Liam at Devil's Staircase lookout
Last time Liam came to visit was back in September and seeing as it was still pretty chilly we stayed in a motel in Dunedin. This time I was looking forward to finally being able to give him an insight to life on the road and why his crazy mother loved living in a van! The adventure started the moment I picked him up from Queenstown airport. The drive from Gore to Queenstown is one of my favourites, as it winds past one of our most memorable freedom camps at Kingston and the mighty Lake Wakatipu. As soon as the lake comes into view it makes me smile and I couldn't have wished for a better day to share it with Liam as the sun shone on the crystal clear water. I could tell instantly that he was just as impressed as he took in the view from Devil's Staircase. We stopped at Kingston and ate sandwiches at the little beach. Liam is a champion at skimming stones and he paddled in the water for ages, sending stones skipping across the water. Eventually we made our way back to Gore, where Liam was in for a very colourful welcome! Unbeknown to him, he had arrived on the busiest day of the year at our campground, the A & P Show. Far from the peaceful, pastoral scene I had described, he was greeted by hordes of people, fairground rides and enormous inflatables; not to mention goats, donkeys and even a few Clydesdales!
Skimming stones in Lake Wakatipu
So happy to share this special place with my boy!
Being Liam, he took it all in his stride and once everyone had packed up and gone, sat happily in his camping chair with a beer as we cooked dinner outside. Several other campers stopped for a chat before we went for a walk around the grounds and to see Casper, our foster lamb who is now very much a sheep rather than human and hangs out with his flock but still knows who his mum and dad are! Minnie loved having Liam around again and was most upset the next morning when she got taken to boarding kennels but no dogs are permitted in Fiordland National Park and that was where we were headed. Milford Sound is a place which should be on EVERYONE'S bucket list and I had been watching the weather forecast incessantly leading up to Liam's arrival. It wasn't looking the flashest but we decided we would bite the bullet and go. Besides, everyone assured me that the rain didn't matter up there, in fact quite the contrary. I failed to see how it could possibly be any more spectacular than it had been a year ago, when the sun had shone and we could see for miles, but one thing I knew for sure, you don't miss ANY opportunity to go to the Sound!
Walking the Kepler Track
Walking out of the bush into a rainbow
We arrived a couple of hours later in Te Anau, which was bustling with people as always. The weather as predicted was drizzly and none too warm but we still had time to fit in a walk so parked at the Control Gates by the lake. There are heaps of good walks of varying distances in the Te Anau area - in fact you can walk for days if you want to do the whole 60km long Kepler Track! I would certainly love to do that one day but for today we contented ourselves with just a short walk to Dock Bay. After our obstacle course hike at Piano Flat a few weeks earlier, this track was a dream! So enjoyable and well maintained. The many trees provided shelter from much of the rain and grey as it was, the lake still was broodingly beautiful. As we emerged out of the bush on our way back, the sun came out and a gorgeous rainbow stretched out in front of us. As the saying goes, you can't have a rainbow without a little rain!
Our cute little cabin
Whilst Te Anau is a nice little town, I really like Manapouri just down the road as it is quieter and in my opinion even more beautiful. I knew just where I wanted to stay too! The Manapouri Motels & Holiday Park looks out right opposite the lake and although we had two vans I decided to book us cabins, so that we could all travel together and Liam could just relax and enjoy the views. As it turned out, this was definitely a smart option, as the prices were so reasonable it worked out cheaper for us to stay this way than it would have cost to fill the other van with petrol! This quaint wee place is rather like going back in time but that is all part of its charm. The cabins are very basic (the lady on the phone wanted to make sure I was very clear of that when I booked as many people think they are getting a motel) but are adorable and very cosy. I slept better that first night in our cabin that I have in a long time! 'If this is what a tiny house is like, we could definitely live in one of these!' we smiled.
One thing I would definitely recommend however when visiting Te Anau is to bring your own food. Whilst we brought enough with us for breakfasts and lunches, we had forgotten how expensive it is to eat there, not just to dine out but also in the town's only supermarket. We managed to get through a couple of hundred dollars in restaurants on what was frankly some seriously mediocre food. Next time we won't forget to bring the camping fridge with us! Much better to spend a little time making decent food to take with us beforehand, even if it seems like a hassle at the time. Despite the age and quirkiness of the campground at Manapouri, we all agreed that both the communal kitchen and the bathroom and shower facilities were some of the best we had come across. It was funny for us being back at a regular campground after all this time, especially during peak season. Our campground in Gore is so relaxed and spacious, there is plenty of room for everyone and you never have to worry about not being able to get in the showers or toilets. Here however there was a queue! In fact there was a queue for everything from the kettle to the toaster and I remembered gratefully that this was why we had decided to stay put in our peaceful Southland paradise for the summer, rather than join the merry throng of overseas tourists.
Still, it was good for Liam, who aspires to do some travelling of his own to see what it was all about and to realise the sheer extent of people touring the South Island under their own steam. I say 'the South Island' rather than NZ as a whole because despite being from the Coromandel Peninsula, which is in itself a tourist hotspot, the number of travellers and people living the van life is nothing in the North Island compared to the South, where it's really next level. This became even more apparent the next day when we set off for Milford Sound and every single vehicle we encountered was either a camper van, tourist bus or rental car. The road to Milford Sound is notorious and has a reputation for being dangerous but it really isn't. I'm the biggest wuss on the planet when it comes to challenging roads and I find it a pleasure to drive, it's easier than driving from Thames to Whangamata! It's not the road which is the problem; it's the drivers. We saw two accidents on the road and in both cases there were no other vehicles involved, both were Asian tourists and occurred on straight roads. It seemed as though they were simply distracted by the scenery and veered off the road, quite spectacularly. I guess it is pretty easy to do when the scenery is that incredible! But in case you have also heard horror stories about the road, don't stress about it. The main thing to remember is to use your lower gears, even in an automatic because it is very easy to 'cook' your brakes, particularly on the last 30km or so and trust me, you don't want to be out on that road needing a mechanic with no cellphone reception for 140km!
Last year's trip to Milford Sound was spectacular. Could we possibly top it this time?
Last time Gareth and I visited Milford Sound we had no idea what to expect, just like Liam didn't now. But this time was going to be just as different for us as the first time, and not just because of the weather. On our previous visit we scoffed at all the touristy things, preferring to 'do' the Sound for free. Us, pay for a swanky cruise or a helicopter flight? No thank you very much! We'd rather do things under our own steam. Besides, there was so much to see along the way, the journey itself was just as good as the destination! That's what we believed anyway; after all, we had already seen some incredible sights just from the roadside. This time however we were going the whole hog. Thanks to the team at Southern Discoveries, the three of us were going on a cruise through the Sound, and not only that, we would be kayaking too! It goes without saying we were excited to say the least. But how different was it going to be? How much better was the touristy experience really going to be, compared to our previous el cheapo one? All will be revealed in the next blog!