The One Where our Car Broke Down on a Mountain

broken down car on te mata peak

It seems to be a general rule in life that if everything is going fine it’s only a matter of time until disaster strikes. How we deal with these disasters shows what type of person we truly are. Do we break instantly and fall apart? Or do we battle through? Overcoming these obstacles so we can go back to our happy lives.

In this case, the obstacle was our car. We were having a great time on our Christmas trip to Hawke’s Bay. We’d spent the first few days exploring the beautiful Lake Waikermoana. Now we were camping in Napier exploring the Art Deco buildings and sights nearby.

At the top of our list were two places: Cape Kidnappers and Te Mata Peak.

Cape Kidnappers is the point at the very tip of Hawke’s Bay, which is famous for its large gannet colony. Each year thousands of birds fly to the protected area to lay their eggs, bring up their chicks, and generally hang out. It’s pretty tough to get there, but fortunately you can book a tour that takes you by tractor along the beach to see the birds. It was the thing I was most excited about doing on our trip.

Nearby, just 30 minutes drive away is Te Mata Peak. A large hill that looms over the surrounding area giving panoramic views in every direction. If you’re lazy, it’s no problem because you can drive to the top. If your car can make it, that is.

Since the two places are so close together we had the ingenious idea that we’d drive up Te Mata before our tour. Big mistake.

The Bloody Legend

bloody legend at the sea

BL visiting the sea

Jamie has written about our old car before that we affectionately call The Bloody Legend. Every time I get into the car I’m afraid it’ll break down. It’s basically a very large lawnmower. It struggles up even the smallest of hills, but always somehow makes it to the top. I often egg it on like an old horse. Patting the dashboard, “Come on Bloody Legend. You can do it!”

We found ourselves doing the same thing as we snaked our way up Te Mata Peak. The road was narrow and steep, but our car didn’t struggle any more than usual. He’d made it up far worse roads in Wellington. Even the street we live on is almost vertical.

Then a mere 100 metres from the top it happened.


A loud thud came from the car and smoke billowed upwards. My immediate thought was that a tire had popped. Jamie stopped the car and we both jumped out to look. Smoke started to sizzle upwards from the front of the car. Was it on fire? I thought we should start grabbing our stuff from the back, but when the smoke started to dissipate I shook my worries away. For a moment.

Almost immediately some young Kiwis came to help us move our car to the side, which is when I noticed a large puddle of yellow liquid underneath our car. It seems Bloody Legend had wet himself in his old age.

bloody legend on top of te mata peak

Right about here was the possible breaking point. It was boiling hot outside, our car had broken down at the top of a mountain and we had a tour to go on in three or so hours. There were two options.

Panic or preserve.

Usually, I would panic. This was a situation I’d never been in before. The unknown. Something we all fear. Nobody teaches you what to do in these situations. They don’t give lessons in school about breaking down on mountainsides.

So, I did what I always do when I’m clueless about something. I went on Google.

Where would the modern traveller be without Google and its wisdom?

Within minutes, I knew that our car’s radiator hose had burst. Some stranger on a forum explained it all. Knowing the problem brought some relief. Then I read another forum post and said it “could be” the brakes. Shit! We can’t drive down a mountain without brakes! My stress levels were rising.

Soon enough I was Googling nearby mechanics. I rang one. Closed until January. Another. Closed until January. What if every place is closed until the New Year? How are we going to get back to Wellington? What are we going to do with the car? I was starting to lose my grip. Panic was taking control.

car park on top of te mata peak

The car park we failed to reach.

I figured we had to at least get the car off the mountain, so the only option was a towing company. I prayed they were open and was relieved to hear somebody pick up the phone when I rang. Relief turned to horror when I realised I hate phone conversations.

I stumbled through the call completely embarrassed. Especially upon revealing that we had broken down on top of the nearby mountain.

“Where would you like us to tow your car to?”
“Er…well…um…I’ve tried ringing some garages, but they’re all closed for Christmas.”
“All right. We’ll find a garage for you that’s open. Don’t worry. Our van will be there in 20 minutes.”

Twenty minutes. Yeah, right.

Next I was Googling the tour company. Another conversation to mumble through.

“So um, can I just ask about your, er, cancellation policy? Just, ah, I don’t think we’re gonna make the tour.”
“Oh, well, I’m afraid it’s a bit short notice so we can’t really give you a refund.”
“Actually. Ha. Our car has, um, broken down on, er, Te Mata Peak.”
“Well, you may still make it…the tour is in 3 hours!”
“I don’t think we’re going to make it…”
“Okay. I’ll see what I can do. If somebody else wants your tickets we might be able to get you a refund.”

It wouldn’t make up for the lack of tour, but it would do.

A Short Visit to Te Mata Peak

woman and child walking up te mata peak

We walked the short distance to the top of the peak but couldn’t enjoy the view. How could we? Knowing that our car had broken down and a huge bill awaited? I was overcome by dread. This could destroy our plans for months. What if the car bill was going to cost thousands? What if we can’t get back to Wellington? How will we travel around the South Island now? I just wanted to cry, but tried to enjoy the view. It was impossible due to my head swimming.

In the car, we had packed a picnic so we got it out and started to eat it. My favourite cheap picnic is a baguette with cream cheese. I opened the tub of cream cheese and it had a little liquid inside. Wanting to get the liquid out of the tub I tried to tip it out, only to have the entire block of cheese to fall out onto the ground with a splat. It was just one of those days.

Moments later we saw the tow truck chugging up the hill. Almost 20 minutes from when we rang. I couldn’t believe how quick it was. We waved it down and soon had the car on the back of the truck.

bloody legend getting towed

We sat in the cab with the driver as we glided down the mountain.

“Not a bad place to break down,” he smiled through his white beard, “I’ve been up here a few times to collect people. Hell of a climb.”
“Next time I think we’ll walk.”

We made awkward small talk for a few minutes before descending into silence.

road up te mata peak

I stared out of the window and started to think. Worst case scenario: this whole debacle is going to cost a hell of a lot of money. Money. That was all there was to worry about. As ever it all boils down to that.

As the truck sped through town I tried to put the problem in perspective. My biggest problem is that the car I own has broken down. Was that even a legitimate cause for worry? I’ve talked about this before in my post about first world problems.

In the end, I concluded that although our car was broken our lives were still pretty good and we had little to complain about. After all the only hurt was to our wallet and nothing else. We may miss our tour, but what did that matter really? We still had each other. Still had our health. We were still fortunate enough to have lives where we could afford to waste a day breaking down.

The more I thought about it, the less inclined I was to feel upset. Even when your car breaks you’re still fortunate enough to have had a car in the first place.

We pulled up to a garage and a mechanic asked what the problem was. I pushed out my chest, sucked through my teeth. Acted like I knew what I was talking about. “I think we’ve got a broken radiator hose.” Our car was lowered and I paid the tow driver.

Soon we were sitting in the waiting room, staring at the prices on the wall. Preparing ourselves for the worst. The mechanic stepped in, “Yup, seems like it’s the radiator hose. Should take about an hour to fix if you want to walk into town for a bit.”

At the top of Te Mata Peak in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand.

Telling Jamie, “Smile and pretend your car just didn’t break down on top of a mountain.”

We wandered around the town imagining the large bill waiting for us. If it’s less than $500 I’ll be happy. That’s what I told myself. The car cost $900, but another $500 I could live with.

Arriving back at the garage the mechanic explained what had gone wrong and told us what he’d done to fix it. He may as well have spoken a foreign language, but I nodded politely. He wrote some info for us so we could get the car fixed properly in Wellington.

Then it was time to pay the bill. I cringed at the thought and when I was passed the invoice I almost jumped for joy. $140. The same price as the tow. All together it had cost us $280. A lot of money to some, but for us we could just about manage.

We missed the tour and were disappointed. But the day was a bittersweet one. The Bloody Legend would live to see another day, our trip wasn’t totally ruined.

Heading back to Napier, all I could feel was grateful. To be blessed with enough good fortune that the worst thing to happen wasn’t so bad after all. To have the opportunity to learn and overcome a challenge. To travel with a Bloody Legend!


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