Road trips

A Mad, Empowering New Zealand Road Trip by Van

They met on a plane. One month later, they made their way across New Zealand by way of an old van called Matilda. Here's what happened next (flat tyres and freedom camping included)

I’ve never been the reckless type. Yet there I was: sitting in an old, boxy, denim-blue Mazda Bongo van, about to embark on a month-long road trip around New Zealand with someone I’d met on a plane.

Kerstin and I were on the same flight to Perth from Hong Kong. We lived worlds apart – she was a set designer from Germany, I was a writer from Hong Kong – but we became instant friends. We were both in our late twenties, recently unemployed, and quite unsure of what to do with this newfound freedom. So, naturally, we planned a campervan trip around New Zealand. Though ‘planned’ is perhaps an exaggeration: ‘talked about’ is more accurate.

The uncertainty was terrifying (hell, I couldn’t even drive!) but also exhilarating. ‘I’m trying to navigate the line between bravery and stupidity,’ I wrote to a friend. ‘Stick to the line and you will have fun,’ he advised. How right he was.

We arrived in Auckland on the cusp of summer, and bought a van from two young German-American backpackers. The vehicle was certified ‘self-contained’ – outfitted with a bed, toilet, kitchen that extended out the back, water tank and greywater waste system – and allowed us to ‘freedom camp’ (camping on public land) around the country.

We named the van Matilda. She had a disconcerting number of issues. She’d already driven over 300,000 kilometres; the brakes squeaked (I didn’t know anything about cars but even I knew that was not a good sound); the sliding passenger door on the right was stuck; the left door didn’t lock. We had a flat tyre before we’d even hit the road. Despite her imperfections, we optimistically decided Matilda had ‘character.’  

New Zealand is made up of two main islands – North and South – as well as about 600 smaller islands. Within the relatively small country, you’ll find some of the most diverse terrain in the world: from active volcanoes, soaring mountains and snow-capped glaciers to lush forests, crystal alpine lakes and powdery beaches that go on for miles. It’s not a country that can be ‘done’ in a week. Time permitting, the best way to experience its wildly varied landscapes is to go slow and do very little.

To start, we headed south. The roads were just visible through Matilda’s streaky windshield. We cut through the length of the North Island via Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo and Tongariro Forest Park down to Wellington, on the southwestern tip. A three-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the Cook Strait carried us to Picton on the South Island, where we cruised along the west coast, past Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and onto an inland highway connecting the stunning Southern Lakes of Wanaka, Hawea, Pukaki and Tekapo to Christchurch. 

In Rotorua – a region known for its geothermal activity (and consequent stench) – there were pockets of erupting geysers, bubbling mud pools and hissing vents. In Taupo, we walked down a winding road to find a public thermal park, where under a bridge, the natural hot springs of Otumuheke Stream intersected the icy, glittering Waikato River. We spent an afternoon alternating between the two. I could have stayed all summer.

In the country’s oldest national park, we were told that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing would make for a ‘nice little walk’. And it did, except that it was a 19-kilometre hike. After a breakfast of yoghurt and scrambled eggs prepared at the trailhead parking lot, we set off on a seven-hour ‘walk’ up and across all kinds of dramatic terrain, ranging from jagged, ashy-black rocks and flat, red Martian plains to emerald crater lakes and valleys cloaked in golden grass. Never mind that it rained and hailed at the top, or that I lost feeling in my now jumbo-sized sausage fingers. The scenery was astonishingly beautiful. 

Some days were challenging, of course. Our water tank was always empty. And we never seemed to know how to refill it, or get rid of the greywater properly.

Not having access to a proper toilet or shower was inconvenient. Some days, Matilda wouldn’t even start. And then there were the sandflies. The dreaded, awful sandflies. On South Island’s west coast, at Haast, we parked on a deserted beach at dusk and ran towards the water. Swarms of gnat-like insects descended upon us. They seemed harmless enough, until I felt a sharp pain on my arm, and then all over. The next day, the entire lengths of our arms and legs were on fire, covered in hard, red bumps that itched for weeks.

We spent Christmas week parked at the edge of Lake Pukaki, with a sweeping view of Mount Cook behind the stunning turquoise alpine lake. On Christmas Eve, we laid out wine, cheese and crackers on the table and Kerstin spent the afternoon kneading meatballs and falafels. We invited our eccentric Belgian neighbours and a teenage boy from France to join our dinner. The boy proved to be quite resourceful: climbing 15 metres down the rocky cliff to retrieve a six-pack he’d left chilling in the freezing lake. He also contributed a jar of langoustine pâte – a speciality from his hometown in Brittany that his mother had posted to him. That night, we ate, drank, sang and danced to retro Christmas tunes.

I left New Zealand just before New Year’s Eve, while Kerstin would stay for another six months. It rained on our last day together. We drove into the woods, and with our limited resources, made fluffy, misshapen banana pancakes with just-ripe peaches donated to us by our charitable neighbours. In the background, Bon Iver crooned in that sad but beautiful way that they do.

I realised it was not the intensity of the emerald lakes or the grandeur of the mountains we stopped every few metres to photograph that would prove to be the most memorable aspects of the trip. It was the simple, sacred (and often trivial) moments: falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves; waking up to a view that could easily be mistaken for a screensaver; setting up our chairs in the middle of an empty beach to enjoy two sandy mugs of black coffee; reading an entire novel in one afternoon while the laundry dried in the wind. We never knew where we were going to sleep that night, and life was richer and far more interesting for it.

Was it bravery or stupidity? I’m still not sure.

Cathay Pacific flies to Auckland from Hong Kong seven times a week

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