Monday, 20 February 2017

Over a Barrel

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

Our little wee camping nook

Fly Agaric toadstools

View from my office this morning!

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

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

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

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

Hokitika Beach on the wild West Coast!

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

Franz Josef Glacier

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

Still gotta be happy with that $46 view!

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

Fox Glacier

I love driving roads like these!

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

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

A couple of the squillions of beautiful rivers along the way

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

Knight Point Lookout

Mount Aspiring National Park - my favourite part of the journey

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

Cruising along the Haast Pass

Winding our way alongside Lake Wanaka

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

First glimpse of Lake Hawea, oh bliss!

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

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hillbilly Harry - A Kindred Spirit

I was going to start today's post by saying I wasn't much of a risk taker.  Then I remembered I sold my house a few months ago, along with almost all my worldly goods in exchange for living in a van and nowhere to call home!  Still, as a rule I'm not exactly a daredevil.  Which is why you may recall when we first set off on our travels that our mantra was going to be to make the most of every opportunity.  When you live a life with no schedule, there's no excuse not to go for that swim, or to go and explore where that track leads or check out that view.  And on the whole I'm proud to say we most definitely have done so.  Even so, wandering off to visit a complete stranger in the middle of the bush?  I don't do things like that.  Until a couple of days ago anyway!

We left Tapawera without really knowing exactly where we were going or how far we were going to get.  The vague plan was to get to Hanmer Springs and we were already enjoying the pretty drive, but we hadn't been on the road too long before we came across a sign which said 'Nelson Lakes National Park'.  'Darn, we should really have gone there!' I said, as we whizzed past before having time to stop.  'I would have liked to go there too', said Gareth.  'Ah well, we'll just have to see it on the way back up'.  We had both already settled in for a decent long trip and didn't really plan to stop so soon.  However, ten minutes further down the road we saw another sign pointing to the same place.  This time we both agreed in an instant that we would stop and follow the road wherever it led for the next 11km.

From the start we were glad we did so, as we ambled along the picturesque lane, peering over the edge at the river rushing by alongside us.  Surrounded by mountains and bush and dotted here and there with dear little houses and shacks, we laughed as we both said at the same time 'You know, I could live here!'  This proved to be an even truer statement as we reached the end of the road and gazed in awe upon Lake Rotoroa.

Lake Rotoroa, Nelson Lakes National Park

A beautiful place on a beautiful day!

Once again, no amount of photos can really do this place justice.  We were looking at the kind of picture postcard view the South Island was famous for - almost too perfect to seem real.  I wasn't quite sure if I was allowed to let Minnie out of the car - so many places at National Parks you can't, but just then I saw a chap with a dear little Cocker Spaniel, having a lovely splash in the water.  'Oh good, you've got a dog too!' I smiled.  'I didn't know if I was allowed to let mine out'.  'Yeah, it's OK, I live here', the man smiled back.  We got talking and I gratefully let Minnie out of the car, explaining that we lived on the road and how awesome it always is to find a nice place where she can stretch her legs.  At this point Gareth wandered up and I introduced him to the man, who said he was also wanting to adapt a similar vehicle for on the road living and would we mind if he had a look? We were happy to give him a tour and were pleased when the chap agreed how well set up Ken was.  He had done a fair bit of research and seen a lot of vans.  A lot of camper vans like ours have the bed nearer the front and the kitchen at the back, whereas Ken's kitchen is at the front and the bedroom is at the back.  As we have discovered, this works much better in many ways.  No having to cook in the wind and rain and no wet, muddy bedding from having the bed right by the main door! 

Minnie and me, just taking it all in

Minnie and her new canine friend greeted one another with interest and enthusiasm.  Which is remarkably rare for Minnie as normally she lives in a world of her own and is oblivious to anyone who tries to make a fuss of her!  'Anyway I'm off', the man said.  'You're welcome to call in for a coffee if you like, you've got to go past my place anyway'.  'Thanks!' we smiled as he wandered off with his four-legged friend in tow.  We stayed at the lake a little longer, taking photos and admiring the view, then headed off ourselves.  'Did you want to call in for coffee?' asked Gareth.  My excuse was that I had to work in half an hour, which indeed I did.  However my real excuse was that I was wary about going to visit someone I didn't know.  I still remembered the videos the nice policeman had come to show us at school when I was five about stranger danger.  Being the highly strung, neurotic weirdo of a kid I was, they had affected me greatly!  I couldn't possibly do anything as risky go and have coffee with a person I didn't know, especially in the middle of nowhere and with no cellphone reception - even with a big hairy Viking in tow!

Yet nonetheless I found myself looking out for the stranger's house as we slowly cruised by, and sure enough, we found it.  He waved at as from his veranda and as we waved back I impulsively turned into the driveway.  'Oh, we're stopping now are we?' Gareth asked.  What can I say, it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind!  Besides, I had enjoyed talking to the man and once again reminded myself that we were supposed to take any opportunities that came our way.  We had already met so many lovely people on our travels and we never knew them before either!  Maybe, just maybe we were meant to stumble upon this person for a reason.

Geoff with his faithful pup, Ishi

The man welcomed us in, Minnie too, and sat us down in his conservatory, looking out over the bush, and settled himself down in his rocking chair with Ishi the pup at his feet.  What followed was two hours of the most enjoyable, interesting and entertaining conversation.  In fact, it appeared we had found a kindred spirit!  Geoff, as it turned out his name was, was just like us in his love of nature, his quest for peace and a self sufficient lifestyle.  He even made a lot of his own clothes and showed us the latest pattern, all cut out and ready to stitch.  'I make them from calico, keeps the sand flies away', he said, going on to explain how the pesky insects which swarmed all around the area are attracted to darker colours.

We could have sat and listened all afternoon, as Geoff told us all about the log cabin he had once built in the bush and his many hunting adventures.  He had even lived in Takaka prior to the Nelson Lakes and detested the hill as much as I did!  Over the years he had earned himself the nickname 'Hillbilly Harry' and everyone in the area always knew who to call upon when anyone needed anything fixing or sorting out.  He also had provided a place to to stay for many a weary traveller passing through.

Not only was Geoff interesting to listen to, he also had a wealth of information on places we should check out with cheap land to buy.  He should know, he had been looking for the same himself, on which to build his own version of a tiny house!  He had even lived in a teepee for a year before now. Just like us, he didn't want anything flash, no $240,000 patch of real estate; just a wee plot of land that nobody wanted or would miss.  It could be as scrubby and bushy as you like; just somewhere to call our own so we could work on making it self sufficient.  I wanted to stay and hear more and I think Gareth did too, but by this time I was very late for work and who knew how far we would have to go before we could access a phone or Internet signal?  Before we went, Geoff went inside and returned with half a dozen exquisite books, all in perfect condition.  Books on building rustic homes, how to build a pole house, even a book on yurts.  'You can't get these here, I ordered them all from overseas', he said.  'You can take them if you like?'

The young pup and the little old lady - Ishi and Minnie!

Gareth and I looked at each other in amazement.  How lucky were we?  This lovely, kind man had never met us before today, yet was willing to trust us with the most wonderful stash of books.  'Thank you so much, we promise we'll post them back to you!' we said, hugely grateful.  'No hurry', he insisted.  'Just keep in touch will you?  I want to see how you guys achieve your dream'.  Indeed we most certainly will!  The two of us couldn't stop smiling as we got back into the van.  So much for being a stranger!  What wonderful good fortune to have run into such a kind and interesting person.  I guess it's true what they say - a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet.  I have a feeling this isn't the last we will see of 'Hillbilly Harry' - in fact, I hope it isn't!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Great Southern Land

As I write this, I am currently sitting pretty much slap bang in the very geographical centre of New Zealand.  Which is kind of funny considering it's split into two islands but that's what Google tells me, which is pretty cool.  I'm nestled up in a quiet spot in the bushes in a little town called Tapawera in Tasman district and if I say so myself, all is pretty much well in my little world.  The population of Tapawera is around 405 people according to the local notice board, which is the perfect place for a hermit like me.  I would probably have to award it the title of NZ's friendliest town so far as well; everybody is absolutely lovely here and so laid back.  Whilst everyone in the South Island is friendly pretty much, Tapawera just excels and is a beautiful part of the country to boot.  What more can you ask for?

Our lovely, peaceful camping spot in Tapawera

As it turns out, I can't really ask for too much more from life right now.  It has been a truly wonderful, remarkable week full of new places, new sights, and new 'wow' moments.  It also marked the end of a 25 year phobia of mine - the Cook Strait ferry crossing.  I first did this shortly after arriving in NZ in 1992 and was too traumatised to attempt it again since.  The crossing was so rough that my drink and everything else went flying off the table and I was so sick I actually fell asleep in the ladies loos for the most part of the journey.  Even on the return trip I refused to be coaxed outside or even look out the window.  So as much as I was looking forward to finally getting to the South Island, I was also dreading it, which Gareth became all too suddenly aware of when I began doing my deep breathing exercises and almost throwing up even before we had driven on to the ferry.  He, on the other hand couldn't have been more excited.  Three months to the day since we had left Nawtypoo Cottage!  It had been a long wait, much longer than planned but here we finally were, southbound.  And the last thing I wanted to do was spoil the journey for him.  There was only one thing for it - I had to harden up.  Besides, I had been watching the weather forecast for days leading up to our booking, I couldn't ask for more perfect conditions!

I can do this!

Farewell Wellington, you've been fab!

So instead of hiding inside, I opted to stay outside on the deck and climbed up to the very top.  And there we pretty much stayed for the whole three and a half hour crossing.  Whilst I do admit to still being a little anxious at times, it was still brilliant and I can honestly say I made the most of every minute of the trip.  Even though Wellington was grey and overcast, there was no denying it really is the most beautiful city and we all marvelled at it as the ferry pulled out of the harbour.  The sea was flat all the way and as the trip progressed and we pootled gracefully past miles of mountains dotted with wind turbines, all of a sudden the sun came out and we were treated to the most spectacular sail through the stunning Queen Charlotte Sounds.  To think I had been missing out on this all these years!  I had finally done it and overcome my fear.  Better still, our NZMCA membership saved us a fortune - our discounted rate cost just $195 on the Bluebridge ferry, compared to $337 on the Interislander!

Rows and rows of wind turbines.  What better place for them than this?!

Nice, flat sea.  Just the way I planned it!

Queen Charlotte Sounds.  Just magic!

Docking at Picton.  We made it, woohoo!

We spent a very peaceful night at a little place called Spring Creek, just out of Picton.  As you might imagine, there was a spring creek running right through the place and we were lucky enough to park right up at the crystal clear water's edge.  The weather was beautiful and I would have been tempted to take a cooling dip were it not for the eels Gareth spotted languishing in the water!

Our picturesque little waterside spot at Spring Creek

Eels or no eels it was a lovely welcome to the South Island but as the next day dawned we were keen to get moving and explore.   We didn't plan to get quite as far as we did, envisaging an overnight stop in or near Nelson, however we were both enjoying the scenery so much we just kept going!  Plus once we heard about the mass whale stranding in Golden Bay we wanted to head there as soon as possible to join the volunteers.  So head there we did, with me at the wheel and Gareth holding the map, towards a sign that said 'Takaka Hill, road open'.  Immediately that rang alarm bells for me. How bad could a road be that it needed to tell you when it was open or not?  I was soon to find out.  There was to follow, the longest 55km of my life as we climbed over 860 metres up.  I never have had a head for heights but with a sheer drop over the side, an extremely narrow road with hairpin bends and often no form of barrier stopping you from going over the edge, I was an absolute wreck.  Even the barest glimpse of view out of the corner of my eye made me want to be sick - and I was driving!

Takaka Hill and the Marble Mountains.  No amount of photography can convey how freaking high this is!

Gareth on the other hand was having an absolute blast, hanging his camera out of the window and snapping away at the incredible view.  This HAD to be Lord of the Rings country, didn't it?  As I was later to find out, indeed it was.  But for now, I couldn't look at anything but the road directly in front of me.  Even Robbie Williams couldn't get me through this one, Gareth had to resort to putting on Michael Buble!  Then suddenly, just as soon as I thought the road would never end, the hill stopped as abruptly as it had started and we found ourselves at our destination, Takaka.  What a staggeringly beautiful place - even I had to admit, it was definitely worth the drive!

Camping in the hills at Anatoki River

Anatoki River walk 

Lord of the Rings country.  Couldn't be any more beautiful!

The cafe garden at Anatoki Salmon.  This place absolutely deserves a visit!

We followed the river for a short distance before arriving at our freedom camping spot for the night at Anatoki Salmon.  This, as you might expect from the name, is a salmon farm, deep in the heart of the bush and is set in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.  One side of the road is set up for freedom campers to be able to stay for two nights (as long as you are self contained) and you are allowed to use their facilities during opening hours.  You can even go salmon fishing there for free!  It's free to hire the gear, you just have to pay for the fish you catch and they will even smoke it for you or prepare it however you like.  Whilst we didn't manage catch any of the clever fishies, we spend a very enjoyable Sunday trying to, before relaxing under the vines, partaking of some delicious home made salmon snacks and a glass of local vino.  I could have honestly stayed there forever.

Collingwood.  Tad stormy!

As tends to happen with me, I didn't want to leave.  Fortunately for the owner, on our third morning we had to, so we headed further up Golden Bay to Collingwood.  Well that was the plan, but as luck would have it we struck Project Jonah and all the volunteers from the whale rescue coming back down the bay.  The towns were crawling with people all trying to find a place to stay or hitchhike back to where they had come from and try as we might, we couldn't find a vacant spot anywhere.  To make matters worse, the weather was appalling, with two days of storms forecast, making a lot of the riverside freedom camping spots too dangerous to stay at in case of flooding.  After a whole morning of fruitless searching it became apparent that we really only had one choice left.  I was going to have to drive us over that bloody hill again.  We consulted the weather, spotted a sunny opportunity on the horizon (literally) and went for it.

View from Takaka Hill towards Motueka.  Almost worth the heart failure!

This time Gareth was prepared with Michael Buble from the start!  Coming from this direction meant that we got the worst part over first and soon Michael and I were singing in perfect happy unison as we made our way cautiously down the hill.  This time there was no avoiding the view for me as it was right in front of me but even I was awestruck at the stunning landscape with the Motueka River before us.  We made it - another phobia conquered!  Saying that, I don't plan to cross that hill again any time soon...

The road to peaceful paradise.  Hello Tapawera!

Motueka we soon discovered was also swarming with whale volunteers, which whilst it was brilliant to see the sheer numbers of caring people who had turned out, was not proving too helpful in finding us a place to stay, especially when I had work to do!  In desperation we decided to venture well away from the main centres and off the beaten track, where hopefully it would be quieter.  Fortunately this time our plan worked and is how we have come to be here in Tapawera.  I couldn't be any happier or more content in this beautiful, peaceful place and to top things off I had a wonderful surprise our first afternoon standing outside the Tapawera Four Square with Minnie.  'Are you Jackie?' a friendly voice said.  I turned around and there was Kelly, a long time Facebook friend and Simple Saver!  How lovely to finally be able to meet in person after all these years!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Alpacas with Attitude & Bad Grannies

It's been a very busy week or two! Having travelled over 1500km, it's been a great opportunity to get well adjusted to travelling in Ken and so far we are very happy with how things are working out. As anyone who has ever lived in a van or similar will know, there is always a certain amount of chaos, as shuffling stuff around from A to B to get this out or that out is unavoidable and one still only has SO much space in which to do it. However we now have a lot more room to move, a lot less chaos and living in Ken is much easier all round. As I write this, Gareth is out in the sunshine eating his breakfast and washing it down with a freshly brewed coffee, having just boiled the jug and fried himself up a feed of sausages on our nifty fold-out side table. It's the smallest things like this which make life so much simpler. Cooking and preparing food is super easy and much less messy now!

Brekky time for Gareth! Um, he's eaten the rest already...

I'm writing this from a sunny, spacious and very quiet campsite in Upper Hutt, with a miniature pony to the left of me, ducks to the right and Minnie at my feet. For someone who lives such a nomadic lifestyle, I have this rather inconvenient tendency to get attached to places. When I find somewhere I like, where I feel comfortable, I just want to stay! It's been this way all week, I'm surprised Gareth was able to get me out of our last camp ground at all! I swear to goodness I almost cried when we left, I loved it there so much. It's called the Wairakei Thermal Valley Holiday Park and unlike everywhere else in Taupo it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Oh, it was beautiful! Surrounded by wildlife in park-like grounds, I can't remember being so relaxed in longer than I can remember and everyone who either stayed or worked there was so happy! Gareth agreed with me in that it was a bit of a combination of two of our favourite camp grounds; having the laid back, friendly atmosphere we enjoyed months before at Kuaotunu, mixed with some of the adorable quirkiness we experienced at Warkworth. A real haven in the middle of nowhere.

Wairakei Thermal Valley Holiday Park

The only sounds you did hear were the sound of peacocks wailing (or whatever it is they do – you know, that unique sound that only peacocks can make!), guinea fowl giggling and gaggling and my favourite, the alpacas laughing. There were three of these, and from the moment we arrived they kept laughing hysterically and constantly looking our way. I was convinced it was Gareth they were directing their hilarious outbursts at but as we discovered the next morning it was actually Minnie they were obsessed with. From the moment they were let out of their enclosure and allowed to roam the grounds, they came hurtling down the hill towards us and barely left our van the entire time, venturing as close to Minnie as they dared. Minnie, usually oblivious to such attention was rather more than a tad perturbed at their blatant displays of curiosity! It soon became that hanging around next to Ken was the place to be for almost all the animals and we became joyfully accustomed to sharing our breakfast with peacocks, peahens and a glorious assortment of other spectacular feathered friends.

Minnie with her devoted followers

My breakfast buddy

We spent two idyllic days there and for the first part camped next to a sweet little pensioner who was living in an authentic Indian teepee. She wore an Indian headdress along with her rather more conventional floral frock and sneakers and I was more than a little confused as to how and why someone who chose to live in such a basic home would also wear Nike's and drive a Toyota Swift. As it turned out, when she asked Gareth to take photos of her proudly standing outside her abode, it was actually available to rent from the camp ground at a nightly rate. 'Now I can tick that off my bucket list!' she grinned. I hope to be half as groovy as her when I'm that age!

Huka Falls

We did the obligatory Taupo touristy things – well, the free ones anyway, such as going for a walk around Lake Taupo and the incredible Huka Falls, which I never tire of seeing. Such power and the water is so impossibly blue! Our favourite activity however was the Thermal Walk at our very own camp ground. Whilst signposted from the main road, most people don't even realise it's there, out in the middle of nowhere and opt for the more well known tourist spots. Yet this walk is just as good, if not better than any of the more commercial spots in Taupo and we were able to take Minnie with us! The tour was self guided, so we were able to go at our own leisurely place in the evening when it was cooler – which was just as well as the ground can get very hot underfoot!

Thermal Walk, Wairakei Thermal Valley

Steaming hot!

The next day we really had to move on, which was made all the harder by the fact that the owners had offered us both jobs helping to run the park and camp ground. I so desperately wanted to stay! But Gareth was right, we still had so much more to see. We had to keep moving. Fortunately I had a big incentive in that my eldest son Liam had moved back to Wellington just a week or two before and was waiting to give us a guided tour of both the city and his new flat! We had already stayed an extra day in Taupo as it was, which meant almost a six hour journey to Wellington if we were going to stay on schedule. I wasn't looking forward to driving such a long way but as it turned out, it was a very enjoyable drive. What with the Desert Road, the Army base at Waiouru and the beautiful Rangitikei cliffs all to admire, the time flew by. We even stopped in Taihape for an hour to stretch our legs and ended up climbing a mountain at the Mount Stewart reserve – I never even knew there was anything to do in Gumboot City!

View from the top of Mount Stewart, Taihape

Gumboot City!

Whilst we were excited at finally making it to our nation's capital, Gareth and I were a bit unsure about staying in the city. As a rule, we don't like cities – in fact that's a bit of an understatement, we tend to run screaming from them! Not so with Wellington. Now here is a city we love! Where do we even start. We love the scenery, the architecture, the narrow streets, the laid back vibe, the landmarks and monuments, the houses in the hills, the history, the waterfront, the fact that despite being a huge city, there's just so much space, unlike Auckland it's not crowded at all! Despite it being Waitangi weekend, there was plenty of room for everyone and people simply relaxed in the sunshine by the water on beanbags, or by the roadside, watching an array of street performers from a string quartet with ballroom dancers, to jugglers to singing guitarists and even a young chap expertly playing the bagpipes. In Wellington there are no rules when it comes to style or having to 'fit in'. From steam punk to real punk, anything goes!

The Waterfront, Wellington

I can see the sea!

Gareth fitting right in with his steampunk sunnies!

And there's so much free stuff to do! Because we were staying at Liam's for a couple of days, where dogs weren't permitted, we put Minnie in a boarding kennel so that we could make the most of the city. Despite Wellington's windy reputation, the sun shone brightly as Liam gave us a tour of where had been his home for the best part of the last couple of years and I could totally see why he loved the place so much. I wouldn't mind living here either! We cruised the waterfront, went to the amazing Te Papa museum (which incidentally is free, how brilliant is that?) and then sat outside one of Liam's favourite pubs, Bad Grannies in the sunshine and just watched the world go by. The following day unfortunately dawned grey and windy, but we had vowed to climb Mount Victoria, which looks out far over the city, and so we did. Good grief, what a climb. We're talking vertical here. 'Jeez mum, to look at you now you'd never think you once ran a marathon!' pointed out Liam from miles ahead. 'It was five years ago!' I pouted, as my legs threatened to buckle from under me.

Liam and me at the top of Mount Vic.  Bit windy!

Gareth and me taking windswept to new levels!

Finally by some miracle, all three of us made it to the top and the view was worth every crippling step. It didn't matter that the sun wasn't shining or that the view around us was swathed in heavy swirling clouds – we had climbed so high we were actually IN those clouds! How many people can truly say they have their head in the clouds? Yet another one of many unforgettable free activities in this wonderful city. The one activity we did pay for was a tour of Weta Workshop – the award winning designers and creators behind such epic movies as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and Warcraft. What an astounding place of creative genius. The tour really was fascinating, we could have stayed all day! We chose the cheapest tour at $25 and learned so much, if you're ever in Wellington you have to go there!

Golem with his fishy at Weta Workshop

Lurtz from Warcraft at Weta Workshop

The best thing however was spending a precious few days with Liam. Living on the road when you have family is hard. When you have no real home for them to come and visit, time is often limited to snatching a couple of hours here, a lunch or dinner there. This time it was me coming to visit Liam in HIS home, and I was so proud of how my boy comfortably wound his way around the city. Whoever thought that shy kid from Te Kauwhata would end up being a confident young man living half way down the country? And finally – almost two years to the day since he left home – he FINALLY let me give him some cooking lessons!

It's been a busy, wonderful week for sure. Tomorrow marks three months on the road – and the start of another new adventure as we board the ferry for the South Island! Bring it on!