It was snowing heavily outside and I’d just awoken from a fitful slumber. Our elderly campervan was parked up under the trees by a huge lake, with snow-capped mountains looming craggily out of the darkness all around us. A thick layer of ice had spread across the inside of the van, sealing the windows and doors shut, but I needed a pee, and desperately. After yanking frantically at the door for several minutes (and nearly soiling myself in the process) my travel partner simply handed me a carrier bag, shrugged in response to my bewildered look, and told me that I should be grateful it was just a pee that I needed.Now that might not be the most savoury of tales, but it was at that exact moment, just as I was tying the handles of the bag tightly and checking for leaks, that I realised how much more there was to this travelling lark than simply going to places that you’ve read about and ticking them off on your list. In buying a second-hand van to travel around the country in, we’d sacrificed comfort for the unique experience of being able to get off of the beaten track and explore places that didn’t necessarily get a write up in The Lonely Planet. But it was so much more than that to me.
When you park up as we had done that day, in a place where only the hardiest of backpackers go, and where the landscape is so outstanding that you don’t want to close your eyes lest you forget its beauty, you somehow begin to appreciate life and the world on a whole new level. I wasn’t concerned about my physical appearance; my makeup bag was buried at the bottom of my rucksack and I knew that my cosy but scruffy top didn’t match my trousers (in fact, my trousers didn’t even fit), but I really didn’t care. When you’re standing at the base of a snow capped mountain, marvelling at an eagle soaring high above your head, or are parked up metres from the ocean, settling down in bed to watch the sun come up, that moment becomes the only thing that matters.
Now I’m not saying that buying or hiring a campervan is the only true way to explore New Zealand, but if that is your plan, then I know you’ll have an amazing time. There are places to park up all over the place and although the facilities aren’talways great, at least there are facilities, and whilst having a cold shower in your swimsuit, in the middle of winter in full view of a busy road, might sound bad, it beats having to hold your nose every time you change your clothes! Even washing up your plastic crockery in the sea is something I could live with. That said, we were often taken pity on by other campervan travellers, with vans twice the size of our tiny battered vehicle, who invited us to eat with them and take a shower, and they weren’t just fellow backpackers either. We found that many Kiwis love to travel around their country, and when they ask you where you’re from and where you’re going, you know that they’re genuinely interested. We had even been invited into people’s homes, after just the briefest of encounters. One friendly fisherman that we met while walking along a windswept beach one evening gave us a freshly caught fish and then invited us round to his house the next day for a delicious home-cooked meal. We were taken aback by his generosity and that of his wife who warmly welcomed two complete strangers, bedraggled and slightly whiffy ones at that, into her home.
An elderly man that we got chatting to as he collected seaweed for his garden actually gave us the run of his entire house one evening while he went to play skittles in a nearby town, telling us to cook ourselves something to eat, have a decent hot shower and amuse ourselves however we saw fit. Incredible!
Because New Zealand is such an amazing place, I’ll be dedicating my next two posts to telling you about all of the things that there are to see and do in both islands. Anything less and I really wouldn’t be doing this beautiful country justice. For now, though, I hope I’ve given you a taste of a country where if you haven’t made at least ten new friends by the time you leave, you know you’ve been doing something very wrong!