Queenstown

Queenstown

After leaving the west coast, we stopped off for a few hikes and then stayed in Wanaka overnight. We hiked up Rocky Mountain the next day before driving to Queenstown.

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka from Rocky Mountain

We crossed one more mountain pass on the way to Queenstown. The amazing views just kept on keeping on.

On the road to Queenstown

On the road to Queenstown

The mountain leading up from behind the back streets of Queenstown provided opportunities for a gondola ride, hiking, zip-lining, bungy jumping, paragliding, lugging, mountain biking.

gondola

Biking was a great way to explore the environs of Queenstown. The Queenstown Trail was a real treat as it snaked its way around the peninsula gardens from downtown and out along the coasts of the Lake Wakatipu and the Shotover River. It provided ever-changing views of the city as well as the majestic mountains surrounding the city.

queenstown from the q trail

The Shotover River and The Remarkables

The Shotover River and The Remarkables

The Remarkables Mountain Range project a surreal image when hit by the northern sky-arching sun.

The Remarkables

I’d wanted to sky dive since I was a teenager. I thought New Zealand would be the place. I just needed the right locale and to get up the nerve. Queenstown with the Remarkables Mountain Range as a backdrop seemed like the perfect place.

Make no mistakes

No room for error here

I love the 'teeth'

I love the ‘teeth’

After the adrenaline rush of the dive, we landed on our feet just like this

After the adrenaline rush we landed on our feet like this

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Cindy’s Perspective on Free Camping

It’s one tight space! One person has to lean against the side of the van if the other wants to pass by. “Excuse me,” was said quite often. It’s amazing we weren’t in each other’s face more often, more like, “Get the !!#^” out of my way!” Everything is quite compact. When you’re facing one way cooking over the two-burner stove, your back almost touches the tiny wardrobe that two people are allotted for their possessions. Everything has its place (slots for plates, bowls, cups) and you have to put things back where they belong (1) because there is no room to put it anywhere else, and (2) it’s the only safe place to put it without it falling and breaking while driving. There’s a table for two that needs to be converted to a bed every night before you can retire. The first night we couldn’t figure out how the bed was supposed to go, so my feet hung off the end. I knew something wasn’t right. If my feet hang off the side at 5′, what would an average sized person do? We got the bed configuration correct, but it took a few more days to realize the cushions should be placed in a certain order so you didn’t wake up with a sore back every day, though we couldn’t prevent Bill from waking up with a sore neck that lasted for a few days. And that’s just about the size of the camper!

We rented the large van so Bill can stand up

We rented the large van so Bill can stand up

Now for the beauty of freedom camping. We were told that as long as you’re self-contained, you can pull over anywhere if you’re tired, and camp for the night. Self-contained means a toilet on board, but since Bill didn’t want to use it, it made our options limited. But in many places you see signs posted saying “No Overnight Camping”. Tourist Information Centers also discourage freedom camping. They issue brochures on where to camp, but they all say the same thing. “Don’t assume it’s OK to camp anywhere. You must be over 200 meters off the road. Not on private land. Not near the center of town.” They also state that they prefer you sleeping in Holiday Park campgrounds which is like camping in a parking lot. Your neighbor is no more than five feet away. No privacy at all! The Holiday Park campgrounds cost around $50 per night and you get a hot shower, you can dump your waste and fill your water tank. The government sites, while inexpensive, offer no hot water showers, no waste dump and no fresh water to refill your storage tank. Some don’t even have flush toilets. This is not what I signed up for. So we spent a lot of money for the camper van thinking we would enjoy the experience as well as save some money. We were wrong on both counts.

Holiday Park accommodations. You get to know your neighbor quite well

Holiday Park accommodations. You get to know your neighbor quite well

Finding a free site that we both like isn’t easy. Bill prefers a deserted spot while I prefer to have at least one other camper around. I want to find out if it’s OK to camp in a particular place and Bill is content to set up camp anywhere and assume it’s OK as long as there’s no sign indicating otherwise.

You always have to worry about your water usage. We have a 10 liter water tank, and if you fill a few water bottles for a day hike, that doesn’t leave much for anything else. Water is a precious commodity that I’m learning to conserve even more than before.

Looks isolated now, but in the morning there were about 10 other vans

Looks isolated now, but in the morning there were about 10 other vans

With all this being said, as I’m sitting here writing this, we are freedom camping at this gorgeous place overlooking an inlet with small birds feeding at low tide and lush green mountains rising over the other side.

View from freedom camping site

View from freedom camping site

I could stay here another night or two, but, alas, we need to get moving. We have 5 more nights (and 7 hours, 13 minutes and counting) in this van and we have lots to see and do before we return it.

The West Coast

The West Coast

Around every corner, every bend in the road, every hairpin turn and every rise along the highways, New Zealand reveals stunning, drop-dead gorgeous landscapes and scenery. Hills, mountains, valleys, farmland, rainforests, rivers, lakes, oceans and seas. It’s truly a scenic postcard paradise.

The road signs continued to amuse and delight us. Were they made by convicts like in the U.S.? Was the penal system trying to create work for them? Who thought of placing signs in these positions and how did they decide? Were they high when they decided?

Brilliant!

Brilliant!

There is one road sign I appreciate and adore. That is the one for cars to share the road with bicycles. I wish we had more of these at home.

Kiwis are really laid back and very friendly. I was in a supermarket and asked by the bagger in earnest, “What did you do today?”

After our white-water rafting adventure we continued west to the ‘left coast’ of New Zealand’s South Island. Instead of heading south as originally planned, we took the advice of our white water rafting guide and headed north. This was the New Zealand I’d dreamed about. It was early evening and the roads were empty. For the first time, I was driving on a road without seeing another car for over 1/2 hour. And it was beautiful. The west coast is wild and wind-whipped, the Tasman Sea relentlessly pounding the shore.

That night we ‘freedom’ camped in the wild for the first time. We have the ability to do that because our camper is certified as ‘self-contained’. That is, we are totally self-sufficient with drinking water, self-contained waste disposal and a commode. Night was falling and I knew we wouldn’t make our destination. I’d been wanting to ‘free’ camp since starting our campervan trip and this was a perfect opportunity. We passed a road where I noticed signs that said “beach access” and “no exit” (“dead-end” in our parlance) so it seemed like this would be a great place to check out. It was.

first free camp

driftwood

Cindy, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm for the isolation.

Cindy shares her inner-most feelings on free camping

Cindy shares her inner-most feelings on freedom camping

The next day we continued north to the ‘end of the line’. The road ended at the northern most point on the west coast, a beach called Kohaihai. It was also the start of the Heaphy Track which is a 4-5 day hiking trail that stretches over Kahurangi National Park . We hiked the trail for an hour to Scotts Beach before heading back to the car and doubling back down the road to continue south along the magnificent and hearty west coast.

Scotts Beach along the Heaphy Track

Scotts Beach along the Heaphy Track

There was a small museum in Hokitika that I really enjoyed. It had displays on Maori culture, New Zealand settler and mining history and whitebait fishing.

Followed by Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki……

Stylobedding geologic formation of Pancake Rocks

Stylobedding geologic formation

The village of Franz Josef is the launching pad for many tours and activities in the area. We had to gas up our van paying 15% more for gas than we’d seen anywhere else on the South Island. An excellent example of American-style “if you don’t like the price go drive 100km to another station” gotcha capitalism; the type I was surprised we didn’t see in many other places.

We’d heard conflicting information about whether or not you could walk up to the head of Franz Josef Glacier for free. Since it was raining hard and we decided we wanted to do a tour where we could walk on a glacier, we signed up for a walking tour of Fox Glacier for the next day. We went into a coffee shop, drank coffee and tea, went on-line for a bit and then sat in the van for a couple of hours until it looked like it was clearing a bit. Venturing out late in the afternoon, it turned out to be a great move. The rain stopped and there were few other tourists on the trail. The terminus was actually at the glacial moraine left in the last big retreat of 2009.

Franz Josef Glacier. Receding faster than my hairline.

Franz Josef Glacier is receding faster than my hairline.

During our guided walk to Fox Glacier we were on top of, and under, the glacier. It was a beautiful day.

Ice cave in/on Fox Glacier

Ice cave in/on Fox Glacier

We free camped for the second time just south of Haast, the last sizable town on the southwest coast. This campsite beat the first for its exquisite location on a windy expansive beach. The wind was so strong it was rocking the van. Like the other free campsite and many other west coast beaches, it was strewn with drift wood. It seemed perfect….until the wind died down and the sand flies (similar to black flies) came in droves followed by an equally massive numbers of mosquitos . It was like the scene from the movie, “The African Queen”. We weren’t sure how they were getting in the van but they were en masse, and we kept swatting away. The walls and ceilings of the camper were blotted with their guts and cadavers. The guy we rented it from said he has a $100,000 motorhome and no matter what he does, he can’t keep insects from getting in.

Free camping in Haast. Don't bug me, man!

Don’t bug me, man!

We traveled inland and south stopping several times for some wonderful walks.

Blue pool

Blue pool

The South Island of New Zealand–WOW!

The South Island of New Zealand–WOW!

We arrived on an overnight flight at 4:30am losing 2 hours in the time difference. It was a tiring trip. We took a nap in the lounge of our hostel when we arrived, then went out to buy some waterproof jackets and pants, as well as some provisions.The parachute-material ‘waterproof’ jackets we’d bought in Durban were windproof but certainly not waterproof and had to be replaced. We got back to the hostel, checked into our room and zonked out for a couple of hours more. By the next day we were pretty well recovered.

Christchurch was devastated by a couple of earthquakes back in 2010 and 2011; much of it still looks like a wreck with whole city blocks laid flat. I can’t help but feel empathy for the people who lived through the tragedy, those who died in it, and those remaining there who have had to rebuild.

Domus in luxuria?

Our Cruzy Camper Company campervan got dropped off at our lodge the next day. It took a couple of hours going over the ins and outs of the van’s operations before we did a bigger food shop and got our telephone/data SIM card bought and set up. Then we finally took off for our campervan adventure.

As we headed up the east coast of the South Island, cross winds must have been gusting at about 30+ mph. Our campervan was getting blown around the road and it felt difficult keeping it under control. It was especially hairy when the road narrowed on bridges. It’s another white knuckled drive and I’m holding on to the wheel for dear life. Fortunately, it got easier after a couple of hours. This is perhaps the only time I’m ever driving way under the speed limit and consistently getting passed by 18-wheelers.

campervan

We stopped for a couple of nights in Kaikoura. The coast is flanked by The Seaward Mountain Range and its most notable feature is the peninsula that juts out eastward into the Pacific Ocean. The geologic features of the ocean floor off the coast cause the upwelling of currents which stir nutrients and plankton setting off ecological chain reactions that result in an array of diverse sea life.

Kaikoura Peninsula walk

Kaikoura Peninsula walk

New Zealand Fur Seal Mother w/pups

New Zealand Fur Seal Mother w/pups

We stopped in picturesque Picton for lunch and some sightseeing. We were on the way to our second camping stop in Nelson, a pretty town surrounded by mountains on one side and wide, white sand beaches on the other. There, we hiked to The Center of New Zealand– the surveyed geologic center, that is. It provided for a very nice hike and some great views.

Town of Nelson from The Center of New Zealand

Town of Nelson from The Center of New Zealand

Tahuna Beach in Nelson

Tahuna Beach in Nelson

The campground was quite different than the one in Kaikoura. Our van took up a small portion of our campsite but all the other campsites were compactly filled with huge tents and campers–some even sported full sized refrigerators. We were surrounded in seemingly tight quarters and feeling quite hemmed in. There were babies screaming and crying, mommies yelling at their babies, and planes flying over head coming in or out of the airport nearby. A small kid cut through our campsite and one of our neighbors used our extra space to park his truck for a while after moving his trailer. This was the outdoor version of Paul Simon’s song, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”.

The second night Cindy asked to be moved to a quieter site. It was a much better campsite as it was on the end with a decent view and steps from the beach. Just minutes after we settled in, a tractor came roaring by towing a trailer full of kids. And then it came around again…and again…and again. It finally stopped after a few times around, and once gone, the relative quiet of that campsite was pleasantly enjoyed.

A shameless 'selfie'

A shameless ‘selfie’

Little Kaiteriteri from the bike track

View from the mountain bike track

We stopped in Kaiteriteri, a tourist town with a beautiful beach. I was itching to rent a bike and we found a local eco-lodge that rented them. I did a 2 hour bike ride in a mountain bike park which was adjacent to the lodge. The trail was groomed with neatly banked hairpin turns. While I biked, Cindy swam in the pool, took a sauna, steam and a soak in the hot tub. The bike and pool-time were a nice diversion before getting on the rode to Able Tasman National Park.

A NZ oxymoron

An oxymoron

Up and down mountain passes, the drive had more hairpin curves than ants on corn syrup. The scenery was just stunning. In fact, we’d been seeing spectacular scenery from the time we left Christchurch. Kiwis (New Zealanders) we’d met along the way were extraordinarily friendly. Perhaps they were the friendliest people I’d met since the start of our journey.

At Abel Tasman National Park, we stayed in a Department of Conservation (DOC) campground at Totaranui Beach. There was more space for each camper and it was less structured than the private campsites. Campers could pick their own sites as opposed to having sites chosen for them at private campgrounds. We had a hard time deciding where to ‘pitch’ our camper when we got to Totaranui. We were hoping for a modicum of quiet and privacy. After moving our camper a couple of times and walking around the grounds, we found a site tucked into a corner of one bay that seemed sparsely occupied compared to the others . We moved our camper one last time pleased we’d scored a bit of paradise. It was about ten yards from another Cruzy Camper campervan and in the morning we were greeted by a young british couple who acknowledged us with a “Hey, you guys rented from Cruzy Campers, too”. They were headed in the same direction and we ran into them a couple of times down the road.

We were also ‘greeted’ by a DOC ranger who woke us up at 7am by knocking on our van window. He thought we hadn’t paid but there was a clear lack of communication and/or coordination by the rangers. Not only had we paid the day before we arrived, we were also checked in by another, more senior ranger upon arrival. I looked forward to having a chat with both rangers later to address the error. When I did, they (separately) both blamed each other. At least the senior guy had the temerity to apologize.

That day we hiked one of the DOC “Great Walks”. We headed south along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track past Goat Bay, Waiharakeke Bay and Awaroa Inlet to our destination, Onetahuti Bay where we arranged to be picked up by a water taxi. Timing was critical as Awaroa Inlet can only be crossed within an hour and a half of slack tide. We found out when got to the inlet it also meant taking off your shoes to make the crossing. It was cool to be able to do a one-way hike and loop back by boat along the coast. However, the DOC rangers’ verbal descriptions of how long it would take to hike differed with our experience on the trail. Also, the posted signs regarding the time it would take to complete the walk were conflicting. Despite building in what we thought was a whole extra hour to complete the 3-hour walk, we were really hustling at the end to make sure we caught the water taxi. Generally (but not always) the directions on signs were fine, but when it came to the posted walking times we found them inaccurate on frequent occasions. The estimated walking times were usually conservative but not in this case.

Totaranui Beach in Able Tasman National Park

Totaranui Beach in Abel Tasman National Park

Crossing Aowara Inlet at low tide

Crossing Aowara Inlet at low tide

Aowara Inlet

Aowara Inlet

When we got back and looked at our campground bay, we thought we had entered the wrong one. There were gobs of huge tents and a slew of people who had arrived when we were gone. The entrance to the Cruzy campervan next to us appeared to be just a few feet from a monster tent. It’s been high season in Australia and New Zealand since about mid-December and all the kids are off from school until mid-February. Happenstance was that we couldn’t plan around some bad season somewhere traveling the globe and New Zealand high-season was going to be the one. Even our guide book suggested avoiding New Zealand at this time and now I can see why.

After a morning hike in Abel Tasman we rolled inland and south passing through an amazing river valley until we stopped in a quiet, near-empty campground just outside of Murchison. I was so excited because this was the entrance to the Buller River Earthquake Rapids area where we would go white water rafting, rated on-line as being the best place in the country to do so. We arranged to go rafting the following afternoon, so in the morning we went to do a short hike of the Skyline Trail just on the other end of town. This was one of several short hikes to choose from in the area. There is hiking all over New Zealand. How awesome!

View from Skyline Trail

View from the Skyline Trail

After lunch we connected with our river guide as planned. No one else signed up for the trip so it would be just the three of us. We hit perhaps 3 or 4 stretches of big water and at one point I swam, or actually floated some of the rapids. Later, I climbed rocks on the shore to make a few jumps off a 10 meter cliff into the river.

Did he say "wave" or "paddle"? I can't hear!

Did he say “wave to the camera” or “paddle”? I can’t hear!

ww rafting splash

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STATUE CHECKING FOOT

Much credit goes to the ART therapist, Joseph Coyne, I saw in Australia for plantar fasciitis. Although my foot is not 100%, after treatment he gave me some practical exercises that have allowed me to hike to my heart’s content…and just in time for New Zealand where there are daily opportunities for great hiking.