What is simplicity? A mini-van, a bike and a wife by my side. Why is simplicity good? Because despite the limitations of comfort, it gives me the ability to get out and enjoy New Zealand on my terms.
We ended up buying a sixteen year old Toyota minivan. The rear seats have been taken out and replaced with an elevated platform and a mattress on top. Beneath the platform is good amount of storage for our minimal belongings that we brought with us and those that we purchased locally, i.e. wine. The van is a 4 cylinder version, a selling feature forcefully pointed out to us who, as Americans, were originally impressed with the 6 cylinder version until we found out that gasoline costs about $8/gallon here. The sliding doors on both sides and the rear door makes every part of the storage area underneath easily accessible. We pile the bikes on top of the mattress, and we are read to go. The relatively small minivan fits nicely down the narrow, windy roads of which I keep reminding myself to stay on the left side.
I see backpackers and people in regular cars who are setting up and taking down tents every time they move. I watch a person in a large proper motorhome try to back out of the tiny parking spots that are common here. He crunches the side on a little wooden post that marks the edge. I don’t really want to be living life at either of these extremes. My fellow travelers are as diverse as their modes of transportation: the hairy backpacker, the dyed hair 20 something, the guy wearing a retro poncho who wasn’t told that the 1960’s ended, the well-heeled traveler in their mid 50s driving the large motorhome with nice wine and nice wine glasses. I am interested to get to know them all better.
New Zealand is made for this style of travel as far. Everywhere we go, there are little campsites nestled into forrest, on farmland, on the beach, or next to rivers. Pull the minivan in, and hiking trails, beautiful scenery and the necessary restroom facilities are close at hand. Get lucky, and you might even get a hot shower! Some of the campsites are free, some are in the range of $10/adult per night, and some get fancy at $25/adult per night. $50/night to live in a van? Yes. The hostels here go for $75/night and a regular hotel room is going to run around $100/night and up. So, this is still the most economical way of traveling.
In the very back, we have four bins of dry foods, canned goods, spices and sauces. We have one small "chilly bin" or cooler. We have a bag of cooking utensils, plates, a coffee press, and one tiny burner typically used for backpacking. At night, after we have driven to our next destination, we pull our folding chairs out of the van, plop down on the ground and enjoy the view while cooking some delectable one pot meal on our tiny backpacker's stove.
We enjoy with a bottle of wine or a hot mug of tea until we are too cold and too tired to carry on. Then, we drag the mountain bikes out from on top of the mattress, lay out our sleeping bags and nestle in for the night. We pull the curtains to block out the light and give us some privacy. What more do you need?
The next morning, I sit in my chair reading a book. I watch the ducks and children play in the water while Leslie works on a blog post. When she is done and we have a little lunch in our bellies, we head out more exploring. Our goal is to mountain bike New Zealand, so today we head out on our first big ride in our new country. I approach this new trail as I do so many things in life, without preparation or a clue as to what is in front of me. Leslie is concerned that the road that leads to the trail is all that the ride will be and she doesn’t want to waste her time on a stupid road. But off to the left is a beautiful little single track, just wide enough for one cyclist to pedal uphill.
The ride is a tactile experience, which is not a word I would usually use to describe mountain biking. Fluffy puffs of pampas grass dangle over the trail and tickle you as you ride along. The feeling is quite pleasant; the fluffiness makes you feel as though you should be sneezing. On the other side of the coin are terrible spiky plants. After hitting several unavoidable specimens, our arms and legs are covered with scratches, puncture wounds, and little patches of blood.
We are rewarded with a trail that, if not perfect, at least has sections that are straight out of my dreams. Loam of fern leaves pad the soft forrest dirt making the smooth, flowing descent silent beneath our tires. The Goldilocks sweet spot of not too steep, and not too flat and amazing views alternating between pastoral grasslands and Jurassic forest. The ride was a great start to our southern hemisphere mountain biking experience.
Once back at the campsite, we hop in the lake to cool off and clean off. After our months in the tropics the water is a little on the cold side, but we both remark how much we had been missing the experience of swimming. We end the day watching two black swans swim around the lake while we eat a little pasta and drink a New Zealand Viognier. We watch a guy stick his landing in an airchair; I am impressed. With gas at $8/gallon, I don't think they will offer me a ride.
I am not sure if it is the lack of camp fires or the high price of beer, but the camping crowd is not as friendly as sailors have been in our recent experience. We end our evening as the day began, sitting by the lake, reading a book and enjoying the company of ourselves. One small minivan to crawl into when the sun sets and the air chills, a warm blanket on top of me and a good woman at my side.