After a slightly white-knuckled drive — lacking a chip-implanted credit card (seriously, American loan sharks: bring your usurious plastic into the 21st century, please!), I was unable to use the automated gas pumps in Mount Cook Village, and nervously watched the needle drop from the scant quarter-tank I started out with leaving Aoraki as I scanned the horizon anxiously for any sign I was getting close to the next fueling spot of Lake Tekapo — I finally refilled my tank and made it to my destination, arriving in the little town of Geraldine just in time to take absolutely no advantage whatsoever of the cute cafes and eateries that dot the hamlet (Verde Café is supposed to be quite good).
I hastily refilled my food reserves at the grocery store, checked into my holiday park site, and sat down to work. This marked the start of my connectivity issues on the trip – I could get a signal, but barely enough to download my sources and definitely not enough to upload my resulting articles. I spoke to the pleasant proprietress about my difficulties, and, pity presumably aroused by my frantic desperation, told me she’d leave the tiny, two-station internet access area open for my use – coins fed into in a meter buy you uninterrupted ‘net access time – and showed me how to securely lock up when I was done.
The holiday park was well-equipped and tidy, but salted throughout with ominous signs warning of the repercussions for guests who dared to leave dishes in the sink, invite over unregistered guests, litter, make noise, or take showers longer than six minutes.
Since it took the timed shower a solid minute to heat up, this meant one had to get in and hastily run through the soap-shampoo-conditioner routine as if being chased by wolves. Even so I ran out of time, and, craftily figuring I could just reset the timer, bapped the button, and…. nothing happened. Realizing I’d been outwitted by a particularly diabolically programmed timer, clearly designed to evict the reluctant from the shower before they’d used too much hot water, I was obliged to execute a stealthy, sudsy transfer in the empty ladies’ facilities to the next available stall and start the water warm-up/timer process over again.
The next morning I departed relatively early to briefly visit Christchurch before pushing on to my work and overnight destination of Kaikoura, famed for its sea life: seals, sea lions, whale watching, dolphin dives – I couldn’t afford to do either of the latter options, but I figured I’d try to view the critters, such as were to be seen, from the coast.
Christchurch, which has been walloped by a succession of rather nasty earthquakes, including a particularly destructive one in February 2011, was a mass of traffic snarled by road reconstruction. The entire city center was still cordoned off by chain-link barricades. Bulldozed property plots populated by dusty rubble piles; buildings with broken windows and vertical cracks marring the facades; a lone, toppled bicycle still eerily chained to the rack… Christchurch got seriously fucked up by the quakes and clearly, though work was buzzing, the repair effort needed was both massive and rather Sisyphean, since the area continues to be plagued by episodes of geologic jiggling.
Right alongside the cordoned area, though, was a vibrant shopping street ablaze in flowers, eager consumers, and hopeful buskers and street performers – the city had even set up tidy public restrooms, constructed from reused shipping containers, with plywood for the stalls. It put me in mind of the little tenacious plants you see sprouting proudly from pavement cracks – humanity is stubborn and will rebuild, and never you mind that dusty ghost town over the fence there.
After getting slightly lost in the maze of closed roads, I extracted myself from the jammed vehicles and proceeded on to Kaikoura –stopping at the cute Pukeko Junction for a delicious meal of smoked salmon quiche, hefty salad dotted with sunflower seeds, and delicious frosty beer along the way– arriving just in time for late afternoon work by the oceanside.
Midway through uploading my articles, the internet connection stopped cooperating. Troubleshooting strategies yielded no improvement. I hurriedly consulted my Lonely Planet guide, which told me there was an internet café open until 9 pm just in the heart of town. I located the place and parked, gawked at the sign telling me to return to the sports shop across the street to purchase an internet access card, and was cordially informed by the sports shop guy he’d be closing in about 5 minutes; the net café actually shut up operations at 8pm, not 9 – and helloooo, it was 7:54. I raced back across the street, frantically proofed and posted the last of my articles, and the guy came in to lock up at 8:07. Success, by the skin of my teeth and the kindness of the dreadlocked sports shop surfer guy.
I planned to sleep at a DOC site some 20 minutes out of town and up an extremely bumpy road (so I was informed by the helpful lady at the dairy – like a 7-11, but with no beer – when I’d popped in to ask directions and hopefully buy a few brews to foster campsite relaxation). She referred me to the liquor store down the street, where I purchased a six-pack for $15 (beer is very expensive in NZ) and was lobbied to join a Texas Hold’em game by two of the liquor store’s illustrious patrons. I declined the offer to have more money taken from me at cards, figuring I’d do just fine on that count in beer cost alone, but decided to have a real drawn pint at the little pub across the way in addition to my take-home pack. The only seat left was at a high six-top with a guy already sitting at it, but I asked if it’d be okay to join him and discovered he was American too. Matt was on vacation from California, where he researches and invests in new tech firms. We had a grand time trading travel stories and quaffing pints, some of which were free, courtesy of a coin flip game you play with the bartender – call it right and the pint is yours for nothing. I was telling him enthusiastically about the stars I’d seen at Aoraki, and he’d said he’d not really paid attention yet to the sky down here (seriously?!) but noted that his hostel had beach access and a game room, and he suggested that he’d drive – since I hadn’t had the benefit of any food ballast in the belly to offset the beer and keep at bay the very-serious-about-tipsy-driving NZ police – both me and the van back to the other end of town to his hostel and we could go check out the stars on the beach with some beers he had stashed there.
Now, yes – I know you’re thinking this sounds like the beginning to an “…and she was never seen again” story, but the most important rule of travel is to respect your gut, and this nice clean-cut venture capitalist (who was skinny enough for me to take him, should the need arise) was simply as pleased as I was to run across a fellow American to chat with about in-country adventures. There was no romance or flirting, and definitely zero vibe of creepiness. Nor did the bumpy black road to the DOC campground seem like the wisest idea at that point, so I agreed. We did exactly what we’d planned, sat on the beach, told more stories, and looked at the stars, shooting ones among them. We trudged back to the hostel around 3am, at which point Matt said I’d be welcome to share the other bed in his room – ‘no funny business,’ he somewhat shyly asserted – or just take a nap in my campervan, which he’d parked behind his own car. For general respectability purposes and wanting to be sure about the ‘no funny business stuff,’ I opted for a van nap, and thanked him for the nice evening.
The usual bird chirping cacophony woke me at 5am, and I fired up the van to defog the windows and prepare to leave. I hopped out of the back just as a man was closing a storage bay across the street from which he’d claimed his fishing boat. I started backing out as he pulled his truck and trailer across the driveway exiting the hostel parking lot. He came over and waved for my attention, and after rolling down the window, asked me if I’d stayed here last night. “Um, yes,” I told him, puzzled. He disappeared into the hostel, leaving me trapped in the parking lot. When he returned, his face was thunderous. “Did you shower here?” he snapped. “What? No! Wait – I don’t understand – shower where?” I asked. “This is illegal, what you’re doing,” he spat at me. I attempted to explain the previous night’s events. Of course, it doesn’t sound super respectable to say I’d come back with a strange American boy to go look at the stars; he probably thought I was some sort of prostituting gypsy. “If I see you again, I’ll have you in to the police for trespassing,” he growled, before stalking off.
Seriously rattled – in retrospect, I guess I had been trespassing, but it had been very innocently arrived at, and I’d been invited… and the ironic thing was, if I’d just gone with Matt to his room it would have been fine – I guided the van onto the road to visit the seal colony at the far end of town. I was wanting the loo, and started to pull off at the public toilets before I recognized the accusatory man’s truck parked by the boat ramp there. “Of course – he’s got the boat – where do you think he’s going to put in?” I scolded myself furiously. Not sure how serious he was about the ‘seeing me again’ bit, I drove on. The sun was up now and streaming sideways onto the seal colony where I wandered around despondently, half-heartedly looking for seals. (For a relatively good and law-abiding girl, being chastised and threatened with arrest is mortifying, especially without even a bracing coffee as a preamble, and I simultaneously felt guilty, scared, and ashamed).
The light was blinding, everything in this supposedly famed seal colony looked like a rock, and I still had to pee. It seemed as if the brave/foolhardy could venture out onto the slippery low tide reef to get closer to some critter sightings, but I was alone, and thinking the better part of valor was not slipping and breaking an ankle alongside occasional rough smacks of waves at 5:30 am with no one around to assist, I got back in the van to head away from this town I was no longer welcome in.