By normal standards, it wasn’t that late – only 9:30 on a Saturday evening. By rural New Zealand standards, it may as well have been asking for the moon. Reception desks around the city had closed at 8 and the online booking system was a relic of 2005. I didn’t mean to commit the treasonous offense of delaying my accommodation for so long! Just a mere two weeks earlier it was still the winter season and I could have had my pick of freedom camping spots even at 3 am. But that burst of sunshine in early November signaled the mass migration of backpackers and the roads were now clogged with overwide Britz campers and glaringly bright Jucy and Escape vans. Now if I didn’t have a plot of gravel claimed by 2pm, I knew I’d be in for a long drive until I found a DOC site far from civilization – forget nabbing one of those 10 precious free spots set aside in a parking lot if I had the audacity to want to drive away somewhere for the afternoon!
But this evening? The memory of choked roads from the previous summer was far from my mind. I’d just been socializing – catching up with old friends in the heart of town. We were all exhausted though – they from a long week on the vineyard, I from a long journey across two islands. So this night, we said our farewells early and left the town center long before the music began pumping out from every bar and club to welcome the summer weekend. The rain drizzled and my hair responded by frizzing in dramatic fashion against the cool night air as I pointed Goldie up the road. A mere 15 minutes away was a free campsite, according to my app. I put on a podcast and cruised north. As I pulled into the site, though, it was blocked by a long Hiace and was clearly overfull with giant signs warning of a $200 fine for parking outside the lot. I pulled over and looked back at my app – further to the north would put me next to the only port bringing vehicles to the other island and as such carried inflated prices for every location. No worries, back south it is.
I pulled into a holiday camp at the edge of the town I’d just left and braked at the large threatening signs of surveillance cameras above the notice claiming no check-ins after 10pm. My green glow revealed it was now 10:14. The rain started to mist my windshield again and I flipped the wipers as I now turned west.
The street lamps flooded the highways between the wineries just enough to assure me that I wasn’t bound for the decorative rose bushes surrounding them. My knee started to throb in time with the sheets of rain as I turned down the street to another designated freedom camping parking lot. I saw cars all camped in a small section in the middle and briefly wondered if they were friends before my headlights caught yet another angry sign warning to only park between these posts and no more than 10 vehicles per night. I slowly circled the lot, counting to see if by some miracle there were only nine other campers. There were eleven.
Is it worth risking that $200 fine? I wondered as the rain continued to pour through the blackness. Glancing up at the city filled with vineyard workers, I argued back with myself. That’s not a risk: that’s a guarantee.
Dejectedly, I pulled out yet again into the night, wondering if I’d find a safe place to pull over before dawn. To my northwest, the app promised a DOC site – those were usually wide-open spaces with room even on the busiest summer nights and relatively affordable. I crept through the mountain forests, dodging hedgehogs, rabbits, and possums indignant at my audacity to cross their road. My mind was still sharp thanks to a late afternoon caffeine boost, but I could feel my chest beginning to pound from the lack of sleep. Fine or not, I needed to stop soon. My GPS flickered in and out of reception as I followed the curves among the hills. A missed turn or two and I finally reached an old wooden bridge in the woods. Across the clearing I spotted a few vans and tents, but finally I had a space to put my car in park and hide from the downpour.
I climbed between the seats to the bed in the back, contorting my body as I untied the curtains and pulled them shut. Enclosed in the warm yellow lights of my van interior, the rain now soothed instead of stressed me. Flicking my phone into airplane mode so my battery wouldn’t die in a vain attempt to find signal in this wilderness, I could feel my sense of adventure riding, bringing a giggle up my throat with it. This – this beautiful, strange campground miles from the nearest homestead – this was my home.
This night was so much like this year: chaotic and wonderful. I’ve lived through a house fire and tree roots growing through a sewer, with dogs and cats and chickens and cows. I’ve stood through two earthquakes and sheltered from a cyclone. I’ve seen the world’s first sunrise and stood beneath a midnight sky of glowworms in a cave. I’ve lounged in thermal springs and waded in glacial lakes. I’ve stuck my toes in sand and stone of every imaginable color and shape. I’ve drifted with kelp as starfish and crabs crept nearby in crystal clear waters. I’ve warmed myself next to a beachwood fire in the rain and danced on a mountain top in the sun. I’ve cried in pain as the carpal tunnel started to develop just before my packhouse contract ended and laughed with delight at the hitchhikers who join me on my vague plans. I’ve commuted in rush hour and stood alone on a salt marsh. I’ve watched keas and dolphins and penguins and albatrosses. I’ve toured tiny museums and the mighty Te Papa. I’ve jumped off a bridge and tramped through a forest. I’ve gaped at the shades of water, the varieties of plant life, the severity of volcanos, the steaming potholes in the grasslands. I’ve stood at Bluff and Cape Reinga and traversed every mile of Highway 1 between the two. I’ve learned to decipher Kiwi English and to not be offended when they walk away after asking “What did you do this weekend?”. From South Africa to Pakistan, Germany to Brazil, Canada to Samoa, Ireland to China, I’ve sat across from the world with a Speight’s. So many times, so many friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends.
My year is almost over. Am I ready to leave?
I’m content. I have lived in a country left off maps, delighted despite the difficulties. Even now, when images of this land pop up on the internet, I jolt with recognition and flood with memories.
I know this place.
I’ve absorbed this place.
I’ve loved this place.
Am I ready to leave?
But this week it is time to leave this place.
This week, I sell my beloved mascot and companion, my lovely Goldie van. This week I say goodbye to the roads I’ve traveled and the oceans I’ve loved. This week I wave farewell to the friends I’ve made and step on a plane again as my visa expires.
My dear New Zealand.
A year is not enough time. But oh, what a year it was…
Goodbye New Zealand.