Walking Under Blue Skies

We settled back into campervan life very quickly. Our 12 months in a van travelling around Australia certainly helped and with all the unexpected storage, we have loads of space and things are turning out to be easier than what we had prepared for.

Great space for Sarah…..
Great space for Steve! Or maybe the other way?

‘Freedom Camping’ is widespread in New Zealand. There are places all over the country where, as long as you are certified ‘Self Contained’, you can park up for free. Some of these places are in beautiful locations and can get very busy. Unfortunately, the rules of Self Contained seem to get regularly abused. You are supposed to have a toilet on board and have tanks for three days of fresh water and waste water. However, normal estate cars with ‘Self Contained’ certification stickers are common place. We’re sure we will see a ‘Self Contained’ motorbike before we leave!

The Department of Conservation (DOC) also has a network of sites, which mainly seem to be in and around National Parks. These are either free or relatively cheap and can be either bookable online or run on a first come, first served basis.

Add to that, there are also the independent campsites as well as the big National commercial operations with all the facilities you could want. With all these options finding somewhere to spend the night, roughly where you want, hasn’t been a problem, as yet anyway!

Our ‘napkin plan’ had taken us all the way South and West to the area known as Fiordland. This is easily the wettest area in New Zealand with over seven metres of rain each year. Back to back days of warm weather and clear blue skies are very rare. When we saw the forecast for the few days ahead we just had to take advantage of it. We headed first for the small town of Te Anau, right on the lake of the same name.

Lake side at Te Anau

Hiking, or ‘tramping’ as they call it here, is a major pastime. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of marked trails ranging from a few minutes walk around a forest up to multi day, high altitude technical trails. Ten of these multi dayers have made an exclusive list entitled ‘The Great Walks’. The number of people allowed on some of these walks are limited and the demand is so high that securing a slot has been likened to securing a ticket for an ‘A List’ rock concert. It’s an Internet frenzy when they are released.

It is still possible, however, to sample The Great Walks on a single day hike and this is what we did.

Firstly, from Te Anau we walked The Kepler Track. This was a lovely, easy walk which follows the river through thick beech forest on an even path. It was great to get out and start doing some walking which is one of the reasons we came to New Zealand.

Walking along the Kepler Track.

We also had a wander around town and explored the cafés and shops, most of which were based around outdoor pursuits. It was then time to drive, what many describe as, the most scenic road in New Zealand.

Starting the road to Milford Sound.

At 75 miles long the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound, twists and turns its way through forests, grassland valleys carved millenia ago by slow moving glaciers. It then slowly climbs into the heart of the fjords, around every corner is another amazing view more spectacular than the last. The closer you get to Milford Sound, the steeper the road gets and the higher the snow capped mountains become.

Getting higher !

Then it becomes too difficult to build a road over the terrain, so a low, narrow tunnel takes you through the mountain and out the other side and down the steep decent into the Milford township.

We stopped about 50 miles up the road and camped at a DOC site by a river. It was a great setting and Steve took advantage of the light evenings and headed out on his bike for a couple of hours to enjoy the scenery on two wheels.

Parking up for the evening.

The next morning we completed the trip up to Milford Sound in order to do another hike on one of The Great Walks. This time, probably the most famous of them all, The Milford Track.

The start of the walk is not accessible by foot and it’s necessary to catch a water taxi. This meant we had the added benefit of traversing across Deep Water Basin at the very entrance to The Sound giving some great views and photo opportunities.

The Milford Track Water Taxi.
A pretty scenic taxi ride.

We followed the track as far as the Giant’s Gate Waterfall and the swing bridge across the river. It was a lovely walk but it left us wanting more. I’m sure when the trail gains elevation the views would be spectacular. Maybe we will return one day and do the four day circuit.

The Milford Track really is a ‘Great Walk’

We started our journey back out of Milford Sound to Te Anau and it was mid afternoon. We pulled over at the trailhead to the Marian Lake and Waterfall. We walked together the short distance to the viewing area and were treated to a great scene which was more fast flowing rapids than waterfall and much more impressive than The Giants Gate Falls we had seen earlier.

Marian Falls were more like rapids.

The sign at the trailhead said it was a three hour return to the lake. Sarah didn’t fancy another long walk, especially as it went straight up and back down and we had done two long walks already. So Steve said he would run it as he had heard it was worth the trip. A tough run/scramble led to a fabulous location, a lake surrounded by mountains, very similar to areas we had seen in The Canadian Rockies many years ago.

This was a really great place.

He returned 1hr 20mins later with some great photos and in plenty of time to get to our planned stop for the night.

Our trip back down to Te Anau was as scenic as the way up. Would we say it’s the most scenic road in New Zealand? Well it’s early days, but it will certainly take some beating.

It’s mid summer here so the evenings in the South are light until almost 10pm. This gave us plenty of time to make some progress out of Fiordland. We had researched a Freedom camp in the small town of Lumsden, so headed there. The site was essentially the car park of a Heritage Train Station, complete with platform, waiting room, and old steam trains. They had toilets, areas to sit, eat and wash up. It was one of the best free camps we have been to.

We had encountered it several times in Australia where small towns create pretty good free sites which encourages people to stop who otherwise might have bypassed the town. In return the travellers are likely to spend some money in the town on groceries, cafés, fuel, pubs etc. It’s a win for everyone!

“All aboard”

Next stop was Queenstown, probably the top of the tree when it comes to tourist locations in New Zealand. Almost everyone on a road trip stops here and it’s a super popular place for Kiwis to spend their Summer holidays aswell.

When we pulled into town it looked like the whole of New Zealand was there. It was rammed with traffic jams and people everywhere.

There are hundreds of people to the side and behind the wall !!

The reason the town is so popular is its stunning location on the banks of Lake Wakitipu, surrounded by mountains and the fact it is the self proclaimed Adrenaline Capital of The World. Just about anything which raises your heart rate can be done here. Bungee Jumping, Sky Diving, Jet Boating, paragliding the list seems endless. Every other outlet in town seems to be selling some kind of activity, and the ones that aren’t are selling you food for some energy or drinks to celebrate.

A jet boat screams up the Shotover gorge.

Any revenue the town lost during Covid is being recouped now. At one famous burger bar we counted over 40 people in the queue waiting for a table.

We came to Queenstown on our honeymoon over 20 years ago and it was much, much smaller then. It was still an adrenaline paradise and we did a lot of it, but the place has exploded. There is what appears to be a whole new town created called Frankton, providing more shops and accommodation for the masses. But unless you have something booked you are going to struggle. ‘No Vacancy’ was the most popular sign.

We stayed for three nights on a campsite close to town. It was pretty dirty, not very well run, and to be fair it was abused by the younger crowd who were the majority there. The camp kitchen was left in a terrible state and one morning we went in to use the toaster and counted 20 dead cockroaches on the floor!

Don’t get us wrong. We got out of Queenstown what we went for and that was to revisit the town and its waterfront, drive the scenic route along the lake to Glenorchy and most importantly to climb Ben Lomond.

This was a great drive and an even better cycle.

At just under 6000 feet Ben Lomond looms over the town. We set off at 7.30am and walked the 20 minutes to the trailhead. There is a very tempting gondola ride which takes you up the first 1000 or so feet, but we thought if we’re going to do it, then we will do the lot. Plus, it didn’t start for another couple of hours. So off we went into the forest.

Immediately the trail goes up and it’s anything but easy for the first hour up to the gondola station. It was very quiet as the staff were opening up the various adrenaline pumping activities ready for what they hoped would be another busy day.

After the gondola station you emerge above the tree line, the view opens up, and the gradient while still steep, eases a little and you get the feeling of being much more remote.

Well over an hour gone and the peak in the distance still looks so far away.

We had perfect weather with blue skies and it was warm but not too hot. There was also only a handful of other walkers to be seen. One or two ahead and the same behind. We were really enjoying it.

With regular stops for drinks, food and a few photos we plodded on, enjoying the views rather than trying to go too fast.

Time for a drink and a look at the view.

After a couple of hours we reached the ridge which leads to the summit. The gradient ramps up again at this point and the trail is no longer maintained. There are lots of loose rocks and four points of contact were needed in one or two places. Also, the wind was picking up as was the heat. But the views were absolutely outstanding which gave us a great excuse for a few seconds pause to take them in.

Stunning views approaching the ridge.

After almost another hour on the ridge we finally rounded the last corner and the summit was in sight. Our early start was rewarded by incredible views and for a few minutes we had the summit all to ourselves.

We were soon joined by a French couple and were able to take some great photos of each other. Sarah then produced a very welcome bag of sandwiches and a flask of coffee ….. from Steve’s rucksack. “At least it will be lighter on the way down”, he thought.

We hung around on the summit for a while relaxing and taking in the views before starting the decent. The further we walked back down the busier, hotter and windier it got. We were glad we started early as several people were visibly struggling and turning around at the start of the ridge.

What a view from the summit.

When we arrived back at the gondola station it was mayhem. A totally different scene from a few hours before. Zip Wires, Luge Runs, Downhill Mountain Biking, Paragliding were all in full flow. The cafe was struggling to keep up with demand and the ice cream seller was complaining his arm was aching with all the scooping he was doing.

We escaped back into the relative calm of the forest and made our way slowly back into town.

Seven hours after leaving the campsite we returned (5 hours and 45 minutes of which had been walking) and we had climbed almost 5000 feet. It had been right up there with the best we have done.

Someone is happy with life!

A Slice of Good Luck!

Before we picked up our campervan we had a couple of days spare, which gave us a great opportunity to visit Christchurch city centre and see the sights.

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second biggest city, but is still pretty small by international standards, which means it is compact and easy to get around.

A novel way to get around town.

Twelve years ago the city was struck by a series of major earthquakes with the final one resulting in wide ranging destruction and the loss of 185 lives. The evidence of the quake is still very much to be seen in the partly demolished buildings, the empty gravel plots where buildings once stood, the memorials to the deceased and the new buildings which have hastily been erected to bring some sort of normality back to the city and its residents.

After the disaster numerous shipping containers were brought in to act as makeshift offices and commercial premises. Many of these containers are still there scattered around the city. Most are now disused but some have been innovatively adapted and are now used as takeaway food and drink outlets.

Christchurch did have some beautiful older buildings, one of these was the University which appears to have survived mainly intact. The old cathedral with its dominating spire was not so lucky and is still in the process of a lengthy rebuild. However, a ‘Transitional Cathedral’ has been erected close by and has been constructed predominantly from cardboard.

Inside the “Cardboard Cathedral”

A plain but beautiful memorial wall has been erected down by the river with the names of those who lost their lives inscribed for all to remember.

The White Memorial Wall.

There is also an unusual piece of art which is made up of 185 different shaped chairs, all painted white, depicting the 185 different people lost in the earthquake. You are encouraged to sit in one and reflect.

Unusual, but effective.

About a third of the city centre is taken up by Hagley Park an expansive green area which contains the cricket ground and the botanical gardens, which makes for a great walk.

Steve pretending to be interested!

In the botanical gardens is a café and as in one or two cafés in the past, a plan was made. With two coffees, two scones, a paper napkin and a pen, we plotted out a route for the next couple of weeks based around where we wanted to visit and the predicted weather. Sarah used the reverse of the napkin as a food shopping list for the following day. Waste not want not.

Another lovely place to wander in Christchurch is down by the river which flows through the city. The Avon, as it is called, is one of many areas and street names in the Christchurch area which share names with UK places. The city itself shares its name with the small Dorset town. The River Avon (NZ version) is also home to another very English tradition, more associated with Oxford and the River Thames. The pastime of punting on the river. It’s quite strange to see the punts slowly moving along the river, with punters in traditional straw hats. You could easily imagine yourself in Oxford by the University. All very English.

Are we back in England?

The next morning we were up nice and early, so armed with our napkin we went to collect our campervan. It’s peak season, campervans are in short supply, demand is high, so simple economics means prices are high too. Because of this we had booked the smallest van we had managed to convince each other that we are able to realistically live in for two months. It was going to be cramped but we could manage…. couldn’t we?

We were just about to have a huge slice of good fortune. Our van was brought to the front of the rental premises and we were led outside and given the keys. However, this was definitely not the van we had booked! “Please don’t say a word Sarah, just get in and drive off”, was Steve’s only thought. Funnily enough it was Sarah’s only thought as well. So that is what we did.

Two happy people, driving fast!

There were plenty of the super small vans around, so all we can do is put it down to an admin error. We’re sure if it would have been an intentional upgrade they would have told us and made a bigger thing of it as the cost would have been double the price.

We are sure some people might think the campervan we have is still quite small to live in for two months. But you should have seen the one we were supposed to have!

Home for the next two months.

So with big smiles on our faces we headed South, out of Christchurch and towards a supermarket. We now had a fridge, a stove top, a microwave, loads of storage space and a napkin with a route and a supplies list, which Sarah was furiously adding to now we had all this new space!

This is going to be so much more comfortable.
You bet it is !!

The Springs and The Springer.

We drove away from the town of Motueka and The Tasman region with a certain amount of sadness. It had been a fantastic month.

The weather had been amazing. The house had been super comfortable and Whiskey had been great fun, but it was now time to move on.

We had rented a car for four days to get from Motueka to Christchurch where we had another house sitting job arranged for over the Christmas and New Year period. On the way we took the opportunity to see a little more of New Zealand.

Our first stop was in the Alpine resort of Hanmer Springs. Because of its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is a hotbed for geothermal and volcanic activity. As such, many of the interesting places to visit are centered around this theme. Hanmer Springs is one example.

Resident of and visitors to the small town have been bathing in its hot spring water that bubbles up from subterranean rivers for over a hundred years. It is also a ski resort in Winter and a mountain biker paradise in Summer.

Sarah has a flashback to home.

As the tourism has increased so has the visitors to the thermal springs and today, what was once a couple of rock pools, is now a huge pool complex which keeps people entertained for hours.

38 degrees. Very inviting on a chilly day.

There are pools of differing temperatures, some are adults only, some are natural, some man-made. There is a play pool with two huge waterslides to entertain the kids (and wannabe kids, yes we did have a go!) There was even a lap pool for Steve to get some swim training in.

We had planned to spend the morning at the pools, but when lunch time came we got dressed, visited the on site café and then afterwards got back in the water for a couple of more hours. We had a great day.

It was a great facility which got really busy as the day wore on!

We were staying at an old forestry worker’s site which had been converted to an educational outward bound facility which also catered for passing tourists. It was rough around the edges and our accommodation was basic, but it had a great communal kitchen and a lounge where we sat both evenings chatting to some really interesting people from different walks of life. Some were born in New Zealand, some had emigrated here, and some were visiting like ourselves.

“I know. Its just like my Dad’s shed”

After our short spell in Hanmer Springs we continued South. One thing we are quickly learning about New Zealand is that once you leave even a small town it can be quite a way before you arrive at the next one. Facilities are minimal but the scenery is amazing.

Our next stop was just South of Christchurch on the Banks Pennisula. We had never heard of this place but it looked really interesting when we looked at a satellite image of the area. We found a Bed and Breakfast place which looked interesting, perched high on the peninsula. The experience, however, was not what we were expecting.

When we arrived the property was, as we had thought, at the top of a very steep road. We were greeted by Brenda, a lady in her early 70’s. She showed us to our beautiful room with a totally amazing view out over Christchurch and the Cantebury Plains. A few steps up the accommodation ladder from our place in Hanmer!

The view from Brenda’s place.

Brenda then invited us through into the house for a cup of tea. Sometimes you meet people and gradually get to know them and become friends over time. Sometimes you meet people and within 10 minutes you know they are going to be great fun and your kind of person. Brenda was in the second category.

We instantly liked her and in no time at all we were all laughing and joking together. She had lived an interesting life and was genuinely interested in our travels.

It turned out she was hosting a dinner party that evening for some of her old college friends who still meet up on a regular basis. We met them as they arrived and Brenda introduced us to her wonderful friends, all of whom wanted to know our story.

Brenda’s place was super comfy.

Brenda cooked us some chicken to go with our pasta and we mixed into the chaotic but friendly kitchen. We decided to eat separately so as not to invade their Christmas dinner party, but as it was rounding up two other guests arrived for the second B&B room. Brenda called us in to meet them. Janet and Brent were two Kiwis from a small town down near Queenstown who were meeting up with family in Christchurch for Christmas. Our 30 second “hello”, quickly turned into a half hour plus chat and we got on instantly with them. They had recently retired and were looking for inspiration on what to do. The eating at the dinner party was winding up and somehow we got sucked back into the conversation. They were all interesting people who had led different but successful lives.

Eventually we escaped to bed and awoke the next morning to a wonderful breakfast spread put on by Brenda. Janet and Brent joined us but Janet was not too happy, complaining at Steve that she had wanted an early night but had stayed up far too late reading our blog! She had really enjoyed it.

Our quick breakfast turned into a two hour plus affair chatting away about travel and the current state of New Zealand. When we spend a significant amount of time in a country we like to visit the well known, and not so well known places, but we also like to see how the country works. It’s amazing how a lot of countries are so similar in many ways with the same problems and concerns. They are just on different scales and dealt with by different methods. Economy, Crime, Education, Health etc. are issues everywhere. Sometimes people seem so different and in the next breath so alike. It’s strange.

We got on so well with Janet and Brent that we were invited to visit them on our road trip and we will do our utmost to make it happen.

As evidenced by our lengthy breakfast we were in no rush to move on. We were not expected at our house sit until late afternoon and other than a few bits of shopping to do, we had no plans. So Steve offered Brenda two hours of his time to do any jobs she needed doing in her big garden.

Brenda had no hesitation on taking him up on the offer and set him about moving a massive pile of wood chippings that had been left near the entrance, to a better location so she could use them to create a path at a later date.

Steve looked at the job, did a quick calculation, and thought that if he had an extra pair of hands to pull out some weeds, help spread the chippings, and if both people worked fast they could pretty much get the chippings moved and the path done in a couple of hours our so. “Now, who could help me”, he thought. “Sarah”, came the shout.

” No time to rest, get back to work”

Soon we were both hard at it and Brenda came out to supervise and help. By lunch time we had all but finished and Brenda was over the moon saying Santa had sent her two elves to help her.

Although we had only been at Brenda’s for 24 hours it had been a thoroughly rewarding stop. We had met some great people and had some great laughs.

It was now time to go and meet Baxter, the Springer Spaniel, who we would be looking after for the next couple of weeks.

“Hi Baxter, pleased to meet you”

The best way to describe Baxter was a loveable rogue and was a real character. We loved our time looking after him but it was sometimes hard work, especially for Sarah as she did a lot of the walking while Steve was out working hard on his bike.

The house, which was very comfortable, was situated only a few minutes drive from a fantastic forest and also a long, wide, rugged beach.

Baxter was in his element in both locations and we loved them both too. The forest was criss crossed by what seemed like a labyrinth of pathways for walking, mountain biking and horse riding. Although we had a map of sorts it was still difficult to navigate. In fact, one day an hour’s walk turned into three hours! It did seem a common theme as we met others who were totally lost.

“Any idea where we are Baxter”

The beach was probably Baxter’s favourite. His three passions in life seemed to be a ball, getting wet and stealing food. The beach provided unlimited access to the first two as he constantly chased a ball through the sand and into the waves. His energy seemed endless.

Great catch!

When we got him home it was no problem cleaning him up though, as he loved being washed down with the garden hose and then rolling around on the lawn to dry off. Yet again we were very lucky with the weather which made it all very easy.

Drying off in the sun after a good hose down.

We took him further afield to Akaroa and The Banks Peninsula, both of which offered incredible scenery, probably the best we have seen in New Zealand so far. Utterly stunning.

What an amazing place to walk

When in the house Baxter employed the three second rule. In that anything left unattended for more than three seconds was fair game. Including raw chicken, a ham sandwich, Steve’s protein bars, flip flops, socks, the list goes on and on. “Baxter, No!”, was easily our most used phrase.

Even with his naughty streak we really bonded with Baxter just as we had with Whiskey up in Abel Tasman. But our dog and house sitting days were coming to an end and it was time for us to get out and really see New Zealand. It was time to get back to the style of travel we loved so much in Australia. We are getting back in a campervan for two months and, hopefully, there are plenty of adventures to be had.