Camper Van Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island (2013)

Late May in New Zealand. It was as if the leaves radiated their own light in an explosion of reds, golds and greens as the weak autumn sun sitting low in the sky cast it’s rays through the foliage. Winter was well on it’s way – each night brought a bitter freshness to the still relatively warm daytime temperatures. To celebrate (or commiserate) the end of my 8 months working there, a friend of mine living in Auckland flew down to do a short road-trip with me around the South Island. Starting in Wanaka and finishing in Christchurch.

In preparation for our trip, we made a supermarket run and stocked up with a few bottles of wine and the ingredients for my last evening meal that I would have in my hometown of Wanaka. Situated just north of Queenstown in New Zealand, Wanaka is a base-town for skiing in the winter, and various other mountain sports in the summer. I had been working for the skydiving dropzone in the town since the previous October, and as the temperature dropped and the first signs of winter approached, my time was coming to an end.

I hosted a few friends at my home to have a goodbye meal and some drinks, and the night went really well with plenty of shared stories from my time living there. As I bid farewell, it was tinged with the all too familiar sense of loss of friends – a feeling that had become, and will continue to be – a downside to the life of a traveller.

The next morning we woke up to blazing blue skies and sunshine. A friend of mine in London who had lived in Australia, and who had also spent a lot of time in New Zealand, once told me that antipodean skies shone with such a brilliant shade of blue unlike any that he had seen in Europe and especially in the UK! He called them the ‘Antipodean Skies.’

We packed the campervan and headed west, leaving the Central Otago plains behind us – still golden in colour and scorched from a particularly hot and dry summer. We were aiming towards the Haast Pass – one of the several passes that traverses the Southern Alps. The Southern Alps are a mountainous spine that run the length of the South Island, the land to the west is densely forested and humid, while the plains to the East lay in the rain shadow and are relatively drier and sunnier.

The last time I made this particular journey was back in the spring, several months previously. It was a remarkably awe inspiring trip with constant lashing rain and a ceiling of angry black clouds. The foul weather if anything, added a real sense of atmosphere – the mountain tops disappearing into the clouds, their dramatic flanks adorned with spectacularly tall waterfalls crashing back down to earth from an invisible clifftop far above.

On that trip, I had picked up a Swedish hitchhiking couple, and was taking them to the West Coast where they were then hoping to hitch another ride north to the great glaciers. I simply used it as an excuse to go for a drive and to explore my new home in my free time – considering it was still some days before I had to start my new job.

On this second trip however, the battering rains and howling winds were replaced by glorious sunshine, and more shades of green than I even knew existed. We drove through ancient, thick, native forest which threatened to take over the road at any moment. The waterfalls still cascaded down the sheer mountain sides, but with considerably less ferocity than before when they were thundering their way down the cliffs with such a force as to fill the air with mist and steam.

We took a side detour to the ‘Blue Pools‘. The colour of the water in the pools lived up to their moniker, seemingly glowing in the afternoon sunlight. We also spent some time adding to the towers of smooth rocks on the little islands in the river and generally having a very pleasant time!

We reached the west coast by dusk and ate a meal of instant noodles and cheap white wine. By then the weather had decided that, in order to meet the annual quota of 7 metres of rainfall typical of the West Coast, it had better start raining again. We had to run between the van and the various campsite facilities such as the cook house and the bathrooms to avoid getting soaked. I had not been ‘glamping‘ before, and so was enjoying the new experience of actually plugging the camper in to an electrical hook up – whereupon we had lights, music and heating. A luxury that I had not experienced before!

The rain had not let up by morning and while making coffee I got talking to a guy who fulfilled in every way the ‘Great Southern Man‘ persona. This characterisation stems from the early European colonisation of New Zealand when people went there searching for a new life and found a remote, hostile land with none of the infrastructure and support that was available back home. The early settlers had to be tough and resilient, having to constantly adapt, improvise, and overcome. As a result, this created a culture of people of the land, strong in bodies and in mind, living a simple life tending livestock or crops. I felt very much the soft, urban-man in comparison with my converse trainers, and a history of sitting in plush cafes in cosmopolitan cities drinking expensive coffee.

This chap in particular was dressed in a flannel shirt, cargo pants and sturdy boots. He was there fishing with his wife and young kids – they had travelled 16 hours the previous day in a battered ‘ute’, (pick up) stocked with fishing gear, camping stuff and a rifle. His voice was strong, confident and rang with a deep happiness. He had a strong southern New Zealand accent, and his manner was incredibly warm. I wished him and his family luck as we packed up and headed on a short detour South to the ‘most remote township in the country’.

Jackson bay is a tiny little settlement at the end of single road, with only one way in or out – the most southerly point of the road system that serves the West coast of the South Island. This is the landing place where the early settlers arrived when this part of the country was first begun to be colonised. As I am sure those early settlers did, we also arrived through the relentless rain which served to add to the sombre, ‘edge of the world‘ kind of vibe.

It was still early in the morning, the few scattered buildings were all dark and closed – as well as the highly recommended ‘Cray Pot’, a seafood restaurant. We looked out over the rain-soaked bay, and the cold, foreboding seas surrounded on all sides by low hills covered with dense vegetation and contemplated just how difficult life would have been for early settlers. They literally landed here with just the supplies that they carried, and had to make the best of it that they could.

We spent around an hour drinking in the sheer remoteness of the place – in the entire time we saw not a single other person or any other sign of life except for what appeared to be abandoned buildings.

And no penguins.

One thing I love about New Zealand is how quiet the roads are. Often on the South Island, the main roads are literally just two-lane country roads with next to no traffic. Once you leave a town or settlement, the signs of human impact disappear quickly – as does your phone signal! It really feels you are jumping from settlement to settlement, crossing vast tracts of remote terrain in between, and there is a real ‘old world’ feeling to the country.

“We ride north and make haste for Franz Josef Glacier!” – I wish I had said.

It’s no wonder Lord of the Rings was made here. It’s as if New Zealand was created from the earth for the sole reason of being the setting for these films. At one point, during one of our many ‘side hikes‘, we came across a stunning river valley with a crashing waterfall at one end. The sides of the valley were thickly forested and it reminded me of the scene where Arwin summons the river to flood, aiding her escape with Frodo away from the pursuing Black Riders. (I am a Nerd!) See the video!

We drove north for a few hours along ‘Te Tai o Poutini‘ (the West Coast) heading towards the famous glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef. The ‘iPhone in the glove box‘ trick to amplify the volume served to supply us with music, and we spent the drive winding through mountain roads and forests, not really talking much. Instead meditating in the way that one does when looking through rain-streaked windows.

As we arrived in Franz Josef Glacier, the sudden hive of activity and the rapid appearance of the signs of humanity felt rather profound in comparison to the contemplative silence of the drive. The day was getting late and we began to search for lodgings in which to spend the night – but not before spending a couple of hours in the hot springs. The Glacier Hot Pools in the town of Franz Josef are simply a series of hot water pools each a slightly different temperature, The best part is they are set deep in the native bush, so you can soak surrounded by nature.

The key at the pools is to start cooler, and work up to hot – and then back down to cold again. I found a simple pleasure in the heavy rain collecting on the fabric roof over the pools which then cascaded as a single waterfall into the hottest pool. I relished sitting in water almost too hot to tolerate, yet while having icy rain water dripping down with considerable force onto my head and it took some convincing before I was ready to leave!

We found an awesome camp site where the plots were set far back and hidden into the bush yet they still had electric hook ups. The dense foliage was dripping wet and steaming – the whole place had a ‘Jurassic Park’ kind of feel to it. I am inspired when I see human development fit so well into the natural environment, and it was quite an experience to see such modern amenities and infrastructure designed and built to compliment the surroundings.

The next morning we hiked out to the glacier itself along the glacial valley floor. This is an extremely fast-receding glacier, and markers along the hike tell you where the glacier was at different points in it’s history. It was amazing that as short a time ago as the 1930’s, the glacier was several kilometres longer.

In my opinion the hike itself was, in many ways, more enjoyable than actually seeing the glacier. We spent plenty of time making our way through the steep valley which was covered with numerous, and incredible waterfalls. The rain had let up, and the bright sunshine of this new morning was scattered by the prism effect of the water – casting rainbows in the spray.

After our morning’s hike, we continued north again. The landscape began changing once again into the picture postcard views one can expect in New Zealand, mile after mile we were treated to epic mountain vistas reflected in their every detail on the surface of the mirror smooth, crystal clear lakes.

As the day went on, the winding mountain roads started to give way to straighter roads and agricultural land. By early afternoon the skies once again took on a grey dullness, and the wind had picked up as we arrived in the coastal town of Hokitika. Some experiences stick in one’s mind for odd reasons and my experience in this town certainly counts as one of them.

Picture the scene, it’s grey, windy and I am tired from driving and concentrating all day. We arrived into this new town and it seemed just a little bit strange. There was absolutely no traffic on the roads, nor anyone walking along the streets, it was kind of like a ghost town.

We took a quick walk along a windswept, driftwood-strewn beach to get some fresh air before heading into town to stock up on supplies that we needed before tackling the remote Arthur’s Pass. On the way we decided to pop into an establishment that referred to itself as the ‘National Kiwi Centre.’

We are greeted by a lady sat alone at the desk who proceeds to tell us about the centre in a very strong German accent. She says nothing about the Kiwis, but relishes in explaining the feeding schedule for the resident conger eels. (In a kiwi centre?)

“Are you here for ze feeding?”

When you are slightly bewildered from arriving at an unusual ghost town in the middle of no-where, and then get confronted by a woman who is almost hysterical as she explains her joy at how the eels tear apart their prey, it can be an odd experience! Unfortunately, her accent only served to accentuate the sinister undertones of what she was saying.

After a little pushing in the right direction, and with our suspicions raised as to the lack of any people in the town, (and some fat looking eels) she eventually tells us about her two resident kiwis. Two kiwis! – In the national kiwi centre!

Anyway, I dared to ask to the price of admission and after being told a firm $35, we decide to politely explain how we would think about it and be will come back the next day. She won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and proceeds to tell us that if we like, maybe she could sneak us in cheaper by telling her boss we were students? We thanked her again, and told her that we would have a think about it over lunch. As we walked away we discussed how she seemed a little too keen about having us visit – maybe the eels were hungry again?

After a hasty exit from the town before becoming eel food, we headed East in order to cross the width of the South Island via the famous Arthur’s Pass. We felt the classic road trip excitement as we headed away from the ocean. The flat farmland ahead allowed us to view far into the distance where we could see the ever present Southern Alps rising up out of the landscape. Still 100 kilometres or so away, they looked faint and hazy still, but as we got closer, they started taking on a more solid presence. After an hour of driving, we were once again battling our way uphill and the air began to get cooler once again.

This road was another epic stage of the journey and an impressive feat of engineering in itself. The road wound it’s way ever higher into the mountains, at times built into the steep mountain slopes themselves. The builders had overcome the ever-present waterfalls by simply building the roads through the cascading water with a concrete roof built over the top to direct the water over the roofs of passing vehicles. An experience akin to no-other was driving along and looking out of the window to see thousands of tonnes of water a minute cascading past my window.

By nightfall we had arrived in the town of Arthur’s Pass and spent the first night of the trip not plugged in, although the onboard leisure battery took care of our lighting and heating arrangements. Across the whole country an organisation called DOC (Department Of Conservation) have supplied free (or very cheap) campsites in some excellent places. Ours was $6.00 total for the night and as a result we had bathrooms and a waste dump. The more you pay, the more you get and visa versa.

The town is apparently the highest settlement in the country and is the base for several good hikes in the area. One of which we did ended in a spectacular waterfall scene.

After a peaceful night spent drinking wine, eating simple food and sharing stories, the next day would be our final day on the road. We dropped down out of the mountains and crossed the plains arriving into the city of Christchurch to drop off the camper van and catch our flight. It was incredibly sobering to see the city had, in some areas, been completely flattened – I remember sitting at a red stop light waiting for it to change, and as I looked to each side I could see every other stop light in rows stretching away from me, they would have previously been obscured by the buildings, now the buildings were gone, but the streets still existed.

It was however encouraging to see that now, a couple of years after the devastating earthquake, the city’s population had come together to rebuild. Cafes, restaurants, businesses, offices, homes, and more were now occupying a vast network of shipping containers stacked several high. A new city was being built and I am excited to return in the future to see how it has changed – New Zealand is one of my favourite countries in the world, but for now I would be leaving it behind, but not forever.

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