Tales Of The Beast – Part 2 – The South Island

Tales Of The Beast – Part 2 – The South Island

Tales of the Beast – Part 2

… The South Island Initiative…

Last time I left you, I had arrived in Picton with my best friend and the beast, ready to begin a ten-day road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. I’m pretty sure that it was 2003 back then but given that my mind has more holes in it these days than a Cabinet Minister’s alibi, it might have been 2004. Consequently, I would advise you to take the following account with a healthy pinch of salt and hold fire on sharpening your pitchforks, at least until you’ve given me a decent head start!

Picton harbour c.2003 - Rob Gregory Author

Picton harbour c.2003 – Could have been the capital of New Zealand.

So, Picton. It’s a bit of a jewel really. At least it was back then. Sheltered, unspoilt and basking in the glorious Pacific sun, it always makes me wonder why they decided to make Wellington the Capital instead, which tends towards the cold, wet and extremely windy. You do get the occasional nice day in ‘Welly’, I should know, I lived there for almost seven years, but it doesn’t seem to happen quite as often as it does in Picton.

Entering the South Island - Rob Gregory Author

Entering the South Island of New Zealand.

Anyway, despite its glorious climate, back in the day Picton didn’t have too much to offer two twenty-something lads in search of adventure and so after a night in a guest house and a couple of ales to recover from the ferry crossing, we set off down the East Coast towards Christchurch.

The Interislander - Rob Gregory Author

The Interislander ferry. Image copyright: J Gregory.

Along the way, we stopped at the little town of Kaikoura, which suffered a devastating earthquake a couple of years ago, but which was famous for its whale watching well before that. Built on the edge of a natural deep-water channel, Kaikoura was stunning, with ocean views on one side and mountains on the other. We stayed in a hostel that night, with the intention of doing a whale watch the following morning, but what we didn’t anticipate was another of Kaikoura’s many talking points: the sand-flies…

View of the mountains from Kaikoura - Rob Gregory Author

View of the mountains from Kaikoura.

As soon as the sun had gone down, hundreds of them emerged and we were faced with a dilemma. In a baking hot room bereft of air-conditioning, or even a decent fan for that matter, it was a question of whether to leave the window open to keep cool and let the sand flies in or banish them and roast alive in the dormitory. In the end, I think we opted for the former, hiding under the duvets to avoid the little so and so’s. Not that it made much difference. The following morning, I was covered in bites on my ankles, shins, hands and arms, and boy, did they hurt. My friend, I recall, fared rather better than me and as a result, I think that he enjoyed the whale watching more than I did. We did see a couple of Humpback whales, as well as some Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest in the world) but I have to admit that I was quite relieved when we took the beast beyond the Kaikoura city limits and continued on our way to Christchurch.

View of the sea and mountains from Kaikoura - Rob Gregory Author

Another lovely view from Kaikoura.

There isn’t too much to say about Christchurch, other than we visited some of my family friends who were living there and took the obligatory wander around the city, including the cathedral and River Avon. Both my friend and I were originally from Bristol, which also has a River Avon, so I suppose we got a giggle from walking along a river of the same name, almost twelve thousand miles from its namesake. Nowadays, Christchurch is rather different, following the devastating earthquakes which shook the city to its core back in late 2010 and early 2011. Whether it will ever be the same again remains to be seen, but what happened there is a stark reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how quickly it can be changed forever.

After Christchurch, the beast took us on a quick soiree to ‘Ash Vegas’ or Ashburton to give it its proper name. I can’t remember why it’s called Ash Vegas, but the name has stuck and although it was nothing like its namesake, it was pleasant enough. It also had a fish and chip shop that served the most enormous servings of hand-cut chips, which I discovered on a subsequent trip there some years later, much to the dismay of my waistline!

River in the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Just another beautiful river at the side of the road.

We certainly covered some distance in the beast, which performed magnificently, despite having no air-conditioning and a rather bothersome warning light for the catalytic converter that kept coming on when you least expected it (I had it disconnected when I got back to Wellington). So, with windows down and the tunes blasting out of the portable CD player that I had bought specially for the trip, we hurtled past lovely Timaru and off into the interior, towards Queenstown via the Lindis Pass.

Southern Alps, New Zealand, seen from the roadside - Rob Gregory Author

On the way to Queenstown.

Now, Queenstown is spectacular. A thrill-seekers paradise, it is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and boasts huge, cliff-like hills rising dramatically from the lake itself. In the winter, it is famed for its alpine sports and in the summer, when we were there, it was just plain beautiful. Shunning the tried and tested activities, such as the high-speed ‘jet-boat’ rides and bungee jumping, we opted instead for the ‘street luge’. Think go-karts, but with much less control, racing down the side of a mountain and you’re halfway there. I’d done a similar one in Rotorua when I first arrived in New Zealand and to be honest, I thought that it was better than the Queenstown one, but we still had a good time crashing into each other and generally mucking around.

Person from the rear looking over Lake Hawea, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

My friend, being reflective and mysterious by the dam at Lake Hawea.

That night, we went to a little bar called ‘The Bunker’, which was hidden away in an alley off the main drag. I’d been there a few years earlier during a conference and was delighted to find the tiny place still open and complete with a roaring fire in the fireplace, despite it being the end of summer. I’m afraid that I can’t give you too many details of what happened that night, everything is a bit hazy, whether from the passing of time or the consumption of alcohol, I’m not sure, but what vague recollections I have are happy ones.

Flowers and detail of the Lake Hawea dam - Rob Gregory Author

Flowers and the base of part of the Lake Hawea dam. How blue is that water?

A couple of days later, we left Queenstown and made our way 350km north, past Lake Hawea, to the Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast. Along the way, we passed a sign saying: ‘Last petrol for 110km’, which was an indication that we really were entering the wilds and were rewarded by nothing but endless countryside and the occasional small hamlet. Even when we arrived at Franz Josef itself, it was little more than a collection of small wooden houses and local shops, surrounded on all sides by wonderful dome-shaped hills that looked like they had been drawn by a child. How isolating it must be during the winter, I could only imagine, but the locals were extremely friendly, and we quickly found ourselves booked on a glacier walk the following morning.

Rob Gregory Author on the Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand

One man and his glacier.

We spent the whole day on the glacier, wearing spiked boots and clutching ice-axes, to help us navigate the treacherous terrain. Despite it being summer, it was extremely cold in amongst all that ice and we were especially glad of our ski-jackets. We did have a bit of fun, sliding down ice-holes that had been opened up as the glacier slowly (almost glacially, one might say) made its way towards the sea. All in all, it was an amazing experience, especially seeing the ‘blue ice’, which gets its name because it has no air bubbles in it, making it extremely dense and only reflecting blue light.

Sliding down an ice tube on Franz Josef glacier, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Sliding down an ice tube. Great fun but very cold!

Exhausted from all the exertions of the day, we slept well that night and early the next morning, began the trek up to Nelson, right at the top of the South Island. Hugging the coast road through Hokitika and Greymouth, with only the occasional camper van getting in our way, the scenery was truly breath-taking. It felt like we were in paradise, with the azure blue of the Tasman Sea on one side and vast tracts of wilderness on the other.

River creek in the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Can’t remeber where this was, but I think it is just stunning.

It was here that we did have one close call. We’d been driving for quite a few hours and despite having the windows wound down and ‘Rob Zombie’ playing at full volume, the air in the car had become quite stuffy, with the result that we nearly drifted into the back of a flat-bed lorry, as a warm fug of weariness overtook us. Luckily, we avoided a collision and after a short break to get some much-needed rest and a shot or two of caffeine inside us, we were back on the road, driving with a lot more care and counting down the miles to Nelson.

Park and lake somewhere on the outskirts of Nelson, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

Park and lake on the outskirts of Nelson, I think. Great place for a rest after a close call with a truck!

Nelson was a bit of a pit-stop for us and looking back, I wish that we’d spent more time there. But to be honest, I think by that time, my friend and I were starting to show the signs of having had enough. After all, we’d pretty much raced around the entire South Island, covering almost 2000 km in ten days and had hopped from one hostel to another, boozing and revelling like Withnail and I along the way. So, the following day, we made the short hop back to our starting point, Picton and took the Interislander ferry to windy Wellington where, for me at least, lay the comfort of my own bed!

Seagull flying above the top of the South Island of New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

On the way back to Wellington from Picton.

Looking back on it, the whole road trip was a great experience and I’d love to do it again someday, although I would probably spread it out over two or three weeks so that I could really take in the sights and appreciate my surroundings. I’d also like to get off the beaten track and visit some of the more remote places on the map that we didn’t get to see the first time around. Unfortunately, it won’t be in the beast, as she’s no longer with us, but I’ll always remember how well she served us on that particular trip, which turned out to be the first of many long-hauls she did with me.

Wood and rope ladder on the Interisland ferry, New Zealand - Rob Gregory Author

On the way backto Wellington. I just can’t get over how blue the water is!

Stay tuned for more ‘Tales of the Beast’ in future and in the meantime, why not share this blog or the first installment with your friends?

Tales Of The Beast – Part 1

Tales Of The Beast – Part 1

Tales Of The Beast – Part 1

… or ‘Car-rie, I love you’…

Cars. Here in My Car. Silver Machine. The Road to Hell. I don’t know what it is about me, but I love cars. Big ones in particular. The bigger the better, in fact. Gas guzzling, earth destroying monsters. I’ve adored them ever since I was a child. I don’t know exactly why, but I do. It’s as simple as that. I know that it’s not a very politically correct thing to admit to in this day and age, but let’s face it, it’s a heck of a lot better than some people’s peccadillos, such as hanging around the woods with bags of sweets for the kiddies, breeding Japanese fighting dogs or stamp collecting. And I’m by no means in Jeremy Clarkson’s league of fuel injected petrol-headedness. I couldn’t afford it for one thing! Which brings me on to the beast.

I first mentioned the beast in passing, in one of my very first blogs and at the time promised to write more about it in the future. Well, the future has an annoying habit of catching up with you, so here it is, the first instalment (and quite possibly the last) in… Tales of the Beast.

The beast - Head on view. Rob Gregory Author

The beast from the front… now, that’s a lot of car, if I do say so myself!

I first met the beast (a 1991 Mazda MS-9) at a car auction in Wellington, New Zealand and it was love at first sight. Well, love at first sight motivated by the fact that I absolutely had to have a car for a forthcoming road trip, having written off my previous motor some weeks earlier and time was rapidly running out. That kind of love at first sight. Anyway, having been outbid on several other vehicles, the auction was rapidly drawing to a close and I was still car-less. Then it (she) appeared. Grimy, dishevelled and obviously deeply unloved, the beast was paraded in front of the disinterested crowd like an old cow that has given her best and is now looking the pet food butcher squarely in the eye. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the smooth flowing lines of the vehicle, barely visible underneath all the dirt, maybe it was the three litre, V6 engine lurking under the bonnet, maybe it was the sheer size of the damned thing, but I suddenly found myself bidding on it, absolutely resolute that this was the car that I would be going home in that night. And I won! Admittedly there wasn’t that much competition for it and I picked the beast up for just under two thousand New Zealand dollars, including commission, which was a bargain, but at least it was mine.

The beast - Honda Accord grazes a Toyota Ute at 50kmh. Rob Gregory Author

Honda Accord vs. Toyota Pickup truck… I never liked driving it anyway!

And then, sitting in the driver’s seat for the very first time, I turned the ignition and saw the ‘engine warning’ light come on and stay on. I remember the feeling as all of my initial elation evaporated faster than the head off a pint of Thai lager, to be replaced by a feeling of sickening dread as I realised that I had bought a ‘lemon’ as New Zealander’s say: a faulty car that no one else wanted. On the way home, which was done at a crawl, in case the beast should suddenly expire without warning, I remember trying to look on the bright side. It hadn’t cost me much and only had to last a couple of weeks while I was taking my best friend on holiday around the South Island and then I could ditch the beast and look for a more reliable replacement.

That weekend, I took the beast to my local garage for a general service and to get the engine problem diagnosed. Having convinced myself that it was going to be something fatal, such as a cracked engine block or warped manwurzle joints, I was surprised and extremely relieved to discover that there wasn’t all that much wrong with the car. What the mechanics had thought was an oil leak in the engine gallery (which sounded pretty bad to me) turned out to be a melted oxygen sensor. It still cost me another thousand dollars to get it fixed because the engine had to be taken out twice to check that the new sensor was working properly, but once it was fixed, it was goodbye forever to the despised engine warning light.

The beast - rear view. Rob Gregory Author

The beast from the rear.

With the car now declared mechanically sound, with the exception of the air-conditioning and a faulty catalytic converter sensor, which we just disconnected, it was onto my speciality: spit and polish. Armed with more buckets, bottles, tins and cloths than an Ajax salesman, I set to the beast with a vengeance, determined to restore it to as close to its former glory as I could. I think I spent two weekends cleaning the thing, washing, buffing, polishing and in some cases scraping muck out of the cracks and crevices with toothpicks and cotton buds. I don’t know who the previous owners of the beast were, but from the look of it, they had used the interior of the car as a playpen for toddlers and the boot as a handy compost bin. However, with but a few days before my friend was due to arrive from the UK, the task was finished and in true Cinderella style, to my eyes at least, the beast had been transformed from a dumpy, unloved old baggage, into a sleek and powerful Siren of the road.

The beast - Restord to its former glory

Spit, polish, one restored car and one very happy owner!

I picked my friend up from Wellington airport in the beast and I’m not sure who was more surprised, him because of the enormous gleaming car that he was invited to step into or me because of the fact that I actually had a working motor with which to take him on holiday. As for what happened on our road trip, you’ll have to wait and see, but as for the beast, far from being a temporary mode of transport, I ended up keeping it for almost nine years.

The beast - Picton Harbour, SI, New Zealand c.2003. Rob Gregory Author

Picton harbour c.2003. First stop on the beast’s legendary trip around the South Island.

Stay tuned for more ‘Tales of the Beast’ in a future blog and while you’re waiting, why not have a look around the rest of the site? You might find something else that you like. You never know…


Note: The beast has also been known by several other names, including ‘the bruise’ and ‘the big purple love machine’, although thankfully that one never caught on!