Queen Charolette Track

Coming off the ferry the van has changed its mind and is unwilling to start. It’s also shoved against the side of the hull and so we need several people to push this heavy thing out a little so we can open the compartment where the battery is. Of course, the people in their cars are just pouring off the boat until all that is left is one old man waving at me to move my vehicle. I finally get him to come over and he radios for help to get it out.

At the last stop at the Warehouse I’ve also bought booster (jumper) cables so after we get a few more of the staff over to shove it away from the wall I hook it up to an idling truck and it starts, the staff starts to leave, it stalls, I jump out and yell at them to come back, jump it again and finally get off the ferry and checked in to a very nice hotel, perhaps the best in Picton. We deserve it.

Arrangements are made to take a mail boat up to the beginning of the Queen Charolette track and spend two nights out. We take long showers, do laundry and watch DVDs out of the hotel’s extensive collection.

The van won’t start in the morning and I can’t get the manager to give it a jump. Instead he calls the best garage in town to help, or at least so says he. The guys who come out get it running and say the choke is stuck on and that’s why it smokes.

When we go over later the engine is cleaned, and the owner starts going over some things with me. It leaks because a cooling hose to the radiator has come detached. There is silicone caulking around the rocker panel and it needs a new seal. These are made out of cork and are breathable, so the caulking is not stopping a leak, but is not really good for the engine. We leave it with him and go on our walk.

Once again, being in nature resets our attitudes into a pleasantness not encountered in the van nor when surrounded by people in bustling cities. We befriend the boat driver and he starts selling us on the area. He has to cut it short because one of the passengers has fallen gravely ill. After checking her condition and giving her a sickness bag, he turns the craft around. She collapses on the dock and it makes me think it might be much more severe than just sea sickness.

We get going late and with the first day being 27 kilometers long it’s going to be tiring. Not too bad though because we’ve decided to pay the extra ten bucks for pack transport and only have our day packs on us, with yummy food waiting for our arrival and it’s a gorgeous walk.

We do pass out early but wake up in the dark to a possum rustling through our stuff. Unfortunately, a plastic bag has been left out with a tantalizing sent for the possum nose to investigate. I chase him off and bring the bag inside our tent and go back soundly asleep.

The second day is a little shorter than the first and goes up to a ridge line. It overlooks farms and harvested forests and is not quite as nice as the first day. Our bags are at the hostel and we have to hike down the hill to get them.

We meet the mechanic out with his kids at the hostel. When he leaves the manager states he’s the best around. It’s also the second time we hear the story of how he escaped Zimbabwe and by the end, he mentions it, too.

Our bags are late arriving and we sink into the picnic benches on the front porch drinking milkshakes, talking to some fellow hikers. Two women from Sweden are so sunburned it hurts to look at them. Another hiker is a guy called Hallel from Israel, now living in Paris. He works for Johnson & Johnson and came out for a meeting, extending his trip to do most of the Great Walks while he’s down here. It looks like he’s with his girlfriend but he tells us it’s another Israelite who approached him on the boat and they decided to meet up at the end of each day to chat.

Even with the rain the third day is the best. The views are stunning from the ridge. It’s mostly native forest, with many stands of Beech trees. We talk about explorers and what their encounters might have been like with native people. At the end of it all we go to a little café with Hallel. Sitting there are the two Swedish women and it turns out they are doctors. Seems they would’ve taken better care of their skin, then. And they look so young!

We’re chatting about when the boats are due to arrive, theirs earlier than ours. So we’re relaxed when I look over and see their boat come in. The girls don’t move. We wonder aloud what the time is, and if that might be their boat. They hustle off in a hurry, cutting off any goodbyes. We wait for our boat and it’s a little late in arriving.

As soon as we get back I hustle to the auto shop to pick up the van. He tells me the battery wouldn’t stay charged so he checked the alternator. It was bad beyond the ability to rebuild, so he puts in a new one. This is also in the circuit with the choke, so it now does not smoke as a side benefit. He made the decision because it was impossible to reach us on the hike, so I pay for it and take off to pick up Erica who is waiting at the dock with our bags.

Mt. Bruce, Tauranga, Wellington and Picton

Out in the ‘Napa of New Zealand’ we stop at the Tui Brewery to try a couple of the brews. Although it doesn’t taste like old tram tickets to me, I don’t think I’ll be buying mass quantities of it, even with the clever advertising.

On the other hand, the National Wildlife Centre was worth all the time and gave me more of a buzz. They are helping to make Mt. Bruce predator free. Their captive breeding program of endangered birds has been successful not only in reintroduction within Mt. Bruce, but on some of the other small islands as well. I think when we have jobs again I’ll have to sponsor a hectare. But we get to see all sorts of birds, including the Kiwi, and it is one refreshing moment in an otherwise sad heritage of ecology on the islands and leaves me with hope that some of the devastation can be rectified.

Around here the land is cut with deep gorges. Log trucks weave past, crossing over the center line. Rattling, buzzing, whining and popping around and around we travel to Morere Hot Springs for a little soak. Situated in native bush this is an excellent little place.

The men’s room is getting showers put in so I duck into the ladies’ room to take one. Of course some women come in and Erica let’s them know there’s a man in their presence. But they don’t mind. I hurry off with a downward glance when done and hear one of them, don’t be so nervous she admonishes me.

Collected together we cross the street from the springs to have a little treat at the café. The owner is rambling something about civilization having a decision between going with the Greeks or the Arabs, and we took the wrong fork down the Arabic road. He redeems himself by bringing out a box of fuzzy little ducks, trying to hop out of their little prison, that have been abandoned by their mom. Erica holds one and pets it while hoping it doesn’t decide to let go of a poo.

It’s time again to test the camper van’s capabilities as we tumble and weave, with exhaust popping loudly, over the heart-stopping roads of the Taurara Ranges and down to Kaitoke Regional Park. This is a beautiful place and our wish to stay longer is fulfilled when the van won’t start in the morning.

After a jump from the ranger we continue on to Wellington and park in the ferry lot. We bike around the Beehive and get lost trying to find Te Papa. Erica gets a flat and gets mopey and I get mad. The van is taking a toll on our emotions and is chipping away at any sense of adventure and fun we should be having on this trip. I can’t help but feel like an idiot for buying that thing.

But we easily get the flat fixed and have some amazing Indian food before getting lost inside Te Papa. Afterwards we’re stuck in the Warehouse once again to buy oil, as the last place charged eleven bucks for one litre. I am able to buy 6 for the same price. I don’t really care if the quality is low it just needs to help to keep the thing running until we can get to Christchurch and sell it. Or blow it up. Who knows? Nobody will buy it and there’s a certain amount of glee I would feel to see it engulfed in flames from my own spark. There’s a certain amount of deviousness we might not be up for to cover our tracks in an insurance fraud. I hope we can sell it. I hope it makes it so we can sell it.

The weather matches our emotions. On the bike ride back to the ferry a gust of wind coming down a side street as I cross over picks up my front wheel and I nearly spill. Rain is soaking our clothes. In the van that night it feels like a gang of midgets who detest the color of blue, especially on a camper van, are seeking vengeance on the Bedford. I can imagine them out there with tiny clubs, banging away at every side and howling at the massive wreck while they skirt up and down the sides. The van rocks with their hammering and crawling. In the morning we’re sitting in a very large puddle of rainwater and the weather is not letting up.

The van decides to start and we clamber on board a ferry bigger than some of the buildings along the harbor. The sun deck will be closed for the entirety of the trip which is unsurprising since the spray from the bow hitting the waves is coming up to where I am peering out on the 7th deck. The three hour trip passes with land always in sight, and much better weather as we pass in to the Marlborough Sounds.

East Cape

The country is definitely different out here. Heading in to Opotiki there are kids riding bareback through town, with just a rope around the horse’s neck. We stop at a holiday park outside of Te Araroa. The sign says AA Membership discount, and we had just signed up and so enquire. The response is I don’t care if you’re a card-carry communist! I guess the discount is out.

A lot of people in trailers call this lovely little campsite home. There’s the man with full-on moko (traditional facial tattoo) with his family. The little boys ask how tall I am and are blown away by my answer of six-foot-one. They don’t know how tall they are. It takes them awhile to guess where I am from. They know I am American but just can’t seem to think of what it’s called.

Erica takes a long and lovely walk down the beach. She nearly makes the next town but with each step forward knows there is more distance to cover to get back. A dead goat lies bloated and rotting in the sand. That’s a sign to turn around. She says that she watched pelicans hunting the surf on the way back. I have stayed behind because all my glands have swollen up and I’ve lost my appetite and all my energy. I think the Bedford has actually worried me sick.

I ring up Collin and ask what he thinks it would take to make the camper run well. He would want to put a seal kit on the transmission to stop leaks, a cost of about $1000 and to stop the tapping in the engine rebuild that for about another $2500. I take it in to advisement; we check the fluids before heading out.

Another local comes by, relighting his hand-rolled cigarette and watching us top things off. He’s a mechanic and full of questions about the van, top most being why the heck we would by something like that and for which I deign not to answer. He also points out that it is smoking really badly, another new problem arising in this awful beast.

A rugged land of ups and downs has us rolling along the coast around to Tolaga Bay. This is one of those places that feel like it is up-and-coming.

We walk out to Cook’s Cove where he once anchored and through a little arch in the rock where the river has cut through to the ocean. At night we free camp by the cemetery, sandwiched between a bird sanctuary and the beach.

It is dinner at the Pickled Walnut where we read about a murder-suicide and the family of the murdered woman disgusted that the other family will perform the kappa-haka for the killer. It’s a measure of disrespect for their dead and encouragement to other violent men that this behavior will be condoned. Instead, they feel the body should be thrown in a sack, dumped in a hole to the entrance of the cemetery for all people to tread upon. This is the traditional way to treat a reviled and disgraced person.

One of those somewhat boring days besieges us as we drive in to Gisborne. I am still feeling awful and will continue to do so for about 2 weeks. We wind up checking email at a little shop as the library is actually not on line. We get to talking with the owner of the shop, a man of Asian descent who grew up in Vancouver and has lived in town for 13 years. He talks about big box stores stomping over the ‘Mayberry RFD’ feel of the country. The country feel was why he moved here. Prices for real estate are rising, but so is crime. He has been burgled 8 times. Part of it, he thinks, is because the town is small enough people know when he’s at work, part of it is he’s a business owner and must have money, and of course part of it is he looks different.

As the land becomes flatter, hotter and uninspiring we cruise in to Napier and hop on our bikes for a look around the art deco buildings. The town was rebuilt in the 30’s after a devastating earthquake hit the area with many buildings done in this style. We also go to the national aquarium and watched a diver feed the fish. Not exactly the type of place we would like to live, but fun for a day.

Collin the Mechanic

Collin the mechanic is a hook-nosed man with barely a scratch of white hair left on his freckled head and a small mouth with some gaps where teeth used to be. I ask if he’s a local and he berates me, seventh generation mate! He says the thing is leaking oil, by which he means transmission fluid, and tops it off. This is where Paul and I both learn that tranny fluid needs to be checked with the car hot. He wants to check the brakes out to see if it’s really the booster and I decide to see him the next day.

All the way back Paul keeps running over the line, well I learned something. The transmission fluid needs to be checked while it’s hot. I never knew. It’s good to know all that is wrong is that it just needs to have the fluids topped off every so often and she’ll be right.

I stay quiet, simmering at the thought that he won’t state the obvious that there is a larger problem. Why does it leak? Instead he tells me that it has occurs to him that we’ve driven more in the past two weeks than he’s driven in the past year and the old girl just doesn’t like to be stressed that bad.

He does redeem himself when we get back to the parking lot by paying for half of the break job done in Kerikeri and telling me that he’s directed Collin to bill him for any ensuing work he does on the van.

I go back in the bar and ask where a good place is to get dinner. The locals titter behind their hands and are in on something, I can tell. Chaz tells me that Marie is at home cooking up some steaks and we are to go by for dinner when we feel like heading out. We do and wind up spending the night, the Bedford leaking oil all over the front lawn where she’s asked me to park.

The next two days are spent with Collin. It turns out to be the booster and he gets one but it is for disc brakes and we have drums. He fits the thing in and it takes some pumping to build up enough pressure to have any brakes at all. The other is sent out for reconditioning. He offers to sell us a Toyota sitting in his yard, one of the few that seem to be running. We take it for a drive and escape his place for awhile.

Collin is a racist. At dinner he tells us that it is a sad fact our forefathers ran out of bullets before killing all the blacks. There would be far less problems. It comes up because we talk about the Dutch couple in Haruru Falls. They have caught the suspects and one of them is white trash like Collin but that doesn’t stop the rant. He looks stranger than the typical bush man because his house burned down, scorching over twenty percent of his body. He spent over a year in the hospital and had some major grafts attached to his face.

Collin’s sons are into racing and their dad supports them in this endeavor. The cars are little cages on a chassis and are flung around a dirt track. The idea is to bash in to the other drivers, blocking them from finishing while you try and get across the finish line before someone takes you out. At the event the last weekend they came in first. The prize for winning is a trophy. There is a little cash split among the teams which is usually spent when all the teams go out on the piss (drinking) together. A typical season costs tens of thousands of dollars to keep the thing running. There’s a sign on the front of the car which states, ‘I’m always in the shit only the depth varies’.

So we head out, pumping madly at the brakes any time stopping is needed and will let Collin know where to send the refurbished part. Our plan is to head around the East Cape area where ‘Whale Rider’ was filmed.

Kawerau Stinks and Terawera is Beautiful

We slowly get up the hill and stop in Rotorua at another mechanic shop. I can now tell where the auto shop district is in any town and drive by instinct to a garage. The man there tells me it’s the vacuum booster seal in the master that has gone bad, something that having the part reconditioned wouldn’t have corrected. What can I do? Sell the cursed thing is his grinning answer. Sell it back to those ministers is our resolution and back to Kawerau we drive. We’ve tried ringing them with no answer and it there is nobody who answers our calling at the door. Sitting out on the street and reading an older lady passes by, wondering if she knows us. Probably not, we’re just visiting. This does not stop an extended conversation which is fine; we’re merely waiting around the place. She came over in the 40’s from the UK and has been a widow for 20 years. She’s very wrinkled and full of stories which meander to her mind’s whim. As she bids us a good day someone pulls in to the driveway, giving the old Bedford a double-take. Erica goes up to greet him and by the time I get there she’s crying. It’s one of their sons checking on the place since the paper plant called him in from the farm for some maintenance work on one of the machines. Kawerau has the mixed stench of a paper plant and a sulphur pit. The locals insist you get used to it but we would rather not. I guess when he asked Erica how she was going the reply couldn’t be understood over the sobs, although he could probably gather she wasn’t going well. He tells us the folks will be back the next day, hands us some grapefruits from the garden and we decide to spend the night in the park where camping is welcomed. In the park throwing the disc and Erica smacks the ground tripping on her pants while running for the disc and starts to cry again and her bruised knee begins to swell. I put an arm around her and we limp, cry and sigh our way across the street to the corner bar. The name of the place is “The Corner Bar” and is attached to a hotel. The name of that place is “The Kawerau Hotel” clever. It’s a dark place with the T.V. too loud, about five older folks hovering about a horseshoe-shaped bar and half dozen pokies (slot machines) in the back. Every once in awhile someone will drift out from back there and count out a little change for the next drink. The proprietress and owner, Chaz, takes a liking to us and we sit there chatting through a coupe drinks. When I go to pay she won’t let us, insisting that meeting such nice folks is payment enough. This causes Erica to cry a little and Chaz fills up our glasses and starts to pry out the real story. It’s so intriguing to the regulars that even the T.V. is turned down. We’re the show now. A few more shouts (rounds of drinks) later and Scottish Dave hands Erica his mobile phone. His wife Marie is on the line and tells Erica she will be meeting us in the morning in front of the bar to take us up to the local falls. From there we will head on around Lake Tarawera and she will take the car around to the other side and meet us at the end of the day. There is no getting out of it so we decide to turn in before more drinks are offered and get some sleep before the all-day excursion. The falls come blazing out of the middle of the cliff-face. Marie takes our picture and turns back. She describes the route, making a point of telling us where the toilets are along the way. We continue on and she turns back. It’s a beautiful track, heading up the face where we can see the river slink underground. There are big trout in there, too. It heads off to the lake and on around to Humpries Bay, one of the noted toilet stops and what we believe is the end of the track. We’ve reached it at about the time Marie thought it would take us to finish and we both believed this is where she said the car park was where she would be waiting. We wander around and around and it becomes obvious there is no road, no car park, no Marie. Erica wants to head back to the other toilets we passed and where there are some signs of civilization. I want to go on to what the signs points to as a lodge about 3 hours further on. All the tracks have time estimates, there are no distance markers. It’s frustrating to think the people who put the track together know exactly how fast I walk, in any weather conditions. I win out and we walk on. It’s pretty, but is clouded by the thought that Marie is somewhere freaking out about us not arriving and that we’ll have to try and find a way back to town from out here in the middle of nothing. Nothing, that is, except beautiful natural vegetation, birds and gorgeous shorelines of the lakes we pass. At the end there is a little lodge, but not the sort of thing we’ll be spending the night at. There is also a large parking lot. At the end, to our huge relief, is Marie. We’re 3 hours later than we thought we would be. She’s reading a book. Nonplussed she asks if we would like some OJ from oranges squeezed out of her yard. It’s a gleeful trip back to the bar and a couple more drinks on Chaz as we talk about the excellent hike. I excuse myself to call up Paul on a payphone. Sharon answers and states that he’s out in town looking for me, as they passed the Bedford on their way home. I hang up and turn around to find him strolling along. He wants to take it to his mechanic so I hop in. It’s much further than I thought out to the place. Along the way Paul can feel the shifting problems and tells me about an old English car he had before that required taking the foot off the accelerator before the servo would engage to switch gears. He is so used to it that he thinks he’s been doing it with this van and never noticed that it doesn’t like to shift through the higher gears. To me, it sounds like a load of crap. When we get out there I think I better call the bar and let Erica know what’s going on. She’s been getting a hard time about me leaving with an attractive young Maori woman. Yeah, right. Those two words put together and sarcastically spouted out signify sarcasm. This time it means no worries, they all know there is no such thing as an attractive young Maori woman.

Zorb and Other Rotorua Fun

It’s an easy drive down the road to Rotorua. Erica even drives for a little while. It’s time to try the Zorb. This is a plastic, air-filled ball that looks like a large hamster ball. There is a place on the way to Rotorua, about the only place in the world with these things.

A giant conveyer belt lift that takes the ball up the hill where you climb in and they shove you down a track with berms on each side to keep the ball on track. It’s about 20 seconds of rolling and costs $45, so we give it a miss, but watch for awhile.

Alright, well let’s go soak in a pool. There’s some free camping and a thermal valley south of town. This area is actively volcanic and sits above a great fault. The pressure heats the water underground and it bubbles out at near-boiling temperatures all around the area.

At Waiotapu there’s a boat to some tracks and no pools but very expensive for the walk. Obviously confused the front-desk girl whips out a map since this must be a constant problem and shows us where we can go just down the road for a soak.

It takes us some time since even with a map we’re prone to get lost but eventually pull in to the parking lot. For two dollars more than the entry we can also camp and decide to spend the night at the pools. The boy behind the desk looks all of 15 and is missing most of his lower teeth.

By sleight of hand I wind up getting a deal on the place. It’s one of those times when you hand a big bill, in the middle of the person counting change realize you have something that’ll make the change easier but since he’d already started counting and tried to start over by re-exchanging the bills around I wind up with 10 dollars more than I should have and after hesitating and holding it all for him to look at decide it’s time to soak and bid him well.

While sitting around soaking and enjoying the place we read in the paper about the Dutch tourists. There is a little profile about them and how they were migrating to New Zealand and have now decided to leave. Their home town is in shock. They are grateful for all the donations sent in by concerned citizens but must leave. There are also some questions posed to other travelers. The girls we parked next to in Reinga are quoted as saying they had no idea as they don’t read the news while on vacation.

The next morning starts off with filling the Bedford’s fresh water tank and then climbing out of the valley up a steep hill. Two things become evident immediately. The camper won’t shift gears and the brakes are not right. It won’t shift in to the smaller passing gears and it sounds like the thing has air brakes. A pop-whooosh sound greets every push of the pedal.

Broken Down (again)

We now have new brakes and a reconditioned master cylinder on the Bedford. It’s a good mood that takes us over the hills and on to Café Eutopia we spotted on the way up. It’s an eclectic hodge-podge of rounded structures, with outside and inside areas running together and reminds both of us of something out of Dr. Suess. It’s in a town called Kaiwaka (lit. help canoe, or helmsman in Maori) and is known as the “City of Small Lights”. I am agitated by this moniker and am still confused what they might mean by that.

It’s getting late and we’ve made it back through Auckland. I need a rest and we switch seats. There’s a campsite north of Rotorua we want to hit and there’s maybe two hours of driving left and it’ll be a late dinner when we make it. We fill at a BP off the highway and go about another 10 minutes when a hissing emanates from the hood and I sternly tell Erica to pull over and shut off the car. We’ve blown a radiator hose.

Trotting back to the BP station cars honk at me traveling both directions of the motorway. At the station I see there isn’t an auto shop; no hoses to be purchased. As I am walking out I turn around and ask the lady behind me which way she’s heading and explain my plight. I hop in her car (which has a bad radiator leak) and we head back in to town, arriving at the auto shop about one hour after it has closed.

Cathy is the driver’s name and she is a kiwi packing inspector, probably in her late forties. On the way back to the Bedford at its broke-down location she rings up her dad to ask if he might have a hose around. He’s a bit of a tinkerer and fancies the old Bedfords, having one at his place. No luck. Erica and I spend the night on the side of the road, taking some notes of our travels so far to pass the time.

In the morning I strike out again and find a hose. I go to the roadside and stick my thumb out. Erica arms herself with the Leatherman knife and locks all the doors. Nobody is slowing for me. A group of kids go by, they’re yelling something and – oh! – are throwing something, too. I duck to miss the waded paper and murderous thoughts trail through my head. Right behind that a guy in a small car pulls over.

It takes no time to get to the auto store, buy the hose and get back. John, a fireman and recent divorcee, wants to get this over with and watch the All Blacks game starting at 9am and is expediting as much as possible. He even attaches the hose for me and discovers the alternator is loose, probably leading to the overheating and hose busting. As we’re wrapping up Cathy pulls in to see how we fared on her way to a friend’s to watch the game and make sure we’re OK. I wonder if she and John would like… nah. I think I’ll keep my head down.

Bedford Broken in the Bay of Islands

It’s a winding road from Kaitaia over to the east side of Northland. We are coming over a big pass slowly and it’s nice to make the top and pick up a little speed, except the van is not slowing down. I down-shift and drive slowly around the turns when the van starts to make a strange knocking noise. That’s it, I pull over and getting the thing to fully stop takes some effort. After wiping the sweat off my brow we decide it would be best to stop at the next service station we come to. This happens to be in Kapiro, a little town outside of Kerikeri and right next to the Bay of Islands.

Our man Martyn is an older lad and has been in the country about a year now, from the UK. He looks at the van and remarks about how he thought he’d escaped those beasts when he left, having worked in a Bedford motor pool for some company in London. His mate tells us of buying one for 35 quid and selling it for 200, running the crap out of it the meanwhile and really enjoying the thing.

It’s going to be awhile and we get a ride from the girlfriend of Martyn’s son to Karikari and the Top 10 Holiday Park. We grab some beer and dinner from the store and watch Martha Stewarts’ Apprentice with some of the others, yelling at the screen. The kitchen is set up like a test kitchen and makes us feel exposed to the scrutiny of all the other backpackers cooking their pasta dinners.

There’s a nice path along the river that we walk through dense vegetation to a lovely waterfall. We visit Rewa’s fishing village. It’s a mock-up of an old Maori town and full of information and native plants.

It’s across from the Stone Store, one of the original Pakeha (the Maori word for Anglo) buildings built by a missionary a couple hundred years ago. We start learning of the brutal Maori warrior spirit and of tribes taking each other out through the country. With the introduction of the musket they can go from hand-combat to point-and-click killing.

It’s going to be awhile on the van as Martyn cannot locate the parts needed and we decide to hitch a ride towards Paihia, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. This was the treaty put forth by the British for the Maori tribes to give sovereignty to the Queen. They were led to believe that no land would be taken away, when in reality shady land deals and a policy of assimilation was rapidly depleting the traditional lands. It made the Maori just a little mad, there were violent land wars, and disputes are still brewing today. Written in 1840 the Treaty wasn’t officially recognized until 1975.

The first guys to pull over are hard working, mullet-wearing men out of the bush with a sunny attitude dragging a trailer laden with construction equipment. They are very chatty and interested in our story and question us the whole ride. They are going a different way and drop us at a big intersection where we easily pick up another ride.

The driver is an older man in an immaculate Kia that he drives all around for business. He used to have a postal route and so did his wife, but they have sold those and now he writes travel articles about different holiday parks.

Writing an article about a holiday park at the base of Haruru Falls he asks if we’ve heard about the couple being abducted and insists on driving us there. Although he’s “not a racist”, he speculates that it was probably “the fucking blacks” that carried out the crime.

We stay quiet as he drives us past his little house. More than happy to fill in the silence with his own diatribe, probably confusing our shock with awe and a willingness to hear all he has to say on any matter. But he does take us right to the ferry for Russell; a town he thinks is a lot nicer than Paihia.

He turns out to be right. Looking for accommodation we’re pointed in the direction of the End-of-the-Road backpackers. It’s up a steep hill climbing past an old church, overlooking the harbor. The sliding glass door is wide open, and a note informs us that Moana will call later to see how you’re going. It’s a cozy two-bedroom home and the type of place you wish was yours.

It’s time to wander back down the hill and have a look around. We are in the travel booking office and I notice the name badge has Moana on it, so I ask if she’s the one with the place. Turns out she is and introductions are made and then a nice trip among the islands is booked.

Next we go in to the liquor store/video shop to browse the booze and flicks. I ask if there are DVD players available. Coughing and spewing phlegm in to a wad of tissue the woman at the front desk tries to tell me that there are only video players. Appalled by her actions and wondering why she won’t just turn her back and deal, we slink out of the shop with her hacking away.

It’s a little grey out for our trip among the islands, delivering mail to boat-access only homes. We lunch in a little bay with lambs and their scat dotting the grass and take the Underwater Adventure! in a cheesy little submarine, decked out with silly submarine crew banter and sound effects. It’s really a hulking boat with most of it below the water line and windows looking out.

Since it’s a little stormy out the water is occluded but we can still see large snapper chomping on the bait flung out by the staff as we slide about 200 yards from the wharf and back.

We get back in and Moana finally calls at the house. We chat for awhile and Erica mentions that she’s a teacher. Turns out the town is looking for a teacher for one year and encourages us to go to the area schools’ garage sale the following day. We do before heading to the ferry and learn the job comes with a house situated at the top of the hill and the principal encourages Erica to apply.

After exiting the ferry we get two quick hitches back to the garage, which is fortunate because of the rain. The first talks of his experiences in Canada. He was obviously wowed by the wildlife and we swap stories of the Canadian Rockies. The second is a younger man, recently married and is hard at work selling the area when we tell him we’re looking around for a place to live. All the Kiwis are rightly proud of the area they live in and are convinced it’s the best the country has to offer.

Dargaville to Cape Reinga

In the morning we again find ourselves in the ubiquitous Warehouse to pick up a few forgotten things. It’s touted in these parts as a sure sign that Dargaville is a real town.

While standing in line Erica asks if I can believe the headline. No kidding, it’s just like Whale Rider, 100 pilot whales strand and 37 die! No, the other one titled “Tourist Couple Suffers Attack“. It seems a Dutch couple migrating to New Zealand were camping in a parking lot, which closes for the night, at Haruru falls on the east side of Northland and were abducted. It is a horrific story and just happened last night. They are pursuing the attackers.

We eat a large ‘truckie breakie’ at the local café and read the paper, and then head out towards Cape Reinga. This is one of the noisiest rides I’ve ever been in and that includes grunting diesels. There is the engine sitting between us whining away, the sound of the wind coming through every crack; of tires on the pavement. It can’t be drowned out by music since the radio doesn’t work but it’s such a loud thing I don’t think any speakers could overcome it.

There’s also some other peculiar things about this mobile home of ours. Little bits of foam have to be stuck in the glass to keep it from rattling. The passenger window is nearly impossible to roll up or down. There are many switches on the dash that do nothing.

It’s a long haul and we stop along the way at the Tree House Hostel, on the other side of the Hokianga Harbor from Rawene. This is the first place we’ve seen that we could imagine living in.

It’s a very large harbor and is dotted with little villages along its borders. The hostel is run by a couple Aussies and they are chatty and friendly. The place is lovely; they’ve spent some time planting over 8,000 trees on the property.

We take a couple walks through the towering Kauri trees in the Waipua Forest. It is an incredible place, with tree ferns leaning over us and bird song loud and all encompassing.

The Kauris are massive, and like the Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, it’s hard to imagine people looking at them with anything but quiet respect, instead of the lust to hack them all down for profit. The Maori say a prayer before cutting a tree, planting the same variety when finished.

The Kauri tree Tane Mahuta (Forest Lord) stands 15 feet thick and 60 feet to the first branches.

After a long nap we head towards Ahipara, a very nice town on the south end of Ninety Mile Beach and it is another place we could see living in.

Getting back on the highway in Kataia, we attempt to quickly pass through this bland main town in the area but get stuck again at the Warehouse to pick up a bike rack so they are out of the way and we can move around a little more freely inside the van. Only a little more freely as the ceiling is only 68 inches up and requires stooping and makes for some corner finding with the top of the head.

Cape Reinga is at the end of a dirt road and is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. At the tip is a pohutukawa tree where the Maori believe the dead slide down the roots to the sea, climbing back up at a point on Three Kings Island in the distance where they bid farewell before heading back to Hawaiiki-A-Nui, the land of their ancestors. The pohutukawa is also known as the Christmas tree for its bright red blooms in the summer.

There is a nice beach nearby where we decide to spend the night. Heading down to the little bay I notice that the brakes feel even softer than when I was test-driving it, and they even smell a little when we get to the bottom. It’s a fabulous bay, with a stream trickling in. We park on the grass and some Swedish girls pull in next to us in their little van. It’s still early in the season and fairly uncrowded.

A Bedford in Kewerau

By 7am we’re up and travel south a few hours to check on the Bedford we found on TradeMe (since sold) and have dreamed about since before leaving the States. We breakfast at the Prancing Pig in some small town, having bad coffee and good bacon. Erica turns the headline of the paper to me. ‘Winds Pummel Auckland’. Turns out that record winds sustaining over 150 kph (100 mph) were causing a lot of trouble and even killed a man when a tree toppled and crushed him.

Continuing on with the directions I printed out from the Wises street map site has us turning at every intersection we encounter. This is the best online map in the country as all the important ones from the States haven’t infiltrated these parts with their flawless directions. These are flawed. The default is most direct route, which keeps us cutting across the motorway but not on it.

It’s actually a very nice drive, wandering through the farmland and north of Lake Rotorua. In the middle of the excursion I pull over and switch with Erica. She gets her first taste of right-hand driving. Sitting on the left the phantom braking is just hurting my leg with the straining. I flinch from how close we come to the side of the road. Now I know why Erica was so alert and grippy while I drove.

Things settle down and we talk about the remoteness of the land, how nobody in Auckland had ever heard of a Bedford, and to start dreaming of our travels once we have our new car. I take that back. One guy had heard of the car, an older phone repair guy who was fairly encouraging about it, pointing out that if it’s an old ambulance it was regularly serviced.

The estimated three hour drive takes us around five hours, but the directions do take us right to the doorstep. We’re greeted by two little Jack Russels and one larger woman. She has salt-and-pepper hair cut to chin length, a few bracelets and appears to be in her mid-sixties. She shows us around her roses and then invites us inside. Her husband Paul is currently out in the Bedford, getting the carb adjusted. He had the van fully serviced the day before but feels there’s a little flat sot when accelerating.

He’s had a stroke three years ago. She had a baby when she was sixteen and gave it up. They met again last year when the daughter decided to find her. She shows us around her house, at all the pictures she’s drawn. There is a fair amount of Psalms and other inspirational messages decorating the walls and furniture tops.

In the midst of this Paul comes in. He’s a stout fellow with close-cropped white hair, a beard and glasses. He constantly laughs vigorously with the abandonment of a little boy.

We continue to talk about their lives and drink tea, while Paul pets a cat with one ear missing down to its head, gone from cancer.

If Sharon hadn’t mentioned the stroke, we wouldn’t have known. They are both ministers with the Assembly of God, which explains all the religious artifacts.

It’s getting late and so Sharon offers us lunch. We sit down to prayers and sandwiches of canned corned beef and sweet mustard. It’s now time to hop in the van and take it for a drive. Paul backs it out of the driveway as I am a little nervous about driving it off.

After some time we switch, and Paul asks me if I like the way it handles. I mention that the brakes seem soft and he points out that it is carrying a full tank of fresh water and that the grey water hasn’t been dumped for some time.

Other than that, it seems to drive fine. It has a new Warrant of Fitness which is an inspection needed every six months for any car on the road and is a lot more thorough than an emissions test back home.

The van itself is a modified ambulance, made by a company out of England. It has a Holden 3.3 liter flat six, automatic transmission and no power steering. The radio doesn’t work and one of the roof vents was sealed shut from leaking. Somewhere along the line the inside was handsomely done up by a boat builder. It does have a flush toilet, sink and stove. There is tons of storage but it is small enough not to make us too nervous on the small roads in this country.

We get back to the house and Paul leaves us alone to talk about it for a while. It’s so nice on the inside. It’s been sitting around since the stroke three years ago and before that, sitting in a woman’s yard since her husband died and left her depressed. If we take this, we’re done looking and can get out of the hotel and rental car. Let’s buy it!

The town of Kewerau is so small that we have to drive to Whakatane to do the banking. I make it to our bank with about two minutes to spare and get the check for $11,500 to Paul and we go for a coffee.

Paul talks about the stroke and all the speech and physical therapy. Relearning how to walk, talk and write. He still can’t walk and talk, because both acts require too much concentration to perform. We then drive to the gas station and dump the waste. Paul buys a fill-up and we’re on our way.

Erica follows me in the rental and we stop in Te Puke, a small fishing village on the coast with some rugged looking folks shuffling about in their gumboots, for dinner. We find a fish shop and order the $10 special. Four fish, two sausages and chips. Erica gets an L&P to drink. They’re tag line is, “World Famous in New Zealand”. Yes, but not heard of outside the country.

After dinner we slowly grind over a big pass with grand views of the valley below. Darkness makes its way over to us as we get to the bottom and it’s now my turn to fill the tank. It takes $100 to fill and I start to feel slightly ill. We’re maybe half-way back to Auckland.

We had left Whakatane around 5 pm and snake in to the airport to drop off the rental car around 11:30, exhausted. Fill the van again and start looking for the rental company and cannot find it. We ask the cops walking around the international terminal, and they invite Erica in to the ‘Authorised Personnel ONLY!’ area to draw a map; so much for drum-tight security.

After the car gets dropped we find our way back to the hotel and hunt for parking. The Asians are whooping it up at the nightclub next to the hotel. There is a couple in a car and I ask if they will be moving soon. They answer in the positive, and don’t move apparently studying for a final in the car. We wait for 10 minutes or more and watch them before moving on