Debacles in three acts. Disclaimer: This is a long one.
The New Zealand leg of our trip started in near perfection but that didn’t last long. Not long at all. After our lovely morning in Okains Bay, we set out on a long drive South. We stopped at Lake Tekapo (not pronounced “Take-a-poo” apparently) for a walk, then free camped on the South side of Lake Pukaki near the town of Twizzler.
Act I: Breakdowns
Here is where things went awry. The next morning, we woke up at 6 am in hopes of arriving in Queenstown in time for a late breakfast before continuing our drive to Fiordland National Park—about a six-hour drive overall. Just over an hour into the drive, we heard a loud rattle and pop underneath the car and pulled over to see a small, but steady stream of petrol (what New Zealanders call gasoline) leaking out of the car.
Fortunately, we had a full tank of gas so we were able to drive 15 minutes down the road to the town of Cromwell. Unfortunately, we had a full tank of gas so we watched $120 NZD worth of gas leak out into the road.
We waited for a tow truck in town for almost two hours, only to find out the mechanic was right around the corner. Facepalm. The diagnosis was obvious—there was a gash in our petrol tank from a mystery item we ran over. The mechanic told us to come back around three hours later so we wandered around the tiny but very cute town, sought out wifi, and had a beer at the local pub.
To the mechanic’s credit, the van was ready right on time. We paid him $280 NZD (if you are keeping track, that brings our grand total for this fiasco to $400 NZD) for soldering the gash and jumped back in the van to finish the drive. The price was better than we expected so all-in-all, it wasn’t too bad of a day though unexpected spends like this can’t happen too often or we’ll be home by spring. That night we camped near a beautiful beach in Fiordland National Park.
We spent the following day exploring the National Park. We started the day with the scenic Milford Road drive, took a cruise in Milford Sound then hiked Gertrude’s Saddle in the afternoon. The hike went through a valley then straight up the side of a mountain along a waterfall. It was a knee buster for sure, though very beautiful. We were happy for the exercise as Andrew and I both needed to burn some energy out after that day of waiting and spending.
At the top of the hike, we met a Canadian couple—Jake and Ellie. They are traveling around New Zealand for 110 days and instead of taking photos of themselves or boring landscapes (um, like we are), they have decided to take a picture of a person they meet each day and write down one piece of advice from them. They plan to turn these photos and advice suggestions into a souvenir album of their trip. Today, we were those lucky people. After we cheesed it up for them, Andrew (who loves biking more than most other activities) advised them to ride their bikes more while I said something lame about haircuts. (I panicked! My bangs need trimming, so hair was on my mind.)
On the way down, we passed Jake and Ellie again. When we got to the bottom, we had some trouble unlocking the car. Then the trunk wouldn’t open. Then the lights didn’t turn on. (What now?) Well, *&^%$, we had a dead battery. And the day after the petrol tank gash! Luckily once again, along came Jake and Ellie. They remembered there was a National Park Ranger station nearby and were nice enough to drive to the station and let the rangers know we needed a jump, and then drive back to let us know they would come by to jump us in five minutes. They even offered to wait with us until a ranger arrived and got us started. Like Canadian angels.
The whole debacle only took about 20 minutes out of our day and the jump cost us nothing. And how did the battery die anyways? Well, it seems yours truly turned the lights on in a tunnel and never turned them off. Oops. The silver lining is I got to update my advice for Jake. I told him not to leave his car lights on or the battery will die—but I doubt he needed to write that one down.
Act II: Illness
With our newly charged van, we drove the four-ish hours all the way back to Queenstown. We arrived a little bit after 10 pm, then stayed up late to take showers and do laundry at the campsite.
We got an early start to take in the tourist-filled town before the crowds. We walked the quiet streets before anyone was awake and even watched the sunrise over the river while eating freshly made hand pies from the famous Fergbakery. Mine was chicken and mushroom and Andrew’s was beef with gravy. Very delicious. Very filling for only a few bucks.
We were pretty exhausted from the prior day’s activity and decided to spend the day relaxing in Queenstown and then a take a short one-hour drive North to camp near Lake Wanaka. Our “campground” was just the extra space around a cricket field but they had showers (that makes two showers in two days. Such luxury.) so I was happy.
We hunkered down for the night with a movie on my laptop and fell into a deep sleep by about 9 o’clock. Well, I did. The next morning, I learned Andrew spent the night awake and sick (the puke-y kind of sick). But, there are three things you need to know to understand how miserable he was all night. One, our van has no bathroom—just a bed and little kitchen. Two, we had an entire cricket field in between our van and the shared bathrooms. Three, it was raining. With all that, poor Andrew had a looooong night.
Once we woke up, we called off our plans to hike Roy’s Peak because Andrew was not feeling better plus it was still raining. Instead, we decided to head to the West Coast to explore Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers—something we heard was a must see in New Zealand.
Act III: Cyclones
The drive put me in a great mood. I had a strong cup of coffee in the cup holder, my new favorite podcast—My Favorite Murder—on the stereo, and the rain outside to remind me of our home in Portland. Plus, the rain created hundreds of little waterfalls along the cliffs of the windy roads that gave the illusion that the mountain was weeping. Meanwhile, Andrew was slumped over in the front napping off whatever stomach bug—or slow-acting Fiji juice—he caught.
After a couple hours on the road, we turned the corner and got our first glimpse of the West Coast beaches of New Zealand. The storm was severe when we stopped behind a large truck blocking our way. When I went to get out of the car the wind almost pushed me back in. The rain was coming down so heavily I could barely see. The guy in the road-blocking truck yelled through the downpour to us that the road was closed and recommended we go wait it out in Haast—a small town a few hundred meters back.
We found a café to wait in and watched the storm rage. After a few anxious minutes, I caved and bought some wifi to read up on the road closure. Turns out, it was not just a road closure, but a National state of emergency as Cyclone Fehi hit all of New Zealand. The storm wasn’t even forecasted to get bad until after lunch time and it was only 11 am. Since Andrew was still sick and half asleep at the table, I made the snap decision for us to get a hotel room for the night to wait out the storm. It turned out to be a great decision. For $150 NZD (another surprise expense to add to the list) we got a small room and by noon Andrew was able to shower and go back to sleep. While Andrew slept, I spent the afternoon catching up with my family, reading emails, and watching sitcoms (Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld, and even FRIENDS!) on the little room TV. By morning Andrew was happily feeling better. We packed up, checked out of the hotel, and walked around to check if the roads were open.
And that is where we stand. As I post this we are still stuck in Haast. We got here on Thursday just before lunchtime. As I am writing this, it is Friday night and we are still here awaiting news of the roads. There are only two roads in or out of Haast—one North along the West Coast, and one South that we came in on. Both roads have been severely damaged by Cyclone Fehi. The news reported that over 100m of road slipped away on the South side and there are truck-sized boulders scattering the road on the North side. We will get another update from NZ Transit Authority at 8 am tomorrow morning. Until then, we are two of over 700 people stranded in the little Haast and the beer in town is running low.
Saturday Morning Update: The roads are scheduled to open at 11 am so we are in the queue (New Zealander for line) and waiting along with everyone else in town.