Day 19 – Christchurch

Another and hopefully final early start. Cereals for breakfast, quickly did the washing up and tidying and we were heading for the main road at 8am.

We were at the bottom of a gravel path by Lake Pukaki and had woken to stunning picture postcard views of the lake and Mount Cook. Getting back up the hill required a bit of a run up and some wheel spinning but we made it, probably waking up all of the other people in their campers in the process.

Once we were back on the main road the stunning views continued framed by fields of purple lupin’s which made the views even more special. We were on a deadline though, 2pm back in Christchurch, packed, cleaned, emptied and keys handed over so no time to lose by stopping for photo’s.

After 100km or so we left the mountains behind and drove through flatter farming land with quiant little villages dotted along the route. That all ended when we reached State Highway 1 and the traffic instantly became busy and the towns bigger.

We drove for several hours until we reached the town of Ashburton which was essentially a large town split down the middle by the highway and sprawling out all around. We stopped at the public dump site and emptied the tanks and then when hunting for a recycling centre. The only one in town required payment and we were too keen on paying so we back tracked to the nearest supermarket, parked on the street nearby and used the bin in front of their building.

Afterwards it was nearly lunch time and we’d promised the kids that we could have fast food once during the trip and we happened to be next to a McDonalds. (pretty much the only one we’ve passed during our whole trip) McDonalds happy meals it is then. McDonalds seems to have changed somewhat since we were last there. They seem to want to be a coffee shop and you order yourself from a digital screen – seemed like an improvement to me. I had the Angus Kiwiburger which had a fried egg and beetroot on top of the burger. It was all as expected – not that satisfying, but the kids loved it naturally.

Back on the road and the final push to Christchurch just over an hour away. The countryside was fairly unremarkable, flat farmland interspersed with small suburban towns.

We’d picked out a couple of potential petrol stations close to the drop off point based on our route. Google Maps decided to reroute us without me noticing and so we ended up arriving at the drop off point without filling up the tank or LPG bottles. We drove back to the highway and found a petrol station filling up the diesel tank and exchanging the large LPG bottle for a full one. We still had the small LPG bottle to go though and that garage couldn’t help. They directed us to another garage 5 mins drive away and we raced off, arriving at the other garage just as another Wilderness camper was filling up their tanks. We refilled the small LPG bottle, noting that it would have been 10 NZD cheaper to refill the large bottle here also (oh well) and then raced back to Wilderness.

We arrived with 15 minutes to spare, parked up, took our things inside and said goodbye to the camper. The lady that checked in the camper was very friendly and chatted to us about our journey and the places we’d been. The check in went smoothly with no problems and 10 minutes later we had a Uber outside their front door to pick us up.

It was a twenty minute drive into the city and we passed through several suburbs, all with large family homes with back yards. It seems to be quite a sprawling city – lots of suburbs, a bit like LA as I remember it but not at the same scale.

By 2.30pm we were at our apartment, checked in and relaxing in our room. The kids were excited after the change of scene and events of the day so after showers and some homework we walked to the nearby playpark. The playpark was really great, lots of climbing apparatus, trampolines, swings all on springy foam. We let the kids blow off some steam for a while before walking back to a Thai restaurant we’d seen on the way.

Downtown Christchurch seems like its going through some redevelopment. There were lots of historic buildings in different states of repair, quite a few had already been replaced with modern buildings. There also seemed to be a lack of people. We wondered if it’s just because it’s the weekend and all of the locals are out in the suburbs.

We passed the temporary Cathedral which is apparently made from cardboard and enjoyed looking at the outside seating for the congregation.

We had a pleasant meal at the Thai restaurant, the kids both tried summer rolls for the first time. The restaurant was just around the corner from our apartment so we went to bed for an early night. We were all feeling really tired! It was a little sad to say goodbye to the camper as we’ve had such a wonderful time over the last few weeks but there’s always another adventure another time.

Tomorrow we explore Christchurch during the day and then board our first of three flights back home in the evening.

Distance driven today: 283km

Grand total: 2776km

Day 8 – Marlborough

Christmas Day and a 4am start, not due to the children but to catch the ferry to the South Island.

The kids opened their presents from Craig and Caitlin (Father Christmas delivered to our home in London) and they were really pleased. Alex got some Lego and Bella, The Game Of Life board game. Cold pizza for early breakfast and then we set off.

We drove the 10mins to the ferry terminal and queue to check in. 3rd in line so plenty of time for the 6:30am.

Bella entered and won the colouring competition on board the ferry, the prize was 10 NZD to spend on board. She bought a lovely kiwi necklace.

The crossing was 3.5 hours sovthe kids also had the chance to watch a movie at the on board theatre – the grinch which the kids of course loved.

Diana and I read and watched the rain.

Once off the ferry we stopped at a camper dump site and refreshed the tanks and then on to a rest stop to have showers and get ready for lunch.

12pm lunch at Hanz Hergog winery. Really nice. Ravioli, pork belly and trifle. Chicken and chips for the kids. 4 wines paired with the meal. No Christmas cracker but all delicious and a pleasant atmosphere.

Afterwards it was a 10min drive back the way we’d came to the camp site. The office was closed but map of where we were staying was on display. We parked up, Alex finished his Lego and we played UNO while it continued to rain as it had been all day!

We watched Dodgeball as a treat – the kids have been wanting to watch it as it came with the camper van. A fairly typical Christmas Day afternoon, just in a cozy camper.

Moved onto Its a game of life afterwards which was really good fun and the kids got into it.

Afterwards the kids played outside in the rain while I read and Diana had a nap.

The girl who lives at the camp site showed us the eels that live in the river, massive. They really enjoyed their meal of left over chicken.

Still raining! All in all a relaxing Christmas afternoon followed by an early night as we were all tired from the early start.

Tomorrow we move into the countryside and start hiking.

Distance travelled today: 50km

Grand total: 1024km

Mince pies consumed: 0

Day 7 – Wellington

Christmas Eve!

We got up at 7am to the sound of traffic passing on the road nearby. Not that it was particularly heavy traffic, just that it was a contrast to where we’ve been staying over the last few nights. The children didn’t want to get up due to the late night last night but their bed covers the Camper’s table and door so no option but to wake them up to do anything really!

My tooth has been gradually getting worse over the last few days and now on pain killers – I resolved to sort it out before we head to the South Island and away from civilisation.

After breakfast and showers we headed for a walk along the harbour front to stretch our legs. We stopped for coffee and met up with Craig and the boys. The children all wanted milk shakes and they were massive! Failing Craig’s golden rule of not eating anything bigger than your head on every count.

We said our goodbyes as we walked back to the Camper for pain killers and ordered an Uber to take us to the Weta Workshop.

The Weta Workshop tour was amazing and inspirational, they create movie props for many of the big Hollywood studios and their credits include The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and many many more. We were greeted by a large ogre at the doorway which was incredibly detailed and looked very realistic. Our tour guide was incredibly knowledgable and clearly passionate about telling us all about Weta. (A Weta is an insect that only exists in New Zealand and is pretty mean looking – like a giant cricket)

No photography unfortunately but each room was fascinating and our tour guide explained how many of the props were made, the various stages and materials and how they were used on set. The attention to detail was really amazing, even down to individual hairs. Every piece looked so realistic. The tour concluded with a demonstration from one of the crafts people who showed us how to get started with modelling using kitchen foil.

For the next part of the tour we jumped on a bus for a short drive to one of their studio buildings to take a tour of their Thunderbirds are go props. One of the founders of Weta Workshop credited the original Thunderbirds tv series as his inspiration to get into modelling and prop making. They rebooted the series recently using hand built props as in the original but with animated characters over the top.

Again real attention to detail and clever use of household materials to make stunning sets.

After the tour we took a quick look around the gift shop and jumped in an Uber to make my emergency dental appointment.

Diana and the kids went for lunch while I was at the dentist. It turned out that I needed an emergency root canal and my gum was infected. Thankfully the dentist was able to patch me up and prescribe some antibiotics to see me through the trip and get me back home. They were closing early for Christmas and the dentist and his assistant kindly ended up staying late to complete the procedure. It’s lucky that I got it sorted today as there won’t be many opportunities (maybe any) before Christchurch which is nearly two weeks away.

After the dentist we walked through the CBD down to the harbour stopping at a play ground to let the children blow off some steam then continued along the waterfront to the Te Papa museum which covers the New Zealand heritage.

The first exhibit was a story about New Zealand’s contribution to World War I which featured huge human models made by none other than the Weta Workshop. Great attention to detail and each piece told a story of a particular soldier from the war. Really impactful but a little scary for Alex so we rushed through the last part pausing at each of the models.

The next two floors covered different parts of the National heritage but there was a lot of reading and the children found it hard to follow. We sped through until we got to the final floor which included lots of objects and some buildings from the Māori culture, we all found this really interesting and engaging.

The last stop for the day was the supermarket right next to the Camper park to pick up some essentials before our drive tomorrow along with some tin foil so that Alex could start some modelling!

Finally back to the camper for a cold pizza dinner and a family Christmas movie on the iPad before everyone in bed by 8pm ready for our 4am start tomorrow and our early Christmas Day crossing to the South Island.

Distance traveled today: 0km

Grand total: 974km

Day 5 – Taupo

Woke up at 6 to the sound of the waves and the sun rise – an amazing place to wake up.

Breakfast all together in the van and then the kids went to play on the playground while we prepared the camper. Refilled the fresh water tank, emptied the grey water tank on the grass in front of the site.

Diana and I took a walk along the beach – stunning.

Got going by 9:30. Headed back the way we’d came from yesterday, filling up with diesel at the BP garage as the price looked pretty good – turns out every other garage we pass throughout the day is cheaper.

Stopped at the Okere Falls Store an hour later for coffee, a gourmet sausage roll and ice cream.

Next up the Countdown supermarket in Rotorua. Traffic was pretty busy and the town was bigger than we expected. Shopped at Countdown buying all the essentials I’d forgotten the first time (seems the family has different ideas as to what is essential – beers not on the list apparently), washing up liquid, soap, toilet paper and bought more food for the next few days. Alex found himself a ball and Bella bought a cute toy.

Back on the road straight to Huka prawn park, another 1 hour drive. Late lunch at the restaurant – prawns no less. Really tasty.

Afterwards we went fishing for prawns, about an hour. No luck. Then finished the self guided tour, playing with the water toys and feeding the trout.

Onto Huka falls 3 mins along the road. Easy parking and a 1 min walk to the falls followed by 10 minutes along the side to see the end of the falls but the view wasn’t as good from there. Beautiful coloured water and really powerful water.

Next to find a camp site for the night. First place which was our pre-researched back up option felt like a music festival and that a rave might breakout any minute – decided it wasn’t for us. Went in to the next option which was by lake Taupo. Found a decent spot close to the lake and setup nibbles and some NZ sparking wine, the sun was really hot and we were sweltering without shade.

We let the kids go and play on the beach and Alex immediately created a goal and wanted to play football with his new ball.

We decided to take a swim in the lake to cool off. Really refreshing and again beautiful clear water. Afterwards a penalty shoot out on the beach between Alex and me.

Back to the camper to set up the bbq and make dinner. Chicken, burgers and NZ wine. After dinner sand castles and some music in the camper, remembering to turn off the speaker this time!

Tomorrow we plan to cycle and swim and then it’s the long drive down to Wellington to meet up with Craig and his boys.

Distance traveled today: 168km

Grand total: 594km

Day 4 – Rotorua

Day 4 – Rotorua

We woke up late, it had been a long night. First Alex fell off the bed with a bump, he couldn’t remember in the morning, then the Bluetooth speaker we’d been using that evening ran out of batteries and started beeping which then seemed to be followed immediately by the loudest dawn chorus (The birds, not Bella) I’ve heard in a long time. It sounded like a flock of birds had descended on the van. Needless to say, we woke up not well rested.

We had a breakfast of cereals and tea in the camper and slowly got ready for the day. The shower was surprisingly good and bigger than it looks. After breakfast we packed up and left by 10am – one of the last to leave the car park.

It was a 2 hour drive to Rotorua and Hell’s Gate geothermal Spa. The roads are fairly quiet in this area and now used to the size of the vehicle, so plane sailing.

We stopped at the Rhubarb cafe along the way for coffee, the owner was very friendly and welcoming and the cafe itself was a little querkie with retro furnishings. We’d originally only stopped to get coffee but the food looked so delicious (it was) we ended up staying for cake and ice cream.

We arrived at Hells Gate an hour later and had a light lunch in the camper of left over pizza and salad – the novelty hasn’t worn off yet and the kids enjoyed setting up the table and swivelling the chairs around.

The first thing we noticed on arrival was the pong of sulphur – so we kept the doors and windows shut. After lunch we took a self-guided walking tour around the hot springs and geothermal activity at Hell’s gate. The pools ranged in temperature from 40-129°C and varied from bubbling to steaming to boiling, all smelled of sulphur and rotten eggs. We all enjoyed the walk and learning about geothermal activity before heading back to the spa.

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Next up was a Hells Gate mud bath in the spa using mud from the area. We changed and slid into the mud filled hot tub, smearing mud over ourselves. When our time was up we took a quick shower before a quick cool down in the plunge pool followed by a sulphur bath.

It was difficult to explain to the children that the sulphur bath wasn’t for swimming and they shouldn’t drink the water or get it in their eyes or mouth. We did manage the escape without any lasting damage however.

Afterwards we sat in the cafe using their WiFi deciding where to camp and if we were to go to the supermarket on the way.

Rather than the backup option we’d planned we decide to drive a little further and stay at the beach front campsite recommended by the Wilderness app – the sea views looked stunning. I called ahead and we got the last spot for 57 NZD, the setting looked amazing and they had facilities to empty and restock the various tanks on the camper.

We arrived 1 hour later without passing a supermarket. The owner of the holiday park was really friendly and welcomed us to the site, helped us park the camper, and gave us some washing powder (washing required to remove the mud stink). We parked up right at the sea front and immediately set to work with Alex preparing the camper while Diana sorted dinner and Bella went to make friends at the trampoline. With the electricity plugged in, gas on, tables and chairs out and the BBQ assembled we were ready to cook.

We BBQ’d lamb sausages, steak and enjoyed with salad sitting outside in camping chairs enjoying the sound of the ocean. This was our first gas BBQ as we usually use charcoal, we all lamented over the convenience and the food not being burnt. Our first bbq of the trip was a success.

After dinner we got down to the business of emptying the portable toilet which was a treat. Bella had assigned this job to herself as we were preparing for the trip but when it came down to it she decided she’d rather jump on the trampoline instead – can’t blame her really.

After everything was packed away I settled into catching up on the blog while Diana read and the kids went back to the trampoline.

We were all in bed by 9pm listening to the sound of the waves hoping for a more restful night.

Tomorrow is a shorter drive and the prawn amusement park.

Distance traveled today: 225km

Grand Total: 426km

Day 3 – Waitomo

We woke up early at 6am, had a quick breakfast, packed, checked out and took an Uber to Wilderness Motorhomes near the airport to pick up the Camper.

We arrived at Wilderness just as they were opening and spent the next hour checking out the Camper. We decided to hire mountain bikes as they did us a deal – we’d dismissed it before as too expensive. After the paperwork formalities the lady showed us around the Camper. So many buttons, cubby holes and features! The kids couldn’t help themselves in pressing as many as possible all the time. The automatic step was the most popular and continues to be deployed and stowed several times on each entry and exit – that may get tired quickly.

Just as we’d loaded our things the heavens opened and we were treated to torrential rain. Diana had to rush back into the office as we’d forgotten to sign the rental agreement. She returned under the cover of an umbrella with the rep so I could sign and the rep returned with a welcome bottle of wine.

Once we’d secured everything as best we could we drove 5 mins down the road to the Countdown supermarket for some essentials, parking across 4 car spaces as the camper spots were tight and I didn’t fancy trying reverse parking 5 mins in. I dashed inside, grabbed some essentials and then set off for the 2 hour drive to Waitomo. The traffic started out quite busy near the airport and heavy rain made the first hour difficult but traffic thinned and the weather cleared the further we got away from Auckland.

We arrived at Waitomo Caves around 12:30pm and parked up. A lunch of Pizza and Burgers from the cafe, we’d over ordered so we took most of the Pizza with us. We explored the gift shop while we waited for our time slot for the glow worm caves and wandered back to the Camper to lock up properly as we’d forgotten to secure the storage lockers. The automatic step deployed and stowed a few more times.

We were back at the tour centre in time for our 2:30pm tour of the glowworm caves, our guide was the great, great, great granddaughter of the Maui man who discovered the cave, she was really engaging, funny and proud to be showing us the cave and the glow worms. The kids stuck by her side and asked lots of questions, essentially making sure they had an exclusive tour. The cave was fascinating and far bigger than I expected. We walked down several levels looking at stalactite and stalagmite until we started to see a few glowing dots in the ceiling of the cave. We then walked into the glowworm “room” which had around 30,000 glow worms lining the ceiling. The guide switched on various lights so that we experienced the glowworms luminescence in the dark and then could see the threads of silk they use to capture their prey of mosquitos and small flies. The glowworm light show was impressive and we were amazed at the amount of light they produced.

We then moved on to a pier at the side of the river and embarked onto a boat in the dark and in silence. Once all 30 people were on board our guide silently guided us through the cave system using overhead ropes while we experienced thousands of glowworms overhead. We emerged via the river exit around an hour and half and pulled into the jetty in the daylight to end the tour. A really special experience.

Next up was a tour of the Ruakari Cave which was 2km further down the road. We jumped in the camper and found the car park which after two attempts we managed to park (still getting used to driving a 7m vehicle). We were a few minutes early so we sat in the shade waiting for the tour guide to arrive.

At 4pm our tour guide arrived and we walked the short distance to the cave entrance. Our guide was American and had been running tours of the cave for a couple of years. He was really knowledgable and great with the kids questions, of which there were many. We entered via a spiral ramp into the ground which replaced the sacred (to the Maui) dry entry on the other side of the cave a number of years ago. The view was really impressive from the top of the spiral.

Once inside the cave we understood a tour throughout the cave system looking at the stalactite and stalagmite and interesting rock formations. The walking was easy going as they’d installed a walkway throughout the whole cave system which was suspended from the walls so they could remove it in the future if required.

The tour majored on the rock formations which were really interesting and quite beautiful. At several points we crossed over the river below and saw the black water rafters battling their way through the darkness on their rubber rings. (it didn’t look that relaxing!)

The tour was circular and we ended right back where we’d started, walking up the spiral ramp and emerging into the day light. We thanked the tour guide and regrouped back at the camper to decide where we’d stay for the night.

The car park was out in the countryside, secluded, surrounded by forest and grassland and actually a really pleasant place to stay so we decided we might try freedom camping there as everyone was leaving by this point in the day. (In theory in New Zealand, if your camper is self-contained, you can “freedom” camp anywhere – in practice there’s problems with private land and a lack of clarity over where is acceptable) I went to talk to the tour operator to see if we could stay there, unfortunately it was private land and we were not allowed. We decided to try Roselands which was our back up option and allowed free “freedom camping” in their car park.

Roselands was a short 10 min drive down some back roads and along a gravel drive. A lovely rural setting and they had space for us to park, so we decided to get a drink at their bar while we figured out what we wanted to do. There was some dissent among the ranks as Alex had his heart setting up camp and firing up the BBQ, but we managed to persuade him inside. Roselands is a family run BBQ buffet restaurant and the owner was very friendly and welcoming. We ordered some drinks ($5 house beer and wine) and sat at the picnic tables outside. The BBQ looked really good so we decided to stay the night and eat there. The beef was amazing, perfectly cooked and more than we could eat.

After a game of pool with Bella and Alex we went back to the camper, set up the table and chairs outside and played some Uno before bed. Finally it was bedtime and we deployed the beds from the ceiling, pulled the blinds over all of the windows and snuggled down. Not without some more button pressing and larking about of course.

Tomorrow we’re off to Rotorua and a geothermal mud bath.

Total distance today: 201km

Day 2 – Auckland (2/2)

The children woke up hungry at 4:30am complaining that they hadn’t had dinner. I plied them with an apple and sent them back to bed. They reemerged at 5:30am and we sat down to a breakfast of Croissants and fresh fruit which I’d bought the night before.

Whilst we were getting ready to go out the kids invented “Mum Bucks” ™ which they could earn by doing good deeds with an initial exchange rate of 1000 MB to 10 NZD. That later changed to 100 MB to 10 NZD and they diligently kept up earning their MB’s throughout the day both ending with 9 MB each.

We set off for the harbour around 8am and walked via Queen Street which was far more pleasent than the route we’d taken yesterday. Stopped for Coffee along the way – an obligatory flat white.

We bought a family ticket for the ferry to Devonport and sat on the top deck for the 15 minute ride across the harbour enjoying the stunning view.

After alighting the ferry we had a lovely stroll along the sea front, stopping for second  breakfast and a glass of NZ sparkling wine. Bella chose Fish and Chips (at 10am), which was delicious and we later learnt is a Devonport delicacy.

I enjoyed the beautiful victorian (maybe Edwardian?) villas along the sea front, reminiscent of San Francisco. Reaching the end of the sea front we scrambled up North Head and discovered the “disappearing” guns, which when fired the recoil returns them into their mountings making them disappear. There was only one gun left intact with the rest being sold for scrap at the end of WWII, regardless the Kids had great fun exploring the pitch black underground supply tunnels, popping out by the gun and shrieking in the dark.

Finally we coaxed them out of the bunker and we again scrambled to the summit to take in the view and for photos discovering a few more gun placements on the way.

We headed back down the steps to Cheltenham beach – a beautiful stretch of sand bordered by more Victorian villas and almost deserted. The girls went for a paddle in the sea – going really far out before they found water deep enough to swim. (Giving Jurmala a run for its money in terms of shallow water.) While the girls swam, I built a sand castle with Alex as is time honoured tradition the minute we locate a beach.

The girls are the tiny specks standing in the center of the picture!

The braved the hot sun for 45 mins (the few locals that were there were all in the shade) before walking back along the suburban streets towards Devonport ferry terminal stopping for our first ice cream of the holiday along the way.

The ferry was disembarking just as we arrived and we joined the end of the queue to head back to the city centre. The return ferry was almost completely covered, so no top deck views, but we did manage to find a few seats right at the back of the boat outside.

After a light lunch at a restaurant by the quay and loosing half of one of my teeth (pre-existing condition, which thankfully didn’t require an emergency dentist – not yet at least!) we then took an Uber to Auckland Zoo.

The zoo majored on African, South American, Australian and native New Zealand wildlife. Highlights being the native longfin Eel which was humungous, the conspicuously absent (in hiding) Kiwi bird and the Tasmanian devil, which we only caught a brief glimpse. The kids managed to negotiate a second ice cream of the day, bubble gum flavoured no less.

We Uber’d back to the apartment and I nipped out to get take away Chinese food for dinner from the restaurant 1 block down the road while everyone else showered. The restaurant didn’t look much from the outside but stepping into 20 large round tables with lazy Susan’s and a menu in Mandarin I knew I was in the right place. Some really delicious and authentic food which we all wolfed down – the kids must have been hungry as Chinese food is usually a battle!

Diana’s friend Ash dropped by for a chat and a glass of wine and then to bed for an early start tomorrow picking up the camper when the real adventure begins.