Blog #14 - Kiwi Crazy for Camping!

After our week in Sydney, we headed toward the end of the earth – a place folks rarely visit due to the long distance and cost, but a place we’ve had our eye on for some time, to be conquered the only way it can be … by campervan, cross country … this is the real Lord of the Rings land, called New Zealand.

After our week of high-living in Sydney, we hopped on a Virgin Airline flight and we were in Christchurch before we could even blink.  Since we were scheduled to arrive very late we decided it would be wise to stay near the airport to make things easy.  We knew from the next day forward things would be challenging as we’d be living our of our campervan. 

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So after landing at around 1 a.m., we called for our shuttle bus, and we bought a Vodafone SIM for the iPhone while waiting.  Our shuttled showed up at 1:05 a.m. and we were at our hotel one minute later!  Too funny!  We could have walked!  Christchurch isn’t as big as it looks on Google Maps. 

After a restful sleep at Sudima Airport Hotel, we were off on our campervan adventure!  One problem, if you can believe it, is that we didn’t have a campervan. 

So, the first thing we did on the first day of our 18-day campervan adventure of both the South and North islands was to take a long walk around the Christchurch airport to a few campervan rental places to see what kind of deals we could get. 

You see, the summer has just ended in New Zealand, and so off-season prices were just coming into effect.  Also, since we intended to drive the van one-way up to Auckland (the opposite of what most tourists do), we were hoping for some free-market magic. 

The first place we stumbled upon was Jucy Rentals.  All of their vans were super cute, painted bright green and purple, with 1920 pin-up girls emblazoned all over. However, the place was busy.  Jucy informed us that everything was booked out.   Oops.  Now we were getting nervous.  What if our second choice for vans was also sold out, how would we get around New Zealand??

You see half the fun about travelling for this length of time is not pre-booking everything, and just winging it as you go.  We have the time and its hard to plan ahead for everything.   Plus, Steph has been tasked with the mission of being more spontaneous (at Vince’s request), so this is a character building exercise for her, too.  :)

We kept walking and got to the place we figured we’d end up.  It was called “Spaceships” (hey, the other two budget campervan companies are called Escape and Wicked – what a country…).  Well, at Spaceships there were many vans to choose from. 

Some cheap; some expensive.  Some with fridges; some with only coolers.  All in all we were impressed by their service and extra time they spent with us answering our many reasonable questions, and few ridiculous ones.  They had the patience of saints.  

Finally we decided on a very basic model, that was equipped just with a cooler, water jug, double bed and table top gas burner.  Sweet as! (…btw, this is a very well-known saying in New Zealand, and is not a typo!). 

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The cost for this “older” van (which was cleverly named The Rocket) was only $14 per day, because (i) it was off-season, and (ii) they were having a 50% off deal if you were willing to relocate it to Auckland.  SCORE!  

It worked perfectly.  We signed the appropriate paperwork and we loaded into our new home for two and a half weeks.  Yippee…we were good as gold (another Kiwi expression).

Our first stop with our new home on wheels was going to be a local “private” campsite right in Christchurch, just so we could get comfortable and run a few errands before we hit the open road. 

Before we go much further, we should explain something.  In a campervan you sleep in your car, however, you’re not allowed to camp just anywhere.  This is known as “freedom camping”, and while it’s permitted in some places (namely, in the middle of nowhere), it’s generally not permitted in places that have artificial light, asphalt,  or people with teeth. 

So generally, every night you have to find either a campground or trailer park. 

Some campsites are “5 star rated” and outfitted with showers, pools, kitchens and some frills.  These are often regarded as Holiday Parks and they will run around $30 - $40 per night.  The other option is to find a basic campsite that are usually provided in the national parks in the middle of nowhere but close enough to town.  These are called DOCs (Department of Conservation sites) and they cost from $6 to $10 per person, but their facilities are usually limited to washrooms, nothing else!

So we have come up with a cost-saving plan!  We’ve agreed we’d stay in a Holiday Park every third night or so, so that we can do laundry and get a proper shower, and the rest of time we’d try to stay in DOCs with the other hardcore backpackers we’re pretending to be.  It’s working OK so far, kinda.  Without counting our first night (not fair), the current score is Holiday Parks 3, DOC 2.  Ah well, we’re trying at least. 

Also, we’ve come up with another money saving strategy with food.  Because we are equipped with some basic kitchen tools, we buy enough groceries every two or three days for all breakfasts and dinners, but lunch we eat in a restaurant.  It may seem silly to eat in a restaurant once a day when we are fully equipped to cook, but at the end of the day, we find local food to be part of the experience, and we don’t think we’d be able to do NZ lamb or NZ mussels justice on our little joke of a stove :).

So, with laundry done and showers taken, we were ready to get on our way.  Our first stop on the road was Lake Tekapo, where we spent the day, before heading to Mt. Cook for the night. 

Lake Tekapo was exactly as described to us…fantastic!!  The water was the colour of the most beautiful turquois precious gem.  It was very strange and unlike anything we had seen before.  Apparently glaciers had something to do with it – creating a lake full of rock dust over thousands of years.  Well, the way the light hit the water – it was just crazy.

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While visiting Lake Tekapo, we trekked the local mountain to check out the views from above.  This was called Mt. John.  Great workout and spectacular views, they actually had a café at the peak for those peckish…so cute.  As well the University of Canterbury had installed a series of observatories.  We were unable to stay until the evening but we could only imagine how nice it would be to stargaze from up there.

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After spending four hours exploring the area, we headed straight to Mt. Cook to set up camp and get some rest for the next day.  We were going to tramp Hooker Trail….hahaha…that’s just funny to say!  We arrived at Mt. Cook with the sun just setting, grabbed the first DOC spot we could find, boiled some water for tea and relaxed in the back of the van, watching videos and stargazing at the southern starfield through our sunroof that is so conveniently positioned above our pillows.

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These vans are brilliant.  So much so we have decided to bring the idea back to Canada and build our own when we get home.  Mark our words…Steph & Vince’s crazy campervan will happen!!  And hopefully all of our Toronto friends don’t disown us for being so corny. 

BTW, we recognized none of the stars.  Is that the big dipp… uh, no.  Maybe that’s Orion..  uh, no.  This is the southern hemisphere!  Neither of us had ever seen any of these stars before, ever!  So Vince downloaded an iPhone app to try to learn whats going on down here.

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Ok, enough about this campervan:  we wake up in Mt. Cook, which is this super small, barely a village, nestled in the crotch of 10 to 12 mountains.  It had some of the most breathtaking views and was a great place to trek as many paths and bridges were have been constructed for campers to enjoy.  Of course as mentioned earlier, we decided to tramp the Hooker Trail.  We chose this one because we read in our guidebook that after a one and one-half hour hike you will end up at the bottom end of a huge glacier at the base of Mt. Cook (Hooker Glacier).  Neither of us had ever seen a glacier in real life with our own eyes, so we jumped on the opportunity.  Just fab! 

After two days in a row of hiking and sleeping in basic campsites, we were now ready to splurge a bit and head down to the adventure capital of NZ, Queenstown, the birth home of Bungy Jumping (invented by AJ Hackett) and see what all the hype was about. 

Well, OK, so imagine Disney World for adults on crack.  This is Queenstown.

It is a plethora of crazy extreme sport activities and tourist attractions, all of which are extremely pricey – you have to choose wisely and figure out what are the “must do’s”, and what can you skip.  We made a list of our must-do activities, and even still it blew open our budget.  So, since Queenstown, we have now declared New Zealand a “budget free zone”!

After a six hour drive we arrived at our holiday park just north of Queenstown (which we did pre-book as we really wanted to stay right there on the Shotover River -- Vince had in his head we were going to Jet Boat down it). Vince wanted to Jet Boat, downhill mountain bike, kayak and go wine tasting.  Steph wanted to ride in a helicopter, bungy jump and sky dive..hahaha…just kidding. 

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We both agreed to try Jet Boating, we booked this in on our first morning and then decided to go twice as we loved it so much.  Check it out for yourself…so much fun: http://youtu.be/tCRetXCdNBA

That very afternoon we went downhill mountain biking.  This was definitely super unsafe and crazy but heck, you might only live once.  Also, it was highly recommended from our friends in Sydney as a must-do. 

So, imagine going up a mountain in a gondola with your bike attached to the outside and then having to ride down the whole thing with only a helmet and some knee-pads.  It was so hard, and so scary.  We both started slowly, and with minimal falls, we got down four runs in the few hours we had.  We were on the Green runs the whole time, and Vince tried a some Blue sections. 

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Steph fell four times.  Reason?  Left turns.  After a first fall on her left side, something about those left turns just spooked her. 

Vince chipped a tooth.  Reason?  Chocolate doughnut at the snack shop.  Seriously.

Super cool fun though.  Also, silly us managed to fit in a single luge run at the top of the hill.  Yes, we were wearing WAY more protection than necessary! 

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What a day!  So jam packed with action and fun but to end it, Steph needed to calm her nerves and so we did our own self-guided wine tasting at the local wine shop.  This was a great way to try the wine from the Otago (local) NZ region, mainly whites of course.  We were thinking of our white wine loving friends from Toronto the whole time. 

Queenstown was a blast we highly recommend it to anyone who likes extreme sports and has recently won a lot of money playing the lottery.  Super expensive!

After Queenstown, we headed toward Milford Sound, a destination Vince was gunning for, in particular, to go sea kayaking.  It’s a cool way to experience the beauties of Milford away from the usual tour boats, and its also tons of exercise. 

One of the great things about Milford Sound is that it’s so remote.  But this is also a problem.  The closest DOC campsite is an hour away from the water.  This means that in order to get into a kayak at 7 a.m. (we previously thought Vince could only get up this early for golf), we’d have to stay much closer to the water.  So we booked a campervan spot at Milford Sound Lodge (a private holiday park) just up the road from where we needed to be, and we were poised and ready to go.  The lodge also turned out to be terrific. 

The next morning we were off with our tour provider, Rosco’s Milford Kayaks.  Steph in the front, Vince in the back, in a sea kayak!

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All went fine (after Vince learned to steer ;), and throughout the day we conversed with a few seals, and we even paddled under Stirling Falls! 

Milford Sound is big -- not the biggest, but it is big.  At one point we saw a plane passing overhead, and just as it looked like it was about to go behind a mountain it actually passed in front!  The plane, a four seater (max.), which looked to us no bigger than a fly, was actually flying inside Milford Sound.  Totally crazy, and it instantly put the huge dimensions (mountain peaks approx.. 1500 meters high, fiord approx. 1000m width) into perspective.

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It took five hours, but we managed to paddle the whole length of Milford Sound all the way to the Tasman Sea.  This was the kinda-hardcore “Morning Glory” trip we were hoping for.  Lucky for us, it also included a water taxi back to the dock (which was great, because after five hours on the water, we all needed to answer another type of natures call :).

What a nice day and a great way to end this weekly blog.  Until next time, happy travels and happy adventures.  You must really think about coming to New Zealand….it’s surreal.  We highly recommend a visit as well as doing it by campervan.  So smooth! (Kiwi expression for cool).

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