In my household Sundays have tended to fall into a pattern: we wake late (some later than others), have a leisurely breakfast, do the housework, have a leisurely lunch, then drive out to one of the beautiful places near me and walk, chill out and take photographs, all the while letting the munificence of nature stroke our stressed-out brains.
Not very exciting, perhaps. Almost certainly not exciting enough for some of my readers. But it’s what we do.
The last four weeks, however, have seen this pattern repeated, but on a daily basis, as we toured New Zealand in what turned out to be a very small campervan. I didn’t keep a diary during this time as there wasn’t time or space to write. So I’m just jotting down here what we did on each day to remind me for when I get it together to upload photos and suchlike (at the time of writing I am still feeling quite dozy with jetlag).
Monday 21st Feb: Arrive Auckland 7am. Witnessed a road accident on way to hostel from airport. Spent day asleep and then had fish and chips, then slept again.
Tuesday 22nd Feb: picked up Nissan Vanette campervan from North Auckland. Decided to get as far from the city as possible so as to minimise the risk of becoming an accident statistic. Drove down SH1 and then a spectacular road up the west side of the Coromandel peninsula, booked into campsite. Saw the devastating news of Christchurch on the TV and started ocntacting people to let them know I was ok.
Wednesday 23rd Feb: Coromandel. I fell in love with Kiwi engineering and native Kiwi bush country on the Driving Creek railway. Then we drove East and camped in Whitianga.
Thursday 24th Feb: Whitianga – Hamilton. After a wander and leisurely breakfast we headed for Hamilton to see an old family friend. The drive went through some of the less interesting bits of Kiwi scenery: farmland, sheep, cows, abandoned farm machinery and vehicles on bricks. But I found our friend Joy Homewood easily enough and she was as lovely as I remembered from my childhood.
Friday 25th Feb: Hamilton and Waitomo. Joy drove us down to Waitomo to see the caves and we were guided through them by Maori. For a brief few moments, in a boat beneath a constellation of glowing insects, it was magical. Exit through the gift shop. Then we took Joy out to dinner at Genjy’s in Hamilton – a good fun place to eat. Good times.
Saturday 26th Feb: Hamilton – Rotorua – Tongariro. We reluctantly left Joy and headed to the volcanic centre of the North Island in Rotorua. A Maori guide explained some history and took us to see the most reliable geysers and boiling mud pools. Exit through the gift shop. Then a drive round the shores of the beautiful lake Taupo and an overnight at Tongariro Base Camp.
Sunday 27th Feb: Tongariro. This was my unfinished business. When I was 10, my family attempted to cross the Tongariro saddle but were turned back by bad weather. Today, we finally conquered the mountain. It was a tough walk amidst awesome scenery. I will never forget.
Monday 28th Feb: Tongariro – Napier. We were sore from walking so decided to head somewhere chilled out to cool off. Napier, famous for it’s Art Deco architecture, seemed suitably cultured so we set off from Tongariro Base camp, taking the Desert Highway before heading back round Lake Taupo and East to the coast. In the event, it was a long drive.
Tuesday 1st March: Napier. We spent most of the day doing chores, a bit of shopping, and exploring the town and observing the port from the hill. We also got some working internet and started booking some things up for the days ahead. Next time, I’ll do more planning up front.
Wednesday 2nd March: Napier – Martinborough. Our morning was spent taking a tractor trip out to see the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. The trip was good fun and we likes us some gannet, they are fine birds and the viewing positions were right up close. In the afternoon we headed South to wine country. New Zealand has lots of good wine and Martinborough is right in the centre of a great wine-growing area. I drink beer. I hate wine. Ho Hum. In the middle of the night I get out of the van to go to the loo, and the stars are out. I had no idea there were so many. I feel very small.
Thursday 3rd March: Crossing. Up very early to catch the ferry from Wellington over to the middle island on a perfect day for it. In fact the weather has been utterly glorious all the way so far with only the occasional shower at night. That is all set to change, however: we book into a campsite on Queen Charlotte Drive after watching a ray cruising around the bottom of the water nearby, and go to bed. In the night, the heavens open.
Friday 4th March: Picton – Farewell Spit. After a quick, rain-soaked breakfast, we headed west towards the far north-western corner of the middle island. The weather clears as we drive and in bright sunshine we reach the Farewell Spit in the late afternoon. On the far side is a beach that looks like the Skeleton Coast – all surf and sand dunes, and no-one about. Wild, sunny and raw. It’s unforgettable.
Saturday 5th March: Golden Bay. In the morning we visit the Farewell Spit again and spend some time watching for wildlife. There is surprisingly little. New Zealand seems to have lots of good habitat but not very much living in it. I don’t know why. There are a load of Pukeko and Jane spends some time trying to get good pictures.
Sunday 6th March: Abel Tasman. We leave our campsite early and drive West over the mountains to Marahau, where we book into a campsite and catch a water taxi a few miles up the coast. This National Park is spectacular with native bush, turquoise sea and golden sandy bays. We hike back to our campsite. The stars are out again that night.
Monday 7th March: The West Coast (1). A day’s drive to Westport and some more advance planning. The roads on the West of the island are spectacular and we pass through gorges and passes. The van is coping well although it is slow going up hills and I am constantly pulling over to let people past me. Kiwi drivers are insane.
Tuesday 8th March: The West Coast (2). We drive down the west coast from Westport to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. Westport – Greymouth in particular is just stunning. We book into a campsite in Fox and prepare to walk on the glacier in the morning.
Wednesday 9th March: Fox – Arrowtown. The morning is spent walking on the glacier as part of a group. I’ve never worn crampons before, but it worked out ok and the glacier was beautiful. In the afternoon we drove through the Haast pass and then over Cordrona towards Queenstown. Some scary driving but the van picked out its path like a little hill-pony. Arrowtown is VERY clean and tidy. A bit eerie in some ways.
Thursday 10th March: Queenstown and Fiordland. In the morning we did a rare adrenalin thing – well, when in Rome and all that – and went jetboating in the Shotover gorge. That was good fun. Then we drove to Milford sound in the afternoon. The weather was closing in and the trip is quite a scary one involving a very long tunnel. On the other side we discovered there was nowhere to camp, but the campsite owner took pity on us when he saw our little van and let us use his car park.
Friday 11th March: Piopiotahu (Milford Sound) and Te Anu. This isn’t just rain: this is Milford Sound rain. Huge succulent raindrops the size of blackberries soaked the van overnight, each carrying a seeming payload of starving sandfly who tucked into our pale English blood with relish. I could connect the dots on Jane’s legs and it would spell something unspeakable. But it cleared just as we took to the boat and we were rewarded with a million waterfalls all tumbling into the fjord (it’s technically a fjord, not a sound), a scene that photographed itself. In the afternoon we escaped the way we had come and dried out at the comparative civilisation of Te Anu.
Saturday 12th March: Te Anu – Catlins. A long day of driving to the extreme South where we showed up at the southernmost tip of the island (no gift shop – Land’s End please take note) and Porpoise bay. Camped in a campsite that seemed more like a farm. The stars, though…oh my.
Sunday 13th March: Catlins. We visited a lighthouse and explored another deserted beach, almost tripping over a resting sea lion. These big boys are dangerous, though, so we back off pretty quickly. Later there were fur seals along the coast, some penguins, and finally a short drive up to Dunedin where we camped.
Monday 14th March: Dunedin. The morning was spent on the Taieri Gorge railway, a gentle trundle into the mountains accompanied by a commentary from an increasingly leery Kiwi version of Peter Alliss. In the afternoon more wholesome pursuits as we went to view the albatross colony on the Otago peninsula. Those birds are BIG and magnificent.
Tuesday 15th March: Dunedin – Kaikoura. We decided to miss Christchurch out and a long day of driving took us round the city and up the coast. Christchurch outskirts were busy in rush hour but we didn’t see anything untoward.
Wednesday 16th March: Kaikoura. This place is the whale, dolphin and seal spotting and swimming capital of the Island. We opted for a Maori-owned expedition out and saw some magnificent sperm whales, dusky dolphins and a humpback whale. Weather was perfect. Again.
Thursday 17th March: Kaikoura – Wellington. An early start to drive up the coast to Picton and catch the ferry back over to Wellington on the North Island. We have a dinner date with Doug Newdick and despite us messing him about a bit, we met up. Our best meal so far, and some good company – followed by a dash to the van in the rain. Is our luck with the weather going to hold?
Friday 18th March: Wellington – New Plymouth. Doug had tipped us off about some good things to see in Wellington, but we can’t cope with being in a city again and so we head off up the West Coast in search of some space. In the event we make it quite a long way – as far as New Plymouth, after circling the magnificent Mount Taranaki. a long drive but worth it.
Saturday 19th March: New Plymouth. We lol about town for a bit. I really like the atmosphere of the downtown area and we have some good food. Then we head for the mountain and take the short walk to Dawson’s Falls and the goblin forest that surrounds it.
Sunday 20th March: New Plymouth – Raglan. Our time in New Plymouth ends with an entertaining trip around the harbour and an excellent lunch courtesy of some cafe who’s name I can’t remember. Then we drive north to Raglan, home of one of the finest left-hand breaks in the world. Whatever that means. We eat at the excellent Namaste Kitchen. Namaste New Zealand. I honour the place where my wallet meets your gift shop.
Monday 21st March: Raglan – Auckland. Ah, so that’s what “left hand break” means. Surfer’s paradise. If I had more time I’d learn to surf here. But sadly, we are running out of time and have to return our trusty van in Auckland. Our flight finally takes off at 11 pm.
And that was that. Overall there was too much dashing about and not enough chilling out, but this was still the most awesome holiday I’ve ever had and I’d do it all again like a shot. Some more general reflections to follow once my brain settles….