For normal people the hiring of a campervan is simple. However, for us, well…
We did our usual thing of arriving a full day ahead of the booking and yet somehow wangling ourselves a free upgrade and not being charged for the extra day. I think that this is something to do with the puppy-eyed faces Cesca can pull when things seem not to be going her way. People all around rush to her aid, anything to protect the innocent gentleness behind those eyes. In another time such a power would have been called a mighty and terrible witchcraft – and perhaps I would have agreed with this Inquisition were it not for the fact that Cesca simply does not know that she does this! (and, of course, she has those eyes ready for me too…)
Anyway, after a little haggling we were given this:
“Ten years ago, a crack commando unit was sent to New Zealand for crimes they didn’t commit. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as backpackers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…
The Britz Campervan – or “The Mammoth” as it became known – was 6.6 meters long and almost 4 meters high. It was a monster of design, the insides replete with a full working gas hob, a fridge, a shower, a toilet, a sink, a microwave (!) and a double bed. It was also, unfortunately, painted in the most terrible bright white colour that made us stand out for miles around. Hundreds of miles could pass for the cost of one one tank of diesel and its batteries had enough electrical power to keep the inside lights going for 3 nights. Finally, it stored 120 litres of fresh water and could tank 30 litres of waste water before needing emptying. It was therefore more a sort of house on wheels than a simple conveyance. A kind of mobile country, as after all it did have “Britz” emblazoned on the side. Livery that I took to be some sort of dire warning to all and sundry that there were English people at the controls of this beast and so they had better watch out!
Parking this thing was going to be fun, I could tell.
We stocked up at the supermarket and headed north out of Auckland towards the simply named “Northland”. There is something in that name that suggested to me that the Kiwi’s were not totally enamoured of the “north”; like it was a different country. This feeling was seemingly confirmed when the motorway out of Auckland quickly petered out and we were suddenly travelling along the Kiwi version of main roads. These are all over the country and somewhat scary. At any one moment they could sling around corners well over 180 degrees with only a few inches of road before a heart shattering drop, or they might have given way to large slips that have taken 6 meter wide bites out of road. Amazingly these slips were old enough to be marked by line painters. That is to say they had got line painters to draw lines around the missing road sections, but had not actually repaired them!
We wound our way up the coast heading towards Waiwera and our first overnight stop. Camping in a van is not as easy as you would think. New Zealand has quite definite rules about where and when you can camp overnight and your options are limited to finding a quiet road away from the cops, a rural DOC (Department Of Conservation) camp – basically a sliver of grass and a long-drop toilet – or a “powered site” in a holiday camp. These powered sites are parcels of parking space alongside many other campers that come with drains for your waste and water taps to fill the tank. Their main benefits are the 240 volts of power they provide, the hot showers, the laundry’s and the internet. Their drawback is the cost. Our first night was a wallet crunching $36. This shocked both Cesca and I and we laughed that this night was our “one extra expense”, but the joke was on us. Little did we know at the time but $36 was about average for the entire country.
Suddenly New Zealand was over budget and we had only just arrived.
After that night we drove to Pahia and the Bay Of Islands via small hills and winding countryside roads. It was at Pahia that we came across the ubiquitous iSites for the first time and booked a journey out onto the water that was departing in the next hour. But where to stay that night? The iSite worker came up with a novel solution,
“Why not park overnight in the town’s carpark? Nobody checks it anyway.” This information meant a camping cost of only $8 that night. Perhaps New Zealand would not be so financially bad; we just needed to be smart about it.
Soon we were upon the deck of the “Kings” cruiser heading out through the bay.
The islands are everywhere; soft lumps of trees rising out of the distant waters like giant green whales. Their great number seemed to me as almost unfair. How could such a blessed country exist that had so many beautiful islands so close together? All other countries would love to have such an aesthetic abundance.
I suddenly recalled a Kiwi I had met back in Australia. He had been most unimpressed by the Australian fuss made over the Whitsunday’s and its majestic, but packed, beach.
“Ha! We have a beach 20 times as long as this and no body on it!” He had sneered derisively.
Could it be that New Zealand would be like this all over? A supra-blessed country that all others would pale next to? The wind blew into my face as I wondered about all this, its passing blowing in my ears, a sound only disturbed by the ever present clicking of Cesca’s camera.
Soon we reached our voyages destination: the Hole in the Rock. A somewhat touristy point, but the natural hole in this small island attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. This is mainly because you can pass right through it. Our captain skilfully directed his vessel into the hole on one side, through the tunnel and out the other side. Obviously this was all in a days work for him but it was impressive for us none the less.
The next day we left Pahia, awoken from our carpark campsite by the next door Fire station setting off its mind bendingly loud alarm, and headed straight up the coast towards the mythical “90 Mile Beach”.
This beach is actually only 75 Miles long, but believe me when I say that this is long enough. It is a straight large beach stretching from the beginning of Hokianga Harbour to the very top of Cape Reinga. The journey to the top of the cape is 104km by road and not undertaken lightly.
One solitary road wends up the narrow peninsula through logging country, low rolling hills full of sheep and little towns with very few places to refuel. Eventually the road gives out and you are on some of the roughest gravel to be found in New Zealand. This being our first time on it we found it a very sobering experience, as a flat tire here could be very nasty to deal with if it were on a tight corner or a steep slope. We picked our way through wishing we could take the other route.
The other route was of course to drive along the beach itself. However, as much as this was a straighter line and therefore shorter, it was only to be attempted by the brave, the foolish and those with 4×4.
As the tide recedes a short time-gap exists where the beach is hard enough to drive on. Correctly timed the hard sand will not dry into dunes before you get to the other end. Fail to time it correctly, falling prey to the quicksand-like sand slips or simply get your engine or wheels bogged, and your vehicle will be claimed by the sea and become part of the legend. All campervan hire agreements stipulate avoiding it on pain of being uninsured, but I realised that this was due to peoples’ poor timing and not because it couldn’t be done – I saw on a flyer that a few coach trips do it. The beach has only two entry points roughly speaking at the top and bottom. We parked in the lower one and considered the beach.
New Zealand beaches have something weird about them and it took us a few moments to realise what it was. It’s the waves. The beaches are constantly buffeted by waves, as are all beaches, but only here have I seen so many at a time. Line after line of white crests stretch back into the sea and the crashing of so many waves so close together on a beach of such prodigious size is a loud sound indeed. It possess an animalistic unrelenting roar that sticks in the mind and, for us, led to an intense feeling of peace.
People love beaches as they love all of natures boundaries; where the land meets the sky, where the mountain meets the valley. This is why we climb high mountains and walk long beaches, why we love harbours and forests. Humans love to stand on one side and look out at the other; towards the majesty of nature.
As you can imagine a 90 Mile Beach is a consumet place to engender such emotions. It is where the mind meets the body, where the soul meets the mind and where questions of oneself can be asked.
We loved it and went for a walk along the sands. After a few hundred meters we came across someone else enjoying the view; a snoozing seal. We approached thinking that he may have been hit by one of the many 4×4’s that race along the beach, but he raised his head and fixed me with a look that simply asked us to leave him alone. Apart from the photo’s we took we did.
Leaving the beach we drove up the hills towards the far north point of New Zealand; Cape Reinga lighthouse. This was where the road became rougher than I had hitherto experienced. The final assault was up a narrow “road” that led to the complete letdown of a building site. The terrible road was in the process of being properly tarmac’ed and this car park was being rebuilt. We didn’t let that stop us but parking in the middle of such a place made me want to reach for the hardhat just to leave the camper.
We walked out of the car park, to the peak, and suddenly saw what all the fuss was about.
The lighthouse clings to the end of the cliffs a couple of hundred meters down a hill. The beauty of the vision – all 180 degrees of it – was worth every penny I paid to come to New Zealand. On the left a few brave looking cliff walks led down to the very end of the beach and sand dunes. Ahead sat the hill leading to the shear cliff drop into the Tasman sea. This spot was traditionally the point that the Maori brought their dead. Presumably, being the most northern point, this meant that their souls went back across that water to the Polynesian Islands of their ancestry. A moving story when presented with such a view. The light house was on the right down a well paved path that swept into the side of the cliffs.
I remember thinking that if this had been England then a lot more would have been made of this place. More roads, more people, some shops, a chippy, etc. New Zealanders on the other hand seemed to have a grasp of leaving things “wild and woolly” and giving you a sense of the remoteness, the isolation and the peace from people. I cast a glance over my back at the building site behind me and wondered how long that would last?
Cesca bounded up, a big smile on her face, she grasped and squeezed my hand, “Ready?” she asked.
I squeezed back and together we walked down to the lighthouse.
Part two coming…