Christchurch to Kaikoura: A Reunion, Muscle Memory and the Calm Before the Storm

After a year’s worth of optimistic planning and tipsy conversation about our South Island road trip, it felt almost too good to be true as I finally boarded the first flight of my journey from Brisbane to Christchurch. The best way to ensure that you follow through on your seemingly fantastical plans is to commit yourself to them by paying for the flights or another large part of the trip so that you force yourself past the point of no return. Until you take that step, you will make excuses for yourself and pick holes in an idea until it doesn’t happen; you end up depriving yourself of what could have been an amazing experience in practice – what a travesty!

On New Year’s Eve 2013, my friend Angus and I promised each other that our trip would definitely happen; this wasn’t just fanciful planning. Sure enough, a month into my travels, we had a conversation via Facebook Chat which resulted in flights being purchased and the receipt of camper van rental confirmation. We’d hopped over that point of no return and we never looked back.

Fast forward to April 13th; I arrived, alone, in a very chilly Christchurch about an hour prior to Angus landing after his epic journey from London. I had found the tropical heat of Queensland a little too much to bear at times, so I actually welcomed the drizzle with open arms. I think the fact that England is almost constantly in a state of drizzle means that I was comforted by the element of familiarity in an otherwise unknown land. I should mention at this point that I was experiencing a few ripples of anxiety as I made my way to Apollo rentals, our camper van providers of choice. We had opted for the self-contained, 2-berth Cheapa Campa complete with toilet, shower, gas hob oven, sink, and queen-sized bed. My excitement about our road trip was infused with sprinklings of intense fear about being the sole driver of such a massive vehicle, over thousands of kilometres, when I hadn’t driven in over 3 years. Add to this the fact that the only car I’d ever driven up until this point was a tiny Nissan Micra and you might be able to understand why my tummy felt like it was full to the brim with butterflies.

If you’re considering renting a camper, I highly recommend paying for a value pack. This will usually include insurance, the waiver of the excess on the insurance policy (should you be unlucky enough to crash or damage the vehicle) and the hire of bed linen, towels and a heater. This was definitely preferable to paying over 2000 NZD for the security deposit, which we would have had to do if we didn’t take the value pack option; furthermore, it gave me peace of mind whilst driving and the hired items were extremely useful during our trip. Whilst waiting for Angus to arrive, I filled out the final bits of paperwork and waited with baited breath as the Apollo employee went to fetch the camper.

I had expected it to be big… but not this big!

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I swallowed the lump in my throat and resolved that I was just going to have to bite the bullet and have confidence in my ability to adjust to the situation. First of all, I asked the staff member if she would mind sitting in the passenger seat as I drove around the car park for a few minutes so that I could adjust to the size and power of the vehicle. Although strange at first, it was actually far easier to manoeuvre than I had anticipated! I know it’s a cliché, but it really is like riding a bike; muscle memory kicks in and, after a few minutes, you get used to the feeling of being in control. I learned to drive in a manual car and the camper was automatic, but this wasn’t an obstacle at all to be honest; other than the fact that my redundant left foot would occasionally search for the non-existent clutch when we were slowing to a halt.

By the time Angus arrived, I was ready to take on the trip ahead! It was so lovely to see a good friend after we’d both been anticipating the adventure for so long; it was also extremely surreal finding each other on the other side of the world! After a hug and an explosion of excited squealing, we hit the road. It really was that simple.

Our first journey took just over 2 hours and, as far as settling back into driving, it certainly ensured that I became confident at the wheel again. Due to it being Autumn, we only had about 20 minutes of light before the sun began to set, thus the majority of our drive was in the dark. The misty drizzle metamorphosed into fat droplets of rain and, although the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is essentially one long road, it was still a real test getting used to foreign road signs, one lane tunnels and the impatience of other drives who found themselves driving behind a our large vehicle. My biggest tip for camper van novices? Go at your own pace and don’t bow to the pressure of tailgating idiots, especially if you find yourself driving in adverse weather conditions. You could be going 5km above the speed limit (which I wouldn’t recommend) and other drivers will still attempt to overtake you because they perceive themselves as being ‘stuck’ behind you. Just try not to let their impatience frustrate you and allow them to overtake, it’s better to let them get as far away from you as possible.

Pulling up outside Angus’ dad’s house after 2 hours of intense concentration provided a wonderful feeling of relief. We parked up and were greeted by the lovely John and Sandra who were kind enough to be putting us up for the subsequent few days. My nerves had totally subsided and, instead, I was filled with pure joy and excitement as we ate a delicious meal and talked about the days to come over a few glasses of wine. After a wonderfully restorative sleep, the next morning I awoke to this view:

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It’s hard to focus on bad weather when you’re surrounded by such incredible beauty. Bristling with anticipation, I let my parents know that I’d survived the first hurdle and received congratulations for completing such a difficult drive; little did we know that, for the next week, we’d be driving through a cyclone!

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