This is the story of one of the most exciting day we had in New Zealand. The story of how mishaps often lead to wonderful experiences and most importantly, the story of serendipity.
Halfway through our trip, we were in Abel Tasman National Park. Our next destination was 400 miles to the southeast. A direct route would have been by road, but we wanted to take the train instead. Madhura and I love trains, we are fascinated by the old school charm of a train ride; it’s almost like a vacation in itself!
Our plan was to drive from Nelson to Greymouth (5 hours), take a train to Christchurch (Another 4 hours), then rent a car, and drive to Lake Tekapo (3 hrs.). Oh yes! I realize, it was an absurd plan to begin with. But hey! plans are supposed to be unreasonable anyway, like business plans or five-year plans.
We started early in Nelson, driving along the western coastline. It was mindbogglingly pristine.Even in the middle of the tourist season, parts of south island still feel untouched. Roads are single-lane and you might be the only car on the road for a long time. Drives are exceptionally scenic and are have many viewpoints thoughtfully designed. You’ll also find roadside benches where you can have lunch while enjoying the most incredible views. If I had one trip advice, I’d say take as many long drives as you can. No matter where in NZ, just drive!
We continued our journey towards the town of Westport. After making several stops and inevitably losing track of time, we had to keep moving. Everything was going well, until I was pulled over by a cop!
Incident 1: Pulled over and fined!
I waited patiently while the police officer knocked on my window. This was our dialogue.
“Hello! Do you know why I pulled you over?”, asked Officer.
“No, not really”, I said.
“You were cutting central lane several times, at least 20 times as per the car behind you”
“Uhh…, I don’t think so, I am sure I was in my lane”, I said rather hesitantly.
“Well… We received a complaint, so I’ll have to charge you $150 for each offense”, stated Officer.
“umm…I am sorry, but it must be a mistake” (Me, Nervously calculating 150* 20 times)
“Okay! Let me see. Do you have license?”, He asked. I handed over the license.
“Oh, you’re from India! rather beautiful place”, he exclaimed.
I nodded, approvingly.
“I have been to Asia before and know they have different driving rules. It can be tough to adjust, so I’ll give you a ticket for a single offense. If your wife can drive, ask her to drive for a while. Be careful and enjoy while you are here!” He said, while looking over some papers.
“Ok, thank you officer and yes, she’ll drive. I’ll be more careful”, I said with a sigh of relief.
“Sure, No worries! do make sure to visit Queensland. Its beautiful! Totally worth the trip”, He said while on his way.
“We sure plan to!, goodbye Officer” I said, cheerily. (Unless, we run out of money paying traffic violations)
I wasn’t sure if I deserved the ticket but more importantly, I wasn’t sure if police are supposed to be friendly! This was a completely new concept to me, a police officer having a friendly chat? On top of that, he was providing a recommendation for travel- that was unreal. Since I had never lived outside of my country before this trip, I always thought the basic requirement for being a police officer is “a complete lack of conversational skills and a fine mix of apathy”. I pinched myself to see if this was real.
In India, cops can pull you over whenever they want and mostly these random checks are unpleasant. You usually pay bribe/fine after a lot of haggling and get yourself out of the situation. On that background, this was rather refreshing! I think as a traveler, such small incidents often make or break our opinions about a place. Whenever I think of NZ, the image that comes to my mind is a friendly- inviting place. It’s not because of this one incident alone, but it does play a major role.
Eventually we made it to the station in a rush and got on-board, just minutes before the departure. Our train route was through Alps of NZ. Train had large panoramic windows for uninterrupted views, great food, nice selection of cheeses and a great coffee! What else do you need?
Incident 2: rental car fiasco
We reached Christchurch and took a cab to rental car office. Our cab driver was a Somali who completed his graduation in Pune (my hometown). He talked about his time in Pune, how he found the love of his life and few more stories. Having these conversations with strangers is what I enjoy. It is interesting to get a peek into someone’s life, without any preconceived notions at all. Surprisingly when you are a visitor, people open up to you and it’s easy to make friends.
When we reached, it was after hours & rental car office was closed already. There were no instructions and no one in sight! I was clueless, it was literally middle of nowhere. Here I must confess “middle of nowhere” is quite common in South Island. Lot of times driving to a destination, you begin to wonder if you’re lost as everything seems so remote. However suddenly after climbing a valley road, there is the whole town full of people just out of nowhere.
We finally got out of our cab, wondering what to do next. Also did I mention we had no phones? To get away from our digital lives, we had left our phones at home. We wanted an old-school vacation, without google and all that comes with it. Well… that wasn’t really smart, was it?
Our cabbie came to our rescue; using his phone, we dialed an emergency number. The person on the other side informed us that the Car was parked in the back and the key was on the front left wheel. Relieved we said goodbye to our cabbie, and went to pick up our car.
I thought all was well, when I realized I had not asked for GPS! And now in the middle of the night, it was just the two of us with no phones, no maps and no one else to help. This may not sound like a big deal, but it was our first trip abroad so I was anxious about everything . Now that we have traveled more, these things don’t bother me anymore.
Road to Tekapo is complex for an outsider, so we couldn’t take any chances and decided to find a place in Christchurch. We looked for a phone booth and luckily, found one. I guess people were still using them in 2013? We called some hostels, and found a place with vacancy.
Incident 3: A night in the Jailhouse
As we drove in the hostel parking lot, we were surprised by the look of it. Entry was through the dilapidated ruins of an eerie old jail. I just convinced myself that no matter how it is, we just want a place for a night and we’d get out of here first thing in the morning.
We parked our car and walked inside. As we opened the door, it was a completely different scene inside.
There was a nice little front desk, jail-themed decorations and really cool interiors. It was the old jail, now converted to a funky backpacker’s hostel. All the rooms were renovated from the old prison cells, they were small, and naturally had only twin beds but were really cool. Walls had weird posters and they have also maintained old art scribbled by inmates in one of the cell.In spite of the challenges,the whole place is meticulously designed to be really chic! Guys at the front desk are called “Wardens”, which is rather funny.
It was a fun little place to be in.I’d probably need another blog post to just narrate the full atmosphere of it.
Unfortunately I have few pictures which do not do justice to this place. You can explore more on their website, no wonder they are one of the highest rated hostel ( we didn’t know that, remember?- no phones, no google)
It is small place but can you experience this anywhere else? Probably not! It was our moment of serendipity- an accidental discovery.
What if everything would’ve been according to the plan? If we had maps and no trouble with GPS, we’d be in Tekapo enjoying ourselves but we’d miss everything that happened on the road. Would there be so many memories still fresh in our minds 5 years later? Maybe, who knows? but I wouldn’t trade this day for anything else.
From my experience, such “Accidental discoveries” usually form the best memories. Me and Madhura, still reminisce about this day. All the dominoes lined up at the right time and left a long lasting impression for us.
How about you? Which travel day do you remember the most?