New Zealand is as magical as she ever was.
Despite my best intentions, I am writing this retrospectively. The past fortnight has been so full on that I just haven’t had the time to put pen to paper. So I am writing this on the flight home and reflecting on the amazing time we have had.
After four long flights, we landed in Auckland slightly behind schedule and raced in our Jucy rental Mitsubishi to Kingsland. There, we checked into our AirBnb and turned ourselves around in record time and somehow managed to be out again within the hour; showered, changed and on our way to Culprit. Culprit. is a new venture that Kyle, Jordan, Nicky and Gats have put together as a sort of Depot spinoff – though I am quite sure they wouldn’t much like it summarised as such! It was quite emotional to see Gatlin and he took care of us fantastically, as expected. Nomi and James joined us for dinner, which was most welcome as I think they kept us alert! The food was great, though the whole concept could use a little fine-tuning. But what 4-month-old restaurant couldn’t? The ceviche and kahawai pancakes were a particular highlight and it was wonderful to enjoy a few bottles of NZ wine again at the local price! Gatlin promised to join us for dinner the following night and then we went for a nightcap at Hotel DeBrett before pouring ourselves into bed. Avi and I are going to so enjoy showing our friends round this country, all our old haunts and workplaces – let’s have them understand what all the fuss is about.
The following day, we drove over to the Warehouse in Newmarket and collected our camping equipment. NOTE: click and collect ahead of travel was an inspired time-saver! We loaded up the car and then proceeded to complete, what I shall henceforth call, the Full Brown. This is not as disgusting as it sounds, though I guess that depends on your point of view. It essentially entails: breakfast at Best Ugly Bagels, lunch at the Federal Delicatessen and dinner at Depot. Three of Al Brown’s culinary ventures and not a half bad way to spend one’s day. Since Avi used to work at the Fed Deli and we both worked at Depot, we got hooked. up. In between outrageous tastebud treats, we strolled down to Auckland harbour where, in the shadow of the sky tower, we soaked up the Auckland Anniversary festivities. I cannot fully express how good it felt to get some Vitamin D and to feel the warm caress of sun rays. Ahead of our meal at Depot, we took a box of beers round to Gatlin’s. It weren’t too shabby, I tell you that! We enjoyed the last of the evening sun on his deck with his housemates, dangling our feet in his hot tub and catching up on all that’s happened in the last two years.
Dinner at Depot should really need no commentary. Suffice it to say, it was as outstanding as ever it was (and anyone who has not yet been should get the hell to Auckland for the soul purpose immediately). After dinner, we walked onto the street and by sheer coincidence found ourselves faced with a number of Depot-colleague-ghosts of the past. Seamus and Irina, McVinnie and Jimmy, Sarah and Rodrigo. It was quite bizarre that they should all be there on the same night we were, and most of them separately. But it was fantastic to see them, if only for quarter of an hour. It made up a little for those we weren’t able to see in the short time we had in Auckland.
The next morning we got on the road. Properly on the road. We headed up, with Gats alongside, to Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri. It is a paradise that Avi, Jimmy and I discovered in 2014 when Jim was living in Paihia. We found a place to cross the river and climbed behind the waterfall. That time it was pretty deserted and the conditions were far muddier. This time around, it had clearly been a little more discovered and, as a result, was maybe more accessible. It took away none of the magic, however, and Ali, Jon and Mel were blown away. Afterwards we all slid into the pool at the base of the waterfall and enjoyed the feeling of the water and the thundering power of the waterfall. We camped that night at Uretiti beach. The tent turns out to be a breeze to erect, very roomy and a practical choice. We cooked sausages in bread (the old road trip faithful) and walked down to the beach when it got dark. We took the guitar and gazed at the stars – stars that you cannot see in many places on this earth and certainly not in Shepherds Bush or Stockwell.
The next day we journeyed south back through Auckland, dropping Gats off on the way to the Coromandel Peninsula. Amazingly, we still hadn’t submitted to any overwhelming jet lag. The drive to Hot Water Beach was long but we managed it very amicably, despite a rather cramped back seat! When we got to the beach, Avi rented a surfboard for an hour and we joined the small crowd digging holes through the sand to the hot thermal spring below. We may have cheated a little in finding an abandoned hole to hollow out further, but we still ended up with our own personal beach bath to bask in while we enjoyed the view. The views did not end there and, since I was the only one who had been before, I took the others on the walk through the bush to Cathedral Cove. I was worried that we had left it a little late in the day, that we would lose the light. In the end, Avi was right, and the evening light was just perfect. We walked through the rock tunnel and marvelled at the rock stacks that look like they could come crumbling down at any moment. We all took a swim in the cove and explored one of the little caves cut into the rock face. Before we dried off, we showered in the fresh water trickle that cascades over the edge of the cliff above. I decided then that floating in that cove would be my new Happy Place. When I’m on the tube and it all gets a little overwhelming, I will go there in my mind and it will relax me, everything will just float away.
Now if you knew anything about my and Ali’s friendship, you’d know that there was no way I could take him to New Zealand without checking out the Hobbiton Movie Set, located a couple of hours south of Auckland in Waikato. I’ll admit, I was sceptical about how worth it it would be but I have to say, the guys in charge really do do an incredible job of keeping it all so up to scratch! It all felt very authentic, the attention to detail was phenomenal and I’m really glad we mad it out there. It’s not something I’d probably have anticipated doing while in New Zealand but at least now I can tell those who’ll visit me out there in the future that it’s well worth checking out! After our tour and a bite to eat, we drove back up to Auckland airport, via a stroll on the beach at a place called Miranda, and boarded a plane for Christchurch and Avi’s parents.
The less said about the domestic flight, the better. Suffice it to say that it was just one more nail in the coffin of my propensity to fly in the South Pacific. If I had’t been a nervous flyer before, that amount of turbulence and terror would have ruined me for life. I nearly had a coronary.
Once we made it to the Cohen’s, and had been furnished with a desperately-needed glass of scotch, we got a good night’s sleep and woke up to the incredible view from their living room. We just about had time to do a very swift, but very necessary, load of laundry before jetting off to lunch with Susan and David. Being in Christchurch with my boyfriend’s Jewish parents, the choice for lunch clearly couldn’t be anything but dim sum! We spent a great couple of hours with them while our laundry dried on the dashboard of the car(!) and then we piled back in and journeyed south towards Central Otago. Since it is completely, physically impossible not to stop and take in the indescribable view at the head of Lake Pukaki, we somehow managed to spend a little time soaking up the lory before tearing our eyes away and getting back on the road.
Our first campsite in South Island was a bit of a risk on mine and Avi’s part. The last time we were there, during one of our stops in Twizel going to or from his parents’, we had lunch in a cafe where the waitress told us we had to check out Lake Ohau. It was a few kilometres off the highway along the classic gravel access road but on the evening we did it, my God was it a spectacular view?! Lake Ohau is not dissimilar to Wakatipu in that the mountains on the far shore just fall straight into the water. Our campsite was on the lake’s younger brother, Lake Middleton, which was more sheltered and so, so beautiful! As if we weren’t in enough holiday bliss, shortly after we arrived a little silver car pulled up and expelled Jimmy (Avi’s best friend), his girlfriend, Aurora, and their border collie, Luna. It was so amazing to have them with us – with two tents, we were well and truly camping crew! We cooked on our gas stove and drank some great kiwi wine that Avi had liberated from his Dad’s cellar. It as complete and utter heaven.
The next day, we ate breakfast and packed up camp, driving further south towards Queenstown. We drove through one of my favourite landscapes, Lindis Pass, and came into Queenstown in slightly inclement but, as a result, impressively moody weather. Lake Watatipu was a little more role than we’re used to but after a bite to eat at our favourite Caribe street food vendor and a beer at Atlas by the water, the sun came out to greet us. While we were having a drink, Mel and Jon surprised us with the news that they had bought us all tickets to Fat Freddy’s rop in a few days’ time, to say Happy Birthday to Ali and thank you to Avi and I for organising the itinerary of the trip. It was so sweet of them and SO EXCITING!! It was a sold out show. All we were hearing around town was how jealous those who didn’t have ticket were of those who did. And now we were going. Eeeeek!
After separating from Jimmy and Aurora who were taking Luna in their own car, and having swung by Jack’s Point to show the guys our old home, we proceeded on towards Te Anau. We’d had a mind to stop at another unknown campsite an hour or so out of Te Anau but, after driving a few kilometres up the gravel access road, we the others coming back our way. They reckoned it was too unsheltered and not nearly as idillic as the previous night’s stop. Since our standards had been set and we would now settle only for Paradise, we turned around and followed Jim’s car further into Te Anau. In the end, as we still had a few hours of daylight left, we decided to press on along the early part of the Milford Road and found a spot at Henry Creek on the bank of the lake. We managed to get the tents up and dinner on just as the sun was going down. Somehow the rain that had been threatening all day held off and we had yet another evening eating, drinking and telling stories. I’d never camped so out of the open before, surrounded by beech trees. The wind in the leaves all night might have made me nervous in another country. In New Zealand though, it’s hard to imagine anything could hurt you even when it’s just a sheet of canvas between you and the outside. Curled in a warm sleeping bag in Avi’s arms felt like the safest place in the world.
We all woke early, wolfed down some cereal and coffee and got back on the road, bound for Milford Sound. This was the day I had been looking forward to the most; I had been before so knew how phenomenal the experience we were all about to embark on was and I couldn’t wait to show the others the magic of Fiordland. We drove on through the national park, stopping once or twice to bask in the majesty of the mountains, and came through the Homer Tunnel and down into the valley in time to slather on the sun cream for our cruise!! Given that it rains two thirds of the year in Fiordland, we were supremely lucky to have clear blue skies from start to finish. We boarded the ship and made ourselves comfortable in the bow. The journey out through the sound to the Tasman Sea was utterly
breathtaking and our guide was great at describing all the rock formations, the vegetation, the history, the paths the hundreds of waterfalls took, and pointing out the wildlife that call the place home. The others were as staggered as I hoped they’d be and I was thrilled to find out that neither Jimmy nor Aurora could remeber having been before either, so it was a first for them too. Once we’d disembarked and got our land legs back, we piled back into the cars and drove back towards Te Anau. This time we made the stops along the road that we had ignored on the way. On the near side of the Homer Tunnel, we introduced Ali, Jon and Mel to the kea that are native to that part of the track. They are such intelligent birds and mischievous as a gang of monkeys! They’ll tear parts of bumpers from cars given half the chance and are so unconcerned by people you could fall over one if you weren’t paying attention. We also stopped at Pop’s View, a spectacular view of the opposite mountain range named for a road-builder who lost his life in an avalanche to make that part of the world accessible for all who care to explore it. A sacrifice we all profoundly thank him for. When the boys wandered off the beaten track, they came across something I can find no mention of anywhere, though I can’t imagine it has lain undiscovered for the decades it seems.
A few meters from the highway, so engulfed by the forest around it that it could almost be its own species of plant, is a rusted old car that looks to be from about the 1950s and had obviously careered off the road to crash in the bush. It was an incredible find and I could hardly believe it when I saw it. It’s just one more moment that brings home to me how isolated parts of New Zealand are, untouched and unspoiled. I’ve said it before but it still blows my mind how much of a city girl I was for so many years before I discovered the alternative. I can’t imagine not valuing the open air and the sense of freedom before that, now, I could not craft my future without.
We camped that night at a spot called Totara and Avi finally got his campfire. Unusually, we arrived at the site with enough hours of daylight left to make an evening of it. The boys built the fire while Mel and I put the tent up. We sat around in the staggering warmth of the fire and couldn’t quite believe how good we seemed to have it. Dinner was cooked in great time on the fire and we demolished yet more of our portable fine wine cellar. Reality seemed very, very faraway. For all we cared it could stay there.
Back to Queenstown we went the next day and, somewhere along the way, we became acutely aware how good it would feel to have a shower, and tried not to dwell on how long it had been since we’d had one! Once back in town, we drove straight to Lake Hayes and had a very bracing (and very brave!) cleansing swim. I say ‘swim’, it was really more of a dunk. We all stripped down to our togs and sprinted into the water with eco-friendly soap, squealing and swearing all the way. While we were drying ourselves off and playing ‘Who’s the Coldest’, we were thoroughly shown up by a gaggle of ten or eleven-year-olds who pranced into the water without a care in the world. Little gits; it was like they didn’t even have nerve endings! Once were a modicum more presentable, we wen to Amisfield for some wine-tasting. Avi and I were so excited to see some old faces and we weren’t disappointed. Avi’s old colleague Lauren was present and correct at the Cellar Door and she squealed with delight and threw her arms round us as soon as we walked in. She gave us a free tasting and was as fantastic and informative as she ever was. We went into the bistro to surprise my old workmate, Kevin. He looked at us like he’d seen a ghost but was over the moon to see us. David, the restaurant manager, who Avi also used to work with, insisted that we all accompany him to a sunlit table on the terrace and plied us with wine and stories. It was utterly bliss and rather nice to enjoy some of the finer things after slumming it in our beloved tent! They all wanted to know, of course, if Avi and I were back for good. It killed us both a little to say no, but the whole trip cemented our resolve to come back here one day soon and live the life we both crave.
After our wining, we then went climbing. Horrible order to do that in, I’m sure you’ll agree. The boys made it to the top of Coronet Peak in the blazing evening sun. Mel and I made it quite high enough and flopped down in the grass to wait for the boys to conquer the mountain. We made our camp at Moke Lake, a favourite spot of Avi’s and mine in the old days. The sun set on the eve of Ali’s birthday and I couldn’t quite shake the heavy reality that I was to be made to voluntarily jump into a canyon the next morning. It may have contributed a little to the tension between Avi and I, though it could also have been that even a great couple probably can’t spend two weeks in one tent with three of their friends without getting a little irritable with one another at least once. I was starting to feel more than a little coldy too (bloody typical), so I went to bed a bit earlier than the others – I think it was the best thing for me.
The dawn broke on Canyon Swing Day… sorry, Ali’s 26th birthday, and we drove into town for a rather nervous breakfast and reported to the AJ Hackett offices right on time. We were asked if we were jumping solo or in tandem and then weighed to ensure it all balanced correctly. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I made it through all that with a smile on my face. I certainly could have done none of it without the reassurance that Avi and I would be jumping together. Very prophetic, right? We boarded a bus that took us out to the Nevis Canyon Swing site – 40 mins of maddening anxiety! Once we’d checked in (and I’d peed for about the hundredth time!), we crossed the suspension bridge to the launch pad in time to watch a timid little Asian girl plummet 70m in free fall before swinging into a 300m arc. It felt like we’d barely been on the observation deck before Avi and I were going first. I will admit that once we were harnessed in and standing on the edge, there was a moment when I thought, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do this!’ Boy, am I glad I did though! The lead up to the drop is all a complete blur and I was not the wildest fan of the free fall. Once we were swinging, though, I realised I had left my terror back on the launch pad. It was the most amazing experience and I felt so lucky to be able to see it all from up there and share it with Avi.
We went back into town, in desperate need of some food and a beer. Once we’d satisfied ourselves, pitched our tent in the first catered campsite since the Coromandel and HAD A BLOODY SHOWER, we broke open some of the Amisfield wine we had bought the previous day and toasted Ali’s birthday and our amazing trip. We took a cab out to the Queenstown Events Centre where Fat Freddy’s Drop were to play an open air gig. The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic and to have it all set against the incredible back drop of the Remarkables mountain range was truly, truly epic. Of course there had to be one final delightful reunion for me and Avi and we made our way over to the Jack’s Point tent that was selling such wares as frozen rosé and oysters. Behind the till was Larni, my old boss, Vaughan the Exec Chef and, mingling like a champ was Liv, Avi’s old boss. It was so wonderful to see them all and there were many yells, squeals, hugs and kisses. The band were unsurprisingly awesome. We caught up with our old friends, introduced them to our other old friends and had the most amazing time. We caught the complimentary bus back into town and topped the night off with a obligatory Fergburger. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to our time in New Zealand together, or Ali’s birthday for that matter.
The next morning was Mel and Jon’s last in New Zealand, having not been able to get as much time off work as the rest of us. We bade our farewells and Ali went with them to the airport to collect our third and final hire car (which of course turned out to be the most suited to our requirements of them all *eye roll*), while Avi and I packed up camp. When Ali returned, we drove to Wanaka where we were to spend the next couple of days with Avi’s parents, walking, eating and visiting wineries. Once back in Christchurch, we were able to catch up with one or two more friends and enjoy the last days of our holiday.
It was hard to leave New Zealand again, though much easier than it might have been since we are so happy and secure in our lives back at home. We will be back though. As soon as we can, as soon as makes the most sense. We couldn’t stay away for the world.