A Tent with a View – Camping New Zealand

“Most folks are tourists – they bumble around NZ hoping to ‘see the sights’ without expending much effort to find the truly unique uncommercialized spots. Travellers, on the other hand, are fewer. Travellers attempt to find good info about wonderful spots and experiences.” (Cook. S, NZ Frenzy Guidebook, p.91)

In March 2014, while I was living in Wanaka, New Zealand, I was invited on a roadie.

The trip was planned for 10 weeks, and we would mostly be camping.

Our crew was Jonny from Edinburgh, Scotland, Yogi from Bayern, Germany, Gian from Saronno, Italy, and myself, from the Isle of Wight, England.

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We packed:

3 tents

4 sleeping bags

4 backpacks

2 tarps

a box of cooking equipment

a gas canister

a chair

a fishing rod

climbing gear

4 cameras of various description & a GoPro

a library of Travel Guides, leaflets and maps

and a Nissan Bluebird with a flat battery.

It was cosy to say the least.

It’s difficult to estimate how much money to take on an unplanned journey like this one, but calculating the costs of fuel, food and accommodation is the best place to start. Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites are pretty much everywhere on South Island, and are usually $6 per head, if not free; the fuel for the Nissan was about $100 between the four of us every 2-3 days; and food was mostly budget stuff we could share and cook easily on the camp-stove. All in all, Jonny recommended taking about $3000 (£1500) for a 10 week trip. I managed to save about half that, and travelled for a month, but it depends on your personal itinerary.

Although the majority of this journey was unplanned, some extent of planning is essential. Having a Plan A and Plan B and a Backup is a good way of planning without actually planning! We were always checking out alternatives in our DOC campsite guide and Lonely Planet books.

The journey began on Tuesday 18th March.

A strange mist started to engulf Wanaka’s Mt Iron, as if erasing it from the horizon of my future. But I would be back.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most iconic locations. We camped in the wet and humid fiordland, where there was nothing but rain and sandflies, and a sense of uncertain magic in the air. Steamy mist engulfed the green sea mountains, and the four of us sheltered in the car beneath a tree, relying on a bag of wine to keep us warm! This place is also known as Ata Whenua, (Shadowland), where between the boggy planes are rushing rivers and twisted goblin forests.

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The 120km drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is “a visual cornucopia of delight,” (Cook, S. NZ Frenzy Guidebook, p.196). The mountains begin to approach you on the horizon through the Eglinton Valley, rising up around you, craggy and piercing and belittlingly big. Then you go through damp woodland, passing glacial rivers and pools, finally breaking out at the entrance to Homer’s Tunnel. We simply had to pull over and get out. 360degrees of rocky mountain faces, with fresh waterfalls cascading from sheer mile high drops.

Homer’s Tunnel itself was eerie and quiet. It goes right through the heart of the mountain, and you can see each chisel and pickaxe mark in the walls from when it was dug in the late 1930s; the signatures of over a decade of hard labour.

We emerged out the other side, suspended high up among mountains on a road that winds down to sea level. All around are glistening rocks and dramatic peaks and even New Zealand’s only mountain parrot – the Kea – came out to play, terrorising family picnics at the viewpoints.

On arrival at the gateway to Milford Sound, we celebrated with a compulsory cider from the pub, and then went on the foreshore walk. This is well worth it – especially if you’re on a budget and want to avoid tourists! The walk loops around the shore line, not even 20 minutes, with perfect unspoilt views. The sun hovered over Mitre Peak, casting a dense haze over the seascape with a golden tinge, and The Bowen Falls projected water off the side of the mountain as the spectacular sailing ships drifted across the foreground.

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We made our way back from Milford Sound in neutral, clenching our buttocks every time we went up hill, as we’d all forgotten that Te Anau is the last place to fill up the petrol tank!

That night, we found a beautiful campground in The Hollyford Valley, with wood-burner powered shower huts and a crystal river running right through. It was here that Jonny befriended a character called Ludwig – a French fisherman with a bottle of cognac… but that story’s for another time…

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The Lost Gypsy Gallery

In The Catlins Forest, New Zealand’s far south, we camped at a place called Curio Bay, where we spent the morning of a crimson sunrise surfing with Hector Dolphins. Our surf instructor, a local man called Nick, advised us to go to The Lost Gypsy Gallery, just up the road in Papatowai.

A small group of artists and inventors have put together a compilation of strange, interactive works, mainly made out of recycled junk. An old gypsy caravan, which appears to have grown into the bushland, is choc full of gadgets, experiments and puzzles, while the garden behind – “The Winding Thoughts Theatre” – which you can enter for a donation of $5, is a cornucopia of clever, tactile mechanisms that make you feel like you’re back at the water tray in kinder garten!

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Dunedin

This topsy turvy old city is twinned with Edinburgh, and while Jonny ceremoniously wore his kilt the whole time we were there, the only real likeness to Scotland was the weather! It was however, a fantastic place to meet people and enjoy the Gaelic bar culture, with real pints on pump, and of course, New Zealand’s very own Speights Brewery.

Moeraki Boulders

North of Dunedin, along the East Coast highway, lie the science phenomenon, the Moeraki Boulders. Huge round dinosaur eggs of rocks, all clustered together on the beach with waves crashing against them. Maori legend has it that the ancient canoe, Arai-te-uru, sailing from Hawaiki, was wrecked, and the boulders are the fossilized eel baskets and kumara washed up from the wreck. Scientists say that they are concretion formations eroded from the cliffs.

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West Coast

From the calm and quiet east coast, we cut inland across Mckenzie Country and the Lakes, sleeping mainly in fields hours from any tarmacked roads, where the stars outshone our campfire. Stopping for breaks at the spectacular Lake Tekapo, and Mt Cook – home of Sir Hilary Edmund – we made our way to the wild West Coast.

We got through the bleak village of Haast and headed south along the coast, through rainforest, windy trees, and mountain views, until we reached a little place called Jackson’s Bay. It’s a desolate place with just the ocean and a tiny cabin called The Cray Pot, where fresh fish and crayfish are caught, cooked and served with chips in baskets. Jonny and I enjoyed huge helpings of butterfish, while the boys cowered in the car from the ferocious sandflies.

Making our way north along the hair-raising cliff-edge road, we passed little bays and houses built on the edge of wild beaches. We took the scenic walks to both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, which have decreased in size a lot since the last time I saw them in 2007. We passed through the quaint little town of Hokitika, filled with galleries and greenstone factories, and made for Arthur’s Pass.

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Arthur’s Pass

Lush mountains that look like they’re wearing big woolly green fleeces line the horizon; with rivers running in between. The road criss-crosses with the Alpine Train track before winding up the steep ascent into the pass. Through the mountains, the road is a high-raised flyover, cutting right through the scenery. We stopped at the top, where a group of Kea came to investigate our car, picking and pulling at the rubber seals on the doors and tapping on the back window. They are extremely intelligent mountains parrots; curious and tactile, with a beautiful rainbow of colours on the underside of their wings.

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We lost Jonny further up the Pass, at Castle Rocks, a top climbing destination. These formations loom over the dusty grasslands, framed by grey mountains that look oil painted. They are sacred and were once home to Maori tribes, serving as good shelter and protection.

Akaroa

Matt – a good friend Jonny and I know from Cardrona – offered us a place to stay at his home in the little French town of Akaroa. Akaroa is a sheltered harbour on the south of Banks Peninsula near Christchurch. Occupied by the French in 1840, this pretty town has French road names, French shops and cafes, and a generally French look about it, with window boxes and blue, white, red striped flags on the buildings.

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Matt shared a quirky house with a few local lads he worked with. They had a stream filled with eels running through their garden, which they’d feed leftovers, and in the evenings they’d light the BBQ and play darts in their garage where they’d built a little bar, and get up to boyish shenanigans.

Matt took us to the Bay Heads – the southern tip of Akaroa, reached by driving off-road and through private farmland, (we had to stop and ask the farmer). With a couple of friends and a few beersies, we sat on top of the blustery cliff, watching dolphins playing in the ocean below.

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Abel Tasman – Paddling Paradise
Abel Tasman was probably one of the most beautiful and worthwhile adventures. There are many 1-5 day journeys to choose from – we chose to kayak for 2 days and hike for 1. There are even water taxis, which will transport you from bay to bay.
We booked the excursion at the i-Site centre in Motueka, and met at the water taxi base the following morning for instructions. A guide provides you with your kayaks, running you through launching, berthing and safety procedures. You are also provided with a map and instructions on where to leave your kayak while camping, and then you’re off!

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Beautiful blue ocean; lush green mountains; golden bays only accessible by boat; natural rockery smothered with wildlife; unexplored islands dotted along the coastline. Complete serenity, just the salty breeze on your skin, and the ripples of the sea gently lapping the side of the kayak. As you paddle up to various bays, you are overcome by the twittering in the trees; a cornucopia of different sounds, from the Fantail to the Tui to the Bellbird. Shags dive in the shallows, disappearing and then popping up somewhere else. A couple may perch on the rocks, wings outstretched to dry in the sun. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the baby seals, lolloping along the rocks, then slipping into the sea and swimming over to investigate, twisting and dancing in the water.

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We camped by the beach, setting our tents in the shelter of trees, and rising with the sun and the birds to pack up and carry our kayaks down to the water’s edge. On the second night, we stayed at Awaroa Bay, where the beach is only accessible at low tide. Packing up early in the morning, we tied our boots to our backpacks, rolled up our trousers, and made the beach crossing. Even at low tide I was wading through knee deep water, with tiny seashells spiking the soles of my feet. Any later and we’d be swimming!

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The hike crosses from boardwalks, to bushland paths, to soft, sandy beaches. It is challenging terrain, climbing up cliff side mountains, and then sinking in sand, but every step is more than worth it. The colours alone are breath taking, and the only people you see are there for the exact same reason as you.

Barrytown

In a house on the cliffs of Barrytown, on the West Coast near Punakaiki, live Steven and Robyn the blacksmiths. Yogi and I went to the knife making workshop the couple have been running for years, welcoming travellers into their house and teaching them how to make knives! Here we met 3 Canadians; Joe, Justin and Danielle, a Dublin guy called Adam, a Dorset girl called Lucy, and a German called Raphael. We all donned big shirts, (like the paint shirts you have to wear at primary school), heat protective gloves, and a pair of googles.

We forged the steel in the forge fire, hammering the blade into shape on huge anvils before cooling it for 10 seconds in a bucket of water and duck poo! After sawing and essential sanding, we moved onto the handle, which we cut from New Zealand Rimu wood.

Steven took an interest in each of his clients, remembering each one’s name and making jokes all the time. He remembered me as ‘The Mighty Mouse’, and had an association for everyone. Shoes and work shirts off, it was time to break for lunch. Robyn invited us all into her kitchen for a smorgasbord of toastie goodies and tea, where we nattered and played with the dog before going to see the other animals and play on the enormous 30ft swing. It was like being at Grandma’s house!

After lunch, we perfected our individual knives, giving them a mirror shine, and finally protected the handles with Kiwi polish, topping off the day with a glass of homemade “Barrypagne” champagne.

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Our exploration of South Island was complete, so it was time to make the transition to the North Island. We took the Bluebridge ferry from Picton to Wellington; about a 4 hour crossing, and began a week of Autumnal weather in New Zealand’s windy capital. From there we went up the east coast, through Palmerston North, Wanganui, up the Surf Highway to Taranaki, along the Forgotten Highway inland towards Taraunui, Waitomo, and Aroha, and ended in Tauranga.

The North Island has a larger population, less open space (but still heaps), and therefore DOC campsites are hard to come by. Camping is more expensive, and the weather confined us to shelter and so we moved quickly from town to town. Eventually, in Aroha, the main tent was taken down in the night by the monsoon and the camping trip came to a harsh end.

Some of the best moments while travelling are in uninteresting places, and while they stand bold in memory, they are not captivating to an audience. Evenings in strange campgrounds, sometimes infused with wine, sometimes not; or moments of car madness from simply sitting too long. When you’re with a new group of people so diverse, you cherish those moments where you laugh and share little nuggets of togetherness that only those who were there will understand.

One of my favourite spots was Lake Ianthe on the West Coast. It took us a while just to find the D.O.C campground, which was hidden down a track to the water’s edge. There’s only room for about 8 tents there, but the location suggests not many people go there.

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The evening was so serene. Yogi tried his luck fishing, while the sun lowered in the sky, casting some gorgeous colours across the water. Another group of campers built a big fire and cooked their fish and potatoes on it, and I sat on the edge of the little pontoon taking it all in.

Another of my favourite spots was Kakanui on the East Coast, right on the edge of the Pacific ocean. We camped on the cliff just above the beach, which had drift logs strewn across it. The waves were beautifully ferocious, and we watched as people surfed and kayaked them.

There was a little tree in the corner of this camp area, with branches all low and twisted. For some reason I was drawn it, and kept finding myself perched on the overhanging branch, legs swinging, watching the other campers. We sat for ages here, picnic blanket out, music playing, sunshine blazing, Jonny carving driftwood with his penknife. I put my tent up early, so the sun would warm it up. The boys, however, waited until the sun was faded and the wind picked up. It was amusing watching them try and pitch their tent when the canopy kept flying away! After all that, the evening drew in cold, and I ended up sleeping in their tent anyway to keep warm.

That was the night Yogi sat in his fold-up chair with his pipe, and said; “In years to come, we’ll all meet up again, and we’ll bring our kids and they’ll play together, while we try to remember everything about this trip!” We laughed a lot, and Gian made flatbreads on the campstove, and we sang and joked.

The next morning we unzipped the tent onto a glorious scene of crashing blue waves under a yellow sky, and we drove away from the campsite with a light and airy feel of content.

Yet another of my favourite places was Orepuki, down on the south coast between Invercargill and the Catlins. It reminded me of a little village back home on the Isle of Wight called Brooke. The characters we met in the local pub, mixed with the sunset on the beach, and the stargazing, and the French cyclist who let me play his tiny guitar around the campstove, made this tiny place very significant.

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Thanks for reading! You can watch the video documentary I made on this journey at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lqs7xMVCaPY

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