(The following post was written while still in New Zealand, 30th December 2011)
Having spent most of the last 25 years cursing campervans on our roads, it was with some shamefacedness, not to say hypocrisy, with which we picked up our smart 6-person campervan from Kea Campers in Christchurch. But let's face it - that's what everyone does in New Zealand. It really is the best way to travel around and see the natural wonders this country has to offer without the dramas of having to find somewhere to sleep every night. You have the confidence, snail-like, of having your house on your back. Gone is the stress and panic of road-tripping. Just pull up, make a cup of tea, open a beer or boil up some pasta and you're sorted.
It has to be said that I was planning to do a lot more free camping than we did i.e I had hoped to be free as birds, stopping wherever took our fancy. As it turned out our desire to see as much as possible of this remarkable landscape, having schlepped across the globe at some personal cost to sleep and pocket, meant that we have been somewhere different every night for the last three weeks or so. And everywhere we've been we could have happily spent a number of days exploring and doing all the things that were on offer. We have travelled 4,183km of road and loved every minute of it. Ok, well, not quite. I do remember being a little fed up with the relentless rain in the Canterbury plains when sky touched earth, the windscreen wipers sweft back and forth and all was gloomy grey, dank and cold. This was like winter in the High Peak, not summer in New Zealand. 13 degrees. Not good. There was one day where we slept the whole morning just because it was too grim a prospect to get up and go out to the loo in high winds and driving rain across a soaking wet field. This was not what we'd signed up for!
There have been many nights where the rain beat down on the roof of the camper and the wind whistled about. We only used the picnic table and chairs three times and the parasol not once. I have been wearing the same fleece and the same pair of jeans with the odd break into shorts - because when the sun does comes out it is very hot. Sun cream has barely been touched, despite dire warnings of how easily you burn down here in the southern hemisphere. I think that tells you how poor the weather has been this year. In fact, I read that Australasia has just had the worst start to summer since the 1960s - and, hey, we got the T-shirt!
And yet, despite the disappointment with the climate, we have had a lovely time. Even as we lay listening to rain on metal, N coined the phrase 'Cramper-van' while we reflected on having five people in a space not much bigger than your average double bed. With that the giggles started and within minutes the whole van was shaking as one by one the girls, supposedly sleeping, picked up on the joke. This and other special 'family moments' are what, as much as anything, this trip was about. Sharing experiences, good or bad, and just being together.
I, in particular, loved having our house on our back. I loved the girls all tucked up together behind a curtain in the sleeping compartment above the driving cab while we were at the back of the van. I loved waking up and making a cup of tea with a different view every day. I loved making pot noodles for lunch by a lake (all culinary pretensions out the window), or scraping peanut butter onto a piece of bread and stepping out into the countryside to eat it. Or making a camp fire on the beach, or sitting around the table playing bananagrams or watching a DVD together after a bowl of pasta. It was just about us. Simply spending time together, without the clock actually ticking. A stream of experience rather than carefully apportioned days.
We have river-rafted on a classic 'braided river'; N has bungy-jumped from the bridge where bungy jumping was invented; we have eaten fabulous food and drunk good wine in vineyards in the sunshine; we have whizzed down river gorges in a jet boat; we have swum in almost every piece of water - lake, sea, or river - that we have come across; we have tramped around the base of majestic Mount Cook and walked wide sandy river estuaries; we have stood at the base of glaciers which touch hands with rainforests; we have been bitten by sand flies and swum with dolphins; we have watched penguins waddle over rocks and seen baby fur seals just born; we have seen iconic kiwi and mischievous kea birds, sleek sealions and mythical albatross; we have woken to the sound of the sea or the most beautiful dawn chorus; we have been woken by passing cows and passing sheep and passing motorbikes; we have seen unique plants and heard hilarious bird calls; we have seen clear tumbling waterfalls and opaque turquoise blue glacial lakes; brown plains rippling with tussock grass; swards of jewel-coloured lupins and vibrant yellow gorse; wild brown seas and calm blue seas; deep flowing rivers and shallow bubbling torrents; fields of venison, fields of cows and fields of sheep; high mountains, wide plains, narrow gorges; boiling geysers and sulphorous volcanic mud; golden sun, wide skies, snow-capped mountains, dense green forests, giant ancient trees, sparkling lakes, deserted beaches and shooting stars. A landscape where, quite simply, the elements and nature rule supreme.
And I have finally been to the other side of the world and seen things upside down: a summer Christmas and a sun which travels through the north not the south, and water which goes down the plug hole anti-clockwise.
I feel privileged, I feel happy, I feel humbled.
North Island, New Zealand, December 2011