Saturday, 21 October 2017

Van Life - According to 'The Professionals'

Almost a year on, we DO know what freedom feels like!

One year ago today we became the proud owners of our first van, Batty!  I remember driving her for the first time and thinking to myself 'so this is what freedom feels like'.  It felt wonderful, but I still had my doubts - as in, was this really what freedom felt like, or was I just telling myself that because I was actually scared to death about the enormous lifestyle change I was about to make?  I think it was probably both!  What a long way we have come this past year - me, Gareth AND Batty!  Even though we upsized to Ken back in January, Batty has still been busy travelling with our friend Tom and has taken him everywhere from surfing in Raglan to skiing in Wanaka.  We're hoping to catch up with them both here in Southland over the next couple of weeks and are really looking forward to hearing all about how Tom has been enjoying van life!

Our first van, Batty.  Still travelling NZ with Tom!

When this is the only home you have, you adapt pretty quickly!

It goes without saying that living on the road isn't for everyone; but I do think when it's the only option you have, you adapt a lot more quickly.  Before leaving her home of 24 years behind, our neighbour Debra used to have a pop-up camper but found she never went away for more than a day or two before feeling it was all too hard and returning back home.  Once she no longer had a house to return to however, she had no choice but to get on with it and we were the same.  The first week or two was incredibly challenging but life today couldn't be easier.  'We're professionals now!' Debra laughed earlier this week, as the three of us sat and enjoyed a nice cold cider together in the sunshine.  Indeed, we get a lot of people coming to talk to us these days, saying 'Wow, you guys have got a great set-up!' 

I've read several different accounts of van life from other people around the world and we all have quite varying perspectives.  I have to say that our experience is probably the most positive!  Saying that, this is life for us; most other people we read about are just doing it for a few months, travelling around a particular country on a budget before returning home to their previous lives in a regular house.  Sure, once you get back home to a conventional life with an organised wardrobe, unlimited hot water and a heap of gadgets to make life easier I can imagine how some people would wonder how they ever managed to survive so long in such a small space!  But there are also plenty of weirdos like us who thrive and wouldn't swap it for the world.  If I had read those other people's articles on van life before doing it ourselves, I would probably have written it off as an option right there and then!  The thing is, don't be put off by anything you read.  Everyone is different; the only way you'll ever know is to get out there and try it for yourself.  But for what its worth, here is my perspective on a couple of things others have said:

1. 'Personal space is no longer personal'.  Apparently when you live in a van 'your personal bubble will be popped several times a minute'.  I have to say, Gareth and I are yet to find that - and we have a none-too-small dog in the mix too!  If anyone should have a problem with this it would normally be me; as an only child I am very used to my own space, indeed I HAVE to have it - yet I have never once felt smothered or too cramped.  We both have our own little areas that we work comfortably in during the day and relax together at night and it works really well, we both have plenty of room.  As I've mentioned before, we're both creative types and are quite happy occupying ourselves with our different interests, or together on the same ones.  We're also respectful and supportive of each other's work and just plan our day around whatever needs to get done.  I get cabin fever easier than Gareth so make sure I go for a good long walk every day whenever the weather allows.  This also allows Gareth to indulge his love of computer games to his heart's content!  We also keep abreast of the weather and plan our day's activities accordingly.  It's really not rocket science.  Seriously, if an only child, a burly Welshman and a rotund spaniel can co-exist happily in a few square feet without getting in each other's faces, anyone can!

2. 'Your consumption is visible'.  This is a really good one, and in fact something which hadn't occurred to me.  I mean obviously we consume less of everything than we did in a house, but I just never thought about the difference being actually visible.  For example, our on-board rubbish bin is tiny, not the 40 litre or whatever ridiculous size rubbish bin I used to have in the kitchen.  We also used to have smaller rubbish bins in each of the bedrooms and the bathroom!  Hence it goes without saying that the amount of rubbish we throw away is now very small.  One of the best things about being vegan is that our food waste is now nothing but vegetable scraps, which get turned into vegetable stock first before finally being thrown away.  No mess, no smell.  You wouldn't believe how much easier it is to keep our little kitchen clean and sanitary now!   The amount of water we conserve now is also crazy compared to our previous life.  Every drop you use that you don't drink has to be disposed of somehow, bucket by bucket, rather than countless litres disappearing down a plughole every day.  It's an amazingly eco-friendly way to live!

3. 'Normal things become luxuries'.  As we have both found, and demonstrated through several stays in posh motels, we really don't find this at all.  The ONLY thing I can honestly say I miss is having a hot bath as I was a real bath person before.  And when we didn't have a fridge for five months we really appreciated opening a cold bottle or wine or beer compared to a warm one!  Apart from that, we really don't feel that we are in any way deprived. I guess it all depends on the kind of person you are but if there is one thing that van life teaches you, it's that you can actually live quite easily without a lot of things that you never thought you could. 

It's a long road.  But only as long as you make it!

4. 'Travelling with your home is exhausting'.  Umm, really?  Who's the one in charge of that?  The person behind the wheel!  It's only exhausting if you drive too far!  When we first hit the road we agreed that we wouldn't drive more than three hours a day.  However a few months down the track we somehow found ourselves driving six or seven hours in a day in our attempt to see as much as possible.  Try doing that for a few days and yes, you will be exhausted.  The great thing about travelling with your home is, you are in charge of your own schedule.  You can go as fast or as slow as you like, and stop wherever you like for as long as you like too! 

5. 'You'll need to make sacrifices'.  I was actually quite gobsmacked by this one and didn't really know what to make of it, as I honestly can't think of any sacrifices we've had to make at all.  If there have been, we certainly haven't thought of them that way!  Again I guess this depends on the kind of person you are.  Most people who contemplate living in a van are already quite aware that they won't always have access to a hot shower or have Internet available.  But that's one of the best things!  Learning to live without all the mod cons we take for granted encourages people to make better uses of their time and realise that the best things in life; the best feelings, the best views, the best memories, the ones you want to keep in your mind forever - are all free.  That's not a sacrifice, that's a blessing!  I think our one and only sacrifice has been of a different kind and that's been moving away from our families.  When you go from living under the same roof or seeing them every day to not seeing them for months, it can be really hard.  Some days that really sucks, it just pulls at you.  But on the positive side, it has also made us appreciate everyone so much more.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say!  And as I've said before, we can be wherever we need to be. 

6. 'You'll have more control over your budget'.  Absolutely - but this part is very much up to you.  It's wonderful living a life with no bills, but there are still a lot of other things to consider.  People think that living on the road is all freedom camping.  I did too, and if you live in a large motorhome then it most certainly can be that way.  When you are living in a mobile home where you have your own toilet and shower, you can park up somewhere free and be completely self sufficient for as long as you like - or at least until the tanks need emptying!  But most freedom camps do not have toilets, or running water, or rubbish bins, which is why they require vehicles to be self contained.  I'm not sure of the rules in other countries, I've read several articles from people travelling around Australia who simply carry a spade and use Mother Nature as their toilet but if you so much as think of doing the same in NZ, your 'number two' will turn into a $200 instant fine.  Despite its dead cool and trendy sounding name, in the great majority of cases a freedom camp is quite literally just a bit of ground to park on, and for a night or two at most.

Although our van is certified self contained in the loo department, you can only realistically go so long without having a shower, or the dog might throw up on the only blanket you have and hand washing just isn't going to cut it or get it dry in time for bed (yes that did happen).  At some time or another, for whatever reason you're going to need to stay at paid campsites, and depending on the time of year, they aren't always cheap.  Most are between $20 and $40 per night even if you're not using their power and the most expensive one we've found was $66 in school holidays!  We didn't stay there!  It really pays to do your homework but at the end of the day you still have some control.  We just refuse to pay those prices and plan our travel time and route accordingly, as explained a couple of blogs ago.  Also, when you are accustomed to living so simply and spending so little, you soon wonder why the hell you used to spend so much money on buying food and drink out when you can just make a drink and a bite to eat for yourself!  It's much more of a 'make do and mend' lifestyle too; it's much easier to fix or cobble a solution together yourself rather than pay for someone else to do it.

7. 'Be sure to ask your partner these 20 questions before moving into a camper van together'.  Yes, there is even an article on this.  Seriously - if you don't already know what your partner's most annoying habit is, or how good they are with money, or whether they are a morning person or not, or what their hobbies or favourite bands are, you really shouldn't be contemplating shacking up in a camper van with them!

We've woken up next to rivers, lakes, mountains, by the sea...

Wherever we go, the view is never too shabby!

I would say that living on the road is by no means a glamorous existence - but that depends on your definition of glamour.  Earlier this week it was raining and after an unexpected cold snap for a few days, the underside of our mattress cushions had once again become wet.  Putting them outside to dry wasn't an option in the rain so I somehow managed to dismantle the bed with everyone still inside the van and sat at one end of the van, calmly drying the mattress with a hairdryer, whilst Gareth and Minnie perched themselves at the other end, eating breakfast.  I remember laughing to myself thinking 'if only people could see me right now!' It certainly wasn't my idea of glamour!  But waking up to the sun coming up over the mountains, or watching it go down over a lake, or spending all day playing in the snow simply because you have all the time in the world and there's nothing else you need to be doing today?  To me that's a pretty grand life indeed.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Living the Dream

Before Gareth and I met so spectacularly over the potted herbs in Bunnings, I genuinely thought I was going to be on my own forever.  I was quite accepting of that and had the rest of my life pretty much worked out, so I thought.  The plan was to spend the next 20 or 30 years watching TV on my own every night, just like I already was, dividing my time between Come Dine With Me and My Kitchen Rules.  After that, with a bit of luck I would have saved enough money to be able to travel around the country in a little motorhome, just me and the dog, for the rest of my days, living on pretty much nothing and doing lots of crosswords.  As we all know however, fate had another very different say in the matter!  Which is most fortunate, as I wouldn't have missed any of this for the world.

There's so much more to life than watching Come Dine With Me!

As a writer and blogger of many years now, I'm used to people knowing a lot about me.  That's always been fine and I've felt safe sharing among certain groups of people.  The people who read my blog or articles, and have come to know me and my lifestyle have predominantly done so through either a shared enthusiasm for saving money and frugal living, or an interest in travel and are planning to live on the road, if not already, or most recently veganism.  So it was a totally different experience at the weekend when I found myself under national scrutiny via the Sunday Star Times and one of NZ's largest news websites,  After a year of enjoying such a sheltered, anonymous existence, surrounded by others peacefully doing the same, it made me feel extremely vulnerable and indeed rather uncomfortable to have thousands of complete strangers casting an eye over my life choices and decisions!

The reporter, Rob Stock did a wonderful job as always and the response was huge, invoking an enormous about of feedback and discussion.  I was amazed when I read the comments however to find that they were nothing like I had anticipated.  I had been steeling myself to face a barrage of negativity for having exchanged something large and sensible like a house, for what I thought would be widely perceived as a 'foolish move' or 'an uncertain future'.  What I got instead was the complete opposite.  I lost count of how many comments had the word 'dream' in it, as in 'That's my dream!' or 'Living the dream'.  Wow, is that really how people see the way we live?  We've been living this way for so long now, it's just becomes normal and you forget how many people are still out there dreaming of doing the same thing, just like we were 12 months ago.

If there's one thing I hope to come out of that article, it's that we may inspire somebody else to do the same.  After all, that's what happened to us!  We had been dreaming about living on the road, but never thought we could actually make a go of it.  Until literally a couple of days after we had talked about it and put it in the 'too hard' basket, we read an article in That's Life! magazine about an NZ woman who waved goodbye to stress and bills and instead bought herself a 12 metre bus and had been living and working all across the country ever since.  It was her who made us realise that what we dreamed of really was possible and didn't have to stay a dream.  If she could do it at her age, we could sure as heck do it at ours!  For us, living on the road made perfect sense because we had no idea where we wanted to be.  Luckily for us, it was the best decision we could have made.

There are only two things which hold people back from living the life they truly want.  One is fear; the other is worrying about what other people think, which I guess also comes down to fear.  As I learned very early on when I met Gareth, he is absolutely 100% himself.  He doesn't give a hoot about conforming and when it comes to the big things in life; the things that really matter, he isn't scared of anything.  It's one of the things I love most about him.  His motto in life is 'Just do it!' and it's become mine too.  You can waste a lot of life being scared and a lot of people are scared of change, which is natural when you have no idea what the future holds - but change is good!  Not only that, sometimes change is necessary.

Who's got time for negativity these days?  Not me!

Even so, when you change your life so completely,  you need to be aware that not everyone is going to like it.  It's a bit like going vegan - nobody ever cared about what you ate before but when you deviate from the norm, all of a sudden everyone has an opinion and is an expert on what you should be doing!  Over the past year I have been subjected to a considerable amount of abuse from people who knew me in previous stages of my life and do not like the fact I am no longer living in a regular home, paying regular bills and doing regular things, the way they think I should.  I have been accused of 'running away from my responsibilities' and even told to 'grow up'.  It has been very hurtful; at once stage I thought it was going to break me, but I got through it.  The fact is, sometimes in your life, no matter how much we have been conditioned to always put everyone else first and for how long, and no matter how guilty others may make you feel - SOMETIMES - you just have to do something for yourself, for your own wellbeing.  And you know what?  It's the best thing I ever did. 

I didn't respond to any of the comments I read following the Stuff article; I thought it was best to just sit back but if I had said anything, I would have said 'just do it!'  You don't have to settle for a life of My Kitchen Rules, or spend the next 20 or 30 years dreaming.  To use another motto, 'where there's a will, there's a way' and there are plenty of people out here finding a way.  You may remember Debra, the lady I've written about a couple of times who lives in her car.  Like us, she didn't know where she wanted to be when her circumstances changed so decided on a mobile solution so she could find herself a new home in her own time.  I admire her hugely, as indeed I admire any female living this way on her own.  It's a pleasure watching her grow in both confidence and experience; every new thing she learns, every triumph over adversity.  I also loved watching the young Asian couple who stayed for a few days recently - the ones I face planted in front of in my last blog post.  The two of them are travelling around in a tiny hatchback, without so much as a tent!  Most people who travel around in their cars at least go for something bigger like a station wagon but these two don't care at all!  They're just so happy to be out there doing it and are always so excited about everything.  They never stopped smiling the whole time!  It's only when you leave the constraints of 'normal' life that you realise that there are actually no rules.

I'm not sure how the new freedom camping rules are going to affect them and others like them travelling NZ this summer; there are not too many campgrounds like ours.  I don't think they're going to have an easy time of it, which is sad.  Freedom campers get a hell of a bad rap.  Sure there are a few who spoil it for everyone else and we hate being tarred with the same brush.  But those people are not country or age specific the way people think.  There are also a lot of people like us, who still work and pay tax - in fact as a freelance writer I get taxed 25c in every dollar, more than most people living in a house and paying rates!  People like us just want to live a simpler life and consume less.  Surely that's a good thing? There are also a lot of New Zealanders staying in freedom camps who have worked their entire lives and want to enjoy their retirement touring around the country.  They deserve every bit of their freedom and should be able to without being made to feel bad about it! 

I got another surprise yesterday afternoon when walking through the grounds and a couple I hadn't met before jumped out of their bus.  'We know who you are!' they grinned, waving their copy of the newspaper at me.  By the time we finished talking about everything from trout fishing in the Mataura River to fly fishing courses in Mosgiel I'd made some lovely new friends, who I look forward to bumping into again in the future.  I've said it many a time I'm sure but there's nothing more enjoyable than meeting other people who live the same lifestyle and love it as much as you do.  Come to think of it, I've never met anyone living this way who doesn't!

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Good Old Days

Good grief our campground has been busy this past week!  We're not used to having so many neighbours after the peace and relative solitude of winter but everyone's really coming out of the woodwork now.  There's a lot of people in cars, a couple of brave tenters and it can take an awfully long time to take Minnie for her morning waddle by the time we've chatted to everyone on the way round.  It's cool though, I really enjoy watching people living life so simply.  Our set up is so luxurious in comparison after almost a year's experience that I feel almost guilty watching them standing outside cooking on impossibly tiny stoves on the ground and constantly packing and unpacking everything into overcrowded car boots.  It's a fantastic way to see the country on a budget though, I wish I had thought of doing it years ago! 

Living the old fashioned way is easy when the weather is this good!

My dad, God rest his soul told me before he passed away to keep it simple - life, that is.  He's been gone 20 years and it's taken me this long to truly achieve that but I think I'm finally getting there.  Life IS simple, if you let it be so.  We live on so little these days it's crazy.  To be honest I've forgotten a lot of the things I used to do when we lived a regular life, it's been so long but I liken it to going back to the good old days of our grandparents.  I wash by hand whenever I can (which is a hell of a lot easier now the water is no longer freezing!).  We have a sink which works perfectly well but I prefer to do my dishes in a bucket outside and leave them to dry in the sun.  I also wash my hair outside over a bucket and pour a jug over my head, like my mum taught me when I was little.  We save all of our vegetable scraps to make stock and even make free fertiliser from banana peels to water our vegetable plants with.  We make all our own cleaning products, same as I have done for years (incidentally it made me chuckle this morning to read a news story which said a recent test by Consumer magazine on the country's most popular cleaning products revealed that plain old water did a better job than most of them!) and despite having a working vehicle constantly at our disposal we choose to walk everywhere.  Sometimes it makes me wonder how much of the things I do today stem from my years at Simple Savings, or whether I would be doing them anyway.  I do think Simple Savings has a lot to do with it; it taught me always to think outside the square and to look for a smarter, cheaper way.  I don't know too many other campers who do all the things we do!

Both Gareth and I got through the entire winter and beyond with no more than four changes of clothes.  We wore our snow boots until we had to throw them away and with bikini weather already here we'll be dragging our summer clothes out for the next six months.  So far I've worn make-up just twice in the past year; once at Christmas and again recently when we went to see Liam. On both occasions Gareth said 'What are you doing that for?  You don't need that stuff!'  to which I replied 'I don't want Liam to think his mother has gone completely feral!'  Life is simple and we spend our days doing simple things, just like people used to do years ago before they all felt they had to be doing fifty-million things at once, and before the media started bombarding us with articles telling us what we needed to do to be happy or successful. 

It's a simple life for all three of us!

It's a rare thing these days, having a truly simple life.  A lot of people never manage to achieve that; or if they do, not for very long.  I thought I was going to be one of those people, yet now I live the simplest life of anyone I know.  It goes without saying that once you have that, you want to hold onto it for as long as you can.  Which is why we have decided to stay put for a while, rather than travelling back up north for summer as we planned.  There are several reasons for this which I won't bore you with now but the main one is that it will be a lot more comfortable and economical for us to stay in the South Island over peak holiday season than up in the North.  As we discovered last summer, finding places to stay in the North Island which are a) dog friendly, b) not overcrowded, c) don't cost $50 a night and d) offer more than two nights' freedom camping can prove very expensive and stressful.  It's no fun living in a camper van on a scorching hot day when you can't take your dog to the beach to cool off for the biggest part of the day, or for a bush walk in the shade when so many areas don't allow dogs.  It's even less fun when your poor dog is sweltering for hours in a hot van whilst you can be driving around for hours, searching in vain for a suitable place to stay!  Nope, all things considered, we would rather wait and make our way back up the country when we can do so for $20 a night rather than $40 or $50!

Minnie's already feeling the heat!  At least here we can keep her cool.

In comparison the South Island is so much more laid back.  We can stay here for as long as we like for $5 a night (and have MORE facilities than the other campgrounds charge ten times as much for!). We have 40 acres we can wander around on with Minnie, lots of shady trees for us all to keep cool and there is far more space for fellow campers than there is at any other campground we have come across.  Plus it's beautiful here, it's like living in a park!  Much as we want to see our loved ones, it just doesn't make sense to travel up that end of the country at the most hectic time of year.  Better to wait until the hordes have gone and we can make our way up in comfort and for far less cost, when the campgrounds aren't all full.  I guess it goes to show how much we have learned about this lifestyle after four seasons!

'It wasn't me!' says Dudley the lamb!  Who is in fact a girl...

Don't worry though, just because we will be based in the same place, doesn't mean we will be resting on our laurels!  We both have a lot of work to do, and new opportunities cropping up, which will mean plenty of road trips and checking out new places here in the South.  Our to-do list of places to visit is still very long!  We'll keep you posted as we go along.  For now we are still busy playing farmers and greeting fellow campers.  Although the two unfortunately don't always go hand in hand.  Last night we met a young Asian couple as we were going to feed Casper and Dudley, the two orphan lambs.  'Did you say you have baby LAMBS?' they said, excitedly.  'Yep, do you want to come and see them?' we said.  They were beside themselves when we gave them a bottle each to feed them and took a heap of videos and photos.  'Time for bed fellas!' Gareth said when they were done, and we each picked up a lamb and carried them to the barn for the night, followed by the young couple.  Casper is the smaller of the two and is 'my' baby, who always snuggles into my neck when he's being carried.  Unfortunately when I went to put him down on the ground, he wriggled out of my arms, causing me to fall on a large wire gate leaning against a wall.  The gate came crashing down with me on top of it (mercifully the lambs had the good sense to run out of the way in the nick of time) and caused me to do a spectacular face plant in the straw, right in front of our very concerned new Asian friends.  Aside from a few bruises and grazes the only thing that was hurt was my pride.  I'm just glad they didn't manage to video THAT too!

Friday, 6 October 2017

'Space Problems'

As you can probably tell from the last few blogs, we had a brilliant time in Dunedin.  Even so, we were happy as always to get back to our beloved van.  Call us weird but we're far more comfortable tucked up in our little Ken than in a luxurious motel room!  Neither of us got any sleep the whole time we were there as we simply weren't used to having such an enormous bed with such plumptious pillows.  It was too quiet as well, without the hum of the dehumidifier and Minnie's comforting snores!  We really missed not having a hob to be able to cook our own food as well and found it quite frustrating having to eat out all the time, not to mention expensive.  That said however, it is always nice to see the team at the Aurora on George Motel.  They are so friendly and helpful and provide really top quality accommodation at an affordable price, right in the centre of the city, so if you ever need somewhere to stay in Dunedin, we can highly recommend them.  In fact we never stay anywhere else!

You never know who you're going to meet from one day to the next when
you're staying in a campground!

We're coming up to 11 months in our little home on wheels and are happier than ever.  As you may have gathered by now, we meet a LOT of people and that's one of the things that you need to be prepared to do when undertaking this lifestyle.  You need to be happy and willing to chat to people at any time, whether you like it or not - and you're not always going to feel like it.  Don't get me wrong, it's also one of the very best things about living on the road.  It's lovely to meet new people and often they can make your day.  But other times all you really want to do is zip to the loo for two minutes, not stand and swap yarns for half an hour with your legs crossed!  Even so, it's one of the most wonderful things about this lifestyle; it makes you get out of your comfort zone and talk to people you never normally would.  I remember saying to Gareth before we first set off, 'You can do the talking, I don't want to talk to strangers!' to which he willingly agreed, being the lovely, social chap he is.  But from the very first day at our very first campground,  somehow I found myself chatting merrily about travel with an Australian, talking politics with an American (not that I knew what he was talking about, I had never understood politics my whole life!) and later showing the same chap how to work the communal microwave whilst listening to him extol the virtues of the Paleo diet.  Days like that are pretty typical.  The people you meet are always interesting, you have a lot of laughs and everyone goes out of their way to help one another.

It's a pretty rough start to the day, having to eat your breakfast in the sunshine!

If there is one thing we hear more than anything else from our fellow travellers however, it's 'I don't know how you do it', in reference to living in our van.  Naturally this comes from people living in large motor homes or caravans; for your average overseas traveller our vehicle is really nothing unusual, in fact we're bigger than a lot of them but I guess for most people a van like ours is a short term arrangement, not something they envisage doing long term.  Hey, we never planned to either!  The thing is, as we've said before, it's not the size of your mobile home that's important, it's the set up.  If you get that right, life is a breeze no matter how small it is.  We saw a seven-metre bus in a car yard the other day that wasn't half as well set up as our Ken!  We did think about upsizing to something bigger a while back but we're not even worried about that any more.  We've got Ken pretty much perfect now and would rather stay happy and content as we are and have money in the bank so we can enjoy our simple lifestyle for years to come, than spend thousands of dollars on something bigger when there's nothing wrong with what we have.

Space problems?  Not us!  A place for everything and everything in its place :)

Which means I guess we'll be hearing 'I don't know how you do it' for a long time to come yet!  But that's fine, we don't expect others to understand.  As we tell people, it's what you get used to.  If you're accustomed to living in a huge dwelling then you can't imagine being able to live with anything else because that's what you're used to, it's all you know.  People genuinely believe they NEED that much space and that much stuff.  They also can't believe we can seriously be warmer in our van than they are in their house or motor home, which is really funny.  One chap in a large caravan this morning recognised us from a few months ago and was amazed we were still here, in the same van.  'How on earth did you survive the winter down here?' he asked in disbelief.  'Easy!' I grinned.  'We have a heater and a dehumidifier.  We were warm as toast!' 'Yeah, right!' he laughed.  'No, really!' I insisted.  'It's much easier to keep a small space like this warm than a big one'.  'Yeah right', he laughed again.  'Small space alright!'  I couldn't fathom for the life of me why he couldn't comprehend that a small space would be warmer and easier to heat than a big one but smiled sweetly and let it go.  Just as I did to another chap who we talked to at length about making an awning, the same as he had done on his vehicle.  'It's an easy solution to space problems', he said.  'And you've got space problems!'

'I don't think we've got space problems!' said Gareth, after the helpful man left.  'We don't.  It's just everyone else thinks we do', I laughed.  And that's just fine, each to their own!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Top of the World

As you may have read in the last blog post, Liam's flight out of Dunedin was unexpectedly cancelled, giving us another 24 hours together.  This was brilliant for us, as a) the weather was supposed to be awesome after a couple of overcast and drizzly days and b) it gave us the opportunity to do the other hike we had been wanting to do, to Mount Cargill and the Organ Pipes.  If you haven't heard of them before don't worry, neither had we and as it turned out, none of the locals we spoke to had either!  But after browsing all the options on the Dept of Conservation website we thought that this one sounded pretty cool and were keen to get cracking.  The walk was described as steep and uphill but that didn't phase Gareth and I.  After all, people had said the same about Tunnel Beach and that wasn't bad at all.  As we were to discover however, this hike made Tunnel Beach look like a picnic!

Grahams Bush Reserve

Taking my own sweet time!

Liam waiting for us to catch up.  Poor fella had to do this a LOT!

The sun shone as promised and we headed out in the direction of Port Chalmers, which is a lovely area we hadn't visited before.  There are several ways you can get to the Mount Cargill track, but we decided to go the whole hog and do the longest route, which starts in Sawyers Bay via the Grahams Bush Reserve.   It didn't take long for Gareth and I to realise that, although we walk everywhere as much as possible, there are very few hills in Gore and it had been a long time since we had climbed any!  Liam on the other hand, well accustomed to the hilly streets of Wellington handled the track with ease.  The bush was beautiful and luckily for us was full of wildlife such as the kereru (NZ pigeon), tui, bell birds and tom tits.  They weren't remotely phased by our puffing and staggering through their territory, which gave us several much-needed opportunities to stop for a breather while we photographed them!  Up and up the track climbed as we zig-zagged higher and higher, faced with yet another hill around every corner.  Despite the excellent weather, parts of the track were quite wet and muddy and involved half climbing. half clawing our way over slippery rocks before we finally reached the promised staircase which brought us out at the top.  The top of Grahams Bush that is; there was still a long way to go!

View from the road at the top of Grahams Reserve & the foot of Mount Cargill

The transmission station at the top of Mount Cargill.  We had no idea
at the time that THIS was the mountain we were climbing!

The view from the top was stunning and we took plenty of photos whilst catching our breath.  We didn't know it at the time but this gorgeous lookout was nothing compared to where we were going!  The Grahams Bush track comes out onto a main road, which you need to cross in order to arrive at the foot of the Mount Cargill track.  Normal people (as in not mad like us) can also park here and simply start the track from this point. We had no idea what Mount Cargill was, or how high it was, but figured it wouldn't be all that big.  When we first parked the van at the start of Grahams Bush, we could see a huge mountain dominating the skyline way in the distance, topped by a transmitting station.  This station we later discovered is the tallest man-made structure in Dunedin.  As for that far-off mountain?  THAT was Mount Cargill and can actually be seen from most parts of the city.  At 2,218 feet high it's probably just as well we didn't know at the time, or we would have never attempted it!  I never clicked at the time, but it was named after the same man who founded the Tunnel Beach track, carving 150 steps by hand through limestone cliffs.  This guy was obviously a real glutton for punishment! 

Mercifully, the track to Mount Cargill was considerably less challenging than Grahams Bush, not being quite so vertical and less slippery.  The climb - at least at this stage - was more gradual and gentle and although Liam was still racing along miles ahead of us, we ambled along quite comfortably, stopping to take more photos as the view started to open up before us.  Although it didn't feel like it; it became apparent that we were now much, much higher than the view we had left behind back at the start of the track!  The temperature had now hit 21 degrees, the hottest day of the year so far in Otago and we couldn't think of a more perfect way to spend such a glorious day, although severe winds had been forecast for later on.  Once out of our sheltered bush canopy and onto open ground, we started to believe it as we began to feel the first gusts of wind.  Still, it was understandable seeing as we were so high up and the cool breeze was welcome.

Just a tad windy up here!  That's Dunedin City and the Harbour behind us

A little further along we spotted a sign pointing to the left which said 'Butters Peak'.  We had no idea what it was but were enjoying the walk so decided we would go and investigate.  The sign is actually spelled incorrectly and its real name is Buttars Peak.  However you want to spell it; this side track leads up a rocky dome, at the top of which is the most insanely incredible view you could ever hope to see.  To get to it, you literally have to scale up a rocky face, which normally wouldn't be a problem.  Unfortunately due to the weather and the sheer height of the peak, the wind was now gusting unbelieveably to the extent it was hard to stand up.  We weren't just being buffeted by it; we were being HAMMERED.  There was nothing but gorse to hang on to (not an option!) and even taking photos was risky, as there was a very real fear that our phones and cameras would be blown out of our hands and lost forever!  Sadly for me, I had to give up and take shelter behind a boulder just a few feet from the top as it was just too dangerous and I became too frozen with fear to move.   So near, yet so far!  Frustrating as it was, I was more than happy with what I could see as I peeked out from behind my boulder, with Dunedin city on one side and Port Chalmers on the other.  Well, that's what I thought it was.  As it turned out, we were staring at a whole lot more than that!

Liam getting blown away by the view and the wind!

360 degree views as far as the eye can see

From the top of Butters Peak you can see over 100km away!

Not far to the top of Mount Cargill from here!

Whilst the wind was still rather disconcerting for Gareth and Liam, they continued to scramble their way up to the top and were in awe of the spectacle that awaited them.  We literally were on top of the world.  None of us had ever seen anything like it; the view took in the entire Otago Peninsula with all its magic beaches, the harbour, right across to Blueskin Bay, miles away on the other side of the city on the road to Oamaru.  We could even see as far as Nugget Point in the Catlins, more than 100km away!  We stayed here as long as time would allow, before reluctantly making our way down.  The way this wind was going, it was quite possible that Liam's flight would be cancelled again!

View from the foot of the Organ Pipes.  You can see how many of these
ancient basalt columns have collapsed over the years...

But the remaining ones standing are still impressive!

We still had one more mission to tick off however before we headed for home - we had yet to see the Organ Pipes.  This stunning rock formation is one of only four like it in the world and unsurprisingly they really do look like organ pipes.  They were formed millions of years ago as lava from an ancient volcano cooled, with shrinking and cracking of the rock occuring vertically, creating geometrically perfect hexagonal columns.  Over the years, earthquakes have caused some of the pipes to come crashing down and they lay broken at the foot of their still-upright counterparts.  It was here that I once again was forced to wait while the guys scaled up to the top of the pipes.  This part was extremely challenging even for them, not to mention risky on a day like today.  It wasn't possible to stay up there long and I was extremely relieved when they both descended safely!  Still, we had done it; our mission was now complete and it was time to whiz all the way back down (well, as quickly as we could whiz!).  Down the Mount Cargill track and back through the slippery, squelchy Grahams Bush Reserve until we finally made it back to the van.

Now Liam can see why we love the South Island too!

We didn't have much time to spare until we had to take Liam to the airport but this time we were all fairly relaxed.  Surely the flights weren't going to be operating this evening with 120kph winds continuing to escalate and storms pummeling Wellington and the Cook Strait?  We smiled as we saw all the previous flights had been delayed or cancelled - but not Liam's.  Even as the plane took off there was still a chance it would have to turn round and head back to Dunedin if it was unable to land.  After an extremely rough flight the plane was unable to land on the first attempt but a second proved thankfully successful.  It was so wonderful to see Liam, and better still to be able to share with him why we love the South Island and living the way we do.  After experiencing it for himself, I think he definitely gets it.  With a bit of luck, he'll be back again before too long!

Thursday, 28 September 2017

All Aboard the Taieri Gorge Railway!

Last weekend was a bit of a memorable one in many ways.  Not only did we have Liam with us after eight months apart, but Sunday September 24th also marked 20 years since my Dad passed away from cancer at age 57.  We wanted to do something special to remember him by, so when we heard that the Taieri Gorge Railway had re-opened just a few days earlier after extensive storm damage, we jumped at the opportunity.  For starters, most New Zealanders don't get to ride on a train very often; it's not a frequent or common mode of transport but the Taieri Gorge Railway is also not just any old train journey.  The six-hour voyage from Dunedin to Middlemarch is actually widely acclaimed as one of the top five train journeys in the world, beating Alaska and the Canadian Rockies!  Who knew!  We certainly didn't, but there was no way we were missing the opportunity seeing as we were right here.

Dunedin Railway Station - the most photographed building in NZ!

Upper floor of the station

The mosaic floor in the foyer 

Because EVERY station needs porcelain ticket windows!

It also gave me the chance to do something I had wanted to do for ages, which was check out the interior of the historic Dunedin Railway Station.  This is a seriously cool building - so cool in fact, that it is the second most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, second only behind Sydney Opera House!  Opened in 1906, the station is impossibly grand both inside and out.  With its mosaic floor, Royal Doulton porcelain balcony and surrounds and gold gilding all over the place, setting foot in it is like going back in time.  It felt even more so as we climbed up into our 100 year old heritage carriage, with its original wrought iron and varnished wood.  As we settled in to our seats for the next few hours, it was pretty exciting to think we were going to be travelling through miles of countryside where no other vehicles could go.  The line was originally begun in 1879 to service the goldfields, however it was finished too late for the miners.  It was used instead to open up the fruit and farming country inland at Cromwell and carried a lot of four-legged woolly passengers before losing out to road transport and eventually closing.  Fortunately, thanks to a team of passionate volunteers, it was later lovingly restored and resurrected as a tourist operation. Today, this 154km railway journey remains quite literally the only way you can see the things we were going to see!

All aboard!

Our cosy little carriage

The train pootled along at a leisurely pace out of Dunedin until we left civilisation as we knew it far behind.  We wended our way along the Taieri River, through the first of the ten tunnels along the way until we began to steadily climb the Taieri Gorge.  Considering how high up we actually were, the train managed the climb with ease and before we knew it, all three of us were madly pointing our cameras out of the window and scrambling outside to get a better view.  One of the highlights of the trip was the Wingatui Viaduct; a 197 metre long curved bridge which is not only a master of engineering but also the largest wrought iron structure in the Southern Hemisphere, built in 1887.  To give you an idea of the size of it; it's up there with the Eiffel Tower, except lengthways.  Incredible to think this amazing feat of construction was built out in this no-man's land, heaven knows how they did it!  As we crossed this viaduct, one of a dozen or more, and emerged through the tunnel into Mullocky Gully, we chugged along past a few quaint 'blink-and-you-miss-them' places such as Parera, Mount Allan and Christmas Creek, before making a brief stop in Hindon to stretch our legs and take photos.

Pootling along the Wingatui Viaduct (and trying not to look down!)

Stopping to admire the view at Hindon - and say hello to 'Sue'!

By now we were totally accustomed to 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' at every turn but the stop at Hindon was definitely a favourite moment for me.  As we piled out of our little carriage onto the platform and stood looking out over the countryside, along with 'Sue', the monument dedicated to all the sheepdogs who had worked in the area for over 150 years, I thought of my dad and how much he would have loved this journey.  I wished he were here to see it.  I didn't think the journey could get any better than this, but the best was still to come!

Boldly going where no cars have gone before

Rivers and waterfalls, bridges and tunnels, Taieri Gorge has it all!

Higher and higher we gently climbed, heading out of the gorge and over the Deep Stream and Flat Stream viaducts.  Here the landscape became even more incredible, as we travelled through 'The Notches'; yet another mindblowing feat of engineering through seemingly impossible rocky formations. After stopping at Pukerangi, the rocks gave way to miles of open plains, dotted with sheep and cattle.  'I always wondered why people always went on about New Zealanders and sheep', said Liam.  'I never knew what the big joke was about, I've never even seen that many over here!  But now I've been to the South Island?  OK now I finally understand!'  The view was beautiful and made even more so by the snow-capped mountains in the distance.  However it was extremely barren and exposed and Gareth and I had a hilarious time trying to stay upright as we stood out on the little platform at the end of our carriage.  We had never known such ferocious winds!  At last we reached the end of the line at Middlemarch.  A tiny but friendly rural town, we had an hour to browse here at our leisure.  The railway does provide some small snacks and refreshments, however seeing as its a six hour journey we definitely recommend bringing your own food and drink as well.  Fortunately, the Strath Taieri Pub put on a warm welcome for hungry travellers and the food was both excellent and reasonable.  We loved the cosy atmosphere of this little place and its people.

The barren plains at Sutton

Middlemarch - a little town with a lot of character, including this pub!

Time to head for home

Tummies nicely full and photos duly taken, it was time to board the train once again for the ride home.  The journey was just as magical facing the other way and we all lost count of how many photos we took and how many times we said 'wow'!  A couple of hours later we emerged somewhat reluctantly back into civilisation.  It had been a full-on day and wasn't over yet, as we still had to take Liam to the airport to catch his flight home to Wellington.  None of us were ready for him to leave yet, we were all having too much fun and there was so much more we wanted him to see!  It was a shame that we wouldn't get the chance to raise a glass together that evening for my dad too.  As he made his way to the departure gate however, it seemed that Mother Nature had other ideas.  To all our joy, a voice came over the loudspeaker to say that due to high winds, Liam's plane had been unable to land.  His flight had been cancelled and he was unable to get home for another 24 hours! I'm not sure who was wearing the bigger grin, him or me!  So off we went back to the motel, to plan how we could make the most of our unexpected extra day together and to finally have a drink for my dad.  Crazy as it sounds, I couldn't help smiling a little to myself and wondering if somehow he had something to do with it!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Exploring the Otago Peninsula with Liam!

My word, do we have some catching up to do!  So much news I'm not sure where to start, I think I'm just going to have to spread it all out over a few blogs.  In case you didn't see our Facebook post, we went away last week for another trip exploring Dunedin and surrounds.  We always discover new stuff to do there, and every time we visit, we find more reasons to go back again!  This time however was extra special as my eldest, Liam was flying down to meet us for a long weekend.  It has been eight months since I last saw him and we were so excited; Liam doubly so as it was his first visit ever to the South Island.  Although I think he wondered where on earth he was going to begin with, as the plane flew right over Dunedin city before landing 30km away in the middle of acres of farmland, surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges!  'This is a bit different to Auckland and Wellington airports!' he laughed as he climbed into the van.  'That's the South Island for you, it's a bit different all over!' I told him.  Over the next few days, he was to discover just how much.

The Pyramids from Okia Reserve end

Liam and me at the top of the first pyramid, known as Te Matai o Kia

View from the top, towards Victory Beach

Looking out towards Margaret Hazel Slope

With Minnie safely in boarding kennels and the weather looking a bit iffy for the next few days, we wasted no time in doing what Liam had requested, which was doing as much hiking as possible.  Much to Gareth's relief, Tunnel Beach with its enormous hill was closed for lambing season but a quick visit to the Department of Conservation website left us spoilt for choice when it came to alternatives.  As far as we were concerned, the more we got to see the better, so we settled on an interesting sounding one called The Pyramids, along the Otago Peninsula.  These are situated at the edge of the Peninsula's most isolated beach and to get to them, we had to turn off at Portobello and drive out quite literally into the middle of nowhere.  Once there, we then had to follow a track through farmland for some time until we arrived at Okia Reserve and the base of the Pyramids.  As you might imagine, these are two perfectly geometric volcanic columns which look exactly like pyramids.  There was a track leading up the first one so we braved the wind and wound our way up.  It only took around 10 minutes to climb to the top and the view was impressive, stretching out across marshland and to Victory Beach beyond.  However both Gareth and Liam's eyes were focussed firmly on the second, much larger pyramid which stood adjacent to it.  There didn't appear to be a track anywhere for this one, most likely because nobody in their right mind would want to climb it!  The guys were undeterred however and set about finding a way to forge their own path.

The BIG pyramid, aka Pu-Wheke-o-Kia

Off to climb a mountain

Where the bloody hell ARE we?!

Here ensued a lengthy detour up Margaret Hazel Slope, squelching through boggy marshes, and clambering up hills teeming with wild rabbits and high country sheep, as the three of us did our best to work out how the heck we could navigate our way around the swamps to reach the fence which surrounded the giant pyramid.  In the end, the three of us had to admit a wet and muddy defeat - but it had been great fun trying!  From here we turned our attention back to the main task at hand, which was continuing our way through Okia Reserve and onto Victory Beach.  As well as being the most isolated, this beach is also the longest and most spectacular beach on the Otago Peninsula.  It was named after a ship called the Victory after it became grounded there by a drunken sailor in 1861 and you can still see parts of the wreck at low tide.

Mother Nature at her best - completely untouched and unspoilt

Victory Beach.  Well worth the walk, even without the seals and penguins!

Being in such a remote location, Victory Beach has remained absolutely untouched and unspoilt, with its pale sand and 3.5km of pristine coastline.  It's also home to many sea lions, fur seals and both blue and Yellow Eyed penguins.  Unlike other places we have visited with sea lions, the barreness and isolation of this particular place made me super conscious that this was very much THEIR territory and making our way through the dunes was really quite nerve wracking, knowing of the possiblity of an enormous and possibly aggressive male sea lion could waltz out in front of us at any moment!  Whilst we were teased upon arrival by the full length imprint of a seal in the sand, its owner was nowhere to be seen and the beach was devoid of both seals and penguins.

The long walk back.  We recommend sturdy waterproof footwear!   

With daylight starting to draw to a close, we made our weary way back through the dunes and onto the reserve track.  It had been a great start to our trip and thanks to our spontaneous detour, my pedometer was showing we had walked 13.5km!  'So what do you think of the South Island so far?' I asked Liam as we arrived back at the van.  'I rate it pretty highly!' he answered in his usual frank manner, as he took one last look around.  But as he - and us too - were to find out, this was really just the beginning!