Are We There Yet?

The Johanson family roadtrips… they were days of endless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and backseat naps.  There were travel puzzles with magic markers and kids crosswords in the seatback pouch. Books on tape drowned out the transient noise as my florescent blue playschool camera documented the passing land.  The minivans were upgraded for each trip, but what happened inside never changed.  Dad drove and acted as tour guide as mom passed out cokes and prepackaged snacks. A fan of shortcuts, Dad always found the longest way to go amidst the serendipity of the side road.  Mom was vocally frustrated but Dad remained beside himself.  Meanwhile, my older sister ordered me around with the clever use of reverse reverse psychology as my brother bestowed a skewed knowledge of the passing land.

Oh, the great bi-annual trips of my youth!  There was the trip to Canada with Grandma before she passed or my famous tantrum on the fourth of July in the Blackfoot Indian Lodge near Yellowstone.  Every other summer, a new destination was chosen.  The plan was always grander than the execution so we chased around North America like a Japanese tour group, stopping for a quick snap shot and running so fast we barely had time to breath.  I rode center position, backseat.  Any questioning of this inevitably circled back to my being young and small and the ability to earn the middle row of the minivan at some later date when I was older.  But, no matter how old I got, I was always the youngest and sat in that assigned seat until my older sister discovered the beauty of the backseat nap.

Everyday the search was on for the perfect spot to take our family Christmas photo but when the “are we there yet” overture reached its climax, us kids passed around the AAA guide until we found the best motel with a pool and continental breakfast.  We’d snatch the keys for the kids room, strip off our souvenir t-shirts, play a quick game of travel cribbage, and “hit the sack” before doing it all again the next day.

Fast-forward to 2010 and so much time has passed.  But, the Johanson’s tour of New Zealand proved that the central dynamics of our family road trips remain the same.  Mom and Dad took the twenty-odd hour flight across the world to visit their youngest son for a rapid-fire tour of the North Island.  Instead of the back seat, I would now act as both driver and tour guide.  That aside, not much had changed.

We began our trip in Tauranga, driving due south through Rotorua to relive the old Yellowstone adventures.  In Dad’s eyes, every geothermal sight had a comparable relative back in the states.   But, like everything from the homeland, these Kiwi sight’s American relatives were “bigger and better.”  I agreed that this was certainly no Yellowstone, but the magnificent boiling pools of Wai-O-Tapu were a rarity found in only a select few corners of the globe – a worthy companion to their American brothers.

From Rotorua, I spotted a short cut to Whakatane on one of my sticky orange-juice-covered map’s thin, white-lined roads.  However, by the end of this shortcut I had an eerie feeling. Had I turned into my dad?  Barreling down a gritty logging road for the better part of an hour, we cringed as pebbles pelted the inner core of our fragile rental.  A silent tension grew in the car until mom cut it with her vocal unease.  When we finally emerged onto solid pavement at the far end of a massive dam and cruised into Whakatane (pronounced fa – kah – tah – ni), I realized a cyclical evolution of the family road trip was taking place.

Perched at the mouth of its flagship river in a pictorial cliffside nook, Whakatane had an instant appeal.  A rich Maori influence enveloped the local buildings and nearby memorials documented the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which took place in Whakatane in 1840.  The sun was plotting its descent in our direction so we settled into a small nautical themed apartment along the harbor to laze it’s fading glory.

Through beachy Opotiki into the Waioeka Gorge and over the Raukumara Range we chased the morning light all the way to sun-kissed Gisborne.  The citrus capital of New Zealand, Gisborne was also home to a budding Wine Region, renowned for its Chardonnays.  However, the Gisborne wine region was sleepier than anticipated.  After several closed doors, we happened upon Milton Vineyards where the twitchy bed-headed winemaker gave an educated tasting in the barrel room.

In search of more wine and a decent spot to sleep we curled our way over the hills to Napier well into nightfall.  Wine was on the menu for breakfast when we awoke the next morning.  I felt a bit of an alcoholic waiting outside of Crab Farm Winery at 9:55 pacing in the bohemian courtyard for my ten o’clock fix, but I was with my parents so, if anything, we were in on this together.  Three cellar doors later, mom and I were asleep in the car as dad sped through the rain clouds to Taupo.  Occasionally we awoke to dad’s love affair with the rumble strip, but mostly we were passed out.

There are few substantial mountain ranges on the North Island but there are three grand volcanoes:  Mt Tongariro, the quintessentially conical Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom), and the perpetually snow-capped skiers paradise Mt Ruapehu.  Circling around these three bastions of the central plateau, we cut into the center to drive through the scrub up the volcanic rubble of temperamental Ruapehu.  Erupting with regularity every few years, Ruapehu’s summit housed a trash heap of volcanic boulders below the blanket of snow.

On the eastern edge of Tongariro National Park (the world’s fourth and New Zealand’s first), highway one rambled north in the shadow of the three great peaks.  This highway through the bleak, windswept tussock plain was known as “desert road” and was home to the small but mighty New Zealand Army’s largest base.  In the remote edges of the township of Waiouru, soldiers trained for the Middle East as they tramped through barren bush of the Rangipo Desert.

Checking volcanoes, wine, and desert of my list, I decided to take the parents up to the Coromandel Peninsula to hit the beach.  We found a small, bayside farmstay in cutesy Coromandal Town and set out in search of the famous Hot Water Beach. Two hours either side of low tide, a section of sand steams up with hot water.  Beachgoers crowded down the beach with shovels in tow to dig up their own hot water spa on the edge of the surf.  Tourists from all over the world piled next to each other in small pits of sand to read, relax, drink beers, and cringe at the scorching temperatures below their burning butts.

Nearby, the hour roundtrip trek to Cathedral Cove took us to yet another dramatic beach.  Down and around the curvy coastline we marched through the forest where a steep set of stairs led to this sheltered bay.  Hidden between rocky cliffs, Cathedral Cove’s wooden bathroom may have the best view of any enclosed spot I have ever peed in.  Next door in toilet #2, dad agreed.

The next morning as we traipsed through the Northland, we encountered the best commode of them all.  Reputedly New Zealand’s most photographed loo, the Hundertwasser Toilets are the highlight of the otherwise drab town of Kawakawa.  Beyond the glare of the tinted tiles, the toilets smelled as you might expect – if not worse.  A group of tourists had recently been mauled here so I thought it best to keep moving north to Paihia.

If you have seen any video footage of New Zealand it no doubt had a long pan over the famous Bay of Islands.  In fact, it was this very image that had me convinced that New Zealand was just a larger tropical island in the South Pacific.  Upon arriving, I realized that this was not so.  Yet, the sub-tropical bays and beaches of this section of the Northland do give off the feeling of an exotic paradise.  It is on these shores that modern New Zealand (as opposed to Aotearoa) began.

We caught a short car ferry across the bay and spent the night on the charming waterfront strand of New Zealand’s first city Russell.  Containing many of the country’s oldest buildings, its historic streets had the look of early New England.  Now a quiet town with a row of shops, B&Bs, and restaurants that close promptly at 8:00pm, Russell was once known as the “hellhole of the Pacific.”  In 1835 Charles Darwin noted that it was full of the “refuse of society” and its picturesque beaches were notorious for debauchery.

The folks and I had three Monteiths Raddler Biers at the country’s first licensed bar and restaurant, but no shenanigans ensued.  It was our last night together so we strolled down The Strand at sunset and reminisced about our whirlwind week together.

On our last day of the family road trip we made the mistake of stopping at Marsden Estate Winery in KeriKeri, snatching up a bottle of smoky Pinotage, and taking it to a riverside park in town for lunch.  With very little food (we were eating scraps for our last day) and a lot of wine poured into each of our plastic cups, we were all in a happy place.  Passing the same cheerleader trees with five arms of pompoms held high, Dad got lost, I got lost, and mom fell asleep.  By the end of it, we were way off schedule.  Hours away from Auckland and with dwindling time until our separation, we gunned it down the west coast of the Northland.

Marked by two vast harbours separated by a forest of New Zealand’s largest trees, the west coast roads were a slow, windy endeavor.  We reached the ginger-brown waters of Hokianga Harbour at Rawene, New Zealand’s third settlement.  Leaving its church-lined streets we continued on to the twin towns of Opononi and Omapere where the harbor meets the Tasman.  On the far side of the snakey Hokianga, sweeping dunes stretched northward in stark contrast to the green pastures behind me.  In the 110km of undeveloped land between Hokianga Harbour and larger Kaipara Harbour, we marveled at the giant Kauri forests.   We stopped for a photo-op at an 800-year-old giant and were taken aback by it’s incredible girth

By Warkworth, the road widened, service stations appeared, Auckland loomed in the distance, and the realization that our trip was ending began to sink in.  In Auckland, the familiar frustrations of getting lost, unsuccessful multitasking, and angry delegations began.  After a week together and a long day on the road, we were stressed, harried, hungry and frazzled.  Yet, somehow, this was one of the things I missed most. This would be my last trip in New Zealand and I was so glad I could do it with my family.

It is a funny time in every kid’s life when he starts to reach an age of equilibrium with his parents – when he is telling his dad to slow down or mind the curb.  When mom’s asking “are we there yet,” and when he prepares the sandwiches, checks the weather, and plans the day.  I guess over time some things change, but so many more stay the same.  For me, home long ago ceased to be a place.  It’s a feeling brought by the people who made it.  It was so nice to be at home again on the road with my parents.

***Stay tuned as MarkontheMap leaves New Zealand and heads to Southeast Asia***