Though dependent on many factors, the journey from Wellington to Auckland can probably be safely described as a good 8 hour journey. I was also due to work that afternoon in order to preserve time off for my final week in the rustic Coromandel Peninsula, which I knew was likely to have spotty mobile connectivity. Fighting holiday vacation traffic jams along Route 1, I laboriously made my way to Route 3 and Whanganui, where I broke my trip with a several-hour work, lunch, and petrol stop alongside the Whanganui River. From here I meandered up verdant, hilly Route 4 along the west side of Tongariro National Park, which I’d driven past the east end of on my way south.
Silvery-leafed trees glittered in the breeze along the roadside accompanied by strutting blue peacocks and the most disturbing display of cast-off-shoes-nailed-to-a-fence I’ve ever seen: I couldn’t shake the idea it was like a human cannibalism exhibit as snippets of the Deliverance soundtrack flickered in my head. Snow-capped volcanoes loomed on my right side as I tried to beat the sunset as best I could on a beeline to Auckland. Lewis’ flight was arriving at 5:30 am, and knowing first-hand it’s no fun to wait around for a ride at the airport after a long journey, I was determined to get to my destination and nap before his early arrival. I arrived at Auckland International around 1:30 am, and after failing to find an affordable legal parking spot, set up for some quick-shut eye in the airplane observation lot on the driveway to the airport. Lewis texted me to confirm his arrival around 6, so I hastily put the bed away and returned the van to travel condition, brushed teeth, washed up, and jumped out of the van to be greeted with a cheery “G’day!” from an enormous Maori man in a nearby car who’d been watching my morning parking-lot ablutions with considerable amusement.
Lewis was waiting for me with coffees and suitcases in the passenger pick up area, and we retraced a path southward to pick up Routes 2 and 25 out to the Coromandel. As we discussed possible itineraries, it seemed to make logical sense, since Auckland was a two-hour drive away, for Lewis to join me for pretty much the remainder of my trip, though he hastened to add that if I felt we needed to part ways at any point, I should let him know. At my request, he drew up a week-long plan that covered the major sights of the peninsula, including the famed hot water beach (rent a spade and dig your own sandy hot tub from the geothermal waters bubbling under the coastline).
The weather on my trip thus far had been perfect: the only rain I’d encountered was on long drive days where it was of little relevance, plus one additional day in Queenstown that I used to get caught up on work. The rest of the time had been full of shimmery blue skies, but my luck had finally run out – the entire Coro peninsula was being deluged with rain, to the point that each day’s news brought fresh reports of cars being washed away in the epic downpours. Although we decided that it would be ideal for Lewis to spend night in a hostels with me at a campsite nearby, Coro is a very popular destination for holidaymakers from the nearby cities, and we found we had to do battle with hordes of well-prepared and early-reserving Kiwis to find a spot to spend the night, with many of the area campgrounds washed out and the resulting damp refugees taking up any dry indoor spaces.
Using the helpful i-Site people, we located a nice but price range-pushing local B&B for our first evening with a queen bed and a second pull-out couch, which Lewis chivalrously volunteered to sleep in. We spent a couple of days traveling around the misty coastlines – moody and befoggedly beautiful, but it was like visiting the Caribbean in the midst of a tropical storm: not really the experience the place is supposed to be visited for.
Some of our plans had to be scuttled to accommodate roads closed due to flooding. We puttered along winding cliffside routes and camped as best we could, awkwardly and stuffily crammed into the van – windows needing to be closed to keep out the horizontally-pelting rain, Lewis using one mattress on the van floor while I took the main bed. It was damp and rather depressing, and though I thought it’d be nice to have Lewis’ clever, quipping company, I realized that I’d become so accustomed to calling my own travel shots, making last-minute reservation adjustments, and traveling in silence, that it was very hard to reacclimate in such close quarters under manky wet skies to even a friendly acquaintance. Plus there was simply NO internet signal that I could reliably catch and use, so I was cut off from both work or blogging, and felt frustrated by my lack of any sort of productivity.
I was homesick and tired, and thought seriously about moving up my return ticket to get back to Florida and just be clean and dry again in the calming sanctuary of my own house. “Now wait just a moment, you big whiner,” you think irritably. “Was New Zealand not one of the most beautiful places in the world?” Yes – of this, there is absolutely NO doubt. But remember, dear reader: at this point, I’d been living for five weeks out of a car, carving an office space from any available parking lot in a town with the name typed in sufficiently big font on the map to convey a certain confidence level in available internet signal. I was thinking longingly of my missed friends and soft, furry kitties at home; imagining no longer living off of packets of propane-warmed soup, boxed cereal, and ziplock-bagged lunchmeat gently floating in the ice-melt of my cooler. I’d have clothes from real rolling wood drawers instead of neat, short stacks in clean trash bags slid underneath my pull-out bed from behind the grubby sack of shoes. There’d be bathroom facilities featuring real hot water, not soapless ones requiring the navigation of ankle-deep mud puddles to get to. I’d brush my teeth from an uninterrupted and safely potable faucet flow and not a hastily glugged water bottle; spit minty foam into a drain and not the shrubbery near a pavement edge. There would be free-flowing internet access: fast, uninterrupted, and warmly ready for the taking. I wanted truly cold beer for just $8 a six-pack… No trepidation and speculation around where I’d be spending the night and wondering if I had to refrain from using earplugs lest they alter my rapid [and hurriedly well-clothed] response should some authority figure come rapping pertly on my van window while I napped. I’d no longer be a slightly disheveled and less-washed than optimally preferable apparent gypsy, with all the small but unmistakable calibrations in social treatment that entailed. I’d know again where I belonged in the community order, and not have to remain acutely alert to translate unfamiliar accents and words, and endeavor constantly for safety’s and friendliness’ sake to get an accurate sounding on the people I encountered, despite very real cultural differences.
In short, it was the kind of homesickness that most travelers encounter when in a foreign place for a certain number of weeks, and it hung damply around my shoulders like a wet rain jacket (which I also had, dripping from the back of the driver’s side seat). It’s nearly inevitable. I know from experience it passes (for the most part) in time, but I also knew I was leaving in a few days, so I just felt anxious to be home in g’d’ole Amerricuh.
However, an important holiday loomed, and this would be the first place in the world upon which the new year would alight. I would not be going home before 2012, come hell or high water (the latter, at least, already being well accounted for). We’d left call-back phone numbers with a number of establishments in case they had openings come available, and one place with a double room in the town of Coromandel – which municipality, with two whole bars, was essentially the Gotham City of the peninsula – rang us that they’d had a cancellation, so Lewis and I checked in and prepared for New Year’s Eve festivities.