Within a day of our arrival in Christchurch, (south island) New Zealand, Ben and I were the proud owners of a campervan....actually, to be more precise, a white Toyota Hiace (which Ben pronounced as "Toyota Hi-ass" much to the amusement of the various mechanics we would later meet) with a bed in the back and imitation cowhide seat covers in the front. Not to mention the numerous "storage boxes" which were actually pilfered supermarket shopping baskets. We thought our van was pretty cool until we spotted another white Toyota Hiace "camper" decorated with attached tennis balls and two criscrossed tennis racquets. Followed sometime later by yet another souped up camper with an entire toilet stuck to its roof.
We decided to make the most of the freezing winter temperatures by heading straight for the skifields around Wanaka and Queenstown. And we did enjoy a few great days skiing. Hampered only by the fact that each time we returned to our beloved Hiace in the relevant car park (naturally located at the top of a mountain), the battery would have died and we would end up having to push start the Hiace down the mountain. The third day that this happened to us, we had the added complication of being caught in a full-on blizzard as we were trying to push start the van. And unlike all the other vehicles crawling their way down the winding mountain road, we had no snow chains. And this time the push start didn't work. On realising we were careering down the mountain with no control whatsoever over the van, we wisely pulled over (actually, we skidded to a halt and Ben refused to go any further as I was pretty much losing my reason at this point). We were eventually jumpstarted by the AA and then crawled down the rest of the mountain behind the grader (that ploughed up the snow) to minimise the risk of us hurtling off the side of the mountain (needless to say, devoid of any protective barriers). Suffice to say that our first week with the Hiace did not go too well. Things got better during the second week, after a few hundred dollars spent on replacing the battery, alternator and a rear tyre.....
As we were around the Queenstown area, we felt obliged to do the Kawarau Bridge 43 metre bungy jump (th original commercial bungy jump). I should add that the Kawarau Bridge jump is the "baby" bungy jump in the area...the real challenge now is to do the 134 metre Nevis bungy jump from a glass bottomed cable car suspended in mid-air. Having said that, as I teetered on the edge of the platform attached to the Kawarau Bridge and looked down at the blue waters of the gorge 43 metres below, I couldn't imagine feeling more terrified. My toes were out over the edge of the platform but I clung desperately to the steel of the bridge with one hand and to the instructor's shirt with the other. He tried to calm me down with idle chatter - unfortunately he asked me what I did for a living. To which I replied "I'm a lawyer but please don't kill me". In the end, of course I jumped. And yes, it felt great. I was surprised that as I jumped out into the void with my arms spread wide, it felt more like flying than falling....I think my brain had not actually registered what was happening until the elastic around my ankles jerked me back up away from the water.
Against my better judgment, I agreed to go to a rugby match in Dunedin with Ben (Otago vs Bay of Plenty). We watched from the terraces with the Kiwi students....actually Ben watched the match while I watched the people around me. I was fascinated by the amount of students clad in flip flops and shorts. I was wearing jeans, thermal leggings, 2 fleeces, gloves, hat and a goretex jacket...and I was still not warm!!! During the second half, I had tired of watching the Kiwi students and took refuge in my book (which I had easily smuggled in without Ben noticing by hiding it in one of my various layers) - I think the Kiwis found the sight of me engrossed in my book on the terraces in the middle of the match quite odd (well according to Ben, I got some strange looks; I was naturally completely oblivious to all around me).
A combination of avalanches and an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale pretty much scuppered our trekking hopes for the south island. We couldn't even drive to Milford Sound as the road there had suffered so much damage. So we started making our way northwards, through the stunning picture-postcard scenery of Lakes Tekapo and Pukaiki (green-blue waters surrounded by snowy peaks) and then over the Haast Pass to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on the west coast of the south island.
At Fox, we indulged in a sky-dive over the glacier. Much less nerve-racking than and far preferable to the bungy jump. The 45 seconds of freefall were simply surreal. Even though my face was being whipped by tiny particles of ice as I somersaulted out of the tiny plane with the instructor (and parachute) strapped to my back, it simply didn't register that I was falling at a speed of 120 km per hour. The 3 minute parachute to earth was almost a letdown after the freefall. Compensated somewhat by the views of the Tasman sea on my left and the Fox glacier on my right though.
We finally got to do a few days trekking in the north of the south island...the Abel Tasman coastal trek was open. And very beautiful. As most of the trekking we had done in South America had been through mountainous terrain, a coastal trek was a nice change - though the freezing tidal crossings (where we had to take off hiking boots and wade across) were not particularly pleasant.
On to the north island - first stop Wellington (one of the most laid back capital cities I have visited) where we were put up in luxury in a beautiful house on a hill overlooking the sea. All courtesy of Ian (from Dublin but living in New Zealand for the past 18 years). I had met Ian briefly during a group ski lesson a few weeks beforehand, the Irish connection was established and accomodation in Wellington (roast lamb dinner included) was immediately offered. And immediately accepted as a welcome respite from the bed in the back of the Hiace! Can't beat Irish hospitality. Not only did Ian put us up for several days, he even offered to buy our Hiace from us when we had finished with it. Subject to it being checked by the AA. We were slightly concerned when we learned that the AA mechanic was considering withholding our keys and sending the van to be crushed as it was apparently so unfit to be driven. Understandably, Ian decided not to buy the Hiace after all.
After picking up a very jetlagged Paula and Niall in Wellington, we returned with some regret to our fit-to-be-crushed Hiace (now carrying two extra passengers balanced on the bed in the back) and made our way up to the art-deco town of Napier. The highlight of Napier was without a doubt the visit to the penguin hospital there. During our 45 minute "workshop", we prepared the penguin food (by sticking vitamin tablets into chopped up pieces of barracuda) and then we were introduced to the little blue penguins (tiny comical birds) before feeding them. We met Elvis (blind) who was so-called because when he used to get lost from his fellow-penguins in the wild, he would sing until they would come and find him. Then there was the Sentinel (with only one flipper) and Onion (with an inner-ear problem which meant she constantly tilted her head to one side and often lost her balance). We were allowed to cuddle Onion at the end...I was surprised at how soft and warm a penguin feels. I passed her back to our guide just in time for Onion to expel her digested barracuda (now a slimy yellow liquid) onto the guide's trousers. Lucky escape.
Continuing north, we stopped at Lake Waikaremoana, smelly Rotorua with its sulphurous geysers all around and, finally, Auckland where our goal was to get rid of the Hiace for at least as many New Zealand dollars as we had paid for it. To increase its saleability, Paula and Niall went to great pains to decorate the inside of the van with stencils. They also added a set of furry red dice to enhance its overall image. And it worked....we sold (for a profit) to a pair of unsuspecting Americans. And as they got it checked out by a mechanic before they bought it (a harrowing 90 minutes for Ben and I as we waited for the mechanic to confirm that the van was fit to be crushed and certainly not saleable) we had no guilty feelings - well, almost none.
Next update on Asia.