After I picked up the van from Christchurch about a week and a half ago now, I drove out to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a small town with a Maori name but French street names, something I never quite got to the bottom of.
Akaroa set the tone for the standard New Zealand tourist experience – the towns and what they offer are after all playing second fiddle to the landscape, so they don’t need to make much effort. The standard set-up involves a small cafe, souvenir shop, and usually at least one place selling staggeringly expensive merino wool goods. Merino wool is incredible stuff, keeps you warm when it’s cold and doesn’t get all itchy and sweaty when you get warm, but you pay through the nose for anything made of merino – I’ve only been able to afford a beanie. There’s something about souvenir shops that gets me though – aside from a bookmark or a t-shirt with the name of the place you’re in emblazoned upon it, every souvenir shop is usually selling identical tat to the next. This ranges from beeswax knee rubs through chilli oil to photo albums, wrought-iron biplanes made of recycled beer kegs, and special organic tea blends picked and tested by monkeys. It’s all crap, and you can only get it in souvenir shops, assuming you stayed in the shop long enough to buy anything because the scent of pot pourri is usually so thick in the air that your eyes are running and you’re going dizzy in seconds flat.
I stayed for three days just outside Akaroa at the beautiful and very chilled out Onuku Farm hostel, a place run by the cordial Steve and Erina, hiding towards the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and fields, nestled in fantastic gardens. I felt relaxed as soon as I got there and ended up reluctant to leave. I slept in the van, spent warm evenings in the living room with the fire blazing chatting with the others there, and went walking in the surrounding hills, getting blown about by hurricane force breezes, stared at by sheep, and falling on my arse walking down muddy slopes. It was a great start that hasn’t been matched so far. There’s also something about sitting on top of a pile of rock staring out in the direction of Antarctica that makes me a bit contemplative – but more of that later.
After leaving Onuku and Akaroa, I headed South, taking a meandering course along always quiet roads, never more than a couple of cars in front or behind, through fields filled with sheep, sheep and more sheep, and only occasionally cows, deer and alpaca. The landscape alternates between stunning alpine ranges of scantily clad snow-capped peaks with lakes of beautiful deep-blue water, and flat areas like the Canterbury Plains that are so like home, you half-expect to pull into Kings Lynn, Bury St Edmunds or Kersey at any point. Small towns whistle by in the wink of an eye, even the big ones are comfortably small, spread out, with the skyline uninterrupted by tall buildings.
After a couple of quiet nights at Peel Forest and Lake Tekapo, places with nothing much more to offer than long walks and more merino jumpers, I stopped for a night at Mount Cook, a small settlement nestled in a valley. Standing outside my van in the evening, I thought I heard thunder – it turned out to be avalanches up in the mountains. The landscape in Yunnan, China had a similar trick to the landscape here – as you drive along and up and down, mountains and valleys reveal themselves, views dynamically changing as clouds move and you move among them. After a while you stop getting out of the car to take photos quite so often because if you did it every time you saw something impressive, you’d be stopping and starting the whole time.
Driving in New Zealand has allowed me to sample the radio stations here – and they’re a mixed bag. The only station I’ve heard playing anything from this decade by the sound of it was Dunedin’s student-oriented radio station, Radio 1, which I was disappointed to drive out of range of. Otherwise it’s lots of commercial stations playing ‘Classic Hits of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties’, which usually means the kind of songs that end up on useless Telstar compilations, Billy Ocean’s ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’, Backstreet Boys, and more Billy Ocean, interspersed with adverts with cheese-tastic jingles.
From Mount Cook, I headed out to the coast. Oamaru, my first stop, was a quiet town with a strong historical feel and a penguin colony, where I failed to see any penguins. Oamaru is an attractive little place, but the local kids are doing their best to make it look disreputable by wheel-spinning up the street every so often. The sad, funny thing about kids in small towns is that they usually don’t have much more to do than doughnut their cars around supermarket car parks, drive as fast as they dare along the high street and look menacingly at tourists, so they do that. Real gangsters are driving along gritty city streets in low-rider cars with suspension that bounces, their hoes in tow and their pieces packed. Kids in small towns always look a bit misplaced and slightly daft hanging out of their windows, beanies slung low over their foreheads and 50 Cent booming from their stereos, with a church tower and colourful gardens as a backdrop.
The kids notwithstanding, Oamaru was a nice town. I bought a book from the Slightly Foxed secondhand bookstore, and thought I’d slipped into a timewarp. The lady that served me appeared to be wearing Victorian costume, she wrapped the book in brown paper and tied the package with brown string before stamping it with the shop’s stamp, then cut the string with a pair of ancient, giant shears, and wrote what she’d sold me in a giant ledger with a fountain pen in an elaborate font. I half expected to step outside the shop to the sight of a penny farthing trundling past and a gentleman with a handlebar moustache tipping his top hat while saying “Good evenin’ Master Nelson, it’s a mite nippy out today, how’s the coach and horses?”.
From Oamaru I’ve done a big loop around the southern coast, ending up where I am now, in Te Anau, camping in nearby Manapouri, on the other side of the Southern Alps from Doubtful Sound and the Fjordland National Park. Aside from meeting a girl who knew Seam Reap and the guys at Earthwalkers in the middle of nowhere, and picking up a hitchhiker with whom I talked nonsense solidly for four hours, it’s been quiet, sometimes unnervingly so. I’ve been wandering where all the other tourists are, but then a concrete-faced old man drives another rental motorhome in the opposite direction to mine and looks disapprovingly at my spray-painted van, and I’m reassured. He’s going in the opposite direction.