Ah New Zealand. The land of endless sheep, intense greens, and ridiculous blues. A place where the tramping (i.e. hiking) paths are paved better than the roads. A place where you can determine that, all within walking distance, there are a public restroom, a Catholic Church, a camper dump station, gun club, cemetery, a boat ramp, and bed-and-breakfast by simply looking at the sign post on the corner. A place where I could take a whipper on a overhung 5.12, get barreled with tiny dolphins, and traverse a crevasse-ridden glacier all in the same day; did I do this? …No. Did I do those activities individually? …Almost. I have climbed (not a 5.12), surfed with dolphins (did not get barreled), and walked on a glacier on separate occasions while in ole’ NZed. But! If one so wished, all of these activities could take place in one day without too much effort. Clearly, the point is: New Zealand is awesome. New Zealand by self-contained campervan: even more awesome. We can eat, sleep, and transport ourselves to some of the most epic places (in the world) all using the same trusty vehicle: our modified 1999 Toyata Hiace. Is it perfect, you ask? Of course not! Is the car falling apart? Only slightly (who needs an alternator, anyway). Have you taken a shower in a week? Definitely not. Even still: there is no better way to see kiwi land. Even as I write now, I am sitting in my camp chair next to our van (a.k.a. Tim Tam), drinking wine with the misses, watching the sunset on a sandy beach. The sand is riddled with sun-bleached driftwood, jagged rocks flank the coastline, and streaks of reddish-orange (so I’m told…) sunlight pierce through the clouds…and this is just our pitstop to make some dinner. But I digress: our time in New Zealand – Days 1-4.
Shortly after watching Dispicable Me 2 and enjoying our above average in-flight meal, the plane begins its initial decent into Christchurch. Before you’re even on the ground, you know New Zealand is about to smack you with some epicness: snow capped peaks, jagged coastlines, and vast swaths of greenery fill your airplane window. Ironically, the woman sitting in the aisle seat who has been hacking and coughing the whole way from Fiji brushes my abnormally warm arm and interrupts my gaze out the window to ask if I am ill. “No, ma’am. Just sunburnt.” This apparently is a strange concept to those native to Fiji, so she simply laughs and returns to coughing into my in-flight refreshment.
We cruise on down to customs after our uneventful landing with a mix of excitement and unease. Excited for obvious reasons, but uneasy due to the number of ways we might be slapped with a 400$ fine as we pass through the airport. Being as small and isolated as New Zealand is, they don’t play around when it comes to tourists accidentally introducing a new pest or strain of grass or a new tasty berry into their environment. NZ has enough problems with invasive species already, so they don’t need something to come in and wipe out one of their main crops. “Should we declare that we have food?!” “They might find a piece of that cashew I ate on the way over!” “Do you think we should say we stayed at a farm!? We stayed close to one in Fiji!” These are the type of worries we grapple with as we wait in line to see the next customs agent. So, after declaring just about every item in our bags (including our ukuleles!), we receive no fines; however, our hiking shoes and tent are washed and bleached, and we are sent on our way. (Interesting side-note: I recognized a person in the customs line from one of my classes I took in Boulder! He was traveling NZ for a few weeks and heading to Fiji after. Weird, right?).
Within minutes, we are scoping out our new ride/home for the next 37 days: our 1999 Toyata Hiace Campervan from Happy Campervans (a.k.a. Tim Tam). Although I immediately stall ole’ Tim Tam before even leaving the parking lot, I soon adapt to shifting left-handed without drifting into the right hand lane. First stop: Christchurch (i.e. we’re there…) We start off our tour of the city just like any other normal person would: we go to the mall. Alright, we go to the grocery store, but its a part of a huge mall. Massive culture shock, I know. After we load up on supplies, including our first two boxes of Tim Tams (Tim Tams deserve a post of their own, but to conserve time: Tim Tams are a delicious chocolate biscuit that God made Himself on the eighth day), we decide to head off to a cushy campervan site to charge our auxiliary battery and ease our way into the campervan lifestyle. Cushy campervan site = power, water, kitchen, showers, dump station, and…hooooly hell there’s a friggin’ french fry machine!!
Kevin, a good buddy of ours from home, has put us in touch with a friend (Dan) living in Christchurch. The next morning we are able to send an email off to Dan using the wifi hotspot we bought from the mall (NZ is notoriously bad in terms of free wifi availability). We meet up for drinks at Misceos. One drink turns into four or so and Dan invites us over for dinner. Once at Dan’s house, his wife, Liv, has made us excessive quantities of the best fish I’ve ever had. After a few hours of talking about travel and a bit too much wine, we FaceTime Kevin (4 AM his time) and head off to bed in Dan and Liv’s very comfortable spare bedroom (which they so graciously offered). The next day we set out on our campervan journey, armed with plenty of new information and five new books donated by our hosts.
The ride to Akaroa was a nice introduction to the New Zealand climate and countryside. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle fell all morning. We rode along narrow, windy roads up into the very green hills of this extinct volcano that sits just outside Christchurch along the east coast. Akaroa is a small, sleepy town, but offers a surprising amount of activities to tourists, including tours to a bay where you can see penguins come ashore, swimming with dolphins, etc. Say whaaaaat?!? Penguin tours?!? Nanners can barely control her excitement (a known penguin and llama fanatic). In a feat of great self-control we decide to hold off on the penguin tour and go for a walk along the harbor where you can see a bit of wildlife and a small lighthouse. On the way back from the lighthouse we stumble upon one of the walking paths that cuts through the forrest near the shore. This particular walk, Garden of Tane, is quite the maze of small dirt paths that wind their way through super old, gnarled trees. After we’ve had enough tree watching (surprisingly entertaining), we head back to the harbor for some fish and chips and to get settled in.
But wait!! “We at least have to try to see the penguins!!,” Nanner exclaims. Naturally, we try to go see the penguins. We drive up a ridiculously steep and narrow road towards the bay with said penguins. We quickly begin to understand why there are paid tours to visit this bay as this drive is quite treacherous! Right as we reach the rim of the volcano, we encounter a sign that says “blah blah blah, no campervans allowed.” What the eff.
That sign would have been a bit more convenient to see 5000 vertical feet earlier. Nevertheless, I manage to convince Nanner that the bay is still way too far away to walk and that the view was worth the drive anyway. After our small defeat, we make our way down to the ground floor and find a nice (and free) campervan carpark right along the shore near a boat ramp where we can post up for the night. The next morning, after we eat a nice breakfast by the water, we head off towards the direction of Dunedin.
We don’t get too far before we are enticed by a “tourist highway” that leads one to various sweet, little bay villages. To get there, of course, one must drive up another steep, winding road through the clouds. With my expert hands at the wheel, it goes without saying that we survive the journey.
We descend into this little nook of the world to find sheer rock faces jutting out of a churning sea. We both agree that this is our first real taste of things to come. Raw and epic sceneries. We go for another leisurely walk along the cliffs to find a gaggle of nesting birds. Pretty cool. Even after you realize the rocks they are nesting on aren’t supposed to be white: that’s just lots and lots of poo.
Speaking of poo, before we head out for the long drive ahead, we pull up to the dump station in town to empty our grey water tank for the first time (I should clarify that this water does not actually contain poo, but its scent has poo-like qualities). Quite a wet and smelly task that we will learn to enjoy for the next 35 days.