Thursday, 23 March 2017

Feels like home

It's a funny thing isn't it, gut feeling?  When we very first spoke about hitting the road last year and the possibility of buying land, everyone's first question was 'where?'  Our response was always the same 'the deep South!'  Which was funny really, because neither Gareth or I had ever been there.  Aside from the fact Otago and Southland had some pretty good rugby and cricket teams, I knew pretty much nothing about the area other than it frequently had both the highest and lowest weather temperatures on the evening news.  But we just had this instinct, this strong feeling that that was where we should go.  And now we're here!  And it seems our instinct was correct.  The more time we spend here in the deep South, the more we feel that this is the place for us.  We have been from one end of the country to the other, seen countless beautiful things and fallen in love with many different places.  But none of them have felt like home.  Here, it feels like home.

One of the Catlins 'must-do's' - Cathedral Caves

Before we went travelling, I had never heard of the Catlins before.  Actually I had never heard of countless places before; it was only through the Facebook motorhoming groups I belong to and their incredible photos that the Catlins ended up on our to-do list.  If you've never heard of it either, the Catlins is an area between Baclutha and Invercargill which is sort of between the Otago and Southland region.  I'm using the Wikipedia definition because it's a place that is very hard to describe.  It covers vast areas of farmland, but it is like any other farmland I've ever seen, it's so staggeringly beautiful.  There are mountains, rainforests, beaches, lakes, you name it; it's got it.  Forget Queenstown and your other touristy places, the Catlins has more things to do than any other area we've come across.  Where else in the world can you see sheep grazing on one side of a hill and sea lions and penguins flip-flopping and hopping about on the other!  We were so exhausted after a week there that we literally couldn't take in any more, we had seen so much!  But it was brilliant and it was there that we found the first place we really, really wanted to live.

McLean Falls.  The Catlins has a LOT of waterfalls!

We spent the duration of our stay at a family run campground called Hillside, near Kaka Point.  There is an NZMCA ground at Niagara further along the route but we found our location much more convenient and closer to where we wanted to be.  Besides, Hillside was brilliant!  For $10 a night you had all the facilities you could possibly need, it was close to everything and the family even makes home cooked scones with jam and cream for the campers every Friday.  Throw in some gorgeous rural views with glorious sunrises and sunsets into the bargain and you have a really lovely and peaceful place to stay.

Roaring Bay, just up the road from our campground

Puraukanui Bay

Puraukanui Falls.

When you head in to the Catlins, especially from the Dunedin end, it's hard to know where to start.  There is literally so much to do!  It reminds me a bit of Milford Sound in that you can't go for more than a few kilometres at a time without coming across yet another different and exciting spectacle.  We were advised to allow at least three days in the area which I would definitely recommend - in fact we were there almost a week and still didn't see everything!  But we saw everything we wanted to see, including all the 'must-do's'.

Spooning seal style at Cannibal Bay

One of the things I was most excited about was the possibility of seeing seals and the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin, also known as the Hoiho.  We didn't have to wait long to see the seals, there was a whole bunch of them at Cannibal Bay, which was the very first place we went to.   Pardon the imagery but on first arrival at this small, rugged and very quiet little bay, it looked as though the beach was littered with enormous lumps that looked like giant dog poo!  It was in fact, lots of sleeping seals.  Big ones, small ones, furry ones, sleek ones - every now and get one of them would stretch and get up and waddle lazily over to another before flopping down alongside and fall immediately back to sleep.  The other one, if it woke at all would open a sleepy eye, raise a flipper as if to say 'Oh hello, it's you', before doing the same.  They didn't give a hoot about us and Minnie being there as we wandered around, quietly observing.  It made me very glad that we hadn't paid a fortune in Dunedin a few days earlier for the privilege of being able to see them from a small boat!

I'm coming to get youuuuu!

Oh hang on, I've changed my mind...

Yep, I'm done now...

From there we went to Surat Bay, named after a ship which was wrecked there in 1874.  This glorious stretch of beach was lovely to walk along.  There was only one seal on the beach and it was sleeping peacefully near the water's edge, while we stayed close to the dunes.  After a big walk, little old lady Minnie was getting a bit tired so I waited with her whilst Gareth went exploring further down the beach.  I decided to sit where we were, well out of the way of the sleeping seal, however just as I was about to sit down, the seal awoke, caught sight of us and immediately began making its way towards us at an alarmingly fast rate - no kidding, these things can really move!  They may look cute and docile but they can also be aggressive if they feel threatened and can bite.  The closer it got, the bigger I realised it was!  I tried to move way but poor Minnie was frozen to the spot and would not move.  Just as I really started to panic, the giant creature stopped dead in its tracks a few feet away from me and plopped down on its belly, looking straight at me with big melting pool eyes.  Seconds later, it was asleep.  In the meantime, Gareth had seen us from the other end of the beach and was running up to come to our aid.  By the time he arrived we had attracted quite a bit of attention from foreign tourists, all wanting to know what had happened and to take photos of our still sleeping friend!

Jack's Bay

With so many beautiful bays all close to one another, we had time to visit Jack's Bay before calling it a day.  Obviously this was one of my favourite places, sharing the same name but the Jack in question was actually a Maori chief known as Bloody Jack, who escaped and swam there after losing a battle in 1844 but unfortunately drowned.  These days Jack's Bay is far more peaceful and we had an enjoyable hike up the hills to Jack's Blowhole, which is unusual in that it is 200 metres out to sea. We thought we had seen quite enough seals for one day but were lucky to stumble upon a sleeping family of seals right in front of some local houses!  We stood and watched, enchanted as an adorable baby seal toddled its way along in search of his family, calling out to its mum until he finally found them and went to curl up amid the sleeping pile.

Muuuuum!  Where are youuuuu!

We were just about to leave when I turned around and caught sight of the most enormous bull sea lion making its way out of the ocean.  This time it was Gareth's turn to be taken aback.  What should we do?  We were more than a safe distance away but didn't know if he would see us as a threat to his family and this guy was HUGE.  We stood like statues, waiting to run if necessary (fortunately Minnie was in the car this time!) but there was no need.  All this fella was interested in was getting home to his family and as soon as they heard him approach, four little heads immediately popped up and welcomed the head of the family back with much excited jostling and big sealy kisses as if to say 'Yay!  Daddy's home!'  It really was enchanting and even more so to see the little baby (who was obviously the apple of his father's eye) emulating his dad's behaviour.  We felt truly honoured to have witnessed such a spectacle - but now it really was time to call it a day!

Daddy's home!

One big, happy family!

Whilst we saw an awful lot of seals we weren't fortunate enough to see the timid Yellow Eyed Penguins.  I think the seals we saw at Roaring Bay and Nugget Point probably had a bit to do with that!  However in the days which followed there wasn't much that we didn't see.  The Catlins is home to some incredibly beautiful waterfalls and it was lovely walking through the rainforests to get to them.  One of the things we liked best about the Catlins was that there was so much that Minnie was able to do with us, which is rare in conservation areas.  She absolutely loved it there and was clambering over rocks and climbing up waterfalls with us!  It was a really special time for all three of us.  As usual, our favourite places were the ones off the beaten track (who am I kidding, almost all the best spots in the Catlins are off the beaten track!)  We drove miles and miles of winding, narrow, gravel road and although I didn't need Michael Buble to get me through any of them, a few of them were close!  The road to Cathedral Caves, which is only open for two hours a day at low tide, is quite possibly the worst road we have struck yet!  Fortunately it was worth the drive.

Feeling right at home here!

What we weren't expecting was to feel so comfortable and at ease in the Catlins.  I guess we had no pre-conceived ideas at all but with every day that passed, we didn't actually feel like tourists, we felt as if we were at home.  Everyone from the campground owner to the people in the little town of Owaka was so welcoming and helpful and we actually ended up spending a couple of days just driving around and researching the area looking for land.  We did find some but fortunately the locals were quick to let us know where NOT to buy e.g. the flood prone areas!  Small blocks of land in the Catlins are relatively unheard of as the area is made up of hundreds, if not thousands of acres of enormous farm blocks, but who knows?  Maybe a kind farmer or somebody out there somewhere will be nice enough to sell us off a tiny piece.  I'm sure they won't miss it and in turn we'll treasure it.  We live in hope; for now, the search goes on!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Fish out of Water

What an awful lot has happened since I last wrote!  In my previous post I had been recovering from a spell of ill health in Mossburn.  First things first I guess - we made it down to the very bottom of the country!  Now we can proudly say that we have been from one end of NZ to the other.  We absolutely loved Gore and stayed there for quite a few days - in fact, as I write we are there again!  I think Gore would definitely win the award for having the most polite inhabitants in the country.  In fact, everyone is so accommodating that when you go to cross a zebra crossing, the traffic stops so early for you that you actually end up running to catch up so you can cross the road without keeping them waiting!  Always with a smile and a wave from both parties too.  Apparently Gore is the Brown Trout Capital of the World, the Country Music Capital of NZ, the capital of Romney Sheep and goodness knows what else, but whatever it is, we like it and it features very highly on our list of potential new places to call home.

Gore - famous for fish, country music and super polite people!

Whilst in Gore we had the first in a series of unusual experiences - shopping!  As we went further south and the temperature dropped, we had no choice but to go to the Warehouse and pick up an extra thick blanket and some warmer clothes.  We realised as we went around that this was the first time we had been properly shopping for anything but food in more than four months!  This was a feat we were very proud of - but another significant thing was soon apparent and became even more obvious as our travels took us through more of the major Southland centres.  We are almost completely, blissfully out of the loop.  We have absolutely no idea whatsoever who is in the magazines or movies, what songs are on the radio, what video games are out, what items are supposed to be 'must-haves' - we simply don't know!  And I tell you what, it's brilliant being that way. The more shops we encountered, the more we laughed at how much meaningless rubbish and utter crap is put in front of poor, hapless shoppers.  When your whole life is contained in a Mazda Bongo, you soon realise that none of that stuff means anything.  Maybe it's because houses are so big, people feel like they have to buy more things to just to fill the space.  Doesn't matter what it is, it can be literally anything, a ceramic pineapple even.  We saw a lot of ceramic pineapples and even gold ones.  I feel as though I couldn't be further away from that world now. 

Queens Park, Invercargill

From Gore we moved on to Invercargill and I have to say, visiting the deepest of the deep south was a rather strange experience.  Invercargill itself is a nice enough city.  It's attractive, easy to get around and has a lot of great architecture and historical buildings.  The reason we found it strange was, for a city it was empty!  We thought Wellington was quiet in comparison to Auckland but that was nothing compared to Invercargill.  It has everything you could possibly need, all the major chain stores and fast food outlets - but no people!  We were there for two whole days and the streets were absolutely dead.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing, quite the opposite!  It was lovely to be able to find our way around so peacefully and certainly made driving in a big city a lot less stressful.  It was just so surprising and we couldn't help but wonder where on earth all the people were.  

Sign at the gateway to Bluff

Land's End, the brooding landscape of Bluff

Getting blown away at the iconic signpost

The next stop wasn't far away and was one we were very excited about - Bluff!  The last town at the very bottom of the country and home of the famous Bluff oyster.  Once you get to Bluff you can go no further.  As we approached, I felt a similar sense of anticipation as I had done a few months earlier, when we made it to the top of the North Island at Cape Reinga.  When we arrived however, my experience couldn't have been more different.  Bluff is, quite simply a ghost town.  It's dark and it's bleak and you really do feel as though you are at the very end of the earth.  It was freezing cold, the sky was gunmetal grey and although we drove around the whole town twice to make sure we hadn't missed anything, we did not see another living soul.  The only people we did eventually encounter were a group of Asians doing the obligatory selfies next to the iconic signpost at land's end.  We could only conclude that there must be a heck of a lot more oysters there than people - and no, we didn't buy any!  Despite the season having begun, we came across only one oyster stand at the edge of town and there was no one manning it.  In all honesty, I found the place to be downright eerie and couldn't get out of it fast enough.  As Gareth pointed out on our way out, even the horses in Bluff look depressed!  

Taieri Mouth beach at dusk

They have REALLY big seaweed in Southland!

Still, we had been and seen and now we had reached the bottom of the country we were keen to start making our way back up again.  We spent an enjoyable few days at Taieri Mouth, which isn't far from Dunedin.  This is a really beautiful spot and our campsite was literally a hop and a skip from the beach.  After seeing the West Coast, with its black sand and brooding landscape, we didn't really expect the southern beaches to be particularly spectacular but we couldn't have been more wrong. Taieri Mouth beach is absolutely stunning, with golden sand as far as the eye can see and we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  It reminded me a little of the beach I had left behind at Whangamata and even had an island!  

One very happy bloke - Gareth at his favourite shop!

I would have continued to stay there quite happily had we not had a special weekend planned in Dunedin.  Gareth would probably call 'special' the understatement of the century!  As an avid Warhammer figurine collector of many years, there was just one store in the whole of the South Island (there are only two in the North as well for that matter) and the Dunedin store was holding a special anniversary celebration, with heaps of events, specials and freebies.  He had been looking forward to it for weeks, carefully tailoring our travels around being in the right place at the right time and had even given up smoking a month prior so that he could afford to treat himself to some figures and books without feeling guilty.  Seeing as it was pretty much a whole day event, we put Minnie into a boarding kennel overnight, so that we had plenty of time and freedom to explore the city.  

Typical architecture in Dunedin - very cool!

Dunedin from rainy Otago Peninsula

I have to say that Wellington is absolutely hands down our favourite city in NZ - but Dunedin would probably come second.  It's a bit like the Auckland of the south, which I took full advantage of by eating pretty much my own body weight in Asian food over the course of the weekend.  We saw the sights (with the exception of the Cadbury's factory, which we boycotted after selling out and making its 330 employees redundant - even Gareth's passionate love of chocolate wasn't going to sway him!) and took a leisurely drive around the beautiful Otago Peninsula.  It had been a wonderful day, all we had to do now was check into our campsite for the night.  Which was when we hit a hurdle.  As we pulled in to the NZMCA ground we saw to our dismay that it was full.  No problem, there were still more campgrounds in Dunedin.  Unfortunately we found that they were all full too - and we weren't even limited to dog friendly ones for a change!  We were faced with a choice - either leave the city and drive miles out of our way to an area we didn't even want to be in to find another campground, or get a motel for the night.  At least we were able to do that without Minnie in tow.  We got online for last minute deals and to our total disbelief found that there was ONE motel left which wasn't completely booked out - and they only had one room left!

We couldn't believe it - how could every motel and campground be full in a city the size of Dunedin? It's a massive place!  With no time to waste we bit the bullet and booked the one remaining room.  As it turned out, rushing in off the street and begging the nice receptionist to give it to us was a good move as she gave us $30 off the online price!  At least that softened the blow slightly.  The receptionist led us to our room and as she gave us the key we were absolutely gobsmacked.  Room? It was more like a small house!  Kitchen, lounge, bathroom, bedroom - what on earth were we supposed to DO with all this space?  We didn't even have any stuff!  

I have to admit, it was the best night's sleep both of us had had in a very long time.  A proper mattress with a whole mountain of pillows?  We didn't know ourselves!  In fact, I really didn't know myself and had to chuck the rest of the pillows on the floor as I could only sleep with one of the enormous marshmallows.  Gareth enjoyed making a coffee with fresh milk rather than Coffee Mate the next morning and we both had a chuckle at the novelty of having our very own shower and loo and simply wandering off to another room to use it!  But that was it - that was really all we got out of our decadent night.  We had a TV in our lounge and another one in our bedroom and couldn't believe all the rubbish that was on Sky, we had to switch it off.  All this space just seemed so - unnecessary to us and luxurious as it was supposed to be, we just didn't like it. 

Home!  Hooray for Ken!

It was with great joy and dare I say relief that we jumped into the van the next day to pick up a very excited Minnie.  This was our home!  With all our stuff in and everything we needed in the world.  Our city weekend was a great experience and one that we wouldn't have missed - but one very important thing that it did teach us is that we are very happy with everything we have and never want to live in a 'normal' house ever again!

Monday, 6 March 2017


Hard to believe almost 120 days have passed since we first began living in a van!  And I have to say, it just keeps getting better.  We have learned an enormous amount, regarding what TO do and what NOT to do and I think we have really got into our groove now.  We have grown in confidence, in knowledge and are really living off the smell of an oily Mazda Bongo rag.  Most days I never want our travels to end.  The good thing is, maybe they don't have to.  I'm already working most days a week from the comfort of my office on wheels and that doesn't have to change.  I also rather like living debt free in a $14,000 mobile home.  If we don't want to stop, well we can just keep going!

Doing a spot of laundry in Te Anau (I have had a haircut since, honest!)

I get asked all the time, what is it LIKE, you know, living on the road?  The answer to that is a whole blog in itself but I can certainly tell you the best thing for starters.  Travelling to new places every day, having new adventures every day, seeing new breathtaking views and amazing things, cooking on a tiny stove, doing all your laundry by hand, wringing it out and hanging it out on a washing line you strung up between two trees, all these things and many more are what I love - but being able to do all that with my soul mate?  That's the very best thing.  Standing at the foot of a glacier, dipping your toes in an alpine lake, driving through a pitch black tunnel that runs right through a mountain, marveling at every sunset and never forgetting for a moment how incredibly lucky you are.  Creating a million, squillion unforgettable memories.  There are many, many beautiful places in New Zealand and all are special in their own way.  We've even coined our own term, 'insanery', which refers in particular to South Island scenery as it's so beautiful it's just downright crazy.  But as we have discovered this past couple of weeks, there are some places which are just other worldly; which have to be seen to be believed.

Glenorchy - little town, BIG views!

The mighty Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy end

Unsurprisingly we didn't find them in the tourist centres.  We found that Wanaka wasn't a patch on Hawea, with its overabundance of people and cafes and we fled screaming from Queenstown. Fortunately a German couple we met upon arrival in the South Island told us about a place called Glenorchy, which was close to Queenstown but much quieter and in their opinion, much nicer. Thank goodness for word of mouth!  We duly headed for Glenorchy and for a brief moment I wondered whether the seemingly endless winding road was worth the drive.  That was until we found ourselves staring in awe at the snow covered mountains which lay ahead.  By the time we reached the quaint little town I was already in love with the place and after spending the afternoon there I would have been quite happy to just stay there forever.  The scenery, the peace, the people (what few there were) - everything!  Unfortunately for us there were no dog friendly campgrounds at Glenorchy so we had no choice but to turn around and come back the way we came.  This time I had no complaints about doing the journey a second time; it was just as beautiful driving in the other direction!

The sun goes down over Lake Wakatipu

We didn't really know where we were going but we did know we definitely didn't want to stay in Queenstown so kept on driving until we reached a little place called Kingston, which was even smaller than Glenorchy.  There wasn't much there - but there was the most beautiful free campsite just on the outskirts of town, right on the edge of Lake Wakatipu.  The South Island has what feels like a million beautiful lakes, but Wakatipu is definitely one of my favourites.  We parked Ken in a quiet spot amongst the trees and as I stood that night at the water's edge, watching the sun go down, I truly felt like one of the luckiest people in the world.  As you can imagine, we have stayed at a LOT of different campsites all over the country by now!  But my favourite ones, the really special ones, have all been free.

Lake Te Anau - seriously, how many beautiful lakes can one island have?!

I could have happily stayed there for days too, but with so much still to see we needed to keep moving so headed for Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland and the Milford Sound.  There was so much to do here that we ended up staying for five days at the NZMCA campground.  Our experience of that place is a whole blog in itself!  But will save that for another day.  Te Anau is a busy but friendly town.  It's touristy but not overwhelmingly so unlike Queenstown and Wanaka and the longer we stayed there, the more we grew to like the place.  Lake Te Anau is gorgeous and we had some lovely walks around there, from the edge of town right to the start of the Kepler Track.  At 60km long however we didn't walk that one!  There is also a free bird sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation which was really enjoyable to stroll around and all the birds there were rescued.  We got to see rare and endangered birds such as the takahe (of which there are only 200 left in the world), the morepork, and the kaka and kakariki.  More stunning even than Lake Te Anau (at least in my humble opinion) is Lake Manapouri, which is just around the corner.  It's more peaceful than Te Anau and I got to have my first paddle in Fiordland waters at Fraser Beach.

Lake Manapouri, Fiordland National Park

A special Mummy & Minnie moment at Lake Manapouri

Those two places alone were worth the visit, but I don't think anything we have seen these past four months can compare to Milford Sound.  It is just out of this world, the scenery takes your breath away.  What I loved most about it is that your whole journey there from Te Anau is the destination! In fact we enjoyed the journey there more than even Milford Sound itself!  120 kilometres of incredible. Because dogs are not permitted anywhere in Milford Sound (and indeed in pretty much all of Fiordland National Park) we put Minnie in a boarding kennel for the night.  We struggled a bit with the expense, it seemed rather extravagant just to enable us to go and check out a place but the kennel was very reasonable at just $17 a night and it was probably the best $17 we have ever spent.  You simply can't put a price on a place like this, we're so glad that we took the opportunity when we had it.  With so many interesting things to stop and see along the way, it also made it much easier not having our wee girl with us.

Rather large mountains on the road to Milford Sound

Watch out, it's Kea country!

We saw mountains - HUGE mountains.  I mean this is the South Island, you see mountains all the time but these are next level mountains, you would not believe how enormous they are!  We drove alongside the massive Eglinton River, saw wild Kea's at the side of the road who were extremely sociable and keen to introduce themselves but I was staying well away with Ken!  For those who don't know, a Kea is a large, wild and very cheeky parrot.  They love to do things like jump on your car and rip off the windscreen wipers and such!  We even drove through an entire mountain, through a long, pitch black tunnel, carved out of the rock.  That was a bit freaky!  The highlight however, and I think I can speak for us both, was the unexpected stop at Lake Gunn.

Middle Earth?  Quite possibly!

What's Lake Gunn?  We had no idea either, but revelling in our dog-less freedom we pulled in at the sign by the side of the road and hopped out.  Apparently there was a 45 minute walk through a forest to get to the lake and we umm-ed and ahh-ed.  Keen to just get to Milford Sound itself we wondered, should we bother delaying our journey?  We decided to bite the bullet and go and check it out, which turned out to be the best decision of the day.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed in this area, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if this forest had been one of them.  It was the most magical, otherworldly place we have ever set foot in.  Everywhere was covered in lush, soft moss, the trees dripped with pale, green tendrils, and trees even grew on other trees.  It reminded me of the wood that my friends and I used to play in when we were little, which we called 'Hobbitland', with all its nooks and crannies and I giggled as I asked Gareth to take a photo of me crouched inside one of the many hidey holes.

'You've got a bird above your head', he pointed out as he took the photo.  I did?  He was right, a little grey and rather rotund wee bird had hopped on the 'roof' above me.  I later discovered it was a South Island robin but had never seen one before.  I stayed quiet and watched him happily and felt very honoured that he chose to spend a moment so close to me - but that was just the beginning.  I was amazed when he hopped down onto the ground and began making his way towards me!  He showed no fear and I was a little taken aback.  Was he friendly?  What did he want?  Was he after my keys?  How sharp was that beak?  Having once been bitten by a Kea I was in no desire to find out!  It soon became cleared what he wanted.  By walking through the forest and climbing into the hidey hole, Gareth and I were causing tiny insects to fly around.  Our little feathered friend was busy catching his dinner!

Our little feathered friend, the South Island robin

I have no idea how long we stayed there in the company of that little bird but by the time we left he had merrily pecked both of our feet and even tried to land on our knees!  Even as we reluctantly walked away he still followed us through the forest, hopping behind us before he finally went on his own way.  What a special time it was.  You can see one of the videos we took on our Facebook page.  So much for taking 45 minutes to get to the lake, it was more like 90 we were enjoying ourselves so much but eventually we arrived at the edge of Lake Gunn and it was worth every minute.  We had the whole lake to ourselves and the water was crystal clear and surprisingly warm as we paddled in it and took what seemed like a hundred photos.  That place I think will be etched in my memory forever.  Before the end of the day we had seen the Mirror Lakes, Mitre Peak and all the 'must do's' of Milford Sound, but to me nothing compared to Lake Gunn and its magical fairy forest.

Lake Gunn <3

Some time in the afternoon we arrived at Milford Sound itself and were quite surprised at what we found.  It was, as expected, the end of the road and the scenery was indeed incredible but it was a bit like a little tourist resort really.  There was nothing to do there unless you wanted to spend money on a scenic flight or cruise and we felt a bit duped really.  'Welcome to Milford Sound!  Come and spend a fortune so you can see it properly!'  It wasn't a big deal; we had already seen and enjoyed so much anyway but there was no way that we were about to spend hundreds of dollars on a flight or a boat trip when we had experienced the rest of what had already been an unforgettable journey for free.  So we did the free walks that were available to do there and then made our way back down through the mountains to Te Anau.

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound.  Didn't see James Franco or any aliens here!

Mountain waterfall, Milford Sound

I don't need to say any more what a truly special day it was, I think you get the idea!  But it was made all the better by being able to do it under our own steam.  As we made our way along that 120km stretch of road, we saw many bus loads of people being herded on and off from one stop to the next, with no more than a few minutes to take everything in, along with the obligatory selfies.  They didn't even go to Lake Gunn, only the stops at the side of the road to take a few snapshots.  Doing the journey our way meant that we could see whatever we liked for as long as we liked, for no more cost than around half a tank of gas.  We could have even stayed overnight if we had wanted!

We continued to stay in Te Anau for a couple more days (for just $3 a night at the NZMCA ground we couldn't complain!) and then made our way to Mossburn.  That was a bit spontaneous and we ended up there for another four days as we both fell ill - I think we had become a little too complacent about double checking the quality of our drinking water!  As I write today from Gore, we have already reached the bottom of the South Island.  But I think I've bored you enough for one day!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Over a Barrel

In case you hadn't noticed from our many Facebook photos and mad Instagram-ing lately, we are enjoying our South Island travels greatly! Am particularly chuffed as yesterday we reached Otago, which was a major goal and a region I have always very much wanted to visit. My office today is on the banks of Lake Hawea and it's a bit out of this world really. We are nestled away from most of the world in a little nook, surrounded by trees and overlooking the impossibly blue water and just as impossibly high mountains. From where I sit I can pick ripe blackberries. Little fat bunny rabbits regularly bolt across my path as Minnie snores, peacefully oblivious, and dotted around are little patches of Fly Agaric toadstools; the red ones with white spots just like in the fairy stories.

Our little wee camping nook

Fly Agaric toadstools

View from my office this morning!

It's all just perfect and I almost feel guilty, you know, for being so happy? When I cast my mind back over the past few years and all the loneliness, all the unhappiness, all the desperation, I can hardly believe this is me, that this is my life. I still worry about money every single day; I'm not sure that will ever go away but that's probably a good thing. I've learned never to take anything for granted. Besides, as we have discovered already, it's very easy to go through a lot of money in the South Island if you don't have your wits about you!

To be fair, we were warned about that prior, that the South Island was expensive. I can't remember who it was that told us but they weren't kidding. Petrol, food, everything is significantly more expensive. Even when you're only talking about $2 more for an everyday item, if you pick up five items you're looking at $10 more than usual. Over the course of the week that's another $70 a week you're shelling out for the exact same items you've always bought! It's a bit of a pain because you can't really avoid it; often the nearest decent supermarket is hours, if not days away. Award for the most extortionate dairies so far go to Hari Hari on the West Coast and Haast in the Glacier region, where you can expect to pay almost double more than usual for anything from a packet of potato chips to wine and beer. When an $8.99 bottle of plonk suddenly has a $16 price tag it's enough to make you go on the wagon!

Still, on the whole we have fallen very much in love with the South Island. With so much spectacular beauty at every turn, it makes every journey a pleasure. Which is just as well as sometimes we do a heck of a lot of kilometres just getting from A to B, especially when trying to find dog friendly places to camp. With much of the island managed by the Department of Conservation, this rules out a lot of freedom camping spots for us. This has resulted in us having to pay for almost every place we have stayed at so far. It's not what we had planned or hoped for but there's often not much we can do, especially when sometimes the nearest alternative is a good couple of hours' drive away. We left Murchison last weekend with the intention of staying in Reefton. According to the NZMCA bible it costs just $2 a night per person to stay at the racecourse, which looked and sounded lovely. Unfortunately (and this is not the first time it has happened) we arrived there to find a big sign at the gate with 'NO DOGS' and a group of stewards manning the gate. That put the cobblers on our plans good and proper and we ended up driving several more hours out of our way until we ended up in Hokitika, at a camp ground which cost $40 per night.

That's another thing about the South Island, most of the camp grounds are more expensive too. Most of the time it's not a huge deal; when you've driven almost all day and find a nice, quiet place to stay where you can just relax, you're grateful to pay just so you can stop! However this campground was a bit different. It insisted on assigning their campers in 'blocks' of three or four in a tiny postage stamp. This resulted in scenarios such as motor homes (who often like to leave early in the morning) getting stuck behind tents and unable to leave when they wanted to, or in our case we were kept awake the entire night by a snoring German in a tent right outside our van. As you may have seen from our Facebook page, I got my revenge by recording a video of the culprit! Another added quirk was the lovely, shiny new blocks of toilets and shower rooms, which all had frosted glass doors facing outwards. Whilst they were not clear glass, it was still totally possible to see when people were getting on and off the loo or getting in and out of the shower! At most places we thoroughly enjoy our stay, but we really didn't think that one was worth the money.

Hokitika Beach on the wild West Coast!

Sleep deprived as we were, we spent a most enjoyable morning beach combing at Hokitika before we left. This beach is so cool, with soft, black sand and so much driftwood and beautiful stones all over the place, the whole area is covered with people's creative beach art. It is also covered in greenstone, or jade, which the town is famous for. It was wonderful to see it just lying there, from tiny chips to enormous slabs. I don't think there's any danger of the greenstone carvers running out of work any time soon!

Franz Josef Glacier

We left Hokitika and made our way to the Franz Josef Glacier, which we were both very excited about. However we weren't so excited to arrive there and discover that there were no dog friendly freedom camping spots in the area whatsoever and once again we were forced to pay top dollar for the privilege of being packed in like sardines. We couldn't even do any of the tramps or walking tracks in the area because no dogs were allowed, so to add insult to injury we had paid $46 to stay in a place in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to do. With the nearest dog friendly camping spot another two hours away, we had no choice but to suck it up and make the most of our beautiful view of the snow covered mountain.

Still gotta be happy with that $46 view!

The plan for yesterday morning was to spend the night in Haast. We were running low on food so left fairly early in the hope of being about to get something for breakfast in Franz Josef. However that plan went out the window as we surveyed the various stores and cafes and saw they were charging $8 for a pie and $9 for a sandwich! Never again shall I complain about $4 pies in Whangamata being expensive! It's fine if you're on a nice holiday and have money to burn but when you live this way every day, it's really painful on the budget. No matter how little you try to live on when making your way around, even the poorest of hitch hikers and tent dwellers get stung at places like these by having to pay through the nose for such basic essentials as a loaf of bread.

Fox Glacier

I love driving roads like these!

Too hungry to put breakfast off any longer, and predicting Fox Glacier would be the same, which indeed it was, Gareth miserably grabbed a muffin and me a sausage roll . We would just have to content ourselves with that until we reached our destination. The journey to Haast was lovely and relaxed, with cruisey roads that wound their way past and across many stunning rivers. We had planned to do a proper food shop in Haast and stock up for the next few days, however we soon realised this wouldn't be the case when we arrived and found nothing but a couple of petrol stations and a small store. $50 in places like these buys you very little! We checked out the two camp grounds in the area. The first was the size of a postage stamp and wanted $40 a night to stand our van on a concrete pad. The second sounded much nicer, so we headed 14km out of town only to be met by a sign 'CAMP CLOSED'. You had to be kidding!

'I'm so sick of getting ripped off!' I wailed to Gareth. 'These places have got us over a barrel', he agreed. 'Let's just keep moving'. We needed to fill up with petrol first so went to the Mobil station so I could use one of my discount vouchers. 'Have you got 6c a litre off today, or do I need a voucher?' I asked. 'We don't do fuel discounts here', the lady replied. Of course you don't. Another $50 gone just like that, for not even half a tank. Here commenced several more hours of driving, all the while searching for an elusive dog friendly camp. Whilst I must sound like a right misery guts, I actually didn't mind going the extra distance at all. When the roads are this enjoyable to drive and the scenery this spectacular, I can just keep going all day! We saw so, so many beautiful places, in the end Gareth was jokingly begging for mercy. 'Please, no more views! I need a break from taking photos!' By the end of last night he had tallied over 300 photos, just in one day!

A couple of the squillions of beautiful rivers along the way

We also had a good giggle at some of the many funny creek names, such as 'Dismal Creek', 'Dizzy Creek', even 'Stinky Creek!' There was even a Bob Creek, a Joe Creek and a Random Creek and we lost count of how many Stony Creeks, Flower Creeks and Branch Creeks we came across. I guess whoever's job it was to name them must have had to do so many they were clutching at straws and coming up with any old thing in the end!

Knight Point Lookout

Mount Aspiring National Park - my favourite part of the journey

The only one who really didn't enjoy the journey very much was poor Minnie. Thanks to the Department of Conservation's rigorous pest control and recent 1080 poison drop throughout the entire area, it was impossible to find a place anywhere along the route which was safe enough to let her out or where dogs were not prohibited. We see people breaking the rules all the time on our travels but we never do. Consequently apart from a couple of five minute breaks, poor Minnie Mouse was stuck in the back of the van for almost eight hours, which is more than twice as much as she has ever had to endure before. The joys of exploring remote areas!

Cruising along the Haast Pass

Winding our way alongside Lake Wanaka

At the end of such a massive drive, all we yearned for was somewhere quiet. It's so weird how you can drive for hours and barely see another soul on the road, yet whenever you stop anywhere, whether it be a lake, a waterfall, anything, the world and his wife seems to be there as well! One of the things when travelling a remote stretch of road, where there is really only one way you can go is that you tend to shuffle from camp to camp with the same people until you come to a place where you can finally part ways. In other words, if you're packed in like a sardine at one place, it's going to be the same at the next and the next, because the same herd of travellers will also keep moving to the same places with you. That's just how it is but by now we were more than ready to break away from the crowd.

First glimpse of Lake Hawea, oh bliss!

Gareth came up with the notion that, although Lake Hawea was stunning and had several places to camp, the majority of people would continue on through to Wanaka, which was the bigger centre. In that case, we would go to Lake Hawea – and we're so glad we did! It's so peaceful you can hear a pin drop. It might even be my favourite place so far. Living on the road sure has its challenges at times, but I still wouldn't change it for the world!