Historically, camper vans and caravans have been called “slugs or snails” in the Morgan household. This is primarily as there are few things more annoying, (or perhaps we are not very tolerant), than being stuck behind one, on the small roads in Herefordshire or South Wales. Difficult and strange times have certainly caused us to challenge ourselves and do different things. So we decided to hire a campervan for a month in the South Island starting from Queenstown.
It has to be said we are not complete converts to this way of travelling, but we have had an amazing month and have been very busy. Beware, this is a very long blog. The weather at Whangarei is extremely wet at this time of year and this was becoming really tiresome. We were assured that we would get some drier, albeit much colder, weather in the South Island and so it proved. In some ways we were slightly disappointed when we visited the South Island in the summer. It was just so busy, and of course there were those camper vans everywhere! In the winter it has been fabulous, just enough tourists (obviously kiwis) to keep places open but no crowds anywhere. We highly recommend winter as being a good time to tour New Zealand.
You will note in the photos that we are well wrapped up, despite many bright days. It was very cold at times and the campervan was devoid of insulation and sometimes there actually was ice on the inside in the morning. We were rather lucky to be upgraded to a six berth van. In our view this was just about big enough for two people. There is no doubt that the campervan is an ugly beast but some of the parking spots are just amazing and it is lovely to be able to just stop and have a cup of tea etc. Julian was able to worry about the batteries, but these seemed fine and we had a solar panel on the roof so,all in all, we felt reasonably at home.
First stop was to try some skiing in the Southern Hemisphere. We were a little nervous as it is some years since we were last on the slopes. We skied at The Remarkables, Cardrona and Coronet Peak and thankfully we had not forgotten how. Our sailing clothes did a great job, although we were certainly not fashion victims. The skiing does not really compare with the Alps and Europe, but we had some great days with excellent snow and sunshine at Cardrona and Coronet Peak.
We ventured over to the Mount Cook area which we had missed on our previous trip. It was fabulous and we walked the Hooker Valley trail, the Kea Point track, and part of the Ball Hut track until we reached a very dramatic land slide. We did not really need the sign to tell us to go no further. The glacial scenery was huge and the weather great.
From Mount Cook we headed to Te Anu and Milford Sound. Again we had missed this iconic area on our previous visit to the South Island. This area comes with a rain warning. It is one of the wettest places in the world, and so it rained or was damp most of the time. The mean annual rainfall in Milford Sound is just short of seven metres and it rains, on average 182 days a year. The UK average rainfall is just short of one metre. Our guide book tells us that the area is even more dramatic in the rain, but we did take this as some optimistic marketing speak, and of course we had no opportunity to see it in the dry! On our way there it just poured but, oh boy, do those rock walls just come to life and there are waterfalls and noise everywhere.
The boat trip down Milford Sound was again damp. Yes, it was fortunate I had brought the waterproof camera. The scenery is dramatic, the waterfalls huge, and the mist and clouds do add to the drama. The camera will not do this place justice as the scale is hard to capture.
Any very faint thought that we should venture down to Milford Sound and the Fiordland area in A Capella was quickly discarded, but we were pleased to look out on the Tasman sea at 45 degrees south from the safety of the cruise boat. The depths in the Sound are impressive (400 metres plus) and even very close to the edge we were in 60 metres of water and anchoring is virtually impossible. The dreaded sandflies come out in force in the summer. Sadly they had not completely disappeared for the winter. As Julian puts it, we do not mind being nibbled just a little, but the itching for three days after being bitten is not really tolerable.
The next trip was to Doubtful Sound, and this included a boat trip across Lake Manapouri, a visit to the information centre about the amazing Manapouri hydro power station, a bus trip along the road specially built to bring in large equipment for the power plant, and then a cruise along Doubtful Sound. This area is rugged and just so remote. Apart from the tiny imprint of the power station and the road, this area remains unchanged by mankind. The vegetation is temperate rainforest. Again it was damp but the scenery fantastic.
The Manapouri hydro power station was very controversial when it was proposed as the locals were extremely concerned that any altering of water levels in the lake would destroy the magnificent natural environment. An agreement was eventually reached and water levels are now very carefully controlled. The building of the power station and the resulting controversy is considered to be the birthplace of New Zealand’s environmental consciousness.
It is the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand. It has seven 122 megawatt generating units and a maximum station output of 800 megawatts. The bulk of the electricity generated is used to power a aluminium smelting factory near Bluff. This is under threat of closure and it is now not clear where the electricity will be used. There are many countries which would be glad of this problem.
The first power was generated in 1969. All the turbines are housed underground in a cavern excavated from rock 200 metres below the surface of the Lake. The original construction was considered a huge engineering achievement. The project took 1,800 workers eight years to complete in extremely harsh and remote conditions.
It did not rain the whole time. I was a little disappointed that most of the great walks were closed, but now I understand the weather, I can see why. We did manage a small bit of the famous Kepler track.
Our guide book tells us that the road to Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful in the world. We were somewhat sceptical given we had seen little through the rain on the way there. However when the sun came out it did prove pretty special. Keeping this road open in the challenging terrain requires its own special workforce and they were hard at work. The road had suffered serious land slips during the summer and was closed for some time.
Julian had booked some deer stalking, (or hunting as it is called in New Zealand) so it was off to Glenorchy via Arrowtown. Arrowtown is the nearest New Zealand gets to quaint and is a well perserved old gold mining town. It is also home to a wonderful wool shop so I am now attempting to crochet a hat. My attempt has not quite matched the pattern but I have decided it is good enough. Some lovely walking here, and we spent some time with Chris and Jane Ireland looking at where the Chinese workers lived during the gold mining times.
It was during our time in the Queenstown that the news of a new CV outbreak in NZ was announced. We have now returned to various levels of lockdown and the “Jacinda and Ashley” announcements each lunchtime. Fortunately for us it is level two where our boat is and so not very restrictive. We did have to travel through Auckland airport at level 3 to get back to Whangarei. Apparently the new outbreak was inevitable but it has come as a shock. We, along with the rest of New Zealand do hope this situation can be contained.
On a more positive note, as the skiing was cancelled for the day (to allow social distancing measures to be put in place on the lifts etc) we managed a cycling trip with Bill and Zoe from Arrowtown through the Gibbston Valley.
The deer stalking was a highlight of our trip and was made extra special by some fabulous weather, stunning scenery and our ever patient and thoughtful guide, Ethan Clark of “Top of the Lake Guiding”. We stayed overnight in a very basic, but perfectly adequate little hut. Ethan was an absolute star and kept the much needed, but slightly unwilling wood burning stove alight throughout the night.
For our last few days in the campervan, we returned to Glenorchy and the Camp Glenorchy campsite. Much to our delight we managed to do some extra walking and did the first day of the Routeburn great walk up to the Routeburn Falls hut.
Now the Glenorchy campsite deserves a special mention. It is completely eco friendly and net zero energy. It has a large open fire place with firewood provided, which we thoroughly enjoyed during the long cold evenings. It boasts great showers and extremely civilised composting loos amongst other innovative features. The setting amongst the mountains is stunning. It also seems to be one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets so we usually had the fire to ourselves – just perfect. We really could write a whole blog about this place but a few words and some pictures will have to do.