I was up early to pack up, try to eke out a little more work, then pick up the campervan and head out of town.
I was impossibly nervous for driving on the ‘wrong side’, particularly in the confusing, not-at-all-laid-out-in-a-perpendicular-grid-pattern city. It had been plenty for me to not get killed simply crossing the streets as a mere slow-moving pedestrian with traffic coming from unaccustomed directions.
The van was not 100% ready for me when I arrived; they were in a bit of a flurry of preparation and last minute vacuuming and such when I announced myself, and between getting me set and attending to the other foreigners there, my having to stop IMMEDIATELY upon departure for gas (the tank was on ‘E’) then navigate my way home slowly and cautiously (getting totally lost on the way by taking a road I was familiar with, but in entirely the wrong direction ) and then having to return for my luggage and stock up at the local grocery store on supplies (food, ziplock bags, ice, water, etc.) it was heading for three pm by the time I was able to get under way.
The van, a Mazda Bongo, is part of the campervan fleet of the family-owned rental business. They go to Japan annually, purchase former lease vehicles at auction, bring them back to N.Z. and retrofit them with handmade curtains to close off the entire back area for privacy and with DIY-sourced “furniture” for traveling: two low bed frames, one of which slides out at night to become a double bed when the double-stack of foam mattresses is evenly allocated across the platform; a fold-up table that has a narrow space for storage inside when stowed in the upright position; a frame at the foot of the bed for a small cooking area of two burners and a teensy toaster-oven sized ‘grill’ with a petite propane tank underneath.
The van is also outfitted with a sort of ‘hood’ that slips over the open rear door to make an tent-like spot to be able to stand at full height to cook at the wee stove and change clothes and such. It’s very cute, and handles pretty well – but she’s very slow on hills. My main complaint so far is the TOTAL lack of storage space; it’s not possible to pull the beds out unless the floor is almost entirely clear in back, and I have a pretty sizeable duffel, plus two other bags full of books and all the tech gear I have to tote along, a cooler of food, etc. Unlike many of the other rental companies, this one has just plain white vans, no writing/marking/obnoxious paint jobs, so you can be sort of incognito – a benefit to not be targeted to either be 1) rousted from a not-entirely-condoned sleeping area, or 2) broken into and have your stuff rummaged through. To preserve this incognito-ness, though, one doesn’t want to heave duffel bags and seven books on traveling through New Zealand plus a huge road atlas onto the front passenger seat – so I struggle to find a way to get everything all rearranged to co-exist in the protected back area for sleep times.
But I digress. I make out okay driving on the other side, but find it tricky to remember where to look for oncoming traffic and negotiate [these diabolical!!] roundabouts, which seem designed to introduce a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest element into driving. (One lane = fine… it’s the double laned roundabouts that get terrifying, particularly since sometimes one of the two lanes must turn a certain way, but other times all lanes can go any way at any time….)
It’s late when I depart Auckland for what the road atlas tells me is going to be a 3.5 hour drive to Rotorua, the geothermically active area to the south of Auckland – an area historically heavily settled by Maori – since I have decided to leave the beachy Coromandel peninsula til the end of my trip, and head first to my relative’s house in Wellington (followed by the South Island) via the route that runs through the center of the North Island.
Outside of Auckland the grass turns really green and the land very hilly –pretty as anything you can imagine– and I immediately recognize this as Hobbiton, i.e., where the village was set for the films. (It’s called the Waikato region). Unfortunately I have no time to stop as I’ve made a reservation at a campground and need to get there before dark, ideally, to set up the unfamiliar systems while I can still see.
Traffic moves along the motorway at a fine clip, three lanes in each direction, and (comfortably in my element now on wide, fast roads) I’m making great time, until the “interstate” suddenly bumps down to two lanes in either direction…. then one… which then narrows, and turns from blacktop to embedded gravel (bumpy) causing everything in the van to rattle – gas burner components; propane tank, standard issue packs of silverware and hard plastic dishes from the campervan rental place – so not only is driving now accompanied by a cacophony of noises, but traffic is hurtling toward me from the ‘wrong’ side of the narrow road at an alarming rate of speed – and heck, I get nervous driving these rural-type routes when I go home to NY to visit my family, and everything there is at least aimed in directions to which I am accustomed! – and SOMEthing appears to be odd with the van’s handling – the steering is loose? The alignment out of whack? All I know is, I am having a terribly hard time keeping her aimed when I want her, safely well to the side of the vehicles careering in the other direction (who sometimes creep over the line into my lane).
THEN the hills start. The van does not have much power, so we strain to putt-putt up these increasingly large hills with even more increasingly hairpin turns on the descent, all with politely impatient Kiwis following close behind (no one menaces or honks or truly tailgates, but it’s clear you’re in their freakin’ way all the same).
There are, thankfully, numerous turn-out lanes to let traffic go by, which are announced a couple of kilometers in advance to soothe impatient leadfoots. So driving becomes an exhausting, draining, noisy assault on mind, senses, adrenaline-generating glands, and my poor increasingly numb butt. By the time I near my destination, it is damn close to dark and I am almost deliriously tired (mind you, I am routinely waking with the first bird chirp at about 5:20 daily, so by 8pm am ready to drop). I pull off on my target small road to the campground, promptly scaring both me and the woman cruising to a halt in the opposite direction on this side road when I pull into the correct lane –[ahem] for America—at the turnoff. Clearly time to stop when errors are occurring!
My campground first appears as a billow of steam over a green horizon.
It’s a tiny campground of 10 vehicle and 3 tent sites…
WITH a series of pools filled with natural, geothermally heated mineral spring water bubbling out from the earth.
They fill the pools daily, cool the water enough to make it like a tolerably temperate hot tub/warm bath, and then drain the pools at the end of the day. NOTHING could have been more needed or welcome at the end of that demanding drive than to sink into a warm, gently steaming pool – just deep enough to sit on the bottom and be submerged up to one’s chin – and overlook the green hills stretching into the distance.
They also had a little nature trail where one can hike up and see the source of the soothing water – in its not-so-soothing state, bubbling up so ferociously from the ground (at a heat of 98 degrees Celsius) that it was almost impossible to get a glimpse, let alone a picture (with fogging lens) of the cauldron-like source, which then trailed along in a sort of hell-stream through rocks and mosses able to withstand the temperatures, leaving behind chalky mineral deposits to mark the waterline along the way.