Jun 15

Our big fat gypsy adventure, this time, on the South Island

We cruised into Picton from windy Welly, excited at the prospect of continuing our Wilderness camper van adventure down through the South Island.

We arrived in utter darkness and our best mate, Tom Tom, lead us to a cheap powered campsite we’d picked out. It was noticeably colder. On our way, we’d toyed with the idea of buying chips from a Fish ‘n’ Chip shop, to accompany our flavourful stag chilli – should fate take us past one. It did! I dashed across the road, ordered up a large portion of chips and then turned around to admire the dishevelled  world map pinned to the wall. I really took a moment to see how far we have travelled. It’s overwhelming, and when comparing the size of Hawaii to the States, or New Zealand to Hawaii, the sheer difference in scale and experience has just been incredible. A local man, with 9 fingers – literally – chatted to me about our trip. He revealed how he’d never even left New Zealand and how he’d spent his life working on the railways, at that moment, I felt pretty lucky. With my chips under my arm, we raced down to the campsite, munched, and then had a good rest before starting our journey south.

The next day we consulted our indispensable Lonely Planet guide and made the tough decision to go south east rather than north west towards Abel Tasman. We’d read about a little place called Kaikoura, a picturesque town with snow capped mountains as a back drop and an ocean abundant with marine life, such as Whales, Seals, Sea lions and Dolphins. The ocean is around 80m deep for a short while and then disappears into a underwater canyon that is over 800m deep making Kaikoura a hub for marine tours. On the way, we passed a great little surf spot which later found out was hosting a cold water surf competition.

We pitched up at a standard priced campsite that night, which included a wooden spa area overlooking the snow capped mountains. For my own memories; this place had the most amazing power showers, which I genuinely could of remained in for some time. I do love a good shower, especially after a cold night in a metal camper van.

On our first day in Kaikoura, we collected some more supplies from the local Countdown supermarket and after both commentating on now warm it felt, the weather sharply turned into torrential rain. This place seemed to have a climate all of it’s own. We moseyed into the town and browsed all of the surfy shops, seeing many things we long to buy but can’t due to the typical restrictions of being backpackers – what is sometimes a liberating feeling having little material possessions, when faced with nice things, can have the complete reverse effect. We ambled down and around the bay, until we reached Encounter, the sole tour company of Kaikoura. After weighing up our options, we reluctantly parted with nearly $400 to take the once in a lifetime opportunity of swimming with dolphins the next day.

Our tummies grumbled as we walked back to the campsite, so we stopped off for some really, really, good Fish ‘n’ Chips. New Zealand seem to embrace this very English tradition, more so than maybe we do these days. They offered a wide variety of fish to choose from, which was then battered to accompany your chips mound of chips. We went for the cheap and cheerful Hoki, but really, we fancied the blue cod. For less than £3 each, we had absolutely no complaints. I think it cost me well over £7, the last time I had the equivalent in Southampton.

We woke up on our second day a little nervous. Something which I don’t think we’d really felt since arriving in LA on our very first night. We were both a little apprehensive of the freezing cold waters and the seemingly wild dolphins we were due to swim with. We quickly shook this off and headed to Encounter. We were far too keen and ended up being a good few hours early, so we decided to check out the seal colony we had read about. This was a completely off the cuff idea, spontaneous even! We parked up the van in the car park and wondered across the rocks that had been left slippery by the ocean, which by this point was far out as we could see. We scaled the edge by the cliffs, treading carefully and delicately, wondering where the hell these sea lions might be – we presumed by the water. As I stepped back, nearly slipping in my flip flops and having noticed an unfamiliar hairy rock, Fi continued blindly. I bursted out ‘stop’ under my breath. Fi had literally been two yards away from getting intimate with a huge sea lion and thankfully didn’t tread on it. She ran away immediately, terrified and shocked! To add to our surprise, we shuffled around a little further to see a mother with her baby, the other side of the big guy.

We gathered ourselves and then looked a little closer and all around us to see several more sea lions – suddenly they were everywhere. They were camouflaged so well, they all appeared to be rocks at first. In awe, we snapped away at these wild creatures and watched one sea lion make her way over to the family we had just discovered. It finally arrived, these guys are pretty sluggish when not in water, moving like a zombie who’s had his legs blown off. Suddenly, this new arrival started making a beeline for us. We moved away, it moved further towards us. So hurriedly, we retreated to the car being chased all the way to the car park entrance. Perhaps the sea lion hadn’t liked the big camera lens and had decided to come and give us what for. The only problem was, this ball of blubber decided to keep watch and plonked itself right between the entrance to the car park and rocks to the ocean, making it difficult for anyone else to come in or out!

After our close encounter (see what I did there) with the local sea lions, we headed back to Encounter to get suited up and briefed for our wild swim with Dolphins. We were given 5mm + diving suits, hats, gloves and snorkels and then shown a brief video instructing us how to swim with these dusky dolphins. We were told to keep our heads down, arms in, basically, look less human and make unusual sounds through our snorkels. We were the entertainment for the dolphins, they were not ours!

We headed out on the boat and were briefed further by a very passionate fishing lady. To sidetrack, she warned us about the impending snow storm coming in, which was due that evening. She explained how it was due at sea level, which was incredibly rare for Canterbury. They normally see snow in the mountains but not much lower. We continued to sail around the perimeter of the underwater canyon which I mentioned earlier. We saw a few Albatross and then a few fins. They were Dolphins, only three or four, so we continued on. After a few radio calls from local lookouts, our search area was reduced by the brewing storm. We found more dolphins and then started phase two, which involves stopping to see how the dolphins interact with the boat.

They hid underwater, coming up only for their required oxygen every 4 minutes. That morning, the first group of the day (the tours only run twice) had swam with about 30 dolphins. The success rate is usually pretty high. We continued on and our hopes of swimming with dolphins were quickly diminishing – if they don’t stop, interact and play, then there’s no point getting into the water, as they will just swim away. We had lost out chance and as a group we headed back to shore. The staff had cited the potential storm as a problem or even Orca (Killer Whales), hunting near by, who enjoy a main course of dusky dolphin. We were a little disappointed at missing out on this opportunity, but took solace in a free boat ride seeing dolphins, as we received a full refund. They normally charge a fuel fee, but even this was bypassed. The impending storm meant that the chances of booking again before we left, were bleak. We went back to the campsite that night feeling a little gutted about it, but battened down the hatches and prepared ourselves for the arrival of the mega storm.

During the night, the temperature had plummeted, the van had shook and we’d heard what sounded more like rain than snow. At about 5:30am, I turned the electric heater on to pump some warm air around the van but within an hour, it cut out. It occasionally did this, due to overheating, so I continued on and made my way to the toilet. There was no snow, but a very familiar grey British day, with beating down ice rain. The kitchen and toilet areas were pitch black, so my detective skills led me to believe that there had been a power cut. Playing the concerned camper, I went up to the office to investigate and passed a fellow camper who quickly informed that power to the whole of North Canterbury was out and the roads going anywhere west were impassable. It had snowed everywhere, except for in Kaikoura town (the mountains we could see behind were being dumped on), which we had expected.

Christchurch saw snow for the first time in years on the roads and experienced it’s coldest weather since records began. The big mountain passes which take you from east to west, Lewis and Arthur’s pass were completely closed off scuppering any plans we had of heading towards Franz-Joseph and Mt Cook. The road named ’1′, going south of Kaikoura was closed in parts, making any journey in that direction impossible. We were left with no choice and no power, we had to remain in Kaikoura until it all passed. These were testing times, we had no heating, it was freezing outside and raining so hard it was pointless venturing anywhere. It had turned into a familiar Sunday rain day, but without all the comforts of home. We wrapped up in sleeping bags and many layers, boiled the kettle and sat watching Bear Grylls parasail Everest with a cup of soup and a dying mac battery.

At this point, I can’t make this any more interesting, it wasn’t. We were bored and made the decision to cut New Zealand short and add a week onto Australia in the hope that we can find a earlier flight to Asia. We were growing concerned about the roads and how we were going to travel the rest of New Zealand in our little camper van.

After another day and night of pretty much the same as above, the next morning we woke up praying that the weather might have improved. It had cleared and the mountains were covered like icing sugar!

All the closures still remained in place with passes having up to a metre of snow. We’d scrapped the idea of going west and we would now work our way down and around eventually ending up in Queenstown, then depending on time, potentially head to Franz-Joseph. But, we only had 9 days rather than 16, due to our re-shuffle. We jumped onto the road and nervously headed towards the 78. The 1 was closed when we’d checked the internet that morning. We arrived at the entrance to road 78, to be greeted by road blocks. This was a no go, but behind us we saw cars slowly continuing onto the 1. This became a really hard decision, we knew that there had been heavy snow fall all the way across the mountains and that the road had been shut all morning and the previous day. We were faced with either another night in Kaikoura, which we were bored to death of, or a treacherous drive. We bizarrely chose the latter and began meandering up the switch backs, following closely to slow cars in front in order not to be alone.

As we went on, conditions worsened. Conversation abruptly ended, breathing stopped and we drove for a solid hour across sheet ice, behind struggling lorries, right next to verges that led hundreds of feet downwards. This was like driving in England when it snows, but suspended 3,000m in the air. A truly terrifying drive was handled superbly by Fi, citing her lorry driving experience as a four year old as the key to her success. But by god, was the snow pretty!

We made it all the way to the reassuring sight of the golden arches, just by Christchurch airport and indulged in obscene amounts of the $1 menu! As we had come through the worst of the snow, we decided to mission on as far as possible, to give ourselves more time in places like Dunedin or ‘Dun-din’ as Fi pronounces it. We made it all the way down to Timaru, where we literally wrapped up again in the freezing cold, unfortunately it was another fairly nondescript New Zealand town, nice, but not much to do. The lady in the campsite let us borrow their DVD’s so we watched Lord of the Rings! We did have a wonder to the sea and took some cool pictures of the port and lighthouse.

I’m sure you’ve all heard enough about us driving, but life in a camper van consist of a lot of it. The next morning we hit the road again with our power cable present to the city of Dunedin. On the way we spotted a brown tourist sign saying Moraeki Boulders. We needed to take a break and stretch our legs, so we decided to check them out. They were pretty big, seriously spherical, formed over millions of years. They looked like marbles, just plonked on the beach by a prehistoric giant child! We played on these and snapped away in the sun before getting back on the road.

We arrived in the city centre a few hours later and we wanted to do a bit of exploring, but parking proved to be an absolute mission. It’s enough to make you dislike a place in an instant, so we made our way up the San Francisco like hills to the local campsite and checked in. After collecting ourselves, we decided to give parking in the town centre another go, this time we circled for what seemed like longer, desperate to find somewhere to park for more than 60 minutes. It was proving to be a nightmare. We nearly pulled into a multi-story, until I realised just before entering the we were about 1m too tall – a bloody close call. After what seemed like an age, we stumbled upon $1 an hour parking by the train station and breathed a sigh of relief. After several hours of no food or water, we could finally relax and re-fuel!

We walked around the streets of Dunedin and couldn’t help but feel ever so slightly underwhelmed. There was fairly interesting older architecture than we had seen before in NZ, but the centre felt like another high street. We’d expected this really huge Scottish vibe, but it wasn’t that evident. School girls wore tartan but apart from that, I wouldn’t have thought it. The bar had been set in Wellington and in terms of cities, Dunedin was falling short. We went to the Octagon, the little hub of the place and enjoyed our first meal outside of the camper van that didn’t consist of McDonalds and Free WiFi. It was just what we needed – beer and a warm fire!

We woke, optimistic about Dunedin day two. On arrival we’d been a bit tired, but we were refreshed and ready to attack the day, consisting of a visit to the Cadbury’s factory, the library for internet then a penguin visit. We parked up at our new favourite train station and headed on over to Cadbury’s. We arrived at the main entrance and witnessed several builders walk in and out. On the door it read, ‘Closed for one week for refurbishment’ and then next to that ‘Open 7 days a week, 365 days a year’. Typical! The only week we were in Dunedin, Cadbury’s was closed. Our morning plans changed and we were only due to loiter in the library so we could go and see the penguins that evening. We decided to cut our time short and scrapped the rest of Dunedin, moving swiftly onwards to Queenstown, and what a good decision that was!

Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand! You can do practically anything here, bungy jumpy, sky dive, luge, snowboard, ski, drink in ice bars, fly across the rivers in ridiculously fast boats, you name it, it’s there. Our drive to Queenstown was nothing less than stunning. The snow capped mountains surrounded us and the river winded beneath creating stunning reflections suitable for any oil painting.

We arrived in Queenstown excited, not only for the activities but for life! We’d spent a vast amount of our time in New Zealand as the sole camper van on most sites. Queenstown was littered with camper van’s from Britz, to Backpacker and then back to Juicy! (all camper van companies for those wondering). We parked up, did the usual routine set up and then made our decision. The decision we had to make was ‘what extreme activity should we do?’ Our budget would only allow one and having only had a taster snowboard session before, I decided to go for snowboarding up on Coronet Peak, one of three resorts all based in Queenstown. Fi ski’s and is a veteran of winter sports holidays, so was keen to show me what I’ve been missing out on. Before booking up, we walked into Queenstown to suss out all the shops, restaurants and bars. Everywhere we gazed seemed inviting, so we went into a nice little pub and sat by a fire and enjoyed a mulled wine – in June! Afterwards, we stumbled across the infamous burger bar, Fergburger. This place has somewhat of a cult reputation amongst travellers and seems to be the pinnacle of burger eating. We’d heard of que’s up to 40 minutes, leading out of the door, so were surprised when we strolled right up to the counter. Fi went for  the classic ‘Fergburger’ and I went for the ‘Mr big stuff’.

Both were humongous, and tasted as good as they looked. The bun is nearly the size of my head and it proved a challenging eat. So Fergburger was scrubbed off the ‘must do’ list and put onto the ‘must do again’ list. Fi discovered the Fergbakery, so we bought a chocolate brownie to solve the ‘Murray pudding’ dilemma for that evening. When we arrived back at the campsite, we sorted the snowboarding out. We paid up for a morning lesson, day lift pass and equipment hire and then went to collect all of our stuff. After a rigorous fitting of boots, bindings, jackets, pants and board, we were all set for the next morning and our bus up the mountain.

Nerves, I hate nerves, I get them a lot and pre-snowboarding was no different. Fi was extremely excited and had signed up for the Novice session with me. I was even more concerned that I was dipping in a the novice level having skipped beginner based on a snow dome taster session which consisted of a falling leaf on my toes – basically going down a hill backwards! We made our way up Coronet peak on the coach, which made a nice change having someone else in control of you destiny. We headed straight out into the snow with our very new looking Burton boards. After the very English ski instructors split us into our groups according to ability, we were ready to start learning!

After a slow start, familiarising myself with having a board strapped to my feet, I went through each step demonstrated by our Mancunian instructor, whose accent was a mix of a Canadian and Kiwi due to several seasons spent in the respective countries. After completing one of our tasks we were all sat at the top of the hill waiting for our next instruction, then suddenly Fi whizzes past and starts ‘S-ing’ all the way down – this was the aim of the next level up and something which the instructor only intended to touch on at the end. Fi’s few snowboarding trips had suddenly come back to her and she had hustled us all, the instructor had stopped talking at this point to watch, saying ‘That’s how you snowboard’. Fi spent the rest of the lesson on her own, as she’d put herself completely out of sync with our group. Everytime we were at the bottom, Fi was at the top. So she enjoyed a little individual tuition from the instructor. No one likes a boffin – sorry Fi!

After having a tasty but expensive pizza for lunch in the mountain restaurant, we headed back out with our lift pass. By this point I was verging on ‘S-ing’ myself, but needed to do it without stacking it. We spent the afternoon mastering it and by the end we both were feeling like confident snowboarders, ready to go higher. I was thrilled by the progress I’d made since my taster session back at Hemel. We are now itching for a snowboarding holiday, however, we might need to put that on ice for a while. We enjoyed a good old, British shandy back in Queenstown, chuffed with our day on Coronet Peak.

Awaking the next morning can be quickly summed up as achey! We were battered and bruised from a day on the slopes, but we revelled in the feeling of accomplishment and long overdue activity. Camper van life involves a lot of sitting! We wondered around Queenstown late morning and paid a visit to the Fergbakery. Just as we were carrying our piping hot pies back to the campsite, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face. Slighty confused, I tugged Fi as it was her friend I recognised. It was indeed her friend Ben from uni, who we knew was living in Queenstown. We all went to the local rugby park and sat on the supporters benches and caught up on various travel stories. Ben has been travelling for a while and has now settled in Queenstown for the time being to save some more money for his next adventure. Later that evening, we went around to Ben’s house up in the hills above Queenstown and met all of his friends, who have also fallen victim to the lure of life in Queenstown. It was great to spend an evening out of the camper van and hang out with some adopted locals. We caught a movie and then retired fairly early, as it was a school night for them all.

I had made a promise to myself that I would attempt to wake up at 4am to watch England. One of the things I have been gutted to be missing out on back home is Euro 2012 and to find myself down under has made it harder to follow what’s going on. Not only is there a ridiculous time difference, but their not the biggest followers of European football here. So I set my alarm for 3am and woke up in good time, in an absolutely freezing cold camper van to stream the game between England and France. Fi and I popped to the toilet as it started and to my disbelief there was a guy watching it in the kitchen area on the TV. At this point, I’d paid $10 to get 2 hours of internet, so I was determined to watch it in the camper van, but by half time, most of my illegal streams had been blocked or some Arabic bloke was hollering at the top of his lungs. We went into join this guy, who to my surprise was Scottish. After joking that the must be supporting the French, we got chatting and he was a avid Spurs fan, from Edinburgh, living in Sydney! The game was a bit of a non-starter, but a good all round experience at 4am in Queenstown.

After catching up on some sleep, it was time to say goodbye to Queenstown, eat another Fergburger, then hit the road back towards Christchurch. Our 3 days in Queenstown were easily our highlight of New Zealand. As pretty and as secluded as New Zealand is, it was a great to be in a place with a bit more life and zest! Queenstown strongly ticked this box.

So, we were on the road again and we made our way all the way back up the east coast to Oamaru. We had still wanted to go to Franz-Joseph and Mt Cook, but were worried that the two passes higher up were still closed and with our days down to 3, we had to make tracks. We spent an evening in Oamaru, alright campsite with penguin colony’s close by. The blue penguins charge $20 per person for a very limited experience, so we headed for the yellow penguins, the free option. This was to no avail and we didn’t see anything, except a black seal that looked a lot like a rock. Penguins is on the must see list for Australia now, or Fi might just cry!

We’ve spent the last two nights in a very isolated little campsite called Grumpy’s. The bloke who owns it looks a lot like Grumpy from Snow white and the seven dwarfs, so we gather this is why. He was actually pretty fair and after his card machine broke, he sorted us out with a great deal, costing us about $40 for two nights. By far our cheapest powered site and one of the only places offering free WiFi. So we’ve had a bit of time to FaceTime all of our families.

Today, we’ve been frantically cleaning the van, refilling LPG and Diesel, making sure it’s all tip top for the handover to Wilderness. When we arrived at the Christchurch branch, we were greeted by a couple of quality guys who okayed everything. We had a few minutes of fame in front of the camera, telling prospective Wilderness campers what’s great about the van. It’s kind of strange being out of it now, no more making your bed on a pull down sofa each night or turning on an electric heater to warm the freezing air. We can cook without having to turn a gas nozzle on first and no longer will I need to connect my house up to a mains cable for electricity. For all it’s responsibilities, the camper van has been a blast and an experience we will never forget. Living in such close proximity for a month is testament to anyone that can do it and we did, with flying colours. Although I won’t miss having traipse  across wet fields, every two hours during the night so Fi can pee.

Rather than sleeping in a tin can tonight, we shall be surrounded by restaurants and shops, in the airy space of Christchurch’s arrivals area. We’ve fallen on hard times and with a 6am flight to Melbourne, it seemed pointless paying for a hotel to have to leave it at 3am. It’s given me the perfect chance to write this whole blog post which I do secretly enjoy. Fi’s currently trying to read the autobiography of  the actor who plays Murray in Flight of the Conchords over in the book shop I’m looking at. I’m pretty sure she’s going to get moved on soon, let’s see if she can read the whole thing.

So, so long New Zealand, it really has been a journey. I find it hard to describe this place, but there was a song that resonated with me when we drove through some of the amazing mountains and absorbed the stunning scenery. It’s by M83 and it’s taken from the Art of Flight soundtrack – a snowboarding movie. It’s epic and so is New Zealand. Maybe this place has been more about the journey for us, than the towns we visited.

Australia now, so catch you all soon. Lots of love Tom & Fi xxx

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It’s practically begging now isn’t it. The hearts still there, we’re still here. We hope you’ve enjoyed our adventure!