All my life I have heard about how beautiful New Zealand is and that it is a not-to-be-missed vacation spot. I always believed all the raves about NZ but now I understand that words don't really adequately describe this country. Beautiful, it is, with green rolling hills covered with endless sheep, cows, deer, or llamas keeping the grass groomed to a just-mowed length. The hills roll up to towering snow, ice, and glacier capped mountains that feed impossibly turquoise blue or milky, seafoam green rivers and lakes. Even in the pouring rain (which was plentiful in our first week here) this country is enchanting. In addition to the breathtaking landscape NZ harbors a laid-back sophistication that seems to say "yes, we have a beautiful country, we work very hard to preserve this natural beauty, come enjoy it and treat it well".
We arrived to Christchurch, on the east coast of the South Island, about 2 weeks ago. After 3 days of constant rain in Sydney we were ecstatic to arrive to clear blue skies and warm sunshine. We were optimistic that we had gotten our rain allotment behind us.
At the airport we arranged to rent a campervan for 10 days to explore the west coast and southern part of the South Island. We arrived Oct 21 and on Nov 1 the rental rates for campervans increase significantly as NZ enters its summer high season. We wanted to take advantage of the lower rates so we immediately hit the road in our high top HiAce Toyota campervan, the smallest campervan available. We were equipped with a small fridge, two gas burners, a sink, a small amount of storage space and a table and bench seating that converts into our bed at night. We also rented two collapsible camping chairs to sit outside in the warm sun in the evening—unfortunately, those weren't used very often. We were very excited to have our "house" moving with us and all the freedom that would afford us. On our scenic drive over the mountains Snow dubbed our new wheels Starship Groovyprise and off we went to explore the far reaches of the South Island with a tie-dyed nod to the hippy days of the 60s. We were in heaven.
Our main destination on the west coast was the town of Franz Josef to do a heli-hike on the Franz Josef Glacier. We had talked to several people who had traveled to NZ in the past and all of them listed the heli-hike on the glacier as the absolute highlight of their time here. We were very excited to check it out ourselves, but alas, the weather Gods were not on our side. We tried Sunday at noon, but low thick clouds and pouring rain canceled the trip, Monday afternoon, low thick clouds that later led to pouring rain canceled the trip, and we tried one more time on Tues morning. We awoke to clear blue skies directly over the glacier so we were optimistic that "the third time's a charm". However, the low clouds hanging over all the rest of the valley threatened to flood over the glacier and cut off visibility making it very dangerous for the helicopter to fly in to pick us up after we spent a couple hours up there. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later the one pocket of clear skies was starting to fill in with clouds and the trip was cancelled. Sadly, we couldn't stay any longer and we pushed on hoping that maybe we could try again later in the trip.
After spending 2 days confined to our funky little van the name was changed from Starship Groovyprise to the Crampervan. I'm sure that many of you reading this have bathrooms bigger than the van we were in. I KNOW that some of you have closets that are bigger than that van. We quickly learned that both of us could not stand up in the van at the same time. And, if one was dressing, cooking, cleaning up, setting up or taking down our bed, or any other activity that requires the least bit of movement the other could not also be in the van, which left them standing out in the rain, sitting idly in the front seat out of the way, or seeking shelter in the campground bathroom. Snow also grew a little tired of hitting his head on any surface available. Entering the Crampervan was a mini trip back to Asia for him. But apart from all that, we truly enjoyed everything else about the van. It seemed like such a luxury to have a space, though microscopically small, that was really just ours. And, after 8 months of eating in restaurants 3 meals a day we loved being able to eat out of the van. The 2 burners were enough to make pasta on Italian night, chicken tikki masala on Indian night and tacos on Mexican night. It's important to have themed dinners when you're living in a campervan--appropriate costumes are encouraged, but not required. Also, the Holiday Parks where we stayed usually had nice kitchen facilities and on one of the rainy afternoon in Franz Josef I was able to whip up a yummy pot of chili using the extra space in the kitchen.
NZ is very set up for the campervan traveler. Every town has at least one if not several Holiday Parks that all offer power hook-ups for the vans, bathrooms and showers, kitchen, laundry facilities, a TV lounge, usually a BBQ, sometimes a pool and spa and/or sauna, almost always a playground for kids, as well as small rooms or cabins to rent. For campervans the fee ranged from $23-33 NZD ($16-24 USD). Frequently the Holiday Parks were quite full by the time evening fell, even before high season hits. We discovered that campervanning is a very popular, easy way to explore this beautiful country.
From Franz Josef we continued south towards Queenstown, the capital of all the adrenaline sports in NZ. However, about 2 hours before Queenstown we went through the small ski town of Wanaka on the picturesque Lake Wanaka surrounded by stunning snow-capped mountains. Smaller, mellower, and less touristy than Queenstown Wanaka seemed like a great place to stop for a couple of nights. Before pulling into town, though, we had to stop at Puzzling World for a jaunt through the different, fully entertaining illusion rooms (the creepy room where all the faces seem to turn to watch you as you move, the psychedelic holograph room, and the balance testing tilted room) and to get completely lost in the full size maze in the back.
NZ is an ideal playground for anyone with the slightest interest in anything outdoors. While, I think, tramping (the kiwi word for hiking) is probably the most popular, drawing travelers from all over the world to enjoy their network of trails and huts throughout their National Parks, there are also lots of other options, such as mountain biking, rock climbing and alpine climbing, bike touring, sea kayaking, whale watching, birding, bungy jumping, jet boating...the list goes on and on. The multiple day tramping adventures looked really appealing, however, we are not at all equipped, at this point in our journey, to do that type of a trip. I guess it just means that someday we'll have to come back. But we have enjoyed several day hikes which were beautiful. Outside of Wanaka we did a 4 hour hike near Mt. Aspiring up to a view of the Rob Roy Glacier hanging precariously off the rocky face of the mountain. Another day hike took us to a glacier-fed lake at the base of Mt. Cook that afforded a breathtaking view of the mountain. It seems that everywhere we look in this country, rain or shine, the view is stunning.
After a couple nights in Wanaka we continued on to Queenstown. We took a pass on the bungy jumping—I just don't see myself voluntarily stepping off a platform into thin air. We did, however, enjoy a quick trip down the luge at the top of the gondola in Queenstown. The weather was deteriorating quickly and we drove from Queenstown to Te Anau in the pouring rain. Snow will take you on our two-day kayaking journey into Doubtful Sound.
Since the rental rates increased on Nov 1 our theory was that it also meant the weather would improve markedly. So far, our theory has been correct. As soon as we got out of Doubtful Sound on Halloween evening the sun has been a happy part of every day. Our drive north from Te Anau up to Mt. Cook was spectacular. Mt Cook was stunning. The clear blue rivers and lakes were amazing. The superlatives just keep on going. (See Snow's entry for pictures of Mt. Cook)
We have thoroughly enjoyed a true spring season and all that it brings with it, including all the rain. The usual signs, like the flowers in full bloom that are so beautiful and fragrant are all there, but also the little things we don't see in our city life at home--all the babies tripping around after their mothers in the fields--the cute, awkward calves, and the adorable, cuddly, little lambs. We were especially taken in by the lambs. I could watch them for hours, especially the really young ones--jumping (they can get some air that puts us practiced jumpers to shame) and frolicking around the field.
We originally rented our van for 10 days, but extended it for 3 more. After 13 days in a crampervan we were excited about 3 nights in a relatively palatial room at the YMCA, and 2 relaxing days enjoying Christchurch. Christchurch, population approx. 330,000, is the largest city on the South Island. We were immediately impressed by the number of beautifully maintained parks and recreational areas. The city, though quite small, felt very vibrant and active. It felt very livable with all the city amenities and easy access to some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world. In the back of our minds we've kept a list of places we could see ourselves living sometime in the future, if an opportunity were to present itself. Christchurch quickly secured a position near the top of that list. Having said that, I have to admit, we didn't do too much there, which was probably why we were so happy there. We took some nice runs through the parks, ate yummy food, took in a movie (The Manchurian Candidate), did a little shopping and worked on this latest update. I could have spent a couple more days there relaxing, but, it turns out, though 1 month seems like plenty of time to explore all of the New Zealnd, it barely allows you to scratch the surface so we were compelled to move on.
There's still so much to see, and always more pictures to be taken.
More news from Aukland in a couple of weeks.
All the best,