With a South Island road trip!
For a week we deserted Obelix and ran in the arms of Mrs Geriatrix, our Jucy campervan, to embark on a winter South Island adventure, take a breath of fresh air, marvel at Southern Alps dramatic scenery, and teach our kids a bit of Aotearoa geography, which latest conversations with workmates revealed was not necessarily on NZ school curriculum.
After the stressful experience of an early start, unexpected traffic at 6 am on a Saturday because of roadworks on the last stretch to the airport, and the checking of our luggage just two minutes before cut-off time, we finally found ourselves seated on the plane which took off despite heavy weather conditions. The pilot attempted to escape the turbulence trying three different altitudes, to no avail, and while some passengers made good use of the sickness bags provided, the bumpy ride didn’t deter us from enjoying our very own breakfast with home-made french crepes with Nutella, and arrive in Queenstown with a full stomach.
No sooner did we land that Azur exclaimed “Now let’s jump in our van and drive away!”. And so we did, after a shuttle ride to the rental company, a lengthy briefing by the agent, and a pit stop at the nearest supermarket. Slightly overcast, the day was warmer and a lot dryer than any forecast we had checked and allowed us to drive to Milford Sound without snow chains. Still, they proved useful when, venturing in the forest just past Te Anau, we stumbled upon a lonely camper who had gotten his van stuck in the muck. In real professionals, Thomas and I each took a chain to fit on the rear tires, as we had been instructed by the rental agent (during the lengthy briefing), and helped the guy free his vehicle pushing while he was driving backwards. We also made a mental note to come back, as the spot was perfect for freedom camping.
In contrast, our first night in Milford Sound, parked discreetly behind a concrete building out of sight from the main road, but nonetheless blatantly ignoring the no camping signs planted everywhere on the car park deserted in winter, wasn’t so charming, and the cold and fear of being dislodged by the authorities kept me up more than I would have wished. On the flip side, we were the first ones on site the next morning, enjoying the views undisturbed by any tourist and could go on an earlier non-crowded cruise where we saw seals & dolphins, got baptised under waterfalls, and learnt the difference between a sound and a fjord.
After a mere six-hundred-kilometre detour to get to Milford Sound, we owed our kids to do a fun activity when back in Queenstown and so we jumped on the Gondola (the Tiki Trail being unfortunately closed as they were taking down trees) for a few rides on the Skyline luge. After the first one though we had an issue with Azur adamant it was way too scary, that he would not do it again, and claiming that “nothing [was] going to change [his] mind!” However, witnessing how much fun his dad and brother had, and some bribing won him over and he accepted to ride again, but in tandem with me this time. I took it as a personal challenge to let him experience the fast-pace thrill while feeling safe in his mum’s care, and tried my best to be as fast as possible. Us crashing on the curves did scare him a bit but not enough to rub off the huge grin on his face. And to congratulate everyone of their good efforts, we then indulged a decadent afternoon at Fergbaker with lemon meringue slice, apple pie and vanilla ice cream, almond chocolate croissant, caramel eclair, and oh, so good, creamy hot chocolate.
Being a road trip, we didn’t have much more time to dedicate to Queenstown and then drove towards Wanaka, stopping for the night at the Kawarau Bridge, birth of commercial bungy jumping. We managed to convince the kids to hike to the top of Rocky Mountain, with the incentive that if they did it in the 3 hours suggested by the DOC we would have time to go to Puzzling World. And so, full of beans and with a spring in their step, they walked, ahead of us most of time, reaching the summit in no time with rosy cheeks and satisfied sighs and went back down with the same enthusiasm, despite completely soaked non water-proof shoes, as the track followed a stream with no other options than stepping into it more than once.
Another long day of driving took us from Wanaka to Mt Cook where a short walk to Kea Point lent itself to a photo session with views of Mt Cook National Park mountains and glaciers as the background and no one else in sight. Well worth the trip, as per a lady passed on our way who advised that before Covid one couldn’t even enjoy the views because of the number of tourists.
We drove back to our exclusive freedom camping site next to Lake Pukaki, aptly named “The Pines” after the number of pine trees surrounding the area. Except they had all been chopped down! When life brings you lemons, make lemonade, and when it gives you wood, make fire. That’s what Thomas thought anyway, and I’m impressed he found the energy, after such a long day, to light up a very reluctant fire. This led to a spontaneous fire dancing show improvised by the kids who lit up sticks and waved them around, with amber glowing in the night in all sorts of shapes.
That was quite timely as it started raining shortly after and it didn’t stop until the morning. Our drive to Tekapo the next day confirmed that what was rain in the valley, was actually snow further up, and a white lining was covering the fields. We jumped on the occasion to stop by the side of the road for a snowball fight with fresh powder. After which we had to warm up somehow, and what better place to do that than in a hot bath… at Tekapo Hot Springs (where everyone had had the same idea, and the network being down, it felt like queuing at Disneyland).
We also managed to get a private tour of the Tekapo Observatory after mentioning Thomas had engineered the composite dome and hit the road again for our final stop in Hakatere Reserve in Ashton, an hour and something South of Christchurch where we were due to fly the next day.
The morning was glorious, with a bright blue sky (couldn’t the clouds have vanished before, so we could do some stargazing in one of the darkest place in the planet, go figure!). A stroll on the pebbles beach let us observe a seal playfully surfing the waves and waving his flipper as if to say bye-bye. Not before one last stop to have lunch with an old-time friend settled in Lyttleton.
With a coast to coast road trip totaling around 1,400 kilometres and six nights of freedom camping where peeing at night involved the excruciating mission of stepping out of the campervan into the freezing cold, these were not the most relaxing holidays, but creating memories isn’t a relaxing business, is it?