It is fair to say that the idea for a campervan holiday in April (2015) around the northern half of the South Island was my idea, and not Desiree's. Further, it is also fair to say that she had some reservations (as did I, but I wasn't going to concede that to her!)
My plan was to fly to Christchurch, collect a campervan and then head off into the wild blue yonder. Actually I had a more detailed itnerary in mind than that! Christchurch to Hanmer Springs for 2 nights, then Greymouth, Westport, Karamea, St Arnaud for a night each, then Blenheim for 2 nights, finishing with a night in Kaikoura before ending in Christchurch and flying home.
Well that was the plan. And it happened more or less that way.
Monday was warm & fine - good omens! Although the forecast wasn't crash hot it has to be said.
We caught the Flyer Bus to the Airport, checked in & boarded all without incident.
Christchurch was fine. But it threw me a curveball because the airport terminal has been re-shaped since I was there last!
But we found our way through, retrieved bags, and contacted the campervan company who said they'd have someone collect us. They did.
And then we waited - two hours we waited at their depot. Others appeared to have been there longer than us, but I was irritated.
Damned Appollo Campervans!
Eventually a South African woman took us through the rigmarole (& it's complicated!), we loaded up, and were off!
As it was already early afternoon, we decided to have lunch near the airport - and it was nice. Try Raeward Fresh if you have time to kill & need refreshing.
And then north to Hanmer Springs. We took a small detour to a supermarket in Kaiapoi to get a few basics, then back on the Road.
Let's get it straight right at the off: driving the campervan is easy! A breeze! (Thank heavens!)
I was indulged a few times en route and allowed to stop for a photographs of small rural churches, as is my want. This was a pattern which was to become more pronounced in the near future.
Hanmer Springs is only 90 minutes north of Christchurch, according to the advertising. We managed to drag that out a bit. But the drive was enjoyable. The North Canterbury countryside is refreshingly different from home, and there are growing areas under grapes. But it is dry and parched-looking - tinder-dry!
Hanmer Springs is characterised as an 'alpine village'. And it certainly has that appearance. But in April, there isn't an awful lot of 'alpine'/skiing activity, nor associated visitors indulging in that pastime. Plenty of tourists - just no skiers.
We found the motorcamp, paid for a site, found it, and then had the fun of 'setting up camp', as it were. Power, how to set up the water, toilet, gas, etc! The rigmarole we'd been taken through earlier. "Did she say to ... or to ...?"
But we coped.
And then to prove how onto it we were, we headed into town to have a drink & a meal. That was accomplished at O'Flynn's Irish Bar.
No probs! Back to the campground, setup the slide-out bed (not as simple as we thought) and collapse.
We're really on the Road to Nowhere!
Tuesday was, again, partly cloudy, but warm. We had no definite plan, save finding time for Desiree to indulge herself in the hot pools.
However, I was unable to find my spectacles, which was a worry.
Eventually, Desiree decided we should retrace some of our steps from yesterday in the hope that they had simply fallen out of the Van at one of my 'church' stops. So off we went, back to the lookout by the one-land bridge over the Hurunui then to Culverden. It quickly became clear that even if they had fallen out (unlikely), they would probably have fallen prey to passing vehicles. So, that put paid to that plan. Back to Hanmer Springs!
Desiree then headed for the pools, while I wandered the town, and found some cheap standard reading glasses. After those were both accomplished, we had lunch and a nap. We finished the afternoon with a pleasant walk around a bush-track, went back to the Van, got changed and wandered into town again for a drink, followed by dinner, and a second pool-visit for Desiree, while I visited the "only Guinness tap in town"!
Blacks Point - Lewis Pass Road
And that was Hanmer! Next we're off to Greymouth by way of the Lewis Pass. This is entirely unknown territory for us, having never been this route before. However, once we leave the Hurunui & Amuri River valleys, we ascend into mountain passes (not especially high) where the slopes are clad in mountain beech forest.
And the roads are good quality and traffic light. So we make good time, with a brief stop at Blacks Point for a leg-stretch.
We lunch in Reefton, and wander the small town. I'm especially taken by the old buildings (School of Mines, Courthouse, Oddfellows Hall, Masonic Lodge), and by the close proximity of 2 churches to the Lodge buildings. We happen across Chris Boyd & Cathy Stephens in their pub (I had thought they were in Murchison) and spent a half-hour chatting.
Brunner Mine memorial
Then on the road, past churches and innumerable small settlements, and the Brunner Mine site.
The West Coast at Greymouth
Greymouth is wet - damp & dreary. But the motorcamp is quite good.
Except that it does earn Desiree's ire by advertising "free spa" only to discover that it is actually $5 unless you have a "Top 10" card!
Nonetheless, we have dinner in town at Speights Alehouse, and an early night. Because tomorrow (Thursday) is the coast trip through Punakaiki.
The coast north from Greymouth
But first a little shopping at The Warehouse & Countdown - broom, clotheslines, pegs (the fact Desiree finds all three stowed in the Van later in the day is neither here nor there).
And then we're off. A lovely coastal drive of about 20 minutes - down the wrong road! Works out we turned left instead of right of the bridge and so went completely the wrong way. Oh well.
We find the correct road again and we're off. The road is straight-forward (there's only one place to go, after all!) and Punakaiki isn't that far away.
When we get there the place is buzzing - lots of people & traffic.
When we get out to the rocks, the noise is deafening, and at times explosive; it puts one in mind of the 1812 Overture, as surf breaks against the rocks in caverns it has previously carved from the cliff-faces. Brilliant & fascinating.
And then we head off to Westport - hub of the ... Buller! By the time we get there it is damp and dreary. We get set into the campground and then decide we need to go into town for a drink and then some food. The restaurant we pick is all but empty, but we chat to the only staff we can see - a lovely young local lass who is very talkative and completely unsure of what to do with her life. Hell! Calling Desiree - counsellor extraordinaire! Then fish and chips and bed.
Travelling the Buller Gorge
Friday: Desiree is doubtful, and we've had a bit of debate about this: to St Arnaud or Mapua? Nelson Lakes won. So it's into the Buller Gorge (as it would have been whichever we were headed for!).
Damp, low cloud, moody atmospherics, lush bush/forest, constant river noise, and a raging torrent river accompany us. It's brilliant.
Kawatiri Junction, Buller Gorge Road
We turn at Kawatiri and just 25 Kilometres through a beautiful verdant farming valley we're at St Arnaud. And so is a wedding party! DoC has a campground space for us, and we're entertained by the wedding service. Later we take a gentle walk through lush beech forest beside the Lake for about 1.5 hours, and then get ready for dinner.
A gentle stroll into the Village reveals that the one pub/hotel is CLOSED FOR A PRIVATE FUNCTION - that god-damned wedding we saw earlier! So that leaves us with a choice of Fish and Chips! We chose Fish and Chips. Grrrr!
The night is cold, and cold toes are the order of the morning. But it is also clear, and partly sunny, so there is the opportunity for a few pix in the early morning peace - bird-song, still air, flat water, sharp atmosphere. Stunning alpine vistas. And as they are on offer, I take the opportunity!
St Arnauds, Lake Rotoiti
Then we set off again, back towards Murchison, but only 25Km to Kawatiri. Here we stop for a brief stroll along the route of the railway to Nelson, including a wee tunnel excursion. After that it's easy driving to the Hope Saddle, and on through the Golden Downs Forest to Tapawera, where we take the road which will bring us into Motueka through the 'back door' as it were.
The view from the Hope Saddle
The drive winds along through a river valley, and is the inland route into town. We pause for a light lunch, and a few supplies, then off to Mapua to camp. En route Desiree spies an enticing sign advertising 'tame eels' - which quickly became a 'must do'. So we did. They are large & voracious, and entertained Desiree. Despite the damp, the place seems worth a return visit, being a whimisical agglomeration of artefacts and attractions.
Eel Feeding at Tasman, between Motueka & Mapua
Mapua - a coastal inlet by Rabbit Island in Tasman Bay between Nelson & Motueka
Suitably entertained we move on, just down the road, it must be conceded, to the campground at Mapua. It is nestled by the estuary, and has a range of sites, so we eventually settle on one, and hunker down. The day has turned glowering, and we're not sure of what the weather will decide for us.
However, we eventually decide to wander around to the Wharf, where are a couple of cafes, a micro brewery (well that's a surprise - not!) and a couple of restaurants. We sojourn to the brewery, where I run into someone from work who is on a limited pub-crawl as part of a friend's birthday celebration. But we happily spend an hour or two, then move on to the Apple-shed for dinner, then wander back to the Van for a quiet sleep.
Mapua, we agree, is just lovely, but we're only here for the one night, so the next morning we're off the Blenheim. En route, we had decided (well, actually I had decided) to stop at Founders' Brewery and find out the story behind it. But that was simpler said than done. Actually the Brewery is part of a broader complex owned by the community to celebrate the founding (clue!!) of the settlement. It is a picturesque little complex - part tourist trap, part open-air-museum, part community meeting place. So we happily spend about 90 minutes (& sample the beer range) before heading off.
We stop a couple of times on the road to Blenheim, including having a wander at Havelock, where we visit the local museum - which is just lovely, and well worth the pause. It manages to avoid the common problem of excessive accumulation of undifferentiated artefacts jumbled together in a haphazard manner. Instead it has artfully arranged displays of related items, especially utilising the space afforded by the height of a 19th-century school-house building.
But overall the road to Blenheim is uneventful and unremarkable.
Blenheim - wide river valley floor, and vineyards, and more vineyards
So we navigate into Blenheim and find a spot in the campground. It will transpire over the next 2 evenings that the same site we were allocated is allocated to at least 3 others, and when we decide to bring this to the attention of the 'office' we discover we had actually been allocated an entirely different spot anyway!!
Despite these minor irritants, we endeavour to be virtuous and have a late afternoon exercise stroll, during which we discover a couple of interesting kinetic scultures, and a 'Field of Rememberance' of white crosses. We then have dinner a la Van (sausages and - beginning to ferment- salad), and then wander over to a local German-style bar I had discovered for a quiet beer in Dodson Street.
That achieved, we wend our way back to the Van, with more than a little trepidation. The curse of modern technology means that we know that the night will be COLD as a polar blast reaches Blenheim.
2 degrees C means we suffer (actually I'm just uncomfortable but Desiree suffers, to the extent of having to put on a woolly hat in the middle of the night!!) So the chilly morning eventually dawns - bright and cheerful, but oh so deceptive!
That night is not especially warm but we cope. Monday was planned to be the Vineyard Day: so off we set. Down Rapaura Road with a couple of stops. The most lengthy is for lunch at a "The Vines Village". Then, because we're in the Van, we simply settle down after a very nice (& filling) lunch for a snooze. Oh, it's so hard being on holiday sometimes!
After that we wend our way across the valley in pursuit of the Brancott Estate.
Now this enterprise causes me a few problems. Firstly, let me commend their initiatives such as Native Falcon preservation, and hill-slope planting. And I'm impressed by their sympathetic building style. But I am disappointed in their failure to acknowledge that it is actually a French-owned business (Pernod-Ricard) and to pay homage to the influence of their Dalmation and North Auckland heritage. I found their promo video disturbing because no names were mentioned save that of the WineMaker at the time. Talk about erasing from the pages of history the role of the Yuliches! A real shame. I can't avoid the feeling it is an opportunity missed.
So, with mixed feelings, we head back to the campground. This time we have thought ahead!! A brief rest, and then we wander our way to the same German-style bar as the night before. But this time we're fore-warned! We've worked out that it is related to (albeit separate from) Renaissance Brewery, and that it serves halfway decent food. So this time we're going for food, and a quiet beer.
We don't bother with routine. It's just, a cup of tea (after all, some things are essential), and then OFF! It's "Heaters full ahead, skipper".
The morning is crisp, not especially clear, but encouraging movement. Seems like a clear signal to move south to Kaikoura. Which is what we do, forthwith.
And then we really meet the weather. The wind is fearsome and the air is coming to us from the South Pole without intermediary or intervention. Consequently, the upper peaks we pass are snow-covered (already), and the sea coast is pounded by surf driven ashore by venomous south-wind driven seas. It's spectacular, and bitter, if one ventures outside the Van.
We did only briefly, for photos, and drove straight through to Kaikoura.
The plan was to go 'whale-watching'; the plan was aborted. The wind was too strong and the ships weren't sailing - 3 scheduled trips all cancelled. So that meant an afternoon to wander about, take pictures, and nap. We drove to the end of the road on the peninsula, and started the walk up and over the top.
The views, especially of the surf were intimidating, the geology was impressive, and the wind difficult. Finally, Desiree gave up, to retreat to the van.
We had a quiet dinner in a pub (poor choice - sharing it with a group of rowdy males sharing an after-work drink).
The next day is our final day: Christchurch the road destination, to return the van, and then fly home, where, we hope, Jack will collect us.
The drive south is uneventful, with only a couple of stops at churches. We arrive just after mid-day, and complete the return of the van in a straight-forward manner, in marked contrast to the long wait for collection!
Transferred to the airport, we check-in and await the return.
That's it - the experiment done. Mixed views are the outcome.
Desiree didn't really enjoy the cramped accommodation. We enjoyed the views & travelling comfort (the van gives a higher viewpoint). Driving was easy. Cost is comparable with hiring a car and paying for good-quality motels. Without the hassle of loading & unloading at each motel.
Would we do it again? Perhaps, in a bigger vehicle, a 4- or 6-berth maybe.