I touched down into Christchurch, New Zealand, on Monday the 4th of February, one day before Christopher, my older brother, was due to arrive. The two of us had plans to spend a month touring the two islands together, starting with the South before heading up to the North. I spent my day out exploring the small city, with its compact centre, and spacious parks, before heading to a local hostel for the night, to wait for Christopher.
Christopher, who’d arrived during the night, was in my dorm room when I woke up. The two of us spent the day making plans for our month ahead: where we wanted to go, and how we planned on getting there. Since I was on a much tighter budget than Christopher, I suggested we buy a car, a pair of tents, and we spend our days hopping from free campsite to free campsite, guided by an app I’d downloaded, which listed every camping ground in the country.
By the end of the day, we’d managed to pick up a 1990 Subaru Legacy station wagon that we’d spotted advertised on Facebook marketplace, for $500 each. We bought tents, air mattresses, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment from a budget department store, then headed back to our hostel, ready to strike out the next morning.
We spent our first few days with the car driving south, along the eastern coast of the South Island. First we ticked off the winding mountain roads of Banks Peninsula, one of the guidebook’s highlights. Then we drove through the gentle farmland around the port towns of Timaru and Dunedin, stopping each evening at some field or beachside pull-in, designated by the local council as a free camping spot.
From Dunedin, we made the leap across towards the west coast of the island. We reached Queenstown, New Zealand’s tourism capital, to find that all the hostels were booked out for at least a week, sending us back out of the busy town, to an idyllic free camping spot, on a riverbed a half hour back to the east.
On our first day in Queenstown, we went on a long trek up The Remarkables, a set of mountains overlooking the city from the east. Our nineteen year old car struggled to make it up to the skiing resort car park, from where the hikes began. Christopher and I spent hours hiking up to Lake Alta, set high up in the mountains, before carving out our own route, on the high peaks rising above and surrounding the lake.
As we were driving down the winding slopes, after our day of hiking, we noticed a small column of steam, rising out from the bonnet of the car. The engine temperature gauge was rising too, until the needle had reached its physical limit. With neither of us knowing much about the mechanics of cars, we just kept driving, and hoping for the best, until we were back to our riverside campsite. There, I checked the coolant, to see that the reservoir had run dry. I topped it up with water, with a plan to buy actual cooling fluid as soon as we passed an auto shop, and hoped that the problem was solved.
The next morning, as we were about half an hour into our drive to the south, towards the Milford Sound cruise we’d booked the night before, we realised that the problem wasn’t solved, at all. The temperature gauge rose to the maximum, and the steam started billowing, more ferociously than ever before. We pulled over to let the engine cool, resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn’t be cruising Milford Sound today, and that the $55 we’d each paid for the booking was a write-off, and set out slowly towards Frankton, the industrial town next to Queenstown, to look for a mechanic.
We spoke to three of the dozen or so mechanics in Frankton. Each of them gave us the exact same response. Without even looking at our car, or asking us any details, they told us that they were all booked up for the next week, at least. Since there was no way we’d be sitting out in our riverside campsite for a week, we had to look for an alternative solution.
After describing our symptoms to a store assistant at an auto parts store in Frankton, I was told that a seal had likely ruptured somewhere in the radiator or cooling system, and became confident that throwing a sealant additive into the radiator might fix the problem. Sitting in the car park outside the store, Christopher and I used our camping stove to dissolve a block of crumbly, plasticine-like sealant in our saucepan, then poured the mix into radiator. Since we didn’t feel like hanging around the Queenstown area for another day or two to attempt the Milford Sound cruise again, we started driving north into the mountains, hoping that our problem was solved.
Within fifteen minutes, we once again realised that our problem was very far from solved. The familiar symptoms returned: rising temperatures and billowing smoke. Rather than return to Frankton, we laboured on, driving ten minutes then stopping for fifteen, for hours and hours, in the hope that we may find a mechanic in Wanaka with greater availability.
Once, on our way up the winding roads, as I was waiting for the steam to stop flowing from the radiator, I looked right in, shining my torch, to try to see which seal it was coming from. Rather than find a leaking seal, I spotted a rupture, several inches long, in the plastic wall of the radiator itself. Though the crack was much larger than I’d expected, the fact that I knew exactly what the fault was gave me a bit of hope that, with the right tools, I may be able to fix it myself.
After four hours, we reached Wanaka, a town that should lie an hour’s drive to the north of Frankton. The woman behind the counter in the tourist information office pointed us in the direction of a nearby hardware store, where we found an epoxy resin, specifically advertised as suitable for repairing radiators, bonding plastics, and withstanding high temperatures and pressures. In the late afternoon, we pulled into the local council-run camping ground, and carefully applied a thick layer of resin over the rupture. Once again, I was left hoping that our problem was solved; fairly confidently this time.
The next morning, as we took our car out for a test drive, I monitored the needle on the engine temperature gauge closely. Through Wanaka, and out into the surrounding hills, the readings were normal. It seemed that our car toubles were behind us.
Then, very suddenly, they weren’t. Rising temperatures; a column of steam: it all came crashing back. Resigned to the fact that we weren’t going to be able to fix the radiator oursleves, we slowly drove back towards Wanaka, stopping often to let the engine cool, to consider our next steps.
We spent the rest of the day checking in with four different mechanics in Wanaka, seeing if any of them had time for us. Just like in Frankton, none would even look at our car, instead telling us that they could book us in for an appointment next week. As the day went on, it became increasingly obvious that we had only one real option left: to cut our losses, and abandon the car.
The next morning, after our second night in the local camping ground, we drove the car into the town’s lakefront centre, pulled off the number plates, and stuck a note to the windscreen explaining that the local towing company was coming for it later in the day, just as I’d been told to do over the phone. I tried not to think about the $500 we’d each lost on the car, and the $209 we’d each just had to spend on bus passes, as we boarded a coach out of Wanaka, to begin the next stage of our travels, up the western coast of the South Island.
We spent two nights in Franz Josef Glacier, a small town surrounded by some of New Zealand’s most imposing peaks. Rather than camp, we treated ourselves to real beds for the first time since Christchurch, in a cozy hostel that reminded me of what I imagined a 19th century upper-middle class hotel in the Swiss Alps to be like.
Unfortunately, the weather was so poor during our stay in the town that, after walking an hour south along the highway to the base of the glacier after which the town was named, was never actually managed to lay eyes on the eyes, because of the rain and fog. Still, it was nice to enjoy warm beds and a full kitchen for a while, before we went back to our tents.
We spent a night camping in the small port town of Greymouth, before heading up towards the larger city of Nelson, at the very north of the South Island, where we booked into another hostel. From here, Christopher and I split up for a few days, since each of us had something different in mind for this part of the country. While Christopher spent some time exploring Nelson, and the capitol city of Wellington across on the North Island, I spent three days trekking in the Abel Tasman National Park.
Considering how last-minute and uncertain my plan for the national park had been, everything went suprisingly smoothly. Leaving my main backpack in a locker in the hostel, I set off with the bare essentials in my smaller bag on my back, and my tent and sleeping bag in my hands.
The once-daily bus from Nelson to the park had been booked out days in advance. I tried turning up at the station anyway, to see if there were any cancellations or free seats. There weren’t, so I was left to hitchhike the 60km to the park entrance. One elderly, gruff man from Christchurch, one young German tourist in a rental car, and one immensely friendly, free-spirited Maouri later, I’d made it to the biginning of the trek.
I handed my tent and sleeping bag to the local water taxi, who agreed to drop them further along the coastal path for me to pick up later in the day (for a fee of course), and I found some weak WiFi inside a cafe to book the two campsites I would stay at. Getting to the park; arranging luggage transport; booking the camping: had anything gone wrong with any one of them, my Abel Tasman adventure would have had to be scrapped. But all the pieces had fallen into place perfectly, allowing me to set off.
For three days, I walked the coastal route, on the periphery of the national park, looking out into the waters of the Cook Strait, completely cut off from the outside world. There were no roads, shops, or phone coverage, for the vast majority of the route. I had to carry in all the food that was to do me for the three days of winding dirt trails, climbing and falling over cliffs and through forests.
I spent two nights camping along the trail. I spent the first night in a tiny beachside camping ground, where myself and a dozen other trekkers searched for smooth patches of sand beside a few drop toilets, a picnic bench, and a small hut with a single drinking water tap for refilling bottles. My tent and sleeping bag were waiting for me on the beach when I arrived. The next morning, I left them back on the beach, to be ferried further along the shore by the water taxi.
My second night was in a larger campground, the first spot accessible by road since the trail had began. Though I was camping alongside a few dozen others in the grass field, the facilities in this campsite were just as basic as had been on the beach.
On my third day, I left my bag, tent and sleeping bag by the beach, then trekked further north, to the far end of the trail, before backtracking and retracing my steps, to collect my bags and take my water taxi back to the park entrance, from where I’d set out. Then, I hitchhiked my way back to Nelson. I was picked up first by an elderly Slovakian, who ran a restaurant near the park entrance, and was full of complaints about his working-holiday staff; then by a young handyman, who had some questionable opinions on what Maouri culture resembled before Christianity was brought to New Zealand, and who put his hand on my shoulder and prayed for me before I got out of the car; and finally by a gruff mechanic, who didn’t seem too interested in any kind of conversation.
After staying a night a the hostel where I’d left my main backpack, I took a bus to Picton, and the Inter Island ferry across the straight to Wellington, where Christopher picked me up with a rental car.
Our 2012 Mazda Demio was a significant improvement on the 1990 Subaru Legacy we’d been driving earlier. Since all acoomadation in Wellington seemed to be booked out for an ongoing Maouri cultural festival, we immediately drove our new car north, to a council-run camping ground a half-hour outside the city.
One of the highlights of the North Island, and of the entire country, was Tongariro National Park. Famous for Mount Ngauruhoe, known as Mount Doom to Lord of the Rings fans, the park hosted the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Trail, an eight hour trek skirting along pristine blue lakes, and overlooking stunning mountain vistas.
At least, that was what the trek was supposed to look like. On the day that Christopher and I walked it, thick cloud and rain reduced the visibility to a few dozen paces. I never laid eyes on any lakes, or on Mount Doom itself. We arrived back to the car completely soaked through, and had to blast the heating at full for an hour to dry off, as we drove back to our nearby campsite, hidden amongst the hills.
The weather improved as we drove further north, spending a night in a hostel in Taupo, then heading on to Rotorua, a town famous for its Maouri culture, and volcanic hot springs. Due to my tighter budget, I didn’t join Christopher on his tour of a Maouri cultural and performance centre, but I did pay the fee to spend the night camping in a park of bubbling hot spring, where we sat relaxing in the pools before bed, and first thing the next morning.
After spending a night camping near Tauranga, on the east coast, we drove up into the Coromandel Peninsula. The app on my phone, which pointed out cheap or free camping spots, directed us towards Purangi Winery, where we stayed for free, on the condition that we spent at least $20 each in the shop. The owner of the winery invited us in for a tasting session, in his shipping container that had been converted into a homely little bar, perched on a hill overlooking Mercury Bay below. As he poured us sips of rums, gins, wines, and ports, made from a range of fruits on his farm, he entertained us with stories of his winery, back in its heyday in the seventies and eighties. Slightly drunk, we bought two small bottles, one of port, and one of a liquor made from a local fruit, and stumbled out of the shipping container, to set up our tents on the hillside.
The next morning we borrowed a shovel from the winery, and drove out of the hills, to Hot Water Beach, where pools dug into the sand were heated by geothermal activity below. Christopher and I, alongside a few dozen other tourists, used our shovel to excavate a small, circular crater, watched as seawater seeped in, and felt the water heat up to a comfortable bathing temperature. Sticking my hand down a few inches into the sand below the bottom of our pool, the heat became painful.
After sitting around Hot Water Beach until we were satisfied, and after returning our shovel, we set off west, towards Auckland. We spent our last night of camping in a state park, looking out into the Firth of Thames, before packing up our tents for the final time, and driving into New Zealand’s biggest city.
After spending so long on the open roads, throughout the rest of New Zealand’s small towns and unihabited wilderness, driving in Auckland’s hectic city centre came as a bit of a shock. We stopped in a central car park, paying huge money per hour, just long enough to get all our equipment out of the car and into our hostel, before returning the car to the rental agency.
Having not slept in a proper bed since Taupo, Christopher and I were looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But, since this was our last evening together before Chrstopher flew home to Ireland the following morning, and since our hostel was running a cheap bar crawl, our good night’s sleep had to be postponed.
Myself, Christopher, and Ashely, a friend of mine from Melbourne who happened to be staying in our hostel, joined the crawl for the first two pubs, before realising that we’d rather not spend the entire night with the much-younger crowd, and slipped off to find a quieter bar where we could talk.
We ended up staying one bar ahead of the crawl: leaving one place as soon as the big group arrived, but not before getting our free drink, and heading on to the next place they were scheduled to end up. By the end of the night, we’d had plenty, free or not, and found ourselves binging at a late night Burger King, before heading back to the hostel.
After saying goodbye to Christopher and Ashley, I decided to head up north, to spend my final few days in the country in the Bay of Islands, another of New Zealand’s most famous attractions. Using the remainder of the two bus passes we’d bought weeks ago in Wanaka, I made my way north to Paihia, a small coastal town right at the heart of the bay, where I spent four nights in a cosy hostel, reading, writing, relaxing, and hitchhiking my way around.
I appreciated the rest; to be in one place for a few days, after our hectic month of fast-paced travel. Rejuvinated, I bought a bus pass back to Auckland, arriving late on the evening of the 5th of March. I spent a restless night waiting around Auckland International Airport, before my early morning flight on the 6th, to take me back to Melbourne, for the next stage of my travels.