Hasta la vista, Christchurch
We returned our Toyota Crampervan to Christchurch where we relaxed for a couple of days before picking up our new campervan. Christchurch charmed us with its midsize city feel; peaceful Botanical Gardens and sporting fields; university with students wearing school uniforms featuring sportcoats with thick black and white stripes that looked more Beetlejuice than scholarly; and trendy streetside cafes, pubs and restaurants. But after wandering through countless outdoor gear stores carrying the usual array of W items (warm, wooly and waterproof), it was time to hit the road again.
NEW and IMPROVED! Campervan Version 2.0
Our new campervan was a converted commercial-grade VW diesel truck. The interior was pretty much in the exact same layout as our previous van only this one wasn't a 'built to scale' replica of a campervan humans could fit into. I didn't feel quite so Gulliver's Travels in this one and I could stay in the van while Dana was 'in the kitchen'. It also added one nice new feature which was a shower/toilet combo closet. The shower proved handy since it allowed us to go for midday jogs, and shower before driving on to the next campsite. The van was a good value since it used diesel fuel while our previous van used unleaded. In NZ, diesel is not taxed at the pump so it's significantly cheaper. See the photos for a tour of campervans that didn't make it through our rigorous selection process.
Go north young man
As we drove north from Christchurch, we passed through Kaikoura which is famous for its whale and dolphin watching boat and plane tours. Telling ourselves that we could do that at home near Seattle (though in truth I never have), we skipped these but did go to a local farmer's sheep shearing show. This farmer inherited a large green coastal property previously used for sheep herding. He'd caught on that he could charge the tourists $10 NZ (~$7.50 US) to watch him sheer a sheep twice a day which probably generates as much revenue as herding hundreds of sheep as a farmer and he's still at home every afternoon for his soaps. He explained the economics of selling wool and sheep for butchering and it isn't enormously lucrative. For our particular sheep shearing show, there were about 10 of us so he made a pretty penny.
He fired up his Sunbeam commercial grade sheep shearer which looked suspiciously like the electric clippers my barber uses back home. He then quickly flipped the little sheep around in every awkward position imaginable in rapid fire fashion til the sheep was naked, dizzy and likely ready for a good deep muscle massage to work out the kinks and cramps. As a city kid, I found this process fascinating and more than a little amusing. The farmer then demonstrated sorting the wool by quality grade and packing it in a giant sack for sale.
As a tourist in NZ, one can't help but notice how all the outdoor, cold weather clothing is made out of wool (or sometimes the ever glamorous possum fur). At the same time, the various recycled plastic fleeces seem to be moving off the shelves faster than the wool ones. Polartec is the new wool it seems which I'm sure isn't helping the NZ farmer. Meanwhile, NZ is working to market possum fur as desirable since the possum is an introduced mammal here and is absolutely despised for its negative effect on native plants and animals. One guide described how you have not been properly educated as a Kiwi until you've learned how to swerve and hit possums in the road whenever possible. I never managed to swerve the VW Big Rig of ours to hit a possum, but we did see lots of roadside evidence of skilled Kiwi drivers hitting their target.
From Kaikoura we went further north to what's known as the Marlborough Wine Region near Blenheim (for those excellent readers following along in your home Atlas). In recent years, NZ wines have been rapidly gaining fame and recognition which has lead to many new vineyards sprouting up in this region which has ideal weather conditions for grapes. Like Napa, you can do a vineyard tour that includes over a dozen boutique and larger vineyards. We stopped at the Huia vineyard (www.huia.net.nz) where we did our best to sample many of their fine whites. We immediately determined that wine touring and massive big rig RV driving don't mix so we bought a bottle and moved on. Like many destinations on our trip, given a full day, I'm sure we could have easily wasted it away with rosy cheeks in this scenic region.
Dana picks up our tale from here.
While tramping through the wet, wild jungle of Borneo several months ago we found ourselves perilously fording a dangerously swollen river with a very adventuresome kiwi couple, Susan and Les Cook, from Nelson, South Island. After rehashing our soggy jungle adventure in the airport waiting for our flights out of the jungle Susan and Les invited us to visit them when we found our way to New Zealand. Our pass through Nelson was brief as we were trying to get as much time as possible in Abel Tasman National Park just north of Nelson. We had dessert with the Cooks and a couple visiting from England. The Cooks are passionate about all the NZ has to offer and have traveled extensively around their country. Their wealth of knowledge was very helpful for us to figure out the best way to see Abel Tasman in a couple of days and they had several valuable suggestions for the North Island, as well. It was really fun to reconnect with them and hear how the rest of their Borneo adventure turned out.
Abel Tasman National Park, named for the Dutch explorer credited with discovering New Zealand in the 1600s, is located in the northwest of the South Island. The crystal clear greenish-blue water make it a very popular spot for sea kayaking. Since we had already taken the hardcore kayaking plunge in Doubtful Sound we decided to explore the area on foot. At Les and Susan's suggestion we took a beautiful day hike along the northern part of the park, enjoying the lush forest, with the biggest ferns we've ever seen, and stumbling across deserted hidden beaches. The dirt road into the park was one-lane, very steep and twisty which made for some interesting maneuvering in our huge, oversized campervan. While we loved the extra space, driving it in more remote places was often a challenge. Fortunately both Snow and the girl in the oncoming 4 Runner were quick on the breaks when we came to an unexpected encounter on a blind corner with one lane to share and a steep drop-off on one side (thankfully, the drop-off was on their side of the road). The beauty of the park made the precarious trip worth the trouble. We would have loved to have had several days to do one of the longer multiple day tramps staying in the huts throughout the park.
Just outside the park is the Te Waikoropupu Springs, thankfully, more easily referred to as Pupu Springs. It is the largest spring in NZ with an impressive 14,000 liters of water gushing up from underground every second! One of the springs is referred to as The Dancing Sands. The only indication that water is gushing out the spring at the bottom of the pool is the cloud of sand dancing around the bottom of the clear pool. It also claims to have some of the clearest water in all of NZ, which I found hard to believe given how clear the water has been throughout of travels here. But, sure enough, it delivered. It was a rather enchanting spot.
More from the north...