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Touring New Zealand 1997

The New Year in North Island

We left England in freezing conditions - there was ice half way across the Thames - whilst New Zealand was under a different Meteorological threat from Cyclone Fergus whose track was predicted to pass over the Bay of Islands, down over Auckland continuing South over our intended path. In the event it's path was slightly to the East but there was still considerable damage to even main roads and many campers and drivers were cut off in Northland. Conditions were returning to normal when we arrived and the New Year was seen in with a memorable barbecue at Chris and Ralph's - in fact it was seen in several times as we insisted on further toasts at GMT (1300 local time) and we could not forget Europe could we. It seemed odd to see in the New Year with the Sun right overhead. By strange coincidence Ralph was also suffering his first retirement due to a reorganization at his work which had led to him and several other senior staff taking redundancy packages. They have a strange tradition of shaving their heads under such situations which Pete was not prepared to follow after his sunburn last year.

We start Touring: After a couple of lazy days in the sun we picked up a hire car as we were due to head South for Wellington and South Island. We were quite glad to wake to rain as a long drive in baking conditions could have been unwelcome. We broke the journey to Wellington at Taupo which is the largest inland lake in New Zealand formed by one of the greatest volcanic explosions the world has known and over 600 square kilometers in area. We collected a stock of pumice at the lake side for the holiday and so light it hardly seemed to dent the water. Taupo town is a complete contrast to the magnificent surrounding scenery of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanic/geothermal activity. It is a home of fast food, slow food, drinking places and wine shops but totally lacking even a Dairy where food could be bought - we gave in and drove to a supermarket out of town - the added value society gone wild.

On the way from Taupo to Wellington we stopped for coffee and cake in an unusual restaurant built into an old DC3 Dakota suspended at the roadside. The inside walls were covered with fascinating history and photographs from it's 50,000 hours flying logged in many roles from 1944 to 1981. Nearly half the 10,000 Dakotas built are still operating.

Windy City: Wellington seemed less windy than usual, perhaps because the tail enders of the BT Challenge yachts were trying to work their way in! We had a look at them in the harbour and the active displays comprising repairs to sails etc. going on - it would be 6 weeks before the next leg started to Australia en route back to the UK. We rode up the famous cable car and back to the hotel via the botanical garden where we saw more giant specimens of Pohutukawa - better known as the NZ Christmas Tree - with it's magnificent Crimson flowers which appear in December.

South Island

Christchurch by train: Next day down across the ferry to Picton and down the coast by train to Christchurch. We were late in and walked downtown to look for a meal and ended up in an Irish pub on the Square opposite the Cathedral called Bailie's and sat down just as a very good Irish band called Boru started to play. The steaks were enormous and we got extra salads - perhaps because I happened to be wearing an Irish green sweatshirt. We ended up staying till late singing Irish and old English songs and drinking far too many of the dark beers. They have now started to brew Guinness under license in New Zealand and the launch was at Bailie's.

The Camper Van

We picked up a Camper early Sunday morning for a week. This was our first experience of motor-caravans or for that matter any form of camping or camp sites and it was an interesting comparison to boating. The camper was small by RV (Recreational Vehicle) standards but has the basics for civilized touring, most important of which was a fridge to keep wine and food cool, a cooker and a sink with hot water heated by the engine. The seats and table folded down to give full size bed leaving only a few spare feet not covered in storage etc. It was based on a Ford van with a glass fibre top giving full standing headroom. It did not come with a shower but the sink tap had a shower head. We hired one of the portaloos.

Pegusus Winery: First stop was to fill up with food and drink at a supermarket where we discovered one can not buy wine on a Sunday. This turned out to be very fortunate as we discovered the Pegusus winery. New Zealanders have a certain flexibility and Wineries can sell on a Sunday. We tried a couple of their Reds and immediately ordered some and also enquired about their restaurant which turned out to still have some seats available. The food was as good as the wine and we were latter to return to eat and stock up. The winery was only started about ten years ago and has an ambitious expansion programme which includes accommodation an increased size restaurant and an expansion of their programme of opera evenings. It is very much a family affair with the father a professor who lectures and writes about wine, his wife has trained as a chef under Pru Leith in London and one son has been sent to Adelaide and has a degree in wine making and is now their winemaker. The 1995 Pinot was exceptional fine for New Zealand and the Cabernet Merlot 1995 almost as good. The Reserve Cabernet 1995 had considerable promise but needs many years before it should be drunk so we did not buy. Thus stocked we headed on towards the mountains and eventually the West coast.

We had a quick look at Hammer Springs and were decidedly under-impressed so continued and our first night was spent in a small pull off beside the Hope River - in New Zealand it is still possible to just pull off the road and camp in most places and that had been the main attraction of the Camper.

We enter Sandfly Country: The Camper worked well and we were well set up except that we had forgotten to buy a fly spray and we had our first dose of Sand Flies. These are only tiny but pack a tremendous bite. We had experienced them on previous holidays so we had plenty of repellent to cover ourselves but they seem increasingly "resistant" and some actually seem attracted to the smell. We therefore ended up hiding inside swatting them by hand most of the evening and consoling ourselves with the Pegusus Pinot. The next day we went over the Hammer pass and stopped at the first store for a large insect spray.

The next major stop was late morning at Marble Hill where we did a short walk up to a rapid. It turned out to be a DOC campsite and we marked it for the future on the GPS as we did when passing other possibles for stop-overs on our return. The combination of never standing still and fly spray inside the camper seemed effective. We then continued through lovely countryside to Westport where we stocked up with perishables and headed up the coast looking for a pull-off on the coast. This proved more difficult but we eventually found one where we once more suffered from the Sand Flies as dusk approached. Pete got bitten on his ring finger as well as many other places. The following morning his finger was swollen too much to get the ring off and we collected anti-histamine tablets to complement the creams from the pharmacy before we set off for the seal colony at Cape Foulwind - well named as Seals in large numbers have a distinctive aroma!

We then stopped at a local beach and collected pocket and shoes full of Mussels for supper at low tide, many full size greenshells. By now it was clear the visit to the pharmacy had been to no avail and we had to return to Westport to find a jeweler to saw the ring off before circulation was finally cut off. Even so he ended up with his hand tied above his head until the swelling abated leaving Pauline driving for a couple of days.

We camped just beyond Murchison in an isolated rest area to cook our Mussels and get ready for the run back to the East coast and Abel Tasman. We took one look at our original target of a real (commercial) campsite which was heaving and backtracked to a delightful small beach for our first swim of the holiday and then rather late in the day set off up over the pass to Golden Bay.

What Camping is about to us: We hit lucky and pulled into a viewpoint which was deserted and had magnificent views. We set up for the evening and celebrated with a bottle of Morton's Methode Champenoise and smoked eel - this is what we had hoped hiring an RV was about! Cloud hung over the mountain tops as we climbed over the pass and started the descent with frequent stops to admire the views. One parking had two entertaining Keas, the local parrots which will eat your tyres or steal your wiper blades or even your hat given half a chance.

The "Camp Site" mentality: Golden Bay was less populated than Tasman Bay and we decided to try a commercial camp site. We stayed at Pakawa which we can recommend and that gave considerable insight into the "camp site mentality". Camping, whether you have a tent, camper or luxury caravan actually centers round a large facility block with showers, cooking, washing etc facilities and the tents seem to only be used for sleeping and sometimes cooking. Early in the morning you find a stream of sleepy kids shuffling with toothpaste on brushes and crossed legs towards this block followed by parents with billy cans to boil their water and bowls of washing up. Our site cent red so much round "the block" that it did not even seem to have a dump point for waste water or chemical toilets! All very strange. We ignored the camping conventions and continued in the style to which we were accustomed apart from occasional use of the better facilities.

Pakawa Camp Site - A super position: The setting was however magnificent. We had a site no more 5 meters from the edge of the beach, one of a group of four, separated from the next groups by a hedge of Rata (or maybe Pohutakawa as we are not sure we can tell the difference). The beach was miles of golden sands but at a very shallow angle so you had to go a long way to get deep enough for a swim or even to reach the edge. It was also teaming with life at low water which the natives attacked with spades and buckets. The wild life responded in kind by going for ones feet with claws and pincers, but only at low tide!

Farewell Spit: We decided to stay for two days so we could investigate further north including Farewell Spit. This is a 30 kilometer long sand spit at the Northmost extremity of South Island which is a bird sanctuary. We walked out onto part of the spit but it was disappointing at low tide as it turns to kilometers of sand/mud flats with very little wild life close enough to see - it was not helped by driving rain and high winds from the edge of cyclone Drena. The spit is so shallow shelving and extensive they have frequent whale beachings. The outer edge was more spectacular with sand dunes and breaking surf as far as th eye could see.

The first DOC campsite: The following day left early and decided to retrace our steps and take the mountain route to Christchurch for fear of the sea state on the coastal road and stayed at Marble Hill, the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite we had marked on the way. DOC sites are in lovely places but are very basic with Marble Hill being typical with a couple of very basic toilets where the Sand Flies form queues and a single tap but only a nominal charge of $4 via an honesty box. We were to return to many more as the holiday developed.

We diverted a couple of miles to see the Weka pass steam railway then back to restock at Pegusus with a couple more of each of the Cabernet Merlot and the Pinot Noir 95s and another excellent lunch - they are in the Morton class in our books although they do not produce sparkling wine where Morton's is our favorite NZ.

Christchurch and the Transalpine: A couple of pleasant days were spent in Christchurch before picking up the next hire car with one occupied with a Train Trip on the Transalpine Train to Greymouth. The weather had improved and the scenery was magnificent going through the mountains with a series of viaducts and tunnels alongside the Waimakari river and over Arthur's Pass - all it was missing was a steam loco.


Camping plays a major role in the remainder of the holiday. We had realised on previous holidays in NZ that it was only possible to stay in some of the most magnificent scenery with a tent or campervan. Pauline had therefore purchased a tent in the UK which we brought over. Pauline had never slept under canvas and although Pete had done some camping many years ago tents and camping have changed a lot - no more ridge tents with poles at either end.

Modern Tents: Our tent is a lightweight Dome tent just over 2 meters square which is supported by a cross of fibre-glass poles which are assembled, inserted and tensioned into half circles; a third pole supports a "porch" for storage. An inner is then hung on rubber cords with a few centimeters clearance within the main tent. The inner has a built in groundsheet which comes up about ten centimeters and has zipped doors which are double with an inner of mosquito netting which is absolutely essential. The outer is Nylon which is Aluminised on the inside for thermal reasons and can be put up and secured at the four corners in a few minutes to give shelter and the full hanging of the cotton/groundsheet inner, porch and adding all the guy ropes takes the assembly up to 10/15 minutes. The total weight is 5.4Kg so it can be carried on an aircraft. There are many manufacturers of such tents in various sizes - ours came in a sale from Millets reduced from £89.99 to £49.99.

The materials used for most modern tents like ours are basically waterproof without proofing which causes the only problem in that they suffer condensation on the inside of the flysheet which takes time to dry in the morning before taking down if one wants to put it away in its waterproof bag. You also see the other end of camping on many camp sites with large multi-room frame tents which stay put for many days but they are much less practical for touring. We had not even tried to assemble the tent before leaving the UK as NZ are very worried about any soil etc. entering the country and adding even more unintended wildlife imports.

There has to be a first time: The day we left Christchurch we passed close to several DOC campsites and decided to have a look at one close to Geraldine at Waihi Gorge not really intending to camp the first day. It was very quiet and seemed free of Sand Flies so Pete persuaded Pauline we should do a trial assembly of the tent after our lunch to see how it all went together. Having put it up it seemed a shame to take it down and a quick inventory showed we had enough cold food to survive so we stayed overnight. The dawn chorus led by the Bellbirds was sufficient to convince us we could face camping but not without coffee or any warm food so we invested in a single gas burner in Geraldine on the way through.

Department of Conservation (DOC) camp sites: We mainly ended up camping in DOC sites and Waihi Gorge was fairly typical of their larger sites. It had drinking water, a set of basic toilet blocks, large grass areas, a few picnic tables, rather more barbecue slots and fireplaces. Many do not have taps if they are close to streams because the water quality is so good - even so it is probably wise to boil or treat as there is a risk of Giardia which is a very unpleasant but easily treated parasitic bug. The charges are modest $2 - $4 per person or sometimes per site via an honesty box.

North Island: Much of the text was written in NZ on the palmtop and has concentrated on South Island and Activities such as camping we have not previously indulged in. There is a more comprehensive write up of North Island in the report of our New Zealand Holiday in 96.

Pictures of New Zealand: We have put some of the more spectacular pictures from the 22 films Pauline took into a North Island Picture Gallery and a South Island Picture Gallery now they have been converted to CD ROM.

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