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Seiler World Tour

A Life on Four Wheels in NZ

USA | Tuesday, 23 December 2008 | Views [811]

South Island

Stepping off the plane at Christchurch airport the first thing you can't help noticing after a month and a half of rice and sunshine in Asia, is the similarities with back home. The weather was grey and overcast, the people were speaking English and were on the whole a bit pasty and everywhere you went the roads had names such as Chancery Lane and Dickens Street. However, it didn't take long to discover that New Zealand is very much its own country.

After picking up our 6.6 metre monster campervan - which we christened the Bohemoth - we spent a day or two in Christchurch getting our heads adjusted to New Zealand. Christchurch is the biggest city on the South Island of New Zealand and is very Anglican in it's influence - lots of boating on the river and pretty parks. We spent a day checking out the cool Christchurch Art Gallery and picking up a couple of huge woolly jumpers from a Nepalese gentleman at a market in the town square (which we later dubbed our "bear suits"). But with two islands to survey, 4 family members to visit, roughly a thousand km to cover and numerous spectacular examples of untold beauty ahead we were soon off heading south towards Dunedin. To get there we began by taking a detour to a pretty little seaside village called Akaroa which lay east of Christchurch and gave us our first exposure to one of the most familiar sights of NZ.

Sheep, sheep, a few more sheep and then some sheep followed by pockets of sheep intermingled with sightings of sheep. Amongst the sheep were scattered some of the prettiest green, rolling hills and flat reed-filled plains we had ever seen and we were both struck by how similar it all looked to the Highlands of Scotland - except without the sheeting rain and screaming Glaswegians. In fact large parts of New Zealand felt like we'd dropped through a portal and landed in some undiscovered corner of Caledonia - although admittedly about 10 times bigger.

When we finally got to Akaroa we were immediately struck by how quiet everything was. It was 6pm and nothing was open bar the chip shop, but after a month of rice and vegeatables and faced with saturated fat and fried fish we weren't about to complain and were soon stuffing our fat little faces with greasy fish suppers before heading to our campsite overlooking the bay. We arose to the beautiful vista of black blue water and village life below us and proceeded to entertain ourselves for a couple of hours. Akaroa has a Gallic feel to it as it was one of the first places the early French discoverers decided to settle and it still retains much of the French influence in its shuttered windows and Rues.

By lunchtime we had hit the road again and were southbound for Dunedin with a stop-over in Timaru. Timaru amused us not only for the fact that the only restaurant open appeared to be a Thai restaurant called Sukhothai (one of our previous destinations) and the fact that the town was populated almost exclusively by boy racers driving the same 100 metres over and over again in an attempt to impress the same 5 girls.

By evening the following day we were in Dunedin for a visit with Bobby's cousin Mele, her husband Ali and their two girls Mia and Helen. Dunedin itself is real blast of Scotland in New Zealand. Its name is derived from the old name for Edinburgh and there's a statue of Robbie Burns in the town centre, plus all the street names are Scottish. The city is situated by the sea and has one of the best Universities in New Zealand and consequently the large student population gives it a real buzz. As well as messing around in the brilliant Museum of Otago in Dunedin, we were truly spoilt by Mele and Ali and, as a musically-gifted family, were even treated to a full family band rendition of Jailhouse Rock (with Mia on bass and Helen on vocals). However, time was our worst enemy in New Zealand and we were soon heading West to one of NZ's most magnificent attractions, Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is a collection of high valleyed fjords that lie shrouded in mist and cloud for most of the year. Many people do a 3 day trek on foot to Milford Sound, camping in huts and walking the wilderness but we took the quicker but no less magical route of driving up the windy road by van. Despite the fact that the cloud hung low over the land when we made our assault, Milford's charms soon revealed themselves. The journey takes you through huge black walls of rock that rise up out of the ground and then disappear into the mist. Just when you're sure you've identified the summit of the mountainside the mist clears and you realise there is no end to the size of these cliffs. They are both awe-inspring and a little scary. The sense of claustrophobia is increased when you head through a mountain tunnel for what seems like a ten minute drive into the centre of the earth. Eventually as you emerge the other end of the tunnel you descend into a massive valley where the sense of euphoria is undeniable. At the end of the road mountains and lakes stretch out before you and we spent a good couple of hours just punching the air and marvelling at nature. After numerous photographs and a full-on sand fly attack, we reluctantly headed back through the mountain ready for another long day in the car the following morning.

Our next scheduled destination was Kaikoura in the north-west of the South Island and one of the best places in the world for whale-watching. On the way we passed through Queenstown - the home of all adrenaline fueled action such as bungy jumping, parachuting, speedboating and many other forms of simulated-suicide - all of which we completely managed to avoid. Further on down the road we passed by Mount Cook, the largest peak in New Zealand, and marvelled at the turquoise blue lakes that gathered at its foot.

By the time we had arrived in Kaikoura, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and we were confined to the land, left only to imagine what a magical show of nature these huge sperm whales were performing out in the ocean. Luckily we filled in our time by visiting our first New Zealand winery and sampling some of the emerging and celebrated wines of the the Marlborough region - Kate getting gently sozzled on the free samples of lightly oaked Chardonnay!

Our journey north took us through further wine growing country until we reached Nelson, an attractive town on the north coast of the South Island and was a good starting point for a visit the Nelson Lakes National Park where we completed a 5 hour hike up the appropriately named Mount Robert. Unfortunately our camera's battery failed on us so you'll just have to believe us when we say it was one of the most beautiful vistas we've ever seen complete with 360 degree views of snow-covered mountains and a hang glider rising and falling no more than a hundred feet beside us.

Back on the treadmill we motored up to the northwestern town of Motueka - the launchpad for the Abel Tasman National Park. This park differed from others in the South Island as rather than a collection of skyscraping mountain peaks, it is a strip of coastline that the Kiwis cleverly realised was too beautiful to be developed and needed to be preserved just as it is. Crystal blue waters lap against golden beaches and jungle forest rises up through beautiful granite cliffs providing a day of blissful walking. This was to be our last stop in the South Island and we were soon hopping on a ferry for the three hour crossing to Wellington - the nation's capital and home to Kiwi cool.

North Island

We'd heard a lot about the charms of Wellington before we landed on the 20th September but they weren't immediately apparent as the whole place was shrouded in thick mist. However, it only took a couple of days for us to start the now familiar topic of conversation "so, could we live here?" We're sure it's a question that affects a lot of travellers to this amazing country. Our first day in the capital was spent in the Te Papa museum - New Zealand's National Museum. In fact we spent nearly 5 hours there and it was worth every second as it was here that we were introduced to the geography of the country, the history of Maori culture in NZ, the influence of other Pacific Islanders on the country as well as a special exhibition all about the Scots in NZ. The second day involved travelling by cable car up to the Botanic Gardens and then onto the fashionable Cuba Street for a meal and a quick drink in a bar called Matterhorn - consistently voted NZ's coolest nightspot. This was of extra interest as another of Bobby's cousins, Mia is engaged to the owner of the place Sam Chapman and they have just become parents - more about Sam and Mia later!

Time again was urging us to move on but we had one last port of call to make in Wellington - the emergency room at the hospital! After suffering in relative silence for a week Bobby accepted that what appeared to be an insect bite on his leg was not healing and was beginning to cause him some considerable pain. Kate in her eternal patience and wisdom encouraged him to give up playing the tough guy and get someone to take a look at it. This involved 3 hours on a Friday night in A&E waiting for a Doctor to finally see him. When she did, she then proceeded to attack the pustule with her fingers, squeezing out about a pint of puss before prescribing him a 7 day dose of antibiotics. The offending insect of this bite is still a bit a mystery to this day but Bobby would like the legend to be written that he was bitten by the deadly white backed spider whilst rescuing Kate from a burning building. In truth he was probably bitten by a sandfly at a seal colony which, whilst not as sexy, is still just as painful.

Anyway, patched up and ready to go we hit the road again travelling to a small town on the quiet but beautiful beach of Waitarere - the home of Bobby's Auntie Bridget. A beautiful strip of wide beach leads up to sand dunes where a fine array of modern NZ beach houses lie. Auntie Bridget's house was one of the finest and had only been completed a few years ago. A masterpiece of modern architectural design, it was all guided by Auntie B's fair design! It was great fun spending the night in a proper house after endless nights bunched up in the back of the bus and we were treated to a genuine feast of food and wine.

No sooner had we arrived though than we were off the next day to the Art Deco majesty of the town of Napier which lies on the East Coast of the North Island. It was destroyed in an Earthquake in 1931 and the town fathers decided to build it in the fashionable style of the day - the French inspired Art Deco movement. Luckily they made a good job of it and Napier is one of the best looking cities in NZ - a real treasure with a fantastic headland that rises up and looks down over a bay full of sailing boats. We spent 2 day here just mooching around and catching our first Kiwi film - a movie called Apron Strings about two New Zealand families one white, one Indian - and thoroughly enjoyed it.

From Napier, we cut back to the centre of the North Island to Tongariro National Park - a collection of three mighty volcanoes and perfect walking country. After driving round the beautiful Lake Taupo, we attempted to walk to the first of two glacial lakes at the foot of Mount Ngauruhoe. Lord of the Rings fans will know Mount Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom which had a starring role in the Return of the King film and it is as perfect a volcano as you could hope to see. Luckily we got a beautiful day for it and enjoying the five hour trek to the cold blue waters of the lake.

From Tongariro we head north to Rotorua, the home of New Zealand's geothermal activity. Even our campsite was based in a geothermal area complete with natural hot baths and it proved a perfect way to relax after a day at the wheel of the Bohemoth. The following morning we were up early to take a trek around one of the main geothermal areas complete with bubbling mud, multi-coloured pools, sulphuric waterfalls and even a mini geyser that went off dead-on 10.15 in the morning. This was to be the last of our time in the van and so we raced north to Auckland to hand back the Bohemoth to our hire company before heading on to meet up with Bobby's cousin Sifa who lives in the north bay area of New Zealand's biggest city. After a lovely meal with Sifa's wife Rachel, their son Ben, and cousin Mia and her boyfriend Sam, we headed out of Auckland to a town called Thames to pick up a couple of mountain bikes with which to take 6 days cycling around the Coromandel Peninsula - a gorgeous area of hills and beaches that sits in the north-east of the North Island.

Whilst the intention to cycle was pure, the reality soon kicked in that mountain bikes loaded with heavy paniers were no match for the steep inclines of Coromandel and we down-scaled our expectations. We were also aided by various offers of lifts. That said, after being dropped off by our hire company 15 kms from the small town of Tairua on the Eastern coast of Coromandel we made the journey through stunnine scenery in 2 hours.

Our home for the night was a guest house called the Blue Water Motel which was owned by a lovely couple from the UK called Paul and Natasha. After hearing of our imminent schedule, Paul suggested that we'd never achieve what we wanted to do in the time alloted and amazingly offered to lend us his car so we could jet around and see some of the main sights in the north of Coromandel in return for staying a second night. We gladly accepted but said we had to spend one night down south in the coastal town of Whangamata - home to Bobby's brother-in-law peter's parents - are you still with us?

We set off the next day on a monster 6 hour bike ride which involved at times impossible hill climbs, long stretches of free-wheeling and an obstacle course avoiding the logging machinery scattered amongst the hills. However, stoic as ever, we never got off the bikes no matter how slowly we went.

Whangamata is a small town located 45 kms south of Tairua and home to Pam and Bill Luff - the parents of Bobby's brother-in-law Peter. On arrival late in the afternoon we were received with open arms and spent a lovely evening enjoying a Thai meal at the local Fishing Club. The next morning we were treated to a tour of the gorgeous Whangamata Beach and the various properties owned by Pam and Bill. They even gave us a lift with our bikes back along the road so we had a head start getting back to Tairua.

After another 3 hour stretch on the bikes we arrived back at the Blue Water Hotel in the early afternoon where we picked up the owner Paul's car and headed up the beautiful coast to the spectacular Cathedral Cove and then on to the Hot Water Beach - a bizarre natural phenomenon where geothermal activity just below the surface of the Beach means that after digging a shallow hole one can bath in seriously hot water. Bobby, ever the opportunist, dived in whilst Kate was happy to carry the camera on this occasion. The following day it was time to return to Thames and hand the bikes back but not before another epic 53km cycle ride over mountains that almost beat us but not quite. We celebrated in the evening with a visit to the Empire cinema in Thames to watch "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day".

The next morning we were off for our last day in NZ enjoying the hospitality of Bobby's cousin Mia and her partner Sam. Once again the welcome we have received by all Bobby's contacts and relatives has been above and beyond the call of duty and no more than Mia and Sam, especially considering Mia was heavily pregnant at the time. After a lovely walk down by one of Auckland's many coastlines a cozy evening was spent eating a superbly cooked meal by Sam and getting educated in New Zealand's recent musical history. After a restful night we awoke early for our departure to the Cook Islands in the middle of the Pacific - a week long stop-over in paradise before heading on to LA. 

Saying goodbye to Mia at Auckland airport was emotional in that it was sad to believe our time in New Zealand was over and that it may be some time before we return, however after sampling the glory of New Zealand once, the desire to go back is overwhelming and we felt pretty sure that this would not be our last visit to these incredible islands.


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