Tobogganing down icy slopes, drinking hot chocolate by the fire, and frolicking in the snow... These are the typical activities which usually occupy my December 17th birthday.
This year however, I celebrated my birthday by swimming in the ocean, eating ice cream in the sun, and frolicking in the sand. Not to mention applying SUNSCREEN!
You guys, one of the first things I did when waking up on my birthday was apply sunscreen!
After somewhat careful deliberation involving an extended Facebook post and several recommendations from fellow backpackers, I chose to spend my birthday in the small town Akaroa, located in the Banks Peninsula, on the East Coast of New Zealand.
Akaroa is a small resort town, which housed a French settlement in the 1800's. Many French influences can still be observed in the area today.
Besides the obvious French flair, Akaroa stuns with gorgeous flowers, rolling green hills, turquoise water, and loads of colour and character.
According to my fellow backpackers, Akaroa had everything I wanted for my first snowless birthday: beaches, beautiful scenery, and a laid back atmosphere.
It did not disappoint.
With views like this, how could it?
As I mentioned before, the day began with sunscreen and a lot of it. It was hot! Not one cloud made an appearance to wish me happy birthday, and truthfully, I can't say that I minded much.
After a rigorous sunscreen application, Uschi and I headed to the beach to find the perfect spot for our much anticipated picnic brunch.
We splurged the day before and bought an assortment of delicious goodies for our picnic: avocados, brie, fresh tomatoes, basil pesto spread, olive oil, balsamic, white chocolate, a baguette and more!
On top of all that, Uschi surprised me with a mini bottle of champagne and homemade veggie curry spread!
Veggie curry spread is exactly what it sounds like, a vegetarian spread with a delicious curry flavour. I was introduced to it in Belgium, and while there I ate it almost daily. It's definitely one of the things I miss most about the country. I still dream about it at night sometimes...
Uschi looked into getting it shipped from Belgium but after discovering that it would cost over a hundred dollars, she opted to make her own. And thank goodness she did, because it was AMAZING!
After brunch, we took some time to stroll around the town, checking out the shops and enjoying the sights.
Unsurprisingly we ended up at the local library.
I truly am my mother's daughter.
All of our wandering eventually led us down to end of the pier, where the turquoise colour of the water beckoned.
"Should we jump in?" Asked Uschi.
"Uhm...Uh...Yes? No? Uh...I don't know?" I replied eloquently, while simultaneously looking around, counting how many people would witness our act.
I'll spare you a few painful minutes: we jumped.
A lovely lady from Christchurch snapped this slightly crooked, but still cute, photo of us to commemorate the occasion.
With all that spontaneous decision making we had worked up quite an appetite, so we made the responsible and healthy (I am 27 after all) decision to go for ice cream.
Because come on, what birthday is complete without ice cream?
As we walked back to the van I could already feel the warm sand between my toes, thoughts of sprawling out in the sun with my book the only thing on my mind.
"What an absolutely perfect day," I said to Uschi.
Famous last words.
While collecting our towels and beach things from the van, a strained expression suddenly crossed Uschi's face.
"Where's my wallet?"
"No." I shook my head willing it not to be true. "Are you kidding me? No. Absolutely not."
Uschi, my amazing and most wonderful girlfriend, has many skills and talents. Unfortunately keeping track of items such as her wallet is not one of them.
We searched the van. We retraced our steps through town. We asked in restaurants and shops. But alas, her wallet was nowhere to be seen.
Several people suggested that we check the police station, but I found it very hard to believe that someone would have found her wallet near the pier, and made the trip all the way across town to return it.
Nevertheless, with no other options as she had been carrying both of our bank cards, we made the trip through town, hot, tired, and slightly frustrated.
We arrived at the tiny station only to discover that nobody was there.
After knocking for what seemed like forever a friendly looking policeman turned up and let us in. We told him we were looking for a missing wallet, and praise the birthday gods HE HAD IT!
Some supremely kind and generous soul had found it and turned it in. The policeman had even sent Uschi a message on Facebook in an attempt to contact her!
Faith in humanity restored we skipped back to the beach where we proceeded to spend the afternoon swimming in the bay and reading on the beach.
When we had had our fill of sun and surf we drove the short ways back to the camp spot to clean up and get ready for dinner.
There is only one freedom camp spot in Akaroa - a small parking lot near a boat launch with 18 parking spaces available for campervans. The site fills up fast, and we had been lucky enough to snag a spot the night before.
Unfortunately for us, thanks to our lovely afternoon in the sun we had completely lost track of time, so by the time we arrived at the camp spot it was full.
Kicking ourselves for our stupidity, we decided to drive around the rural roads outside of town in search of a spot to spend the night. Our only alternative was driving 45 minutes through the windy hillside roads back to Christchurch. And we really didn't want to do that.
The roads around the Banks Peninsula are very windy, steep, and narrow, and as we searched for a camp spot we found ourselves on a gravel four wheel drive track that was all of the above.
"We shouldn't be driving here," I said to Uschi nervously.
"You're probably right, I'll turn around."
Uschi turned the wheel and began backing the van up in an attempt to turn around, but like I mentioned before, the roads are both steep and narrow, and we were currently positioned at a bend in the road.
As Uschi turned, she misjudged how close we were to the ditch (remember that we are driving in a large utility style van that can be very hard to navigate), and the back passenger side of the van veered into the ditch. The van swayed questioningly.
On the driver's side of the road was a steep hill descending to the town below, and on the passenger's side was a hard dirt hillside wall covered in thick vegetation.
Uschi gave the van more gas in an attempt to back out of the ditch, but ended up getting the passenger side door wedged right up against the dirt wall, while getting the back passenger side stuck against a sign post.
It soon became apparent that we were completely, totally, undeniably stuck.
I climbed over the stick shift and out the driver's side door to examine the damage.
I wish I had taken a photo in the moment to share with you guys the results of our foolishness, but I'm sorry to say that we were far too distraught to think of pictures.
Stuck in a deep ditch on a steep gravel hill in the middle of nowhere with no minutes on our phone and daylight fading fast, it's safe to say things weren't looking good. Plus I was huungrrrryyyy.
Fortunately a short ways down the hill was a holiday park for campers, so we wandered in looking for help. Although nobody from the park would come and help us for liability reasons, they did allow us to use their phone to call the local garage.
30 minutes and fifty dollars later we were free!
Tired, hungry, and a tiny bit dejected we decided to head back to town for a quick dinner of fish (for me) and chips by the pier before making the drive back to Christchurch.
But because it's us, and because it's New Zealand, it was impossible to stay upset for long. The views on the drive were STUNNING and quickly distracted us from our troubles.
As we cruised through the hills with the fading sun painting pretty colours in the sky we realized that Christchurch doesn't offer much in the way of free camp spots either. Oops... This realization resulted in us staying about 40 minutes away from the city in a quiet place called Diamond Harbour.
We arrived at the spot SO ready to pop the cork on our bottle of wine. After quickly setting up our camp chairs and whipping out the cards, we settled in for a relaxing night of games and vino.
Soon after arriving we ended up making friends with a very kind hearted local who joined us later in the evening for some refreshments and conversation.
The night ended with me and Uschi laying side by side in the grass enjoying the stars.
Sidenote: it's very weird to look up at the night sky and not be able to see the big dipper.
It was a quiet, peaceful end to an incredible day. The day wasn't perfect, but as I am constantly in the process of learning, nothing ever is, and as far as I'm concerned it was pretty damn close.
I wouldn't change a single thing.
(although, as it turns out, I did miss the snow. honest!)
The following day, we arrived at our Couchsurfing host's house in Christchurch and quickly settled in. In addition to us, there is also a couple from Chile, and a solo female backpacker from the USA staying here. Everyone is working on their van.
The place is small and slightly crowded - we sleep on a mat on the living room floor - but everybody is ridiculously nice. The first evening we stayed they even baked me a birthday cake and sang me happy birthday!
We have now begun preparations to do work on our van, and I will post about our progress soon.
Wish us luck!
(we're going to need it...)