The day started off better than the one before: the rain had finally stopped and the summer sun was shining. If only yesterday had been like that! We stopped at an overlook and got a great view of Kaikoura and the narrow peninsula.
Apart from the journey down the North Island, today was to be our longest drive with Oamaru, 6 hours away, as our stop on the way to Dunedin. While this itinerary meant not staying in Christchurch, we intended to spend little time in one of New Zealand’s largest cities. We’d heard from locals that there wasn’t much in Christchurch, especially after the earthquake when lots of people moved away, but we wanted to stop and quickly see the interesting bits such as the mall made out of shipping containers. Oamaru was of more interest to us: colonies of both little blue and yellow-eyed penguins nested around the town, so our goal was to arrive by the evening to catch them as they returned from a day at sea. The yellow-eyed penguins, which we hadn’t seen before, come out in the late afternoon and the little blues come out in the early evening, making it possible to see both groups in one night. Though it would be a long day, we looked forward to the reward of watching penguins waddle up a beach into their nests.
Sadly, we got to experience none of this. After the overlook, we started heading south towards Christchurch. The road passed through a slightly mountainous area, and as I was driving up a hill we heard a bump from our car, Godzilla. Now, Godzilla had never been great at accelerating up hills but I soon realized that it would not accelerate at all, even pressing the pedal to the floor. Concerned, I pulled over and let M (more of a car person than me, but not by much), take over. As he pulled away, there was a terrible grinding noise from the car and we pulled over again next to a deserted field.
Being responsible car owners, we had AA so we called the number handily printed on the car window sticker. After a few minutes explaining what had happened and where we were, they told us that a tow would be there within the hour. We sat and waited as patiently as we could, and I did some bird-watching of the field.
The tow finally arrived, turning out to be a guy in a red pickup truck with a trailer. He explained that he was out in the country visiting people for Christmas when they got our call, so he came out to help. We helped him load poor Godzilla onto the trailer and he drove us to the Parnassus Roadhouse, a small gas station/convenience store/mechanic’s shop in the middle of nowhere. We sat inside at a small table while the towing guy went to the back to help the mechanic with the car. Already our day was slipping by, but at this point we were far more worried about what sort of catastrophic (expensive) thing caused Godzilla to literally grind to a halt.
Not too long after, the mechanic and the towing guy came back in. The towing guy said, “Well …” as visions of destroyed gearboxes danced in our heads … but then the mechanic waved a bone-dry dipstick at us. “You had no transmission fluid, none at all!” M had checked the regular oil levels before our trip, but the transmission fluid was a bit more hidden and he, used to manual cars, hadn’t learned to check it. The mechanic said that he would fill it up and hope that would solve the problem. We watched him start the car up and head off for a quick test run around the area. He came back and said the car was running fine, but he wanted to check some more things. We were just thankful that the car was running again!
The mechanic seemed to be taking his time with checking over the car, and eventually he and the towing guy came back in to say that the check engine light had come on and that “Uncle Google” hadn’t succeeded in telling them where to plug in the diagnostic tool to turn it off. They told us that the car was otherwise running, but to stop in at a shop in Christchurch to get it looked at. Before we set off, though, they called the place in Christchurch to let them know we were coming, and the people there told the Parnassus guys how to turn off the light. Finally, car repaired and thank yous said, we were underway.
Unfortunately, before we got to Christchurch, the check engine light came back on. Worried about this development, we called the Parnassus guys to get the name of their Christchurch shop. We reached the place around 3 p.m. and were directed to a waiting room. Of course, this being December 23rd, the shop was having its annual secret Santa party and so we had to read trashy magazines while waiting. At this point, we were frazzled by all the problems and disappointed that we wouldn’t reach Oamaru in time for the penguins (if we could even reach it at all). Finally the mechanic came back and said that nothing obvious was wrong and that while the light may come on again, the car was sound enough to continue the journey. He gave us some additional transmission fluid and a cloth to use while checking it, and sent us on our way.
Exhausted and hungry, we finally arrived in Oamaru. We checked into the hostel, then headed back into town. Before finding dinner, we stopped by the wharf to try to see the little blue penguins. It turned out that the main penguin area had been blocked off and ticketed, so the only way of seeing the majority of penguins was to pay, which we were not in the mood to do. We did see a few stragglers wander up and nestle into the rocks next to the boat launch. Not quite a penguin parade, but we were happy enough!
Sadly, by this time the only place open in Oamaru was a Domino’s. The Domino’s here try to be somewhat fancy, with a multitude of exotic toppings, when all I wanted was a good, American-style, greasy pepperoni pizza. Instead, we got tiny pepperonis and what I call the NZ-style “dry” pizza, with little sauce and no grease. Along with the lingering car worries, this sad meal just topped off the first three grueling, wet and disappointing days of our vacation.