After working everyday and generally kickin’ it back during our afternoons in Punakaiki, we decided to rent a campervan to drive around New Zealand with the time we had left. The only problem was… we figured in our heads that we would have more time to see the place.
We had 11 days in the campervan – a mad dash across New Zealand.
Before we even picked up the campervan, we got to Christchurch the night before and walked out in search of some stuff. Maria needed a headlamp so we headed to R&R Sport, an outdoors store in NZ. The headlamps were way too expensive (all she needed was the basics), but we definitely left satisfied and smiling. Imagine walking into REI, cases of beer and bags of chips are on a table and everything is half price… pretty magical when you stumble upon this. The store was packed full of young people. Soon we realized that it’s full of Americans, and we think all the beer was for them. No worries though, we looked like American study abroad students so we fit right in. I think we stayed there for about an hour; between us we drank 8 beers and some handfuls of chips (we have no shame). I bought a merino wool buff, which was probably worth about as much as the beers I drank. Then as we were checking out, somehow it came up that we started our trip in Fiji, and the guy ringing us up gave us an awkward angry tirade about visiting Fiji (apparently he didn’t agree with the 2006 Fijian coup d’état). SO, if you want your outdoor sports shopping experience to be full of free beers, chips, sales and political sass, head to R&R Sport in Christchurch.
We picked up our campervan (named Monster) on the next morning, got gas and supplies, and we were off! Finally we had some control over where we could go. It felt great, but driving on the left side of the road sure did feel weird. Everything is backwards on the road… which you get used to pretty quickly, but then there is the stuff like using turn signals. All the buttons are switched too, so our turns on the first day (and sometimes after that) were signaled by varying degrees of wiper blades.
First things first when you start driving in New Zealand… get out of the city. We headed for the lakes and weren’t disappointed. First Lake Tekapo where we hiked up to the observatory on the top of Mt. John, then past Lake Pukaki on our way to the Mt. Cook campsite. Our first campsite turned out to be a favorite of ours… the views were out of this world. When we woke up, we went on a hike through the Hooker Valley which turned out to be one of our favorite in NZ (basically the valley that runs at the foot of Mt. Cook).
After the hike, we booked it to Queenstown, which is the adventure/adrenaline capital of the world. I actually booked it TOO fast, cuz I ended up getting a speeding ticket on the way there. Apparently 100 km/h means 100 km/h. Cuz I’m an idiot… I had to make sure, and got two speeding tickets.
Anyway, Queenstown is the real deal and we both wished we could stay longer there. Unfortunately we missed meeting up with our friends there, but we did hit up some happy hours before we headed to the campsite 12km away. The campsite was spectacular – right on Lake Wakatipu with a view of The Remarkables mountain range. Google image it.
We left the next morning not really sure where we would end up by the end of the day, but drove around the Queenstown area, then started our journey north to Wanaka, creatively placed on the shores of Lake Wanaka. The lakeside was the perfect place to enjoy a bottle of wine and watch the sun set over the mountains. Kids playing, families laughing, hippies guitaring, birds chirping, we ate chinese food… you know, it’s that perfect ending to a crazy driving day.
I mentioned we were starting our journey north, and north we went. At the outset of the day, we planned on driving 9 hours north along the west coast of the South Island, getting as far north as we could. That alone was kind of a crazy plan… but of course we had to add to that that we wanted to hike the Franz Josef glacier on our way. We rolled into Franz Josef, and knew the hike we wanted to book… just not when it ran or if there was space. Talked to the front desk, “Two people didn’t show up for this hike, are you ready right now?” We looked at each other, “Uhhh YEA.” I ran to the car to get the camera and water. 30 mintues after getting into town, and 15 minutes after running to the car, we were getting ready to jump in the helicopter that would take us to the glacier.
First time on a glacier, and it’s out of this world. Water is flowing in little streams over the ice, falling down cracks and crevices to the river that runs under the glacier as we hike our way up. We meander through the huge plates of ice that are falling and flowing from up the mountain. What a surreal 3 hours.
After that, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces, but it was time to drive now. We had already spent a bunch of time on the west coast, so we just blasted north through it, trying to make it to this one campsite on the map. At the end of the day, it’s getting late into the night, and we need gas. In the town of Murchison, the one gas station is closed for the night, and we have nowhere to park our van (you can’t just park anywhere and sleep unless you don’t care about a $200 ticket). We ended up sleeping in the parking lot of the gas station with a note on our car that we ran out of gas… ending the craziest day of the trip.
From there in the morning, we drove a few hours to the town at the southern end of Abel Tasman National Park. You don’t really think about untouched pristine golden beaches, and clear water when you think of New Zealand, but that’s just what Abel Tasman is. We hiked 4 hours on the coast track, then fell asleep on the beach.
The rest of our time on the South Island was spent in the towns of Nelson and Picton. We had gotten a tip from a local about two weeks ago that there is pick-up ultimate frisbee on Wednesday nights at the rec ground in Nelson, and as luck would have it, we were in Nelson on Wed night. We played a few games of pick-up ultimate with the players there; ultimate players are the nicest people around.
Our ferry left from Picton the following day to head to Wellington on the North Island. Wellington was an awesome little city, but after the wide open space of the South Island, I forgot what it was like to drive in a city.
Maria: As Schwab said, Wellington was an amazing city. Think San Fran on a smaller scale. After getting lost 4 times and finally finding a place to park the van, we took 2 hours to roam around the city and explore. We turn the corner and what is the first building I see? PwC. I couldn’t resist the urge to walk in and check out one of our offices in another country. I was a little nervous since I was wearing shorts and flip flops, but figured hey, what the heck, might as well check it out. Turns out the reception ladies were super nice and called up a director in the healthcare consulting practice who would love to come and chat with me. Sweet! He had worked in multiple countries so we talked about whats going on in the global healthcare market and how some countries approach patient care in terms of cost and quality. Ended up exchanging information and will hopefully be a great contact if we ever think about moving overseas. Okay, enough work talk – back to the cool stuff.
S: Next mission was to head north to the Tongariro National Park to do the 8 hour hike across the volcanic peaks and craters; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was going to be amazing and the hike we were most looking forward to. Another sad story short, tropical cyclone Lusi was hitting the entire North Island of New Zealand. With 50-60 mph winds and unsure mountain conditions, the park service advised us not to do the crossing… “Not today, not tomorrow.” We spent the next two days chilling out in cafes and shops in Taupo and Rotorua.
With our time ending in New Zealand, we had one last destination before heading to Auckland – take a visit to the real life set of Hobbiton where they filmed the Shire scenes of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings! When they finished making Lord of the Rings, the movie company was in the process of demolishing the set, but weather prevented the work, and the family who owns the farm saved the hobbit holes. When it came time to film The Hobbit, Peter Jackson asked the family if he could use the location again, so the whole Shire and more was rebuilt for good as it stands now.
Even if your not a fan of the movies, it was amazing to see the undertaking and attention to detail that went into making the entire landscape and village of Hobbiton. If you are in New Zealand, see it.
A quick two hour drive from Hobbiton, and we were smack dab in Auckland returning our campervan. We had a flight at 7am the next morning to Bali in Indonesia, but first things first, IT WAS ST PADDYS DAY and we had some irish beers to drink.
One major thought as we streaked across NZ was that we wanted to stay longer at EVERY place we went. We simply did not have enough time to do all the hiking and exploring that we wanted to do. Definitely a country to come back to.
Steve is on leave near...