South Island, New Zealand

New Zealand is the land of sheep, it’s true. Though you may not see many sheep in all these photos, rest assured that for most of our journey, most of the landscape here is filled with sheep. It’s truly remarkable!

We’ve landed in Christchurch airport, it’s midday. The air con temperature in the plane was turned quite low and it seems this is no different in the terminal, where we go through the friendly immigration and quarantine procedures. We spend an hour or two looking for camper van deals with the agents directly at the air port, as well as online, using the 60 minute access scratchcard we bought (bought!) here. We have some problems contacting the hire companies: some aren’t in the position to deal with me as it’s Sunday and there’s no staff on hand; others only offer an 0800 contact number and for some reason my newly purchased Vodafone connection tells me I’m “unable to connect to” some of these “from your current location”. Whatever that means… Either way I can’t wait to get out of this terminal because it’s bloody freezing in here!

If we want to get going today we’re forced to go with the best deal we can find, which is with ExploreMore, one of the air port agents. The price is very reasonable (NZ$43.5/day) and there will be no $200 fee for returning the van in Auckland. The part we’re not happy with though, is that (unless you pay the additional daily excess waiver fee) they will debit the insurance excess ($3500) directly from my account, so be refunded once the car is returned in good order. Hmmm. I wonder whether this is a smart ploy to make interest on customers’ hard earned money while they’re exploring the country (and paying additional interest in the $3500 hole in their credit card account)? They do say they do this because they’re not able to do a card verification – one of those that hold a potential for them to debit the fee if needed but don’t actually take it until then – apparently not possible in NZ, but I find out that for some the competitors here this doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. Strange, don’t you think?

Anyway, we head off to their depot to look at the van and so on – it turns out the same company owns ExploreMore, Maui, Britz, Backpackers; the difference is that once a car/van reaches a certain age it’s transferred to a different sub-company and rented at a lower price (ExploreMore being the most budget of the lot).

A low price camper with a few hundred thousand on the clock is not a problem for us if it’ll get us around cheap, but the ensuing conversation with the staff member on hand is rather off-putting: he doesn’t seem to have a clue about anything. (These people don’t even read their own T&C document?) For any question we put to him he has no clear answer – sometimes you can see he’s making assumptions.

“So if I’m liable for a burst tyre, how do you proceed if I break a tyre? What’ll that cost me?”
“I’m not sure about that..”
“More or less?”
“Other companies I spoke to will get a quote from two companies and provide me that information when they charge me for the damages.”
“Oh we have a list for all standard items covering replacement costs.”
“Can I see that list?”
“Oh sure, just a wait here moment….” [returns] “It’s about $200.”
“Could I have a look at this list?”
“Well, we don’t really have a list…”

The last nails in the coffin for this deal is in the contract fine print regarding vehicle damage: “customer liable for all damages up to excess limit …. liable for cost of repairs to the damages as well as the daily rental fee for the time the car is out of service during repairs…”

Needless to say we walk out, and a few minutes later we’re waiting at a bus stop to head into town and find a hostel. As we stand there in shorts and flip flops with the wind blowing over us, the reality sinks in: it’s actually bloody cold out here! Worse than in the airport terminal! Out come the longs and socks and jackets, and as we wait the 20 minutes or so for the bus to arrive, dull memories of English winters surface. After 8 months in 30-plus degrees, we are not physically, nay, nor mentally equipped to deal with this climate. We both get rather melancholy and talk about perhaps curtailing our stay in NZ and either making a bee line for Chile or heading back to Southeast Asia.

We get a Thai takeaway and spend a night sniffling and shivering in “At The Right Place” hostel on Bealy Ave, quite central. The place is quite pleasant really, as are the staff, but we’re just not used to this temperature anymore. (How did we ever…?)

The next day we manage to contact a few more companies and find a great deal with Happy Campers (same company as Kiwi Campers). For $48/day we have a well equipped vehicle, there’s no alternate location drop-off fee, the insurance excess is lower and they won’t take it off my card unless there’s a claim. Aside from that all the details look very reasonable and flexible enough, and the owner, Kevin, seems like a good chap to deal with. The bonus is that because the last camper of the type he quoted us for has just been hired he gives us an upgraded (Kiwi Camper) one at the same rate! And so the New Zealand adventure begins!

We first head SouthWest to Highway 72 to get on the Inland Scenic Route.

This is a good decision as it takes us through some spectacular scenery of mountain ranges and endless flat planes.

In the evenings we generally stop at rest stations or camp sites which are free of charge, or Department Of Conservation (DOC) camp sites, which usually cost about $6/pp and have running water. Every now and again, generally when our camera or laptop batteries are empty, we fork out more for a night on a holiday park camp site with electrical hookups, hot showers and laundry facilities.

Ebru proudly presents Turkish Campervan Kofte in New Zealand 

One night we meet a young German couple on a rest stop, Anja and Andreas. There’s nobody else around in this deserted park and we invite them over for a couple of drinks. It’s a fun night and we consume more beer than intended. They’ve been travelling here for a few weeks already and give us some tips on where to go on the North Island later on.


A beautiful sunrise the next morning

Highlights on this leg are camping at the great lakes Tekapo and Pukaki en route to the Mount Cook National Park. These lakes are spectacular, with clear blue water and majestic mountains on the horizon.

Next morning we decide to take a dip in lake Tekapo, since we’re in dear need of a shower. The water is painfully cold, but it’s so nice to get a wash after a few days that it’s actually refreshing, and it becomes a regular practice for us.
Taking a dip in the freezing mountain lakes and streams turns out to be our recurring theme here…

Mount Cook is the highest peak in NZ and it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, on the afternoon when we arrive in the village at its base, the weather is overcast and after doing an hour of the walking track to the glacier we turn back and decide to move on the next morning. However, the next morning while I’m preparing some coffee I notice some commotion outside as people are scrambling to get their cell phones out and point them towards the mountains.

When I look outside I see the clouds have lifted and the peaks are brightly visible on a perfectly clear morning. We can’t miss this opportunity so we delay our departure and go trekking up to the glacier.

It’s a beautiful walk and we get some fantastic views of Mt Cook and the glacier lake. (We plan to take a dip in it but our courage deserts us this time.)

From here we hear back out coastwards via the 83 past Oamaru, on to the number 1 to Moeraki where we spend 2 nights on a beautiful fully serviced camp site (Moeraki Holiday Park), doing our laundry, doing our Internet stuff and spoiling ourselves with daily showers and ample power, we can even run our little in-car heater to keep us warm.

Continuing South past Dunedin, the Southern Scenic Route begins and takes us all the way by Kaka Point, Nugget Point, Curio Bay and Slope Point, the Southernmost point of NZ.

We see some of the most beautiful coastline along the way, as well as some wildlife you don’t see in may places, such as seals, sea lions and penguins. At Curio Bay there’s a fossilized forest which has been uncovered by sea erosion and you can actually see huge petrified tree stumps from about 150mil years ago laying there in the rock.

The coast was nice, but the trekking fever has got us now and it’s time to head back into the mountains. We’re now in the SouthWest Fjordlands of NZ which offers some unbelievably beautiful natural scenery. We decide to drive up along the beautiful lake Te Anau and up to Milford Sound, one of the well known fjords in these parts.

Just in time, we realize we’re going the Wong Way…

Knowing that camping facilities in Milford Sound are limited and expensive, we camp about 130km before Milford Sound at the DOC site Cascade Creek, a beautiful site right at a river bank. It’s paradise here! The mountains surround us, the mountain stream is right there for refreshing dips – especially important after a long day’s walk – and in the evenings we light up a fire and braai some succulent NZ meat – and it is damn fine here I assure you.

Loving the humour in a Milford Sound pub toilet

We also do the challenging Gertrude Valley trek up to the Gertrude Saddle. It takes about 3 hours each way and vertical ascent is only about 1km, but the terrain is rough, steep and rocky. We are lucky to have a clear day and the view from the top is superb! The fjord valley stretches out below you with steep, jagged  peaks either side, and in the distance you can see the waters of the Tasman Sea coming into Milford Sound.

Queenstown is the next stop. Based at lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake, the approach is a beautiful winding road along the side of the lake, with mountains on the horizon in every direction. Queenstown is a nice little town, rather reminiscent of ski areas alpine Europe, but of course quite busy and crowded compared to the places we’ve been hanging out. Also it’s correspondingly expensive and since we’re not here to fork out hundreds of NZ-dollars for adrenaline sports, we satisfy ourselves with a night on a powered camp site, a good steep walk up Queenstown Hill and a good evening of Guinness (brewed in Christchurch but still good) and Irish music in Pog Mahone’s Irish pub.

If you drive along the banks of the lake out past Queenstown you get to Glenorchy (did I mention a lot of place names down here sound very Scottish?). It’s a treacherous road, narrow and full of bends next to steep drop-offs into the lake, but spectacularly beautiful.

We camp out at the Kinloch DOC camp site which is wonderful. 8km down a gravel road, it’s right where the Dart River flows into Wakatobi, and the scenery here is stunning! The river is great for refreshing dips, sure to provide a teeth-chattering experience. Our night is once again spent at a bonfire with marinated chicken drumsticks and ember-baked potatoes and brussel sprouts and a good mixed for dinner.

Kendalf, Lord of the Spoon, casting fire spell upon dry wood…

We could get used to this kind of life. In fact, I would say we have become used to it. 🙂

The next day we follow the dirt track up toward a place called Paradise for a few kilometres. This is supposed to be some of the most stunning scenery in the country and has been used as the backdrop for many a film. However with the condition of the road and the number of streams we have to ford along the way in a rental van we decide to pass on this affair – we do get a few good photos though. Funnily, nearly all of the few cars that we come across on this track seem to have one thing in common: two young, well groomed, male passengers. We look at each other thinking, “Hmmm… Brokeback Mountain”? 😉

We do stop at Lake Diamond, which is supposed to be very beautiful but I don’t find noteworthy at all. We head back past Queenstown and Wanaka, stopping at Arrowtown to look at the historical Chinese mining village there. Very interesting to see the conditions under which these people lived here so many years ago. And one great thing about New Zealand, I must say, is that in all of the national parks and sites that we’re visited they’ve got a good amount of information displayed to give you some background about what you’re looking at.

That night, we camp at the Pleasant Flat camp site several kilometres further North. It’s a long drive and we only park up there at about 8PM. It’s pretty small and it’s already almost full, but it’s lush and green and well maintained. And most importantly, it’s got fire places, so it’s marinated NZ rump steak on the braai tonight and that is something you just can’t beat!

After Pleasant Flat we drive up to visit the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers. We’re now on the same latitude we were when we visited Mt Cook, but we’re on the other (Western) side of the range. At Fox we check out the guided glacier walks. They’re quite expensive ($109/pp half day; $159/pp full day) and for safety reasons there are no public tracks that you can walk independently. The weather forecast predicts overcast skies tomorrow and rain the day after, so we’re not so sure about forking out the cash. We take one of the short walks around the area and then set off to find a camp site Ebru has read about. It’s a DOC site and we’re not sure whether they allow camper vans there, but they apparently allow camp fires which is what we require for that other piece of rump. Although the approach road warns of gravel and fords, we see an old school bus enter and we follow, and get there without issues.

The camp site is behind the beach and you can hear roaring explosions and feel the tremors as the waves hit the shore. After dinner we go for a walk to check it out and it’s breathtaking! This is pebble beach but the pebbles are no smaller than fists and heads, and as the furious waves come crashing in on the steep embankment of the shore and dump tons of rock on rock, the sound is fearsome! I wouldn’t even dare dip my toes in this water for fear of getting minced. Some kids up the beach have made a huge bonfire with some of the driftwood. The driftwood itself is magnificent: it’s all over the beach and in form is large logs and roots heaved up here by the powerful tides.

Over all, the west coast on South Island is a marvel. I don’t recall seeing such a brutal onslaught of water on land. And in the grey, overcast, windy weather it’s all the more spectacular. As we’re touring along this part of the country we’re following a news story of a number of Chinese refugees docked in Australia in a fishing vessel, intent on sailing on to New Zealand (not keen on the prospect of staying in Australia and being banged up in an immigration camp for a few years). Allegedly they’re being urged to reconsider. After seeing this water I have to agree. (They did in fact reconsider in the end and make their asylum requests in Oz. Good luck to you.)

The next morning we do an independent walk up to the face of the Franz Joseph glacier. Fortuna smiles upon us and the weather turns out very pleasant, so we manage to get some good photos as well. This area receives the highest precipitation in NZ and therefore a mass of fresh snow feeds the glacier from the top constantly. But still, the glacier has receded many hundreds of metres up the valley over the last century, which is quite astounding to see as you walk through.

After the West coast of south island, unfortunately, the rest of the scenery Northwards becomes less and less noteworthy. And what’s worse, the wildfire risks here mean that it’s just about impossible to find a campsite with a fireplace – i.e. no BBQ 🙁

I think the highlight up here is Nelson, where we do some wine tasting at the Rock Ferry winery, and collect edible wild mushrooms near a pine forest.

And with that, we take leave of the South Island via ferry. There are two ferry operators (Bluebridge and Interislander) operating from Picton to Wellington, both of which operate a similar schedule and price list, but Bluebridge seems to be slightly cheaper. The journey costs us about NZ$235 (2 x 51 + 133 for the van).