I remember the seemingly endless drives to Florida in our white 1974 Chevy Impala. Seat belts were really more of a suggestion back then as I recall spending lots of time curled up on the floor behind the driver’s seat or in the back window ledge with the kleenex box that lived there my entire childhood. A kid today will never know such boredom as being an only child on a roadtrip in the pre-internet age. Occasionally mom my would take pity on me and promise me a round of mini-golf for my troubles. I’m guessing mini-golf was my first experience in beating my parents at something and it was glorious. So most people have had some version of this experience: being a kid on a family vacation and bobbing to and fro, powerless as flotsam and jetsam on the oceanic predetermined plans of your parents. Now, decades later Julie and I felt lucky to be able to return the favour. They came to visit us and we delighted in playing cruise directors.
Our two moms are already travel buddies and amazingly, the two of them had already done a lap around NZ together a decade ago and had been to the Nelson area in a bit of whirlwind tour. They were eager to buy their plane tickets and they bought them months before we did. We also were excited to host them. This time we were in charge of the family vacation. We wanted to show them where and how we live, at a slower pace and from an insider’s perspective, but also to share with them our unique life here, and to prove that despite very little planning our year away was actually working out reasonably well.
They were great guests and didn’t complain as we whisked them from festival to festival and up and down the spectacularly tropical summer coastline of the Top of the South. I was able to take some time off work and we shared a special 3 weeks together without the distraction of jobs for the adults or school for the kids, a bitterly cold winter or the infamous traffic jams on the Allen “Express”way.
On their first full day, we took them to an all day music festival that was fortuitously only a few minutes down the road. It was unique from festivals back home in that it was alcohol-free and didn’t have any sponsors or advertising. Food was seemingly at cost ($1 for a salad, $2 for a sausage). Kids free-ranged all day (their entrance was free) and played on the giant hillside slip & slide, slack-line, silks hanging from trees and various other juggling/circus equipment available for parent-free fun. Not a single waiver was signed. It was all very ‘cruisy’ as kiwis like to say.
Next up: Golf. And not the mini variety. There is a course 10 minutes away on top of cliffs over looking the ocean. I hadn’t played a round yet and figured it was super expensive. I was wrong. Except for another foursome we were the only ones on the links that we could see. Very different from home.
Not only did my mom brave the 30 degree heat and soundly beat me but she insisted on searching for and finding any of the balls that I had accidentally sliced deep into the woods.
The first week was all about showing them around our hood before we headed off on our big tramp.
New Zealand has 9 “great walks” and the Abel Tasman is the most famous of them due to it’s golden sand beaches on one side of the coastal track and lush tropical jungle on the other. There are also huts along the way which you can book a bed in (think hostel in the bush) if you don’t want to carry a tent (or force your septuagenarian mums to sleep on the ground). We booked our spaces in the huts and permits months out but just as we were heading out, New Zealand was preparing for Cyclone Fehi. We mulled over cancelling but in the end decided that we would never get another chance to hike in a cyclone so decided to give it a go.
Our plan was to begin in Marahau and spend the day hiking to Anchorage where we booked a spot on a floating hut called the Aquapackers. Then we would set out early the next morning and hike all day again to spend the night in the Bark Bay hut. Finally, on the third day we would hike up to Awaroa where we had pre-arranged a water taxi to take us back to Marahau.
Everything started out fantastic. True, instead of glorious blue skies as advertised in all the promotional materials we had the foreboding clouds of an incoming cyclone but hey – at least it wasn’t raining.
Eventually the weather started to clear and we figured all this cyclone talk was overblown.
We made it to the boat in Anchorage Bay, jumped off the roof and had a delightful meal with other guests while we all shared plans of the following day.
In the morning, despite being in a completely protected anchorage, the 40 ton houseboat heaved up and down with the relentless waves. The crew seemed to nervously run around checking ropes and re-anchoring and running the engine while telling us everything was ok. The sea was too rough to navigate the dinghy to the shore to let us off, in fact there was no shore! Cyclone Fehi wreaked unprecedented havoc on New Zealand because a bunch of factors aligned that raised the sea to levels nobody had seen before. 1) The extremely hot summer had created unseasonable temperatures that created the swirling storm in the first place creating huge waves. 2) It hit the shore, not only at high tide but during a king tide. King tides are rare and occur when the earth is closest to the moon and both are closest to the sun. They really only last a few hours a year. Bad timing. 3) The winds had pushed the sea to shore in a giant surge raising the water level even higher. 4) Surprisingly, the air pressure has an effect on sea level and the lower pressure system relaxing it’s downward push on the water. All over NZ homes and streets were flooded, slips closed highways and any infrastructure around the shorelines were pummeled. We watched as a deck and staircase on the shore was swallowed up by the sea and smashed to bits.
Eventually by 2pm, after many hours of nausea, things calmed down enough to make an attempt at heading for the shore and begin our long hike to the Bark Bay hut.
Since we left later in the day we were able to take the “low tide” shortcut.
But even as we walked we could see the track slowly get swallowed up.
Eventually we made it to our hut where we found out how lucky we were to have a bed. The entire campground was destroyed and ended up underwater and all around the higher ground of the hut were campers drying out. The water was still too rough for water taxis so everyone who had arranged to leave was stuck for another day.
We spent a dry night in the toasty hut swapping stories with other hikers of everyone’s experiences of the storm amid damp clothes drying from every rafter.
The next day was a slow start. I tried to get the crew going but mountains may have been easier to budge. I mock-threatened Jenny that she would be up to her neck in water if we didn’t make our tidal crossing at Onetahuti. We didn’t make it. The water was up to our waists when we arrived. I quickly changed into my bathing suit and started ferrying bags over my head. Soon the water was at my chest. It was a mad panic, there just wasn’t time for photos. The girls and Jenny swam across and by the time I brought the final bag the water was at my neck. We had just barely made it! We all took a deep breath, got dressed and posed for a group shot as the day because magnifique!
We caught our water-taxi home from Awaroa and spent the rest of our visit hike-free until we said good-bye for another 6 months.
Julie and I can only hope that when we’re our Mums’ age we’re equally as keen and able to be dragged on an adventure halfway around the world. At least we have some pretty good role models as a guide.