South Island, 2018
South Island, New Zealand, January-February, 2018
The narratives I write about New Zealand may seem somewhat strange for two reasons. The first is that this is our third multi month visit in the last 9 years, so we have already done a lot and will probably skip some things that you will want to do if it is your first trip. Second, our daughter and her family are planning a visit in January of 2019 for about 5-6 weeks, so we will be including notes that are pertinent to what they might like traveling with a 7 year old girl and without camping. Our website and blog contain info from our first trip in 2008-2009 and our last in 2014, with the 2014 narrative much more detailed than the earlier one. Our website is TheRoadGoesEverOn.com and blog is roadeveron.blogspot.com.
We flew to Christchurch from San Francisco on Fiji Airlines. One way fare for two was $1,800 which we paid for with our Chase Sapphire points. There was a layover of 4 hours in Fiji, and we used our Priority Lounge Pass (comes with CS card above) in the lounge in San Francisco and new one in Fiji. Great food and booze in both. Food on the plane was breakfast on both legs and pretty awful. You can bring any food you want into Fiji as long as you are just changing planes—all the “fine” warnings only apply to those staying in Fiji. Fiji Airlines lowers its fares on about January 11 and then again on February 1st (sale fares on the February date, so hard to plan on) which is why we flew on January 11. It is easy to be confused on the bookings because of the time change. You lose a whole day. We left on Thursday, January 11 at 9 pm and arrived on Saturday, January 13 at 1 pm. So keep that in mind. We will be in NZ 80 days, leaving on April 2. Turns out this is the day after Easter which is a holiday in NZ, so we are having to pay extra to turn in the camper that day. Who knew?
New Zealand has very strict customs. Any tent, boots, hiking poles have to be examined and disinfected. Be sure to pack them together where you can get to them. This makes for a slow process through customs as nearly everyone is bringing at least boots with them. No produce or meat is allowed but no problem with spices, freeze dried meals, cookies, etc.
We arrived in Christchurch on Saturday afternoon and Kylie from Cruzy Campers met us at the airport and drove us to a nearby shopping center parking lot where our tiny van camper, Rooby, awaited. Rooby is a 2002 Toyota Hiace van about 17 feet long with a raised top so you can stand up inside. It had 242,700 miles on its diesel engine. Cruzy does a great job of maintaining these vehicles and has excellent reviews on Rankers. (a very important site and app for campers in NZ). We particularly liked the fact that the New Zealand diesel mileage charge (diesel is much cheaper at the pump than gasoline )was included in the rental price and that the vehicle had a three way refrigerator and hot water. It is fully self contained which in NZ is absolutely necessary to be able to wild camp or “freedom camp” as they call it. Self contained means a gray water tank and at least a porta-pottie, which our little van had along with almost all the “stuff” we needed and cabinets and a closet to put our stuff in. Rental of this clean, but well worn van was $81 US per day when the exchange rate was .70. Ridiculously expensive but high season. We had looked at larger, newer campers with real bathrooms but for 80 days the prices hovered around $16,000—insane. We did bring our old sat nav-TomTom- as we had purchased a NZ map for it in 2014. The camper came with an atlas. I wouldn't say a sat nav is critical, but it is helpful in Christchurch and Auckland. There aren't that many roads to choose from elsewhere. And of course, you can use your data on your phone if you want to go that route for the cities. A three way refrigerator is important if you plan to do multi day treks or a lot of freedom camping and your rig only has one coach battery.
We spent two nights at the Top Ten Holiday Park in Christchurch, having joined to get the 15% discount on the ferry crossing and 10% discount on camping sites. $49 NZ to join for two years, which is currently $36 US with a .72 exchange rate. (For the rest of this narrative I will be using NZ dollars unless otherwise noted.) A pretty nice park though sites are very close together and pricey at $28 pp with power. It is close to town but not walking distance and after the obligatory stops at grocery and hardware stores over the weekend we also spent a nice couple of hours strolling through Christchurch. If you need any houseware type items shop at the Warehouse which is much like a Walmart. Their prices are as much as half off elsewhere. Some of the city is still blocked off from the earthquake damage but now all the destroyed buildings are gone and new ones have replaced them or are in the process of being built. What is still fenced off are the historic buildings like the Cathedral which will be restored but are not first priority to get the city back on its feet. Some stores were open and Cruzy had told us that Sparks cell had the best coverage so we bought a SIM for one of our Iphones--$99 for two months with unlimited talk and text in NZ, 200 minutes and 200 texts to US and 8gigs of data. Low on the data, but we plan on using our TEP box for wifi most of the time. It is unlimited data for multiple devices for $8 US for 24 hours (though throttled after 1 gig). We used the TEP for 6 weeks in Europe this fall and were not overly pleased with it but right now it seems our best solution for internet in foreign countries. It does seem to chew through that 1 gig awfully fast. At $8 we plan on not using it 3 days a week to keep costs under control. (After 5 weeks we found using free wifi in cities and fairly cheap wifi in campgrounds was meeting most of our needs.)
It was in the 80s and we noticed Rooby's AC wasn't doing much, so we emailed Kylie and got an appointment for 9am Monday morning. Daniel, Kylie's husband, is the other half of Cruzy and they also own or at least manage a local auto repair shop. So we got right in and he recharged the AC and changed out the door on the refrigerator as the seal was coming apart. Kylie also ran out to the nearest Mitre10 (like a Home Depot) and bought us new camp chairs. All this took a couple of hours. Lesson learned is if you are renting allow yourself a couple of days to test everything and try to arrive mid week so you don't have to wait over a Sunday for repairs. We don't fault Cruzy for not noticing as the camper had just come back a couple of days before and been mechanically checked. However, the weather the last couple of weeks had been cold and wet and the previous renters probably weren't using the AC.
Daniel also replaced our coach battery as a precaution when he learned how much freedom camping we planned. Oddly, the coach battery only charges when driving, not when plugged into AC at a campground. Much different than larger campers. However, the battery only powers the LED lights and water pump—though we brought a 12 volt receptacle that Mark attached to the battery so we could use a 12 volt inverter power bar to charge our computers and electric tooth brush. Cruzy supplied a plug-in for the cigarette lighter to power a GPS or similar and two USB ports. We didn't want to only rely for charging on the starter battery though. Since we already had a trickle solar charge, we brought that too and Mark hooked it to the coach battery. Don't know if it is adding much, but the days are long here in summer. In fact, I just googled that. These only are 1.5 watts so with ten hours of sun you would reap 1.5 amps. Probably not worth the luggage space. We are finding the little coach battery only lasts about two days without driving.
After leaving Christchurch we headed to Arthur's Pass as the forecast was for two days of partly cloudy and then lots of rain not only in this area but all the way to Mt. Cook. We had not gone to the pass on our last two visits as it was always raining there when we were nearby. In New Zealand you really have to be flexible with your plans as there is not much point of being in the mountains when it is raining. Luckily, distances are reasonable enough that you can usually backtrack if you need to. Our first stop was at Castle Hill, a marvelous “city” of limestone boulders bordering the main road. We spent about two hours there roaming among the fantastical outcrops. Children and rock lovers will be thrilled by this hike. This is also a popular rock climbing area, and we saw three different groups carrying their huge crash pads around and attempting various routes on the rocks. This hike, like most we will go on on this trip and actually in 2014 also, is outlined in Scott Cook's book NZ Frenzy: South Island . (We have the North Island one, too.) In these two volumes Cook details over 300 outings in NZ including directions, time needed and difficulty. We highly recommend them if you want to get out of your car or camper and really enjoy the outdoors in NZ. They are not for sale in NZ though—you have to buy them on Amazon. All books in NZ are frightfully expensive so bring your guidebooks with you. We also have the newest Lonely Planet and our trusted Lord of the Rings Movie Location Guide.
We freedom camped at Lake Pearson picnic area which had about 30 campers, a drop toilet and a lovely lake view. The next day further along the Pass route we stopped at Bealey Spur Track which is 14k before Arthur Pass Village. It is a good trail, though vertical, but at 3.5k you are rewarded with an astounding view of three glacial outwash valleys that rival only the ones we have seen in Alaska. Our NZ Frenzy book suggested it was 80 minutes to the viewpoint but for us it took two hours. But only an hour back down. By the way there are toilets but up the hill a ways from the parking lot.
We only drove a couple of miles beyond the pass as it had started to rain and cloud up and the road grade on the western side was 16%. So we skipped the hike to the Devil's Punchbowl. There is not a lot in the village—a couple of accommodations, cafes, DOC visitor center, no grocery, and most things close at 5pm. We spent a second night freedom camping at Lake Pearson. If you want to camp right at the lake shore you probably need to be there before 3. Though we liked the hikes, overall we found the east side of Arthur's Pass pretty skippable if you are short on time
We like New Zealand for a number of reasons but two of the main ones are avoiding winter weather and the chance to do a lot of scenic hikes—and for us at average age of 70—day hikes. So off we went for Rakaia Gorge and after lunch at the picnic area just past the twin bridges (part of the municipal campground with flush toilets, water and a dump--$10 pp if you want to spend the night,) There is a public parking lot with toilets etc. just before the bridges with access to the river. The hike begins just across the road and is nice, leading to two viewpoints though we didn't make it all the way to the second. We spent about 3 hours hiking on a pretty good trail. Don't miss the fantastical tree just a couple of hundred yards from the start with its roots forming caves. Driving on we stopped in Methven for groceries and a long neck funnel to fill the water tank when our hose won't fit the spigots. (The water tank is only 7 gallons so it doesn't take long.) We freedom camped again that night at Arundel (south of Mayfield) with a pit toilet and plenty of room in the large field and not too many bugs. In fact, there haven't been nearly as many bugs as usual as the South Island is in the midst of a mild drought even with the rainy weather at the beginning of January. I am not going to bother with coordinates for the campgrounds as they are a pain to enter and because of local ordinances, where you are allowed to camp is constantly changing. You will need to use Rankers and Campermate apps to have up to date information anyway.
On the way to Lake Tekapo we did a slight detour to Peel Forest, home to some last few acres of old native forest. Due to a light rain, we only just took the very short walk from the Tekata picnic area parking lot to see the Big Tree. Big, but not that impressive even at 1000 years old. Perhaps we are jaded from spending so much time among the Redwoods and Sequoias in California. Peel Forest has an expensive DOC campground as there are showers and some powered sites--$20 pp—pay in village at cafe. Village has no services except this cafe that is only open from 9-5. There are some other walks around that the cafe workers can tell you about if you are interested. For us, skippable.
At Lake Tekapo we stayed at Tekapo Holiday Park and Motels where we stayed on almost exactly the same date, January 18, 2014. Only then we had a tent and the thermometer hit 32 that night. Now it is quite warm in the upper 70s with lots of sun. Cost for one night 50 kiwi dollars—about $36 US. Luckily we arrived at noon as by 4pm the line at the reception looked about 45 minutes long and stayed that way. At noon the only accommodations left were dormitory beds, rental tents and camping spots. Very high season now as we head into one of the most visited parts of NZ. Last time we drove up the $5 toll road to Mount St. John for the gorgeous 360 degree view of the lake, Southern Alps, and glacial outwash plains. This time we hiked up the 500ft trail, which only took us 1 ½ hours—it is excellent and in the shade most of the way. It runs right from the end of the campground and above the Tekapo Hot Springs—five different temperature pools including 3 that are adults only. Very tempting, but it closes at 9PM, and we had laundry to do--$8 for 1 load wash and dry and grocery shopping. Check out time in NZ for both campgrounds, hostels, motels, etc. is an early 10am. Irritating, but that's the way it is. Lake Tekapo village encompasses one grocery store, several restaurants, and a few souvenir shops. But the location is beautiful and there is a huge public beach that stretches right along the road to the campground below Mount St John. We also ran into the most amazing public toilet ever just to the right of the Four Square grocery. Press a button and the door slides open, the computer announces that you now need to press another button to shut and lock the door and then you will have 10 minutes to complete your business before the door will unlock. Music plays in the background. Press another button and the paper is dispensed. The toilet flushes when you wash your hands. Thank you for using Execuloo! The closest thing to Hal in 2001 a Space Odyssey I have ever experience.
For night two at Tekapo we drove the required 15 km down the gravel (but pretty good) east side road to freedom camp by the lake. We opted to park right by the DOC signpost for the nearby trail Three young men who were car camping drove the extra half mile or so right down to the cliff by the shore. No bathrooms out here though. Those car campers are why NZ has gotten so strict about banning freedom camping—you are supposed to be self contained which those fellows obviously weren't. No one wants their countryside littered with human waste. The up side of the location was that we were able to fully take advantage of this official “dark skies” area. It was a moonless and fairly cloudless night and finally all the daylight disappeared from the sky about 11:30. The starry sky was breathtaking and far beyond anything we had seen before. Perfect.
We had purchased $5 for 1gig of internet at the campground and hadn't used it all because by evening it slowed to a crawl. So we parked on the beach across from the campground and caught up online. Another grocery stop was necessary as our refrigerator is tiny and not very cold and now we were headed for Mount Cook National Park where services like grocery stores are unavailable. We arrived at the campground about 4pm and it was very full—got one of the last spots in the camping area though you are allowed to park in the overflow for hikers. This DOC campground has flush toilets, potable water and even a kitchen shelter which is much appreciated by all the tenters. No waste water dump though. Cost is $13 NZ pp but we had gone online to Rankers and purchased a DOC rental camper pass for $50 which allows up to 7 nights camping within whatever week you designate. The rangers at the information center let us email it to them and printed it for us. Certainly the way to go if you are going to stay 2 nights or more in any one week. Not all DOC campgrounds are part of this scheme though and the best scheme for DOC requires you to own your camper and join the NZ camping association.
The campground was surprisingly quiet for so many folks so close together. I woke up after midnight for a night time potty run, and was rewarded with another moonless, incredible starry sky. Not as dark as Tekapo as the kitchen/bathroom has lights on all night—but still amazing. We hiked right out of the campground on the 6 mile Hooker Valley Track along with hundreds of others. This is probably the most popular hike in New Zealand. The trail is excellent, crosses three swing bridges, has a potty about half way along, and the last half has full frontal views of Mt. Cook, and at the end the snout of Hooker glacier and its lake with several tiny icebergs. A great Alpine walk. Trail time is supposed to be 3 hours rt but with lunch we took 5 ½. I did have to hurry at the end to keep a 4 year old boy and his mother from passing me. I do have some standards.
The weather report for Mt. Cook has been very clear that the next day's weather was to be warm and partly cloudy with a chance of a shower. It dawned overcast with a persistent misty rain and stayed that way—along with a goodly amount of wind and gusts. Actually we loved it-a day off-and turned over and slept till almost 10. We vowed to spend the day catching up with blog and narratives and turned on our TEP for slow, but steady service. We thought about hiking the next day but the weather was still moist so we headed out, stopping by the lavender fields for Mark to take a blog photo. Kiwi's are constantly inventing new ways to separate the tourists from their money, and this small field with gift shop is a regular stop with the tourist buses.
Wanaka is a lovely town at the south end of a beautiful lake next door to the Mt. Aspiring National Park. Lots of folks spend the day parked along the shore enjoying the water especially when the temps are in the high 80s. It is even still possible to find parking as long as you get there by mid morning. It was a pretty sleepy little town 9 years ago, but has been discovered now. But still much, much quieter than Queenstown.
The Rob Roy hike is about a 2 hour drive from Wanaka. We have always thought it one of the best day hikes in the world. The trail is well built, has a potty near the end, and takes 3 hrs Kiwi time and 6 our time with lunch and lots of photography. The drive to it is a mix of pavement and then about 70 minutes of washboard gravel with 11 fords. All except two were dry during this drought but you would need to be careful after rains in a two wheel vehicle. Our first trip we waited at the first ford until a car went through to be sure we could make it. Since then we have always rented older vehicles we could drive on most of the gravel roads in NZ. Newer rentals are usually not allowed to do that. Anyway the hike is fantastic and you lose count after 30 or so waterfalls streaming down from the hanging glaciers. There are trekker buses in town if you don't want to make the drive yourself.
We had stopped at the DOC office in town where the woman had practically forbidden us from camping at the Rob Roy car park but said we could from 8 pm to 9 am if we had to.. When I asked her how to combine that with the hike, she admitted that it would be okay to park there for the hike too. In reality, it is a completely legal self contained freedom camping area and clearly signed so. Because our first day back there was rainy, we actually stayed two nights and a day and a half. Each night with 5 to 10 other campers. There are flush toilets, sinks, and a shelter. Obviously, DOC has been told to discourage freedom campers. The whole freedom camping issue continues to fester. When we came in 2014 the new rules for self contained only freedom camping had just been put in place and none of the small and older vans had been converted and certified. Now even station wagons can be certified—you only have to build a shelf with a sink and a jerry can under it and carry a porta pottie. So lots of folks in NZ hate freedom campers as most won't use their own porta potties but instead use the bushes or the picnic area long drops and leave their trash behind to boot. Local taxpayers don't want to put in trash bins and clean out the potties even though tourists contribute billions to the economy. Locals say they don't want the cheap tourists who freedom camp, but only the ones with money for hotels or campgrounds, etc. Unfortunately, there aren't enough rooms and even campground spaces to meet the current demand and of course, the local campers want to do the freedom camping they always have, so there is lots of fighting over the regulations and enforcement. Since many of the tourists don't pay any tickets they receive some areas like Queenstown have started putting wheel clamps on illegally parked campers or cars kids are sleeping in.
We called ahead for a one night stay at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park where we stayed in 2010. It is tucked up on the hill under the gondola and a short walk into the central business district. Unfortunately, Queenstown is now officially crazy, over-touristed and overpriced. It was always over the edge but a campsite is now $60 NZ for two people, and you are an arm's length from your fellows. Want to ride the famous shotover jetboat for 20 minutes? $149 NZ, dinner entree about $35 though it does include tax and tip. We were most aghast when we saw a line snaking around a block—I thought it must be a concert—no, just a popular hamburger joint. So we had our walk around town and with the temperature nearing 90 decided to head south for the Antarctic Ocean coast—a good 10 degrees cooler was predicted. Queenstown was having its hottest and driest summer on record.
On our way south we stopped for lunch at a drop dead gorgeous, this is what all the photos tout, freedom camping/picnic beach on the lake. No toilets but a really perfect little beach with a big, flat rock to lay out on and encircled by some of the clearest water you'll ever see. GPS is S 45 17.667 E 168 45.550. I really wanted to spend the night, but Mark wanted to press on. He is not a fan of our porta pottie.
When we did the Invercargill area in 2009 we didn't have the Frenzy book, so this time we revisited some old spots like Slope Point (southernmost spot) and the petrified forest. We freedom camped along with about 20 others on the beach at Fortrose, and the second night in the car park for the Waipohatu Loop walk to two really nice waterfalls. The walk is supposed to take 3 hours, ours was 5 ½. It is a pure bush walk with Indiana Jones vegetation but steps have been built and fern tree logs laid to keep you out of the boggy parts. I actually found it more tiring though than the Rob Roy hike because the dang humidity was about 110%. Still very worth the effort. Our third night found us at the wide, wide beach at Monkey Island. A very popular spot for locals and tourists so get there by 3 or so in high season and avoid the weekends. Another amazing beach—see Mark's blog for photos. So you may be wondering how we are spending so many nights freedom camping with no showers and lots of hiking. Our solution was to bring along a Nemo shower. It is a collapsible bag that stands on the ground. We fill it part way with cold water, then a kettle full of hot water from the stove, pump the small foot bellows a few times to inflate and then use the shower nozzle to take a pretty good shower with enough water for both of us. We also have one of those spring-form potty enclosure tents that was able to be scrunched into our rolling duffel—it has a removable floor so works great for the shower or the porta pottie. Not ideal but does the job.
A couple of hours of scenic driving brings you back inland from the south coast to Te Anau, on its own gorgeous lake nestled up against the Fiordland National Park. Finally, a town that has not changed much. Yes, there is lots of tourist infrastructure but more on the order of 3 campgrounds and a dozen motels and backpackers. We stayed at the Top Ten Holiday Park which was really quite nice for our $53 with our 10% discount. It pretty much filled up every night.
Having done most of the day hikes in Te Anua, we decided to get our steps walking from the campground to the control gates on the lake—8 miles round trip but little up and down. That night we indulged in the semi private campground hot tubs looking out to the lake—one thing we greatly miss from our stick house.
We had made hut reservations for 3 nights to do the Kepler Great Walk which starts in Te Anua. We had planned to do it in 2009 but after doing the Abel Tasman, Milford, and Routeburn Great Walks my knee had had it and Mark did the climb to the Luxmore Hut and back and we canceled the rest. In 2014 we couldn't get reservations so Mark did the one night climb to Luxmore again. This time we had our reservations but after several day walks and looking at the altitude profile of the trek I just knew I couldn't do 3 hard days in a row with 3000 foot climbs and descents. As it turned out the remnants of a cyclone moved ashore on what would have been our second day of the hike—wind and all day heavy rain on an alpine ridge would have been a disaster, so we were very happy we canceled. It was bad enough spending the day in the tiny camper. The Kiwi's are really happy that the heatwave and drought have broken, and so are we. We learned from a ranger later that all three great walks in Fiordland were closed for a day—Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler. Folks already on the hike like we would have been had to stay an extra night at the hut they were at and hopefully had an extra day's food with them.
The day after the cyclone moved through we drove the 2 ½ hours to Milford Sound. Because of all the rain the waterfalls along the way were all in play and there was fresh snow on the mountain peaks. Unfortunately, the Milford waterfalls only flow in abundance when it is actively raining or immediately after. We saw that in 2009 and had hoped for a repeat. But the day was beautiful there with bright sunshine even though Te Anua was fully overcast. Not needing to tarry in Te Anua we struck out to get as close to Queenstown as possible, and ended up freedom camping by Lake Wakatipu where we had picnicked on the way south. Probably 30 other campers there. We passed through Queenstown on our way to Glenorchy. By the way, all of Queenstown's fuel stations are on the east side of town, so we had to buy some expensive diesel in Glenorchy. The road between Queenstown and Glenorchy is gorgeous following the lakeshore, winding, but only narrow in a couple of spots. We stopped at Camp Glenorchy as the store there was having a garage sale—what a change from the worn out, run down campground of a few years ago. Huge new gift store-with a really good range of items, new lodge, bathrooms, and even holiday rental homes going up. Glenorchy definitely now discovered. We continued on the good gravel road (but not for any motorhome over 23 ft.) up to the car park at the start of the Routeburn Great Walk. It was packed at 1:00 on a Saturday but we snagged a good, level spot as someone left. We spent somewhat over five hours round trip to the Routeburn Flats hut. This is a well graded hike through a lovely beech forest with a toilet half way there. It is not as spectacular as the Rob Roy day hike but nevertheless a favorite. There is a nature loop if you're not wanting to hike much or the strong hiker can make the walk round trip to the breathtaking views from the Routeburn Falls Hut—that would take about 3-4 hours each way. The steep part is after the Flats Hut. In trips past we had also gone to Paradise, but the rains of two days ago had closed the road as the ford was impassable. I can't emphasize more that if there is something that is a must do for you in New Zealand plan on spending 3-4 days in the area to accommodate the weather.
In 2009, we spent the night in the car park at the Routeburn start—no longer allowed. We thought about staying at the nearby Sylvan Lake campground but with the sand flies coming out as dusk approached and the $13 pp charge, we opted to freedom camp at the boat ramp just before the last long bridge before Glenorchy. There are almost no freedom camping spots from the Routeburn carpark to Queenstown and beyond, so we were happy to find it. It is very close to the road as we didn't want to be near the river—but only a very few cars went by after dark.
We got gas, groceries, checked internet in Queenstown and then headed for Wanaka. We parked by the lake and walked through the weekend artisan craft fair in the park. Some very nice quality things for sale. In 2014 I broke down and bought a greenstone bowl and I love the stuff. I thought it terribly expensive at about $200 at the time. I asked one crafter about one of his—a much smaller version $1200—yikes, the stuff gets rarer every year so.... In fact NZ had almost 4 million visitors in 2016 with the second largest group now the Chinese, and Chinese who travel seems to have lots of money to spend or maybe it is a once in a lifetime thing for them. NZ only has a population of somewhat over 4 million so you can imagine what the impact has been. You may have noticed we keep going through certain places like Te Anau, Queenstown and Wanaka. Not many roads in this neck of the woods so lots of backtracking.
We decided to pass on another Wanaka hike. Sometimes we just get itchy feet as our editor often remarks, and so headed to the west coast over Haast Pass. There are lots of freedom camping spots until you get to the pass area and then they die out quickly. This is super intense sand fly and rainy country so be prepared! Haast itself has a campground, motel, gas station and not much else. Heading north now on the coast DOC has every picnic area labeled no camping. We pulled into the DOC campground at Lake Paringa. Packed full with no sites left at 5:30. Driving on we finally found a pull off at a historical marker at S 43 42.663 E 169 29.368. It was somewhat off the road with nice bushes so it didn't feel as exposed as just using a deeper pull off. The west coast highway is also pretty deserted at night so no traffic noise to speak of. The next day we noted another freedom camping possibility at the north end of Bruce Bay right on the shore. Just be sure no storms are approaching. As we drove the pass and all along the west coast highway we noted lots of damage from the storm three days before. Trees down, parts of the road washed out, flooding just receded. In fact we were very impressed at how fast the works department was getting things back to normal and not happy with ourselves for not checking in advance to see if the road would even be open. We should know by now to do such.
At Fox Glacier the road to the park was closed—we assume from storm damage--and it was raining. In fact it continued raining most of the day so we didn't stop at Franz Josef Glacier either. In Hokitika we finally checked the tide tables for Greymouth and noted that the high tide was about 3:30 pm—it was 2pm. So we didn't get a chance to wander around Hokitika like we did last time. It was pouring rain. Frankly, the whole town looked like it had gone over the edge from partial tourist destination to complete honky tonk. Building after building devoted to greenstone carving and sales and none of it low key but all aimed at the foreign tour bus crowds.
Why were we interested in high tide at Greymouth? Because just north of Greymouth are the pancake rocks—Punakaiki. Well worth revisiting, but only really terrific with booming waves and blowholes at high tide. We did make it but no real show as the waves were coming from the northwest rather than the more violent southwest. Oh well. Next to the DOC office is a lovely gift shop with lots of well made locally crafted jewelry, weavings, pottery, photos. Great fun to browse even though we needed nothing. We spent the night at the Punakaiki Campground where a boil water notice was in effect as the storm had damaged the public water supply. $17 pp for non powered site. At least getting the 3 way refrigerator is saving us some money at campgrounds. Having done the rest of the north western coast last time, we turned around and headed south. There are several freedom camping possibilities in the neighborhood and most are easier to spot going south. The coast along here is spectacular and reminds us every time of the California pacific coast highway south of Monterrey but with way less traffic. This bit is even more beautiful driving south. There is also a huge freedom camping area right before the river as you enter Greymouth from the north.
We have done the Haast pass three times, half of Arthur's Pass this trip and since we decided to head for Kailoura before going to Abel Tasman, we took the Lewis Pass. Not much along this route—just like the others but we did enjoy the tiny mining town of Reefton which has saved itself from complete demise by opening several interesting second hand and one pretty good antique store in its old storefronts. I spoke to the lady minding one of them—her doll collection filled the windows with over a hundred dolls she had collected in her almost eighty years. Two friends had filled the rest of the store with odds and ends and they took turns minding the shop during summer season. She had lived in Reefton all her life and enjoyed talking to the tourists as they traveled through. We used the clean, free public toilets that are a hallmark of every NZ town and continued on to the only other real town on the journey—Hanmer Springs. We stopped there only for a bathroom break, but the hot springs pools are its claim to fame and a small tourist center has sprung up around them. Another hour down the road brought us to Rotherham—barely a wide spot in the road, but with a freedom camp (with no facilities) in a field by the community center. Yeah!
We had really enjoyed Kaikoura in 2014. Lovely beach with long walkway, the drive north with lots of interesting sea formations, pull outs to see the seals going north, and just south a great encounter from the shore with performing dolphins entertaining us. Wow—unknown to us there was a major eathquake there in November of 2016. Not only did it damage many of the buildings but it raised the seabed along this east coast in places up to 15 ft. 10 major slips (landslides) had closed the coast road to Picton for over a year. It had just reopened for day-time travel before Christmas. We still enjoyed our walk on the beach but the drive north was now vacant of seals and scenery and was composed mostly of earth moving equipment. All the freedom camping spots were closed until tiny Lake Elterwatch just north of Ward. Pretty full porta loos on a brush filled pond—not the best.
Next day after the short drive to Blenheim, Mark spent several hours at the Aviation Heritage Museum with its World War I and II plane displays—mostly owned and paid for by Peter Jackson and executed by Weta Workshops of Lord of the Rings movie fame. I enjoyed the comfy lounge with free wifi. It is not far from Blenheim to Nelson where we spent two nights in their downtown carparks that allow up to 20 self contained campers to freedom camp. During the day the car parks have a 3 hour limit for $3, so since we were enjoying walking the town and seeing the shops, we simply changed lots. The Montgomery Square lot has toilets that are open 24 hours along with very nice showers and laundry that is open during the day. However, that lot is closed Friday and Saturday nights for the all day Market on Saturdays. So the next night we moved to Buxton Square lot. Each night about 10 campers spent the night. One day we spoke to a young couple from Netherlands who had bought a station wagon and then had it converted in Nelson to self contained. They had been hanging around the area for a little over a week waiting for their self contained sticker to arrive.
The Nelson area is famous for all the local artisans and the Saturday market is where you can see their work. Mark and I have been to probably a hundred markets world wide—it is hard to surprise us with something new or unique—but Nelson had several. Prices were fair for the quality and there were lots of produce and food stalls to boot. Sir Lankan street food anyone? We also spent a good bit of time in a couple of the Asian markets. Since these cater to several language groups, the packages all had some English too. Great fun perusing all the things not having any idea of what they were for.
We were scheduled to begin our Abel Tasman hike on February 11. Originally, we had planned 3 nights in the huts, but had realized a couple of weeks ago that the last night at Awaroa Hut was going to be sort of a waste since the tide crossing wasn't going to work out very well, so we had canceled that night. We spent the night before at Marahau Beach Campground--$40 with $1 showers. The predicted rain arrived during the night and with no let up in sight, we decided to take the Aqua Taxi from Marahau to Anchorage Bay hut instead of hiking--$40 NZ pp. We were very happy we did—Abel Tasman got 5 inches of rain that day and the folks we talked to at the hut who had hiked said the trail was a slip-sliding glop and they couldn't see anything of the scenery. The hut was warm and dry though under the porches every possible place was sporting dripping clothes and even sleeping bags. In New Zealand a pack cover is never enough—we had also lined our packs with large garbage bags and sealed them up tight.
So that was great—all our stuff was dry, and we met an interesting Kiwi couple from the north island and a couple from Melbourne near our age who were doing multiple Great Walk treks in NZ and had done the Everest Trek in 2009 when we had. However, next morning before setting out I noticed that I had a series of bites on my wrist—really surprised as sand flies don't come out in the rain or the dark. The rain stopped during the night and we had a lovely hike to Bark Bay Hut along what many consider the best part of the AT. Mark left his water shoes behind at the Anchorage Bay crossing and so he had and extra 90 minutes added to the hike. Bark Bay is not as nice a hut as instead of bunks most of the beds are just mattresses butted together on wooden platforms, and the toilets are outside. But it has a beautiful beach near the tenting area.
Unfortunately, by the next morning I had noticed that my hands now had upwards of 20 bites and 7 had popped out on my face. Mark had dozens appearing on his head and back—and these weren't sand flies. We recognized the all too familiar 3 in a row pattern of bed bugs. It was our last hiking day and a lovely one despite the itching we carried on to the Awahoa Lodge for a terrific and well deserved pizza and to catch the Aqua Taxi at the beach back to Marahau—always a lovely ride.
We spent the next two days, washing, drying, spraying, sealing, separating our backpacking stuff to keep from contaminating our campervan. Really, it was quite unbelievable. One of the main reasons we rented a camper was that we got bedbugs in NZ in a hostel in 2014 and in a hotel in Argentina last year. We only planned two nights outside our camper in NZ and we got bedbugs the first night out!!!! I know that makes it seem like the bugs must be everywhere here, but they really aren't. But they are around. We didn't do our usual mattress and bed frame check in the hut. I doubt if it would have done any good as the mattresses are vinyl and with wooden bed frames the bugs were probably well hidden during the daytime. What else can you do? Keep your luggage well away from beds and keep your clothes and other gear sealed in ziplock bags. That way if you get them, you can easily separate what might be contaminated from what is not. It can take 24 to 48 hours for the welts to show up on your body so be suspicious right away if you see any 3 bites in a row—more will be coming, so start separating and sealing stuff right away—better safe, than even sorrier. The pharmacist recommended we take antihistamines for 3 days and use a 1% hydrocortisone cream—both helped so you might carry them with you.
So off we set for Golden Bay across the Takaka Hill. Sort of a misnomer, at 3000 feet it is not a mountain but going up and down one of the twistiest roads we have ever encountered—wide though so no worries on that account. We stopped at Hawkes Lookout for the short walk through the limestone outcroppings to an overlook—really nice rocks. Golden Bay is quite isolated and still has a German heritage from its early settlement. We did go quite as far as Farewell Spit (last trip) but turned off for Wharariki Beach only a few miles down a gravel road. We tented at the campground last time. The trail from the DOC parking lot takes about 40 minutes but some is in deep sand. You want to go at low tide and if you take the advice of the Frenzy book, head south like we did in 2014 to wander among the sea stacks, arches, etc. You cannot freedom camp here.
Driving on now going south we turned off at the sign for Anatori River, a 25 mile jaunt across the top of the island to the west coast. The last hour is on gravel—but not wash-boarded. No gas, one cafe, a sign that says accommodations, but really out in the nowhere. The road skirts the Whanganui Inlet most of the way—mud at low tide, quite lovely when the tide is in. After Paturau River bridge the road is a little rougher but still 2 wheel drive. There is a freedom camp at Paturau but no sign—use the kilometer info in the Frenzy book. He also suggests a great beach walk there at low tide. We ended up spending the night just before the ford of the Anatori River—end of the road with only two other Kiwi campers there. There is also a primitive campground with toilet just before you go down over the last hill to the ford. No sign, just another gravel road heading off so follow Frenzy's kilometer guides. That campground is right above the beach so much nicer than near the ford. However not for larger vehicles. Bring your bug repellant. The surrounding limestone cliffs are terrific but apparently sand flies really like the west coast scenery.
One of my favorite hikes in 2014 was in The Grove just east of Takaka. A less than hour's easy walk right out of Indiana Jones. (see Frenzy) Further down east is also the end of the Abel Tasman great walk at Wainui Bay. We spent the night in the DOC parking lot where the only signage was no tenting. The next morning we walked to the beach but because it was high tide couldn't make it around to Taupo Point. We did also go up the Abel Tasman trail which at this point is an old wagon road to the Whariwharangi Hut (where we stayed in 2010) when we did 5 days on the AT. We only walked till we lost sight of the bay as the heat and humidity were too high for a bush walk. Also in the area is the lovely hike to Wainui Falls. The DOC parking lot is always full there (no overnight stays) because it is an easy hike along a gorgeous, boulder filled river to the gushing falls. Lots of places to take a dip along the way. Just be aware that though this is a great family hike, we saw some folks skinny dipping regardless of who was passing by. The local farmer also has a cafe by the parking lot.
Then up back over Takaka Hill—not stopping at Chetwood Forest (LOTR site) this time but headed to buy beer at the Hops Federation Brewery in Riwaka, re-stock groceries in Motueka, and spend the night downtown in Nelson. From Nelson we hurried on east though we detoured to do the paved part of the road to French Pass. We did the whole thing in 2014 and loved the views over the Marlborough Sound but found the paved part to Okiwi Bay not really worth it. We didn't go further as the remnants of a cyclone were headed our way so we wanted to get to a campground outside possible flooding areas. We did stop in Havelock so Mark could eat again at the quite famous Mussel Pot restaurant. $20 for mussels only. The ex-cyclone was to come right across Nelson to Picton on February 20—our ferry reservations were for the 21st so we moved them two days and parked ourselves down in the Top Ten Campground in Blenheim, $40. Up to 8 inches of rain in 24 hours was predicted so we got a site up above the river. Before the rain started we walked into town and found it delightful. Most New Zealand small cities have no suburbs, no malls, so everything is in the central area—here some lovely art deco buildings and redone river area, a few tourist shops, but mostly the kind of store found all over America in small cities in the 1950s. Just regular folks, owning small businesses where their neighbors shop. And very similar to Missoula, Montana, the place we called home before retiring and a most wonderful place to live.
So lots of rain but not much wind for two days kept us holed up in our tiny van. The third night we moved into the 5 spot freedom camp in the Wynen St. parking lot in town and caught a movie. We were the only ones there. It is a little hard to find so the coordinates are S 41 30.751 E 173 57.488. Our last night just before Picton was in the freedom camp just south of town near the airport. There are only 12 spots so get there early. Now on to the North Island.