Our first month in New Zealand

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Oceania » New Zealand
January 31st 2016
Published: August 15th 2016
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After an overnight flight from Tokyo and a transfer in Brisbane we found ourselves in Auckland, New Zealand full of anticipation for the adventure ahead. It didn't take us long to find the small flat we had rented for a few days in one of the many sprawling residential suburbs, whereupon we set about the job of finding and purchasing a vehicle. We were looking for something that would be cheap to buy, preferably large enough to either sleep in or carry camping gear and hopefully be reliable enough and last long enough to at least pay for itself in saved accommodation fees. So we were not asking for much then.

Fortunately this type of budget travelling is very popular in New Zealand. Couple that with an abundance of ancient cars with spaceship mileage in the country and it meant a whole heap of rolling scrap to choose from. Most of which were being sold by other travellers at the end of their New Zealand adventures. Naturally, our first viewing was the cheapest thing that looked like it may do the job, a Toyota Estima from 1997. This was an old seven seater car with most of the rear seats removed, being sold by a young Canadian who had used it to travel up from Queenstown on the South Island. The car was filthy both inside and out and looked awful, but having given it a bit of a test run we could not really find any obvious mechanical faults, plus the Canadian was desperate to sell so that he could get off to Australia by Christmas. A bargain deal was struck.

The next few days were spent mucking out, scrubbing and equipping the newly purchased car, Liz prioritising the purchase of two plastic wine glasses whilst Ross took care of the non-important things like building a bed in the back and finding a new jack and wheel brace for the spare. By the time we were ready to leave Auckland the car didn’t look half bad, smelled a lot better and we had mostly eliminated the interior ant infestation. All that remained was to give the car a name. Trev was chosen, as in Trev the trusty Toyota, or so we hoped.

We were pleased to leave the city and begin our journey around the country, heading towards the Coromandel Peninsula. On our way we stopped in the town of Thames where we found a garage to fix the puncture that seemed to be preventing the spare wheel from remaining pumped up. The jovial chap tried his best to fix it but when Ross returned to pick up the wheel he had admitted defeat. Apparently the tyre was pretty much as old as the car and as fast as he fixed a puncture another one appeared. It was then that he saw our car and realised it wasn't even the right size tyre for that model. This made us laugh, no problem though, he found a part worn one and changed it over for us. He also gave us lots of good advice regarding places to visit and how to avoid the crowds.

We had a great time driving around the beautiful bays and beaches nearby and headed towards the Coromandel Forest Park to camp. This took us into the forested hills where we could walk the forest tracks and marvel at the gigantic Kauri trees. Unfortunately, being a fair way up from the coast meant we had to put up with a bit of damp weather, so we decided not to make the popular hike up to the Pinnacles on Christmas Day due to low cloud and drizzle. In fact we decided that this sort of weather on Christmas Day would not do at all, so we drove down to the coast for breakfast by the sea, pleasant, but still grey and overcast. We looked at the sky and determined that it looked brighter towards the east, so decision made, we drove eastwards in search of sunshine.

To our surprise this plan actually worked and within an hour or two we found ourselves in the Bay of Plenty, at the quiet little beach side settlement of Matata, bathed in hot sunshine and strong but warm ocean winds. We easily found a small space in the fairly busy campsite by the beach and set about preparing our tasty Christmas dinner, which we had decided would be a full gut busting fry up and a decent bottle of New Zealand white, bliss.

Whilst exploring the area in land from Matata we discovered the less visited side of the Te Urewera National Park. After a long drive up a pretty rough and narrow gravel road we found a big meadow by the river where free camping was permitted, something to our joy we would find throughout New Zealand, especially in the more isolated and quieter inland reserves.

There were only a handfull of New Zealand families camped up in the meadow and they were quite surprised to see us there. One family took great delight in pointing out all the best swimming holes and inviting us over to their camp for drinks and marshmallows around the campfire. A large Maori family were camped in one corner and the lady in charge came over and chatted to us. She explained that the huge forest park was their ancestral land and that they were now in a joint management agreement with the Department of Conservation (DOC). They were incredibly welcoming towards us, seemingly very impressed at the length of the huge walk through the bush we had taken ourselves on the previous day. We did not let on that we had never intended to go quite so far, but had significantly underestimated both the distance and difficulty of the terrain and were still nursing aching limbs. The lady and her family pointed out some of the local plants growing around us with traditional medicinal applications and even returned later with a jar of local honey for us after our conversation about the Manuka bush.

Prising ourselves away from the Te Urewera National Park we made our way down to the coast and towards the Eastern Cape. We found ourselves at the very isolated East Cape Lighthouse, the most easterly tip of mainland New Zealand, on New Year’s Eve and decided that this would be a great place to spend the night as we would be among the first people to see in the New Year. We set up camp in a rustic site next to the rugged beach and were joined by a wonderfully eccentric couple from the Welsh Borders who insisted on sharing a bottle of bubbly with us at five thirty in the morning to celebrate the first sunrise of 2016. Also celebrating the New Year were a group of fun loving New Zealanders who turned up in old vans towing boats and set up camp complete with a three seater sofa. When we joked with them about their sofa we got a typical Kiwi response: "gotta have a f***ing sofa man". This amused us no end.

Once the early morning bubbly had worn off we slowly left the campground, taking care so as not to drive over any of the aforementioned sofa gang who were lying sprawled in the grass at intervals between the beach and their sofa in various states of alcohol induced coma.

Continuing southwards, we enjoyed some good walking and camping on the Mania Peninsula and at Lake Tutira, passing through the town of Napier where we stopped for lunch and admired the 1930s art-deco architecture for which the town is famous.

We slowly made our way down towards the Wairarapa wine country where we enjoyed a visit to pretty Martinborough and a drive through the boutique vineyards. Too exclusive for our budget, but we were very content to sit down in the sunshine among the vines and tuck into our sandwiches. It was whilst ambling around this area that a fierce, summer storm struck and we had to find a sheltered spot next to Lake Wairarapa to sit out a day of 140 kilometre per hour gusts and torrential rain. Fortunately we had plenty of bread, cheese and wine on board, so no need for outdoor cooking.

With the storm seemingly passed and the sun shining once again we made our way out to the exposed and rugged Cape Palliser where we climbed up to the lighthouse to admire the views and settled in to camp just feet away from the high tide mark. Unfortunately, the storm had a second wind, quite literally and we spent the night rocking around in the car like a couple of peas in a can.

Eventually we made our way down to Wellington, the nation’s capital and spent an afternoon wandering around the city before boarding a ferry the following morning across the Cook Strait to the South Island. Although we were a little nervous about Trev not starting in the morning as he had developed a bit of an occasional difficult to start issue, all was well on this morning, so off we went.

Our journey in the South Island got off to a good start when we bumped into an American traveller who we had met in Mongolia and then again in China, in the world food aisle of the local supermarket, proving that the world is indeed a small place. We made our way out of Picton and up into the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. We stopped to camp in Picnic Bay and found it so tranquil that we ended up staying for three nights, spending the days swimming in the turquoise sea and relaxing on the beach. We were joined at one point by a young German student traveling by himself. He told us in great detail how he had calculated the fuel economy of his car and was a little bit surprised that we had no idea how much Trev guzzled, other than too much. We were however able to amaze him by sharing with him a tin of very British custard we had found in the international isle of the supermarket. This was apparently a new "taste sensation" and something he was going to seek out when he got home to introduce to his parents. A proud moment for us.

Finally leaving the tranquillity of Picnic Bay, we crossed the Lewis Pass, eventually ending up south east of Christchurch on the Banks Peninsula. Here we spent a day or two walking in the hills and admiring the coastal scenery. We found some of the free camping grounds here a little crowded, which was not surprising given the stunning location and time of year. This meant some need for apologies on our part as whenever Trev decided to have a bad morning, and after eventually firing into life, proceeded to engulf any close neighbours in a cloud of blue smoke.

We were impressed with the Banks Peninsula and decided we would return here again. For now though we were making all haste towards Invercargill in the deep south where we would be visiting Liz's cousins. We could not pass between Christchurch and Dunedin though without stopping to see the weird and perfectly spherical Moeraki Boulders scattered along the beach and also making a detour from the beautiful Catlin’s coast to Slope Point, the true southerly point of the South Island, a rugged and wind swept location.

At last we had made it to Invercargill where we stayed for a week with Liz's Cousins, Meg and Paul. We had a great time exploring the Catlin's and the local area with them, getting the low down on life at the southern tip of the country, spotting the yellow eyed penguins, eating good, home-cooked food and living in a house instead of a van. Liz and Meg even took to the waters a number of times despite the slightly, unseasonal cool weather and were fortunate enough to swim with dolphins at Porpoise Bay. Ross and Paul were in full agreement that temperatures were nowhere near warm enough for getting unnecessarily wet.

Trev it seemed had decided that reaching the far south was enough and took some quite serious persuasion to get going again, despite a little trip to the garage for a service. Eventually he was coaxed into life again after Ross tickled his belly and with a cloud of blue smoke and the usual squeaky rattle, it was time to say farewell to Meg, Paul and Sheba the aeroplane chasing dog. We were sent on our way clean, well fed, refreshed and loaded with a healthy supply of good times to remember and biscuits.

Things we have learnt during our first month in New Zealand:

- In New Zealand it seems the speed limit is often seen as a target instead of a limit and woe betide anyone in an old Toyota not achieving that target.

- The Kiwis really don't like possums.

- There's always somewhere sunny within driving distance in New Zealand.

- This first month has just been a taster of the natural wonders New Zealand has to offer, with the school holidays now over we can't wait to visit some of the famous sites.

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15th August 2016
Picnic Bay, Marlborough Sounds

The first of five months!
Oh, I do like your pace of travel! Free-camping, incredible beauty and such friendly people--no wonder you spent five months camping--best wishes on Trev lasting to the end! I once read that what you do on New Year's Day is a harbinger of the year to come, so here's to starting your days with a bit of the bubbly!

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