Several miles out of Franz Josef township on my journey north to Abel Tasman National Park, I stopped for a lunch of delicious whitebait in a town called Greymouth which, incidentally, looks every bit as insipid as its name suggests.
I drove away more slowly than usual due to the onset of a partial food-coma and that’s probably why I was able to spot him and stop in time. A chubby, ruddy-faced guy in shorts, white, short-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap was standing in a lay-by, thumb deployed. “Hop in, buddy! Where are you headed?”
The initial story was innocent enough: going to Nelson for a scan on knee. Hit by forklift at work. Ligament damage.
As the miles rolled by, however, the truth leaked out, drop by disconcerting drop.
He had recently been convicted of carrying a weapon in public (my eyes flick nervously to his backpack between us in the van – I’ve seen enough bad horror films to be already imagining my gruesome demise). He was sentenced to community service. He was also in trouble that very morning for chasing his ex’s new boyfriend down the road (past the police station – no Einstein, this one) threatening to kill him.
I tried to change the direction of the conversation: “Beautiful country isn’t it, New Zealand?” pleasedon’tkillme! “What about that Donald Trump, heh? Ha. Ha….” pleasedon’tkillme! “Richie McCaw, now he was a great rugby player.”
After 3.5 hours of his delightful company, having listened to stories showing him not just be violent but also racist, bigoted in general, lazy and moronic, I was past fear and into indignant rage.
“I think this is where I turn left and you need to keep right for Nelson” I said with a frosty smile that thinly veiled my dislike for him.
“Yeah, cheers, ey. See ya.” And he was gone.
“Never again”, I sighed, and turned if to Abel Tasman.
I would be staying in Marahau that evening, a small town at the south-eastern end of the national park, and had called ahead to book a 3-day hiking and kayaking experience from the following morning. This entailed adding a tent and roll-mat to my big hiking pack and catching a water taxi up the coast to Totaranui to the north. From there I would take three days returning to Marahau.
As the water taxi whipped past mile upon mile of deserted beach and pristine white sands I got a feeling I would enjoy the homeward trip a considerable amount.
I jumped off the taxi onto the beach at Totaranui and, some strap adjustments later, was into my stride. I knew I had an estuary to cross to make camp and if I was too slow I would be stuck on the wrong side. Naturally, of course, I walked far too quickly and ended up waiting an hour at the estuary before losing patience and wading through thigh-high water to the other side.
Not much further on, my campsite at Otenahuti hove into view. Later that evening, after a nutritious but ultimately unsatisfying meal of dehydrated something or other, a group of kayakers camping nearby hailed me over and offered me some of their delicious pasta. They had made enough for 10. No one, it seems, had noticed they were only five people. I thought better than to point this out as I was taking advantage of their innumeracy.
One of the group was the kayak guide, and was of Maori ancestry. The sun set and a large, orange, full moon hung low over the water to the east. The guide called over every last person in the campsite and, with the aid of a conch horn, spellbinding narrative and great theatricality, told an old Maori tale about the first clash of the Maori and European cultures when Abel Tasman came to their waters. It was a highlight for me. I was entranced. It was beautiful.
I exchanged one kayaking group for another the following morning when my kayaking companions arrived by boat for a day paddling south to Anchorage bay. There was a mother and daughter duo from Minnesota who would be in one tandem kayak. I was into be another with a German lady in her 50s called Elizabeth. We had a Peter Pan guide who was probably also in his 50s but with bead necklaces and bleached blond hair.
Elizabeth, it transpired, was an erstwhile professional kayaker. She was also, as far as I could tell, totally and wonderfully bonkers. Shouts of “Yee-haw” and chortles of glee punctuated our progress. I couldn’t help but laugh along with her. It was infectious.
We were lucky with it being high tide during some of our trip, allowing us to duck into lagoons and inlets not accessible at low tide. Sightseeing, exercise and comedy – tourism at its best!
That night was spent in the Anchorage Bay campsite and I was happy to have hit the hay early as the volume and duration of the dawn chorus at 5.30am was quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. There was no hope of further sleep so I simply packed, ate some muesli and began the final leg of my journey. I covered the remaining distance swiftly because I was having a sandfly-induced sense of humour failure and was keen to reach the safety of my campervan.
Once back in Marahau and reunited with my van, I set off for my last destination before returning the van to Christchurch.
Driving, lunch in Nelson (The Boatshed: highly recommended if you ever visit), more driving. Arrival in Blenheim late afternoon. Book wine tour (yes, another one!), locate Peter Jackson aviation museum for a morning visit. Sleep. Or nearly…
The owner of the van parked next to mine in Blenheim happened to be an Englishman and, delighted to find a compatriot and chew the fat, he and his wife, both in their 60s, invited me in for a whisky mac and Christmas cake. What lovely people!
The aviation museum at Omaka on the outskirts of Blenheim has WW1 and WW2 exhibitions. The WW1 exhibition is created almost entirely from Peter Jackson’s own collection. The museum has some deeply moving stories of those involved in both conflicts and is a must-see for anyone visiting Blenheim. I spent almost three hours there before seeking levity in wine.
The less said about the wine tour the better. We went to four wineries and I was unimpressed with all but the final one, Framingham. A quick visit to a very tasty microbrewery, Moa, on the way back did go some way to mitigating the flop, I’ll admit.
So, with regard to New Zealand, in the words of various Warner Brothers cartoons, “That’s all folks.”