‘Don’t leave town ‘til you’ve seen the country’. Who remembers that tag line of an advert for New Zealand Tourism in the 80’s? It’s still relevant advice and some I needed to take so when Alan suggested we buy a campervan or caravan and spend some time checking out the many places we haven’t yet seen in New Zealand, having spent many years travelling overseas, I was all in.
The choice in options is huge. Motorhome, bus or caravan? How many beds, what were our necessities versus niceties when it came to kitchen and bathroom facilities? Lots to think about but we made our decision, settling on a ex-rental motorhome (MH), 3 years old, quite a few kms on the clock but well cared for and serviced and with the excellent staff at Smart RV in Christchurch helping us, the decision was relatively easy.
Once we returned from France last year we took the MH, now called Riley as in ‘Living the Life of Riley’ and we spent a weekend up in daughter Sarah and husband Steve’s vineyard in Hanmer and then on to Kaikoura for a shakedown trip and all was great.
We had to get our heads around living and cooking in a space that makes the 11.5m boat seem roomy not to mention our cavernous 80m2 apartment. And the whole toileting issue takes a few days to come to terms with! But once you get into the habit of dealing with grey and black water disposal it’s not that bad. Alan’s great at it.
Over the Christmas and New Year break we spent time at Lake Benmore Halden Station campground with friends Terry and Roz and in Twizel, parked up on the lawn with family in a rented holiday home and having the van was really handy, making us self sufficient. But our big trip was mid February to early March when we spent 3 weeks touring the southern part of the west coast of the South Island, through the Haast Pass and down South to Queenstown and the Catlins.
We left Christchurch mid February hoping to have avoided the school holiday crowds but there were still plenty of tourists especially since our trip coincided with Chinese New Year. Lots of camper vans out there, lots of people. But it’s usually a time of settled good weather so it’s just one of those things we all have to deal with and it wasn’t too bad.
The first day we headed to Lake Pearson, on the way to Arthur’s Pass. The lake is very pretty and has a Department of Conservation (DOC) camping area right on the lake front with one toilet available. The weather was very windy but our view was lovely and we shared the space with a number of other MHs, some tents and a school trip, out in kayaks.
The following day we moved on to Arthur’s Pass, stopping at the excellent tourist centre and parking in the Avalanche Creek DOC park while we walked up to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. Be warned, there are A LOT of steps on the 3.8kms return walk to the parking spot. The waterfall is stunning and well worth the effort and we enjoyed an excellent coffee at the Arthur’s Pass cafe while being entertained by a local Kea, hopping along the tables.
Deciding not to stay the night at the very busy DOC camp we continued on to the Otira Stagecoach Hotel, a mad pub full of an extremely eclectic collection of collections including stuffed animals, bones, photos, period furniture, bottles, toys, paintings, mannequins. You name it, they had a few. Plus a (live) parrot called Gracie. If you get a chance, drop in. The restaurant does good pub grub and they have rooms to rent. We parked the Riley in their car park for the night and enjoyed a drink at in the beer garden to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary.
The next morning we enjoyed breakfast in the pub then carried through the pass to Hokitika on the West Coast. This place has changed considerably since I was last there and is a mix of cafes bars, tourist shops and adventure companies. We saw dolphins surfing in the bay, a bonus! The heavens opened later on but luckily we were tucked up nice and dry in Riley, parked at a NZMCA campground, and played scrabble and rummy safe from the thunder and lightning outside.
Onwards the next day to the Walk The Treetops rain forest canopy walk. Amazing! The platform is 20m high and 450m long with a tower of 105 steps. We saw a kereru (NZ native wood pigeon) fly close by and heard grey warblers, tui and bellbirds. Just stunning amongst the native forest.
After a coffee at the cafe we continued to Lake Mahinapua which has a DOC campsite and is a definite must do next time we come this way but we carried on to Ross, where we walked the Gold Rush walkway which follows the water race built in the 1870s for the gold mining operations. The weather had turned lovely and warm and we camped the night in the Ross Top 10 motorcamp, $50 for a beach front site where we enjoyed a hot shower and then settled in to watch the sun set over the stormy Tasman Sea.
Next morning we headed away from Ross and on to Okarito where you can take a eco trip to see local White Heron in their native habitat, and something we will do next time! Next stop was Franz Josef Glacier, staying in an NZMCA campsite, close to the village. The next morning we walked up to the glacier, an hour and a half return from the car park, and a stunning experience in the misty mountains. Sadly the glacier is receding due to global warming and used to be down to the current car park site so you can imagine how far it has retreated.
Next up was Fox Glacier where we parked in the Fox Glacier Lodge campground for $40 per night on a powered site. That evening when it was dark we did the Minnehaha glow worm forest walk. There’s something magical about glow worms in amongst the forest, like natural fairy lights. Beautiful.
Alan lived in Fox Glacier over a summer in the early 70’s when he worked for Mount Cook Airlines and flew Cessna 185 ski planes so it was a trip down memory lane for him. We visited the hut on the airfield where he used to sleep and the local pub he frequented. Early the next morning we drove down to Lake Matheson, which on a clear day has stunning views over the lake which reflects Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The morning was fine but misty and as we walked the hour and a half it takes to circumnavigate the lake we thought we might miss out on the spectacle but suddenly the mist dissipated, the breeze died out and we were rewarded with the gin clear reflections of New Zealand’s two tallest mountains. What a photo-op! We felt so lucky to live in this stunning part of the world and the atmosphere amongst the few tourists around us was hushed and in awe. I had 20 amazing photos to choose from.
We had a change of weather later on as we drive though to Haast. A brief stop at Lake Paringa had us fighting off the sandflies. Its a well known phrase that the West Coast sandflies ‘will carry you away’ if you’re not careful and they were feral here so we continued on to Haast where the weather turned wet and cool, leading to torrential rain the next day as we drove though the Haast pass. The bonus is the waterfalls are stunning through here, including the Fantail Waterfall, although sometimes they gush across the road in this weather. The downside are the slips and only a day later there was a huge landslide that took out the road for a few days so we were lucky to have got through when we did.
Now we had officially left the West Coast and that night we parked in the Boundary Creek DOC campsite at the top of Lake Wanaka, a stunning lakeside area, quite busy with campervans and unfortunately the weather still wasn’t great with a gale blowing. The lake looked amazing though and it would be a great place to swim on a sunny day.
From there we visited Cromwell where the sun came out, the temperature rose to 26°C and we enjoyed a lovely swim in Lake Dunstan. Putting up the canopy we enjoyed drinks in the shade. This is what it’s all about!
For the next four days we stayed with our friends Tim and Bronwyn in their beautiful home near Queenstown. They kindly lent us a car, an easier means of transport than Riley, to visit nearby Arrowtown with its stunning walks, Coronet Peak where we watched paragliders and parapunters throwing themselves off the top of the mountain. We also enjoyed a great catchup with daughter Georgie who now lives and works in Queenstown.
Moving on we drove towards Glenorchy, up the side of Lake Wakatipu, and turned off towards Moke Lake, along a sometimes narrow gravel road. Unfortunately we met a Ute and trailer coming from the other direction at the narrowest point and when I say ‘meet’ I mean collided with. Once we came unstuck from their trailer with only superficial damage done, and swapped details we continued on to the lake, a beautiful, quiet (apart from our swearing) DOC campsite surrounded by mountains. There is a horse trek company operating here and good camping facilities including two toilet huts and a shared kitchen area. There were also the odd nudist swimming in the lake if you’re into that. Bit cold for me!
Back out to the main road without mishap we continued on to Glenorchy and enjoyed some excellent walking tracks. One thing about NZ, we have great scenery and with the beautiful weather we made the most of it. We parked up at the Glenorchy Pub for the night and shared a pizza in the beer garden.
The next day we travelled back to the Lake Hawea area and parked up at friends Debbie and Lloyd’s house for the night, enjoying an lovely catchup with them while the wind and rain were squally outside. The weather is so changeable down here amongst the mountains.
On down the other side of Lake Wakatipu we stopped at Kingston to have lunch lake-side and on to Lumsden, staying at the NZMCA park and enjoying coffee at their Route 6 cafe with a Dodge parked in the middle of the room. Very quirky and good coffee. There’s a good dump station and water available in Lumsden too. Not as much fun as drinking coffee but just as essential!
Next up was Mandeville and the amazing Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre with aircraft from the 20’s and 30’s including the largest collection of de Havilland aircraft in the Southern Hemisphere, many of which were restored by the adjacent Croydon Aircraft Company where we chatted to the engineer himself, Colin Smith. It was a really enjoyable visit and I highly recommend it.
We stopped the night in Gore, parking in the A and P Showgrounds and walked into Gore to visit the Creamoata porridge factory museum, another interesting and quirky display included wedding dresses from 1800-1900 and moonshine memorabilia.
From here we headed further on to the Catlins, a conservation area on the south eastern corner of the South Island. This is a stunning part of New Zealand and one we had been meaning to visit for a while. Having the MH works really well in this area with DOC camps along the way and yes it was busy with other tourists but not too bad considering the natural beauty the area holds.
Our first stop was Curio Bay where we walked the beach pausing to admire the petrified forest logs along the way, dating back to the Jurassic period, that’s approximately 160,000,000 years old, killed by a volcano spitting ash, preserving them. The resident penguins were all out fishing unfortunately.
We drove further to a NZMCA park by ‘Niagara Falls’, a tongue-in-cheek name as the falls barely fell 20cm. Nearby, however, we discovered an excellent cafe housed in the old school house. The weather was beautiful that evening.
Next day we visited a couple of waterfalls. The Korupuku Falls are tucked away along a walkway built by 2 local men, Peter Hill and Wayne Allen, through beautiful native forest and babbling brooks, with native birds singing happily. A memorable experience!
Next we visited the McLean Falls which while spectacular, didn’t have as much water as normal and perhaps didn’t have the X factor of Korupuku. Both are worth the walk in.
That evening we camped at the Papatowai DOC camp, the best camp so far. Lots of room, lots of greenery, a walkway to the tidal river and beach. They even have a little grocery shop. And would you believe we ended up parked next to some friends from France, Kiwis from the North Island who have both a canal boat there and a motorhome here. Small world! We had some very enjoyable catch up drinks that evening.
The following morning we were reluctant to leave this beautiful spot but needed to head home to attend a funeral so we packed up and headed to the Purakaunui Falls, a short walk in with lots of native birdsong in the cool rainforest. We also stopped at Nugget Point, enjoying a cup of tea on the beach then walked up to the lighthouse with its beautiful 180° views right across the Southern Ocean. It’s hard to stop taking photos in the Catlins, there was so many wonderful opportunities!
From here we drove to Balclutha, parking up for the night in the Town and Country Club carpark and then we continued our travels north, stopping for a visit to Oamaru’s eclectic SteamPunk themed streets (very cool) and then, for our final night, we stayed at the NZMCA park in Waimate, a warm 24° for our last day away.
It was a wonderful 3 weeks away. The highlights would have to be the Catlins coast and rain forest, Franz Josef glacier and Lake Matheson at Fox. Also the Devils Punchbowl at Arthur’s Pass and in fact all the waterfalls we walked up to see. Great exercise which helps with all the coffee and biscuits we munched on along the way. We loved catching up with friends and family and just being on the road.
A bit like on the boat in France but different!