NZ January 2014
January, 2014 A touch of background. We are a retired couple in their 60s who sold their home in Montana and started traveling in the fall of 08. We spent the first six months traveling in the far east on a Circle Asia airpass, the last two months of which we rented a van and toured New Zealand. Since then we spent 33 months in Europe in our Roadtrek RV mixed with time in the US. Sold the RV in November in Rome to an Escapee couple. Now we are back in New Zealand for 2 1/2 months, having rented a station wagon to combine car camping and cheap motel/hostel stays.
I am going to concentrate the next three months on the practical side of traveling in New Zealand since the WWT newsletter has had several great writeups about travel in NZ over the past few years. In planning this trip we were very aware the NZ is no longer a budget destination. In 09 the Kiwi dollar was $ .56 to the US and is now $.84. Inflation has been low but this means that a campground stay that cost $20 now costs $30 and a double room that averages $100 Kiwi has gone from $56 to $84 a night. A bit less than US travel but a big jump from the past.
In Europe we got used to free camping a lot, which really saved a lot of money. Freedom camping (as the Kiwis call it) is now very restricted in NZ with on the spot fines of $200---note: from this point on everything will be in Kiwi dollars--so you will need to discount by about 16%. Hopefully, as interest rates rise in the US the dollar will strenghten making NZ less expensive. To freedom camp (where allowed) you have to have a certified self contained camper--not just a sleeper van with a porta potti. In looking at the rental costs of both sleeper vans and certified campers, we decided that the cost of the camper plus campground would be more than a car and private rooms in hostels. So the plan is to spend about half our nights car camping and the other half in hostels.
Campgrounds range from rare free DOC (Dept of Conservation), more common $6 DOC along with $10 and $15 DOC to private campgrounds from $9 to $20. All prices are per person per night. In popular areas most are in the upper range. Wifi is occasionally free but many campgrounds and hostels charge extra up to $7 a day. Showers may be free or cost $2 or so. Powered sites for campervans are $2-5 additional per site. There are apps available for Apple or Android that can steer you to additional free and low cost campsites. Unfortunately, none work on my Kindle. For tenting you rarely would need to book ahead and usually not for campervans except the Christmas to New Year high season. Summer school break is from mid December to the end of January but foreign visitors span the entire October to April period.
Nearly all private campgrounds have communal kitchens with stoves or hotplates, dishwashing sinks, and refrigerators. Many have microwaves, ovens, toasters, and freezers. Most campers use the freezers to freeze ice or blue ice for travel the next day. Ice by the bag at the grocery runs $4. Occasionally there are pots, pans, utensils but usually in terrible shape. Most campgrounds also have cabins running about $60-80 a night on up to motel type rooms in the $80-100 range. At the upper range you would have your own bath.
Another form of budget accomodation is called a backpackers which are dorm rooms of 4-10 beds ranging in price from $25 to 40 per person. In Europe they would be called hostels. Most also have private rooms for 2 or 3 persons, with and without baths for $60-100. All of these places have communal kitchens and lounges. The next step up are motels where nearly every room has at least a frig and usually a small kitchen with microwave, hot plate and all the utensils dishes etc. Kiwis and foreign visitors usually expect to be able to cook many meals while touring.
We flew into Christchurch on Fiji Air as the fares from Los Angeles were much less than other airlines. We were on a brand new plane, meals were okay, and the layover in Fiji about 2 hours. You do have to go through security again but not customs. If you are going to stay in Fiji for a few days note that you can bring no food of any kind into the country, We plan on a 6 night stay on our way back to the States at the beginning of April.
NZ has very strict customs so we only brought some freeze dried meals for hiking and some sealed spices. We could certainly have brought spices in sandwich bags also. If you are bringing in a tent they take it away to examine for any dirt, as well as checking your boots and hiking poles, so be sure all are clean.
It is hard to say that we enjoyed Christchurch as the earthquake damage was so extensive that you wonder how the people coped at all. The central business district is completely shut down except for tourists wandering around and one restored gift shop street and some businesses operating out of shipping containers. We spent 3-4 days touring, picking up the car and buying groceries and additional camping equipment. We found 5 camping goods stores clustered together in a close in suburb. So that made shopping easy. If you go dont miss the Canterbury Museum which is free and excellent. We have since heard that the private great walk on the Banks Pennisula is well worth it-maybe next time.
After an overnight camp on the R River and a nice walk along the shore, we headed further inland to Mt. Sunday, aka Edoras from the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie. All our books said the gravel road was a mess, but they must have done grading and repair because we had no problems in our 2 wheel drive, 10 year old Nissan wagon. The short mile hike to the top reveals gorgeous views that make it a worthwhile stop even if you are not movie fans.
We visited many LOTR sites on our last visit and intend to do so again. So if you are not a fan you can just skip whenever you see LOTR.The Southern Alps,like any great mountain range, have variable weather so with three clear days ahead we sped on towards Lake Tekapo and Mt. Cook. Absolutely no freedom camping allowed in Lake Tekapo area but several possibilites on the 50k stretch from there to the turn off to the National Park. The Park has a DOC $10 pp camping area right at Mt. Cook Village that includes an indoor cooking area (bring your own stove). After a couple nights at Tekapo including driving to the top of Mt. John in 70 mph winds and a dip down to 32 degrees one night, we ended up at a backpackers in Mt. Cook Village while the rain poured. The tent in cold is one thing, acceptable with the right gear, but rain means moving indoors. We took two great day hikes out to see the iceberg lakes. The free movie about the area at the DOC visitor center is a great intro to the area. We were very disappointed in the Hillary Museum which was overpriced at $20. even if you went to all the films. Unfortunately, cloudy nights meant we didn't get to see the southern sky from one of the darkest and clearest places on the planet. But as we will still be in pretty remote areas for awhile that may still be on the horizon.
Next we stopped for the night near Omara at a free DOC campground where the only facilities was a pit toilet. The wind was still about 25-30 mph but not cold. We are beginning to think that we would have been happier in a van camper. The trip down to the coast is not very scenic though we did stop at the , sort of a minature badlands that looked better in the picture than in person. South Dakota has much better. We liked the town of Omara--with its unusually carved buildings made of white stone. Well worth a stop and a walk through town. The info office told us that low tide was fast approaching so we cut our visit short and headed the 30 minutes down the coast to see the Maeraki boulders. Very unusual, only place in the world where these have occurred and worth the quick stop to see them. Just south is a viewing hide at the Lighthouse at where from about 6 pm you can see the rare yellow eyed penquins come up the beach to feed their chicks hiding in the bush. There are lots of places where you can pay to see the penquins but this excellent free viewing spot was listed in the New Zealand Frenzy Guide to the South Island. We have been very pleased with this guidebook to both the usual and the obscure outdoor places to see and hike. We also have the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet and in a couple of months I'll let you know which we found most useful.
Since the penquin viewing went rather late and the weather looked like rain we stopped for the night at a rather seedy motel in Palmerston where we stayed in a unit with a shared bath down the outside hall for $60. Dinner was leftover cold pizza and smoked salmon.
Turning inland we crossed some really deserted country that reminded us of parts of Montana and Wyoming with a brief stop in Ranfurley to see the rural Art Deco museum. Small but free it did have some interesting furniture and kitchenware. I don't think anyone throws anything away in New Zealand.
Our destination was Wanaka. A town we really loved on our last trip. Then we stayed at Altamont Lodge--a very nice hostel. With the weather looking good we headed for the Glendu Bay campground as it was on the way to Mt. Aspiring National Park.