We pulled up short of Christchurch in hopes of finding a free camping spot for the night. It is good to know that when you have big hopes for something that they can be realized. It is also good to know that when you have little hopes for something that they can be exceded. We just wanted a place to park, eat, and sleep. Instead we had a really, really wonderful night. Really.
Mandy has become expert at studying the roadmap and speculating on possible locations for free-sleeps. (I think we've explained a bit of the strategy). This time she did very well and directed the driver (well handsome) down some long roads to Waihi Gorge. The area was a DOC reserve and campsite, but at this time of year it was completely abandoned. Of the many possible sites we pulled the van down a small road and pulled up parallel to the Waihi River so the sliding door could open up to an old fire pit someone had left and a pebble toss to the riverbed itself. You could tell that the snowmelt would feed a fierce current through the gorge, but again, the time of year has mellowed the river's pace and she passes swiftly but shallowly below. (I think I'm screwing up my tenses, but please ignore)
A prime spot and we take the last of the day light to scavenge for firewood in hopes of utilizing the pit provided. Not much to choose from, however, and what we find is wet at best. We call it damp, though, and build a little teepee. Our true treat happens just as the sun finally dips behind the valley walls. From upriver and over a crest come the sheep. Hundreds and hundred of them.
The reserve is all open pasture land and these guys, for whatever reason, think the grass is good where we are. Now, we've seen a lot of sheep down here, but these guys are a)many and b)unaware that we are there. They walk towards us as though they aren't the least concern. Anyone who has spent any time around sheep will tell you that they are ultra timid and, to be kind, a bit dumb. Perhaps it is the light, or maybe we are downwind, but they just come tramping in like they haven't a care in the world. And as the fog settled in among them with the sun just setting and the Waihi River scuttling by it made for a pretty awesome moment. And then they saw us...
It wasn't like we could enjoy this (camera-touting snapaholics that we are) without trying to get a few gems. So Mandy and I spread out, like hunters no doubt, to get the best shots before it was too late. It was too late pretty quick as they caught sight of us, but not before Mandy got a few great candids depicting sheep-surprise. On to us, but not so scarred to give up good grazing they put a safe distance between us and them and carried on. Loyal, I guess, they were still there in the morning when we woke.
Packing up was good and we were back on the road to Christchurch, the South Island's largest city, by mid-morning. Our main goal in Christchurch was to check out the possibility of selling our van there and perhaps doing a little (very little) sightseeing. We managed to do a little of the latter, and although we found out that we definitely didn't want to sell our van there due to ad prospects, our investigation led us to meet a very nice woman who told us a very horrific tale.
We have met on our travels a handful of people who were indirectly effected by the tragedy of the December 26th Tsunami. Some people had been there but left just before Christmas. Others had friends they had met who were still there or been there when it hit. Bit in the Christchurch Carmarket we met Marieed, from Ireland, who was in Sri Lanka when the wave hit and eating breakfast when it shredded the dining room.
It would not be fair to her(or her story) for me to try and retell or retype it here, but it sent chills down our spines to hear it firsthand. Having been traveling since that event we have never seen the film footage of the tsunami or had the opportunity to follow the stories and horror as they came across the headlines of newspapers and filled the nightly news. Fortunately, both she and her boyfriend escaped unharmed, but even she would admit that the things that she saw that day will haunt her for many years to come and, most likely, her entire life. There is hardly anything we could say in response to her detailed account of what happened. We spoke with her at some length in the dinge of a converted parking garage, asking questions, talking about India, telling her about ourselves, and it was a strange forty-five minutes of time to spend in the company of someone so willing to offer up her most terrible experience. She was very sweet and it would be important to relate that the story evolved from my questions and not from her need to let us know that she had 'been there when it happened.' When I asked, though, the story flowed in a smooth current and it was as vivid as chaos and death can be.
When we said our goodbyes to her, a quickly made friend who we'll probably never see again, and walked back out to the street Mandy and I were dazed. We experienced this catastrophe of unspeakable proportions in a flourescent lighted garage on a deadend street in a big city of a developed nation. That is one big wave.