View from the camper where we parked up for the night
'What have we done?' we asked ourselves as we sat eating cheese sandwiches like a couple of old biddies in the back of a campervan in the pouring rain. We'd said our good-byes to Asia's heat and humidity and after a four day stopover in Perth had arrived in New Zealand, in winter. If the truth be known, we were actually looking forward to cooling off for a while.
We had elected to tour the islands by campervan. Coincidentally (hmm), our timing would allow us to take in some of the Lions games as well.
True to form we were greeted by driving rain and gales at Auckland airport and after a couple of hours wait, were united with what we'd call 'home' for the next month, a two berth camper complete with twin hob and fridge. Having eaten out on Asian food for the duration of the trip so far I was actually looking forward to turning my hand to a spot of self catering.
Stocked up on supplies and with our trusty backgammon set at hand we hit the open road and headed north. It was on day one at Waiwera when the cheese sandwich incident
Steaming Mud Pools, Wai-O-Tapu
As we strolled around early morning
happened; fortunately we got over the initial shock and never looked back.
We spent the first week or so touring the North Island; making our way up the north east coast to Ninety Mile Beach via the Bay of Islands and Waitangi, back down the west via Waipoua Forest Reserve and Dargaville, then across to the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Taupo before ending our tour of North Island in Wellington, at the southern most tip.
This introduction was a real experience for us on a number of different levels.
First and foremost, the scenery on North Island. We'd heard so much about the South Island's dramatic scenery, breathtaking fjords, immense glaciers etc that it had kind of eclipsed any thoughts we had on what the North Island might have to offer. Indeed at one point we were going to drop this area completely from our itinerary; we're so glad we didn't. Although not as dramatic per se, North Island's endless rolling hills and beautiful bays were incentive enough, a landscape reminiscent of Devon and Cornwall with the odd volcano or three thrown in for good measure.
Secondly, life in the campervan. Travelling in this way
gives you complete freedom to get off the beaten track and free camp in the most idyllic of settings - excellent. On the flipside, free camping means (a) no electricity to plug the van into which means bracing yourself for one chilly night (b) contending with pit toilets in the dark (for those who are lucky enough not to have experienced one of these, they are a seemingly bottomless black pit which, with a vivid imagination, give the feeling that something might bite back) off-putting to say the least.
Thirdly, having spent the duration of our trip so far in Asia, we had arrived in a country whose culture and relative cost of living is predominately the same as ours. For the first time on our travels we found ourselves aware that we were travelling on a budget. Having to think twice about ordering that seafood dish was a reality I'd have to swallow.
And finally, getting the rugby experience Kiwi style. New Zealanders are as passionate about their rugby as I am about my wine. The electric atmosphere surrounding the Lions test build-up was almost palpable and the sea of red Barmy Army supporters quite incredible. Something
which touched me more than anything though was the welcome extended by everyone. From announcements on the radio and banners strung across high streets welcoming the Barmy Army, to individuals we came across at every turn, genuinely interested in our travels and keen to give us the best advice on where to visit next. Friends who have emigrated consistently point to 'the people' as one of the deciding factors in moving to New Zealand - I can understand why now.
Keen to understand more, Waitangi was the perfect starting point, giving us an insight into events leading up to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Under the direction of James Busby, European settlers together with chiefs of local tribes, signed an agreement 'to live together for the good of all'. In doing so, New Zealand became a sovereign nation ruled under the British monarchy. Since the Treaty is significant (and contentious) to this day, we both felt we had at least acquired some knowledge of New Zealand's brief history.
Rugby hype reaching fever pitch we made our way to Rotorua for the first provincial game in the run up to the test series beginning in Christchurch.
Queen Charlotte Drive
Our introduction to scenery on South Island
'Sulphur City' is home to the steaming sulphur thermal reserves. Just as we'd been warned, you can smell them before you see them - lovely. On the edges of Lake Rotorua and surrounded by mountains the town's setting is quite beautiful. Having found the perfect spot to park up we made our way to the stadium in eager anticipation of the big match. Lions versus Bay of Plenty.
Since this was only a preliminary match it is fair to say it was also less critical. Judging by the atmosphere you would have been forgiven for thinking differently. It appeared that the Lions coming to 'The Bay' to play 'The Steamers' at home, was as big an event for the towns' people as the signing of the 1840 Treaty itself.
As atmospheric as an international match might be, there was something quite special about baring witness to the mighty Lions playing the lesser known Bay. A kind of David and Goliath-type scenario. During the first few minutes of the match when it looked like it was going to be a Lions whitewash I nearly found myself defecting...that changed pretty quickly when they started to put up an admirable fight
Queen Charlotte Drive
One of the many beautiful bays along the coastal road
and I felt an elbow to the ribs. The right result, but not as convincing as we would have liked.
Having soaked for a while in one of the famous steaming open air pools, (all the more satisfying with the chilly air temperature) we once again set off South.
There's something very satisfying about having everything you own packed conveniently in a mobile home. No queuing for tickets or packing of bags, at the moment you decide to leave, you're off. Not to mention being able to put on a quick brew when you fancy it, although I must admit to feeling a tad silly rustling up lunch parked up in Nelson highstreet as a crowd of shoppers ambled by.
Our next destination, Wai-O-Tapu afforded yet another memorable experience. Having arrived after dark we were unfamiliar with the area we had parked in and awoke to find ourselves and our campervan completely alone. In the early morning, while strolling around bubbling mud pools and steaming vegetation I must admit to feeling quite spooked, like waking up and finding yourself on another planet - wierd but fascinating.
Our journey south continued on to Taupo. As we reached
One of Many Seals
Seal Colony, Cape Foulwind
the top of a hill on the approach into town we were suddenly greeted by the kind of magnificent scenery you associate with New Zealand from films or books. A huge expanse of open space with Lake Taupo in the middle surrounded by snow capped mountains. The town itself runs along the lake edge and is fringed with bars and eateries. Had we had enough time we certainly would have stayed a little longer to explore.
Taking the 'Desert Road', we headed through Tongariro National Park, New Zealand's oldest park, stopping to admire the snow capped peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu on the way. All active volcanoes, Ruapehu being the highest at 2797m. We were pretty fortunate as the pass was closed only days before due to snow. This wasn't a particularly comforting thought though, as travelling south in the southern hemisphere meant we could only really expect the weather to get worse.
After our taster of North Island we were all the more intrigued by what we'd find on South Island - scenery aside we were looking forward to catching up with friends who'd made the move over.......and more rugby.
The ferry journey across the
Cook Strait to Picton was choppy to say the least. OK, I admit to having had one glass, Bob a beer, but by the way the passengers, us included were falling about you would have thought we'd all been involved in some serious celebrating. If the truth be known the novelty wore off about as quickly as the nausea wore on and I found myself contemplating why exactly we had chosen to come to New Zealand at this time of the year.
Our first night on South Island and the temperatures dropped to -3, we awoke to find ice over the inside of all the camper's windows. Why again, New Zealand.....winter? Must have slipped my mind.
Foutunately, all this negativity was quashed by a chance meeting with another English couple who, whilst also having to deal with the temperatures had a distinct 'fresian cow camouflaged camper' disadvantage. Sufficiently warmed and feeling full of the joys we set off towards Nelson where we'd arranged a long awaited reunion with the Preistley clan.
The coastal road, Queen Charlotte Drive, was a stunning taster of what to expect for the remainder of our travels around New Zealand.
Photographed near the Bushcraft Centre, Pukekura
Nelson later than anticipated, due to innumerable not-to-be-missed photo stops, we descended on Sean, Tan and new, and very cute addition, Nola. We had a fantastic few days catching up, sampling NZ wine, discussing the delights (or not) of child birth and thoroughly appreciating sleeping in a proper bed...ahh small things.
All too soon though we were back on the road and heading south again. First Westport, then on to the aptly named Cape Foulwind. It was here that we made our acquaintance with the Weka, a strange flightless bird about the size of a chicken, indigenous to New Zealand. Incidentally, throughout this country you can't help but notice the weird and wonderful proliferation of indigenous plant and bird life. From Weka and Kea, an enormous kind of parrot/falcon cross, to the strange gnarled trees from Lord of the Rings aka virgin bush, particularly evident along the more remote south west coast.
Stopping briefly to admire the pancake rocks and blow holes at Punakaiki, we made our way from Greymouth to Pukekura, being careful not to be picked up again on the 'mouth' pronunciation, they're very particular in these parts.
Pukekura's not so much of a small
town rather a small settlement, of two, and home to a thoroughly fascinating Bushcraft Centre. It was here that we met New Zealand's answer to Crocodile Dundee. During the 70s these guys launched themselves from helicopters to wrestle deer to the ground and airlift them back for their valuable hides. “At $3,000 a hide they were like moving bags of cash” or words to the effect was Crocodile's answer when I asked him why of all jobs he'd chosen this one. Pretty hard-core having seen the footage which incidentally was accompanied by the entirely appropriate, if slightly amusing 'Danger Zone' sound track.
A night spent camped on the edge of Okarito lagoon and we were in striking distance of Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. Having never seen a glacier before, I was immediately struck by the sheer size of these forces of nature. Hearing the thunderous crack of ice under pressure was also a pretty awe-inspiring experience which will stay with me for a long time.
It was from the confines of 'the' bar in Franz Joseph that we watched the Lions vs. NZ Mauri match. An entertaining game but unfortunately not a great result.
a 50km drive down a dead end road to the beautiful yet utterly remote village of Jackson Bay. Here the insect equivalent to 'Hannibal Lector' made itself known, the New Zealand sandfly. As surreal as this sounds, an army of wag-tailed birds actually came to our rescue and we had the unusual experience of being used as human dinner plates. Ironically, this insect is probably one of the reasons why the West Coast remains relatively unspoilt by human habitation.
Wide gorges, huge rivers, snow capped mountains were commonplace as we continued through Mount Aspiring National Park along Haast Pass. The route lead high into the mountains giving us our first taster of snow under foot.
As we approached Queenstown it felt like Bob and I had been dropped onto the Lord of the Rings set - which in effect we had.
Arriving after dark we found ourselves venturing out of town and down a remote track for some miles to find a spot to camp in a nearby National Park. After a freezing night (no exaggeration I went to bed wearing soaks, thermal trousers, thermal vest, thermal sweat-shirt, thermal fleece, thermal hat, artic sleeping bag, duvet and
blanket...looking particularly foxy as you'd imagine) we awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a winter wonderland on the edge of Moke Lake. Snow covered but with crystal blue skies, one of those "I'll always remember that" moments.
Scenery aside, we both loved Queenstown itself, great outdoorsy-type shops, dozens of restaurants and the perfect olde English pub to watch yet more rugby in, washed down with a beer or two of course. Lions versus Wellington, another win.
It seemed only right to stay a couple of days to soak up the atmosphere. We'd been told that a trip in the shotover jet couldn't be missed so we donned lifejackets and headed out for some chilly 360 degree spins in 2 inches of water, at the bottom of sheer rock faces. Actually, it wasn't nearly as scary as we'd both imagined. More disturbing was the cash involved, if you're into 'thrill adventure sports' no amount of money will last long in Queenstown.
Having sampled enough Pinot Noir in the surrounding vineyards we left Coronet Peak and the Remarkables behind and set off for Milford Sound. Since our destination was a good 5 hour drive with one road
in and out we weren't fully convinced to go. Reassured that this dramatic fjord just couldn't be missed we made our way past Lake Te Anau and up into the mountains via the impressive Homer Tunnel.
Milford Sound is a geographer’s paradise, so Bob was in his element. A fjord filled with hanging valleys, sheer cliff faces, waterfalls and the like. Unfortunately for us though, the weather closed in leaving us admiring the cloud covered scenery in pouring rain.
All this meandering around didn't leave us a great deal of time to make it to Dunedin - but we arrived in time to pick up our tickets (thanks yet again Matt) for the next game.
Dunedin, South Island's second largest city, so exudes it's Scottish heritage that it actually feels like being in Edinburgh. From grand buildings of stone built to withstand the weather to a statue of Robert Burns in the middle.
Rugby-wise, a disappointing game although a win nonetheless but more importantly we got the opportunity to catch up with Matt and Jo for a few well earned post match bevies.
A visit to Dunedin was not complete without a climb up Baldwin
Street, the world’s steepest street, and a tour around the beautiful Otago peninsula.
It was time to head north through the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch. The Plains are pretty flat and featureless compared with the rest of New Zealand although you get a good view of the Southern Alps in the distance for most of the way.
Visiting Christchurch meant time for more reunions. Annya, Paddy, Christopher, thanks for lunch and an envious peek of your flash pad in Cass Bay. Matt, Jo and Lisa, a great evening had by all and an education in the delights of eating out Japanese style. Lastly, but by no means least, Chris and Ally for providing us loafers with a home from home and a crash course in New Zealand confectionary and wine - but don't mention the garage incident....!
Coincidentally (hmm again) our departing flight from New Zealand was scheduled for just after the first test. No more banter, it was time for the big head to head. Could have been worse, we could have been freezing cold, sat in the midst of some vocal Kiwis in the line of driving hail and rain watching our team get thrashed,
come to think of it........... less said the better.
All too soon and we were saying our goodbyes to New Zealand. The scenery was spectacular, but we were expecting that. What we were more taken aback by was the Kiwis themselves, ranking among some of the most friendliest we have met so far. And of course, the rugby. We were fortunate enough to have arrived for the biggest rugby event since the world cup and to a country whose passion for the game is unrivalled.
Next stop.......the Americas. New Zealand was great but the time had come to venture away from the western world and into a new experience all together, Central America. The allure of buying and travelling around in our very own vehicle and back to warm weather, a very exciting prospect............
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