The joy of driving and camping is the freedom it provides. Especially in the south of New Zealand’s South Island, where towns approach needle-in-haystack levels of dispersal, the best way to see the wilderness is in your own vehicle. If you can afford a caravan or a camper van, then bully for you, but otherwise there’s always Molly’s 1.3 litre Mitsubishi Mirage, belatedly named Milly in a fit of non-creativity, straining up every hill with our home rolled up in plastic bags in the back.
You stop a lot more with a car and the route down the east coast from Christchurch to Dunedin takes us six days. We start with a detour to the spiral-shaped Banks Peninsula, east of Christchurch, where the focal point is the charming French village of Akaroa. On our way, the weather turns from sultry summer to stodgy custard. We camp inland near a small town called Geraldine, and by the time the rising sun shines mercifully through the canvas, I’m wearing basically all my clothes and still shivering (at least I finally found a use for the two thermal t-shirts I’ve been lugging around since England).
The weather is so bad that we alter our original decision to head towards Mount Cook in the centre of the island, and instead turn south, setting up camp for two nights amidst carpets of rolling farmland west of coastal Timaru, a rural-England kind of town with squashed shops and diagonally-laid bricks on the high street. We bathe in Otaio Gorge, where the river is deep enough that we can’t stand, and I can watch as my shampoo makes frothy tendrils in the gentle current. The temperature on both nights suggests that New Zealand should take its summer back for a full refund.
The next day takes us through comatose Oamaru. The educational video in the information centre is keen to tell us that Oamaru was as big as Los Angeles in the late 19th century, which is about as oblique a comparison as one could hope for. The town then promptly went bankrupt for decades, which had the unexpectedly beneficial side-effect of preserving its Victorian heritage. At first we can’t work out why everything appears to be closed, and then Molly realises it’s Waitangi Day. At least the art gallery is open, and we can stare in bemusement at knitted horse skeletons, knitted turtles and knitted cactuses (cacti? cactopodes?).
A sleepy town on a sleepy day brings me to the conclusion that sleepiness doesn’t cancel out, and we head to a holiday park, which is far more expensive than camping on a Department of Conservation campsite, but provides hot showers instead of no showers and a lukewarm kitchen instead of no kitchen, not to mention literally the best chips in the world from the chippie in the adjacent village of Hampden. In a nearby reserve, we spy yellow-eyed penguins in the long grass, along with about a billion seals. After an exasperating conversation with an Austrian tourist in Kaikoura, I’ve vowed never to become jaded by seals, but bloody hell, there are a lot of seals down the east coast. It’s the first time I’ve seen penguins in the wild, and I watch them for as long as I can, but eventually the rain comes down so hard that I leave them be, running for the car in jeans so stiff with water that it’s like having my legs stuck in bins.
Our fifth day of camping brings us to the outskirts of Dunedin, where camping is heavily restricted. Fortunately we find a free campsite on Warrington Reserve, a gorgeous peninsula with a sprawling deserted beach. The sunset casts brilliant yellow over dunes, water, forest and hills, and the moon hangs low over the ocean beneath a canopy of bright white stars. The weather is much better now, and the wind blows warm as I listen to the waves with my feet pressed against soft sand. In the morning, I watch a seal pup make its way to the diamond-flecked sea, with its mother watching from the grassy bank. I feel very lucky and unusually content. Most importantly of all, I feel present.
Snapshots of NZ