Why, hello there! It has been a while, and I do apologise, but Mona and I have simply been on the road so it’s been a little hard to keep up. I now have a little more time on my hands so can finally catch up! Despite my flight from Sydney to Auckland being delayed, I passed through strict New Zealand customs with no issues, met Mona at the domestic terminal, and made my relatively tight connection to Christchurch. We even had time to grab a bite to eat, which, of course, was very important. We picked up our rental car, a beat-up old thing, that was probably well ahead of its time in the 90s – think electric everything, and a TV that spoke Japanese at us. A short drive took us into Christchurch and to our hostel, a major step up from Australian accommodation in general.
The following morning, we walked into the town centre in the surprisingly chilly drizzle and were both stunned at the still very present devastation. I guess I knew the 2011 earthquake was bad, but I hadn’t truly realised the extent of the damage. It was really rather eerie walking around boarded up buildings and cordoned off sites, particularly given the weather that day.
Despite the current state of the city and the heartbreaking memorial, the city is trying to heal, as evidenced by the proliferation of excellent street art and projects such as the Re:start mall, a complex of bright and colourful shopping containers turned into pop-up shops and eateries. Strolling along the Avon river and watching the old-fashioned trams roll by were also lovely reminders of what it must have been like.
A free dinner of instant noodles, kindly gifted by a stranger at the hostel, and a good night’s sleep were all we needed before our drive to Punakaiki over Arthur’s pass. It was exhilarating to leave the city and start our road trip, neither of us knowing what it would have in store. We followed the signs and soon were surrounded by vast and beautiful scenery, something which would become a pretty standard feature during these two weeks.
On and on we drove, feeling alone in the world, gasping at the green hills turning into rocky mountains. We stopped at Arthur’s Pass for a quick toilet stop but opted for the more impressive Otira gorge for our picnic lunch. As we ate, we watched tourists come by, stop, grab a selfie and drive on, and, glad we had a little more time than most, we even saw a kea (aka an endangered mountain parrot) totter curiously through the parked cars.
Back in our car, it was a steep drive down to the West Coast, along which we cruised, through Greymouth, up to Punakaiki, a place made famous for its Pancake Rocks. Intrigued by the name, we stopped on the side of the road and followed the walkways down to some amazing rock formations, layered, as the name would suggest, like pancakes, and creating strange blowholes through which the high-tide waves came crashing in and spraying out.
A few minutes further up the road, we found the little lodge we had booked into and checked into our small but cute double room. Deciding to make the most of a gap in the showers, we ambled down to the beach and back up along the Truman track, one of New Zealand’s best “tramps”, or short walks. Back in our lodge, we had a little quiet time, reading and writing and listening to the soft jazz our French lodge-shared played on the record player.
At dusk, which, of course, is much later down here, we made our way back to the beach in the hope of coming across some little blue penguins. Unfortunately, no such luck, but we did witness a beautiful sunset behind the crashing waves.
The next morning, after another good night’s sleep, it was time to pack up and start the relatively long drive to glacier country but things didn’t go as smoothly as they had started out. Indeed, as I started driving, I noticed the engine warning light come on, as well as what looked like an airbag light. I knew it wasn’t a great sign but it wasn’t until Mona’s dad, an ex-rallye driver, said, “Ah, yes, you should drive no faster than 80kph and stop at the first garage” that I got more than a little worried.
Anyway, we did as instructed and the verdict was made in no uncertain terms: this car is not safe to drive. Multiple phone calls to the rental company, and a fair amount of umming and ahing on our behalf were required before I finally found the oompf to tell the rental company that, “No, we would not wait five days and several hundred kilometres until we reached Queenstown” before getting a new car. So the agreement was reached that we would drive back on ourselves a bit, back to Arthur’s Pass (we were by now enjoying a lovely beach picnic in Hokitika), and await the car rental company owner who would be driving a replacement car over for us. We got there a little early, grabbed a coffee and were waiting in our car when some idiot pulled up right next to us in a blacked-out big-ass gangsta wagon. “That’s not a parking space, MATE”, uttered Mona, fortunately out of earshot since the “idiot” who climbed out then dangled the keys in front of her window, informing us that our ride had arrived. Turns out the garage-new gangsta wagon was ours. Oops.