Dukes Journey and the Kindness of Strangers

The Duke, Central Otago

Duke and Topagee

“She’s a manual?! So she goes pretty well!” the burly hitcher we’ve just picked up is surprised.
In the fifteen minutes he’s been with us we’ve learnt a little of his home town (there’s nothing to do), his work out on factory fishing boats (it pays well), and how impressed he is by our car. That soon changes. 
We’ve bought a white 1979 Mercedes and called it ‘ The Duke’. We chose to buy it as it seems sturdy, spacious and strong despite the rusty paintwork, and it’s cheap. It looks pretty cool to us, at home this would be considered a classic, but out here in New Zealand it rarely gets noticed. The country, particularly the south, is full of classic cars. Cheap importing of cars really only started in the 90’s, and many people turned to Japanese, but before that old cars were lovingly looked after and kept going. There are endless stylish classics amongst the pick ups on the near empty roads.We are towing, fitting with Duke’s era, a 1978 ‘Topagee’. This is a trailer that pops up into a tent like caravan. Why are these not made anymore? They are amazing! It’s so easy to pop up, has 2 double beds and a pop up kitchen too, but is so much lighter and more convenient than a caravan. We love it, and, amazingly, were given it. A vegan family near us in Waitati were happy to see it go on to make another family happy. Huge thanks to them, the first kind strangers. 
We are on day one of our adventure around New Zealand. Spirits are high, the boot and trailer is chock full, kids are excited, and country music sets the soundtrack to our epic road trip ahead. 
We’ve left Waitati and are heading North West across the starkly beautiful open roads of Otago. We could be in Scotland, Ireland or even home on Dartmoor. I’m driving and trying to get used to the slightly worrying high hum that the Duke sings when he hits a certain speed, but when we begin to clunk alarmingly whilst heaving up a hill I have to pull over. An hour in and our road trip has ground to a halt. 
magic fixing with a tin can
Kian shuffles under the car, a sight we’re gonna see all too often, and announces the drive shaft has gone. Bugger. Big problem. Our hitcher is quick to jump out and we rummage for warmer clothes as we realize we are stranded here and it’s pretty cold. There are sheep of course, and not much else. All those last minute bits of paperwork, like joining the AA or getting insurance, are not done. Bugger again. I remember Kian’s cousin in Auckland strongly advising us to buy Japanese. Will we regret being seduced by the Duke?
Through a complicated relay of texts with our friend John in Waitati we arrange a tow to the nearest town with the nearest tow truck available. As we contemplate what to do next a shiny white and immaculate 4×4 pulls over and an equally immaculate smiling man jumps out to offer help. All coiffured hair and white teeth in no time he’s hooked up our topagee to his tow bar and offers to drive it to the nearest campsite. Turns out he’s an estate agent taking his family to his batch for the weekend, and knows the area well. 
Next up another man in a 4×4 pulls over. He offers to tow the car in for us but we tell him it’s already sorted and he stays anyway for a yarn. He’s all earthy, a big working hands kind of man in contrast to the other, and full of tales of these roads when they are 5 ft high in snow, and of the struggle to preserve these native bush grasslands in the face of increasing large scale dairy farming.  Dairy is a multi billion dollar industry in New Zealand and, despite its negative environmental impact, polluting waterways and changing landscapes, is on the rise. Even whilst we chat, other cars, and there’s not many on this road, pull over to check we’re alright.
The 3rd truck to arrive is our arranged tow and having loaded the Duke on we are driven  ignobly to Ranfurly, arriving in a place we didn’t mean to stop in, but heartened by the warmth and kindness of strangers.
wild pigs, not so wild

wild pigs, not so wild

Three days in Ranfurly pass easily, it’s a holiday weekend and the campsite is packed with jovial folk from Christchurch and tourists doing the Central Otago Rail Trail. The nights are extremely cold, snow falls on the mountains in the distance where we should have been, and we’re grateful for this campsite, unlike any we’d have chosen, with hot showers and a warm communal kitchen. Whilst Kian hitches 300km up the road (again meeting more kind New Zealanders) to take a driveshaft off another Mercedes model, the kids and I hire bikes for the day and hit the trail. This is our pedalled version of easy rider, hollering songs we whizz through yellow bleached farming land, golden hills under cobalt blue, and shelter in lush willows along an icy river. For us this is like our idea of redneck America, and the wood lap barns and houses, empty bars complete with creaky signs, all add to that impression.

Kian changes the drive shaft and miraculously gets us back on the road with little cost or delay. In 3 days we’ve sampled the best coffees in this tiny town, visited the Art Deco museum and the ‘Op shops’ and are ready to get to our original destination.

Homestead camp


Homestead camp, St Bathans, is everything Ranfurly wasn’t. I love it. 15km down a gravel track off an already remote road this place is deliciously empty in a stunning setting. With a simple clean long drop toilet and a charming tiny hut with a large wood burner this is our first taste of DOC campsites. We grow to love and admire this system. Doc (department of Conservation) has managed campsites throughout New Zealand as well as a huge network of walking trails and huts. They are graded and the most basic (simply offering a compost loo and running water) are free, usually in great places, so we try to choose these. Where they are standard and payment is expected there is an honesty system of posting money into a box that a warden will keep a check on. It’s such a fantastic and easy system to use and must encourage people to get outside into nature more. England could really learn a lot from it. We spend our time walking, climbing trees, schooling in the hut, and eating toast from the burner. Our confidence in Duke restored and our love for New Zealand growing we continue our trip.

Marlon in the Homestead, St Bathans

For the next few weeks Duke behaved brilliantly taking us through the wonderful dramatic  scenery that would change from open plain to snowy mountains to sea within a day. We revel in the adventure capital of Queenstown, braced to be stripped of all our money with every shiney outlet screaming ‘try me try me!’it feels like a small ski town in its pristine environment of lake and jagged mountains. Sitting high in the gondola overlooks a big kids adventure playground of paragliders, bungy jumpers and jet boats. We decide to let the kids choose 2 main activities that we can all do. We scream together as we hurtle down hill on Marlons choice of ‘Luging’, gravity powered go karts, surprisingly fast and fun, and admire the views on the zip trek, Maisies tamer choice after being deemed too small to be allowed to try bungy jumping (phew). Staying out at Moke Lake doc camp is a wonderful haven from all the flashiness of Queenstown, managed by the warmest hairy biker couple, ducks wander around and feed from our hands, and the lake warms just enough for refreshing dips.
Go Queenstown!

Go Queenstown!


Heading West, from Cameron Flat campsite we enjoy a days walk along lush valleys and glacial rivers and test our bravery jumping from high bridges. Two adorable kittens appear one evening and as no mother or owner claims them after we leave them outside in a box for the night we decide to take them with us. For a few days we have the happy chaos of kittens clambering everywhere. It’s slightly controversial carrying cats in New Zealand, especially camping in the national parks so it’s vital we don’t loose them into the wild. New Zealanders are fiercely protective of their native birds; there are rodent and possum traps everywhere, and so cats are also a killing enemy. As a warden we spoke to about the kittens said; ‘the best thing you can do is kill them, but if you can’t do that take them out of the wild.’



cute n’ cuddly

At Gillespies beach we braved the sand flies and ate a valentines meal on the wild pebbly beach just before it rained. I took 2 days alone to walk up the Copland valley, savouring the silence and the opportunity to walk alone at my own pace. I tramped along grey blue rivers, past rushing waterfalls, through lush forests of laced tree ferns, climbed to alpine meadows and across high wobbly suspension bridges designed to withstand avalanches and slept in a crowded doc hut at the top. The hot pools steamed invitingly but the hungry sand flies prevented me from bathing for long. 

Copland trail

  Luckily at Fox Glacier, being admired in their box at a cafe, the kittens found new homes. Sad but relieved we said goodbye and carried on the journey less encumbered. At Hokitika “a cool little town” (their motto) on the West coast we wandered at sunset amongst the stunning drift wood sculptures strewn along the beach. Strange birds and beasts, balancing structures and a giant bed.

At Goldsborough we try our hand at panning for the yellow stuff after a kind artist/gold panner  shows us how it’s done. We don’t find the large gold nugget we’re hoping for but after a few sessions of panning through the cold waters and the black iron sand we have enough precious flakes to treasure. Maybe they can go on a piece of jewellery one day.
 gold panning
From there it’s inland and zig zagging across to the boulder strewn landscape of Castle Hill, a climbers Mecca, and in again to Deer Valley doc camp near Maruia Springs. Unfortunately they’re closed and after much searching we fail to find the free natural hot springs along the river bed, so we resign ourselves to a day out in the more expensive and commercial Hamner Springs. We’re not disappointed with the experience however. Spread over a large area are a selection of mineral pools and thermal pools of varying temperatures as well as cool swimming pools, some fantastic slides for the kids and an adult only areas with jacuzzis and powerful massaging jets. We all love it and stay till well after dark. On leaving we realize the fuel stations are closed and hope we have enough to get us back to camp…
On a dark windy hill Duke shudders to a stop. Again we are amazed by the kindness of New Zealanders on the roads. After just a few minutes a couple of guys in a big truck jump out and after a few amiable jokes about ‘stupid pommies’ offer to tow us to their batch and give us some diesel there. It’s a hair raising tow in the dark being pulled pretty fast around mountain roads to their place which turns out to be the village we’d been looking for the hot springs in earlier, Boyle village. After a bit of trying looks like the Duke refuses to get started so after lots of tea is drunk they invite us to stay the night and we all pile into their spare room. They are real characters, 2 old friends and an older guy in his 80’s, father of the batch owner, all up from Christchurch for the weekend. The place, like so many here, is entirely off grid and simple. They have many remarkable tales of the earthquake in Christchurch and show classic New Zealand hardiness and resilience. In the morning we drink a lot more tea and call the AA – members now having learnt our lesson before. An hour or so later a big kiwi mechanic gives us a tow hill start and and Duke bursts grumbling back to life. We swop addresses should they ever find themselves in the UK and we can repay their kindness but perhaps the best way is to pass it on. How amazing if everyone behaved with such kindness and generosity! 
on the road nr Lake Moke

on the road near Lake Moke

The AA couldn’t quite believe it when just an hour later we call them again. I know, same day, same car, I say, but different problem. This time we’ve pulled over due to a worrying grinding sound and find 3 wheel nuts completely sheared off a back tyre. Two hillbilly mechanic boys are sent to rescue us..but we soon realise the problems not solved when just 5 mins down the road we have to pull over again. We’re stuck in what appears to be redneck farming country, sand flies are everywhere hungry for our blood, and we need to get to Nelson for Lucas birthday party. The AA are just not being helpful. It’s Saturday night and no one wants to tow us unless it’s at vast expense, and no one has a tow truck that can accommodate 4 people anyway. It’s a frustrating situation but solved a little by the decision to ask the farmer if we can sleep in his driveway, and so we pop up our trusty Topagee and spend a strange night by the side of a road with occasional juganauts hurtling past. In the morning we realise some of us are gonna have to hitch or we’ll never get a tow or make it to the party. Kian stays with the Duke and the kids and I stick our thumbs out. 

Another taste of the kindness of strangers right there as about the 3rd car to pass pulls over and can take us nearly all the way. They’re a retired couple of farmers who drive incredibly slowly and insist on stopping and showing us the beautiful waterfalls created by an earthquake in the 1920’s and on buying us lunch on another stop. We really don’t want to miss Luca’s birthday and are so looking forward to seeing the Von Engelbrechtens again but cannot hurry this slow driving couple along or be rude to such kindness. Kian and the tow truck pass us on the road and the Duke makes another ignoble entrance, this time to Nelson, whilst we scrape in just in time to share some cake with Luca. Luckily we have friends to stay with and Kian can work on the Duke in their yard, sand fly free, and within a day has sorted the disintegrated hand brake and wheel problems. A week in Nelson and some time walking the coast in the gorgeous Tasman National Park and it’s time to leave the South Island and head North. The ‘most beautiful ferry crossing in the world’ is not looking so promising under thunderous grey skies and rain falling in sheets. On driving towards the ferry terminal, windscreen wipers working hard, an old man fails to pause at a junction and crashes into us.  We only loose a light in the crunch but the impact makes old Duke drop the entire exhaust pipe. Sounding like loud boy racers but looking a lot more bedraggled with the exhaust strapped to our roof we make it to the ferry.
Our adventures in the South Island are over, and despite his many failings we stay loyal to Duke. We believe in his sturdy abilities and accept that his unreliability with certain over worn parts is a hindrance with a golden lining. The various mishaps and breakdowns along the way have simply enhanced our experience of New Zealand and its people. We have been persistently delighted by the kindness of strangers in this wonderful land.

collage NZ road trip

Lovely South Island, NZ


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