Wind and Steam Mount Cook to Middlemarch

Barry is not, shall we say, a triumph of aerodynamic engineering. On the road it’s sometimes like trying to steer a washing machine through a wind tunnel. We paid extra for insurance to cover rolling over, after we were told that someone’s camper was recently toppled by the wind while parked. Last night we were grateful for this when Barry was buffeted all through the night.

The wind really started only when we went to bed, in our top bunk above the driving seats. As the gusts increased and the suspension flexed we could do little but cling on to the bed sheets and hope for calmer seas. After a couple of hours of this we unfolded the bottom bunk and moved there, in the hope that lowering our centre of gravity would help; no joy.

After a long night of turbulence and very little sleep we opened the curtains to more rain, heavy to the point that we drove the 20 metres to the campsite loos. (It’s great being able to drive your house around!) As we descended the mountain the rain cleared, the rainbows came and again we were presented with the wide sweeping views of mountains, lakes and meadows in between for which we’re running out of adjectives. Not all of the views are of stunning alpine mountain ranges – there’s a lot of pretty English countryside in evidence too. Sheep everywhere on rolling hills, that kind of thing.

We stopped briefly in Twizel to do some pirouettes while feeding the coffee monster. Other than the name it’s a totally unremarkable town. Apparently there’s a Twizel in the UK too, 18,634km away!

Oamaru is a Victorian-era town on the coast with big wide streets and buildings that should be in a museum. The town seems to have embraced Steampunk, and there’s a museum dedicated to it. The train engine at the front door sits at a jaunty angle and roars and blows fire from the chimney when you give it $2. The place is run by an oddball guy who looks like a Hell’s Angel, who told us about it with the most extreme level of conversational awkwardness. Weird persistent eye contact, long pauses, expletive laden assertions of just how crazy this place is. The Lonely Planet tells us that Steampunk is about “tomorrow as it used to be”, so we see old steam engines with rockets attached, dentist chairs next to huge electronic control boards covered in switches, old CRT screens everywhere showing static, big machines full of gears doing… well, not a great deal.

The dude in charge told us with great excitement about a new organ they’d installed, which plays different samples on different notes. Some are mechanical sort of noises, some are from recordings of radio transmissions to spacecraft, some totally unidentifiable. The five notes from A Close Encounter make an appearance. Altogether, it’s not completely clear what the point is, and that seems to be the point. It somehow fits with the town, as a sort of neo-Victorian thing. Still, totally bonkers.

The highlight was not at all like the rest of place; a room about the size of the interior of our camper van with the walls, floor and ceiling covered completely in mirrors, and lights hanging on strings from the ceiling. As the patterns of lights changed along to ethereal music they seem to stretch out to infinity in front of you. Cool effect.

On to Middlemarch, another tiny town serving a single purpose, this time as the entry point to the Central Otago Rail Trail, a bike path along an old train route not dissimilar to the Camel Trail that we did on holidays in Cornwall as a kid. We planned to cycle the first part of it for a few hours, after stopping for the night at an actual holiday park. We’d gone three nights without external power at the basic Department of Conservation parks, and after being so cold in Mount Cook we were looking forward to plugging in the little fan heater. Naturally, we turned up at the park to find a note taped to the office window – “closed until further notice”. For a ‘town’ at the start of a big tourist draw, there are surprisingly few places to camp, and the nearest option was 60km away on the coast, at tomorrow’s destination of Dunedin. Jo sweet-talked the owner of the town pub into letting us park in their car park overnight, so a warming fan was replaced by a pint, a game of pool and a we-can’t-be-bothered dinner of bacon and eggs. Perhaps a fair trade, in the end!