Our short hop over the ditch from Melbourne was with China Airlines, part of Star Alliance after the last two flights with Air Asia and Tiger Air this was like being treated like royalty with a pillow, blanket, meal and in-flight entertainment for the 3 hour flight! Yes we are easily pleased these days.
On arrival we had the usual hurdle of immigration to pass, and we were presented with two options, regular or E-Pass. Well I only had one option, Gav could go through E-Pass (check) system, (UK, US and AUS) but I had to go via the regular queue which took forever. We took up the suggestion of one of the immigration staff that Gav could go through and get the bags to save time. The queue got bigger again when a group of chaps from the US Antarctic Survey skipped the queue. It was another 30 mins before I got near the front (I was so glad they had free wifi) when one of the officials came to chat to the few at the back, which sadly included me, she quizzed us about our plans and when I revealed that “we” were spending one night in Christchurch and then “we” were hiring a van, she wondered who the “we” was, when I pointed Gav out, she exclaimed “how rude to abandon you here, I’m going to have a word” and off she went and told him off. The fella who told him to go through the E-system also got a bit of a dressing down, it was all very amusing to all parties, but I got my stamp anyway and just got ahead of a Chinese tour group for the customs line, we had our shoes to declare as we had been in Indonesia and Malaysia in the past 30 days around animals etc. so a quick check and a re-dip in more disinfectant and we were good to go.
To get into Christchurch there were a few options, shuttle (ranging from $14-22), taxi (too expensive) or the local bus ($8), of course we opted for the local bus and the nice bus driver lady told us where to get off. While we were waiting in the queue, a guy ahead of us produced his notes to pay. 20 year old New Zealand dollars! They were not still legal tender (but could be exchanged at a bank of course this was no help to him at that moment) and his pleas to accept them fell on deaf ears and he was sent off to the ATM to withdraw cash for his fare. Believe it or not this was not the first person we saw try this during our time in NZ. Anyway after getting off we were on our way to our hostel- At the Right Place hostel. Did I mention it was cold in Christchurch?? No? Well it was bloody freezing! 15ºC without the breeze, so cold! For the first time since we left the UK we had heating on in the hostel and even then I was still cold. Arrrgh!!
Day 2: The following morning with time to kill before we picked up our “campervan” we headed off into Christchurch to explore. At the time we visited it was almost five years since the devastating earthquake hit the city and it is only now starting to get rebuild with huge swathes of the city centre are under construction….. but they still have loads of amazing coffee shops (we spent so much on coffee here it was ridiculous!)
Our pickup time was 4 pm. We had got a van with Lucky rentals and they double book the first day to squeeze out the extra pennies so you can’t collect your van until the afternoon. At 3.30 pm we caught a bus to just before the airport (saving $4.50) rang Lucky Rentals, waited for pickup. Shortly after we collected the van, paid for table and chairs, the ferry crossing to the North Island, collected the freebies (washing powder, tea bags, pasta, etc- unused crap from other travellers) and, armed with our Campermate App, off we went to first campsite (with a stop off for supplies en-route) of Rakaia Huts just south of Christchurch. Once out of Christchurch we were already deep in farming territory- the road out was flanked with crops and a number of crop testing fields for various local and international agrochemical companies.
So Rakaia Huts! A paid for campsite, next to the beach at $5pp. Grand site, kitchen, drinking water and showers for $1. One of the best value sites we went to on our travels. We cooked our first meal in nine months here (cooking for the doggies in Thailand doesn’t count!) and got to grips with the van and converting it to a bed and sleeping in it. Also from this site we got our first ever look at the Pacific- cold and powerful and apparently good for fishing, we had a few chaps go past on their quad bikes (clearly they are the way to travel here) loaded up with fishing gear and the occasional dog.
I have to say at this point after 9 month or so of 24/7 being together, putting the two of us in an even smaller space, seemed like lunacy for the first few days. After a few rows and a few days we got into a routine thankfully!
Day 3: The following morning we set off for our next port of call Dunedin.
One of our last stops for the day was Katiki Point, a place you were almost guaranteed to see the rare yellow eyed penguin. Unfortunately to get to there you had to go down a steep and bone rattling gravel road (our first of many here in NZ) but well worth it. There was 8 yellow eyed penguins, loads of fur seals (including a pup on the top of the cliff). Very cool. This was followed by a scenic drive, with stunning views all the way to our campsite!
Our second campsite was Warrington Reserve, a free campsite by the beach next to a small village, 20 mins north of Dunedin. Basically a lawn carpark with toilets again grand for one night.
Day 4: The following morning we headed for Dunedin, other than the scenic drive this was the most interesting drive scenery wise, the flat farmland turned to undulating hills on one side and ocean on the other. En-route to the centre we stopped in at Baldwin Street, reputed to be the steepest residential street in the world.
Dunedin itself is a nice little town with an old Edwardian centre we spent an hour or so here but you could easily spend a few days as there seemed to be lots of tours and stuff like that to do if you were so inclined (Cadbury Factory and a Brewery amongst others). Then it was off to the Otago Pennisula…
The spectacular coastal Portabello Road along the bay to the Albatross Centre.
Tunnel Beach, this was really cool and free too!
I had planned a free campsite just south of Dunedin for our next stop, however we had been advised by other campers that you had to arrive really early, there were few spaces and if you didn’t park exactly in the bay the way they wanted it was a $200 fine. We didn’t fancy that so we headed for the next cheapest and well reviewed campsite on our Campermate app (Hillview Campsite) which was on the road to the southern scenic route. I had planned on skipping this route and going straight to Te Anau from Dunedin but it was still achievable from this campsite without too much backtracking.
While we were here however Gav spotted a few things he wanted to do on the south coast so in the end we went that way anyway so it worked out well. (It was cold down there though, really cold at night, I didn’t sleep very well the few days we went along the south coast).
As it would be quite boring I’m not going to mention the finer details of most of the campsites, mostly because other than the scenery many are quite the same. This one was nothing special but we did come across some strange things. For one I’ve now seen a sheep get a shiatsu massage from an Italian guy and he loved it, big style. I’ve never seen a sheep look so relaxed and so disappointed when his massage ended.
The second thing that happened here concerned the shower. (Warning: I am about to go on a rant). Showers are precious things at campsites, most are timed and often there is only one for each sex. In the mornings there can often be a queue and as the campsites often have a kickout time of 10 am it is best to keep them short to allow everyone a turn. In this campsite there was only the one for everyone, a big room with a toilet, sink and coin operated shower. There were also two separate toilets elsewhere on the grounds. To save time we decided to shower at the same time, so we would be a max of 15 mins for the two of us, so at 8 am we gathered our shower stuff and were about to head up when we saw the guy next to us leave his car with a towel over his shoulder. Ok so we’ll have to wait a few minutes, not too bad so we followed him up and waited outside. Next thing his girlfriend arrived knocked on the door (with the money for the shower) and went in. Ok so they have the same plan as us fair enough, another 5 minutes to add-on till we get in then. But no! They faffed in there for 10 minutes before switching the shower on then faffed some more once they came out of it. If there is a queue, you do not need to go and apply body lotion or shave for 15 mins! In the end we waited 30 minutes and eventually he came out. But not her. Despite my exclamation of “you have got to be kidding me” she proceeded to use the toilet in there too when there was one next door!!!! ARRRRRRRRRRGGHHH!!!! Oh I was so annoyed. We did eventually got our showers and were as quick as possible so as not to keep everyone else waiting though there was only one guy behind us. Also we managed to cook, eat, tidy up and leave before they did so they weren’t even in a rush!
So anyway still annoyed from this we started Day 5. We needed to get moving as soon as possible as we had planned a number of sights that were tide dependent and we had a series of shocking gravel roads to navigate. Gav’s hand was also still a bit dodgy so we didn’t want to rush too much. So we entered the Caitlins National Park.
First stop- Jack’s blowhole, annoyingly this is best seen at high tide but the rest of the stuff we wanted to see required low tide.
The next stop was Purakaunui Falls, the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. The gravel road between it and Jack’s blowhole was a nightmare of hills and sections that would almost judder you off the road into the ditch but it was worth it.
The next stop was due to be Cathedral Caves (this was what Gav really wanted to see), which could only be accessed at low tide, got here at the “height” of low tide only to discover it was shut all day. We discovered later when doing our shopping in Invercargill that it was frequently shut so you have to be very lucky to see it.
A bit disheartened, our journey along the south coast continued with the nest stop of Curio Bay, the site of an ancient petrified forest (one of the oldest and best preserved in the world). It was really cool to see but the place was freezing! Also while we were there the tide turned and it started to come in rapidly and with quite some force. Was fun to watch for a while but then it got a little too close for comfort (for me anyway).
Then we headed onto Slope Point, the most southerly point of New Zealand and also we realised was as far south as we would get on this trip…
We had another few stops along the coast, through Invercargill to camp our free campsite at Monkey Island next to the beach. At low tide you could walk to a little island. We also got our first view of the snow-capped mountains of Fiordland, very cool. We also spotted a weasel here. These are intensively trapped and killed to protect the native species of birds (WWF endorsed).
Day 6: Began with a trip to Gemstone beach, round the corner from Monkey Island, a really nice stop where you can often find semi-precious gems such as garnet, jasper, quartz and nephrite (jade). You need to know what to look for really and there were some expert hunters here but for us it was a nice to wander about and find some cool coloured stones which may or may not contain gems (more likely not but we live in hope!).
Passing McCracken’s Rest lookout..
Then down another gravel road to Lake Hauroko and our first (albeit mild) encounter with sandflies..
Back the same gravel road (sigh!) and we happened upon Clifton Suspension Bridge.
As you can see the whole area is mainly limestone, which means there are more caves! Next stop was Clifton caves Now the reviews on Campermate mention that there is a small amount of water in the cave, so you know dress accordingly in shorts and shoes/sandals you don’t mind getting wet plus bring a torch. On the way in we were met by folk who didn’t have a torch and then a couple wildly proclaiming that we would never make it and have to swim! A tad over dramatic at the deepest point we were in it was only just over ankle deep.
En route to Te Anau we spotted Rakatu wetlands, these were relatively new wetlands only opened in 2006, they were construed to mitigate the effects of the new power plant up-stream. There were plenty of tracks to walk but the birds were quite timid so hard to see. The sheep on the other hand were not impressed with us being there.
Upriver we spotted the power station…
It was getting late and we still had the drive towards our next campsite near Milford Sound. Gav was exhausted so I took the wheel for the remaining of the journey. There were a number of film locations along here- most notably Fangorn forest. As we drove on looking out for it we spotted a car like ours in the ditch wrapped in police tape around the same area. After that we just concentrated on the road. The long and winding road to Gunn camp. We had however made one slight error…….