16/08/10 - the worst morning ever
The day started off great; I leapt out of the van into the sun and stretched out, breathing in the surrounding lung nectar. I didn't know what day it was and didn't care; I was in a carefree mood. After breakfast we drove further up the unsealed road, within two minutes we realised that our vehicle was unfit for the terrain and Lloyd spun it around on a gravel turning area. However I don't know if he was secretly envious of me getting the van stuck in Australia, but he decided to have a go.
The rear wheels must have been on the grass for a matter of seconds, but in that time the wheels had sunken deep into the boggy ground. I jumped out to survey the damage and knew it was bad, however we weren't in a huge rush it was 10.00am and as long as we were in Picton for the 18th to catch our ferry back to the north island, we were fine. We immediately looked around for a couple of planks but all we found were logs, so for the time being that's what we worked with. Luckily we kind of borrowed a spade to dig holes in the hot water springs at 'hot water beach' from a cafe in the north island and forgot to give it back. We dug around the rear wheels and started to jam the logs into place, however once we gained traction on one wheel, the other wheel began to spin.
11.00pm I kicked a fence down and carried the planks of wood over to the clutch burnt van and started dig out two tracks. We still had the same problem, one wheel would always spin, I think this is where locking the differential would have been handy however the VW is a rear wheel drive van weighing nearly 3 tonne.
12.00pm Two German lads walked past and asked us if we needed help, they tried to push the monster of a van out, but I knew they'd have no chance, I thanked them anyway and off they went. By now I was getting a little panicky, the clutch was burning the tyres were burning and Lloyd and I had been bitten to death by sand flies and we were also burned out. We let the rear tyres down in a desperate attempt to increase the tyres surface area but by now the belly of the van was touching the floor, we had a bottle jack but no room to jack it up and would end up pushing the soft ground downwards instead of pushing the van upwards.
13.00pm we locked the van hid the planks and set off walking to the main road which was 6km away. Five minutes into the walk we heard an engine and a small four wheel drive truck drove into view, I had a huge smile on my face as the friendly looking bloke wound down his window and asked us did we need help. We jumped onto the back of his truck and headed back to our van with 'Tony the local goat hunter'. Tony tied his tow rope to our van and then onto his, he locked his freewheeling hubs to engage his four wheel drive and drove forwards. Lloyd and I had our fingers crossed but it was no good, his truck was too light and didn't have the power, we needed something bigger.
Tony was kind enough to take Lloyd back to the information centre, which was about fifteen minutes, drive away; hopefully they'd know a local farmer or someone who could help us. I spent a bit of time sweeping out the van and taking a few pictures of the mess.
13.30 Another truck with decals on the side of it was approached me, 'it must be Lloydy with the ranger' I thought to myself, however when I jumped out of the van there was no sign of Lloydy. I asked the middle aged rangers had my friend been in contact with them, the pleasant pair shook their heads. I didn't really have to tell them my problem, there was mud everywhere and the van was at a precarious angle.The ranger rung head office and passed a message onto Lloydy who had been told that the rangers where at the other side of the national park and that he'd have to ring a tow truck company. Lloyd was trying to negotiate a reasonable price with a tow truck company in Greymouth who wanted £250, however once the staff had informed him that two rangers were trying to help me, he told the tow truck company to hang fire.
In the meantime I was having another dilemma; one of the rangers had seen the damaged fence in the distance. I told the other ranger that I had a confession and that I was responsible for the damaged fence but was willing to pay for the damage and for their service.I was expecting a k*** ing but the calm ranger just smiled and told me not to worry about it. His colleague wandered back over shaking his head and said that some b****** had kicked down the fence, I was just about to confess again and the friendlier ranger winked at me and blamed it on some kids they knew - I couldn't believe how understanding the man was.
The next problem was finding a decent rope; the ranger was rooting in the rear of his truck, just as Tony the goat killer came back down the track. It turned out that the rangers 'where' supposed to be working somewhere else today, lucky for us they changed their minds and we now had another shot a getting the van unstuck.
14.00pm I tied Tonys tow rope to my van and handed it to the ranger who secured it to his truck. On the first attempt the truck skidded but after a bit of yanking and pulling, the van slingshot forward and onto the path. I wanted to hug the ranger; I was ecstatic but tried to keep my cool.
I profusely thanked the friendly threesome and said goodbye, but I still had one other problem - the van was now on its rimsand I had to drive back to the information centre (to pick Lloydy up) and then to a petrol station (to fill the tyres with air). The dirt path was reasonable ok but the main road was a nightmare and I couldn't pick up any speed. The staff at the information centre had already told Lloydy that I was free, however when I eventually pulled up in the mud splattered van; he had a huge look of relief on his face. There was another ranger at the information centre who took us further down the road to a workshop where he filled up our tyres - it must have been the friendliest place in the world. I've sworn to myself that from this day on, I'll never drive past anyone requiring help.
We were both covered in mud and needed a shower, food and a sleep; we drove 50km to Westport and filled up our water reserve in a supermarket car park and showered there before driving an hour or so to a little town called Murchison where we found a little lay-by to pull up in.
In the evening we cooked a delicious hake curry and celebrated the fact we were literally out of a hole and back on the road again.
It was a pretty grim morning however it could have been worse, we still could be stuck in a hole and if it had rained the previous day things could have easily gone from bad to worse.
My arms were full of itchy bite marks from the blasted sand flies which are supposed to be even more menacing in the summer. These flies are chiefly native to tropical and subtropical regions of the world and are a couple of mm length. Female sand flies have piercing mouthparts and feed on mammalian, lizard, and idiots who get their van stuck in bogs.
I caught up with my blog which is now 168 pages long and contains 100,500 words and is the biggest document I've ever compiled. After breakfast we hit the highway - avoiding the boggy patch of grass on either side of the stone track (I say highway but the highways in New Zealand are more like a widened country road in England).
We arrived in Blenheim a lot earlier than we'd anticipated so decided to tap into the library wifi and upload my latest pictures.
Later In the evening we parked in a dark car park next to a river and cooked yet another (pumpkin) curry.
18/08/10 Illegal Immigrants
The small quiet car park was now bustling with action; children on the way to school, people pulling up in their four wheel drive cars to walk their dogs, and then me and Lloyd in our heavily condensed van. Lloyd and I both had a poor night's sleep our bodies were full of sand fly bites and they are the most irritating bite I've had, my arm looks like a junkies and I even have a couple on my face - not happy. In 1773 Captain Cook also encountered the retched sand flies stating "the most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceedingly numerous and are so troublesome that they exceed everything of the kind I ever met with, wherever they bite they cause swelling and such an intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small pox" -if captain cook can put up with it I'm sure we'll soldier on.
I was particular nervous because of the task ahead of us; when we booked our return ticket to the north island we decided to state that the vehicle length was 5.5m instead of 6.6m and also state that there was only one passenger. If we could get away with it we would save £50 each which would contribute to something far more exciting like beer or black water rafting. We were both running low and funds and thought it was a good idea a few days ago but now it seemed a little risky but there was nothing we could do except try our luck.
I printed off the e-ticket at Blenheim library and chatted to Mel via skype before making the journey to Picton ferry terminal. Lloyd tried to hide under the seats but the wheel arches protruded into his sides so he had to sit on the toilet - the most obvious place for security to look.
I pulled in at the check in desk and pretended to be on the phone to my girlfriend saying that I'd be in Auckland in 24 hours. The young girl smiled and said "are you picking up your girlfriend", I replied "yes, I can't wait to see her, this van is far too big for one person ha", I felt awful. She then looked at the e - ticket and said "I think that the van is over 5.5m, but maybe not", I told her I had a confession "the van is over 5.5m, but when I booked it I didn't spot the 'size of vehicle' field, I'm terribly sorry", she picked up the phone and started to chat to someone else, at this point I had a bead of sweat on my forehead, "right she said, on this occasion we'll wave the charge". I told her that I was extremely grateful for her generosity and that it won't happen again (especially as we're leaving the country in 10 days).
"Checkpoint one complete", I shouted to Lloyd as I drove around the corner; we then had to queue in rows and wait for about 45 minutes before boarding the ferry. In that time a security chappy told me to wind down the window, he asked me "just a quick check mate", my heart sank, "I'm from bio security - have you been in any rivers in the last few days", I'd normally make a silly comment back to such question but I just shook my head and he moved on.
The gate opened and we drove through another security gate, the young lady commented "travelling alone today are we sir", "I'm afraid so" I replied, "so there is no one in the back then" gulp "nnnnno I'm picking up my girlfriend in Auckland, just come off the phone to her" I said pointing at the phone on my lap. She smiled and said "what you left her behind", I pretended to find her joke funny but by now I was touching cloth, "well at least your going back for her" she commented, waving me through.
The staff on the ferry told me to swing the vehicle around and park behind the camper van in front of me which I did. Whilst manoeuvring the van I wound up the window and told Lloydy to head for the upper deck on my command. I swung open the side door and started to faf around in the back of the vehicle waiting until all the staff were facing in the opposite direction, I then swung the toilet door open shouting "go, go, go" Lloydy like a stealth ninja, he ran around the other camper vans and mingled in with a crowd of tourists - perfect. I took my time locking the van and headed to the meeting point - Operation (nearly) complete.
Getting off the ferry should be plain sailing pardon the pun, as there were no security checks on our previous crossing; however Lloyd headed down to the van first and opened the side door leaving the keys on the driver's seat. After a couple of minutes I followed, letting myself in through the side door and into the driver's seat. As soon as we hit the tarmac Lloyd joined me in the front and we celebrated the successful operation over a beer in the capital.
After the beer we headed back to Mt Victoria which is where we stopped a couple of weeks ago before visiting the South Island.
Woke up pretty early and couldn't stop itching, my arms were now covered in small bumps resembling small pox. The sand flies were so small yet they have managed to annihilate us both, I just hoped they'd settle in the next couple of days. After breakfast we drove down to the city and printed off our most recent itinerary and rung home, it was also a good opportunity to use the information centre toilet which was pristine.
Back on the road again we headed north along the SH1 stopping off at Lindale's which is the little cheese / ice-cream shop that we stopped off at on our way to Wellington. It was the same drill as last time - steal as many samples as possible (I almost depleted the blue cheese blocks) before leaving with an ice-cream each. We drove back up to Bulls (which we'd passed a few weeks ago) before following the SH3 which was unknown territory. We hugged the coastline passing the old fashioned city of Wanganui(and one on New Zealands oldest cities) and then onto Hawera where we decided to camp.
Hawera seemed like a tidy little town and was home to 8,000 residents. The town was surrounded by gentle undulating countryside and boasts the world's largest dairy complex which it makes apparent by the huge cow statue which you can't help to notice on arrival.
We drove straight through the centre of Hawera passing by the old water tower and towards the beach where we found an empty car park which looked like a perfect place to stop; it was getting dark so I decided to have a look around the following morning, providing I haven't itched myself to death.
9.00am I strolled onto the volcanic beach and took a couple of pictures of the soft cliff face that hugged the coastline before driving to Stratford's information centre. Stratford didn't really appeal to us, apparently the only thing worth stopping for is the kitsch mock - Elizabethan clock tower, from which a life size Romeo and Juliet emerge at certain hours. We decided to bypass the clock and after a brief visit to the 'i centre', headed to the 'Mt Egbert National Park'.
The whole western third of the North Island is dominated by Taranaki (Mount Egmont) a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1755. Its profile is a cone rising to 2518 metres, a purity of form favourably compared to Japan's Mount Fiji. The snow tipped peak was visible from miles around and I should have snapped up the opportunity to take a photo of it there and then; by the time we'd driven to the east summit car park a huge cloud had settled on the volcano and we never saw the peak again. We had planned on walking part way up the mountain but the nearest thing we got was a brief stretch in the car park. If it had been the only volcano in our trip we would have waited until the following morning however we've climbed and rode up a number of them now so we decided to move on.
We hugged the coast line following the SH3, stopping for fuel in a little place called Piopio. It was throwing it down again so I decided to have a shower in the car park enabling us to refill the water reserve immediately after.
Our final resting point was at Waitomo Caves which is home to adventure caving expeditions. Waitomo is a diminutive village with an outsize reputation for its caves and magnificent karst features - streams that disappear down funnel-shaped sinkholes, craggy limestone outcrops, fluted rocks, potholes and natural bridges caused by cave ceiling collapses.
Just as we started to cook up some food, I plugged my laptop charger into the van cigarette lighter and blew a fuse - brilliant no radio, no charger and no cab light. We immediately rang Backpackers.com to find out where the nearest hardware store was, eventually we were put through to some clueless guy called Pete who had us searching under the driver's seat for the fuse, there were fuses there but none of them had blown; Pete asked us if could ring back in the morning so we did.
In the meantime we were swapping fuses around and trying this and that until eventually we decided to have a quiet night without the radio and try again in the morning.
It hammered it down all night, normally the rain can be quiet therapeutic almost melodic like a natural metronome, however we'd parked under a huge tree and it was though a drunk jazz drummer was playing on the roof. Needless to say we both had a poor night's sleep and woke up pretty early. After breakfast we visited the information centre and booked a 4 hour caving excursion which left the following morning at 10am (£80) and then used the pay phone to call backpackers.com on their free phone number, this time we spoke to a guy who was on the ball, he told us that that there was another fuse box under the steering column, we couldn't believe it, we were half way to removing the panel when Pistol Pete reassured us that the fuse was under the seat.
We found the fuse in seconds and headed back to Te Kuiti which we'd passed the previous day and located a hardware store - problem fixed. However we've since realised that it's the inverter that's at fault, the inverter allows us to power things such as the shaver or laptop through the cigarette lighter however every time we plug it in the fuse blows. I took the inverter apart and looked to see if it was anything obvious - it wasn't.
We headed back to Waitomo and used the showers and the internet in the youth hostel, in fact the receptionist told us that once we'd finished using the facilities, could we tell the bloke in the bar opposite the hostel that we'd finished and that he'd lock up later that evening. Lloyd and I made the most of our time in the comfort of the hostel and watched a few Bear Gryll episodes on the internet, however the main reason I wanted to use the internet was to send my birthday wishes to Mel, gutted I couldn't be there to help her celebrate it.
22/08/10 - Underground
One of my biggest fears is getting trapped underground with water filling and trapping me in a cavern, however I was going to come face to face with my fears with a four hour action packed caving expedition at 10.00am. After breakfast we drove about a kilometre down the road to 'Waitomo Adventures' to register and go through the rigmarole of signing the medical forms etc. Waitomo is famous for its caving and we specifically asked for a high adrenaline option with a small group; it was perfect - 2 guides- Dion and Bruiser and 5 nervous punters - Lloyd, Mark and his two sons Jack and Kevin who were in their twenties, and myself.
We were ushered into a mini bus and driven 15 minutes down the road to 'Haggas Honking Holes', here we were issued with a wet suite, jacket, gum boots, and a harness. The wet suit was freezing but we soon warmed up as we ran through a number of safety procedures and learnt how to operate the belaying system.
In a single file we followed a narrow path down a grassy embankment to the cave entrance which was extremely small, I presumed we'd be greeted with an enormous opening and there would be a couple of narrow squeezes once inside - this wasn't the case. We turned on our head torches and shuffled inside, once inside we were greeted by a huge drop which we had to abseil down. I've abseiled a few times before, but not whilst water is gushing into my face, I took a huge breath and kicked off the wall a number of times before my legs hit the water flooded floor below. The whole thing seemed a little surreal and it was as if we were inside a Hollywood movie set, except we had no control of the water flow and there were no emergency exits; Dion had already warned us that there was only one way out and that was at the other side of the cave.
We abseiled down a couple of waterfalls descending to about 100m, my heart was racing a bit but I was actually enjoying it. Once inside a reasonably sized cavern we turned off our head torches to observe a glow worm filled room which was pretty bizarre. Glow-worms (Arachnocampa luminosa) are found all over New Zealand. Apparently a glow-worm isn't a worm at all, but the matchstick sized larval stage of the fungus gnat (a relative of the mosquito), which attaches itself to the cave roof and produces around twenty or thirty mucus-and-silk threads, which hang down a few centimetres . Drawn by the highly efficient chemical light, midges and flying insects get ensnared in the threads and the glow-worm draws in the line to eat them. The 6 to 9 month larval stage is the only time in the glow-worm life cycle that it can eat, so it needs to store energy for the two-week pupal stage when it transforms into the adult gnat that has no mouthparts and only lives for a couple of days in which it frantically has to find a mating partner (in the dark). I presume the female then lays her eggs around the cave and after the two to three week incubation period the cycle starts again - amazing.
We tried to keep up with Dion as he ducked and dived through the passage way avoiding the stalagmites and stalactites until we came to yet another water fall. Dion briefed us and said once we hit the water at the bottom head into a small hole and he'll be waiting there - and off he went, down the black abyss. I was up first, Bruiser helped me into position and I started my decent, eventually my feet hit the ground and I unfastened my carabineer and gave it a tug and back up it went for the next person. I made a huge sigh and proceeded to look for the hole, however I couldn't find it and was worried that the next person was going to descend on top of me. I saw a flicker of light from a water-filled hole and had to get on my hands and knees to climb through it, Dion helped me through the narrow chasm and into a slightly bigger opening where I waited for the rest of the group. To get into the next chamber we had to crawl through water which was touching my chin - I think this was probably the worst part for me but I shuffled on and even managed a smile for the camera.The final abseil was down a narrow hole, so narrow that we had to take our knees and elbows into our chests and be lowered down, because it was the last decent we were told that we had to complete it in the dark - head torches off until we hit the cold water below.
I don't really know how far underground we were but we now had to re surface, we naturally started to ascend up the narrow pothole until we were faced with yet another waterfall, this time we had to climb up the torrentwhich was quite an effort;I'm actually typing this with grated finger tips.
We followed a rope to the final cavern where a drink and chocolate bar were awaiting us, probably one of the best chocky bars I've ever eaten. We made our final accent up a steep ladder which led us to the cave exit; I can't believe how much I enjoyed it, nevertheless the sight of daylight was jubilant.
One of the best parts of the trip was the hot shower awaiting us, I've been showering in the van for over a month and to be able to actually reach down and clean my feet without getting stuck was congenial.
Back in Waitomo we collected our overpriced photos and drove to Raglan where we parked up on an empty 'no camping' car park overlooking the beach, sea and sunset. Needless to say after a bite to eat and few beverages we slept pretty well.
7.30am we were awakened by a raucous knock on the van, we chose to ignore it but the guy seemed pretty persistent. I slid the side door open and immediately said "I know we shouldn't be here mate, but we blew a fuse last night and didn't fix it until 23.00, and thought it would be best to stay put", I even asked him would he like to see the blown fuse (from the previous night) as evidence, the drab bloke wasn't interested and issued me with a $40 ticket (£20 - same price as a campsite). He then told me to have a word with the district council in Raglan who may waive the fine should they believe my story. We've managed to travel through New Zealand without paying for any campsites so £20 didn't seem like a bad price to pay, should it be the only fine we get.
I contemplated getting back into bed but I was now wide awake so I tuned the radio into 'the rock' which has to be the best radio station in NZ; at 9.00they'll be counting down the top 1000 rock songs of all time, the countdown will end on Friday. The station is far more laissez-faire than UK radio stations with more daring language and blue jokes. The radio station is also hosting a competition where the top prize is a boob job - need I say anymore.
After breakfast we headed to Waikato District Council / library which is located in the centre of Raglan. We walked in with the fine in hand and couldn't believe that the same bloke who issued us with the ticket was behind the counter. Luckily the drab bloke had a personality transplant and even managed a smile, "lucky for us, I couldn't get through to Backpackers.com and check your alibi, so I'm waiving the fine" he said; I don't believe for a second that he tried to ring the hire company, I just think 'lucky for us' he had a change of heart. The bloke even let us use the library internet and finished the conversation by saying "enjoy your stay in Raglan" - unbelievable.
We spent the rest of the day making our way back to Auckland via highway 22 which wasn't to dissimilar to a country road in the Lake District. We merged onto the SH1 which took us straight through Auckland which is the world's largest Polynesian city but one of the world's least populated cities occupying twice the area of London and yet home to just over a million inhabitants.
17.00 eventually we arrived in Whangarei and after a brief booze stop at 'pack and go' we drove up to Mount Parihaka (240m) view point. We parked in the car-park and walked up to the sheet metal war memorial which boasted extensive views of Whangarei, Hatea River and the harbour. We couldn't find any 'no camping' signs in the car-park (not that that normally stops us - but we didn't want to push our luck) so we decided to spend the night there.
8.30 had a bite to eat and headed back to the cheap and cheerful 'Pack and Go' for our final shop, we had drafted a shopping list the previous night and with only five nights left we didn't want to leave any food behind (like in Australia).
After our £40 shop at 'Pack and Save' we headed north up the SH1 and then onto the SH10 passing by the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands is pretty self explanatory; beautiful coastal scenery with a scattering of islands jutting up from the clear blue waters.
We stopped for lunch in Manganui which consisted of a hand full of two storey buildings with wooden verandas offering things from handicrafts to tea and biscuits. We parked our van on the small harbour front and watched as a few local fishermen cast there rods into the clean looking bay.
14.00 After lunch we carried on north and eventually merged back onto the SH1 and followed the peninsular route to the 90 mile beach and northern tip of New Zealand. The main reason we wanted to fast track our trip to the 100km long northern finger of New Zealand is because its home to a collection of huge sand dunes that we wanted to sand-board on. We passed through Te Kao and on to Te Paki Stream where we parked up and hiked up a huge dune, we didn't have a board to ride down on but knew it would be too good an opportunity to miss out on, so we decided to pick up two boards the following morning.
The last leg of the drive was to Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua: the "leaping place of spirits") that runs through the hills before revealing the Tasman Sea (named after Abel Janszoon Tasman - the Dutch navigator (1603-1659) and the huge dunes that foreshadow it. Magnificent seascapes unfolded as we drove to the end of the road. From here we followed a path down to Reinga lighthouse which was dramatically perched on a headland 165m above Columbia Bank, where the waves of the Tasman Sea meet the swirling currents of the Pacific Ocean in a boiling cauldron of surf. In the distance we could see Three Kings Islands, 57km offshore, which was named by Abel Tasman, who first came upon them on the eve of the Epiphany 1643.
A directional sign post stood beside the lighthouse indicating the direction and distance to a number of destinations including London, LA, Sydney etc - the post stated that I was over 18,000km from home :( In the evening we parked in an empty scenic lay-by close to Cape Reinga.