It’s a fine Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, the mountains reach towards a clear blue sky, and I’m standing on the side of the road, watching cars fly by our two vans sitting nose-to-nose with each other on the side of the lone road in a stretch of grassland. The jumper cables are out and nothing is happening. After two issue-free weekends, this was bound to happen. How did we get here, in the middle of nowhere with a rental Jucy van, a dead 1994 Largo, and thirteen exchange students on the side of the road? By being exchange students who wanted to drive across the country (yet again for some of us) on the weekend. So let’s rewind.
I kicked off the week by keeping up my streak of skipping Friday class. I’ve yet to go to one, but I promise I’m going this week. Since it was a 5 hour drive, and the weekend is only two days, we left Thursday night. Another group left earlier to claim the campsite in the car that they had bought and split between themselves. The other half of the group left in yet another Jucy van, though this time our van lacked the ostentatious decor; it was only silver and extremely disappointing. We ended up arriving around 12AM to a mostly sleeping campsite and a sky full of stars. I pitched my tent and passed out.
We weren’t at a DoC campsite this time, but a holiday park with toilets and showers. However, it still maintained a lovely surrounding view of the mountains that if you woke up early enough, could watch alight with the morning sun. However, for the rest of the group, it was slow going.
People emerged slowly from their tents, while the morning people headed into town for breakfast supplies. There was no concrete plan, so we ended up going back to the supermarket (New World, in case anyone was curious what they’re called) to get lunch and snack food for the vague idea of a hike. When we got back, a plan solidified: let’s go see a glacier. We loaded up with food, jackets, and sunscreen and took off to Mt. Aspiring National Park, around an 1.5 hours from Wanaka.
The drive was an adventure in itself and one of my favorite drives so far. If I can, I definitely want to go back to Mt. Aspiring because we barely entered the fringes of it and the ride itself felt particularly beautiful. If it’s a sign of what is to come, I’ll definitely make my excuse to road trip back. The closer we got to the park, the greener the mountains became, shedding the grassy coverings they bear near Wanaka.
The road itself eventually faded into a gravel one, something I’d been waiting for. I’d been told that most of the roads were gravel here, but hadn’t encountered any until this point. I was also told that roads are often blocked by sheep so I wasn’t disappointed when my rural road led us to some woolly friends. The farmer and his dogs didn’t pay us any mind as they lead the flock of sheep down the road. It was an exciting moment, despite the decrease in speed. We hung out of the cars like the tourists we are, taking in the moment.
Eventually we waded our way through the sheep and to a brief pit stop to explore a river bed. We debated on turning around for half a second, as the mountains on the road of ahead were blanketed in dark clouds. Thankfully, no one was too intimidated by rain or the ford crossings for the the next part of our adventure. As both of our vehicles were minivans of some sort, we were a tad hesitant to jump blindly across the rocky streams (that was the main concern of the rain). However, once we saw the small Nissan returning in one piece, there wasn’t a question. There were a few hard scrapes, but we made it. This may have been the point where the Largo was damaged to a point of quick decline.
The hike we aimed for was the Rob Roy glacier hike. Standing in the parking lot it was wildly windy and drizzling, but once we crossed yet another swinging bridge and entered the canopy of trees, the weather was just right for a hike. We bounced uphill through the greenery with occasional sneak peaks of the glacier. I have yet to go on a bad hike in New Zealand–if such a thing exists.
The day ended with a barbecue back at the campsite. A BYO-food sort of deal, but someone cooked my chicken so I won’t complain. I also recommend baked sweet potatoes to anyone bored with the regular ol’ potato. After we ate, we naturally had to explore Wanaka’s night life.
The next day was a day without any premeditated plans. The idea to kayak was squelched by the windy lake so per usual, we hopped in the cars and headed out to see the sights. Our target was the Blue Pools. I would comment on how nice the drive was, but I fell asleep. When we arrived, it felt like quite a different place. No more mountains and open sky, but a forest tilting over the road and giving glimpses of the sky through the branches. And bugs. Bugs everywhere.
Before we headed down, it should be noted that the Largo was leaking a strange liquid and not a small amount of it. I regrettably have no mechanical experience to comment on it, but everyone mostly brushed it off.
The Blue Pools made us forget about it anyway. Stunningly clear and stunningly blue water surrounded by heaps of flat stones made for a tiny pocket of paradise. Loads of tourists too, standing amongst piles of rock towers. A bridge stretched across the water, so the next step was to jump off of it.
Unfortunately, I forgot my swimsuit so I built some rock towers instead. The day wasn’t too warm and the water was ice old so I wasn’t particularly disappointed. I did, however, get eaten alive by sand flies (it’s been a week and my legs still itch).
After the pools, we did a bit of local exploring around Wanaka. A group of us split off to go wine tasting. Took a nice walk along the lake and through the swanky neighborhoods of Wanaka. The wine tasting was short and sweet (and free!) but it had an incredibly gorgeous location with a sweeping view of Lake Wanaka. It was only fitting that there was a wedding happening. With that backdrop, I might be coming back (any takers?). (They wouldn’t let us take pictures because of the wedding, so apologies)
Our group wandered back into town to find dinner. We strolled past all the crowded lakefront restaurants (they all looked delicious) to find some cheaper eats uphill. Yet again, I found myself eating Mexican food in a place where they said not to get Mexican food. I’ve come to realize that it’s really not that bad–it’s just the fact that it’s not exactly the traditional Mexican food boasted about by Southern Californians. Keep an open mind and the opportunities to have a good meal, have a good drive, have a good laugh, grow like wildfire.
Guess what I got? A fish taco. But before I dive into my taco review let me just talk about the chili ginger beer cocktail I had. Made with tequila, it had quite a sharp jalapeño kick (appropriate, as there were jalapeños in it) and it was tasty, most likely because I haven’t had anything like it.
The bartender came out and chatted us up and bonded with someone in our group who knew a little bit about tequila. But back to the fish taco. Smaller than the last one, it was a street taco, but beer battered and coated in a sweet chili jam. It still had that fishy taste underneath it all, 8/10.
Oh, and can’t forget about the churros. Came with chocolate dipping sauce.
Back to camp it was, where it was a scene of happiness and worry. Happiness because the hedgehog who was responsible for the late night food thievery had been wrangled and worry because the Largo had overheated on the way to the movies and something clearly wasn’t right. The hedgehog was adorable (and curled into a very tight ball. I’m a bad wildlife biologist).
I went up to play cards and we decided on our plan of attack for tomorrow: Roy’s Peak at 8:30 AM sharp. We almost tried for a sunset hike, but I honestly just wanted to do the hike so the time didn’t matter. We just had to do it early enough to get home in time to return the rental car.
Surprisingly, we managed to get there before 8:30 (these mornings hadn’t been speedy ones). Even more surprisingly, the Largo managed to make the drop.
With the first step of the hike, I knew it was going to be a butt-burning, calf-cramping, red-faced hike. I also knew it was going to be worth it.
My prediction turned out to be accurate. The top, a tiny speck with a white sliver of a tower, didn’t appear to be getting any closer in the first hour and there were barely any flat sections. Luckily, I’ve learned the stop-for-a-picture strategy, which is a win-win; I get nice pictures and my legs get a chance to breathe. The view was gorgeous too. Stopping to admire the golden hills and the stretch of lake was not out of place.
Three hours of uphill and an empty water bottle later, I made it to the top. Let me make one thing clear: the view is always worth it. It was thoroughly improved by a day with the sun shining and a speckling of clouds in the distance. We were treated to a panoramic view with lake, mountains, farmland, horizons–a perfect lunch spot if I’ve ever seen any. New Zealand, you’re back at it again.
We made it back down after the cars seemed like they were never getting closer. The Largo made it back to pick up it’s half of the group, still leaking profusely. At that point, it was time to part ways and return the Jucy to its home, 5 hours away. However, we didn’t make it very far. Not even ten minutes out, we got a call from the group in the Largo telling us that their battery was dead. So we turned around and got one last look at the shores of Lake Wanaka.
They had stopped there to get water in preparation to keep the car from overheating and presto. It was just another step in the series of unfortunate events. The instant we pulled into the parking lot, our bumper came detached. Luckily, there were some mechanics/handy people in the crowd and we were all laughing at the situation. Taking it too seriously would have only made it worse. The lightheartedness proliferating throughout the group made everything smoother than it really was.
Everything went smoothly for the first hour of the drive. But after a jaunt through the hills and uphills and downhills released us into a wide, flatland, we noticed the Largo pulling off to the side of the road.
We quickly found out the Largo had utterly died up in the hills and they had coasted all the way down and out. We flipped around to jump them and now we’re back to where we started.
Since the jumping wasn’t working, we drove 8k into the nearest town, Omarama, to figure out what to do next. The gas station clerk wasn’t very helpful, basically telling us that there are no mechanics on Sundays. The solution? Buy tow cable. Tow Largo with Jucy van. Inspect Largo.
To reduce weight, those of us useless folk stayed back in town while two of the guys went back to haul the car. I really wish I could have seen the minivan tow the minivan, but we found ice cream so it was decent compensation.
Since the Largo was toast and the Jucy only had 8 seats, there was no way to fit all thirteen of us. We fit everyone who needed to be back and everyone who paid for the Jucy. Two decided to try and hitchhike back and two were going to camp overnight and evaluate the Largo tomorrow. However, us being the college students we are, we decided to squeeze one more into the Jucy. 9 people, plus all the bags and tents we could carry made it a tight haul. Luckily while I took my turn driving, I got a little more leg room.
Due to the frequent stops and delays, there was no way were going to make our 9PM rental return time. It was entirely true, as we pulled into the gas station at 9PM sharp. We were further delayed by the appearance of three Japanese women carrying literally armloads of bread loaves. They insisted on handing them out to all of us, begging us to take them as apparently they’d ordered far too many for some event. When they had unloaded their burden, immediately they started going back for more. We had to turn them away as the pile kept growing. In the end, we ended up with probably around 30 loaves of bread. After the day we’d had, it felt like the cherry on top.
Almost. We pulled into Ilam (the name of my apartment/dorm complex), dumped our gear, and four of us took the car back. We made it to the rental office around half an hour before the last bus left the airport. But that didn’t mean much as the walk was longer than that and the shuttle to the airport was no longer running. Perhaps we could have made it, but when we inspected the car, we realized that somewhere along the roads of New Zealand we had lost a hubcap and it sent us into a fit of disbelief, effectively growing the pile of things-gone-wrong. By the time we recovered and started walking, it was too late.
Idling by the side of the road, we were about to call an Uber when a lone bus appeared, heading in our direction. Waving like the crazy Americans we were, we got the bus to stop. The bus wasn’t exactly heading in our direction but the bus driver was somewhat willing to drop us along a path that would get us home. We gratefully hopped on and let it take us down the dark and unfamiliar roads of Christchurch. If this was the right way, we had no way of knowing. In the dark, it felt more like the very wrong way.
One confusing drop-off and a black cat crossing later, we found our bus stop and managed to get on a bus. But the night wasn’t over yet–we had planned on getting burritos and the place was closed. The bus driver watched us despair in the parking lot and proceeded to get out and point us to a place that was open at 11:30PM on a Sunday. So we had Chinese food at midnight to conclude a weekend of solid adventure, mishaps, and good times.
If I had to end this post with some words of wisdom, I would go back to what I said about keeping an open mind and give you adventure tip #32453: keep an open mind and it’ll create an attitude that can make any incident a worthy experience. So many parts of this weekend: sheep in the road, Mexican food, cars breaking down, the slow deterioration of things going right, could have made a good time sour if one was so attached to the idea of a smooth ride. Everyone kept a smile (even be it of disbelief) on their face as things went wrong, and that perspective maintained the trip as an adventure, not a disaster. I’ve learned that not everything will turn out like it does in one’s preconceived imaginings and if you hold on to them too tightly, there’s no room to move and thus no room to grow. Adventure on, kiddos.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J.R.R Tolkien