‘I like him’ reported Thomas in a quiet moment at my cousin’s house in Christchurch, New Zealand. He’d just come in from a night in the garden tent with his new-found second cousin, Liam. ‘He thinks the same as I do. We talked about space and time and worm holes. He’s the first person I can talk to about stuff like that. I think we came up with some pretty reasonable theories. I don’t feel lonely anymore,’ he said. I smiled, pleased that he’d found a new friend. Finally, he asked ‘What’s his name again?’
Our month in New Zealand began sociably
We stayed with the sister of one of Fraser’s oldest friends in Auckland before flying down to Christchurch to stay with my cousin, Mike, who I hadn’t seen since I was 11 years old.
Both families welcomed us at with good food, comfy beds, friends for the boys and a chance to learn about New Zealand before setting off in our motorhome for 26 days.
We called the van Jeff
I bloody loved it. It was an oldish, diesel automatic, 5-berth, 3.5 tonne, 3.5 metre-high house on wheels with a dinky sink and fold-away tap, gas hob and grill, big windows, compartmentalised drawers filled with crockery, pans and Tupperware, a fridge, a shower and a loo, a dining area that turned into a comfy double bed, loads of cubby holes, concertina curtains and a sleeping space above the cab for the boys.
It cost us a small fortune, but was worth every penny. Finally, here was the freedom I’d been searching for.
And, within a day of southwards travel, stunned by the glacier-flour powder-blue water of Lake Tekapo, here was the New Zealand of my dreams.
I can’t convey just how magnificent the landscapes are in this outrageously jaw-dropping beautiful country. I can’t do justice to its peaks, lakes, rolling hills, never-ending skies and beaches. It’s awesomeness leaves me mute.
This, dear readers, is as far as I got before throwing down my phone in a fit and exclaiming to the family that ‘I just can’t write my New Zealand blog!’
‘But you loved New Zealand!’, Fraser shouted back.
I loved New Zealand!
So I give up trying to temper my enthusiasm into an informative blog. In an effort to recreate the emotion that this great country stirred in me, what follows is brain splurge…
Mike enthralled me with earthquake stories. His wife Sarah can hear earthquakes approaching. Their youngest son took his earliest steps as the ground shook.
We ate fish and chip suppers at least twice a week, with Robert eating way over quota, because they were really good, really cheap and the perfect meal to eat on a sunny bench.
Jeff was a bubble of fun, it was also a tin can of trouble
Imagine two boys: first boy likes to beatbox VERY LOUDLY with the words ‘boots and cats and boots and cats’ on repeat whenever he is bored, but especially in stressy situations.
Oh! And this boy also likes to drum VERY LOUDLY on ANY and EVERY SURFACE.
Second boy likes to wrestle with first boy, preferably boisterously, when parents are trying to make and serve dinner in a space no bigger than a wardrobe.
Second boy also has to wriggle, quite violently, whilst asleep in the upstairs cab, jolting Jeff and his poor parents awake THROUGH THE NIGHT, EVERY NIGHT.
Not forgetting, of course, second boy whose shits were so long and thick they wouldn’t fit into the loo ‘cassette’ without one of us making a special trip outside for a Pooh stick (sic) with which to prod it.
Then imagine both boys, not at all interested in the great outdoors AT EVERY GIVEN MOMENT AS THEIR MOTHER EXPECTS, wafting around inside the van like two farts unwilling to disperse whilst beatboxing and/or wrestling and/or drumming. This last element necessitated a rather serious family chat regarding NOISE and behaviour in a SMALL SPACE.
We did a fair bit of freedom camping
This is where you rock up to a (designated) car park on the side of the road, settle, eat and sleep. My favourite place? Right on the edge of Lake Pukaki, completely alone, with snow-topped Mount Cook looking down the valley at us.
I was like a pig in shit, rolling around in all the sunrises and sunsets I could possibly lay my eyes on. The dream of far-off horizons that had got my heart racing all those months ago during a dark, dull night in Long Ashton had finally come true.
Let’s talk about Milford Sound
It’s one of those New Zealand must-dos. What happens if you don’t do it? Your mind is forever branded with interminable FOMO*. So we decided not to risk it and made the 400km round trip from Queenstown. It was okay. We got on the boat with all the other fuckers (luckily not the boat with all the Chinese who do spend an awful lot of time preening for selfies against any backdrop). We went up the sound to the mouth of the Tasman Sea and back down again after being briefly manoeuvred under a waterfall for a dousing. I may have taken a short nap on a table top. Conclusion? Big-draw destinations are not my thing.
This little piggie also had great fun pretending to be a dinosaur
At Ship Creek, just outside Haast on the west coast of the South Island, I was transported into the land that time forgot as the boardwalk led us deeper into the lowland temperate rainforest of tree ferns, tannin-brown swamp waters, umbrella moss and lichen-drenched trees. I had to run and chase the boys, elbows tucked into my side, claws forward and ‘raaaarrrrhing’ like any good T-Rex should. Oh ace Cretaceous! What fun we had.
Here I must tell you how easy it is to walk in New Zealand. Every trail head has a sign detailing distance/time (if a little generous) and range between enticing boardwalks to rough gravel, thus appealing to the boys who could relax into the walks knowing that their mother wasn’t going to misread the map and lead them astray (again).
To bank some karma credits, we made special efforts to pick up hitchhikers. Our guests included an American girl who’d ditched her Masters degree in music composition to play banjo in travelling communities (she played for us before she hopped out), a loved-up English couple who couldn’t stop touching each other’s knees as they talked about returning separately to the UK after their travels and an Argentinian student studying eco-law who raved about nature, its rape and protection.
Most had been on multi-day walks where you hike for miles and miles and camp in tents or cabins – something that I really, really wanted to do but couldn’t because of the kids. I tried not to growl at them as I grappled with my jealousy.
Most days we would move on after a night but the daytime driving wiped out big chunks of play/downtime. In Hokitika, a small seaside town on the west coast of the South Island, we took a rest. Chucking on Lord of the Rings for the boys, I took my early morning cuppa to the sea.
Soon, inspired by the numerous driftwood sculptures covering the beach, I found a long stick and began to draw in the wet sand. Being of an ordered mind, I drew parallel lines, and lots of them, leading from the waves to the dunes.
I could’ve covered the whole damn beach, happy as I was to lose my worries in the meditative movement of up down, up down. Fraser arrived and my ambitions shifted. I placed rocks and stones and drew topographic lines around them.
There was something intrinsically creative about that beach. Later, when the boys came down, we devised a bury-dig-find game in the sand. I haven’t been that inventive in the boys’ play since they were toddlers.
That evening, the sunset over Hokitika beach was splendiferous. On rocks exposed by the low tide, the boys played tag with the waves and went bonkers under the blush-scarlet sky. I shared the moment on Facebook Live and, stoked with connecting to friends and family, I too went a bit bonkers. I danced circles around Fraser like a pixie. I think I was just unable to process all the beauty of life. It simply bubbled over into an animated, almost primordial, jubilance.
Same thing happened on our brilliant bus tour of Farewell Spit, the northernmost point of the South Island and the longest sand spit in New Zealand. I ran down the massive sand dunes like a girl and climbed them over and over again to keep throwing myself down, with the boys squealing at my side.
‘Why is this path SO BUMPY and ROCKY?’ blasted Robert as he pushed the bike off his legs and into the bush in absolute fury. ‘Because you’re mountain biking and this is what mountain biking is,’ I replied in my most neutral voice.
We were riding the 15km, Grade 2 Ohakune Coach Road on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu and it was tough going. Whilst Thomas pushed on uphill to reach the downhills he so fearlessly loves, Robert crumpled into indolence at nearly every tree root, rocky patch, deep rut and incline.
Fraser and I took turns to practice Zen-like levels of patience to get Robert through. This was definitely Type-2 fun** and by the time we reached the asphalt of town (a full 90 mins longer than the most generous time expected to ride the trail), the boys were knackered. We were drained, yet content in our parenting success. I think we may have even high-fived each other.
Fraser claims that the Te Anau glowworm experience was also Type-2 fun, but I loved gliding under glowworms in a small boat in a dark, dark cave. In the blackness, all scale was lost to me. The cave walls might have been just inches away, but the glowworms’ blue-white tiny lights could’ve been night-time cityscapes seen from space or star constellations observed from earth. The magic was in the silence, in the spatial scales of nature and the scope of imagination.
I had a heavy heart returning Jeff to Auckland and rejoining the world of fixed abodes. After weeks of outsideness, I tried to ignore the city and holed up in our cozy Airbnb whilst Fraser explored with the boys. I felt the easy living slip away. It was time to fly east to Los Angeles in the US of A.
*Fear Of Missing Out
**Type-1 fun – you’re doing something and having loads of fun whilst doing it
Type-2 fun – you’re not having fun whilst you’re doing it but you know you’ll look back on it as fun
Type-3 fun – you’re not having fun and will never regard it as fun