El and I love ourselves a good road trip. From our WWII sites trek to stalking Game of Thrones filming locations in Ireland to an epic 16 days throughout the Balkans, we like the freedom that comes with driving to our destinations. When we decided to do the same thing while on the south island of New Zealand in March, we knew that there was only one rig we could use on this type of odyssey: a camper van. Camper van culture is HUGE in New Zealand, and described by many as the only way to see the country. El's coworker, who's based in Aussie but originally from NZ, said it best when he texted Elliot, "Load up the camper van, bud! Glory awaits!" We did and saw so much that it took me six months to write this post, so get cozy, mate, glory awaits!
Chapter 1: Paging Elliot & Courtney B.
Our flight to Christchurch from Brisbane was an early one and took about three and a half hours, a reminder that New Zealand may look close to Australia on a map, but it's still damn far away. As we started to land in Christchurch, the coastline and water came into view and we got super excited to get our campervan adventures started. We landed right by the US Antarctic Program aircraft hangar, and I got to see Elliot react in excitement like I do when I see something from 2,000 years ago. While we were flying, the flight attendants came around with declaration cards warning of the huge fines and possible jail time for bringing animal or plant products into New Zealand. To underscore their seriousness, they showed an in-flight video with the same message, and after deplaning you’re bombarded with signs telling you to declare or “bin” anything you brought. Considering how unique an ecosystem New Zealand has, I get the caution, and I can totally see clueless tourists being like “Sooo you’re seeing we CAN’T bring in this pineapple tree with roots attached?”.
Since we’d be camping, we had brought some freeze dried food and snacks (Combos FTW and beef jerky), which we dutifully declared. They also checked our hiking boots and took mine away to be power washed before leaving the airport. Nothing of ours was confiscated though, and they had us repack the food in an official border patrol plastic bag. We then had to put our luggage through an X-ray, but as we were loading our bags onto the ramp, we heard a page with our names announced. Since we had just come from customs, I was worried that we had accidentally packed a kiwi (the fruit, not a person) or something and were in trouble. The problem was, it was loud in there, so we couldn’t hear why they were paging us or where we were supposed to go. We left the security area and asked an old lady at the information center if she’d be able to find out why we were paged. She tried calling someone who didn’t know about anything, and I confirmed with the emergency team via the phone next to the security area. Figuring it was probably for nothing, El called our campervan rental company, Apollo, to arrange for the free shuttle to their lot.
As we were standing outside, I still felt uneasy about why we were paged and started glancing at the bags around us. And then it came to me like a bolt of lightning: we didn’t have our good camera. Listen, I won that thing in a dance off at the Morón Christmas party back in 2012, and I don’t know if my now less-nubile limbs could win another camera in the same fashion, so I went sprinting back to the information center in the airport, slammed my hands down on the counter, and said, “I KNOW WHY WE WERE PAGED!!!” The woman at the desk called up the airline directly, and ten minutes later, a representative brought our camera bag to me. Holy shit, that would have been a disaster if we drove the two hours to our first campsite and realized we didn’t have the nice camera to document things.
When I met back up with Elliot, our shuttle still wasn’t there. The rental place told us to meet at door 2, which it said on the doors as we exited the airport. Another shuttle driver informed us that even though it said door 2, the ACTUAL door 2 was way on the other end of the airport. He asked where we were going, and when we told him, he loaded up our luggage into his truck trailer and said it was on his way. Even though we were grateful for the ride, it was like being in the Crazy Taxi video game: he almost went up on two wheels as he took every turn and almost took the parking garage arm off. It was like an action movie: the arm went up RIGHT before we would’ve broken through it. El and I glanced at each other like “Who the hell did we get a ride from?”
We somehow made it to the Apollo lot in one piece, kissed the ground in gratitude for surviving the kamikaze shuttle bus, and checked in to pick up our motorhome. The quirky German lady helping us told Elliot her life story (like how she once rode her Harley from Alaska to South America) and showed us how to use the features of the Euro Berth 2 campervan we had rented for the next nine nights. I don’t know if she thought we were newlyweds or something, but she kept calling us lovebirds and making references to us “boning”. It was like in the movies where someone is showing off their bedroom and says something like, “and this is where the magic happens.” It was awkward, to say the least.
Chapter 2: Load up the camper van, bud!
The motorhome itself was pretty new and really cleverly designed. It came with pots and pans, towels, sheets and comforter (when I asked Elliot if he thought it’s ever been washed, he replied, “It’s best not to think about it”), a toilet, some storage space, and a bed area that was surprisingly big. The space was definitely maximized and had every amenity we’d need for the next nine nights. After saying “auf wiedersehen” to Apollo rentals, we stopped at a nearby Countdown grocery store to get food, five bottles of wine (which we later learned was way too much), and some Kiwi beers. We loaded up everything into the fridge and food areas, grabbed food at Macca’s (it actually says Maccas on the Uber Eats advertisements) because it was the closest thing there and because Elliot seemingly needs to say ‘hey’ to Ronald McDonald at every city he visits, and headed off to Arthur’s Pass. Right when we started driving, the motorhome was deafeningly loud from the wine bottles rolling all around the cubby space above our heads and all sorts of things rattling around. El and I looked at each other like “WTF?? Is this normal?!?” The fridge door then flew open, and the beer cans and condiments we had purchased rolled out onto the floor. Even though we were driving through mostly flat farmland at first, when I got up to put everything away, it was a serious challenge to my balancing abilities and I thought I’d go pinballing into the table and stove areas. I put a heavy luggage bag in front of the fridge to keep it from opening again, put our backpacks on top of the sink and stove covers, which helped with the rattling, and wrapped the wine bottles in the towels they had provided to muffle the sound. That seemed to help, but it was still pretty loud for the rest of the drive to Arthur’s Pass.
When we started off, the drive was farmland with more sheep than we could count, and the many shades of green made us feel like we were driving through the Scottish highlands. The trees and shrubbery were really unique, which wasn’t surprising considering how isolated New Zealand was. The rolling hills around us suddenly turned mountainous, with peaks that looked like they were made of clay or “dragon glass”. There were some densely forested areas, and we drove through some small villages, but for the most part the only fauna we’d encountered was the same type of dead animal lying along the roadside.
The signage to the different campsites in Arthur’s Pass National Park, our first campsite, was lacking, and we first passed up the Arthur’s Pass Village, where it was located. Even though it was only 7, the town had shut down for the night, but there were some curious keas who came right up to us. We thought it was a common occurrence to see them, but we later read on the "Kea Kiosks" that it's rare to see them, and they want people to report sightings using their app. The campsite was already filled with camper vans smaller than ours and plenty of young people making their way around New Zealand. The rental company provided us with lawn chairs, so we sat outside at first, thinking we'd end our night with an outdoor beer, but these little biting gnats decided that wasn't happening and quickly drove us back into the van.
Chapter 3: Avalanche Peak and Jello legs
Along with being surprisingly big, the sleeping area was surprisingly comfortable. It also helped that New Zealand’s climate is a lot cooler than Brisbane’s, and the temp got into the fifties while we slept. We both woke up at 5am to use the toilet facilities at the campsite and figured we’d stay up because we had originally planned on going hiking at 6. Well 6am came, and it was still pitch black so we had some waiting to do. Just before 7, even though the sun hadn’t technically risen yet, it was light enough to get started on the Avalanche Peak hike. Because we started off in some pretty dense forest, we had to use flashlights for the first ten minutes, but we were fortunate that the trail was relatively smooth at this point. It didn’t take long, however, for the hike to get real steep, and real treacherous, real fast. While we were in the tree line, there was lots of climbing up loose rocks, hoisting ourselves over fallen tree limbs, and overall lung-busting happening. When we were in Banff and Jasper, the climbs were definitely tough but didn’t involve much scrambling. Avalanche Creek, however, is pretty much allllllll scrambling. So much so that we both had to rely on the tree roots blessedly laid out like railings to help us at some points.
While climbing through the trees, we were accompanied by all sorts of different colored birds, no surprise considering New Zealand is a bird lover's heaven. One little guy perched on a branch right by us and let out this singsong that made us burst out laughing because it sounded like something from Cinderella. It didn’t take too long to get above the treeline, which put us at a disadvantage because no more trees meant no more root railings. Although we now weren’t hopping over fallen branches, there were still plenty of loose rocks to deal with, and at some points because of the gradient we were practically crawling up the hillside, grabbing at moss and looking for footholds. At one point I actually considered going back down instead of making it to the summit because that kind of hiking is most definitely not my cup of tea. We were so close to the summit at that point though that I just buckled down and hunkered through the last part of the hike: sheer rock face. It was definitely one of the more treacherous hikes we’d undertaken, even the sign at the entrance warned not to do the hike in winter because of, you know, AVALANCHES. That view from the top though was insane and, like with pretty much every hike, worth the effort.
On the way down, we encountered more than one group of people just starting up the mountain and felt pretty damn good about being the first ones to the summit that day. That was about the only thing that felt good about the descent. When you have a super steep hike going up, it doesn’t magically flatten on the way down. It’s natural to think that the worst part of a hike is going uphill, but it’s the descent where most people get injured. Our legs were pretty jello at this point, and we had to rely on our hiking poles and sense of balance to keep from pitching face first down the mountain. Our knees were definitely feeling it by the time we hit the treeline, and it didn’t get any better from there. In fact, it got much worse with the loose rocks that made up the trail. Somehow, against all odds and personal expectations, we saw the entrance get closer and eventually made our way back to the camper van.
Chapter 4: West Coast, Best Coast
Back at the camper van, we had some hummus and cheese and salami sandwiches that tasted like manna from heaven. While we ate, we game planned the next stop on our trip. We had originally planned to stay in the mountains and hike the easy Hooker Valley trail the next day, but we decided to switch gears and head to the west coast instead. As we drove, at first we were surrounded by farmland and what seemed to be hundreds of sheep and the same number of people out weed whacking, but before long we saw the massive waves of the Tasman Sea crashing onto the shore. We followed street signs to a sleepy little beach town in Jade Country called Hokitika to watch the waves hit the rocks. The name of the town had been spelled out using sticks standing up in the sand, and the waves made a shhhhh sound as they retreated from the shore, validating our decision to head to the coast.
Once back on the road, we were all of a sudden back in the mountains, winding along trying to avoid the reckless semi drivers we shared the road with. The drive took us past streams of bright blue rivers and kelly green grass as we cut through Ross, New Zealand's "Gold Town". The closer we got to Franz Joseph Glacier, we had a mix of green farmlands and glacier mountains. At times, it felt like we were driving through a rainforest, and I made more than one Jurassic Park reference. Once in Franz Joseph town, we found a car park that had shower pods and free WiFi and settled up for the night. We took a much needed shower and used our little camper stove to make an utterly tasteless chicken teriyaki and watched Coming to America. The weather was warm and sunny, and our view of palm trees in the foreground and a glacier in the background was stupidly beautiful and unique.
Despite being awoken a few drunk people returning home a few times that night, and one girl who couldn't stop hiccuping, we slept really well and were awoken the next morning by birds calling to each other, again like Cinderella. The best way I can describe it is they sounded like Kirby from the 90s video game when he makes the sucking in sound. It was raining that morning, so we used the extra time to organize things and eat some breakfast. We had planned on going to the nearby wildlife refuge to see some kiwis until we saw that it would cost $39/person for only 30 minutes. Uh yeah, I don't need to see a kiwi that badly. After grabbing a coffee from a shop and some supplies from the grocery store, we said "auf wiedersehen" to Franz Joseph town and made our way to the glacier.
We parked in the Franz Joseph car park and did a forest walk to get a better look of the glacier cascading over the mountain. People could opt for a helicopter ride to the glacier itself or take an hour and a half walk to the bottom of it. We were satisfied by the lookout and drove next to Fox Glacier and Lake Mattheson to try to get a better look of Aoraki/Mt. Cook. We drove through the valleys of blue rivers and green mountains, and then just as suddenly were back in farmland and along the Tasman Sea. We stopped at Byron Bay and took in the incredible sea views set against a forest of haunting looking trees. On the ground around us, people had written their names and messages on white rocks and arranged them in different patterns. We thought we'd grab some chairs and have lunch outside to enjoy the view but were quickly chased back into the camper van by these hordes of gnats that swarmed our exposed ankles and feet. So instead of lunch with a view, we had to slap the gnats off our legs in between bites.
As we continued our drive along the Tasman Sea, the trees on the sides of the road grew taller and bent towards each other like a forest tunnel. It was very much like driving through a magical landscape, and we were constantly in awe at how quickly and how vastly the landscape around us changed. We saw a group of cars pulled over in a parking lot that overlooked the sea and made a split second decision to pull over. We were thrilled to see a pod of seals sunning themselves on rocks while the waves of the sea crashed around them. The view from the cliffs reminded me of the cliffs of the big island of Hawaii...but with a shit ton more gnats. We stopped at one more beach where I was almost swallowed by a wave when I tried to touch the water and we saw a pod of dolphins swimming just off the shore.
We decided to stay in Haast mostly because it was close to the coast and not for anything special that was there. Because there really was nothing there besides a few motor parks. As the night went on, the place where we parked filled up with camper van after camper van, and we were amazed that pretty much everyone who got out of them was speaking German. Which caused us to turn off our initial movie choice of Inglourious Basterds. Even though there was nothing in Haast Town besides farmlands, we sat outside our camper van in folding chairs and drank beer like some true white trash. Yee-haw, bitches!
Chapter 5: Monotonous Slog & the Shawshank Redemption
The drive to Wanaka the next morning took us through even more rainforest and mountains. We kept expecting to see wildlife because the scenery reminded us so much of Banff, but there aren't exactly bears and moose wandering around the south island of New Zealand. What we did get though were multiple double rainbows set against the mountains. Not too shabby. Our drive took us along the north side of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, both of which had ink blue water with little islands on it. The number of Jucy camper vans seemed to amplify the closer we got to Wanaka, a really cool lakeside town that reminded me of Cape Town.
We parked at the bottom of Roys Peak and set off on our second hike in three days. Our legs were still feeling it from Avalanche Peak, and we knew that Roy's Peak was completely uphill the entire way to the summit. So we were basically masochists with this one. We set off around 9:40 in the blazing sun, and although it was a pretty wide trail with no scrambling (unless you count the sheep shit we had to step over), there were times I didn't think I'd make it to the top. It can be best described as a monotonous slog uphill on a dirt trail that's really steep at the beginning and the very end and only just steep in the middle of it. Although we were in the sun, and the hike itself boring, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the ink blue lake and bustling town beneath us.
Everyone on the hike was really friendly and said hi when we passed them. We got to the Instagram famous viewpoint that already had a deep line for photos which spurred our decision to hike up the remaining 1.5km to the summit. Above us, we saw a woman in a wedding dress having a photoshoot. How the hell she didn't look like a goblin after that sweaty uphill hike (like I did) blew my mind. The summit was a little platform was crowded but provided us with amazing views of the town, the surrounding mountains, and lakes. Well worth the grueling climb. On the way down, El saw a guy wearing the same Gosling's Black Seal (aka his hiking hat) that he was wearing. What are the odds?!? We stopped for a snack down at the viewpoint and got in line to be Instagram famous. We waited for 10 minutes before giving up because people were doing straight up photoshoots. The bride was also in front of us, and we knew it was going to take forever (we were justified when we were halfway down and saw that the bride still hadn't taken her pictures yet). The way down wasn't quite as brutal on the quads as we thought it would be, so we made good time to the parking lot. The whole hike, including breaks, me repeatedly getting dive bombed by a bee, and waiting for photos, took us about 5 hours. What blew our minds were the people who were just getting started when we finished.
I had been wearing long sleeves to protect myself from the harsh sun, despite the heat, so when we got back to the camper van I peeled off that layer and threw it down on the ground like I was Andy Dufresne escaping from Shawshank. We got some well deserved Gatorade at a gas station, walked around town a little, and stopped at one of the billion Speight's Ale House bars that we saw throughout the country and rewarded ourselves with beers and a snack. Our legs were so wobbly that stairs were painful, so we only did a quick stop at MacPac, a NZ-only outdoor store, before finding our campsite, Glendhu Bay. It was a massive car park, but we were fortunate enough to get a lakeside spot with amazing views. After stretching and showering ("shower" for El b/c he forgot body wash and had to bathe in shaving cream), we sat outside and had some pinot grigio while the sun went down. There were plenty of bugs around, as to be expected, but they only bothered me when I saw the walls and windows of the bathrooms completely covered in them. In the middle of the night, on the walk back from said bathroom, I was rewarded by a night sky that was completely filled with stars. It was almost disorienting because they seemed to completely envelope me, like I was in a fishbowl of stars. After living in cities for so long, we had almost forgotten just how overwhelming a sky like that can be.
Chapter 6: Adrenaline Junky Town
We set off the next morning on the short drive to Queenstown, taking us past more farmlands and mountain views. As we made our way through one hairpin turn after another, the city of Queenstown finally came into sight and was framed by people hang gliding in the sky and jet boating on the lake that the city surrounds. Nestled in a valley, Queenstown is the ultimate "adrenaline junky heaven", famed for being the place where bungy jumping was first commercialized and where thrill seekers engage in all types of death-defying activities.
The city itself seemed pretty tame, but the storefronts and signs posted reminded visitors of the primary reason people visit Queenstown: adventure. Everywhere we looked we saw advertisements that peddled hiking, mountain bikes for rent, and hang gliding opportunities. The "downtown" area was pretty typical of a mountain town and had the same look as Banff Town in Canada: rugged but with a twinge of being a little too commercialized. We parked our honking camper van in a public pay lot and stopped at the DOC (Department of Conservation) Visitor Centre to get information on one of New Zealand's Great Walks: The Routeburn Track. After learning it was an hour away, and it was supposed to be pouring rain the whole afternoon, we pivoted and decided to give our legs a damn break and take the Skyline Gondola to the Ben Lomond track for a light hike.
The Ben Lomond can easily be a multi-hour, even multi-day, hike, but after taking on Avalanche Peak and Roy's Peak within 48 hours of one another, our legs were looking for something a little calmer. The start to the Ben Lomond track, especially from the top of the mountain, took us through fir trees and alongside the mountain side, where a rainbow over the lake greeted us and the chorus of bungy jumpers yelling "WOOHOO!" filled the air. While on the hike, we stopped to read about the "wildling" weed trees that are killing a bunch of the native flora, and the placards actually encourage you to pull them out when you see them. We also learned that fir trees are actually an invasive species in New Zealand, evidenced by part of the mountain side that had completely died.
Our holiday park, Queenstown Holiday Park, was conveniently right downtown and made to look like it was this enchanted forest where gnomes live. I'm talking kitchen areas made to look like mushrooms houses. We walked around the downtown area, which was filled with people checking out the restaurants, outdoor gear stores, and the two Patagonia ice cream and chocolate shops within 100 feet of each other. The waterfront area was crowded with people, many with North American accents, enjoying the sunshine and feeding the ducks that crowded around the docks for the jet boat rides, knowing they'd find snacks there. We got in some solid people watching at the Atlas bar and had one more pre-dinner drink at Ballarat Trading Company, a place that looked like it was straight out of the Klondike gold rush with its dark interior and candles burning for light.
One of the top things to do in Queenstown, and highly recommended by our Kiwi friend Nikki, is to eat at the famous Fergburger, which has supposedly the best burgers in the world. Even though it wasn't quite dinner time, there was a huge line out the door, but the staff were really accommodating and gave out menus and even umbrellas to the people who waited. It really wasn't that bad of a wait though, and before we knew it, we had seats at the counter. We both got the Ferg Deluxe with no onion for me and no sauce for El. Since it was Lent and I had given up fried food, I had to forego the fries, but the burger was hearty enough that I didn't even need them. The burger was definitely really good, and it's clear the place is super popular, but I don't know if I'd call it the *best* burger I'd ever had. But then again, I can't come up with a better alternative.
We had a craving for something sweet after Fergberger and got some chocolate chunk cookies from The Cookie Bar, a place whose mascot is the Cookie Muncher, probably to avoid copyright infringement. Cookies tasted good though and accompanied our movies back at the campsite.
Despite my sore legs, that next morning I still went for a run through the town and along the lakeside trail. It definitely helped loosen my legs up, and I got to see everyone gearing up for their hikes and adventures for the day. Once cleaned up back at the campsite, we went to the Ferg Bakery (right next to Fergberger, natch) and got some scones and pain au chocolat for our breakfast drive to bungy jumping. I also got a vanilla latte because I had discovered that Kiwis make a damn good vanilla latte.
After our bungy jumping adventure, we did a celebratory bar/food crawl to a mixed bag of Queenstown spots. Our first haunt was the World Bar, which was decorated with a moose head with a neon halo and lots of teapots. After that, we grabbed a Bitterbitch beer on Perky's Floating Bar aka a boat. Feeling peckish, we got a snack of tandoori chicken and garlic cheese naan at an Indian restaurant right on the wharf before doing some shopping at a cool souvenir store called Roam. We walked along the streets before heading to dinner at Public Kitchen. Located right on the water and highly recommended by more than one website, this place was all about local produce and meats, noting on the menu the farms where everything came from. The ambiance was also really cool as it was decorated with the old-time travel posters that El and I love. The food didn't disappoint, and the sticky pork satay and cheese roll appetizers were probably unnecessary when we saw our lemon and thyme chicken and pork shoulder entrees, plates loaded with meat and roasted veggies. Everything was delicious, but it was definitely way too much food and we had to grab a whisky at The Lodge Bar to calm our guts. Then, against our better judgement b/c our stomachs were basically chemistry experiments at this point, we went BACK to The Cookie bar to not only get cookies but cookie dough for back at the camper. Literally gluttons for punishment.
Chapter 7: It's time we stop, hey, what's that (Milford) Sound?
We got an early start for Milford Sound the next morning and at this point were unsurprised by the ever- changing landscape we encountered. We stopped twice to take pictures because the scenery was too good to pass up: once at Lake Gunn, which was so still it was like glass, and once to get a view of a glacier topped mountain that looked like it was from the Coors Light can. The closer we got to the Sound, the more wild the area became, and El and I both were surprised that there really is NOTHING around except for a cruise terminal and a visitor center with a cafe. For some reason we had expected something similar to Queenstown, but I guess it being protected fjordland made more sense to not be developed. We parked at the visitor center and did a mini nature walk around the water before heading to the cruise terminal to wait for our nature cruise with Southern Discoveries. It ended up being a pretty small crowd for our 2:45 cruise, just a handful of couples, both young and old, and a family with four little kids whose names I quickly learned because they were little assholes and basically took over the boat.
It was cloudy when we took off from the terminal, giving us a photo opportunity of the fjords before a steady rain started. The crew mentioned several times that the rain we had was nothing, especially because it rains in Milford Sound 300 days out of the year. Those are never the pics you see when you google Milford Sound though; they're always these bright blue skies and calm waters staring back at you. The reality is still pretty magnificent but not quite as "blue sky" as travel websites would make you think.
Almost immediately after setting off, our tour guide on the intercom pointed out some penguins swimming off the side of our boat. It was something right out of a movie and fit the scene so perfectly. At that point the clouds opened up and it started raining pretty steadily. The scenery really was overwhelming, and we felt dwarfed by the sheer size of the cliffs that surrounded us. While we sailed, the crew pointed out the bare spots on the mountains due to "tree slides" and talked about the area being first "settled" by a guy named Donald Sutherland, the "Milford Sound Hermit" who lived here alone until he got married. Before him, it was only a temporary place for indigenous people to stay. The area still really isn't inhabited, and only has 300 workers there in the summer and half that in the winter.
The captain steered us towards a waterfall for us to stick out our hands and touch, and the crew then passed around glasses filled with the waterfall water. Even though the rain was steady, the sandflies were still brutal, but we had repellent which helped. To add to the scenery was a fur seal "sunning" itself on a boulder, only to be shortly upstaged by a pod of dolphins that swam alongside the boat and jumped through the air to entertain us. It was like Peter Jackson was directing the whole thing to give us a typical Milford Sound experience. We went out close to the Tasman Sea, and El had a Captain Cook spruce beer (first brewed in the 1700s) while we took in the scenery.
We got back to the dock and drove the short distance to our powered campsite at Milford Sound Lodge. There was zero signal in the whole area, and it was only when El got on the wifi that we learned of the mass shooting in Christchurch. He was the only one who had internet access, so he had the unfortunate task of notifying everyone that we were safe. The place was packed, and people were making full out feasts in the shared kitchen (seriously, one family had 5 bottles of salad dressing and was making homemade bolognese). We, on the other hand, boiled some water and had a freeze dried chicken burrito meal and did some damage on the wine we needed to finish before our flight to Brisbane. True to Milford Sound fashion, the rain was steady throughout the night and didn't stop until right before dawn. We left when it was still dark out but kept smelling natural gas even though it was turned off. We had to keep the windows open, even when it was cold out, because that was preferable to passing out from gas poisoning.
We took the M5 to 94 to enjoy the sights on our way to the east coast. Similar to the rest of the country, the landscape was mostly farmland albeit with more hills and what we call "Gladiator trees" because they remind us of the movie. Our next stop was Dunedin to see the Moeraki Boulders, but there aren't a whole lot of food options along the way. We were pretty hungry and stopped at the first spot we saw: some hotel/restaurant called the "Golden Fleece" that was filled with locals and had arcade games and horse racing on the tv. It was a total "record scratching stop at a movie" moment when we walked into that place because we were clearly the only non-locals. After a lunch of essentially frozen pizza, we got back of the road and got some beautiful views of the oceans. The water color reminded us of the Gold Coast, and we drove through small oceanside towns on our way to the boulders. According to Maori legend, the boulders, which have cracks in them, are the gourds and baskets of their ancestors. No one knows how they got there, but some of the boulders are almost caved in, making them look like loaves of bread. After a quick walk on the beach, we parked at our cozy little RV park and learned that we were close to the time of day when the penguins would be soon out. We followed the map given by the holiday park owner and drove along an unpaved road along the coast to the lighthouse where they lived. We had incredible views of the water and the beaches below, and as we looked over the edge of the cliff where we were standing, we saw dozens of seals sunning themselves on the rocks and splashing around in the water. A couple sitting on the grass nearby pointed out a penguin who was going for a swim just off the shore. We were actually able to climb down to the beach and get within 10 feet of the seals who were just chilling on the rocks there. We obviously left them along, but it blew our minds to get so close to them in their natural habitat.
Back in town, we grabbed some take away food from a fish n chips place and ate at a picnic table next to our camper. We watched Finding Nemo in anticipation of our Cairns trip and had to crush the remainder of our wine and TimTams because it was our last night in our home on wheels. We packed up in the morning and got going around 7:30, with the natural gas smell having grown in pungency in just a day. We once again had to drive with the windows down because it was so strong, and I was worried we would pass out from inhaling natural gas. Not ideal when you're driving curving mountainous roads.
Chapter 8: Antarctica from the comfort of Christchurch
We drove along the coast for the scenic view and got into Christchurch in just a few hours. Our first stop was the International Antarctic Centre, which we saw when we first landed in Christchurch. It was a massive interactive place that celebrated all aspects of the history of Antarctic expeditions. It makes sense that this would be in Christchurch because it's the jumping off point for people on their way to the south pole. Christened by Sir Edmund Hillary when it opened, the centre has an "Antarctic Ice Storm" simulator where you can experience what it's like to get caught in a storm in Antarctica. We passed on that one in favor of the exhibitions on the doomed Terra Nova Expedition, where we walked through a recreation of their camp and read all about the mission's objectives and the deaths of its members. Of less morbid interest were the live animal areas, where we got to pet Huskies (one immediately flipped over to get her belly rubbed) and see a bunch of little blue penguins, arguably the cutest of the penguin species, fluttering around. What was interesting was the fact that all of the penguins there had some sort of disability that prevented them from surviving in the wild; one little guy, found by surfers, even had a little prosthetic flipper. We made our way through the "C130" that is interestingly enough only piloted by the NY Air Guard and the "C17" only piloted by WA Active Duty pilots. We also got a brain-full of information on the geography of Antarctica, which apparently had forests as "recently" as 3 million years ago, but now is covered by ice 2.3 km thick in some places. I also didn't realize how massive the mountains down there are- the tallest one is a mind boggling 16,000 feet and made our 1,800 meter climb of Avalanche Peak seem like kid stuff. Our last stop at the centre was a ride in the Hagglund (the actual vehicles used on the continent) over an obstacle course designed to simulate going over snow drifts, ice, rocks, and water. Despite being insanely bumpy as you'd expect, it was a really cool experience.
On our drive back to the city center, we stopped at a campsite to dump our grey water (the water we used to wash dishes) and finally solved the mystery of the "natural gas" smell; this whole time it was the grey water that was grossing us out. We hadn't used the toilet b/c we had always found a campsite, so we knew that wasn't the source, but we hadn't even considered that the grey water was what was polluting our nostrils. Prometheus, we ain't.
We dropped off our home on wheels, got nickled and dimed by the RV company, and took an Uber to Canterbury Museum in downtown Christchurch. The sidewalks were completely full of people paying their respects to the victims of the mosque shooting that had only happened three days prior. A memorial had been set up, and the flowers, cards, candles, and stuffed animals spanned the entire city block and covered 3/4 of the sidewalk. Signs in both English and Maori expressed solidarity with the survivors and victims' families, and people gathered there were visibly upset that something like this could happen in New Zealand, a country with relatively little violence. In the days and weeks to come, the Prime Minister showed true leadership in her support of the families and her pushing to get new gun legislation written and passed almost immediately. She and the media also refused to give the shooter the notoriety he so desperately sought by not referring to him by his name and blurring out his face in courtroom videos. They also didn't have relentless coverage of the shooting, like the US media outlets do, to dissuade copycats from thinking they'd benefit from committing violence. The US could learn a hell of a lot of lessons from New Zealand.
The museum itself was free and started with an exhibit on NZ's earliest inhabitants and their symbiotic relationship with the now extinct Moa, a massive flightless bird. The exhibit on pounamu, the jade stone sacred to the Maori people, was super interesting and told the origin story of the Haka. It was a chant and dance done by a chief in celebration of escaping a rival tribe by hiding in a sweet potato pit. The pounamu is still sacred to the Maori people and is found on boulders throughout the southern island. The exhibit had jewelry with intricate carvings, and clubs and weapons made out of the stone. The last exhibit that we went through was the recreation of a typical Christchurch street in 1870, complete with storefronts and mannequins. It was probably for little kids, but I got a huge kick out of it.
Since it was St. Paddy's Day, we had to find an Irish pub to get a pint of Guinness, and got enticed by the Little Fiddle, an eclectic little place that set up an outdoor area for a live band and a local Irish dancing school performance. We bar hopped the rest of the day, trying local brews at craft beer bars and the famous Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn, the oldest brick building in Christchurch. When we walked in we felt like we were immediately transported back to London, and the place was packed with people watching rugby on TV and listening to the band playing in the corner. Definitely good vibes for a St. Patrick's Day celebration. We had an early flight to Cairns the next day, so we called it a night by ten, probably a good idea after our day of being US beer ambassadors to New Zealand.
Our New Zealand road trip was nothing short of epic, and in my opinion the only way to explore the south island. We got to experience mountains, beaches, glaciers, fjords, and farmland in just nine days and all the hiking, boat cruises, and bungy jumping that came with them. Best of all was getting off the grid with Elliot and experiencing adventure after adventure together. If you do end up road tripping around NZ though, just make sure you empty the grey water...
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Tags: Adventure, Australia, Avalanche Peak, campervan life, Camping, Christchurch, dolphins, ExPat Life, hidden gems, Hiking, Milford Sound, Nature, New Zealand, penguins, Queenstown, road trip, seals, sightseeing, South Island, travel, travel tips, vacation