Day 51 Oamaru
A day where we don't have anything particular to do or anywhere to get is refreshing. Plus it saves us from the inevitable backseat driving free-for-all which happens when we're behind the wheel for long distances. We trot into town early morning, for a less penguin-focused exploration. We have a look at the harbourside with its grand Wharf buildings and buy a pastry-based breakfast in a bakery near the sea, to sit by the water chomping through. There are some quaint shops here with good souvenirs to be had if you can make peace with a pricing structure I describe ("repeatedly" apparently) as 'ambitious'. The architecture is predominantly Victorian on this side of the tracks which has been styled to the point that it feels like you're treading the cobbles in Dickensian London.
That is aside from the various steel sculptural weirdness planted sporadically through town. There is a thriving art community here which has complemented the Steampunk revival.
We pay a handful of change each to get into the Steampunk Museum, a bizarre collection of oddities housed in a Giger-esque warehouse. The grizzled proprietor says "there's a room out back with a light above the door to tell you if it's occupied. If it ain't, go in, push the button on the wall and let your mind be blown. You'll need to go in there about ten times to get over it properly." It's all well worth a look actually, if only for the skills involved in welding a steel gorilla to what looks like an old Morris Minor.
After a diverting half hour spent walking around buses converted for the apocalypse and an organ unlike any you're likely to see in a cathedral, we continue our probe through town. Oamaru is a pretty little place, handsomely Art Deco and Victorian-warehouse which appeals to both of us, but it doesn't take long to see.
We head back to the flat for early afternoon, and drive up to nearby Riverstone for a late lunch. Here, we have an excellently decadent meal in a lovely spot, with more enterprisingly-priced souvenirs on one side and a bloody great castle on the other. A passion project of the owner apparently. Our last proper meal was the Big Mac which was the justification for this one; loin of venison, affront of mushrooms, disgrace of caramel and all.
There's a bar called Fat Sally's back in town which we had aimed on stopping in on, since anyone who named it thus was likely to have put their relationship troubles behind them (see Dunedin). However, true to Oamaru's current form on opening hours, it is closed.
So instead, resignedly, we head back up to our flat, and wash the hire car ready for our adieu tomorrow. It's picked up so much detritus from 3 weeks of unsealed roads and camping in quagmires that it is starting to look more like an end-of-life-tractor. Invariably, some wag drives past and asks if we'll do theirs as well. Like social media monologues and sandflies, some things just follow you around the world.
So we settle in to an evening of packing, Apple Wine and Only Fools & Horses, as darkness falls and the penguins start their nightly traipsing up the beaches.
Day 52 drive to Christchurch
On account of a no-wiggle-room drop-off time from Enterprise, we are on the road by 8am for the 3 hour slog back to Christchurch. And because it is the 23rd December the whole journey is car radio Christmas songs. I know the UK also has a fondness for Stay Another Day, but we hear it once an hour and after 3 hours of highway 1, by the time Christchurch airport rolls into view I don't think I can take the pain.
We dump the car reluctantly at the airport and saddle up with the disc-slipping rucksacks again. And no Great Walk ration packs either, these are the fullest they've been. I wish we hadn't bought so much tat.
We get a bus to the apartment we have for a night this evening, before our Christmas on the beach. On the bus, we meet an Australian woman (desperately tracing the roads on her phone to make sure she got on the right one. We chat, because we're doing the same) who's just spent three months in Antarctica. She is, we deduce, a health and safety inspector for their stations ("That ice is a trip hazard"). We're enraptured as she talks about the place: Scott and Shackleton's huts left as found, food out on plates and all. I ask if she saw the Aurora and she points out that she hasn't seen the night sky for about a month, it being the month of the midnight sun. We wish her a Happy Christmas (she's surprising the family back in Tasmania who weren't expecting her back) and hop off, somewhere in the middle of town. It's a nuts and bolts room tonight, somewhere close to the amenities and cheap. It's clean and bright though, and we dump the bags and walk out.
Our first stop is to do some last minute Christmas shopping (as far as I'm concerned, the only kind) so we have food for the next few days. An hour or so in a nearby supermarket furnishes us with a pile of consumables the NHS could use as a case study to showcase the alarming rise in diabetes. We pile it all into our minute fridge like clowns getting into a mini, and head back out.
Christchurch is still on the recovery from the 2011 earthquake, which is hauntingly clear from the entire street blocks which have been razed that we pass. We stop in the Transitional Cathedral, the remarkable 'cardboard' structure erected while the council works out just what to do with the original building. We stand and watch a choir sing carols from the back, moved.
The original was nearly shaken from its foundations by the earthquake and now stands nearby, spireless and propped up by steel. The centre of the town seems to have become a memorial in itself. We walk past the 185 white chairs laid out where a church once stood, remembering the 185 victims. The city is clean and agreeable to walk around but it feels emptied out. It is 2 days before Christmas, perhaps this is why. We end up in a place called 'Smash Bar' which was, evidently, knocked down during the quake. It sits opposite a collection of repurposed shipping containers which now act as pop-up office blocks. It's admirably enterprising.
We each smash a burger (falafel for me, mindful of the ensuing days' meat extravagance, Ruth shows no such concern and opts for the Beast Feast which has a whole farmyard crammed in between two buns), and have a beer during quite a lovely sunset. There is a bit of a buzz about town now, and not willing to knock the night on the head yet, we walk to Pomeroy's (allegedly) British bar for a little taste of home.
Admittedly, I suppose, I do pay £6.50 for an IPA which presents that familiar sense of being shafted that I often feel in a London pub. But it's red bricked, someone mentions Brexit, and there are about 18 Christmas Parties going on, which is a feast for Ruth and her Body Language powers ("He's just asked for a pay-rise and didn't get it" and "Those two have had sex before. Now there's just regret"). We enjoy a few drinks amidst the crowd, before wandering back through the quiet streets of Christchurch.
Days 53 - 55 Christmas
A lovely Christmas is spent in a B&B on a beach in northern Christchurch. It is windy and the sea is as grey as the sky, but barbecuing a chicken outside on Christmas day and opening cards and crackers sent over the oceans by family and friends is an absolute treat. Our previously unknown hosts treat us like old friends, we eat like kings, and even manage to watch Star Wars at a local cinema. One of us, perhaps one glass of prosecco too heavy, trips over her own feet and quite possibly breaks her toe.
All in all, a terrific few days on the other side of the world with all the video-phone technology available to, briefly, make it seem like we're back in the living rooms of parents, 12 hours behind, 19,000 miles away.