The Battle of Bruce Bay

The Battle of Bruce Bay


Read any Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand and it’ll tell you the best way to visit the country is to drive. Given that there are no trains, limited buses and that most of us do not fly our own personal helicopters (or want to hitchhike with a bike in tow), I reckoned that was a pretty good assumption. So we drove.

The Smiths waved us goodbye on Monday morning; we had until Wednesday to get to Wanaka where my race would be and had chosen a route over Arthur’s pass, down the West Coast and back inland to reach it.

It pissed with rain for most of the first day. We discovered very quickly that the named circles on my map did not always mean “town”. More often than not there was a cluster of farm houses – or on a few occasions one measly hut – which left us squinting into back view mirrors thinking was that it?!


Driving over Arthur’s Pass in the rain – searching for pots of gold


We got lucky the first night, chancing on a little lakeside village called Moana which boasted not only about fifty houses but also a mini fishing port, two pubs and a car park by the water with public toilet facilities. It was awesome, especially when the rain gaves us a break and let the sun through the clouds for a minute!


First night on Lake Moana


We spent the next morning on the road, hitting the coast in the early afternoon and stopping for a trail run through surprisingly tropical forest down to a no less picturesque beach. We got back to the car laughing, our SD cards laden with cool photos.


Trail running with supposed glaciers in the background


Running along the beach near Okarito Lagoon


Without being aware of it at the time, it was there that we got out first warning. I just thought it was normal that our sweaty skins should attract flies, and didn’t think much of swatting them away. Guilhem was a little more concerned and jittery but I didn’t really pay attention. In true backpacker fashion we paid a dollar for hot water at the nearby campsite; the pesky little flies followed. By the time we were done my manly boyfriend was doing cute two-legged jumps and graceful sidesteps every thirty seconds. I raised my eyebrows. He showed me his hands.

“I must smell nice, insects love me”, he explained. “It’s just I have pretty bad allergic reactions to most of them.”

That much was obvious. I dug out a tube of antihistamine cream from my bag and handed it over. It seemed to calm him down as much as it did the angry bites on his skin, so we got back in the car and headed South towards the mountains. I didn’t think anymore of it. Silly, silly me.
We should have expected it as they were listed in Lonely Planet, but the funnily named “towns” of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier were heaving; it was campervan central with many companies – including lime green Jucy vehicles – seeming to compete for the most ridiculous-looking vehicle prize.
The clouds were once again low and rain threatening, so we unfortunately got no views whatsoever of the famous glaciers. Evening was drawing in; we had originally planned on spending the night in the area but lining up on the kerb in camper queue was not a particularly tempting option. By almost unspoken agreement we left the hordes of tourists behind and headed South along the coast in search of a quieter place to spend the night.


Without getting too poetic, it wasn’t a hardship to drive along and appreciate the view. The lowering evening sun spread a warm yellow light over the land. The lack of radio meant the choice of music was mine, so Bruce Springsteen was rocking from my phone. When we drove past a sign indicating “Bruce Bay, 8km”, it seemed like someone had things all organised for us.

We turned a corner and there was the bay. The view was literally breath-taking. No wonder a sign claimed it to be one of New Zealand’s best-loved beaches. We backed the van onto the verge as I grabbed my phone and jumped out, desperate to grab a couple of sunset photos before it was too late.


Bruce Bay at sunset


I turned to see Guilhem slapping at his wrists as he reluctantly followed me across the beach.
“Come on!” I urged. “Look at the view!” Jeez man, it’s only a few mosquitoes. Can you stop being a ninny for a second and appreciate our location??!

I balanced on a log over a stream, swivelling to snap a few pictures and narrowly missing taking a dive in the process. It truly was a beautiful beach. I could already see myself splashing around in the sea like a mermaid at sunrise…


The innocence of Bruce Bay


“Emma, this isn’t funny.”


My girly reverie rudely interrupted, I huffed out an impatient breath and did the inward eye roll as I looked over my shoulder. A threatening black cloud of flies was hovering around Guilhem’s ears. The charm of the beach was totally lost on him as he danced backwards in a very good imitation of Shakira, arms wind-milling to keep the flies at bay. He obviously smelled a lot sweeter than I did after our campsite shower; even from where I was standing I could see the rapidly-rising, ugly red welts on his hands and legs and could sense the growing panic emanating from him as the aggressive buggers found their way onto exposed skin despite the belly shaking. OK, so maybe I was being a bit tough on the poor guy. And I had abandoned him at the airport so had points to make up. Then I felt a nip on my own calf. And another. I bent down to slap my ankle and dislodged two black dots on my hand in the process. Instinctively I spun in a circle and threw my arms around my head. They were at me!


Time for plan B.


We turned our backs on the beach and made a beeline for camp. Needless to say we were followed, and greeted on arrival. They were everywhere!
Transforming the van from road runner to five star (possible slight exaggeration) would soon become well-oiled, practised teamwork and take only minutes but this was only our second attempt and one of us at least didn’t have all their wits about them. We were going to have to rely on adrenalin.

I hit the unlock button and the race was on. The tension was palpable. Wheels were dragged unceremoniously off bikes, frames were upturned and shoved onto front seats, benches were flipped down and bags and belongings were stuffed into every possible nook and cranny. Communication was strictly limited to a couple of odd socks (not mine!) and empty water bottles (possibly mine…) tossed through the air and the occasional rude word as a fly hit its target.
There was most certainly some chain oil smeared where it shouldn’t have been in our haste but the van wasn’t due back for another ten days and we had another priority: seal off our accommodation before we got eaten alive!

I’ve got to say, we were pretty good. We had kicked off our shoes, hopped onto our makeshift bed and slammed the doors in under ten minutes; it was still half-light outside and we even had a pretty good view of Bruce Bay. High five! Heart rates lowered slowly and we grinned at each other… but my smile slowly faded as I followed Guilhem’s gaze. Our eyes travelled round the van as realisation dawned.

We had been invaded. It had taken us 8 minutes, give or take. In that time, every single window had been covered by hundreds of sandflies – ON THE INSIDE. Those that weren’t admiring the view from the comfort of our home were hell bent on having dinner, and they weren’t interested in our rice cakes and peanut butter. We had cleverly locked ourselves into a 3m2 container – where doing a Shakira belly-shake was going to be a considerable challenge – with several hundred other occupants. We had two choices. Battle Plan A: we could run, and take on the thousands of others waiting outside. Or Battle Plan B: we could stay, and fight.
(In fact, we had no choice whatsoever. If we went for A, we were going to sleep on the beach, and face B in the morning.)


The battle was on.

(Please note there are no more photos…)


Weapons of choice were fingers, palms and wads of kitchen roll on one side, and tiny, venomous teeth on the other. It was two against hundreds.
We had the advantage of size, but when you’re bent double in a small space (and one of you is two metres tall), rapid movement becomes somewhat challenging.
We had the advantage of brains, yet in our current state of panic all strategy was forgotten.
We had the advantage of man-made weapons on a nuclear scale, yet we clearly lacked training in the art of mass destruction. A skill which was apparently inbred in our opponents.

We batted, we swatted, we crushed and we flattened. We dodged (mainly each other) and slapped and squashed. After ten-minutes, breathing as if we’d just run a marathon, we paused and assessed the battle ground. The number of our rivals had decreased. Marginally.

We were clearly losing.

“I can’t stay here.”

It was tinged with terror, and final. I can understand that when you have such an uncomfortable allergic reaction to insect bites you can’t help the fear turning into minor phobia. I wasn’t too comfortable myself. Bruce Bay would not be our camp that night. We also needed Battle Plan C to get us out of this mess.
Without opening any of the doors and looking like we were playing a complex game of Twister, we moved the bikes from the front to the back, and ourselves from the back to the front.


Not bothering to bid the beach goodbye we hit the road in the dark, Guilhem behind the wheel. Plan C was implemented: windows were opened at the last minute in the hope that the rush of air would blow the remaining guys in the back trenches out. I sat, seatbelt off and a wad of paper in hand, ready to jump up and exterminate the last of the enemy crawling across the windscreen. The smell of death must have been overpowering yet it was incredible how many were still brave enough to attempt the crossing.
We sped through fields in the pitch black, eyes peeled for somewhere to stop and inevitably hesitating just long enough each time for the lay by to be left behind. I balanced on my knees on the seat, hoping that there would be no sharp cornering or slamming of brakes, shouting triumphantly when I smeared more than one fly at a time across the glass. I regularly had to stand up and reach over the steering wheel, blocking out my driver’s line of sight and hitting the wind wiper lever at the same time. It was certainly not our safest journey.


The fields turned to tropical forest; we had been driving for about 45 minutes already and we were knackered. At about the third opportunity, we pulled off the road and turned the engine off; as chance would have it, fellow freedom campers were parked a few metres away behind a tree, so we weren’t quite alone. Guilhem bravely stepped out to scout the land.
He came back laughing.
No flies, and the guys over there are snoring!

They could be shaking the sheets for all I cared, as long as we had left the enemy behind.

The light in the van told us Plan C had in fact been quite successful. Our sleeping quarters were almost clear, as was the windscreen. We moved the bikes again, lay down and finally slept. It was 10.30pm.

At 2.35am, I felt a hand on my arm.

“Emma, are you awake?”
“There are still flies in here.”
Oh please, not again. I’m too tired for this. “Are you sure? How many?”
He’s got to be making this up. We would have done Hitler proud earlier. I kept my eyes resolutely closed but, still needing points after the airport escapade, resisted the urge to just pull the duvet over my head and did my best to sound nice. “Do you want to turn on the light so we can see?”

It took 30 seconds of noisy fumbling overhead (as I said, we were still familiarising ourselves with our bunk) before a weak yellow light forced me into semi-consciousness. Who needed a torch on a camping trip anyway?
Dreading what I was about to see, I opened my eyes slowly. I expected if not hundreds then at least a small swarm of the hateful beasts around the light. False alarm!! I could make out three; they stood absolutely no chance.
Hoping that we had scared off the last few who must have been cowering on the darkened windows, we turned the light off one final time and did our best to sleep away the remaining hours of darkness.


Unsurprisingly, we were awake by 6.30am. The obligatory discreet trip into the bushes confirmed that our emergency lay-by wasn’t quite attractive enough to bring the breakfast table out. We were on a gravelly grass verge on a main road, in the middle of a forest. It wasn’t Bruce Bay, but then it didn’t have Bruce Bay’s inhabitants either.
We took off, leaving our neighbours still snoring away.


In the end, both camps were left with substantial damage in the fight. The sandfly population of Bruce Bay way if not decimated, then at least a couple of head poorer. The pair of us suffered considerable physical aggravation: the bites itch like hell, for weeks.
Our van didn’t get off lightly either. There were some lovely chain patterns on the roof of the cab and rear benches. The grey felt ceiling now sported an attractive black speckling, especially around the central light (not quite so dreary as monochrome grey I thought and hey, natural paints right?!). As for the windscreen, the wipers weren’t going to go any way towards cleaning the pretty smears and swirls I had created in my wild artistic moments.

Needless to say our first stop was not for coffee but for the insect repellent we should never have left Christchurch without.


Sandflies 1 – Amateur campers 0.


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