For two weeks I was in full backpacker mode. I was free. I was doing my thing. I wore the same pair of socks three days in a row, only taking them off to shower at a community pool. I began this adventure in Wellington – windy Wellington, capital of New Zealand and place of cool.
I strutted around the heart of the city in my leggings, trail runners and rain jacket receiving justified stares from women with fresh lipstick, floral perfume and black leather boots. There is character in Wellington. There is graffiti and brick buildings and coffee shops with tattooed baristas. The first evening I was eager for a yummy dinner, anxious what food Wellywood had to offer. I decided on tacos at Flying Burrito Brothers on Cuba Street. This was much fancier than I had anticipated. But damn good.
The following day I wandered around the botanical gardens ending up in the cemetery, admiring the tombstones and flowers.
As I was leaving the gardens into the city center driving along the narrow city street, I hear a loud SMACK. My heart races and I look around to find the cause of the sound and realize people are looking straight at me. I continue driving down the street, trying to focus on the road and notice that my left side mirror is GONE. Chopped off. Beheaded. Lost. My first thought was: Did something drop out of a high window and hit my mirror? I was set on this idea until I finally admitted it was just my poor driving – I probably hit a parked car. My heart was racing until I arrived at a parking garage in the city center. I drove around the deadly ring of concrete until I gave up and decided Jack the Van was too big for this garage. I backed up to get reposition for the exit and I hear another SMACK. God dammit Wellington! I close my eyes and get out of the van. There was a semi-angry Kiwi man looking at me then at his car then back at me. I reply to his glances with a meek, “Sorry?” This might have been the only word I said during our two-minute exchange. He got back into his car and I did as well, exiting the garage and getting out of this god-forsaken city.
From Wellington I drove south to the freedom campground, Owhiro Bay. This was the busiest campground I’ve stayed in so far, but I was out of the city and twenty feet from the beach. Just hearing the waves calmed my city driving anxiety. I parked next to a sweet French couple who were eager to share their dinner in exchange for a glass of wine. They were in love with all things Lord of the Rings.
The next few days I stayed at Te Paerahi Beach in Porangahau. My first night the sunset was amazing and there was a seal on the beach! This little coastal city in Hawkes Bay might not be worth the stop on a short visit to New Zealand but worth a two night stay if you have a year. I spent several hours on the beach writing and drawing and the only other person was a woman on horseback galloping along the beach, like an over-the-counter drug commercial. The next evening there were a group of kids drag small dry trees, bigger than themselves, onto the beach. This will be exciting I thought and approached them with a smile (important!) and my Polaroid camera. Apparently there is no such thing as stranger danger in New Zealand. The kids were excited to chat and ask me questions about America. What is Walmart? Do fat women actually walk around with their underwear showing in Walmart? What is Taco Bell? Do you know any famous people? Clearly social media inspired these questions. They asked me to photograph their bonfire, which I was initially going to be sacrificed for to make it a proper fire. Thankfully they changed their minds. The fire was enormous. Girls were screaming, their laughs reaching across the sand dunes as they posed for selfies with the flame.
The single boy of the group, James, asked if I had tasted Whitebait. I had not had any seafood since living in New Zealand. Riria, one of the older girls, was eager for me to try the baby fish. According to Wikipedia Whitebait “is a collective term for the immature fry of fish. Such young fish often travel together in schools along the coast, and move into estuaries and sometimes up rivers where they can be easily caught with fine meshed nets.” In case you were interested…Riria took James and I to her house, situated just off the beach. The house was warm and the four adults were nestled into the couches when we arrived. We sat and talked to Riria’s family and one woman was utterly astounded that I would end up in Porangahau.
She kept asking how I got there and why I was there. Like this should be the last place for any traveler. This is a common reaction in the small towns, but often these are my favorite places. The next morning I whisked the egg and fish together and fried the combination until it became a little fish patty. It was surprisingly tasty, eyeballs and everything. Just as I was leaving Riria’s dad drove into the campground and asked how I liked the fish. He said, “I’m catching crayfish today so I’ll bring you some.” The generosity of some Kiwis still amazes me.
From Porangahau I stopped in Hastings, an hour drive northeast. This was one of the saddest cities thus far. Maybe it was the overcast weather or because I was sick but I did not dig the Hastings vibe. But I did manage to buy measuring cups at an Op Shop. That night I slept in Napier at a freedom campground right next to the road but with a view of the water. The entire day my body was aching and it was the kind of aches that cramp your muscles for a few minutes then it moves to another part of your body so you are never quite comfortable. I thought it was from driving so I soaked in the hot pools for a few hours to soothe my muscles. This helped ease the temporary aches and warmed my bones, but I awoke in the morning and it was clear that I was ill. I definitely had a fever. I drove 45 minutes west of Napier to another freedom campground spot where I napped and listened to podcasts and napped and sweated and shivered for most of the day. It is absolutely the worst being sick and alone. My throat was on fire, my body ached in every position and I had zero energy. That night I stayed at a quieter campground in Napier and lost about 3 pounds from sweating throughout the night. I’m sure I looked like death in the morning and why the woman at the pool waved me inside, saving me two dollars on a much-needed shower. This felt amazing and gave me the extra boost I needed to explore Napier. I went to the aquarium, which was surprisingly small for being the National Aquarium of New Zealand. But I did see kiwis! One was pacing back and forth along the back wall, his squat brown body bouncing off stick legs. And I avoided the dark places of the aquarium, with the freshwater fish displays. It gives me nightmares. Afterwards I walked around the city center, excited by all the boutique shops. Shopping is so tempting! It is easy to accumulate things when you travel with a van.
From Napier I stayed at the Waikare River Mouth and had a very peaceful night. The next day I ended up in Wairoa and took care of my broken side mirror. The Parts Guy said he sold a side mirror a few days ago to another backpacker who lost the side mirror of their Toyota van. There must be something in the air. The Parts Guy was a slow moving man, with eyes that always looked confused and lost. Lunch was savory pie at Osler’s that claimed to have the best pie in the country…It was tasty, but it was even tastier knowing that it had awards. From Wairoa I visited Mahia, a STUNNING beach.
The campground is situated on a small bay with bluffs surrounding the water. During the afternoon I took a hammock nap while the wind tore around me and I awoke to realize that I had left the strap bag on the ground, which meant the wind had taken it hostage. An hour later I met Ruth, a Swedish backpacker who was 32 years old. This is significant because the holiday work visa is for those under 30 years, but Ruth managed to stay in New Zealand for a year through her travel visa. Her manly face was slathered in sunscreen and she talked to me like we were friends for ages. In the morning I awoke to five surfers on the waves, Ruth one of them, with the sun shining above. I walked along the beach and on the way back I found my hammock strap bag! Mahia Beach is magical.
From Mahia I continued along to Gisborne where I stayed in a Holiday Park for the first time. It was 22 dollars for a night and 24 hours of WIFI. From the park I walked to the city center, which didn’t do much for me, other than meeting William who generously offered me coke and weed. I declined and continued walking. Dinner was chicken noodle soup to cure my nostalgia for the autumn weather and my lingering fever.
By the next morning I felt stronger and ready for the three-hour drive to Lake Waikaremoana, a massive lake in the Urewera National Park. A majority of the road is unsealed and narrow as you climb along a cliff above the lake. There were also no viewpoints, which I found odd. National Parks in America there are viewpoints nearly every curve on the road, every angle boasting a new landscape. A few occasions I parked in the road to take photographs, but no cars passed either time, which pretty much sums up New Zealand. The next day I hiked the Lake Waikareiti trek, an easy 1.5k to a smaller lake south of Lake Waikaremoana.
At the lake I met an American couple from California who are finishing up their year in New Zealand. Over the day I bumped into them two more times. It was only at the last moment that I asked for their names. It is an odd thing to have these fleeting relationships that are bonded only through our current position in life – Americans in New Zealand – that names become unimportant. On my way back into Wairoa, I picked up Gino, a shirtless young man. I asked about his tattoos, black lined pieces around his chest, back and arms, and I think he said something about prison. I did not make eye contact until we reached town. The Parts Guy in Wairoa was expecting my side mirror to come in that Monday but it wasn’t, which meant another night at Mahia Beach with a side trip to Morere Hot Springs. Back in Wairoa the next day I got my mirror, only 45 dollars, and hit the road headed north to the East Cape. The road along the cape is quiet and winding but offering frequent glimpses of the ocean. Only a few towns are situated along the Pacific Coast Highway (from Gisborne to Te Kaha it’s 260 km or 160 miles). Quiet places where neighbors lean on the passenger side of cars sharing the latest gossip. Where dogs roam along the road and sheep lift their heads at you, surprised to see a vehicle. There was some panicking when both petrol stations I found were closed for the day and the needle was inching towards quarter of a tank. Jack is a fighter though and we survived. I stayed the night in Te Kaha where parts of the movie Boy were filmed. It was a beautiful beach with pools of water to observe the sea life and a dead seal.
The finale of this two-week adventure was 7 hours of driving and tacos in Auckland. I stayed in a low-cost campground just outside of the city because I had an early ferry ride to Great Barrier Island the next morning. This is another two-week adventure that deserves a full blog post.