Auckland to Wairarapa: Drive south

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald spends six days on the road, and has an unlucky break.

The sun sets over Lake Taupo. Photo / Turangi Chronicle
The sun sets over Lake Taupo. Photo / Turangi Chronicle

"It's the Aotearoan dream," I told Jude.

"Six days on the road. Getting our kicks on State Highway 1. Just you and me in our campervan... and a food and wine festival."

"And," she countered with fairly sweet reasonableness, or reasonably sweet fairness, "I will be driving because you've only got a restricted licence. And you'll play middle-aged man's music.

"Alright," she sighed, "on one condition. You're in charge of the wastewater tank."

We were rolling down the North Island to Wairarapa. It seemed decades since we had viewed the country from the ground rather than the window of a Jetstar weekend deal. We recalled childhood trips in Morris Oxford and Vauxhall Velox on the way to the campervan check-in desk near the airport.

Which is very like an airline check-in desk: smiley staff who make small talk and persuade you to go to the couch over there and watch a video showing how everything on the van works.

The video is narrated by a typical Kiwi joker who could probably shear a sheep, shoot a deer, fillet a fresh-caught fish, lead 20 lost trampers out of the bush and empty the wastewater before lunchtime. You may remember this, or not.

We circumnavigate the airport, feeder roads and lurch down State Highway 1 towards Hamilton. It is a really bad idea to send tourists, most used to driving on the right side of the road, on to a Kiwi motorway running down a cliff, five minutes after they've picked up a campervan. Memo, Minister of Transport: move the Bombay Hills.

Taupo is our first port of call. A four-bed home on wheels does not fit into the neatly sprayed lines of a supermarket carpark and besides, we're not entirely sure we've mastered the clutch, so I go inside for the necessaries of roughing it: bacon, baguettes, roquefort, rocket, fillet steak, a decent pinot noir and a half-decent riesling.

Jude knows a spot on the edge of the lake few others do. Where we can spend the night. Go to sleep with the tui and wake with the morepork. Or is it the other way around? We drive 15, 20 minutes to manuka and shell-edged shore to an idyllic lakeside park.

I notice the sign: DOC reserve. Overnight camping prohibited. Armorguard patrol this area.

Back to Acacia Bay, find campground with lawns, children's play area, powerpoints, community kitchen, plumbed showers and toilets, 50 permanently parked vans. Hi-de-hi and good night.

The sun shines bright on our new Volkswagen-wheelbase home. Today, the blat down State Highway 1, past Turangi and across the Desert Road to Waiouru, Taihape and Hunterville, way-stations on every 60s' family holiday.

First, Jude suggests we walk along the river from the Spa Hotel to the Huka Falls. We meet and chat with Germans and Koreans and Americans and Brits. Envy Huka and nearby lodges.

Go back to the van. Are stopped at the hot-water pools by some local cops, surveying tourists about attitudes to security and warning of thefts and more personal assaults. My constable is a young chap who grew up here and begged to be assigned to Taupo.

"You don't have too many problems here?" I ask.

"In the '70s you could skinny dip here. You wouldn't risk it now. We have louts drinking and smoking dope every night. And look at the current - three people drowned there in the last couple of years."

"Things are less free now. We couldn't freedom-camp up at the lake."

"There are plenty of spots where you can, around Taupo. We're not anal like Rotorua or Queenstown. We'll look the other way if you respect the countryside. Too many people don't."

We walk through felled pine-forests. Disturb a giant hare. A pig-dog greets Jude. His man asks where we're headed. We tell him, "Martinborough."

"I go that way often. Don't take the main highway. You need to go as far as... and then turn off... and if you want to freedom-camp there's a fantastic place just out of... I stop there all the time."

He marks the spots on my map.

The Desert Road. And today it feels like it. Bleak. Wind rocking the van.

Then the repetition of rural New Zealand: a school. A petrol station. A farmhouse. A Four Square store, a church, a war memorial and a hall = a town. You could write a novel about it, except that Mulgan already did.

At three on a Friday afternoon the North Island is shut. No, it's not. Out of a chill wind, there are shadows behind closed doors and unlit counters. The wraiths of BNZs past and the ghosts of Paper Plus' present in Ohingaiti, Utiki, Taihape.

We stop in Hunterville because the pig-dog man told us to turn off here for the campsite.

The campsite is beside the Rangitikei River. We park a metre from the freezing, rushing river, decide to walk before night falls, before the frost comes in. I jump on to the riverbank... and tumble, face over coccyx. My hand hurts. Jude straps it and pours a pinot.

We feast on salad, potatoes and pan-fried fish caught less than an hour ago in the chiller of the Hunterville general store.

Tui, kereru, ducks, swallows, birds we can't identify, flap and sink into the night. This is why we came on this trip.

Saturday morning in back-country, smalltown New Zealand. Greens, yellows, whites that are crops; reds, browns, blacks that are herds. And blues, all the way from Waikato to Wairarapa, because it's late October and that's the only colour for election hoardings in these parts.

The Manawatu Gorge is closed and we have to deviate to Woodville. The GPS is confused: for 30km our soundtrack is the TomTom's 'Turn around'. High in the fog, the '60s black-and-white movie of the War of the Worlds windfarm. Down into Kiwi country. Very Kiwi.

We truck through the mist and into the the sunshine of Masterton, Carterton, Greytown. Featherston, shopkeepers sigh on a Saturday afternoon, wondering when it'll be closing time. Where are the people? Here is where the headlines about the flight from our country towns over the Ditch, sons and daughters seeking and needing jobs and money, have met and kissed goodbye - or hello - to reality.

We need a place to park and sleep. The guidebook in the van suggests campgrounds. Only problem is, all these towns look the same and I can't remember if we are in Greytown or Masterton or Carterton. Technology saves us: the yellow AA sign on a lamp-post points to a campground.

It is a throwback to '50s New Zealand: Soldiers Field, it'd be called War Memorial Park anywhere else. Under pines in Greytown, a gently decaying grey Valiant is hitched to the caravan that your flash aunty and uncle had when you were a kid; on the other side, Germans in a microbus.

We park and plug in everything that needs to be switched on. Twenty minutes later we're sitting around, swapping lies and wines with the backpackers and a guy who hasn't had a permanent address, apart from the Valiant, since Vietnam.

A lady drops by for a chat. She's the council camp manager.

"I saw you drive in but I was playing bowls over there and I wanted to finish the game, we were two ends up. Ten bucks for the night okay?"

I give her cash. She writes a receipt in a little notebook with carbon paper.

Sunday morning coming down the last few miles into the 20th anniversary of the annual celebration of one of the world's great red wine regions. Martinborough, which was pretty much like all those towns we didn't stop in yesterday until the locals sussed that grapes were much less trouble and much more rewarding than sheep.

The 19th century buildings would give an Auckland planner palpitations: he wouldn't know which one to tear down first. The town square is Union Jack-patterned, and each of the streets gives off, within one or two hundred yards, into countryside and vines and genteel homesteads and elegant B&Bs.

Populated, overrun, today, by people who may have a passing interest in the finer things of life, such as food and music and some of the better wines under the sun, which has condescended to make an appearance.

We wend between men in tutus and wedding gowns, women in black singlets and mankinis. It is An Event! A fun day! and we shudder at the horrors abroad. Not the fancy-dressed visitors from over the hill. There are strolling Dixieland jazz bands to be avoided.

The opportunity to stroll or hop free, crammed buses from vineyard to vineyard is unique; the food, exceptional; the live music, from many of the country's best names, bloody good. My hand aches. I retreat to painkillers rather than killer pinots. At this point Martinborough holds no terroir for me.

As the sun fades and the music doesn't, we turn back through the Wairarapa, the long drag through Hunterville Ohingaiti Taihape and the railway viaducts, the dreary and anonymous suburbs of Hamilton, Ngaruawahia, Huntly, Taupiri.

We surrender our home of six days. Next stop, an x-ray.

"Good idea," Jude agrees. "But first..."

She jerks her thumb in the direction of the dump station.

Ewan McDonald travelled courtesy of Maui and the Toast Martinborough festival. The 2012 festival will be held on 18 November. Tickets limited to 10,000, cost $70 per person and go on sale in October.

EXPERT ADVICE FOR A LONG ROAD TRIP

Ewan McDonald offers advice for motorhome travellers on Kiwi roads.

* Try to keep your driving to daylight hours so you are not travelling in unfamiliar territory in the dark. It's safer when driving an unfamiliar vehicle and will be easier to get settled.

* Look out for dedicated motorhome parking - these spaces give you extra room to manoeuvre.

* Pack your gear in soft luggage bags as they are a lot easier to store than a hard suitcase.

* To ensure there are no driving hazards when you're on the road, secure all loose objects so they don't move.

* Make sure things such as awnings, exterior barbecues and the 240V power cable are stowed away safely.

* Always check that you have turned off the gas before you start your journey.

* Rather than freedom camping or camping in an isolated area, stay at a holiday park, Motorhome Haven or Department of Conservation (DoC) campground. Not only do they have great facilities but there's also often a playground for the kids. It's also worth knowing that many areas around the country frown on freedom camping.

* Motek vehicles are self-contained so disposing of waste is easy. Simply dispose of your waste at local dumpstations. You'll find these located at most campgrounds around New Zealand or sometimes on the outskirts of towns and cities.

Professor Matt Sanders has tips for those facing a big drive with kids on board.

* The key is planning ahead. Explain to your children the need to be responsible in the car because of safety concerns. Accidents can occur when a parent is distracted by whining, teasing, fighting or complaining.

* Tell them about the car trip, how long it will take and where you're going.

* Decide on two or three simple rules for the journey such as "use a quiet voice" and "keep your hands and feet to yourself". Ask your child to repeat the rules so everyone knows what's expected.

* Before you set off, start your child on an activity. As you drive, talk to them and ask them questions. Point out things of interest and regularly introduce new toys or activities to keep them interested.

* Play audio tapes of children's songs or stories. And don't forget to break out old favourites like "I spy".

* For longer car trips, plan regular rest breaks so the kids can have a run around.

* Offer the children snacks when they're behaving well and get them started on a new activity if you notice them losing interest.

* If you are packing a bag of activities for the kids include soft toys and paperback books that won't become missiles in the event of a sudden stop or accident.

* For younger children, learning how to behave in the car is a skill you need to teach them just like learning to dress themselves. Five-minute trips around quiet streets when you're not in a hurry is a good way to introduce your child to the car.

Remember to praise good behaviour often, particularly in the early stages of your trip.

* With older children be prepared to stop the car if they're misbehaving, wait until peace is restored, then continue the journey. Sometimes it's not possible to immediately deal with problem behaviour, especially if you're driving in hazardous conditions. In these cases, if your child is crying or being noisy but is still safely secured in their seat, it's best to ignore the behaviour.

* Plan your trips to avoid being on the road during young children's sleep or meal times as hungry or tired children are likely to become irritable.

Professor Matt Sanders is founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.

- NZ Herald

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