain. In buckets, in mist, all over the roof, in the grass. All night. Sleeping through the bad weather is my biggest challenge of van life. I lie awake, waiting for it to stop. I check the forecast, what is supposed to happen? Rain. Ok, so I’ll be staying off the mountains today. All I had plans for were the mountains. What else? I don’t want to get wet. I’m at risk of losing all the motivation I generated yesterday. I decide I’ll go and look at the mountains, see where they disappear into the sky, see what the weather is actually doing. Driving along the Inland Scenic Route I watch water spray up from the road as the car in front rides through a puddle. The trailer begins to wobble. Then the car begins to wobble. Then the two spin across the road. Speeding up. Nothing is coming the other way. I’m slowing down, have been since the wobble. The pairing comes off the road and stops in the grass. A woman gets out of the car. I put my hazards on. “Are you ok?” I ask. “NO!” she screams, getting out and looking at the car. Amazingly she hasn’t hit anything, she doesn’t look physically broken either. Another vehicle stops up ahead. “That’s my mum,” she says. I begin to feel useless, although my van at least is slowing the traffic. Others stop, a man gets in the car and pulls everything back on the road. The extended convoy all seem to know one another and they arrange how to solve the problem of moving on. Surplus to requirements, I drive on. I stop as soon as I can. I pull into a car park and sit in the van. Doomscroling on my phone. I don’t feel anything at all but I also feel like I should feel something. My brain, I hope, is busy unpacking what I’ve seen and filing it away under ‘reasons not to buy a caravan’.

After sitting and doing nothing I realise the rain has stopped. It stopped ages ago. I think I probably don’t have enough time, and I definitely don’t have the motivation, to go up another mountain now. I look for something else. Not much further down the road is the Rakaia Gorge. I’ll have lunch when I get back. I put on my cold hat and my rain jacket. The forecast for more rain remains. I put my faith in the sky coming down. Instead the clouds lift and clear. Blue sky spreads across the gorge. I walk between the river and empty farm fields. My hamstrings are tight, this is what I get for stopping for two weeks. I walk along the grey pebble beach, people wave from the lemon yellow jet boat. I wave back. I need to turn around. I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, I’m too hot. I’ve done something though, so there is that. I decide now is a good time to visit a camp ground. The intensity of Christmas and New Year has passed. People have returned home, to head back to work. The Glentunnel Campsite is the busiest one I’ve been to yet and still there is plenty of space. I take a hot shower, pushing another coin for more minutes, more comfort. Standing, letting the warmth sink in.  In the morning it’s time to turn left, to pull back across the Souther Alp spine of the South Island and return to the West Coast through Arthur’s Pass.

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