First Day in NZ

11pm 20th October

Hooray! Our trip has begun! We got a cab from the hotel to the camper van hire place about 10ish, and after a bit of a wait (well, Ness reading the terms and conditions) we signed our lives away and picked up the van.

Good Lord it’s gigantic! 6.6 metres long to be precise! Quite a difference from either Ness’s MX5 or my MR2 — over twice as long! Quite an experience to drive, and diesel too with all the attendant torque but low revs that that brings. The low steering ratio took quite a while to get used to too. However, that being said we drove out of the Maui rentals park without issue, and headed to a nearby supermarket to pick up some goodies.

While waiting to pick up the van we were fortunate enough to bump into a couple who were dropping their van off and they gave us a bunch of useful staples they didn’t want to take home: Washing up liquid and powder, oil and similar. So our trip to the supermarket was only to get a few fresh bits like salad, cold meats, bread and the like. All that came to the scary-sounding NZ$70, but that’s only £22, not quite as frightening.

Our bits stowed away in the natty cupboards and our bags stowed safely at the back (we thought) we set off on our trip! First stop: Whangerei, about half way up north from Auckland to the northernmost tip of NZ. Thanks to the directions our cabbie had given us we managed to get on the motorway without hitch. When I say “the motorway” I should really say “THE motorway” — NZ’s north island only has one!

The first kilometres were fairly uneventful; the suburbs of Auckland look a bit like suburbs anyway (again though with that subtly American feel though). Later in the journey the motorway ends and you end up on a coastal road, and there’s where the excitement starts. New Zealand is stunning. The coast is beautiful; lush green fields of trees, ferns and grasses on amazingly intricate topography which goes right to the ocean’s edge. The hills are truly amazing — not being carved out by glaciers unlike the UK they are far more interesting with mounds on mounds and conjoined cone-shaped hills belying their obviously volcanic ancestry.

As I was driving I couldn’t take as much time as I’d like to stare out the window — but I’m sure I’ll have ample time to enjoy the views. The traffic was pretty bad so I had to keep my eyes on the road — it’s a national holiday on Monday so the entire island is heading north out of the cities to holiday for the long weekend. Luckily again after a tip-off from the cabbie we knew this and were trying to keep ahead of it — we didn’t stop off until we reached Whangerei. The traffic did give me cause to break rather heavily from time to time — at this point we discovered that our bags weren’t really as secured as we’d hoped when their contents joined us in the cab at the front. Oops!

I’ll be honest. By this point, the stress of driving an alien van in an new country through winding roads; not enough sleep and our arrival time at Whangerei being so late (6pm and everything was shut) really got to us both. The one place that /was/ open was a crap little cafe whose staff had clearly no intention of serving us. After asking loudly “can we have a table” they finally disinterestedly waved us in the direction of the corner of the place. We sat down, but one glance at Ness’s face coupled with my own misgivings gave me all the excuses I needed to just walk out of there. We sat on a bench outside instead and watched the boats.

Once we’d chilled a bit, Whangerei was a fairly pretty little town (if you faced the right way) bordered by lush green arboreal hills. The marina was rather quaint, and the buildings in that area had a distinctly New England feel to them — all slatted wood in pastel colours. Quite nice. But not really the lovely sites we wanted to see of NZ. After a short discussion we decided to press on to Paihia (or rather a camp site just outside). That was a further 80-odd kilometres up the main road — not a problem.

But…what a journey! The scenery changed to be more and more impressive…and the roads more and more scary. A 100kph limit on a road which frequently had me cornering at 20kph (even then things were flying about in the back!) Thank God it was diesel; I’d’ve stalled it several times over otherwise.

Passing a fantastic view of the Bay of Islands, we found the camp site easily enough and parked up in our first ever stop over. The staff were friendly and were able to fill us in on how to attach our camper van to the relevant amenities. The camp site itself is situated on a fairly large lake near a waterfall; it was getting dark when we arrived but I’m looking forward to seeing it in its full glory in the morning. Some tame ducks greeted our arrival by wandering around and nearly getting crushed under my real wheels as I inexpertly reversed into our spot.

After a brief pat-on-each-other’s-back break the reality struck: It was time to make our first real life camp dinner!

Ten minutes later we were in the camp site’s restaurant with a bottle of local red wine, and two lamb shanks on order. So much for cooking our own dinner! The lamb was amazing. Even Ness who rarely chooses meat thoroughly enjoyed it. After our meal we popped into the camp bar to plan tomorrow. The camp’s cat took this to mean it should come and avail itself of our good nature. So, maps all over the table, glass of wine each and a great big cat on my lap having its tummy stroked we planned our day tomorrow — time to look around the Bay of Islands, then Whaitanga to see where the treaty between the Maori and the Brits was signed. Then off to 90-mile beach.

We’ve just set up the campervan into night-time mode and it’s really rather cosy! I’m lying across the bed tapping this out, and Ness is playing navigator by writing out the directions for tomorrow (she’s rather too organised sometimes!) So…up early and off to see some real sights of New Zealand.

Filed under: New Zealand Trip
Posted at 21:00:58 BST on 20th October 2006.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.