After almost two months of getting away with it, I have to fill up the water tanks on the van. The sink foams, reminding me I’d only done half a job. Washed, but not rinsed. I won’t be using that water for tea in the morning. I can live in hope that the antibacterial cleaner helps to keep the waste tank from smelling too badly. There are bags of food, pans, things I haven’t bothered to put away across the floor. Disorganised chaos. I’m sure it will work itself out. I have 5 days in which to cross from the North Island’s West cape of Taranaki to the East. For today at least I have a plan. Drive to Rotokare Scenic Reserve, walk around the lake, relax. Ease myself back in to van life. This winter things will be easier, having already done one before. There’s also the fact that I haven’t truly left the van. I might have had more space at Kentishman Hops, the freedom and security to leave things out over night. The weather was mostly stable and dry. I had access to a fridge. Those recent comforts make the hardships slightly more challenging. Rain comes down on the drive. If I get wet now, there is nowhere to dry anything. No rack hanging above a hut fire. In drifting East I hope I can look forward to a warmer, dryer winter. At Rotokare I sit in the driver’s seat, kindle propped up on the steering wheel and read about someone else’s adventure. For me, there’s only one more trip to go. The last of the Great Walks, Lake Waikaremoana. Then I need to settle in, find a job and work the winter away. Once the rain clears I head out to explore.
Rotokare Scenic Reserve is an inland sanctuary, ringed by a predator proof fence. The reserve is supposedly home to over 200 kiwi, and heaps of other birds too. The gentle stroll through the bush is meditative, calming. Korimako chime, Tui gurgle. A herd of Pukeko strut past, grumbling to one another. The dawn chorus lasts all day. The forest canopy thick with song. Sunlight flares through the trees. I find myself falling in love with the 40 meter tall trunks supported by buttressed roots all over again. The variety of greens, the depth of life remains magnificent. I am glad to be out, to still have my freedom, to still have places left to explore. As light fades, what I have to assume are starlings flock together for repeated flybys. Their wings whoosh in unison over the van and across the lake. They come again and again. Each time the flock is smaller until only a handful of birds remain, tucking their wings in and diving like falcons. The voice of the forest increases as birds find their way home, and then the noise slowly drops away. A few gurgles here, a whistle there. The sky slips from blue to black. Snow white stars burn through the darkness. And I wait. I wait for the screech of pukeko to end, for the almost as bad cries of the kiwi to begin. Tomorrow I tell myself, I’ll do the ridge track before I leave. All this assuming the weather gets no worse, remaining partly cloudy. Then I will need to move on, make a dent in the long crossing.
A black wall of rain rides up like a wave, crested with grey and white foam of cloud. Giving up before I even start would be too easy. I wait for the incoming shower to burst over the van. I lace up my boots and head towards the start of the ridge track. Stairs lead up the steep hillside, towards the reserve boundary; the predator proof fence. The track remains out of the bush, skirting the edges of preserved native forest. I follow the perimeter set by the fence. Coming from the dense green growth is an alarmed laughing. This isn’t a voice I know. I heard it yesterday too but without being able to see up to the canopy I couldn’t identify the caller. Amongst the leaves and branches I spot the blushing red cheeks and the orange waistcoat of a Tieke. The only other place I’ve seen this bird is on Ulva Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. These birds are rare, yet I see a handful along the bush edge and hear a lot more. Fences, then an extermination programme within the boundary appears to be a successful conservation approach for the mainland.
Pockets of rain linger over the distant hills. Land that looked flat from the slopes of Taranaki is anything but. I head back towards the van along the lake’s edge. Ready to hit the road towards Whanganui. On my way I am reminded several times of the impatience of North Island drivers. If I but touch the breaks there’s going to be an accident. Not that I have much chance. Any opening, blind corner or otherwise is an acceptable point at which to overtake. I pull in to a car park on the banks of the Whanganui River. Plenty of time to relax this afternoon. I change out of my boots, pull one sandal on and then look for the other. Did it fall out when I opened the door? It isn’t on the floor. It isn’t in the van. Oh for fuck’s sake. After an extended performance of swearing, I put my boots back on and get back into the driver’s seat. I stopped once to use a toilet on the way down. I also opened the side door to grab a carrot to munch on. That must have been when the sandal fell out of the door and I didn’t bother to check before I pulled away. I was only about half an hour away when I stopped so there’s time enough to make the round trip before it gets dark. I try not to speed on my way back out of town. A tank of fuel remains cheaper than a new pair of sandals. I turn off the highway, towards where I had parked. In the gutter sits a black sandal. I am really not in the kind of financial position where I can afford to lose a shoe. I’ve got to get back into that habit too, of checking around the van before I drive off. I was lucky today, I hadn’t gone far, I knew where I’d stopped. Next time? Next time I hope there isn’t one.
I wake up with the pre-dawn cold for the first time. I was warm enough when I went to bed, so I didn’t bother to cocoon myself in the additional layer of my blanket. I even took my hat off, thinking I would be too warm. I put my hat back on, wrapped myself in the blanket. Moisture glistened on the white metal above the windows. A thick fog climbed out of the river, swallowing the vans parked along the banks. Winter has made no secret of its impending arrival. I stay wrapped up for as long as I can but there are always things that need to be done, things that can be put off no longer. The gas bottles struggle too with the cold. Another warning of things to come. Further justification to head to warmer climes for the coming season. While I wait for the sun’s warmth to burn off the fog, to warm up the van, I stretch my legs along this short stretch of river. I find I am troubled. Were I to leave now and go home, would I be happy? Have I seen enough? Do I really need to complete the final walk around the edge of Lake Waikaremoana to fulfil my goal? The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. Nowhere remains that I must see, or must do. For some time now, everything has been a bonus. Getting a job, settling in for a few months is the best decision. I only hope I can get one. I returned back to the van, more comfortable with what is happening. I set a course for Palmerston North.
The Tararuas stretch South to Wellington. The Ruahines to Napier. Neither on the list of wild places I have explored but there is still time. I finally replace my slowly falling apart hiking shorts with a pair of Earth Sea Sky’s Taslan shorts. For the price I hope they’re the last pair of shorts I ever have to buy in my life. I don’t bother with anything else. I still have two more days of travel. Plenty of time to get organised. I find myself back in the Woodville Ferry Reserve. I remember this being one of the first places I stayed back when living this way was new and scary and I had no idea what I was doing. Now it’s normal. Turning up to a field with a few vans scattered around it. Finding a spot with a picnic table. Thinking too late about where the morning sun will come from. There’s another reason to avoid the mountains in winter, the valleys are steep and deep. The sun disappears far too early behind peaks topped with wind turbines. For once I decide to be sensible and put trousers on, socks as well before the chill sets in. Tonight I make ready my nest to curl up in once the light disappears completely.
Wrapped up warm I use the remaining light to read some. Books are an antidote to the loneliness. A stop gap between transient encounters. A dive into another world where people exist and you can briefly become part of their world. Sometimes it is a world of people, sometimes a world of ideas. Whatever the world it becomes yours, a place where you are welcome, a place you can call home. If only for a little while. This is also why I decided for this winter I would subscribe to Netflix. With the sun going down closer and closer to 5pm I have less and less daylight to play with. Might as well spend that time in the dark catching up on popular culture references I’ll almost immediately forget. At least now I don’t have to think about going to sleep at 7:30pm because there’s nothing else to do. The morning that comes is another cold, fog filled one. Lucky really that I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t want to get up until the sun reaches the valley floor. I don’t know how long it will take. Ultimately it takes too long, finally burning through once I’ve got started. I stand in the patches of light, letting the warmth of the sun melt my toes. Spreading a 9 hour drive across three days was a good idea. Overnighting inland, perhaps less so. When time comes to start the van, it struggles. I thought it might. As I start to consider giving up and waiting another couple of hours the engine catches. We have lift off, thankfully. I drive four minutes down the road to the Woodville Library. I have jobs to do, one of which is update my C.V. Something I’ve already put off for well over a year now. This is supposed to be a rainy day activity. I spend a few hours with the sun on my face, not really doing much at all. I had thought about getting up and going for a walk this morning but it was too cold then. Now it is beautiful. My preference would always be to be out in the hills somewhere. Soon I won’t be able to at all. No time. I’ve got to get a job.
I leave the library as it closes for lunch. Napier is my next stop. A two hour drive. The sky remains blue, the cleared hillsides still a burned summer brown. The Earth becomes flatter. Apple orchards and vineyards make a green and yellow patchwork out of the countryside. I don’t remember thinking much of it last time I came through last time. Maybe because it was raining. And everything I wanted to do was closed. It isn’t supposed to rain a lot in Hawke’s Bay. It might not be so bad this time. I pull up at Clifton Road Reserve. I park up less than 10 meters from the breaking waves of the Pacific Ocean. Already the air feels warmer. I really do need to stick to the coast. I only once went inland last winter and I had to call the AA to help start the van. The coast is different, still cold yes but not freezing. Orange flows through droplets of condensation on the windows. This morning I will see the sun as soon as it rises. Sea mist rides the waves, drawn towards the slowly spreading golden light. I have time this morning to sit, to soak up the rays, to enjoy the bright start. I too easily forget that winter will have good days as well as bad. As long as I can get a job out East, I think I might stay.