Dear friends and family,
Greetings from the bottom of South Island! After a lovely Christmas holiday period in the Bay of Islands, and a couple of weeks working on the boat in Opua and Russell, we are spending a month and a half seeing New Zealand by van. When we were planning it, this seemed like a long time, but it is not at all enough time to do justice to this impressive country. We are already making notes for a return visit :)
As this email has been several weeks in the making, written while we camped at remote sites, close to the roar of the surf or river, but far from Internet coverage, it has grown to rather mammoth proportions. Feel free to skim it or come back to it in bites. At least by the end, you will know what we have been up to!
Back in January (the day before we participated with our friends on Nirvana in the classic boat sailing race in Russell) we secured Fluenta on a rented mooring and stuffed six weeks worth of gear and three children into our minivan. We spent the first couple of days with Max's cousin and her husband in Auckland. I hadn't seen them since last year, so it was nice to catch up. It is a highlight of our time here, so far from Canada, that we have family to visit just down the road.
Everyone we had talked to about our plans had given us advice on where to stop between Auckland and the Wellington ferry terminal, and when I looked at my notes of the "don't miss" spots, there was unanimous encouragement to go to Lake Taupo. This beautiful location lived up to its reputation, and we enjoyed our first few nights of camping at a free community-run campground. Unlike most camping locations that I have been to, this place had no marked sites: everyone put their tents wherever they would fit. We arrived just before dark and found a spot that turned out to be in the middle of a Maori family reunion. Given that this campground attracted "all sorts" of folks (including some noisy ones who believed the whole camp needed to hear them singing until 2am, and some others who necessitated the arrival of the police at 5am), we were glad to be in the midst of a family group! Highlights of our few days in this area included viewing the Huka Falls (not tall, but very turbulent), visiting the Craters of the Moon (a geothermal field where we watched steam venting from the earth and listened to the rumbling and roaring of mud craters that looked and sounded like oversized witches' cauldrons), and soaking at the free hot springs that pour into the river outside of town. At the Craters of the Moon, Victoria did her own miniature science experiment when she poured some of her water onto the ground and it hissed into steam as soon as it landed on the 120 deg earth. At the Huka Falls Dam, our timing was perfect: after watching a pair of ducks alternately diving for food and adding pieces of seaweed to a nest for their five tiny ducklings, we happened to be just in time for one of the three daily releases of the dam. From the safety of a well-barricaded bridge, we watched the tranquil rock pool below us slowly become turbulent as the water level rose. AaaaaIt was nice of this area to provide lessons in marine biology, geophysics, fluid dynamics, and heat transfer all in one afternoon!
After a few days in Lake Taupo, we did a marathon drive to Wellington to catch the ferry. On the spur of the moment, we broke up our long drive through terrain that reminded us of the Downs of England with a (much-appreciated by Johnathan) stop at the NZ Army Museum. We arrived with only a couple of hours until their 4:30 closing time, and could have spent much longer exploring their exhibits. Max, Victoria, and Johnathan covered the museum's many rooms and gained a breadth of information; I gained more depth by spending most of the time with Benjamin in the children's room, where he occupied himself with puzzles and toy soldiers, and I had the chance to watch the last 45 min of a moving documentary about a Maori soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valiant actions in Afghanistan, the first New Zealander to be so honoured since WWII.
The Army Museum got us in the mood for our visit to Wellington. After overnighting at the Top 10 Holiday Park, we arrived at the Te Papa museum shortly after it opened on Sunday morning. We had mistakenly thought we could see the museum in the morning, visit another attraction in the afternoon, and perhaps follow this with a movie in the evening: clearly we had been too busy working on the boat to do our homework! Instead, we visited two exhibits in the morning, paused for lunch at a nearby cafe on the waterfront, and spent two hours in the Gallipoli exhibit in the afternoon. In other words, we didn't even see the entire museum! The Gallipoli exhibit was extraordinarily powerful, especially because it followed the stories of several individuals (frozen in time in larger-than-life models) whom we almost felt we knew by the end. Through words taken directly from their journals and letters, and some high-tech 3D models, we had a visceral experience of the campaign. It felt like we knew them. As we exited, I was grateful to participate in the Maori tradition of cleansing with running water after having been in the presence of those who have passed on: a little fountain was placed at the door for this purpose.
Situated beside an industrial park, the Top 10 was a stark change from the river-side camp of the previous few nights, but it was a convenient location before our early ferry on Monday. Our crossing with the "Inter-Islander" Line set the tone for our entire time so far in South Island - the skies were clear and sunny, and the seas were calm (surely the Cook Strait is always like that). We have loved South Island, especially because so much of it reminds us of somewhere at home.
Our first driving day took us across the top of South Island, from near Picton, to well north of Nelson, along the Golden Bay to the Northwest. The first part of the drive was a scenic passage through pastoral vineyards and farms, while after Nelson the road took us on the first of many windy roads that looked on our map like someone had taken a Sharpie marker and scribbled instead of drawing a straight line! We didn't go very far as the crow would fly, but we went around the circumference of the park, and up the side of one valley and down into the next, so it seemed like a very long way (especially after a 6am start to catch the ferry!) Once we arrived at the Department of Conservation (DOC) site at Totaranui (which we had gratefully booked online while we were driving - they were otherwise full) we found that the twists and turns, and ups and downs, (the last 10km of these on gravel) had been well worth the effort: the camp was lovely, and was a good base for numerous hikes. We arrived just as the sun was setting (to the minute!) and nestled ourselves into one of the several big camping 'bays'. We had planned to stay only a couple of nights, but we liked it so much that we stayed longer; we have repeated this approach several times since, and are even planning on extending our whole trip by a few days :)
We were pleasantly surprised by most of our neighbours in this camp: it seems that remote DOC campgrounds, like remote anchorages, attract similar kinds of people, and it was easy to spend time chatting with them while our kids played together (and the loud group of 20-somethings beside us just reminded us that it takes all kinds... the kids wanted to know if we could put a "swear jar" beside their tent so they could make some money, but instead we complained to the Ranger when it got to be too much to listen to!). Some of the other kids had never built a campfire by themselves before, so Victoria and Johnathan happily taught them some of the subtleties of building, burning, and roasting that they have learned over the past few years.
On my favourite afternoon at Totaranui, we hiked (one hour each way) over to another beach, where the kids spent ages building a dam to block a little fresh water stream. The afternoon seemed to capture everything that is good about homeschooling and travelling: the activity stemmed from Victoria's curiosity as to what would happen if she blocked the stream at the narrow part, continued on with participation from Max and Johnathan (Benjamin was snoozing in the carrier, which limited his "help" as well as mine) as they all experimented with different locations, materials, and building methods, grew to include other kids as they came from the camp and showed interest, and ended with something that they were all satisfied with having created: a dam that held its shape as the water poured over it at a designated release point. Victoria made her own style of bricks from grasses, mud, and sand, while Johnathan enjoyed building up the dam with driftwood and sand. Once more, it was fun to play together in the areas of material science, fluid dynamics, environmental engineering, and leadership, all while enjoying a sunny and social afternoon at a beautiful beach :) In the "filling the mama tank" department, it turned out that one of the families who stopped to play was a NZ SelfDesign family (originally from Ireland - mom is a midwife/dad is a geologist) so we found lots to talk about as we watched our kids enjoying themselves. I love these moments of "small world" and coincidence!
All too soon, it was time to head south, although it was easy to see why many of the families we met stayed at the same park for their entire vacation! Our next stop was a private (but affordable) camp at Punakaiki, which set us up for Johnathan to participate at Barrytown Knifemaking (a gift for his tenth birthday last October: this is the youngest they take participants, and he has been anticipating this day for well over a year). Johnathan has written about this day separately, so all I will say here is that it was another "proud mama" event to watch my ten-year-old use forge, hammer, grinders, saws, and drills to produce a very nice knife.
The coastline of the West Coast is spectacular (it reminded us of the Pacific Coast of Canada and the US) and there is some very good surfing right beside the camp. At every turn of the road, I was exclaiming about the view and reaching for the camera, especially since we were continuing to enjoy sunny weather. Max got even closer to the coast with a sunset surf session with the owner's son, who offered surf and SUP lessons and rentals. Once again, we extended our stay by a day to just relax at the camp, catch up with chores (i.e. laundry, schoolwork), and enjoy the space; imagine our delighted surprise when our Irish friends turned up that evening for one night. We finally had the visit that was cut short by the end of our play date on the beach in Totaranui :)
One of the things we learned quickly was that distance on a map bore little relation to the time required to complete travel - both because the roads are what I began to call "organic" (i.e. they don't generally cut through the landscape, they follow it) and because Benjamin demands a stop every so often just to remind us that we are travelling with a toddler! The funniest thing we kept seeing was a 100 km/hr sign followed immediately by a 25, 35, or 45 km/hr because of the corners coming up. On many days, it felt like we were driving in familiar territory in BC, NS, or the US - we saw what could have been the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan Valley, Shuswap Lake, Kamloops, Long Beach, the Oregon coast, fishing and agricultural towns, and Banff/Jasper. The amazing thing in NZ is that all these places are crowded into a few hundred km of space. Suffice to say that it didn't take too many days to start saying "when we come back" rather than "if we come back..."
South of Punakaiki, we stopped for Fish & Chips in Hokitika, which we enjoyed on their famous beach in the midst of the driftwood sculptures that had been part of the annual competition that had occurred over the weekend. Max had been here during his 2001 white water kayaking expedition with the Royal Marines, so it was fun to return as a family.
On the recommendation of the owner of Punakaiki, our next stop was the community campground at Okarito, our base for several days at Franz Josef Glacier. On the first day, we did what we came to call the "tourist hike": this is the one that takes just over an hour, can be done in flip flops or bare feet, and other than a small amount of exertion towards the end where the path climbs the rocky moraine to view the glacier, one of the hardest parts was making way for the hundred of tourists sharing the path at the same time :) Sarcasm aside, we had a clear and sunny day, and a chance for Max, Victoria, and Johnathan to douse themselves in a chilly waterfall on our way back (of course I would have done the same if I hadn't been carrying the sleeping Benjamin...). The following day, we set off early (ok, we set off at 11am) to do the 6-hour return hike up the other side of the glacial valley. This was the antithesis of the tourist hike: boots were required, rivers needed to be forded, swing bridges necessitated mustering of courage to cross, several parts required hands and feet for scrambling, and the altitude just kept going up! In short, we loved it :) By the time we reached the viewing platform, we were well tuckered and ready for lunch. Ironically, just as we got there, Benjamin fell asleep, so instead of putting him down, I kept him on my back during the break. Thankfully, he only had a short nap, and woke up to transfer to Max for the descent. Johnathan and Victoria's mountain goat side comes out while we are hiking, so they generate lots of breaks for themselves by running ahead and then waiting for their "slow parents" to catch up.
The beach at our camp was extraordinary. It reminded me of a moonscape or a graveyard of driftwood bones. Camp fires were welcomed, and there was a plentiful source of wood either for fires in the boxes at our sites, or bonfires on the beach; we did both. With a western aspect, the beach was an ideal spot to roast hotdogs and watch the sunset.
We stopped to do the tourist hike at Fox Glacier on our way to Queenstown, where we camped at Moke Lake (another DOC site). We had considered pressing on; after all, packing the van had taken longer than usual, and we had a long drive ahead, but we detoured to do the hike at the last minute, and were glad we did. The two glaciers were quiet different, and this hike turned out to be a mix of tourist and tricky: the first bit was along a flat and gravelly trail, but the last 400 m were a series of switchbacks where the trail gained its altitude all at once. The kids did it barefoot, and I was wishing for boots! The glacier was a bit closer (500m vs 750m at Franz Josef) so we could see the craggy features much more clearly. While in the area, we saw lots of items in the tourist shops, but no Fox Glacier mints!
Queenstown is the adventure capital of NZ, and for good reason: every corner has an info shoppe that will set guests up with bungy jumping, paragliding, gondolas, or helicopter rides. The town itself was manic, full of young travellers, Chinese New Year celebrants, and lots of traffic. It was rather surreal to drive the 30 min (10 of it on gravel) past the town to our campsite, and feel that we were at the end of the earth! As we were heading back the following day, our neighbour suggested that we park on the outskirts as there would be sheep running through the main street... this sounded like strange advice, but it turned out that she was right. The NZ Rural Games were going on, and the last event of the day was the "Running of the Wools" where the downtown streets were blocked off, and ewes, rams, and shepherds with their dogs each had their turn to race along a course. We ended up parking right in town, and on the kids' insistence, instead of giving the Games a wide berth, we spent the rest of the day watching wood chopping, tree climbing, and gum boot throwing! Along with some 10,000 other people, we had front-row viewing of the merino sheep doing their thing, and then we finished with a round of burgers at Devil Burger (very tasty, recommended to us by the man at the meat counter of the grocery store, and minimal lining up ... they have a competitor on the main road where we always saw a lineup well out past the store onto the sidewalk). We enjoyed the Games so much that we went back the following day for sheep sheering (once the field of 11 was reduced to two, the final round was decided by 0.1 sec over two lambs!), and egg tossing (with a final record-setting catch of over 63m). Victoria and Johnathan won us some Popsicles by winning a wheelbarrow race, and sweet-talked their way into an oversubscribed wooden toolbox making workshop when some other kids didn't show up ... now we just need to figure out where it will fit on the boat! Much as it seemed funny to come all the way to NZ to go to a country fair, it was an enjoyable glimpse into rural life.
We had marked Johnathan's birthday in Barrytown; in Queenstown it was Max's turn. His birthday isn't until April, but he celebrated early by jumping off a perfectly functional bridge, something it turns out that he has wanted to do for a long time. As I could hardly force myself to jump from a 6m railing in Fiji, I did not take him up on his offer to join him for a tandem jump! With AJ Hackett Bungy jumping, Max leapt from the Kawarau Bridge, and rebounded a few times before being collected in a dinghy. Not to leave us out, Max arranged for the rest of us to go on their zip-line. Victoria and Johnathan were slightly too light to go on their own, so we each went with one of them. Other than the moment of being outside the safety gate and looking down, it was quite fun. We even ended up with a second run when we got dragged back to the top: just as we got there, the operator feigned a slip of the hand and sent us down again - this time backwards! Benjamin was pretty calm about watching his family getting harnessed up, but he wasn't happy when we whizzed by him at high speed, especially when we disappeared twice!
As I mentioned, Moke Lake was a lovely antidote to the busy feeling of Queenstown, and a popular destination for day-tripping picnickers. Almost every morning when we woke up, it was cold enough that we could see our breath, and the lake was perfectly still, reflecting the hills that surrounded it into the glassy surface of the water. Once the sun reached the valley, it got warm as if someone had thrown a massive switch. Unfortunately, on the day that we decided to stay and enjoy the lake, the wind came up from the other direction, and blew our tent down! As ever, we were at the mercy of the weather, and there was nothing for Max to do but head to town to buy supplies for the repair, while the kids and I carried our belongings to a newly vacated site surrounded by bushes. The sunny weather returned the following day while we packed up and set off for Gunn's Camp, our base for our visit to Milford Sound.
Thankfully, Max had been able to book our spot while he was in town so we had no time pressure as we drove the scenic road past Te Anau and on to the Hollyford Valley (perhaps a little pressure would have been a good thing - it was quite late when we finally arrived after yet another twisty drive). Gunn Camp was a former Works site during the building of the roads through the mountains, and retains the quirky sense of humour of its long-time manager (Murray Gunn, the son of Davey Gunn for whom it was named, and who ruled the roost for 51 years). The museum gave us a good appreciation of the hardships experienced by the pioneer settlers of the area. We ended up springing for a cabin while we stayed here: after our late arrival, it was nice to leave the tent in the van, and the wood stove in our cabin sold us on staying longer.
Milford Sound was as spectacular as we had hoped. We took a two-hour tour (funny to pay to be on a boat!) and were suitably awed by the heights of the mountains and the depths of the Sound (1000 feet in places). Max was quick to point out that there is a safe anchorage around the corner ... but you will not be seeing Fluenta in there anytime soon! After the tour, we enjoyed a walk around the property and along the waterfront. Hundreds of tourists visit every day, but everything was well-run, and as usual, we didn't have to try very hard to find a piece of beach of our own for our picnic... it doesn't take much effort to get off the beaten track! Our weather was a bit misty, but given that 7m of rain fall each year, we were just grateful that it was dry!
Our next hike was a segment of one of the NZ "Great Walks" to Key Summit, a three hour hike. Again, the weather wasn't sunny, but on the "bright side", Victoria and Johnathan experienced the cold mistiness of the cloud at the peak, which they hadn't done before. As for me, I was glad that I had taken advantage of the clothing booth at the Rural Games and was sporting a new rain jacket whose lining does not shed on my clothes and whose outer layer actually keeps me dry! There are numerous Great Walks in NZ, and hiking this portion of one got us dreaming of coming back to do a multi-day trek. We will have to choose the sweet spot in time where Benjamin is big enough to do the hike on his own legs, and Victoria & Johnathan are still young enough to want to hike with their parents!
I have (nearly) brought us up to date: our next stop was Colac Bay (as recommended by the managers at Gunn's Camp), where we spent one night in a fun little holiday park where the tent sites are only separated from the highway by a ditch and a hedge: it felt like the trucks were about to drive on top of us when they shook the tent with their passing in the night. Victoria and Johnathan had been begging to cook dinner ever since we met a fellow traveler at the holiday park in Wellington, who inspired them with his knowledge of camp cooking, and passed along some of his favourite recipes for cooking over a fire. Their meal of choice was beef stew ("It's all about the roux, Mom") and I was grateful it was someone else's propane we were burning as they started to cook! We have found that our 220g butane camping gas cans do not last very long with slow-cooked meals... Victoria and Johnathan sent us away from the kitchen, and did their own chopping, sautéing, and simmering. I had a chance for a rare yoga practice, and Max had a long walk with Benjamin, followed by an evening in the lounge with a book. Victoria and Johnathan worked really well together, and their stew was well worth waiting for. I think it will show up on our menu again. I am looking forward to being out of a job in the galley :)
Yesterday's drive was along the south coast, with a stop to enjoy fish & chips and explore the Maritime museum at Bluff, which is almost the most southerly point in South Island. Once again, our weather was spectacularly clear and sunny, so we had no problem seeing Stewart Island (and again imagining Fluenta at anchor in the harbour). It reminded me of the visitors to Peggy's Cove who see it on a sunny day and think it is always like that...
We have set up our camp for the next few days at Curio Bay, where we are nestled in beside flax plants that are as tall as our (very tall) tent. This is good, because it sounds like the weather is about to break, and we will be glad of the wind protection. We will stay here for a few days while we enjoy the Catlins, then we will begin to wend our way northwards, completing the rest of our loop over the next 2-3 weeks.
This morning, we visited Slope Point, the actual southernmost point of South Island. Situated at the end of a gravel road and across a farmer's private field (sheep viewing included at no charge) and with none of the ubiquitous Danger (high cliffs) signs that would indicate a government site, it was a lovely pastoral location from which to view the bottom edge of the island and its neighbours.
It began to sprinkle with rain at Slope Point, and it increased in intensity when we returned to Curio Bay to see the fossilized forest that is unveiled with each low tide. Now it is coming down in earnest (something about those two cyclones running around the South Pacific at the moment ...). I have a sense that we are getting a taste of the more typical weather for this area!
Love to all,
PS Given that each of our stops could have been an email of its own, here are some websites that can offer a little more information about the places we have been in the last few weeks...
Lake Taupo - Reid's Farm - http://www.greatlaketaupo.com/new-zealand/freedom_camping
DOC Camping (Totaranui, Moke Lake) - www.doc.govt.nz
Punakaiki Beach Camp - http://punakaikibeachcamp.co.nz
Okarito Camping Ground (Russell St, Okarito; +64-3-753-4223)
Gunns Historical Hollyford Valley Camp - www.gunnscamp.org.nz
Colac Bay Holiday Park & Tavern (email@example.com)
Te Papa (Gallipoli) - http://gallipoli.tepapa.govt.nz/about
AJ Hackett Bungy Jumping - www.bungy.co.nz
NZ Camping App - Rankers.co.nz (very helpful, with off-line maps and info about every legal campsite in NZ)
Milford Sound (Go Orange) - www.goorange.co.nz
It can be a bit windy down here ...