Tuesday, 28 March 2017

An Insight to Van Life!

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

Our old house in Whangamata

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

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

We never have to waste a beautiful day!

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

Perfect weather for the ferry crossing!

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

Where did all this hair come from?!

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

Always another hill to climb!

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

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

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

Rainy days can be the best days!

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Feels like home

It's a funny thing isn't it, gut feeling?  When we very first spoke about hitting the road last year and the possibility of buying land, everyone's first question was 'where?'  Our response was always the same 'the deep South!'  Which was funny really, because neither Gareth or I had ever been there.  Aside from the fact Otago and Southland had some pretty good rugby and cricket teams, I knew pretty much nothing about the area other than it frequently had both the highest and lowest weather temperatures on the evening news.  But we just had this instinct, this strong feeling that that was where we should go.  And now we're here!  And it seems our instinct was correct.  The more time we spend here in the deep South, the more we feel that this is the place for us.  We have been from one end of the country to the other, seen countless beautiful things and fallen in love with many different places.  But none of them have felt like home.  Here, it feels like home.

One of the Catlins 'must-do's' - Cathedral Caves

Before we went travelling, I had never heard of the Catlins before.  Actually I had never heard of countless places before; it was only through the Facebook motorhoming groups I belong to and their incredible photos that the Catlins ended up on our to-do list.  If you've never heard of it either, the Catlins is an area between Baclutha and Invercargill which is sort of between the Otago and Southland region.  I'm using the Wikipedia definition because it's a place that is very hard to describe.  It covers vast areas of farmland, but it is like any other farmland I've ever seen, it's so staggeringly beautiful.  There are mountains, rainforests, beaches, lakes, you name it; it's got it.  Forget Queenstown and your other touristy places, the Catlins has more things to do than any other area we've come across.  Where else in the world can you see sheep grazing on one side of a hill and sea lions and penguins flip-flopping and hopping about on the other!  We were so exhausted after a week there that we literally couldn't take in any more, we had seen so much!  But it was brilliant and it was there that we found the first place we really, really wanted to live.

McLean Falls.  The Catlins has a LOT of waterfalls!

We spent the duration of our stay at a family run campground called Hillside, near Kaka Point.  There is an NZMCA ground at Niagara further along the route but we found our location much more convenient and closer to where we wanted to be.  Besides, Hillside was brilliant!  For $10 a night you had all the facilities you could possibly need, it was close to everything and the family even makes home cooked scones with jam and cream for the campers every Friday.  Throw in some gorgeous rural views with glorious sunrises and sunsets into the bargain and you have a really lovely and peaceful place to stay.

Roaring Bay, just up the road from our campground

Puraukanui Bay

Puraukanui Falls.

When you head in to the Catlins, especially from the Dunedin end, it's hard to know where to start.  There is literally so much to do!  It reminds me a bit of Milford Sound in that you can't go for more than a few kilometres at a time without coming across yet another different and exciting spectacle.  We were advised to allow at least three days in the area which I would definitely recommend - in fact we were there almost a week and still didn't see everything!  But we saw everything we wanted to see, including all the 'must-do's'.

Spooning seal style at Cannibal Bay

One of the things I was most excited about was the possibility of seeing seals and the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin, also known as the Hoiho.  We didn't have to wait long to see the seals, there was a whole bunch of them at Cannibal Bay, which was the very first place we went to.   Pardon the imagery but on first arrival at this small, rugged and very quiet little bay, it looked as though the beach was littered with enormous lumps that looked like giant dog poo!  It was in fact, lots of sleeping seals.  Big ones, small ones, furry ones, sleek ones - every now and get one of them would stretch and get up and waddle lazily over to another before flopping down alongside and fall immediately back to sleep.  The other one, if it woke at all would open a sleepy eye, raise a flipper as if to say 'Oh hello, it's you', before doing the same.  They didn't give a hoot about us and Minnie being there as we wandered around, quietly observing.  It made me very glad that we hadn't paid a fortune in Dunedin a few days earlier for the privilege of being able to see them from a small boat!

I'm coming to get youuuuu!

Oh hang on, I've changed my mind...

Yep, I'm done now...

From there we went to Surat Bay, named after a ship which was wrecked there in 1874.  This glorious stretch of beach was lovely to walk along.  There was only one seal on the beach and it was sleeping peacefully near the water's edge, while we stayed close to the dunes.  After a big walk, little old lady Minnie was getting a bit tired so I waited with her whilst Gareth went exploring further down the beach.  I decided to sit where we were, well out of the way of the sleeping seal, however just as I was about to sit down, the seal awoke, caught sight of us and immediately began making its way towards us at an alarmingly fast rate - no kidding, these things can really move!  They may look cute and docile but they can also be aggressive if they feel threatened and can bite.  The closer it got, the bigger I realised it was!  I tried to move way but poor Minnie was frozen to the spot and would not move.  Just as I really started to panic, the giant creature stopped dead in its tracks a few feet away from me and plopped down on its belly, looking straight at me with big melting pool eyes.  Seconds later, it was asleep.  In the meantime, Gareth had seen us from the other end of the beach and was running up to come to our aid.  By the time he arrived we had attracted quite a bit of attention from foreign tourists, all wanting to know what had happened and to take photos of our still sleeping friend!

Jack's Bay

With so many beautiful bays all close to one another, we had time to visit Jack's Bay before calling it a day.  Obviously this was one of my favourite places, sharing the same name but the Jack in question was actually a Maori chief known as Bloody Jack, who escaped and swam there after losing a battle in 1844 but unfortunately drowned.  These days Jack's Bay is far more peaceful and we had an enjoyable hike up the hills to Jack's Blowhole, which is unusual in that it is 200 metres out to sea. We thought we had seen quite enough seals for one day but were lucky to stumble upon a sleeping family of seals right in front of some local houses!  We stood and watched, enchanted as an adorable baby seal toddled its way along in search of his family, calling out to its mum until he finally found them and went to curl up amid the sleeping pile.

Muuuuum!  Where are youuuuu!

We were just about to leave when I turned around and caught sight of the most enormous bull sea lion making its way out of the ocean.  This time it was Gareth's turn to be taken aback.  What should we do?  We were more than a safe distance away but didn't know if he would see us as a threat to his family and this guy was HUGE.  We stood like statues, waiting to run if necessary (fortunately Minnie was in the car this time!) but there was no need.  All this fella was interested in was getting home to his family and as soon as they heard him approach, four little heads immediately popped up and welcomed the head of the family back with much excited jostling and big sealy kisses as if to say 'Yay!  Daddy's home!'  It really was enchanting and even more so to see the little baby (who was obviously the apple of his father's eye) emulating his dad's behaviour.  We felt truly honoured to have witnessed such a spectacle - but now it really was time to call it a day!

Daddy's home!

One big, happy family!

Whilst we saw an awful lot of seals we weren't fortunate enough to see the timid Yellow Eyed Penguins.  I think the seals we saw at Roaring Bay and Nugget Point probably had a bit to do with that!  However in the days which followed there wasn't much that we didn't see.  The Catlins is home to some incredibly beautiful waterfalls and it was lovely walking through the rainforests to get to them.  One of the things we liked best about the Catlins was that there was so much that Minnie was able to do with us, which is rare in conservation areas.  She absolutely loved it there and was clambering over rocks and climbing up waterfalls with us!  It was a really special time for all three of us.  As usual, our favourite places were the ones off the beaten track (who am I kidding, almost all the best spots in the Catlins are off the beaten track!)  We drove miles and miles of winding, narrow, gravel road and although I didn't need Michael Buble to get me through any of them, a few of them were close!  The road to Cathedral Caves, which is only open for two hours a day at low tide, is quite possibly the worst road we have struck yet!  Fortunately it was worth the drive.

Feeling right at home here!

What we weren't expecting was to feel so comfortable and at ease in the Catlins.  I guess we had no pre-conceived ideas at all but with every day that passed, we didn't actually feel like tourists, we felt as if we were at home.  Everyone from the campground owner to the people in the little town of Owaka was so welcoming and helpful and we actually ended up spending a couple of days just driving around and researching the area looking for land.  We did find some but fortunately the locals were quick to let us know where NOT to buy e.g. the flood prone areas!  Small blocks of land in the Catlins are relatively unheard of as the area is made up of hundreds, if not thousands of acres of enormous farm blocks, but who knows?  Maybe a kind farmer or somebody out there somewhere will be nice enough to sell us off a tiny piece.  I'm sure they won't miss it and in turn we'll treasure it.  We live in hope; for now, the search goes on!

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Fish out of Water

What an awful lot has happened since I last wrote!  In my previous post I had been recovering from a spell of ill health in Mossburn.  First things first I guess - we made it down to the very bottom of the country!  Now we can proudly say that we have been from one end of NZ to the other.  We absolutely loved Gore and stayed there for quite a few days - in fact, as I write we are there again!  I think Gore would definitely win the award for having the most polite inhabitants in the country.  In fact, everyone is so accommodating that when you go to cross a zebra crossing, the traffic stops so early for you that you actually end up running to catch up so you can cross the road without keeping them waiting!  Always with a smile and a wave from both parties too.  Apparently Gore is the Brown Trout Capital of the World, the Country Music Capital of NZ, the capital of Romney Sheep and goodness knows what else, but whatever it is, we like it and it features very highly on our list of potential new places to call home.

Gore - famous for fish, country music and super polite people!

Whilst in Gore we had the first in a series of unusual experiences - shopping!  As we went further south and the temperature dropped, we had no choice but to go to the Warehouse and pick up an extra thick blanket and some warmer clothes.  We realised as we went around that this was the first time we had been properly shopping for anything but food in more than four months!  This was a feat we were very proud of - but another significant thing was soon apparent and became even more obvious as our travels took us through more of the major Southland centres.  We are almost completely, blissfully out of the loop.  We have absolutely no idea whatsoever who is in the magazines or movies, what songs are on the radio, what video games are out, what items are supposed to be 'must-haves' - we simply don't know!  And I tell you what, it's brilliant being that way. The more shops we encountered, the more we laughed at how much meaningless rubbish and utter crap is put in front of poor, hapless shoppers.  When your whole life is contained in a Mazda Bongo, you soon realise that none of that stuff means anything.  Maybe it's because houses are so big, people feel like they have to buy more things to just to fill the space.  Doesn't matter what it is, it can be literally anything, a ceramic pineapple even.  We saw a lot of ceramic pineapples and even gold ones.  I feel as though I couldn't be further away from that world now. 

Queens Park, Invercargill

From Gore we moved on to Invercargill and I have to say, visiting the deepest of the deep south was a rather strange experience.  Invercargill itself is a nice enough city.  It's attractive, easy to get around and has a lot of great architecture and historical buildings.  The reason we found it strange was, for a city it was empty!  We thought Wellington was quiet in comparison to Auckland but that was nothing compared to Invercargill.  It has everything you could possibly need, all the major chain stores and fast food outlets - but no people!  We were there for two whole days and the streets were absolutely dead.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing, quite the opposite!  It was lovely to be able to find our way around so peacefully and certainly made driving in a big city a lot less stressful.  It was just so surprising and we couldn't help but wonder where on earth all the people were.  

Sign at the gateway to Bluff

Land's End, the brooding landscape of Bluff

Getting blown away at the iconic signpost

The next stop wasn't far away and was one we were very excited about - Bluff!  The last town at the very bottom of the country and home of the famous Bluff oyster.  Once you get to Bluff you can go no further.  As we approached, I felt a similar sense of anticipation as I had done a few months earlier, when we made it to the top of the North Island at Cape Reinga.  When we arrived however, my experience couldn't have been more different.  Bluff is, quite simply a ghost town.  It's dark and it's bleak and you really do feel as though you are at the very end of the earth.  It was freezing cold, the sky was gunmetal grey and although we drove around the whole town twice to make sure we hadn't missed anything, we did not see another living soul.  The only people we did eventually encounter were a group of Asians doing the obligatory selfies next to the iconic signpost at land's end.  We could only conclude that there must be a heck of a lot more oysters there than people - and no, we didn't buy any!  Despite the season having begun, we came across only one oyster stand at the edge of town and there was no one manning it.  In all honesty, I found the place to be downright eerie and couldn't get out of it fast enough.  As Gareth pointed out on our way out, even the horses in Bluff look depressed!  

Taieri Mouth beach at dusk

They have REALLY big seaweed in Southland!

Still, we had been and seen and now we had reached the bottom of the country we were keen to start making our way back up again.  We spent an enjoyable few days at Taieri Mouth, which isn't far from Dunedin.  This is a really beautiful spot and our campsite was literally a hop and a skip from the beach.  After seeing the West Coast, with its black sand and brooding landscape, we didn't really expect the southern beaches to be particularly spectacular but we couldn't have been more wrong. Taieri Mouth beach is absolutely stunning, with golden sand as far as the eye can see and we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  It reminded me a little of the beach I had left behind at Whangamata and even had an island!  

One very happy bloke - Gareth at his favourite shop!

I would have continued to stay there quite happily had we not had a special weekend planned in Dunedin.  Gareth would probably call 'special' the understatement of the century!  As an avid Warhammer figurine collector of many years, there was just one store in the whole of the South Island (there are only two in the North as well for that matter) and the Dunedin store was holding a special anniversary celebration, with heaps of events, specials and freebies.  He had been looking forward to it for weeks, carefully tailoring our travels around being in the right place at the right time and had even given up smoking a month prior so that he could afford to treat himself to some figures and books without feeling guilty.  Seeing as it was pretty much a whole day event, we put Minnie into a boarding kennel overnight, so that we had plenty of time and freedom to explore the city.  

Typical architecture in Dunedin - very cool!

Dunedin from rainy Otago Peninsula

I have to say that Wellington is absolutely hands down our favourite city in NZ - but Dunedin would probably come second.  It's a bit like the Auckland of the south, which I took full advantage of by eating pretty much my own body weight in Asian food over the course of the weekend.  We saw the sights (with the exception of the Cadbury's factory, which we boycotted after selling out and making its 330 employees redundant - even Gareth's passionate love of chocolate wasn't going to sway him!) and took a leisurely drive around the beautiful Otago Peninsula.  It had been a wonderful day, all we had to do now was check into our campsite for the night.  Which was when we hit a hurdle.  As we pulled in to the NZMCA ground we saw to our dismay that it was full.  No problem, there were still more campgrounds in Dunedin.  Unfortunately we found that they were all full too - and we weren't even limited to dog friendly ones for a change!  We were faced with a choice - either leave the city and drive miles out of our way to an area we didn't even want to be in to find another campground, or get a motel for the night.  At least we were able to do that without Minnie in tow.  We got online for last minute deals and to our total disbelief found that there was ONE motel left which wasn't completely booked out - and they only had one room left!

We couldn't believe it - how could every motel and campground be full in a city the size of Dunedin? It's a massive place!  With no time to waste we bit the bullet and booked the one remaining room.  As it turned out, rushing in off the street and begging the nice receptionist to give it to us was a good move as she gave us $30 off the online price!  At least that softened the blow slightly.  The receptionist led us to our room and as she gave us the key we were absolutely gobsmacked.  Room? It was more like a small house!  Kitchen, lounge, bathroom, bedroom - what on earth were we supposed to DO with all this space?  We didn't even have any stuff!  

I have to admit, it was the best night's sleep both of us had had in a very long time.  A proper mattress with a whole mountain of pillows?  We didn't know ourselves!  In fact, I really didn't know myself and had to chuck the rest of the pillows on the floor as I could only sleep with one of the enormous marshmallows.  Gareth enjoyed making a coffee with fresh milk rather than Coffee Mate the next morning and we both had a chuckle at the novelty of having our very own shower and loo and simply wandering off to another room to use it!  But that was it - that was really all we got out of our decadent night.  We had a TV in our lounge and another one in our bedroom and couldn't believe all the rubbish that was on Sky, we had to switch it off.  All this space just seemed so - unnecessary to us and luxurious as it was supposed to be, we just didn't like it. 

Home!  Hooray for Ken!

It was with great joy and dare I say relief that we jumped into the van the next day to pick up a very excited Minnie.  This was our home!  With all our stuff in and everything we needed in the world.  Our city weekend was a great experience and one that we wouldn't have missed - but one very important thing that it did teach us is that we are very happy with everything we have and never want to live in a 'normal' house ever again!

Monday, 6 March 2017


Hard to believe almost 120 days have passed since we first began living in a van!  And I have to say, it just keeps getting better.  We have learned an enormous amount, regarding what TO do and what NOT to do and I think we have really got into our groove now.  We have grown in confidence, in knowledge and are really living off the smell of an oily Mazda Bongo rag.  Most days I never want our travels to end.  The good thing is, maybe they don't have to.  I'm already working most days a week from the comfort of my office on wheels and that doesn't have to change.  I also rather like living debt free in a $14,000 mobile home.  If we don't want to stop, well we can just keep going!

Doing a spot of laundry in Te Anau (I have had a haircut since, honest!)

I get asked all the time, what is it LIKE, you know, living on the road?  The answer to that is a whole blog in itself but I can certainly tell you the best thing for starters.  Travelling to new places every day, having new adventures every day, seeing new breathtaking views and amazing things, cooking on a tiny stove, doing all your laundry by hand, wringing it out and hanging it out on a washing line you strung up between two trees, all these things and many more are what I love - but being able to do all that with my soul mate?  That's the very best thing.  Standing at the foot of a glacier, dipping your toes in an alpine lake, driving through a pitch black tunnel that runs right through a mountain, marveling at every sunset and never forgetting for a moment how incredibly lucky you are.  Creating a million, squillion unforgettable memories.  There are many, many beautiful places in New Zealand and all are special in their own way.  We've even coined our own term, 'insanery', which refers in particular to South Island scenery as it's so beautiful it's just downright crazy.  But as we have discovered this past couple of weeks, there are some places which are just other worldly; which have to be seen to be believed.

Glenorchy - little town, BIG views!

The mighty Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy end

Unsurprisingly we didn't find them in the tourist centres.  We found that Wanaka wasn't a patch on Hawea, with its overabundance of people and cafes and we fled screaming from Queenstown. Fortunately a German couple we met upon arrival in the South Island told us about a place called Glenorchy, which was close to Queenstown but much quieter and in their opinion, much nicer. Thank goodness for word of mouth!  We duly headed for Glenorchy and for a brief moment I wondered whether the seemingly endless winding road was worth the drive.  That was until we found ourselves staring in awe at the snow covered mountains which lay ahead.  By the time we reached the quaint little town I was already in love with the place and after spending the afternoon there I would have been quite happy to just stay there forever.  The scenery, the peace, the people (what few there were) - everything!  Unfortunately for us there were no dog friendly campgrounds at Glenorchy so we had no choice but to turn around and come back the way we came.  This time I had no complaints about doing the journey a second time; it was just as beautiful driving in the other direction!

The sun goes down over Lake Wakatipu

We didn't really know where we were going but we did know we definitely didn't want to stay in Queenstown so kept on driving until we reached a little place called Kingston, which was even smaller than Glenorchy.  There wasn't much there - but there was the most beautiful free campsite just on the outskirts of town, right on the edge of Lake Wakatipu.  The South Island has what feels like a million beautiful lakes, but Wakatipu is definitely one of my favourites.  We parked Ken in a quiet spot amongst the trees and as I stood that night at the water's edge, watching the sun go down, I truly felt like one of the luckiest people in the world.  As you can imagine, we have stayed at a LOT of different campsites all over the country by now!  But my favourite ones, the really special ones, have all been free.

Lake Te Anau - seriously, how many beautiful lakes can one island have?!

I could have happily stayed there for days too, but with so much still to see we needed to keep moving so headed for Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland and the Milford Sound.  There was so much to do here that we ended up staying for five days at the NZMCA campground.  Our experience of that place is a whole blog in itself!  But will save that for another day.  Te Anau is a busy but friendly town.  It's touristy but not overwhelmingly so unlike Queenstown and Wanaka and the longer we stayed there, the more we grew to like the place.  Lake Te Anau is gorgeous and we had some lovely walks around there, from the edge of town right to the start of the Kepler Track.  At 60km long however we didn't walk that one!  There is also a free bird sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation which was really enjoyable to stroll around and all the birds there were rescued.  We got to see rare and endangered birds such as the takahe (of which there are only 200 left in the world), the morepork, and the kaka and kakariki.  More stunning even than Lake Te Anau (at least in my humble opinion) is Lake Manapouri, which is just around the corner.  It's more peaceful than Te Anau and I got to have my first paddle in Fiordland waters at Fraser Beach.

Lake Manapouri, Fiordland National Park

A special Mummy & Minnie moment at Lake Manapouri

Those two places alone were worth the visit, but I don't think anything we have seen these past four months can compare to Milford Sound.  It is just out of this world, the scenery takes your breath away.  What I loved most about it is that your whole journey there from Te Anau is the destination! In fact we enjoyed the journey there more than even Milford Sound itself!  120 kilometres of incredible. Because dogs are not permitted anywhere in Milford Sound (and indeed in pretty much all of Fiordland National Park) we put Minnie in a boarding kennel for the night.  We struggled a bit with the expense, it seemed rather extravagant just to enable us to go and check out a place but the kennel was very reasonable at just $17 a night and it was probably the best $17 we have ever spent.  You simply can't put a price on a place like this, we're so glad that we took the opportunity when we had it.  With so many interesting things to stop and see along the way, it also made it much easier not having our wee girl with us.

Rather large mountains on the road to Milford Sound

Watch out, it's Kea country!

We saw mountains - HUGE mountains.  I mean this is the South Island, you see mountains all the time but these are next level mountains, you would not believe how enormous they are!  We drove alongside the massive Eglinton River, saw wild Kea's at the side of the road who were extremely sociable and keen to introduce themselves but I was staying well away with Ken!  For those who don't know, a Kea is a large, wild and very cheeky parrot.  They love to do things like jump on your car and rip off the windscreen wipers and such!  We even drove through an entire mountain, through a long, pitch black tunnel, carved out of the rock.  That was a bit freaky!  The highlight however, and I think I can speak for us both, was the unexpected stop at Lake Gunn.

Middle Earth?  Quite possibly!

What's Lake Gunn?  We had no idea either, but revelling in our dog-less freedom we pulled in at the sign by the side of the road and hopped out.  Apparently there was a 45 minute walk through a forest to get to the lake and we umm-ed and ahh-ed.  Keen to just get to Milford Sound itself we wondered, should we bother delaying our journey?  We decided to bite the bullet and go and check it out, which turned out to be the best decision of the day.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed in this area, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if this forest had been one of them.  It was the most magical, otherworldly place we have ever set foot in.  Everywhere was covered in lush, soft moss, the trees dripped with pale, green tendrils, and trees even grew on other trees.  It reminded me of the wood that my friends and I used to play in when we were little, which we called 'Hobbitland', with all its nooks and crannies and I giggled as I asked Gareth to take a photo of me crouched inside one of the many hidey holes.

'You've got a bird above your head', he pointed out as he took the photo.  I did?  He was right, a little grey and rather rotund wee bird had hopped on the 'roof' above me.  I later discovered it was a South Island robin but had never seen one before.  I stayed quiet and watched him happily and felt very honoured that he chose to spend a moment so close to me - but that was just the beginning.  I was amazed when he hopped down onto the ground and began making his way towards me!  He showed no fear and I was a little taken aback.  Was he friendly?  What did he want?  Was he after my keys?  How sharp was that beak?  Having once been bitten by a Kea I was in no desire to find out!  It soon became cleared what he wanted.  By walking through the forest and climbing into the hidey hole, Gareth and I were causing tiny insects to fly around.  Our little feathered friend was busy catching his dinner!

Our little feathered friend, the South Island robin

I have no idea how long we stayed there in the company of that little bird but by the time we left he had merrily pecked both of our feet and even tried to land on our knees!  Even as we reluctantly walked away he still followed us through the forest, hopping behind us before he finally went on his own way.  What a special time it was.  You can see one of the videos we took on our Facebook page.  So much for taking 45 minutes to get to the lake, it was more like 90 we were enjoying ourselves so much but eventually we arrived at the edge of Lake Gunn and it was worth every minute.  We had the whole lake to ourselves and the water was crystal clear and surprisingly warm as we paddled in it and took what seemed like a hundred photos.  That place I think will be etched in my memory forever.  Before the end of the day we had seen the Mirror Lakes, Mitre Peak and all the 'must do's' of Milford Sound, but to me nothing compared to Lake Gunn and its magical fairy forest.

Lake Gunn <3

Some time in the afternoon we arrived at Milford Sound itself and were quite surprised at what we found.  It was, as expected, the end of the road and the scenery was indeed incredible but it was a bit like a little tourist resort really.  There was nothing to do there unless you wanted to spend money on a scenic flight or cruise and we felt a bit duped really.  'Welcome to Milford Sound!  Come and spend a fortune so you can see it properly!'  It wasn't a big deal; we had already seen and enjoyed so much anyway but there was no way that we were about to spend hundreds of dollars on a flight or a boat trip when we had experienced the rest of what had already been an unforgettable journey for free.  So we did the free walks that were available to do there and then made our way back down through the mountains to Te Anau.

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound.  Didn't see James Franco or any aliens here!

Mountain waterfall, Milford Sound

I don't need to say any more what a truly special day it was, I think you get the idea!  But it was made all the better by being able to do it under our own steam.  As we made our way along that 120km stretch of road, we saw many bus loads of people being herded on and off from one stop to the next, with no more than a few minutes to take everything in, along with the obligatory selfies.  They didn't even go to Lake Gunn, only the stops at the side of the road to take a few snapshots.  Doing the journey our way meant that we could see whatever we liked for as long as we liked, for no more cost than around half a tank of gas.  We could have even stayed overnight if we had wanted!

We continued to stay in Te Anau for a couple more days (for just $3 a night at the NZMCA ground we couldn't complain!) and then made our way to Mossburn.  That was a bit spontaneous and we ended up there for another four days as we both fell ill - I think we had become a little too complacent about double checking the quality of our drinking water!  As I write today from Gore, we have already reached the bottom of the South Island.  But I think I've bored you enough for one day!