Day 20 – Kaikoura to Picton, and the last day in the South Island.

My Southern Adventure – Oh, the places I’ve been!

Feeling a little sad sitting in this sunny parklike holiday camp – Top 10 Picton. My last night in the South Island and this part of the adventure is now over. I have been thrilled by all the wonders I’ve seen, and very happy to have seen my country in greater detail. Places I’ve known about are now familiar to me too.

The best thing that happened today were the whales, of course. I realised when I arrived in Kaikoura last night, that I couldn’t go without seeing them, so I booked and found that they were adding a third trip for the first time today, as part of their promotion. I got in on that first one, which suited me perfectly because I could get away by lunchtime to come North. I was heartened that the bit of rain overnight stopped and when I got up at the crack of dawn it was to this:

Whale Watch is just around the corner from the holiday park, so I threw on some clothes, had my peppermint tea, and unplugged the van. Then I drove around the corner into this.

A group of about 25 of us were gathering early for the shuttle bus to take us at 7.45 around to the next bay where the boats leave from. It was windy and cold but not wet. Whew. Soon we were loaded on the smallest vessel and very comfortable. I was a tad concerned about my seasickness, as they warned it may be choppy, and it was. I downed some ginger sweets that were on offer at the shop, and kept my eyes on something fixed on the horizon and I was mostly fine.

Not long after we sped into the frothing waters of the ocean, our spotter noticed a spume of water go up and he pointed the pilot in that direction. Sure enough, to my ecstatic joy, a male sperm whale was cruising along calmly. We were all invited to step out on the side of the boat and take photos. It did not go too close to the whale, but that’s a good thing. I had also seen a small and rare hector’s dolphin leap up beside the boat when we left the shore.

After snapping some shots and seeing the whale submerge we headed in another direction and kept our sights on the sea. About half an hour later, the number of dolphins had increased and suddenly another plume of vapour burst upwards from the distance. This one was a humpback, surrounded all the time by his/her frollicking dolphin friends. The dolphins were like puppies in the water.

I tried to get photos, but no sooner do you see something than it is gone as your finger depresses the shutter. I took video but that was only lucky sometimes. The best part was actually being there and seeing those wonderful creatures for the first time in the wild.

At 11am we were back in the bus and soon deposited by our vehicles. I am still exhilarated by the whole experience. It’s well worth doing. An 80% success rate apparently. I drove north along a golden coastline, with some snow-capped peaks to my left. What a pretty town Kaikoura is. Who knew?! About 3/4 hour north we left the coastline but not before I saw a cafe called The Store at Kekerengu. It had a wood fire going, a modern vibe, and great food. That first coffee of the day went down a treat.

From Kekerengu I plunged inland on rolling pastureland and hills, distant mountains still visible in a haze. So pleasant a country.

About half an hour later I came upon Blenheim, which I have never visited. It was nice enough, and big enough to have a small maze of main streets. I got out and walked for a bit and stopped for a bliss ball and coconut chai at a place on the main street. It shut at 3pm. I must say that Blenheim did not have half the charm of Kaikoura or Picton, both of which have either the ocean or the mountains to recommend them. At Blenheim there is a bit of history when I first came in, in the form of an old restored house from the late 1800s. Nice.

Now I was getting pretty tired, and faced into the sun and north, reaching Picton in 20 minutes. So nice to see the harbour, and the palm trees, and summery atmosphere with the ferry coming in from Wellington. I went first to the Top 10 Holiday Park and logged in and had a one hour nap, then I drove to town and wandered before settling on a meal of meatballs and vegetables at a bar and bistro on the corner called Cortado. Very nice they were too.

I am now back in camp, preparing for my 7pm spa, and then I will be ready to wind down for the evening. What a happy trip this has been. Very early start to catch the ferry across to Wellington tomorrow.


Day 19 – Reefton to Kaikoura via Lewis Pass

Last night, in Reefton, was my first experience of freedom camping. It was unintentional because I thought I was snuggling my little camper into the last space between two others in a line of them that you could see from the bridge entering town. There IS a holiday park in Reefton, and it also backs on to the riverside, but is at the other end of town. By the time I’d learned this, I was settled in and decided to give a free night a go. So I turned on the gas, put my kettle on the hob for a cuppa, and the gas heater blasted Alfie with more warmth than the fan heater has been doing. I was perfectly snug and even more smug that I was not paying anything for it. Also, there were some good public toilets just a walk away, so that was a bonus. What I hadn’t counted on was the town siren going off in repeated blasts at 7.15am. I lay and stared at my van ceiling and waited for the sound of rocks falling, or river rising, or the shaking of the earth beneath my wheels. Any one of these being a possibility. When nothing happened I remembered that in rural areas, volunteer fire brigades are called to their emergency by that same series of sirens. Okay then.

Because my van was in the tiniest space, and would make it difficult for some of the bigger vans to get past, I pulled out early (I was wide awake after all) and parked in the quiet main street. It was Sunday morning and I was not hopeful that anything would be open yet, but great was my delight when I saw the lights and sign on at the bakery. I parked and was the second person in. A cornucopia of baked items met my eye. I don’t usually do breakfast these days, but my trip is confounding my new eating plan. I had a bacon and egg pie, in lieu of breakfast, and ordered a flat white (espresso coffee with milk). Ah, how good that all tasted.

The day had dawned misty and low cloud shrouded the trees and road leading up into Lewis Pass. Exciting! I was the only vehicle disappearing in to the mist and kept a steady and slow pace as I climbed up through the trees. And there were many of these. For the first third or so of this Pass there is dense forest on either side and up the slopes of the nearby mountains. Beech forest and natives mostly. Always a stream or river of some sort – it’s a gorge after all – and the water to my joy, was a light blue grey, if not the vivid azure of further south.

I had plenty of leisure to stop regularly and snap a picture – initially mostly the road disappearing in to low cloud, and just a hint of monstrous mountains on either side. Then quite suddenly, the mist/cloud lifted and it was clear. I could not see much initially for the tree cover, but now and then snow clad peaks peeked through the trunks tantalisingly.

Lots of warm earthy tones and yellow gorse or brush. The road, which was windy, was not hair-pin bends, so I could go relatively fast along it, and overall it was a most enjoyable drive. When suddenly a valley appeared with the threads of the river all weaving across the ground, it was impossible not to stop and try and capture it.

After a lot of photo opportunities I came to a turn which lead to Hamner Springs – my original intention for the night after Akoroa. (Before I decided to zigzag instead through the Passes). Suddenly there was a lot more traffic, and a narrow and spectacular one-way bridge across to the country on the other side. There were queues! I say ‘country on the other side’ with intention, because it was like entering Queenstown or Wanaka again. It took a few kms to drive up into the town centre of this resort village, set around some hot springs that make it famous.

I was once more in the world of fast cars, brand labels, money, and plenty of buzz. People waiting in line at smart-looking eateries, and difficulty in finding a park. Hard to believe how close it is to the long expanse of mountain and river and valley almost empty of people. One thing I have discovered more profoundly about myself in this trip, is that far from craving that kind of ‘buzz’, I avoid it. My preference is to find a small historically significant town, with local flavour, and be able to hear the bird song or the river. I am so glad I did not stay the night here in Hamner Springs. Anyway, I thought I’d stay for lunch, and I found the least busy place in the main area, and a table to myself and ordered the salad, which was the best I have had in the South!

From where I was I could watch the passersby, the groups all riding the group bicycles around town, the crowds milling around in puffer jackets.

I was not sad to leave and turn to the east again, following Apple maps guide towards Kaikoura. I thought – foolish me – that the worst of the mountain roads was behind me, now that Lewis Pass had been traversed. But no, the minute I turned off on a side ride to Kaikoura, and left the bigger road leading to Christchurch, I starting climbing some hills again, and for the next hour, negotiated some of the windiest roads I have traveled in the South Island. I was mostly alone on them, and able to pull over and take a quick shot of the mountains around me, and the deep gullies, and the twinkling rivers.

I was never far from the mountains either – we never descended into a plain and said goodbye to them. On the southern side, they were a sharp toothy grimace up into the sky, and on the northern side there were still sinuous lines of snow on the summits. Cool!

I was just starting to worry about how much diesel I had left and energy, come to that, when we arrived at Kaikoura at about 2.30pm. Very happy to drive slowly through town and see the sea on the right again, and curiously, some rocks sticking up at regular intervals along the coastline. This is whale-watching town, so . . . Well. . . Watch this space. I found the Top 10 Holiday Park and my powered site, and lay down for 30 minutes. Then I thought I’d better get up and check out Kaikoura.

Very nice little town, set against the coastline, with a jaunty holiday feel to it. The ice-cream was delicious. I drove to South Kaikoura beach and checked that out too – seeing the coast disappear down towards Christchurch. Then I searched out the cheapest diesel I could find and filled up for the final leg of my Southern journey tomorrow.

I have showered, made some boiled eggs and put them in a wrap for dinner. And now my blog. I think it will be an early night for me. Feeling a little sad that I only have one full day left in the ‘mainland’ to enjoy.

Day 18 – Akaroa to Reefton via Arthur’s Pass

Yep, I’m zigzagging up the country. Today was a long haul – leaving beautiful Akaroa with the mists still clinging and the cloud low over the harbour.

I’m going to have to be frugal in what I post because I’m not on wifi and power, and want to keep some juice in the device for other things. Yes, I’m freedom camping for the first time. Tightly wedged in with a line of others at Reefton. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I set off up the hill from Akaroa and wound the tight corners and slopes of the Banks Peninsula until I swooped down upon the delightful collection of shops and cafe/gallery that is Little River. There I was meeting my good friend Megan, who had traveled over from Christchurch to have brekky with me and view the gallery. Lovely to see her!

At close to 11am I climbed up in to my cab and she popped a couple of pictures and waved me off. Then it was a steady drive across the flat Canterbury plains, westward and into the Southern Alps again.

I was thrilled to see snow-capped peaks again – silly really. They are like the backbone of the South Island, so of course, never that far away. This time, at the advice of my much more traveled brother, I was going to try out Arthur’s Pass today, and Lewis Pass tomorrow, instead of going straight up the east coast from Christchurch.

Deeper and deeper into the rolling folds of mountains the road took me, on quite wide swathes of valleys and fast traffic. I was immediately feeling happy to be among mountains again, even those in the foreground just highly textured and coloured without snow. Although the flat plains preceding them are all cultivated and the throbbing heart of agriculture I love the remote wild regions best.

I stopped many times to get a better shot, and was glad to see there were plenty of safe places to do that on Arthur’s Pass. At Arthur’s Pass township, which is tiny, there is a ranger’s station and info centre about the local wildlife and especially the Kea. I did not see one but took a photo of the sculpture in its honour. The rangers said they usually come out in morning and evening rather than middle of the day. Sadly, I passed a dead one on the single lane bridge some time later.

Finally, I passed a sign saying ‘Welcome to the West Coast’ and knew I had gone through to the other side. There was an old pub that had a Gollum creature on it, and various allusions to the gold mining trade. I stopped at a siding to make a late lunch and boil my kettle, enjoying the last snow capped peak before hitting the coastal areas.

Now I had about 1.5 hours before reaching Reefton, a small historic mining town on the West Coast, known especially for being the first town in New Zealand to have electric lighting. (Ironically enough, it’s the first camp situation I am in in the South Island, where I will be on battery power). Beside me the river is flower musically behind my van. I got the last spot in this freedom camping site. I backed in, said hi to my neighbours, and set off in to town to take a look. At the pub I stopped for a cider, before coming back to settle in.

Further down the river there are some public toilets, but that is all. Alfie will have to provide my toast and tea and run my lights tonight. I do love the sound of the water behind my open doors right now. That’s it – I’m pretty tired after all that driving, so I’ll call it a day.

Day 17 – Geraldine to Akaroa, Banks Peninsula

I’m currently sitting in an idyllic setting up a hill with my back doors wide open and a distant view of Akaroa harbour twinkling in azure splendour down the hill, the houses and shops mere dots. Of course, there are a few obstructions to my view, like a large caravan with the prime spot, but I can see around it. Here it is:

Akaroa from van

Back to the start of the day – a foggy morning in Geraldine, and the promise of rain according to the forecast, so my hopes weren’t high. I set off from an almost empty campsite, picked up some items from the supermarket, got diesel, and pointed Alfie north and then west. I decided, since it wasn’t that far to Christchurch, to do the inland scenic route that took in the mountains of the Southern Alps over to the west, even if there were long straights most of the way. It was better than the main route north with all the trucks and traffic. It was actually quite scenic and I was heartened to see the snow-capped peaks again. I passed Mount Hutt somewhere amongst it all.

Still the sun shone and there was no sign of rain. . . Or cloud. I was still undecided about whether to go above Christchurch to a small campsite on the beach, or go south and east out on the Banks Peninsula – another 1 hour drive on tight bends to get to Akaroa. So I let Apple Maps guide me north anyway, and thought I’d make my mind up gradually. Those luscious mountains got closer and the signage for Mt Hutt grew more regular, until I rounded a curve and found I was heading into a gully: the Rakaia Gorge! A sweeping vista opened up, a deep plunge into the gorge where a brilliantly blue river flowed in rivulets and then broad expanse down through the gap. Of course, being a driver, I had nowhere to stop except a brief and desperate moment when I held my iphone and clicked and hoped.

Rakaia Gorge

Getting back in the van (again!) I drove down the hill to a viewpoint and took more shots, and then down in to the valley itself and over the bridge. One of the noticeboards explained that the colour of the water is so blue because ‘fine particles of rock ground down by glaciers remain suspended in the water, instead of settling as the river flows down from the southern alps. This ‘rock flour’ reflects the sunlight giving the river its spectacular turquoise blue colour’. In a picnic area just beyond the bridge, I stopped and made myself coffee and lunch. A real treat in a camper van.

After that thrill the van had to be pointed towards Christchurch, and so I watched the mountains receded in my rearview mirror again. At one point I stopped for a final round of photos: blossoms, a cenotaph, the distant hills.

Now I made my decision – the day was so good that I could not go past Akaroa without staying there. It meant that I would be slightly doubling back as I crossed country eastwards, but it was only an hour away. Long straights and many stop signs as I crossed major thoroughfares heading in to the third largest city. At last I was in the rural lanes of Banks Peninsula, and enjoying the blossom trees and nearness of the sea. Then there were about 10 kms of tight hairpin bends up and over the top, facing down in to a magnificent harbour, glistening in rich colours from where I gazed. This is all I could get from the top through my windscreen.

Further down there was a brief siding I pulled in to and took more. It proved so worth it to come out here.

More winding road down to sea level and suddenly I was there, and hugging the coastline around to Akaroa, another 10kms away. Before I got to the township, I saw the Top 10 Holiday Park signage, and turned in to the office to get my site booked. Then I continued on down to the township and parked the van. Talk about a wee touch of the continental in this part of New Zealand – it was balmy and sunny with a palm tree or three, and a really holiday feel to the atmosphere. I did a brief bit of shopping and browsing, visited the rest rooms, walked out along the pier, and then wandered in to the fish and chip shop and ordered an early dinner of blue cod and chips and salad.

The seagulls were lining up as I sat down on a park bench, so I folded things up and went back to the van. I drove to another part of town by the water and in the comfort of my own ‘dining room’ ate my early dinner in peace.

I was disappointed that the Giant’s Garden was not open – it is a cornucopia of tile marvels made by an artist who has lived here for decades. I saw it years ago when I first came. Sadly, it has a limited opening hours of 11am to 2pm, so I missed out today. I took photos of some of this small French Settlement’s old villas with their blossom trees in full bloom as I rolled down the hill again.

I am now settled at my powered site, with my back facing out over the distant view, and still enjoying the atmosphere up here as well. Lots of other people around who are here for a longer haul than me. I’ve had my cuppa, chatted to my brother, who is a great advisor for my ongoing trip, and planned my day tomorrow and the next. What will they hold?

Evening over Akaroa from holiday park

Day 16 – Lake Tekapo to Geraldine

This was my shortest trip so far, but I made the most of it, taking a byroad, and doing extra investigations. I was pleased when the sun rose this morning over a cloudless sky, but they rolled in soon after and I had to hurry to catch the mountains on the other side of the lake.

After a shower I went for a wander to the shore and took a couple of artistic ones.

Then I set to and unplugged and tied everything down, and made off for the other side of town and the historic Church of the Good Shepherd, a landmark picture for many New Zealanders. It even graced the cover of my romance – (although I would not myself have picked the South Island shot for a Coromandel tale, but I had no say in the matter.) The sun was burning off the low clouds and so things were looking clearer by the time I parked outside and took these snaps.

From here it is only an hour to Geraldine, where I planned to stay for the night. As I left town I felt a pang seeing the cloud-covered mountains growing smaller in my rear vision mirror. I sailed fast down a few straights aware that if it was completely clear I would have seen the mountains all around me still, but dropping down in to the valley again, and into Burke’s Pass, suddenly the sun was glaring in a blue sky, and a coffee sign caught my eye at the wee group of buildings on a corner. So I pulled in and took a closer look. Very glad I did.

There is an artist who lives here, and does carpentry, metalwork, and collects an interesting range of objects. Not only that, but he’s constructed a small replica township out of all the memorabilia. A hard-working woman was in the hut serving espresso, and later she moved in to the store to go behind the counter there – she was IT for the whole place. I bought a couple of small iron objects from the plethora of those for sale, as momentos.

Fairlie was the next township I encountered, halfway to my destination. It was a pleasant town with a main street and plenty of cafes and stores on either side, but the most important one was the Bakery, which had reached finalist stage in regular ‘BEST PIE IN NEW ZEALAND’ competitions. I chose a pork belly and apple pie, and took it outside into the sun to enjoy. Delicious.

Another ten minutes beyond Fairlie, a sign pointed off the main road to ‘Lake Opuha’ 8kms, and so I veered off track, turned the sound down on my Apple Maps guide, who was repeating “Return to the Route” with monotony, and found myself pulling up on the shores of a secluded lake shore, the snow-capped peaks surrounding it. I hadn’t quite left them after all. I stayed here for a while, eating my orange and enjoying the view.

Back on the road, it seemed a short while later that I steamed in to Geraldine, which was basking in a gorgeous sunny afternoon, the blossom trees in evidence and a larger town than any in the last two days. The Top 10 Holiday park is in the centre of town, on a park-like surround of lawn and trees. I was the first camper van to book in for the night so had a nice choice of spot. Then I set off walking in to town to check it out. As you can see from the map, I did a good job of covering the area. I went on the River Walk, and wandered the streets looking into window. I visited the museum.

I had a salmon noodle dish at the new foodie place in town, that is a Barker’s Food Hall and tasting spot. Yes, Barker’s – the condiment people I know well from our local supermarkets, are based here. So the luxury of a free tasting spot to try all their condiments was great. Eventually I tired of all my walking around and headed back to the van. I think it will be a night of reading and relaxing before heading to Christchurch tomorrow.

Day 15 – Oamaru to Lake Tekapo

I am so glad I chose to veer off to the West today, from Oamaru, and go to Lake Tekapo, instead of going directly North towards Christchurch. When I think of the things I would have missed!

Lake Tekapo sits right in the centre of the South Island – not quite the middle – and glorious though it is, it was not the only delight to be encountered today on my travels. Due west of Oamaru, and about a third of the way towards Omarama where I swung North, I came across some fascinating rock formations in a gully.

Further on, there was a large noticeboard and parking area, and so I stopped for a gander. My expectations were quite low: the weather was drizzly and grey, the landscape was the usual rural rolling pastureland until this point. I read ‘Elephant Rocks’ and my interest was piqued. Apparently all around me was a prehistoric seafloor, and the limestone all about was an abundant source of fossils. Written on to the walls of some of these formations is te reo (Maori) as well as pictures of sailing ships and horses. This particular formation of rock was known as a herd of elephants, for obvious reasons.

I flicked a few pictures off and got out of the drizzle and drove the few kms to the nearby town of Duntroon. Ready for my morning coffee my first point of interest was the ‘Flying Pig’ cafe and its bright pink colour. I fleetingly noticed a info centre for the fossils and geosite, and then a blacksmith, before pulling my lumbering vehicle in to the parking space by the Pig. What a great cheese scone and coffee it was too.

Afterwards, I set off to look in on the Blacksmiths, and was amazed at the number of tools and the working areas that were in there, and that this had operated as a Blacksmiths way back in the day and the tools etc are from then. Just as I pushed a few coins into the honesty box and prepared to go, an older man came across the road from where he had been chatting to mates, and offered to show me around. He was one of the volunteers who work in the smithy, and I got a personal tour in behind the barricade and around the shop. So interesting.

Then as I left to go and look at the Fossils, he told me not to avoid the Brewery Hole – a hole in the ground that lead into a network of waterfilled caverns, full of artifacts and fossils. I walked down and stared at the murky waters that disappeared under a rock face and thought of the courage of those cavers who had gone in there already and taken photos. It is extensive and goes way into the underground.

No sooner had I walked out and started again for the info centre, finally introducing myself to the helpful man, whose name is Harry, than he pointed out that his house was further along the road and had some of his iron work in the front garden. I made plans to go and check it out on the way out. I joined a small party listening to the history of the region in the info centre, and slipped away having taken a few photos. Amazing that they had moa bones, and shells, and other fossils so far inland as we were.

And you think that was all? In such a small township, to find discovery after discovery. . . It was not over. I crossed the road to view a unique shed which housed some free books and often bags of fresh vegies that are put there by the locals. As I stood there, a woman came by and said she was opening up the historic jail house which was just next door, so I chatted with her for a while before going in to see. It was the authentic jail used here to hold criminals or law-breakers for the area. The cell was sadly reminiscent of the Dunedin Holiday Park cabins, but I won’t go there.

Wow, I thought, as I headed back to my van. They’ve really got some treats here in a small neck of the woods. I stopped at Harry’s place and photographed his delightful and large iron sculptures in his garden, and then hit the road again.

Soon I reached Kurow, to my relief, because I was getting low on diesel. I filled up and carried on along a pretty two-lane highway and just after Aviemore, stopped to make lunch in the van overlooking a spacious lake. The foliage in Springtime is so soft and rich in colour. The lake water so blue (or so I thought until I saw BLUE later).

I stopped at the Aviemore dam and took photos, and read about the salmon and how they have managed to provide separate waterways for the salmon to go up river now that the dam blocks their progress. It was lovely to see the lakes again, and especially the increasing sharp dark shapes in the horizon that were lost in cloud, but straggling beards of snow showed beneath the cloudline at times.

At Omarama (just before it really) I turned North, and on to a major thoroughfare to the Mt Cook track and other ski resort and adventure grounds. The drizzle had stopped but in the distance the tallest snow filled peaks were lost in dark low cloud. At Twizel I pulled off the road and rode through town just looking at it. Nothing struck as significant – it seemed a place to go if you were starting one of the many outdoor adventures possible in the area. Soon after Twizel I went approached signs for a salmon farm, and over a low bridge which spanned remarkably teal water. It was so colourful I found the nearest parking space and took photos. It was the first of many photos I took from now on, each one getting more and more spectacular.

In the distance – nearer now – was Mt Cook somewhere. I could only see the foothills, but when Lake Pukaki came in to view, it was breathtaking. The colour of the water in its jewel-like teal shade, and the mountains rearing up behind, and the turbulence of the sky.! Click click click. I didn’t want to leave. Eventually I pulled into some long straights along the countryside thinking I was moving away from the mountains but no, suddenly they came up again ahead of me, and soon I approached another lake glistening in splendid azure colour and surrounded by mountains. Lake Tekapo.

I have walked the township and bought items at the Four Square grocery store. I have got a powered site in the extensive holiday park, and my view of the lake is lovely. I walked in the other direction to see the hot springs, but don’t want to walk all the way back in my swimming costume and try them out. It seems a bit of a way, and costs $30, and I’m a bit pooped. It is so good to be here – I feel very lucky. I have eaten some hot chicken nibbles from the store, and toast. When I looked out a while ago, a rainbow hung over the distant slopes and I had to go and photograph that too. Amazing.

I hope the photos give a small idea of the splendours of the day.

Day 14 – Around Dunedin and then Oamaru

This was the last day with my sis in tow, and she is even now boarding for her flight back to Auckland. I miss the constant banter and the laughter.

Our stay at the Dunedin Holiday Park was. . .interesting. I’ve become accustomed to a pretty high standard since I have been at mostly Top 10 Holiday Parks, although any that weren’t (Te Anau for instance) were still very good. The Dunedin one was decorated lavishly with bright topical cartoons and brands in the 1960s, and hasn’t been updated since, so things are fading somewhat, and the ablution block was like something out of a prison, with concrete corridor and puddles of water from leaking roof on the floor. Still, let’s not quibble – it was an EXPERIENCE, and we had our camper vans and were close to St Clair beach and the wee restaurants nearby. The morning broke greyish and looking like rain (and according to the weather forecast, it was going to come down by lunchtime.) So I cancelled my scheduled e-bike rental, and we sorted out Helen’s van so that she gave me a few bags to carry home with me, and took her carryon with her. We drove to deliver her camper to the owners who live in McAndrew Bay, halfway along the Portabello Road which hugs the southern edge of the harbour. (And the cycleway that is so promising).

The owners live most of the way up a very steep hill which I forced poor Alfie to climb. I hoped his brakes would hold while I waited for Helen to negotiate the return of her vehicle and the borrowing of their ebike for a short while. They kindly offered to let her have a go along the cycleway, so I drove down to the nearby cafe – The Duck – and ordered a coffee and cheese scone to console myself. Soon Helen arrived to get her helmet out of the van, and head off towards Portabello.

I was so envious! The day had lightened, there was no wind, and the harbour glistened like a mirror. It would have been a task to drive in to the city to pick up the one I had ordered, so I just finished my coffee and decided to follow Helen. I caught up with her kms away – nearly at the end where the road disappears over the hill. Some roadworks forced me to stop at about the place she had arrived at, and we spoke through the window. “Why don’t you ride it back to that other cafe?” She asked. Wow. Sheer delight! And so I did – we swapped. I put the helmet I had brought with me from Auckland on, and rode that bike back. It was such a good feeling! At the Duck we stopped and I ordered another coffee, and Helen had her first. (We returned the bike on the way).

After that it was just a matter of me staying as long as I could before I needed to hit the road again, and Helen enjoying some sights around Dunedin before I dropped her off and she waited until early evening to get the shuttle to the airport. We went out to Port Chalmers, and enjoyed walking the closed shops (Mon and Tues are NOT popular days to find service). We found David Elliot’s shop ‘The Flying Whale’ which I have a print and book from. Unfortunately it was shut for Helen but we took a photo anyway. I drove her out as far along the northern edge of the harbour, past Deborah Bay and the historic hotel there, and out almost as far as Aramoana – but I didn’t want to go into that sad place. (Thirteen people shot dead in Nov 1990). The harbour was lovely in its deep aqua waters, and looked very clear. Out in the sheltered expanse the islands that dot this waterway were like jewels, in their green and bumpy forms, some dotted with brightly coloured houses. I think Dunedin has the prettiest harbour in New Zealand.

Back at Port Chalmers I parked, and we both headed in to the Galley Cafe, which looked very promising, with an outside patio area in back and an events room beyond that. The garden was flourishing with daffodils and magnolia, and a blackbird was building a nest just within reach of the patrons. I ordered a salad, which was delicious, and much enjoyed after days and days of only finding carb-rich food on offer. Helen had a pumpkin curry soup. Very friendly staff and a lively atmosphere make this a popular eating place.

Now I took Helen up the hill on a country road to return to Dunedin – I had to face dropping her off at the Railway Station and heading north. At Iconic Cafe, she unloaded her bag and we hugged, and I left her standing and prepared to read and sip tea for literally hours. She went over to the Railway station and the gallery there, before returning to Iconic. Meanwhile I headed north towards Oamaru, and stopped on the way just after Palmerston on the coast, where there was a picnic place. I felt pretty tired, so I had the luxury of lying down for a short time and sipping my soda water. So far no rain. There was a lot of truck traffic on the road, but the scenery was pleasant and rural and the road not straight.

I reached Moeraki not long after getting back on the road, and enjoyed walking the beach to get up and close to the spherical boulders that Moeraki is famous for. These are formed due to the hardening of Paleocene mudstone, which was buried in the cliffs. Over time the waves have eroded the softer stone to reveal the spheres beneath. Very cool.

Only half an hour past Moeraki, I reached the outskirts of Oamaru, the Steampunk Capital of the World! (Don’t argue that with me). I attended a Steampunk festival here a number of years ago, with Helen, and we dressed in full regalia and enjoyed ourselves immensely amongst the Victorian buildings and steampunk memorabilia. Check it out.

It was 3.30pm and I looked to my side from the driver’s seat, and there parked opposite were an elderly couple licking ice creams outside the dairy they had purchased them in. That was enough for me – I was in there and getting my single cone vanilla and doing the same shortly. Then I drove to the Top 10 Holiday park and booked a powered site for the night. Oh, and a spa! Only after I had, did I get informed that the yellow eyed and blue penguins all are nearby and if I’d booked at the ocean holiday park they would have crept up to sleep under my van at night. Sheesh. I have consoled myself with my spa, and am about to put together a salad from the remains in the fridge. It didn’t help that when I bit down on a gummy supplement it ripped off the front of one of my molars. Still, I think I can make it back home without needing an emergency dentist.

Ho Ho! This is the life for me!

Day 13 – Curio Bay to Dunedin

It was lightly showering this morning upon waking – after a windy night – and remained grey with scattered showers most of the day. It did not matter too much. We have had such great weather around Queenstown and Fiordland so getting a grey day for Helen’s final leg of the journey when the mountains were behind us was not bad. The caitlins area is pretty in a foresty rolling hills kind of way.

We wound over and around a foresty inland road aware that the coast was not far away. A few times on the trip today we saw signs to waterfalls but upon closer inspection they proved to require 30 to 40 minutes of bushwalking in rain so we did not partake. Instead I took photos of the bush.

I have grown accustomed to my sister joining me in my larger camper, and we have cackled over the slow encroachment of her from her smaller, less commodious van into sitting on my bed waiting for cups of tea. Hilarious! But yes, I will miss her after she flies back tomorrow. The pic below shows some of the coastline when it came in to view. All the way up this section there are possible seal or penguin sightings. Watch this space.

At Owaka we found a Teapot Town – I’ve never seen so many. We had an excellent coffee made for us by a young chap who had a shop serving only coffee (no food). Across the road we attempted to find something appealing but the limited array of cabinet food was unappealing so just gave up. Here too was a house with a garden bursting with daffodils and bluebells.

I love the richly coloured bushes that dot the hillsides.

After a long drive – pleasant in its varied landscape and winding around bushy reserves – we began to reach level ground and long stretches. Finally we reached Balclutha and all semblance of country road disappeared and became highway.

Stopped for a lamb shank pie and braced ourselves for the last push into Dunedin. Nothing much to report but long straights, fast speeds and encroaching suburbs. I had set my Apple Maps for the Dunedin Holiday Park – on the same side as St Clair beach, and at 3.30 we pulled up outside the office. For a mere $35 Helen and I are in two sites near amenities and feeling a little sad to be parting tomorrow. It has been an excellent 6 days in each others company and around our favourite part of NZ.

We’ve been down to St Clair for a final meal together – two excellent pasta dishes at The Hydro. The pastel light looked amazing over the ocean and the few surfers braving the waves. Coming out feeling very happy the atmosphere was charming.

Tomorrow we plan to ride bikes around the harbour cycleway and have lunch before parting ways.

Day 12 – Te Anau to Curio Bay

Yesterday I didn’t have it in me to post after a gruelling drive from Te Anau, down through Manapouri, and Tuatapere, to Riverton and Invercargill. We had a bit of lunch there, and decided to go straight down to Bluff to see the bottom of the South Island and the port to Stewart Island. After that it was a drive east along the edge to get to the very bottom right corner and Curio Bay. This map does a good job of showing the route, if you take it from just above Manapouri and finish it at Curio Bay. Today (Day 13) we completed it and arrived at Dunedin.

Yesterday I posted all the pics on Facebook, but I’ll add a few here to keep the blog ‘true’. Manapouri was spectacular. We got out of the vehicles a few times just because the sight of mountains behind the lake was breathtaking. Stopped for a coffee and sausage roll at the wee cafe, and found out where ‘The Bookseller at the End of the World’ lived. See this link:

Ruth Shaw has the cutest little bookstores in Manapouri – a children’s one and a small general one, and Helen had been reading her book on our travels. Jemma, her daughter, manages McLeods Booksellers in Rotorua and recommended it. We knocked boldly on the house door, despite the sign on the shop saying ‘closed’. No one answered but a handy pad and pen sat there, so we wrote a quick note.

We carried on south, loving the mountains still with us in all their glory, with snow capped peaks and rich colouration on their slopes. Added to that was the reflections and glistening of the lake below. As we continued along toward Tuatapere, we were surrounded by pastoral scenes of young lambs frollicking on green fields all around. At one stage we pulled off to photograph them, and a farmer pulled in and spoke to us. He agreed with us that it was a pretty idyllic spot to live.

It was with growing sadness we saw the mountains recede behind us, but the line of dark shapes to our right which was Fiordland, stayed with us until we reached the sea. We found a swing bridge which was closed off to traffic at Otautau, and a sharp sweet scent caught our interest – a yellow wattle by the first girder. So lovely to smell. I took a small twig of it back with me. At Tuatapere we stopped for a ‘Deep South’ ice cream – a brand sold in Auckland but it felt very appropriate to have it in its place of manufacture. This little town had broad streets and a few significant concrete/plaster buildings which dated back some time. In a blink we were out and rattling south once more. (Rattling is what best describes life on the road in a camper van).

I was surprised to find that the mountains of Fiordland were still a significant presence when we reached the lowest reaches of land and saw the chilly waters of Foveaux Strait before us. It is about 130km long, and separates the South Island from Stewart Island. And there, before our excited eyes, was the first glimpse either of us had had of that third large island of New Zealand in the flesh, so to speak. For quite some distance we revelled in the wild ocean, the distant island, and Fiordland, all visible together.

Soon, with sinking heart, we put Fiordland into the rear vision mirror and pointed along some straight roads for Riverton, which is a large town that precedes Invercargill. My workmate, Julie, came from here, and recommended it to us. At this point we decided we wanted to push on to past Invercargill to stay the night, because we needed to get to Dunedin by Monday night, so we merely stopped and took pics. Half an hour later we began the drive into the suburbs on the outskirts of Invercargill, which is the largest city in Southland, and one I’ve always wanted to see. We came in on a broad avenue which went on and on, with a picturesque garden entrance on the right hand side, and many blossom trees and flowers on each side. The sun shone down and added a certain summery holiday feeling to the place and we both had a very favourable impression of the city. Closer in, we found the old buildings and town centre, all pretty buzzy for a Sunday afternoon, and parked on one of the main streets and set off to find dinner, or lunch, at 4pm. This felt like Auckland back in 1960s, when you all came in to town for food or drink and the old buildings were still there.

We found a cafe that was popular and filled with a crowd, and sat down to an odd plate of waffles, covered in a couple of poached eggs, two deep fried chicken nibbles, some soft cheese, and maple syrup. I don’t think it quite ticked our boxes, but I ate all mine. The thing I’ve noticed about being on the road, is how difficult it is to find healthy food to eat – hardly any salads, except the coleslaw you can buy in packets at a supermarket. Anyway, it was nice to sit down and stop driving.

After replenishing ourselves we drove to Bluff, a half an hour away, and enjoyed the view of the bottom most port in NZ. It is the oyster town as well, as evidenced by all the shells underfoot by the large signage at the entrance.

We were both getting pretty tired by now, but determined to get to Curio Bay in time to get settled for the evening. It was dusk, and the road was pretty good in a wandering kind of a way, and long after I thought we would get there, we came upon the metal road over an estuary, and pulled in to a large information centre and office. It was closed of course, being now about 6pm. However, we booked online and called, and received confirmation and given the choice of places to park within a certain range, and soon had backed into a couple of bays near the ablution block.

To our mutual delight we discovered this was a visiting point for seals, penguins, and occasional whales. Naturally we spent a bit of time in the dusk staring hard at the rocky beach and hoping to see something move. We were disappointed but still enthusiastic. The next morning Helen was up early and out there with the dawn, but saw nothing. When I took over the ‘shift’, I also spent time staring at the sea hoping for a sleek wet head to appear, but failed to see anything. Sigh. So I had to do something to mark the moment.

I have already started telling you about the next day’s activities so I’ll stop now and begin again soon, with Day 13! I know you’ll be on tenterhooks. . .

Day 11 – Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Helen and I really wanted to make a day of this trip, and to that end had an early start on a frosty morning, having been told by the RealNZ guy that it would take 2.5 hours to get there. (Including the walk to the boat at the end). So we were up at dawn, packing our similar packs, wearing similar hats and the same shoes. Layer upon layer of tops through to puffer jackets and raincoat, and gloves, hats, and insect repellant. In the end, apart from the raincoats, we needed it all.

The day just got better and better. From the frost that added a sheen to the fields and verges that we passed, to the gradually closing in mountains on every side, we were captivated. It has been a long time since I enjoyed seeing a proper frost, since Auckland has warmed up over the years. This time we pulled over and took photos of the distance and the fields sparkling in ice and were very glad we had chosen to get up early and make for the 11am sailing. Here’s the distant frost laden fields from the Eglinton Valley area. A number of DOC sites are sign-posted for campers to use, but of course, it was hard to imagine the attraction in the cold light of a frosty morning. (The tent signs I mean).

The road to Milford Sound is not that bad – lots of long straight stretches from Te Anau, and slowly curving sections that hug the river or lake edge. A few single lane bridges, and plenty of pull over spaces to stop and take pics until you get into the mountains, when they were replaced by yellow signs saying “Do not stop – Danger of Avalanche!”

To our mutual joy, about 3/4 hour into our drive, there was a small caravan selling coffee in a leafy glade, and so I screeched belatedly to a halt and backed up. At this point we met an Australian woman, who was with her sister and sister’s husband, heading out to the same boat trip. Back in the van we proceeded with much oohing and aahing at every moment the trees parted to see the increasing layers of sharp snow clad tips of mountains getting closer and overshadowing the road. The weather had been very kind to us. Just a bit overcast at times, but initially it was blue with puffy white clouds obscuring some of the mountain tops. Very beguiling indeed.

We began to encounter road works from a flood and rain in 2020, when slips had torn away at the tarmac in places. It meant one lane and a traffic light system which slowed us down a bit. We climbed gradually up into the mountains, stopping when we could to take photos. Suddenly in front of us was a small hole in the side of a vast mountainside, which proved to be a tunnel. Who knew!? Heart in our throats, we moved into the single lane tunnel, which ran for 1.4 kms through the mountain in a downward slope with dim lights. My headlights were on, but seemed to have no effect. Hearts racing we watched the gradually increasing light with a sense of relief! Knowing so much solid rock was just above your head was oppressive. Out in the daylight, we entered a world of sharp defined angles and gigantic shapes. Now the road zigzagged down sharply, and our ears popped as we levelled out at the bottom, one eye on the road, and one on the immense walls of mountains, dappled in the lower reaches with moss, and small clinging plants. We had to strain to look up and see where the slopes disappeared into the cloud above.

At last we found ourselves approaching signs to Milford Sound, and the sound of helicopters and air traffic. Only two hours to get there at most, so the 2.5 we were told was generous. We drove to the info centre but found the parking there was $25 for five hours, and thinking we needed the exercise anyway, we drove back to the free carpark. Getting out of the van we were both instantly swamped by the infamous midgies (sandfiles) that this place is known for. I got out the repellant and sprayed it liberally on, and then we set off on a pleasant pathway toward the info centre and then the small harbour where the boats are. About 30 minutes walk in all, and past the small aerodrome where helicopters and light planes seemed to continually descend and take off from. We stopped to take more photos from the walk – the most famous spot for many of the Mitre Peak photos I’ve seen.

The little departure and arrival centre was bustling, and a few large scenic cruisers were lined up to take passengers. There we saw our Aussie friends from the coffee cart, who would join us on our boat. The weather was not as blue as it had been upon our morning departure, but it was clear enough to see the mountains, some of which were hidden in cloud at the top. It was very cold and before long, because we both sat on the top of the boat to take in the best sights, we had all our warm gear on, including hoods over our hats and gloves on.

We purchased some lunch from the downstairs deck and waited for the buzzer to go off to go down and get it. My chicken and chips was very warming but needed to be held firmly or it would have been blown away. Helen had chips, but the portions of both were so generous, we could have shared mine. We had a pleasant commentary, a guy who told us some of the history of the place and the remarkable details we would have missed on our own. The boat went up to the wall of rock at one point to allow us to see the moss, lichen and other plants clinging to the sheer rock wall. When we came out into the Tasman Sea, the wind had picked up and the waters were choppy enough that not even my layers were keeping the cold off. Fortunately we didn’t linger there for long before turning to enter the mouth of the Sound again. From out there at sea, it looks like a bay, and you need to come in close to see how it opens out into the Milford Sound as it became known.

I’m going to let my pictures do the talking for me regarding descriptions. They do not do it justice either, for these mountains were too big to contain in our photos, and their inspiring size and colours were lost a little in a small iphone shot. Imagine rounding a bend in the very deep turquoise waters, and gazing up at the dark stone faces, with multicoloured rock walls, and greens of all colours dotted all over, and seeing a long white fall of water roaring down from extraordinary heights to the sea below.

At one point we had the seal pointed out to us from ‘seal rock’ where they sometimes bask in the sun. This one waved his flipper at just the right moment.

We clicked, we hunched in the lee of the seat we were on, we stared, we gasped. It was all so worth the trip out. Back on land again, we pushed through throngs of people arriving for the afternoon sailings, and also those who had arrived by air. Going back along the path past the aerodrome, we watched a line of small planes waiting to take off, and a helicopter about to rise. We were only too glad to have come by road, and to have the chance to see at close hand the vegetation, the streams, and the BIRDS we had just heard about. Yes, the boat guy told us about the keas who we would likely see up by the tunnel, and so we kept a look out. Great was our elation when two fat kea waddled out and past our van as we waited our turn to go through the tunnel. Such friendly birds, with green plumage and a red flash of feather under the back feathers.

Through the tunnel we went up to the highest part of this road, and then we slowly began the descent. This time a lot more cars were on the road, and we stopped as often as we could having more time to get back than we had in the morning. Not far from the tunnel we stopped to take pics, and hadn’t stepped out of the van when Helen exclaimed, “Oh, hello, look at you! Where did you come from?” She was talking to another kea who had wandered out of the bush by the van door and looked up curiously at us. I got out and took photos, and it posed nicely for the camera. Before long it was the centre of some excitement from the other cars in the area.

The sky lightened as we descended back towards Te Anau, and the mountains looked very different in the afternoon light, with no cloud obscuring their sharp shapes on the horizon. We had a cuppa in the van in a car park out of the slopes, and beside a flowing river. Then soon after, found ourselves on the home stretch for Te Anau. Very happy to get here and relax, and look at our photos, and feel thrilled with how the day had gone. I think they speak for our happiness.