Day 19 – Reefton to Kaikoura via Lewis Pass

Last night, in Reefton, was my first experience of freedom camping. It was unintentional because I thought I was snuggling my little camper into the last space between two others in a line of them that you could see from the bridge entering town. There IS a holiday park in Reefton, and it also backs on to the riverside, but is at the other end of town. By the time I’d learned this, I was settled in and decided to give a free night a go. So I turned on the gas, put my kettle on the hob for a cuppa, and the gas heater blasted Alfie with more warmth than the fan heater has been doing. I was perfectly snug and even more smug that I was not paying anything for it. Also, there were some good public toilets just a walk away, so that was a bonus. What I hadn’t counted on was the town siren going off in repeated blasts at 7.15am. I lay and stared at my van ceiling and waited for the sound of rocks falling, or river rising, or the shaking of the earth beneath my wheels. Any one of these being a possibility. When nothing happened I remembered that in rural areas, volunteer fire brigades are called to their emergency by that same series of sirens. Okay then.

Because my van was in the tiniest space, and would make it difficult for some of the bigger vans to get past, I pulled out early (I was wide awake after all) and parked in the quiet main street. It was Sunday morning and I was not hopeful that anything would be open yet, but great was my delight when I saw the lights and sign on at the bakery. I parked and was the second person in. A cornucopia of baked items met my eye. I don’t usually do breakfast these days, but my trip is confounding my new eating plan. I had a bacon and egg pie, in lieu of breakfast, and ordered a flat white (espresso coffee with milk). Ah, how good that all tasted.

The day had dawned misty and low cloud shrouded the trees and road leading up into Lewis Pass. Exciting! I was the only vehicle disappearing in to the mist and kept a steady and slow pace as I climbed up through the trees. And there were many of these. For the first third or so of this Pass there is dense forest on either side and up the slopes of the nearby mountains. Beech forest and natives mostly. Always a stream or river of some sort – it’s a gorge after all – and the water to my joy, was a light blue grey, if not the vivid azure of further south.

I had plenty of leisure to stop regularly and snap a picture – initially mostly the road disappearing in to low cloud, and just a hint of monstrous mountains on either side. Then quite suddenly, the mist/cloud lifted and it was clear. I could not see much initially for the tree cover, but now and then snow clad peaks peeked through the trunks tantalisingly.

Lots of warm earthy tones and yellow gorse or brush. The road, which was windy, was not hair-pin bends, so I could go relatively fast along it, and overall it was a most enjoyable drive. When suddenly a valley appeared with the threads of the river all weaving across the ground, it was impossible not to stop and try and capture it.

After a lot of photo opportunities I came to a turn which lead to Hamner Springs – my original intention for the night after Akoroa. (Before I decided to zigzag instead through the Passes). Suddenly there was a lot more traffic, and a narrow and spectacular one-way bridge across to the country on the other side. There were queues! I say ‘country on the other side’ with intention, because it was like entering Queenstown or Wanaka again. It took a few kms to drive up into the town centre of this resort village, set around some hot springs that make it famous.

I was once more in the world of fast cars, brand labels, money, and plenty of buzz. People waiting in line at smart-looking eateries, and difficulty in finding a park. Hard to believe how close it is to the long expanse of mountain and river and valley almost empty of people. One thing I have discovered more profoundly about myself in this trip, is that far from craving that kind of ‘buzz’, I avoid it. My preference is to find a small historically significant town, with local flavour, and be able to hear the bird song or the river. I am so glad I did not stay the night here in Hamner Springs. Anyway, I thought I’d stay for lunch, and I found the least busy place in the main area, and a table to myself and ordered the salad, which was the best I have had in the South!

From where I was I could watch the passersby, the groups all riding the group bicycles around town, the crowds milling around in puffer jackets.

I was not sad to leave and turn to the east again, following Apple maps guide towards Kaikoura. I thought – foolish me – that the worst of the mountain roads was behind me, now that Lewis Pass had been traversed. But no, the minute I turned off on a side ride to Kaikoura, and left the bigger road leading to Christchurch, I starting climbing some hills again, and for the next hour, negotiated some of the windiest roads I have traveled in the South Island. I was mostly alone on them, and able to pull over and take a quick shot of the mountains around me, and the deep gullies, and the twinkling rivers.

I was never far from the mountains either – we never descended into a plain and said goodbye to them. On the southern side, they were a sharp toothy grimace up into the sky, and on the northern side there were still sinuous lines of snow on the summits. Cool!

I was just starting to worry about how much diesel I had left and energy, come to that, when we arrived at Kaikoura at about 2.30pm. Very happy to drive slowly through town and see the sea on the right again, and curiously, some rocks sticking up at regular intervals along the coastline. This is whale-watching town, so . . . Well. . . Watch this space. I found the Top 10 Holiday Park and my powered site, and lay down for 30 minutes. Then I thought I’d better get up and check out Kaikoura.

Very nice little town, set against the coastline, with a jaunty holiday feel to it. The ice-cream was delicious. I drove to South Kaikoura beach and checked that out too – seeing the coast disappear down towards Christchurch. Then I searched out the cheapest diesel I could find and filled up for the final leg of my Southern journey tomorrow.

I have showered, made some boiled eggs and put them in a wrap for dinner. And now my blog. I think it will be an early night for me. Feeling a little sad that I only have one full day left in the ‘mainland’ to enjoy.

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