New Zealand has always been a place I thought I would go one day, but after seeing Claudia’s amazing photos of her trip early last year, it moved pretty high up on my list!
We had booked the flights and organised a camper van while Silvio was away in Bangalore, thinking we’d have loads of time once he got back to research where we wanted to go … well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. With less than a week to go, we ended up spending more time arguing over whether I really needed three pairs of jeans than we did planning places to visit. We ended up with a rough plan to start by heading north, with a few places to stay in mind; to hit a few wineries and spend a couple of days in Queenstown.
After a pretty awesome (and fairly large) meal at Ribs and Rumps on Saturday it was an early start on Sunday, we had to catch the first ferry to make our flight.
We got to Christchurch, bought a NZ sim card since we can’t possibly live without the interwebz for a week, and jumped in a shuttle to our motel. The weather was gorgeous – glorious sunshine and almost as hot as Sydney – and it seemed like every other building was a small motel, this place is certainly set up for driving holidays.
We had a moment of panic as the shuttle drove off when I suddenly wondered if we’d remembered the name of the motel right, having booked a different one for the final night of our stay. We hovered outside reception waiting for Silvio’s laptop to start up, where the owner eventually found us and reassured us that yes, we were booked in – thank god!
Armed with leaflets and maps, we meandered down to the local Countdown supermarket for snacks (the logo looked suspiciously like Woolworths) They sell salt and vinegar Pringles here – wow!! Good thing junk food is allowed on holiday
Later in the evening we headed out to eat and then watch The Hobbit in 3D – although we could have seen it at home, it was pretty special to watch the scenery knowing that we were in the country it was filmed in, with a week of driving around that same scenery ahead of us. Compared to Australia, the evening stayed light really late, even by 8pm it still felt like 5 or 6.
Monday morning, yawning because with the time difference 9am felt like 7am, we headed off to the Wicked depot to collect our camper van. On the way, our taxi driver told us not to bother with the far south of the island, which knocked a few hundred kilometres off the journey very quickly.
At Wicked, we were bombarded with information. Firstly, I discovered that insurance works differently in New Zealand: although we had paid to avoid any liability for damage to the camper van itself, they didn’t cover us for damage to any third parties. Oh well, better drive carefully then.
She asked where we were heading, and was very concerned when we told her we hadn’t booked a campsite.
Brains buzzing and feeling a bit worried already, we trailed after her as she showed us where to check the oil and water, pointed out our small gas canister for cooking and how the sink worked, and informed us where to take it to clean it before returning it. This wasn’t like anything I’ve ever rented before! It was kind of cute though – smaller than we’d thought, just a converted people carrier with enough space for a bed and small shelves at the back, with curtains strung up across the windows for privacy, well almost, since they didn’t quite stretch all the way!
Our van was called Alien Life Forms, painted black and blue with various weird creatures on it. Across the back, it read “Artificial intelligence usually beats real stupidity” … at least it wasn’t rude!
At last we were off! We headed north towards Kaikoura, but it wasn’t long before we were feeling a bit hungry and seeing signs for wineries … mmmm! I wanted to stop at one that the taxi driver had mentioned but after taking a wrong turn and ending up in the middle of a vineyard, we finally arrived to find it was closed We headed back to the Mud House instead, which turned out to be an amazing place with beautifully cooked food. I tasted most of their wines afterwards, Silvio stuck to the pinot noir, and we left with three bottles including a lovely oaky chardonnay (mmm my favourite) and feeling pretty full and a bit sleepy.
Despite the warnings, we found a spot at a campsite in Kaikoura fairly easily. They were busy and everybody was fairly packed in – our closest neighbours had a large caravan and seemed to have already consumed rather a lot of wine, they were enjoying a good old sing song most of the evening.
The clouds were low over the hills, and it was pretty cool out, but we headed out for a walk along the rocky beach. I saw a single seal on the rocks, but it slithered away before I could get Silvio’s attention … meanwhile he found a rock that he could climb and headed up. Despite the grey sky the views were pretty cool, huge hills rising almost out of the sea and draped in clouds.
On Christmas Day, we woke up in a hot tin can! The campsite had a pretty good kitchen – in fact, one family were using it to roast a large hunk of meat for their Christmas dinner. As we sat eating breakfast, they carted bags and bags of presents out to their table and started handing them around.
We left the campsite and headed into the town of Kaikoura. The sky was still grey and the town was pretty dead, with only one small cafe and a tiny supermarket open. We wandered along the pebbly beaches watching the seagulls and the scenery, debating where to spend the day and night. The original plan was to explore Kaikoura then head to the wineries in the north, but it didn’t seem likely that they’d be open and there wasn’t much to do in Kaikoura on Christmas Day.
In the end we decided to skip the north and head straight across to the West Coast, in the hope that we could get to Greymouth that day (an estimated 7 hour drive, although we later found out that was very conservative). By the time we left, the weather was brightening up, and even as we drove out of the town everything was looking very pretty in the sunshine.
The road was empty. Occasionally we would pass another camper van, but for most of the journey the world was ours alone. We followed a mix of winding mountain roads and single lane highways through the middle of the country, luckily the GPS on the iPhone worked so we could see where we were on the map, but there was no phone signal for most of the way.
We stopped in Waiau to get petrol from an unmanned roadside pump. The town was completely deserted, we didn’t see another soul – it was as though the Mayan predictions had really come true! In contrast to the heavy morning mists in Kaikoura, the sun was beating down by that time and it was lovely and warm.
We continued along to Hanmer Springs, where there is a fantastic looking indoor water park with slides and spa pools, unfortunately the one day of the year that they close is Christmas Day We stretched our legs and wandered around, but there wasn’t much to see – at least here though, there were a few people milling around so we weren’t totally alone!
Throughout the journey, there were loads of single lane bridges, some fairly long, luckily we seemed to have priority on our side most of the time. One in particular did scare me though: around 200m or more driving along a railway track. In fact, there were a lot of railway tracks, but we never did see a single train
Along the way, I tried to listen to some of my Italian recordings, but I struggled with too many words I couldn’t fathom and eventually got too cross with it, deciding to dig out one of the books for another day instead.
We eventually made it to Greymouth and headed to the Top 10 Holiday Park there, it was absolutely lovely, the best place out of all the campsites we stayed at. They were busy but not full, and our camper van site was pretty spacious with walls each side and nobody directly overlooking us.
The holiday park had a jacuzzi that we could book for a half hour, which was exactly what we needed after the long drive – a huge, hot bath!
The weather was threatening rain, but we were just over the back of the beach and the sun was starting to set so it would have been a waste not to go and watch it for a little while. Afterwards, we made use of the kitchen to cook a Christmas dinner of pasta eating outside under a shelter while the rain spattered a bit.
So that was Christmas over for another year!