Friday, 20 January 2017

When Batty Met Ken

I'm a great believer in serendipity.  Things happening for a reason, people crossing your path at just the right time and all that.  Our change in lifestyle has led us to meet some wonderful people - but even so, we never expected to meet Ken.  Not that Ken is a person however!  Ken is a camper van - in fact he's OUR new camper van.  Bet you weren't expecting that!  Neither were we.

We were back in Whangamata over the New Year staying at Gareth's mum's.  She has a lodger called Tom from the UK staying over the summer and as it happened, some friends of his were also in the country and popped in to see him.  Like us, they had also been travelling around NZ in a camper van for about the same length of time, in a 2008 Mazda Bongo affectionately known as Ken, thanks to his number plate.  Having a good old chinwag to other people who live the same way as you is always interesting and a pleasure, but this lovely young couple were seriously savvy.  We thought we were already living on a shoestring but these two were next level!  They had obviously done a LOT of research before setting out on their travels and put in a lot of effort to make sure they did everything right.

'Would you like a tour?' asked Hannah, as they were getting ready to leave.  'Sure!' we said. Neither Gareth or I were prepared for what we saw when she opened the door of the plain looking, white van. Ken was beautiful! He had custom made kitchen cabinets, a fridge, a stove - everything you could possibly want.  Hannah and her partner Ollie had purchased Ken as an empty shell and then filled and furnished him themselves.  Every little detail had been thought of and had been done well, whilst still being on a budget as much as possible.  Even the mirror Hannah had bought as a cheap wall tile and framed it herself using red and blue bungy cord.  Ingenious!  Anyone could see that Ken was a real labour of love, so much care and hard work had gone in to making him their home away from home.

We said thank you for showing us around and everyone said their goodbyes as Hannah and Ollie were taking off on the last leg of their travels before leaving the country and Ken would be sold to another lucky wayfarer.  Gareth and I both thought Ken was great but it didn't cross our minds to upsize.  We had been saying for some time that whilst travelling in Batty was snug with a woman with too many clothes, a hulking great Welshman and an overweight spaniel, it was nothing we couldn't live with.  Sometimes we did wish that things were a little easier, especially when the weather was bad but we never entertained the thought of buying another vehicle.  We loved Batty and would make the best of it until the end.

It was only the next day when talking to Gareth's mum about Ken that things took a swift and unexpected turn.  She hadn't taken the tour with us and sounded as impressed as we were.  'Imagine what it would be like, being able to cook inside?  We could cook so many more things and it wouldn't matter if it was windy or raining', we said wistfully.  The way things currently were, even trying to make so much as a sandwich was a nightmare in bad weather, with the wind blowing the bread and everything else everywhere.  Rain was something we dreaded on the whole, as poor Batty was so full of stuff that even something as simple as opening the sliding door to let Minnie out in the mornings could result in sodden bedding in seconds, not to mention a hefty laundry bill.  That was another thing Hannah and Ollie didn't have to worry about in Ken, the bedroom was at the back, way past the door.  If the rain came in it would simply go on the kitchen floor which was vinyl.

Ken also had a fridge - ohh, you cannot imagine how luxurious this sounded to us!  The hotter the summer was getting, the less our meagre chilly bin was able to keep things cool and we were having to throw things out more and more, much to our own and our wallet's despair.  If we had a fridge, nothing would get wasted any more and I could go back to having all my favourite foods again! Tomatoes, avocados, green leafy salads, how I had missed them all.  I was already dreaming of the healthier diet I would have - and ice!  You can't imagine how much you can miss something as simple as having an ice cube or two in your drink on a hot day.

Talking of heat, that was another thing Ken had which would solve an increasing problem for us - fly screens!  The weather was getting hotter and hotter and Minnie was getting more and more unsettled at night.  When you're in the middle of nowhere or surrounded by dozens of other campers the last thing you really want to do is get up and wander about at three in the morning so the dog can have a wee and cool down!  Leaving the windows open was also not an option; even leaving it open just the slightest crack at night resulted in a swarm of mosquitoes so bad they covered the entire ceiling. Ken also had power through an inverter and battery.  This was something we had been investigating and was going to be a big and reluctant expense for us; however it was nothing short of necessary if I was going to be able to work properly.  Paying to stay at a powered campsite every few days just so that I could get things done was really not ideal.

It was becoming more and more obvious that a vehicle like Ken would save us a lot of money long term.  No more paying for power, no more wasted food, no more having to cook outside in awful weather.  As chief cook that was Gareth's real woe.  We also found very early on after purchasing our Weber Baby Q that it's not much fun trying to sleep with a stinky BBQ above your head! Unfortunately there was simply nowhere else it could go, which meant that every night we had to take it outside and chain it up to the wheel so it didn't go missing.  Gareth really wouldn't miss that - or having to climb on the roof every time we packed up and unpacked to grab something we didn't have room for inside and tether it all again securely.

The big one however was Ken's loo.  To be certified as a self contained vehicle under the new and recently changed rules, you need a toilet that you can use INSIDE your camper.  Simply carrying a toilet on board was no longer enough, you had to be able to use it without encroaching outside your vehicle.  Without this, you no longer qualify for freedom camping and whilst a lot of freedom camping spots have public toilets, more of them don't.  Batty had a toilet exactly the same as Ken but once the bed was up at night there was no room to use it inside.  Trying to put up an outhouse tent was not always easy and in some places such as Taranaki the wind was so bad it didn't even stay up for two minutes without blowing away and we had to give up the idea of staying at the NZMCA camp ground and fork out $44 at a campsite that would accept dogs just so we could go to the loo. Not to mention the sight of us putting up an additional tent now meant incurring the baleful stares of other campers who all knew the new rules. The one time we did try and 'harden up' and stay at a freedom camp without a toilet I had to go 13 hours before I could have a wee.  And no, taking a tinkle al fresco when you're surrounded by 17 other camper vans is not an option!  There was no two ways about it; if we had a vehicle like Ken, camping every night would be free and we would save a fortune.

'Sounds like you should buy Ken, he seems just what you need!' said Gareth's mum.  'Well I have to admit, I did really want him', I confessed.  'Me too!' said Gareth.  'You did?  Why didn't you say anything?  I didn't realise you were that keen!' I said.  'Well we had been saying all these weeks that even with all the clutter and chaos we wouldn't give in get a bigger vehicle', pointed out Gareth.  But Ken was so perfect...

A few short minutes later, Tom wandered in and informed us that Hannah and Ollie were on their way to Auckland the following day to show Ken off to all the people who were interested in buying him.  'They've got over 20 people looking at him!' he said.  Gareth and I looked at each other.  'I'd better drop them a line straight away!' I said.  The rest, as they say is history and is why we had to delay going to the South Island a little longer, as we waited for Hannah and Ollie to finish their travels and pick up Ken.

As for Batty?  We found the perfect solution - Tom!  As a single bloke working and travelling around NZ, Batty is everything he could possibly want and with there only being one of him, he even has room to use the loo!  Everybody's happy and now we are all set to save even more!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

It's a Hard Life - Yeah Right!

'I can't imagine living in a proper house again', I said to Gareth this morning, to which he heartily agreed.  'Me either.  In fact if you went to live in a house I'd still stay in the van!' he declared. Whilst some people think we are mad for not choosing a huge bus or motor home to live in, we like it that way.  Sure it's cheaper - a LOT cheaper - but mainly we like it because keeping it smaller means that we do more stuff.  If there is one thing we have noticed through our observations, it's that people in larger motor homes seem to do less; this being presumably because they already have all the comforts of a real home.  We see people park up for days at a time and all they do is watch TV.  But what the heck, it's still a much cheaper place to watch TV than paying rent or a mortgage and you can change the view to suit yourself at will too!

Even so, keeping our abode smaller makes us get out and do things.  And who wouldn't, when there is so much out there to do?  That's another thing we were talking about this morning when discussing our previous life in a house.  When you live in a house it's so easy to not do anything and not go anywhere.  There is always more washing to do, more weeds to pull, more episodes of MasterChef to catch up on.  In comparison, living on the road most of the time I don't even know what day it is.  I have no concept of time any more, there is no such thing as a routine or schedule.  For fear of sounding like a spoilt brat, I do what I want, when I want.

Saying that, it is a far from glamorous existence.  As a dear friend of mine says after more than 40 years living on the road, you never, ever stop learning and in our case never more so than the first few days after leaving Nawtypoo.  The first thing I had to do was overcome my aversion to using public toilets.  Let me tell you, when you ain't got nothing else you get over this very quickly!  Although I could write a whole blog on toilets I have encountered, but I shall spare you that.

Who says camping isn't glamorous? Without the mozzies anyway!

Our first night in Batty was spent at Whangamata Motor Camp and it all started very idyllic, sitting outside in our folding chairs toasting each other with a glass of bubbles.  We did it, we actually did it and now our new life was to begin!  We made up the queen size bed for the first time and while Gareth was in the bathroom I strung up the LED fairy lights which cost around $8.00 from Bunnings. If I say so myself it looked amazing!  Gareth totally agreed and the two of us lay there and marvelled about how fab it all was - until we learned the first golden rule of camping.  Never, ever leave a light on if you have the door open.  The next half an hour or so was spent madly swatting mosquitoes until the lovely white ceiling was covered in dismembered, winged corpses.  Suffice to say, lesson learned!

The following night we were well prepared for the mozzies and they were no problem.  We were happy during this transition time at Whangamata Motor Camp; it was a necessary place to stay while Gareth fulfilled his work contract and Minnie really liked it there too.  There were also several people who lived there permanently, local teachers, tradesmen and others who worked in the town who couldn't find accommodation.  As you can imagine, moving from a regular house to a campground after 9 years was a big upheaval for Minnie, so on our second day I treated her to a lovely juicy bone from the butchers.  For this she was most grateful and enjoyed it all day but understandably while she wanted to take it in the van with her at night I wasn't so keen to fall asleep to the aroma of manky beef bone so I left it outside, safely tucked underneath Batty.  Or so I thought.  Around 5.45am I heard the shrieking of seagulls, swiftly multiplying.  It got louder and louder until to my horror I thought 'Minnie's bone!  They're after Minnie's bone!  It's me who has caused this fracas!'  I gingerly lifted the curtain and my worst fears were confirmed; there were screeching seagulls EVERYWHERE, all after this bloody bone.  I cringed and wished the earth would swallow me up as I peered around at all the other campers trying to sleep.  Another lesson learned!

The worst night however had to be 'the night of the rain'.  Actually make that, 'the day AND night of the rain'.  As we soon learned, when you have a van with a sliding door, every time it rains your bedding is going to get wet.  And in our case, also a rather tubby Cocker Spaniel.  The first day it rained, Gareth was at work and Minnie and I were half way through a lovely walk along the beach when it just fell out of the sky.  The result was one drenched dog and owner, a pile of soggy bedding and half a dozen wet towels used in order to prevent the bedding from getting QUITE so wet.  There was only one thing for it; Minnie and I were going to have to pay our first visit to the local launderette.  Which turned out to be both quite a lengthy and expensive experience.  For us to wash and dry two loads of sheets and towels cost no less than $18!  Bugger that!  I swore we would never pay so much again, and we haven't.

Unfortunately our rainy pain was not yet over.  Gareth returned home from work (and bless him, this was a really stressful time for him, juggling a full time job and living in a campground with limited time and facilities) and the heavens just opened.  Too stingy to buy a gazebo we instead settled for an el cheapo tiny blue tarpaulin, which we thought would do the job of providing both shade and shelter just fine.  Suffice to say it didn't on either count.  We eventually got dinner at around 10pm that night, which consisted of Gareth the chef desperately trying to stay dry as the water pooled perilously on top of the tarpaulin.  In the meantime I sat inside, banished as I peered meekly through a crack in the door, helplessly watching him cook as he insisted it was better for just one of us to be out in the elements than both of us.  The next day we went to Bunnings and bought a heavy duty gazebo and never looked back.

What a lot we have learned since then!  But even with those initial teething problems, I would never go back.  Gone are the days of being thousands of dollars behind in my rates, or worrying how I'm going to pay next month's mortgage.  Instead these days my biggest worry is finding the cheapest way to do the laundry and remembering to clean my teeth!  Would I go back?  No way!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

All the Time in the World

I read a quote on Facebook recently, and not for the first time which says 'Camping - where you spend a small fortune to live like a homeless person'.  For anyone who thinks this is the case, I thought I would share my expenses for this week:

Accommodation: $17 (for one night at a paid campground, the other six nights are free)
Food: $70 (this was all 'long term' purchases which will last us for weeks and was the biggest shop we have done in ages).
Petrol: $220 (this is twice as much as usual but have travelled 1000km this week!)
Power: $0
Internet: $0
Phone: $0
Rates: $0
Insurance: $0

You get the idea.  I would add more to it but it's been so long since I paid a bill I can't actually remember all the ones I used to have!  Obviously our biggest cost is petrol and will stay that way until we cease travelling but if you think about it that $220 this week is not just paying for my car but also my home.  It's the closest thing I have to a mortgage these days, except I don't owe anyone anything!

When you live on the road you become very savvy.  You can spot a rip off a mile away and because you travel around so much you know exactly what is good value and what isn't - and if something isn't worth the price, you simply wait and go without or make do because you know you will find something better when you get to the next place.  I'm not saying we have got it right all the time - the first few weeks we learned more about what NOT to do!  We made some foolish and expensive decisions and let ourselves get ripped off far too often.  By this I mean doing things like not being organised and stocking up at a town with a supermarket before going into the wild blue yonder and then being caught short and having no choice but to pay top dollar for even the most basic items at tiny dairies who can charge what they like, knowing that they are the only place for miles around. That and paying too much for campgrounds in the early days.  But I think we have got things pretty sussed now.  Simply put, we are a couple of stingy bastards!  But that doesn't mean we miss out on anything.

Take the last couple of days for example.  They have been unforgettable, yet barely cost us a cent.  I don't need to tell you that the best things in life are free, but I think living this way we definitely get to enjoy them more often.  We absolutely loved Taranaki, particularly South Taranaki and Hawera and I think it would take the top spot on our 'favourite places' list so far.  To be honest I don't think we really wanted to leave!  Fortunately we had the pull of exploring the 'Forgotten World Highway' to entice us away.  This is a 160km stretch of road between Stratford and Taumaranui and is quite literally like being in a forgotten world.  No amount of flashy photography could do this place justice; you simply can't convey the absolute MASSIVENESS of the hills and landscape around you.  With no cellphone reception, no Internet and nothing and nobody for miles, we could have quite happily lived in there!

The Forgotten World - 160km of awesomeness

When you visit this place, you really understand the meaning of 'as far as the
eye can see!'

Miles and miles of narrow winding roads - no tar seal here!
Was like driving a rollercoaster!

We emerged back into civilisation and knew exactly where we were going to spend the night. Roselands at Waitomo!  We stayed here once before and loved it - best of all it's free!  Waitomo Caves is a hugely popular tourist area and you can spend an absolute fortune here if you don't know what's around.  However we had heard such terrific things about Roselands from other campers we decided we would check it out and were just as chuffed with it as everyone else.  Roselands is a family restaurant and working farm on top of a hill overlooking the beautiful King Country.  The people are wonderful, so friendly and helpful.  They let you use their facilities during opening hours and allow self contained camping vehicles to park overnight for free.  The surroundings are beautiful, you can pat the friendly farm animals and you even get a free glow worm show at night in the car park!  What we love most however is their $10 'all you can eat' dinner - it really is all you can eat and their beef stew is out of this world! Absolute heaven for tired campers who have just driven a couple of hundred kilometres and real home cooking, served up with pride.  Would recommend it to anyone and certainly not just campers; its a beautiful relaxing place to spend an evening, surrounded by native bush and birdsong.  You won't find cheaper beer or wine anywhere either!

View from Roselands - the mighty King Country!  A real view of the Kiwi heartland :)

Our morning welcoming party!

We spent a peaceful night tucked away in the trees and woke up to the sound of a rooster crowing (at a reasonable hour, mercifully!) and a couple of inquisitive goats and a donkey.  The King Country isn't called that for nothing, with its impressive landscape and enormous hills and we were in no hurry to leave.  Gareth had never been to Waitomo Caves before so, being the top tourist attraction in the area I was keen to show him - until I saw the price.  The Waitomo Caves I had enjoyed and remembered more than 10 years ago no longer existed.  It has since been divided into three 'experiences' and you have to pay $50 for EACH ONE!  Even the 'package deal' wasn't much help and for the two of us to go and see all the good stuff it was still going to cost us almost $200.

I ranted and raved about the injustice of it all.  Call that progress?  It was just wrong!  There had to be something else we could do to make the most of this beautiful area.  We got the map out, hopped online, rang the Department of Conservation and came up with a plan.  The next few hours were a pure joy of unforgettable free entertainment.  First we saw this...

Marakopa Falls - 35 metres high, astoundingly beautiful and no $50 fee to see it!

Us feeling very pleased with ourselves that we DIDN'T spend $200

Next we visited Piripiri Cave in the middle of the bush.  It was enormous, pitch black and cavernous and you had to climb down into it using your own torch rather than the automatic soft lighting provided at the paid ones but the inside was just as spectacular and once again, free!

Typical Waitomo bush trail

The mouth of Piripiri Cave, which you had to climb into.
Perfect if you're claustrophobic and scared of the dark like me!!

Our last stop was at Mangapohue Natural Bridge, so called due to the 17 metre high limestone arch which spans across the Mangapohue Stream and is all that remains of an ancient cave system.  This place has to be seen to be believed!  We took soooo many photos here, it was just incredible but here are a few:

We could easily have spent all day at all three of the places we visited, and indeed you could if you wanted - without being pushed along and rushed by busloads of tourists, which there were dozens of parked outside Waitomo Caves.  We still didn't want to leave King Country after seeing such spectacular sights but at least we felt we had done the place justice - and it didn't cost us a thing!

I guess one of the reasons that saving money is so much easier on the road is because you have so much more time to think, to see, to work things out.  We're no longer pulled in a million different directions the way we were and I'm not too busy doing housework or feeling obligated to always be doing a certain thing in a certain place at a certain time to clog my mind with things which get in the way.  Maybe it's a selfish way to live then.  But selfish or not, I don't think I would want it any other way now.

Besides, we haven't even got to the South Island yet, that's the most important part and where our mission really begins!  And that, dear reader begins next week.  We just have one more thing to do in the North Island this weekend and we can't wait as from then on, our merry nomad lifestyle is set to be even easier and cheaper still!

Monday, 9 January 2017

To the End of the Earth and Back

Ahh it's good to see I'm still as organised as ever when it comes to keeping up with my blogging. Like most of us I guess the last few weeks have been a very busy time, catching up with loved ones, enjoying festivities and in our case making the most of having access to a free hot shower and a toaster!  Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR!  I hope 2017 brings you many wonderful things and is memorable for all the right reasons.  We saw in the New Year by candlelight with Gareth's mum whilst talking on Skype to his grandparents in Wales and showing them all the fireworks we could see filling the sky all around us.  A lovely start to the year and a peaceful end to what has been a challenging and tumultuous yet still very blessed one.

Today seems a perfect day to be writing as it marks two months today that we have been living on the road!  Originally I had this bright idea of devoting a post to each place we have visited but sometimes we simply travel too long and cover too much ground to be able to keep up; not to mention the fact that power and Internet is a luxury.  We finished off the year on a high - quite literally - by achieving our goal of making it to the very top of New Zealand at Cape Reinga.  This really was a wonderful couple of weeks and after our disappointment in the Bay of Islands the Far North couldn't have been more different.  This was REAL New Zealand.  Just one single lane highway peppered with tiny towns along the way and you could go for miles without seeing another car.

We toured around Doubtless Bay and Karikari Peninsula and were struck by their unspoilt beauty. One place I think which will always stand out for us is Matauri Bay, with its crystal clear water and golden sand.  As you can imagine, coming from the Coromandel Peninsula we have seen a LOT of beautiful beaches but we have never come across anything like this.  You absolutely cannot put a price on a view like this, yet one of the things we loved best about the place was that the houses overlooking the bay were not million dollar McMansions but ordinary homes lived in by ordinary people, many of which were as basic as you could get but were still standing, with no danger of being demolished and rebuilt on a grand scale by people out to make money or show off their wealth.  Not only that, unlike most places we had come across there were no signs all over the place decreeing what people could and couldn't do.  People could simply come here, admire and enjoy. So refreshing and just the way it should be.

Matauri Bay from the top of the hill

We visited so many places during this time and loved them all.  Another favourite of mine was Mangonui, a quaint fishing village where the sea lapped alongside the main street and you could enjoy a beer at the local historical tavern while you waited for your fish and chips to be cooked and the locals would come and introduce themselves and share stories.  Visiting Cape Reinga was an unforgettable experience - not simply because of its beauty but the feeling.  There was such a sense of anticipation as we approached the very edge of the country and although we were far from alone when we finally arrived, there was no ignoring there was a very spiritual air all around the place. 

Cape Reinga - it's the end of the earth as we know it!

Of course once you reach the end of the earth there's nothing for it but to turn around and come back again!  Which we duly did, marvelling for what seemed like the hundredth time about the amazing diversity of our country, from the pure white sand of Spirit's Bay to the red earth and incredible giant sand dunes at 90 Mile Beach.  Where else can you see sheep crossing the road amid acres of farmland only to literally come face to face with the desert five minutes down a gravel track?!

Seriously freaking big sand dunes!

We promised that we would catch up with our loved ones for Christmas so began the journey back to where we had started, but not without spending a couple of nights at my favourite adorable campground in Warkworth.  There was nowhere else I would have loved more to spend my birthday and we spent the day admiring the gorgeous scenery and strolling through the kauri forest at the tiny fishing village of Leigh before returning back to our campground for the evening.  The plan was for Gareth to be the birthday chef and cook my favourite steak so we could enjoy it together outdoors in the campground pergola.  However the evening took an unexpected and very different turn when we were joined by Cory, the groundskeeper and fisherman we had the pleasure of meeting last time. Upon me telling him that I enjoyed waking up to the sound of music coming from his caravan in the mornings and him learning it was my birthday, he promptly went to his caravan to fetch his stereo and his entire CD collection for us to enjoy!  And there we sat for hours the three of us, listening to the stories and words of wisdom from this very youthful 71 year old, along with every kind of music from opera to country.  In fact, we sat there for so long, it was after 10pm before I got my steak dinner!  But it didn't matter, it was one of the simplest and happiest birthdays I had ever had.

Gareth with Cory - one of the nicest, wisest people you could ever meet!

By now Christmas was just around the corner and we spent a lovely couple of days with my Mum and Peter.  This was the first sense of feeling to us that it even WAS Christmas, as we had been almost completely isolated from all the hype and everything that goes with it.  It was wonderful to see Mum looking so well after beating bowel cancer just a few months before and particularly lovely to finally see her able to enjoy the house she had moved into earlier in the year.  From there we went back to our old home of Whangamata, where we stayed with Gareth's mum and caught up with both my boys.  It was fun being tourists in our old home town!  We went fishing and tramping and despite the usual madness of being there over New Year (which we always swore we would NEVER do again) I learned to appreciate the place all over again.  The hardest part was leaving my boys to continue our travels - it was hard enough the first time!  But the truth is, I no longer have a place to call home so we just have to keep on moving.

Christmas on the Coromandel.  It ain't home any more, but it ain't half bad!

Which brings us pretty much up to today - greetings from Taranaki!  My goodness, what an amazing place it is too.  It was actually voted 2nd best region in the WORLD by Lonely Planet and we can see why.  So much to do, so much free stuff, so many quaint little places and diverse scenery.  I'm a bit worried I'll never get Gareth out of here!  But we have one more mission to undertake this weekend before we finally head to the South Island and I'm keeping it secret for now - don't worry, all shall be revealed soon!  

Apologies if today's blog is a little long, there has been much to catch up on.  I shall try and keep more up to date from now on!  There is still so much I want to share, particularly when it comes to the cost of living this lifestyle and the many things we are constantly learning.  But today we are celebrating our two months living on the road.  I can't believe it's been that long already!  3,500km covered and many more yet to go.  So many amazing places, so many special moments and so much still to look forward to.  I don't miss living in a house, I don't miss any of the stuff I have in storage and I certainly don't miss bills or housework!  I do miss my boys so much it tears at my heart every day and I miss my pets.  I also miss real mashed potato, cheese on toast and drinking wine that isn't warm.  And there is nothing I appreciate more than a hot shower I haven't had to pay 50c for!

The Three Sisters, Taranaki

Waverley Beach, South Taranaki

Living on the road is better than I ever expected.  I would recommend it to anyone.  It has even given our little dog a new lease of life and having her with us makes our travels even more special.  What I didn't expect was to feel so much guilt.  Guilt for not choosing to live in a conventional way, for not running with the norm, for not wanting to own more stuff, for not wanting to suffer both physically and emotionally in order to make paying an endless stream of bills my goal.  I have heard since from others who also travel permanently that this is a common reaction.  Why is it, that we are so ingrained to feel bad for wanting more out of life?

And so every so often I have to remind myself that I don't have to do what everyone else is doing.  None of us do!  Life is for LIVING and if the world was to end tomorrow at least I know I have spent the last two months cramming as much as I possibly could into it!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Bay of Stuff

After our leisurely few days in 'the village' we thought we had better start making some serious headway if we were going to reach the top of the North Island before Christmas!  So we hightailed it up to the Bay of Islands.  Gareth had never seen most of this part of the country before and I hadn't been there in over 20 years but we both remembered it as being a beautiful and charming part of the country and were keen to go back.  Hopefully it hadn't changed too much.  'Maybe Kerikeri has a bloody great McDonald's now, like Warkworth!' I said jokingly.  Like that would ever happen. As we both remembered it, Kerikeri was a gorgeous, quaint little town with only one main street which was peppered with delightful and quaint local shops.  No chain stores and fast food franchises here, no way!

The best way to travel between Russell and Paihia - ferry!

We arrived at Opua to catch the ferry across to Russell and I was delighted to see it was just as I remembered.  Even the price of crossing the channel hadn't changed too much!  The hardest thing we found throughout the Bay of Islands and indeed a large part of Northland was that the huge majority of places were not dog friendly due to the fact that this was Kiwi territory and those shy little beaky fellas are very much protected.  Fair enough, we totally understood that but it did make finding a place to stay very hard and the places we were able to stay were like military camps.  Whilst I really liked and respected the staunch conservation angle of these places, the facilities and customer service (or should I say lack of on both counts) were not worth the money at all, despite being some of the most expensive places we had stayed in.  I'm not going to 'out' the place we stayed at in Russell as their campground is beautiful and I feel they really do try their best but it really wasn't a warm or comfortable atmosphere here and we were gutted that we had got conned into taking advantage of a discount for staying two nights (which turned out not to be a discount at all as they were the only campground which charged us extra for having a dog - another thing not mentioned in the travel guide!)  Still, we made the best of it and we did stumble across a really beautiful bushwalk at the back of the campsite, which we all enjoyed and wouldn't have missed for the world.  We were just lucky to find it as nobody at the campground told us about it!

Real Kiwi country here!

Russell as a town also hadn't really changed.  It was still pretty and olde world-ey.  But what had changed in the past 20 years beyond belief was me.  No longer did I have any desire to spend hours lounging about in roadside cafes or mindlessly browsing shops full of hideously expensive 'stuff'. Sure, a lot of it was beautiful, but it was just stuff.  Nobody needed it - nobody!  Least of all a pair of nomads in a camper van who had just got rid of most of theirs.  Russell was best suited to wealthy retirees and DINKY's (Dual Income No Kids Yet) and we were neither.  Even the most mundane and everyday things were more expensive.  Our visits to the local Four Square showed that on average items cost around $4 more in Russell than they did everywhere else, which resulted in us eating both little and vegetarian during our time there.

A choppy morning sea at Russell

Another trip back on the ferry and we continued through the Bay of Islands to Paihia and then Waitangi.  They hadn't changed that much either, just more shops, more places to spend money.  Even the beautiful road past Waitangi consisted of a flipping great golf course with the main road running straight through the middle of it! Call us cynical but we found it just a little ironic and more than a bit sad that this place of historical national importance, where the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed between the British and the native Maori of NZ was entirely surrounded by extravagant displays of white man's wealth.  Just goes to show how much my values have changed that I never noticed it before.

Fortunately there was still Kerikeri to go and we both looked forward in anticipation to revisiting this lovely wee town.  Until we realised how much sooner than before it took to get there; this being because it had grown so much it was now coming out to meet us.  And there was the bloody McDonald's I had been joking about!  Along with pretty much every other major chain store you could think of.  The one main road we had fondly remembered was now such a maze of retailers that I actually lost my way a couple of times.  We had planned to stay in Kerikeri overnight but we were both too disheartened and disillusioned to stick around.  Come back Russell, all was forgiven!

There were a couple of good things to come out of our Bay of Islands experience however.  For one thing, it made me realise how far I've come as a person and how my values and perceptions have altered over the years.  I'm not saying any of these places are bad or not beautiful and I apologise if it comes across that way, I'm sure many people love them just the way they are.  They're just not for me and I guess that's because I'm completely comfortable with having no stuff and no longer see or feel the need for it.  Each to their own and now it was time for the other good thing - with the Bay of Islands now done and dusted it was time to venture into uncharted territory for both of us.  The heart of the Far North!

The Company of Strangers

I think most people would describe me as a friendly person.  However as outgoing as I seem, I'm actually quite an introvert.  I can quite happily go without seeing people for days on end; in fact I prefer it.  So one of the things I was most concerned about was meeting new people on the road and having to interact and make conversation with fellow travellers.  The funny thing is, as I was soon to discover, it's actually one of the best things about living on the road.  Everyone has a story to tell and some of the people we have met are already dear to us.  When you live on the road there are no barriers to race, age, nationality, social status; anything.  We're just all out there doing it, appreciating everything we have and every new adventure.  We're all just living.

The chap who gave us the smoked fish has turned out to be one of our favourite people for many reasons, you'll hear more about him in due course but as we were about to move on from Warkworth he told us about a little known place near to where we were thinking of going - but was free, peaceful and had good fishing.  Like many of the best places we have come across since, most people don't even know of its existence, you won't find it in the camping apps or NZMCA guides.  It's word of mouth and local knowledge which leads to the most unforgettable places.

Seeing as we had nothing to lose and no other particular place to go, we thought we might as well check it out.  The scenery along the winding road was beautiful enough but was leading us so far out of the way we were just about to give up and turn around when we reached the end and the view that greeted us was absolutely beautiful.  The water was crystal clear as far as the eye could see, there wasn't a breath of wind (unlike the place we had been thinking of going) and the gorgeous stretch of beach which ran along one side had no one on it.  That smoked fish guy knew what he was talking about!  There were just two other vehicles there, a 1970's Bedford camper van and a 7 metre house bus.  We parked up next to the water's edge and before long were sitting out on the bank enjoying the sunshine, just like they were.

The best things in life are free - like this place!

The couple in the Bedford were fishing and before long Minnie waddled up to see what they were doing.  'What's your dog's name?' the woman asked.  'Minnie!  Like Minnie Mouse!' she beamed when I told her.  To the right of her another woman - the owner of the bus appeared with two tiny dogs.  As happens, we got talking and were amazed to hear she and her husband had been living on the road for almost 40 years, raising a family in the process.  We were treated to a tour of their bus and it was easy to see why they had no need to live any other way.  It was beautiful, comfortable, spacious and cosy and had everything they could possibly need.  Colin and Mara, the other couple had an equally interesting background.  Mara was originally from the Phillipines and whilst they had a house in Manila, they just didn't like living in a house, preferring instead to travel the world and working as needed to support their lifestyle.  They had been living on the road in NZ for five years and had no intention of changing.

The sun goes down on another perfect day

The next morning we had planned to move on but the others (who had already been there for two days) talked us in to staying another night and indeed who was really in a rush to leave such a glorious spot and such enjoyable company?  We would definitely leave the next day.  And we were - until Margaret and Larry from the bus tapped on the window and said 'Morning tea at our place, 10.30!'  We arrived to find Margaret had baked the most amazing scones, which were sitting on the table, still warm, topped with jam and cream.  Who says you have to go without when you live on the road?  Morning tea turned into after lunch and before we knew it three hours had passed and we were all merrily sampling Margaret's prized port.  'We're not going anywhere are we!' Gareth and I looked at each other, laughing.  But it didn't matter, we couldn't have been any happier than we already were, among these wonderful, warm people.

Our little 'village' at sunrise.  Us on the left, Colin and Mara next to us,
Larry and Margaret in the bus and the red wagon on the right belongs
to a group of fishermen who live permanently on their boat.

We agreed that we all really would move on the next morning and we did.  It was sad to leave, as in just three days we had gone from being strangers to being like family but we all had places we needed to be.  Gareth and I needed to continue our mission to reach the top of the country, Larry and Margaret were going to the South Island to visit their son and Colin and Mara were about to embark on six weeks picking cherries and apricots even further south, heavily interspersed with some leisurely salmon fishing.  We all swapped details and have kept in touch ever since - with a bit of luck we hope to catch up with Colin and Mara over the coming weeks and get some salmon fishing lessons!

Our merry band of nomads

We have met so many interesting people in such a short time, from an American refusing to set foot back in his home country until Donald Trump is no longer in power, to a young Japanese medical student called Kaz who has just walked the entire country solo from Bluff to Cape Reinga raising money for arthritis.  We ran into him several times throughout his mission and it was amazing how his journey was mirroring ours exactly, yet we were in a camper and he was on foot!  You can read more about him here if you like.  As you can imagine, a huge number of people we come across are from overseas, just travelling around and passing through our beautiful country for a short time.  It's always interesting hearing where they are from, what they're up to and where they are headed but my favourites by far are the Kiwis who are living just like us.  As Margaret says, when you live on the road you never, ever stop learning - even after 40 years - and we all imparted valuable information to one another to make life a little easier and cheaper and helped each other out in some way.  We will always be grateful to the fisherman who told us about this special, secret place but as it turned out, it wasn't to be the last time we saw him either, not at all!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Price of Freedom

After our relaxing stint at Kuaotunu we were ready to really begin our travels properly and head up north.  No offence Auckland but we already knew you too well and wanted to visit somewhere different, so we settled on a little town called Warkworth, on the Hibiscus Coast.  Well, it used to be a little town when I was last there, 20 years ago.  Not so any more!  It was the first, but sadly not the last time I was disappointed to see a flipping great McDonald's had sprung up on the landscape. However it is still a very nice place but as is the case with many places around the Auckland area, finding a place you can camp with a dog is not easy.  Thank goodness then for Sheepworld!

The downside (and to my mind the only downside) about Sheepworld is the price.  At $50 per night to park up our campervan this was by far the most expensive place we have stayed.  But you can't put a price on happiness, or indeed memories and it was definitely one of my favourite places because despite the price tag, I felt completely free here.  As I have learned pretty quickly, BEING free and FEELING free are two very different things.

When I first began researching living on the road, I thought that we would be freedom camping all the way.  As we progress I still aim for this to be the case but the truth is I need to be at a powered campsite at least half the time in order to be able to work.  My birthday is in four days and I'm picking my present to myself will be an inverter and a spare car battery so that we can run our own power and charge our appliances more independently.  This will enable us to park up where we like and really take advantage of our self contained status, which is the requirement for freedom camping. There's no question it will pay for itself in a matter of days, I'm just too stingy.  And as it turns out, my idea of freedom is not everyone else's idea of freedom.  Take Whangamata's freedom camping spots for example.  Now I'm sorry but most of them are bloody awful!  I know this for a fact because Minnie and I investigated the possibilities extensively for almost three weeks while Gareth was at work. Call me picky, no doubt I am but I have no inkling to camp outside the rugby club on the side of the busy road, or in the supermarket or RSA carpark. Even at the beach reserve there is only room for three vehicles, you can never get a look in and you have to park so close together you can literally tap on each others' windows from your bed.  Not only that but I'm a local.  I know the stuff that goes on at night and the people who frequent these places.  No way am I putting myself, my loved ones and my possessions in such a vulnerable position.

But this blog isn't about Whangamata, it's about Warkworth, or Sheepworld to be exact.  And I absolutely loved the place.  Even though we didn't receive the warmest welcome initially.  According to our NZMCA bible, this place offered a discount to members, so I decided to make the most of it and wield my consumer power.  Unfortunately I didn't quite get the reaction I expected.  'Don't you mention those bastards to me!' the owner suddenly reared up.  'They're responsible for me losing business, them and their lobbying for freedom camping!  You're lucky I don't kick you out!'  So much for getting a discount!  In the end it was Minnie who saved the day.  The gruff campsite owner took one look at her and was instantly reminded of his own spaniel he had lost a few years before.  From then on, he was not putty in our hands, but certainly putty in her paws.

And even though we may not have got off to the most auspicious start, I instantly fell in love with our surroundings as our host showed us around.  He told us that he used to be a boat builder and this was evident in some of the construction and furnishings.  We were literally metres off State Highway 1, the main road running through the country, yet it felt as though we were a hundred miles away.  This was real old, authentic New Zealand.  Thank goodness I had Gareth to act as my human crowbar and prise me out three days later because I just did not want to leave!  Every spare inch of ground was utilised for growing food and every campervan site had its own ensuite.  I cannot emphasise enough how much you appreciate having your own toilet and a hot, FREE shower when you live on the road!

Cooking by moonlight - our adorable rustic kitchen 

Our 'restaurant' by day.  This also proved a most delightful place to work!

But what I loved most was the peace, the wildlife and the kitchen.  The latter was rustic to say the least.  There were actually two kitchens and both of them were equipped with everything you could possibly need; the surroundings were just really basic and you'd want to wash everything first. Saying that, I loved the little touches such as all the little vases of wild flowers and herbs dotted around which were replenished every day.  Being in the kitchen really was like living in a bygone era and one of my favourite memories of our trip I think will always be here.  When we arrived the first night it was fairly late.  We didn't have a huge amount of food but together we cobbled up a stirfry in the tiny kitchen and dined al fresco under the outdoor pergola.  Just the two of us, eating by lamplight, listening to the Inkspots over a plate of jazzed up two-minute noodles.  In all my years of expensive cafes and flashy restaurants, I have to say this was without a doubt the most romantic meal of my life. For this alone the camping fee was worth it.

Another of my favourite memories was waking up to hear jazz music and soft crooning coming from one of the nearby caravans.  This came from the groundsman who lived on the site.  He was the one responsible for planting and tending all the many gardens, from the large bank planted with various varieties of pumpkin to the myriad of potted colour outside his van.  He was also an avid fisherman, although he never ate it himself.  This I discovered to my delight when we got talking and he presented me with a freshly smoked snapper.  He's not the only one who doesn't eat fish, Gareth doesn't either so I had it all to myself!  Over the next few days we enjoyed talking to him many times and he revealed his secret of growing such wonderful produce - fish fertiliser of course!

All good things come to an end and eventually it was time to move on, but this adorable quirky step back in time will always have a special place in my heart.  Was it worth $50 a night?  To many, probably not but to me, for the peace, the surroundings, the characters and the memories, then yes, it was worth every cent.

PS: If you want to see more photos of this adorable place as well as many others, follow us on Instagram @parsleymonious