Monday, 17 April 2017

It takes all sorts...

I've said it before I know, but not for a while.  One of the best things about living on the road is definitely the people you meet.  Some of them might be memorable for the wrong reasons but most of the time they usually enhance the experience of whatever place you're at.  We met our first 'character' on our very first night out of the house, when we were still in Whangamata whilst Gareth finished up his work contract.  There we were enjoying a much-needed glass of vino after a very big day, when a tall, thin figure appeared in the dark.

Our home for the first few days post-moving

'Oh thank God, people!' the figure said, relieved as he sauntered over with his own glass of red wine. Do you mind if I join you for a bit?  'Umm, no, go ahead!' we said rather bemused.  We weren't feeling the best company after a stressful day of moving out of the house and trying to cram what was left of everything we had in the world into a van but this fella looked like he needed some company and we were the only ones around so would have to do.  As it turned out, Toby (for that was his name) was a jolly nice chap.  Witty, intelligent and interesting, he was very easy to talk to.  He was from Australia and had never been overseas before so had been very excited about his first trip out of his homeland.  Unfortunately, his so-called holiday had been a complete disaster from the outset.

It goes without saying that before you consider travelling in a small camper van with ANYONE, you need to make sure that you a) know the person quite well and b) are confident that you are going to get along.  Unfortunately Toby hadn't known his travel companion all that long before being talked into accompanying him on the trip and as he soon discovered, once stuck in close living quarters he realised he actually couldn't stand the guy.  To make matters worse, on the first day of their travels, Toby's companion broke his foot.  Restricted to getting around on crutches, this put the cobblers on a lot of the things they planned to see and do and as if his injured comrade wasn't already a sourpuss enough to begin with, he spent the entire trip wallowing in self-pity and making poor Toby's life as miserable as possible.

Typical Wicked camper 'wit'.  I couldn't find a picture of Toby's
van, with a little luck it's off the road by now!

That wasn't even the worst part though.  The two of them paid $800 to rent a camper van from Wicked campers for 12 days.  Wicked are well known in NZ for their flamboyant vehicles which can be emblazoned with anything from The Beatles to Alice Cooper and pretty much everything in between, along with some extremely politically incorrect slogans.  Whilst people thought they were very witty and clever and fun to begin with, Wicked began crossing the line into being offensive, to the extent that several of their vehicles were withdrawn.  Unfortunately Toby and his partner were not so lucky.  It didn't take a trip to Specsavers to spot that our Aussie friend was gay, and indeed he made no secret of the fact.  However he would much rather that his sexual preference was not emblazoned all over their rental vehicle, which it shockingly was.  Despite the fact that upon going to pick up their van from the company there were at least 30 other designs to choose from, and despite asking repeatedly for another van with a different design, they were told no, that was the one which had been allocated to them and that was the one they had to have.

I cannot honestly imagine why Wicked would think anyone would be happy with a van like that; gay or straight!  All it resulted in doing was to draw unnecessary and unwanted attention to two men travelling together and placed them in some very awkward and unpleasant situations.  To add insult to injury, the vehicle they had paid $800 for in good faith was filthy inside, covered in mould and smelled of vomit.  It made me ashamed to be a Kiwi that companies like this were treating visitors to our country so badly.  Even so, Toby said he had still managed to enjoy his stay and loved the amazing beaches and scenery.  We only saw him again briefly the next morning, as he and his hobbling companion prepared to leave.  I waved out at Toby in a manner which was intended to convey both enthusiasm and sympathy, as his partner eyed me with an expression which could have turned milk sour.  Poor Toby!  I hope his dreadful experience hasn't put him off setting foot outside Australia again in the future.

Opito Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula.  Just driving up the road to get
here almost killed me, yet people cycle here for fun!

Another couple who stick in our minds were a middle aged American husband and wife who we encountered several times as they cycled around NZ.  We first came across them in Kuaotunu at the start of our travels and would pass them unexpectedly in various locations across the Coromandel. They were very interesting and enjoyable to talk to and I always used to feel dreadfully lazy sailing past them in Batty up some horrendously challenging hill as they pedaled along determinedly.  What I liked about this couple was that they were obviously a great team and had so much fun together.  We went for several months without seeing them until one day, stopped at a set of traffic lights in New Plymouth, Gareth pointed and said 'Look!  It's the Americans!'  By chance they ended up at the same campground that night in Oakura and once again in Hawera before we finally went our separate ways for good.

A mammoth mission - rescuers at Farewell Spit's recent whale stranding -
helped by a huge number of Kiwi and overseas travellers

One thing I neglected to say about 'vomit wagons' in my last blog was that although they may not have the best reputation among permanent road dwellers, the majority of travellers who inhabit them are very good, kind hearted people.  And, after hearing of poor Toby's costly experience with a rental company, I can't blame these young travellers at all for choosing another way to get around, it is no doubt far preferable and more viable in the long run.  I first realised what good souls they truly were when we were staying in Golden Bay a wee while ago - well, we were trying to stay in Golden Bay but hadn't managed to get accommodation any further up than Takaka due to the fact that almost the entire bay was inundated with volunteers who had literally dropped everything they were doing, wherever they were at to go and help try to rescue the hundreds of stranded whales at Farewell Spit. We ended up having to turn around past Collingwood as there was literally nowhere available.  It was only when the Project Jonah vehicle passed us on the way back and we drove through Takaka and saw the streets crawling with people we realised that the volunteers were now being sent away.  If you were lucky you had a vehicle but most of them were backpackers and hitch hikers from overseas who had turned out to help by whatever means possible and now had to find their way back.  It was humbling to see so many people who had wanted to make a difference.  

A few days later we were parked near to a 'vomit wagon' at a campground in Murchison.  I went in to the communal kitchen and found a group of people, including the camp's owner, listening intently to the owner of the wagon, a young German chap who had been at Farewell Spit helping with the whale rescue.  I was immediately drawn into the conversation as he shared the harrowing details of how he and others had tried their best to comfort the distressed whales and their heartache for every one they had not managed to save.  He was a very articulate, quietly spoken and gentle young man and even though nobody else in the room knew him before, I think we all were proud of him and glad to have met him.

Life - it doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you make the most of it!

I think what I love most about meeting fellow travellers is that all of us are trying to get the most out of life in our own way.  We may not all display our lust for life with the same wild abandon and exuberance but we're all just trying to fit in as much as we can while we're here on this planet.  It doesn't matter whether you live on the road full time, or you only manage to get away for the odd weekend, it's still out there doing it.  And it doesn't matter whether you're in a $200,000 motor home or a $2,000 station wagon, we're still seeing the same things.  Same mountains, same lakes, same rivers, same beaches, same sky.  There's no right or wrong way to see the world.  I feel a sense of peace these days that I have never felt before.  It's like - if I were to kick the bucket tomorrow, at least I feel like I have really done something with my life.  Don't get me wrong, I know raising a family and having a career and all that stuff is 'doing something' but this is in a different sense.  When you live a conventional life, you spend almost every waking moment working, earning and caring for other people.  When you travel for the sheer joy and adventure and simply for the heck of it, it's something you do for yourself that feeds your soul.  Does that sound selfish?  Quite possibly.  But I highly recommend it, in whatever capacity you can manage!  

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sleeping with strangers

Happy Easter!  It's a grey day in Gore and I'm cosy and warm with Minnie snoring next to me and Gareth peacefully painting in the kitchen.  By this I mean the WHOLE kitchen as his work takes up the entire bench space and the fold-up camping chair he sits on for comfort takes up every available inch of the kitchen floor.  Think I might be stuck here for a while as I can't get out unless he does! But I don't mind, it's a nice cruisey way to spend a Sunday.

 Gareth (well, the back of him!) in his kitchen 'studio'

I can't imagine how different our old home town of Whangamata must be this weekend compared to where we are.  Even with the recent horrendous weather up there, it doesn't usually stop the tourists venturing over the hill for one last hurrah before winter.  In comparison it's blissfully silent where we are; only a couple of buses and one motor home in the whole campground.  Mind you, it's to be expected from now on, not too many people are brave enough to camp out in a tent at this time of year!

Today's camping spot.

It occurred to me the other day how truly different it is, this life we lead.  Never knowing where you're sleeping from one day to the next a lot of the time, or who with.  By that of course I mean, you never know who your neighbours in camping are going to be!  Last night we had a chap in a tent next to us, biking from place to place.  The night before we had an older couple in a bus and before that there was a family of six - six! - all crammed into a rented motor home.  You don't see too many families on the road and I realised when talking to a friend yesterday how different most people's perceptions of camping are from the reality.  Not that it's surprising, I guess mine used to be pretty different too.  I think people have this notion of campgrounds only being for families, with kids always running around and everyone in permanent holiday mode.  Sure, there's an element of that, especially over summer of course but I certainly haven't found it to be the norm, in fact it's always a surprise to see a motor home pull up with little ones in tow and when you do, they're almost always from overseas.

The campground we are at now is a pretty good example of the usual type of neighbours we come across.  There are a surprising number of people who live in their cars.  They're usually males on their own but there's a couple living in one where we are at the moment; they've been staying here almost as long as we have.  I don't know why or what brought them to be doing so, I'd love to ask but they usually keep very much to themselves, you don't really see them.  I don't know how the heck they do it, living in a van the size of Ken is small enough!  I know in some cases they simply don't have a home, but it's not unusual to see them going to and from work each day and to see their work clothes hanging up neatly in their vehicle.  I admire anyone who lives in a car to be quite honest.  If they are there because it's the only home they have, I admire them for doing the best they can and if they are there by choice, I admire them for choosing to live on so little and taking up such a small space in the world.

Typical examples of 'vomit wagons'.  Perfectly suitable as cars, but houses?! 

Then there are the vomit wagons, which are extremely prolific.  Excuse the term, I didn't make it up but it kind of stuck after a lady working for the Department of Conservation in the Catlins referred to them that way and to be honest it's pretty accurate!  These usually range from station wagon type vehicles to what are broadly known as space savers.  A lot of them are hired from rental companies but more commonly they are purchased by young overseas tourists as a cheap way to travel the country.  They are usually packed from floor to ceiling with everything they need to get around for a few weeks or months and are mostly driven either by two females travelling together or two or more males.  They either sleep in their cars or if room doesn't allow, in a tent.  They are not self contained and have no toilet or washing facilities, hence they are the ones most likely to get up people's noses at freedom camping sites for leaving rubbish around and going to the toilet in bushes, or in the case of this campground, leaving without paying and using all the hot water meant for everyone by using it to do things like wash their dishes and clothing in the shower. I could go on but I won't!  Fortunately you only really see them in the summer months.  I admire anyone trying to see the world on a budget but not by stealing or taking advantage of others, no matter where you come from!  Forgive me for sounding judgmental, just telling it how it is.

From there we progress to the larger motor homes, caravans and buses.  You get a few people from overseas who hire motor homes but on the whole they are all New Zealanders, which is great because it shows how many of us are out there living and travelling around our beautiful country.  Seriously, you would not believe how many of us there are, I wonder if any other country in the world has such a high ratio?  I believe the NZMCA (the national motorhome and caravan association) has over 70,000 members now and there are plenty of other travellers out there who aren't members as well.  I like it; it's a nice thing to be part of.  A lot of motor home owners are retired but I like that too, especially when they come over and have a chat to us.  It doesn't matter where you're from or how old you are, everyone has something of value to share: tips to make things easier, great places to visit or must-do things to check out at the next place you're going.  There are a few of us younger ones around too and I think the number is growing as people realise what a low cost and enjoyable way it is to live.

Taieri Mouth Holiday Park.  Just a 30 second walk from all this!

Invercargill.  Average campground, amazing birdlife!

Hokitika - will always remember it for the best sunset and the
worst campground!

For most of us, a campground is just a place to sleep; a stepping stone between one place and the next.  A lot of them are far more special than that though; they all have their own points of difference which make them special, whether it be purely aesthetic or the owners and facilities that make a place what it is.  I always thought that campgrounds would be full of hippies and free spirits all sitting around the campfire playing guitar and singing but I haven't come across any campfires yet although I've definitely seen a few hippies!  The closest I've come to anything like it was at a freedom camp in Kingston, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu a little while ago.  The scenery was already stunning but as the sun began to go down, everybody gathered at the water's edge to watch what we all just knew was going to be spectacular.  Some of us stood, some watched from their vehicles, some were still swimming in the water and others sat on the beach, watching in awe as the sun sank lower and lower. One chap sat there the whole time, just quietly strumming his guitar and it just added to the whole relaxed and friendly atmosphere.  We were all essentially nothing more than a bunch of strangers but we were all sharing this moment, in this special place.  Everyone from teenagers to pensioners, families with toddlers, motor homes, vomit wagons, even a tiny Toyota starlet; we all made that sunset what it was.  It's one of my favourite memories and I think it always will be.

One of my favourite memories - sunset at Kingston

Everyone you come across on the road is different.  Some campers love to chat; others keep very much to themselves.  I guess we're in the middle, we like our own space and just go about our business quietly but at the same time we'll talk to anyone.  I didn't realise how much I had actually learned until last weekend when I met a man from Tauranga travelling solo in his motor home.  He asked where I was from and we got talking as you do.  Forty minutes later he had a bunch of notes on places to go and things to see and two new camping apps installed on his phone!  It felt really good to be able to share all this stuff that he would otherwise probably never have known existed, just as so many have done with us.  That's what it's all about!

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Pretty Good Autumn

I've never thought of NZ as being much of an autumn-y country.  Born and bred Kiwis would no doubt feel quite differently but after growing up in the tiny English village of Selborne I guess I was spoilt.  The whole village and surrounds became a glorious spectacle of red, cold and copper. Autumn to me meant picking the hops that hung over the school fence and keeping them in your pocket all day so you could sniff their delicious scent whenever you wanted.  It meant searching the countryside for horse chestnut trees so you could have conker battles at school and dissecting rosehips so you could use the insides as itching powder down some poor unsuspecting soul's shirt.  I haven't found any hops or rose hips yet and I'm not sure I will but I was delighted to see a horse chestnut tree the other day and our campground is currently surrounded by beautiful autumnal trees.

A typical Autumn evening in Gore

That's one of the many things I like about Gore; it does a pretty good autumn.  I know, you're probably thinking 'what are you still doing there?'  Several reasons really.  Firstly our much-loved four-legged travel companion Minnie has been receiving some vet treatment and we've had to stick around for an extra week so she can have tests and see how she goes on her medication.  It's a bit of a pain because she's been doing so well and getting so much fitter so we feel sorry for her having to suddenly limit her exercise but it looks as though she has heart problems and some fluid on her lungs so we have to do whatever's necessary to keep her well.  We'll know more after her visit tomorrow. Either way, she doesn't seem too bothered, but that's Minnie for you!

'Oops, you caught me'.  Our Minnie.
Ten years old next month yet she still sucks on her blankey like a puppy!

Secondly, I've had work coming out of my ears.  It's pretty hard trying to work when you're constantly travelling.  I thought it would be easy - I mean, I don't even have to leave the van to work after all - but when you're driving for hours every day trying to cover ground and make headway it's a real juggling act.  Things often don't go to plan, it's not always easy finding a decent place to stop for several hours at a time, I have Gareth and Minnie to consider and when most campgrounds have a checkout time of 9 or 10am we often end up having to pack up and leave a place right as I'm supposed to be starting work!  So from that point it's been good to stay in one place for a bit and I know how lucky I am to even be able to work the way I do so mustn't complain!

My office isn't ideal - but it's wherever I need it to be!

Finally, it's given us a chance to catch our breath and try to decide what the heck we do from here. We may not have too many worries in this simple life but we still have plenty to think about, especially with winter approaching!  A lot of people who live on the road permanently find a place to 'winter'; somewhere warmer that they can park up and hibernate for a few months.  Gore is the ideal place for us to do that - well sort of.  Our campground is super cheap at just $5 a night and it has everything we need within walking distance.  The only downside is that apparently the temperature gets down to minus 7 or thereabouts.  We're already getting down to 3 degrees at night and I really want to be able to tough it out here through the winter but in reality I'm not sure.  I want to see how resilient we can be - but it could also potentially go very wrong!

We also have a fair bit more of the country still to see - Oamaru, Timaru, Lake Tekapo, Kaikoura, Christchurch and heaps more.  The South Island is a big place!  And we should be making sure we see it before the weather gets too bad.  Heaven knows we've been lucky enough so far; whilst almost the whole country has been getting saturated this past couple of months, we've literally had hardly a drop of rain.  I've honestly been feeling really guilty about it!  No doubt it will catch up with us in the end but for now we're counting our blessings every day.

Somewhere out there - there's a patch of land with our
names on it.  We hope!

So there's a dilemma - do we keep moving and tick off the rest of the country, or do we stay in Southland, where we already know we want to be?  Which brings us to another rather large decision we're conscious of having to make soon.  Whilst we have no intention of giving up travelling, everyone needs a base, somewhere of their own and we need to find ours.  We've been putting feelers out in earnest for a couple of weeks now and have a couple of good leads to follow but everything is a bit 'pie in the sky' until we know the outcome.  Land in Southland is very cheap - there is one town near Gore where you can buy an acre of flat land for as little as $12,000!  But cheap as it is, we can't bring ourselves to buy there, it just doesn't feel right.  That's an understatement, it feels all wrong.  Even though we've been through it several times to make sure, it just has a bad vibe.  We'd rather pay a little bit more and get it right.

Another thing we have to consider with our land is council regulations.  We're not wanting to buy a house, we want to buy land and build our own house on it - a tiny house to be exact.  That's another good thing about Southland, there are not so many constraints and regulations when it comes to building tiny houses but there are still plenty, especially in residential areas.  So even if the price is right AND the vibe is right, we still may not be able to build the type of house we want due to council regulations and consent and suchlike.  We would rather live in the van for longer in order to wait for the right place than rush into making a poor decision but we need to find somewhere soon, otherwise we will have no choice but to stay on the road and find somewhere to winter.  There is also the possibility of leasing land, which we are also investigating and is an option many tiny house owners prefer as the price of the lease is usually less per year than what the rates alone would cost if you owned the same piece of land.  Decisions, decisions!  Sometimes my brain hurts just thinking about it but we are currently looking at an option which sounds rather exciting.  I'm not saying anything more about it just yet as I don't want to jinx anything but I'll be sure to keep you posted once I know more. Whatever happens, the main thing is that we are HAPPY.  And don't get pneumonia...

Early morning in the heart of Dunedin

The city taken from Otago Peninsula

We may not have ventured too far lately and hopefully that will change soon but we did manage an overnight trip to Dunedin at the weekend.  I really like Dunedin - I just hate driving in it!  All the cycle lanes, one way systems and funny road markings; I wouldn't last five minutes without getting lost or hitting a cyclist without Gareth as my navigator!  The city centre is quite pretty as cities go, with lots of very cool architecture and the people of Dunedin are great too.  I particularly love the Otago Peninsula, with it's narrow, winding coastal road and we stayed out at Portobello, surrounded by delightfully noisy tuis and bellbirds.  It's the first time we've been to Dunedin when it wasn't raining and really enjoyed exploring in the sunshine.  We ran out of time to go to Tunnel Beach as hoped but that's a good thing because now we have an excuse to go back!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Van Damp

As you may have gathered by now, we rather like living in a camper van.  We also really like the South Island.  The thing is, at some stage it is going to get bloody cold.  It's cold enough when you live in a house with a roaring log fire or nice toasty heating!  But when you live in a van?  Picture what it's like on a frosty morning when you jump in your car to go to work.  It's freezing, there's ice on the windows... at some stage we are going to have to LIVE in that.  Not yet, but we need to be prepared.  It doesn't matter whether you're in Whangamata, Wellington or Wanaka; they all get cold. This we know.  And we're fine with that, it's the life we have chosen and just like any lifestyle choice you can't expect things to be perfect or smooth sailing all the time.  What we didn't expect - and what we're already dealing with - is the DAMP.

This ran the length of where we sleep

And this was right behind our heads, meaning freezing cold and
soaking wet pillows every morning!

Actually, damp is the understatement of the century.  You ain't seen nothing until you've seen van damp.  You've heard the term 'crying windows'?  I reckon ours have been having a nervous breakdown.  Obviously when you live in a confined space there is going to be some degree of condensation, even in summer, but we never could have predicted just how severe it would get and how much damage it could potentially do.  I mean, we're only a month into Autumn!  The temperature is still reaching the mid-twenties!  But, being in the deep south as we are, the gloriously high daytime temperatures are also matched by teeth chattering lows.  It hasn't hit zero yet, but we haven't been far off.  Still, much as the damp came as a shock to us both, we're extremely glad that we've had the luxury of time on our side to deal with it now, before the weather gets really bad.

We first noticed it in little things, like jackets and towels.  We'd go and grab our jackets off the hook by the door to put on and find they were a bit damp and felt really cold.  Or we would go to get dressed in the morning and find our the neatly folded piles of clothing we had laid out the night before were also really cold and distinctly on the damp side.  The colder it got, it wasn't just the windows that were crying but the walls and door surrounds too.  Wherever there was metal was literally running with water, right next to our heads and under the windows alongside where we slept. Closer inspection showed mould was starting to form on and around the windows.  Worse still however, although we religiously turned our foam mattress squabs every day, the undersides of them were becoming increasingly damp just from us sleeping on them, and in turn, the timber benches, which also serves as our bed frame were also damp, with dark spots of mould starting to form on the tops.

The bed might look cosy - but the damp mattress underneath
and mouldy bed frame certainly wasn't!

As you can imagine, this was really not good!  Apart from not being very nice or comfortable to live in, living in a damp, mouldy environment is really not good for your health, especially when your immune system is as crap as mine.  Seeing the mattress and bed frame like that put us into a mild state of panic.  What were we going to do?  It wasn't even winter yet!  Besides, we loved our van life, we didn't want something like this forcing us to have to give it up so soon.  We immediately started researching the problem and hunting for solutions as much as we could.

One thing was for certain - this was a very common problem, particularly in the South Island and there were a lot of people who had dealt with far worse than us.  At least Ken's ceiling was insulated thank goodness - we read of people who had endured freezing cold water from the ceiling dripping on their heads and soaking their bedding as they tried to sleep.  All we can say is thank you to Hannah and Ollie for having the foresight to think of this when outfitting Ken!  But we still had the windows and walls to rectify, the mattresses and bed frames - mercifully to our relief all our clothing and items stored underneath the bed did not seem to be affected - but it was only a matter of time.  Our bed wasn't the only one which was affected either.  The vinyl floor where Minnie slept was cold and wet each morning, which in turn made her bed and blankets increasingly damp.  Being the old girl she was and not in the best of health, she was literally shivering at night and we ended up having to share our bed with her just to try and keep her well too.  Whilst indeed it was considerably warmer with her rather sizeable presence, she snores like you wouldn't believe!

Really technical anti-mould spray.  A few drops of clove oil in a bottle of
water is all you need!

First things first, we had to try and get rid of the mould and prevent it from coming back again.  This part at least was easy.  I went to the chemist, got a bottle of Clove Oil for a few dollars and shook it up with a spray bottle of water.  I learned that from Simple Savings years ago and figured it was much nicer and safer than any chemical anti-mould sprays.  'It smells like Christmas in here!' I beamed as I washed and scrubbed everything down.  Gareth was far from enamoured with the scent but there was no denying everything felt a lot fresher and cleaner afterwards.  Unfortunately in the process of emptying everything out we uncovered more problems.  Just the day before I had watched a video of an American chap demonstrating how the damp had got so bad in his camper, it had even got into his pantry and soaked all the food.  The poor bloke!  I couldn't possibly imagine anything being that bad.  As it turned out however, it already was.  To my horror I emptied out our little pantry to find that all the tins were wet and the labels were peeling off, even on items which had only been there a few days!  OK, now this was seriously not cool.

Thermal bubble wrap stuff.  We know what it looks like, 
now we just have to find it!

We continued with more thorough research into how others had solved the problem, as well as prevented future issues and read of this stuff which goes by several different names such as Reflectix but is basically a double layer of aluminum coated thermal 'bubble wrap' (for want of a better description). It's not too expensive at around $11 a metre and is brilliant at providing both heating and insulation.  We read of a lot of people using this stuff to cover windows and walls of their vehicles with great results.  The only problem is, despite much online hunting, you don't seem to be able to get it from everyday stores in NZ; only insulation specialists.  It's not easy ordering products online when you have no address to deliver to!   But we are working on an answer to that, as it would also be brilliant to line the pantry and our under-bed storage with.

Our saviour, Chuggaboom the dehumidifier!
Now our 'house' is warm and dry.

The quick-fix answer was rather unexpected but made total sense as soon as we read it.  If you had a problem with damp in your house, you'd get a dehumidifier, right?  That's just what people do in their motor homes too!  So off we toddled to the Warehouse and picked up their smallest, cheapest model on special.  We plugged it in and left it running overnight in fear and trepidation.  What if it didn't work and turned out to be a giant waste of money?  We woke up the next morning, reached out to touch the wall behind our heads and to our surprise found it was dry.  Tentatively we peered behind the curtains - and the windows were dry too!  Windscreen, floor, everything was bone dry.  We were seriously impressed, I mean this was no ordinary damp issue.  I've lived in a lot of damp, old houses over the years but had never seen anything like this before, yet this little machine made light work of it.  We also got some draft excluder stuff from Mitre 10 - sort of like a thick spongey tube and Gareth fixed this around the passenger seat window so that when we are using an external power source (dehumidifiers are power hungry little suckers on an inverter) we can run the cable through the window 24/7 and it is completely draft proof.

In typical Gore style, we only needed to run the dehumidifier for two days before the weather changed dramatically again, as happens in this crazy place and the last couple of nights have been the most sweltering yet!  But at least we are prepared for anything now.  Even so, we'll be staying in Gore until we can work out a way to get our thermal bubble wrap to us, just to be on the safe side!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

An Insight to Van Life!

I saw some photos of our old house at the weekend.  It felt very weird and surreal - was that really mine not so long ago?  It looked so huge and the garden enormous!  For those who haven't seen it before, this is where we used to live before van life:

Our old house in Whangamata

Do I miss it?  Nope, not for a second.  You miss people, not things.  Most houses are filled with stuff you just don't need.  More garden to weed, more space to clean.  Who on earth would miss that?  No thank you very much, we already have everything we need in our van!  It's very much a user pays lifestyle.  We pay only for what we use (and much of the time we don't even need to pay for that) and buy only what we need.  I think it's a pretty good existence and have no desire to change.

People ask us all the time what it's like living on the road.  I'm not sure it's even possible to describe it in one post but I'll try and explain as best as I can.  Here are some of the things we have found:

We never have to waste a beautiful day!

1. Your body clock syncs with nature.  One of the things I'm grateful for every morning is being able to wake up when we want.  If it's a beautiful day, we can get up and enjoy it.  If it's wet and windy, we stay tucked up in the warm.  There's nothing we have to do at any given time.  Even when I'm working it's not like I have to go into another room or anything!  People always wonder how we sleep in a van.  I wondered how we would too but funnily enough I sleep better in the van than I ever did in a house.  Maybe because I don't have the stress and worries that I used to, I don't know but we got quite a fright the other day when we sleepily pulled back the curtain and saw an ambulance, fire engine and full crew and a rescue chopper right outside our window!  Didn't hear a thing!  We do find that we go to bed a lot earlier since living on the road.  When the sun goes to bed, so do we.  It's something that just naturally happened from Day One.  I mean, what else are we supposed to do? We It's not like we can sit up half the night and play video games or do housework is it!

Perfect weather for the ferry crossing!

2. You get very good at checking the weather.  I never gave a thought to what the weather was doing before we started living on the road, it never really mattered.  These days however I ALWAYS know what the weather is doing, usually for days in advance and monitor it at least daily.  Gareth always used to laugh at me to begin with, saying there was no point trying to predict the weather in a country which literally can have four seasons in one day but as it happens, I've actually become rather good at it!  I find it invaluable for planning travel schedules and routes, ferry crossings, you name it and it has definitely worked in our favour.  Everywhere we go, people have been complaining about having a late or non-existent summer, but you certainly won't find us complaining.  Thanks to our travelling around, we've been enjoying summer for almost five months!

Where did all this hair come from?!

3. You have no idea of a lot of things.  Because we have no routine or agenda, we genuinely don't know what day it is half the time.  We don't know when the clocks change or when Easter is.  A lot of the time we don't even know what we look like, as most of the mirrors we come across don't show anything below our chins.  I got quite a fright when Gareth took this photo of me a few days ago showing off my new winter jacket; I had no idea my hair had got so long!

Always another hill to climb!

4. You don't get as much exercise as you'd like.  I thought we were the only ones to find this, until I read an article the other day from a couple in the US who had also lived in a van.  They, like we did, envisaged themselves to be fit as fiddles from a life of constant hiking and bounding up hills.  The reality is, it's not really like that, not long term anyway.  Sure, we do plenty of walking, we have Minnie to walk every day and we're never short of beautiful lakes, bush tracks and parks to walk in but on the whole it's a lot more of a sedentary lifestyle.  You wouldn't think so, would you?  I certainly didn't imagine it to be but think about it.  Our 'house' is only a few metres long by a couple of metres wide and everything we need is in that space.  Compared to the average house where people are constantly traipsing back and forth from room to room every day, dragging a vacuum cleaner round, putting washing out and mowing lawns, we wouldn't do anywhere near the amount of walking.  Let it no more be said that housework isn't a form of exercise!  For a couple like us who walked an easy 15km every day prior to road life, it's a bit of a difference!  Consequently we've both gained a bit of weight as a result, which is a bit of a pain but probably not helped by...

'Chez Ken' - where amazing meals are created in a tiny space!

5. Your diet changes.  Unless you have a vehicle with a full size fridge and a proper oven, your diet undergoes some pretty major changes.  I swear to God I've never eaten so many tinned tomatoes or salsa beans in my life - and what we wouldn't give sometimes to eat real mashed potato!  Even so, we do pretty well considering our limited storage space and tiny stove.  We eat a lot of vegetarian meals and beans and pulses and have to be pretty conscious about making sure we get enough meat and fresh vegetables. Fortunately this is getting much easier now the cooler weather is here and we don't have to worry so much about food going off.  Even though cooking can sometimes be a bit of a pain, you always have to make the effort because when you live in a van, you have to look after yourself.  I take a vitamin supplement as well, which I've never done before but it's cheaper than a visit to the doctor!

Rainy days can be the best days!

6. You're actually quite busy.  Before we set off on our travels, I bought two new books and a book of crosswords.  I figured I would have endless hours of leisure time and pictured myself curled up with a book at every opportunity.  As it is, I haven't even started any of them!  Most of the time we have no idea where the day goes but we always seem to be doing something, even on the days we're not travelling.  At least half of the week I'm working but we fit work around travel and travel around work.  It's a good way to break up the long hours driving and we look forward to our travel days more too.  One of the things we like best about having a smaller home on wheels is that it makes us get out and do more, rather than sitting inside all day.  Although I have to say, there is no greater luxury on a wet day than snuggling up in the van watching movies, knowing that you have absolutely nothing else you have to do!

7. Little things become big things.  It's pretty laughable these days, the things that Gareth and I get stressed or ratty about!  Normally he'll be having a tantrum at the gas bottle when he's cooking breakfast and I'll be swearing about trying to put up the curtain rail.  That's the thing though you see; when those are the biggest daily worries you have to deal with, the silly, insignificant things become big things because it's all you have.  We just don't have enough to worry about any more!

8. You know when you're with the right person.  I think one of the things a lot of people wonder about living on the road is how you can get along with one another when you live in such close proximity.  How do you survive spending every minute of the day together without wanting to kill each other?  It's easy really.  I mean, if we didn't think we were going to get along, we wouldn't have done it, would we!  After almost two years without so much as an argument, we figured it was a pretty safe bet.  We're very different but our goals and our dreams are the same.  Obviously it can make or break a relationship, and we have met people who haven't been able to stand more than a week travelling together but as far as we're concerned it's been nothing but good for us.  We're more of a team now.  We have more time for each other and are more considerate and caring.  Our relationship is a lot more equal now we are not juggling housework, jobs, bills and all the other things that life constantly used to throw at us.  The fact that neither of us want to stop living how we are speaks for itself I think!

Obviously there is much, much more I could waffle on about and if anyone has any questions you are very welcome to ask.  For now I will spare you the finer points about how many days you sometimes have to go without a shower or being able to shave your legs!  People seem to think that giving up a conventional lifestyle requires bravery, but it doesn't.  All you need is a 'can-do, make-do' attitude and to have belief in your own abilities.  Initially we never still planned to be living in a van this long but we like it too much to stop now!

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!