This was our answer to the question: what do you do if you have emigrated to a country, have 2 suitcases, are about to be homeless but can’t sign a lease because you don’t know if you’ll get a visa so you have to be super flexible about where you can live?
Following on from two months in immigration limbo, and being quite aware that our time in New Zealand could be abruptly curtailed as unceremoniously as a hook around the neck of a cartoon thesp, we decided that booking a camper van would give the freedom and flexibility to regain a little mastery over our fate and at least enjoy a few more adventures if the whole visa enterprise ended in nothing.
So we belatedly booked a campa, getting a great last minute off-season deal, to explore the north of the South Island. The plan was a circuit north from Christchurch to Kaikoura, Blenheim, Marlborough, Nelson, Tasman National Park, across to the West Coast’s Punakaiki and Greymouth and through the Lewis Pass back to Christchurch. The idea behind the itinerary was that we were never more than a long drive back to Christchurch if we needed to return but could also drag out a couple of days at any of the stops if things with immigration were going slowly.
Hungry from having performed the Cinderella trick of turning our awful gold Nissan Tiida into a big green rolling Toyota living box, our first stop was an irresistibly convenient McDs to pick up the conveniently irresistible share box. Thus burdened we set-off properly and drove straight to Kaikoura. Had it not been for the wretched rain, we may have explored Cheviot, the wineries and other stops along the 1, as it was we were happy just to note their distance from Christchurch for future visits and push on to the promise of seals and crayfish in Kaikoura.
We weren’t disappointed. As soon as we reached the Pacific, the shore’s boulders wriggled with seals and as we drove our eyes were drawn to brief bobs of body parts above the writhing kelp.
Even after having seen their abundance on the drive, we were still in for a shock when we drove out to the tip of the Kaikoura peninsula. There, inquisitive seal pups roam the car park, playing in the puddles and lapping up the ‘sealfies’. The big males plonked on grasses, seemingly oblivious to the world, are nevertheless given a respectfully wide birth and others are hunting in the surf of the frothing ocean.
Fully dosed up on kawaii (cute), we headed back into town to find somewhere to watch the AB take on the Wallabies for the second leg of the Bledisloe Cup. We ended up in the Pier Hotel and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening watching the All Blacks for the first time in NZ, sipping a beer and sharing some yummy beer battered chips and an absolutely delicious pork belly and coleslaw main.
Since we were self contained (the cassette toilet is only for an absolute emergency!), we used the https://www.rankers.co.nz/tags/freedom-camping website to find somewhere to freedom camp. Even though it was cold and wet everywhere, our little campa was very cosy and we easily slept through the sound of crashing waves and the passing trains.
The next day it was still drizzling as we woke to the deserted beach. After breakfast, we refreshed our emails and received the great news that our visas had been granted! So knowing we could be back we left immediately and carried on north in search of better weather.
It was still raining when we passed Blenheim and the Marlborough wineries. As you can see – or not see since there are no miserable photos – it was still raining when we reached the Sounds. In the grey and low misty clouds, we couldn’t really appreciate any of the beauty and after a couple of freezing weeks in Christchurch, we reasoned that we could always return to explore properly but for now we just wanted to find some nicer weather!
With the trip fast becoming just a recce for future visits, we were grateful to discover that Nelson’s reputation for sunshine is well deserved. We parked overlooking Okiwi Bay and enjoyed lunch before heading into Nelson to have a look around and see its famous jeweller.
After stocking up on fuel we headed for Mapua looking forward to fish and chips from the Smokehouse, which was cheap as chips and very warming as we watched the sunset on the quay.
We’d set ourselves a little drive into Abel Tansman National Park that evening as the camping spot was at the top of Takaka Hill’s steep and windy highway. Though we missed out on the scenery during the drive, we were in for a treat when we stopped and the skies were as clear and as dark as I have ever seen showing the Milky Way and the Southern Cross in all their glory.
We spent the next day walking in LOTR country and drove through the hippy-twee villages on the other side of Takaka Hill but once again decided that the whole area would be better appreciated with a car and a tent (I thought I’d puncture a number of times).
All the cafes were closed for the off season, so we briefly opened Cafe Gabriella at Pohara Boat Club and decided, if we were going to make it to the West Coast to leave back over Takaka Hill.
This time is was still light when we crossed back from the Golday Bay to the Tasman Bay so we could see the Alps, orchards and hops as we made our way down towards Moutere Inn; driving past le Neudorf as we went. Unfortunately, like the cafes, the kitchen of “New Zealand’s oldest Inn” were closed so the guide book’s promised seafood delight never materialised. A pack of crisps, some nachos, a beer and a glass of local wine sent us on our way to that night’s home in Wakefield.
In the morning we set-off on the 6 to the pancake rocks on the West Coast. We followed the Buller river to the Tasman Sea, the gorge road was moody as mist and drizzle lingered in its banked forest. We made a brief stop, but were attacked by sandflies, and we were thankful to escape the closed space when we reached the sea. We had fun at the layered limestone for the 20 minute walk around its blow holes and formations of shrove tuesday heaven.
Chased into our camping spot in Greymouth by torrential rain we were conscious to park up as far from the impressive looking waves as possible in our very wet beachside car park. Driving into town that night for supplies, we remembered just how wet our last trip to the West Coast had been, which may have explained the locals wandering around in shorts and jandals (flip flops). The weather had cleared by the morning so we ventured into town again for a bagel breakfast, coffee and wifi at DP1. Feeling like we deserved a self-prescribed wash, we had been excited to visit Maruia Springs Onsen. However, now we were connected we realised that it was shut (and operates quite erratic opening times) so we thought we would drive over the Lewis Pass to Hamner Springs.
The Lewis Pass was beautiful and we were fortunate that we could use that road as snow had closed it completely only a week before. Hammer’s hot springs on the other hand were really disappointing. While it’s true that we’ve been spoilt with Japanese Onsen and Icelandic hot pools, the salubrious qualities of the thermal waters here came out second best to poor hygiene of the facilities and the numerous organics in the water. On a side note, I still can’t get on board with pay-by-the-hour lockers outside the changing rooms: just charge me an extra couple of dollars on the ticket price and let me pack away my shoes in a civilised manner and without having to worry about topping-up the money like it’s a parking meter.
Following our soak, which was not as long as we had planned, we wanted to camp outside Christchurch for one final night. We almost got caught out without a free camping site but eventually took a little diversion to sleep at a reserve in Cust. It was lovely to wake up there with the birdsong and in the sunshine, knowing that we would be returning that afternoon to Chch as Christchurchers!