The Mad Mile
Motueka was first, a night's stop and up to Marahau to catch the water taxi, a deceptively fast boat which scythed through the waves and bombed and slammed along the surface of the water.
"Right,", said the driver after 15 minutes of spine-jarring, stomach-churning, slam-bangs into the water, "this stretch of water coming up is called The Mad Mile. It gets a bit choppy now". Great.
After being dumped as close as possible to the beach, and having leapt from the stern on to the sand (one woman, about to embark on a 6 hour walk, mistimed her jump and landed knee deep in the sea), we followed the Abel Tasman track for two hours from beach to beach, before having to reverse the process and, this time, wade out to the boat, floating nearby and trying desperatelty not to get stuck on the sand.
Climb Every MountainAfter another session in the water taxi, divebombing into the sea from what seemed an ever-increasing height, we were dragged to the shore by a 1920's tractor, and piled into the car ready for Takaka.
I had already mentally prepared for journey, as when I'd booked the hostel a few days previously the (Scottish) hostel manager had warned "Go steady on that hill, won't you?".
And, yes, Takaka Hill was steep. It's at times like this you wonder whether Chris Bonnington lives local and runs a taxi firm. Wishful thinking, maybe.
Tight turn after tight turn and identical hairpin after identical hairpin, I had an overwhelming sense of climbing higher and higher towards something significant. I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if the International Space Station had drifted past.
Now, as I reached the peak, the clouds were in, and soon I wasn't so much under the weather, as in it, and then above it. Solitary outhouses loomed out the mist, and road snaked away into wispy nothing.
1st gear, 2nd gear, 1st gear, 2nd gear, by now my arms and legs were getting tired: Accelerate and change up along the straight; brake and change down at the 15kph corner; full lock then accelerate away. Repeat the cycle every 30 seconds.
Suddenly the front of the car was pointing downwards; this was the descent. After another 5 minutes of vertiginous, downwards spiralling, I had reached the "other side". After the dingy ascent through crescent after crescent of hazy mist and grey drizzle, I had broken through, and there in front of me lay the greenest valley, speared by lattices of sunlight.
Spurred on by the sight, I continued to steer the car round the bends, diagonal double-back after diagonal double-back, filled an overwhelming sense of "coming into land", as I spied the main road through the base of the valley.
An amazing sight, but behind me the steady procession of drivers locked in concentration, prevented me from stopping to take a photo. And Louise was fast asleep through of this.
After a 3 week run of great hostels, right from homeliest of homestays in Te Anau to the semi -hotel in Nelson, we were beginning to think that maybe the South Island knew nothing of the cramped room, the dodgy bed linen, the all-night raver, the apathetic hostel manager.
Ha. That changed when we arrived in Takaka. I found the hostel owner at the back, splayed out on a plastic chair, wearing a battered straw hat and smoking a fag and looking for all the world like she was on a sun-lounger in Benidorm.
She ushered me to the double room, and the moment the door swung open, I was just filled with a deflating sense of disappointment. The "room" was essentially a conservatory nailed on the front of the house, comprising 90% window (even goldfish have more privacy) and double bed wedged so tightly between the walls that to climb into bed you had to stand at the foot and scabbled on to it.
I can imagine the conversation that spawned that room: "I reckon I can get a double bed in there" says the first "You're joking. It's a conservatory, we're supposed to put whicker chairs and fit it out with Kerry Burgundy Tiles" says the second "Nope, I reckon I can do it...watch this" says the second, and then spends the afternoon taking all the paint off the room trying to shoehorn the bed in.
An early night wasn't the answer either: the staff decided to have a rave up with some French people until 3 in the morning. Brilliant.
Nelson -Blenheim -Kaikoura - Hanmer
We bolted from Takaka the next day, back over the mountain and back to Accents where we were guaranteed of a decent room. We picked up Louise's fixed lens from Peter and went out to celebrate our 1 year anniversary at a fish restaurant, The Boat Shed Cafe, located on its very own pier.
The next few days were all too brief. First, a short hop to Blenheim, permanently stuck in 1981 with its Tamworth-esque town planning, where I acted as taxi driver, ferrying Louise from tasting to tasting, before heading off to Kaikoura for the night.
Kaikoura was stunning. It's certainly the only place where I've ever seen snow-capped mountains fall into the sea. But, yet again, considering our previous whale watching trip in Sydney and with time running out on the hirecar, Christchurch was calling.
Another stop at Hanmer Springs for a full body massage (no happy finish, thank god), and we were heading back to where it all started at Christchurch.
Soon our South Island adventure would be over. We needed a plan