28 Mar 2012

NZ - South Island - pt 1

The South Island - Up early the following morning we high-tailed it down the east coast to Christchurch to pick up a camper van. 

Transport - We had covered 3,000 kilometres in Northlandia in a Sirion, which at first we thought might be the name of its colour but it turned out to be the Daihatsu model, affectionately called ‘El Cheapo’ by the rental company Juicy (when you call them Lucy from Juicy welcomes you).

As little cars go it was brilliant, comfortable for the two of us, nippy, reliable (despite its 160,000 kilometres, hence the cheapo) cheap to hire and it hardly consumed a fluid ounce of go go juice. Then we got the camper van...

Queeny as she is known, was then our ride and home for the next two weeks and another 3,000 kilometres around the south island.  Our advice if you go camper-vanning in NZ, get a proper camper with its own toilet facilities and a diesel engine, do not go for the cheaper alternative like Queeny however charming the paint job, better still stay in hostels and keep Lucy’s juicy el cheapo rental for the duration, the ex plumbers van that has been 'converted' into a 'mobile home' just doesn't cut the mustard.

Ben rant - I have never understood the attraction of the camper van/caravan thing and after two weeks in one now have proof that there isn’t such a thing. Anyone who invests £50k+ (for a bottom end model in these parts) in their ‘mobile home’ is certifiable and wherever we went there were proud mentalists who had spent twice that and more. Yes we did suffer some camper van envy, who wouldn’t in Queeny when seeing the flat screen tv’s glistening through the tinted windows, and personages who never exited due to all facilities (toilets/showers/kitchens/libraries/billiard rooms) being contained within - Downton Abbey doesn’t have anything on some of these monsters. Parking the envy in the lay-by for a moment, even the basic facts speak for themselves, or at least I think so.

The freedom – Kiwis to whom we spoke of the camper-vanning thang spoke eloquently about it being a fundamental and basic right of all kiwi people, the freedom to go anywhere, park up and enjoy the amazing view/scenery - its free, its beautiful, its remote, its yours – uncluttered heaven.

Reality bites - In all of the ‘free’ places that we stayed - the majority of the other campees were foreign travellers like ourselves, very few kiwis, not surprising because even the remotest spots (e.g. the end of the road at the very south east corner of the south island where there are supposed to only be penguins) were busier than the Tokyo metro in rush hour. We also stayed in motor camps (camp sites for motor homes) and were surrounded by locals in their privately owned monster campers enjoying the view of another campervan on both sides, and usually a busy road on the other side of the hedge.
daubed by a well known local camper vanner

The cost-saving – take the family anywhere and save a fortune – ha! 1) Our Queeny was one of the most uneconomical vehicles I have ever driven (19mpg vs 40+ for the Daihatsu). When pressing the accelerator you could literally watch the fuel gauge move down-under. 2) Motor camps cost money to stay in based on the number of personages in the van. Yes it is less than you would pay in a hostel or hotel per person but when including the cost of fuel to move from one camp to another (perhaps that is why there are so many that don’t seem to move) and the initial cost of purchase, well £50k+ equals an awful lot of clean sheeted fluffy pillowed room serviced nights with an infinity pool, cocktail list as long as your arm and gourmet chef. 3) The psychotherapist bills to deal with the trauma caused by campervan holidays with your parents/children (delete where applicable) in such a confined space for any length of time.

Thinking about it further, maybe camper-vanning is beneficial in that the head doctor bills might be minimal as the cause of the trauma is so easily identifiable. Food for thought...

I know I know I have completely missed the point.

So we set off south in the queen bee - everyone below the age of 10 and above 60 smiling and waving at us (everyone else too cool for school) – to Oamaru, enjoying our new found camper freedom, bbq’ing at the side of the road, stopping where we pleased (for more fuel) living the dream baby, living the dream.

Oamaru - a now sleepy town of grand Victorian buildings due to its wealth in the late 19 century from their invention of the modern method to freeze meat for shipping. Today it is more of a living working open air museum of art galleries, nick nack souvernir shops, a whisky distillery and the most amazing cheese factory – Whitestone.
It is also the place to come to see yellow eyed and blue eyed penguins. The yellow variety is almost extinct, mainly due to them being picky eaters and overly sensitive nesters, but we managed to see a few at a considerable distance.

The blue eyes are numerous and at dusk walk the walk up the beach on their way home with a nod and a wink to the tourists.

Moereki (just down the coast) is famous for two things; the boulders and the restaurant Fleurs Place. The large boulders on the beach are weird geological anomalies – spheres of sedimentary rock that have then been covered by softer material long ago, the sea then erodes the soft stuff uncovering the spheres which then become part of the beach – and despite the grey weather there was a slightly out of this world quality to the way the water and light played with them.

You need to book to get anywhere near to Fleurs Place for lunch or dinner, but it is worth it. Rick Stein has made Fleur a little bit famous outside of NZ featuring as she did in a recent book, but it would seem everyone in NZ has heard of her without Rick’s help. The restaurant is the old fisherman’s warehouse at the end of the wharf, the boats literally unload into the Fleurs kitchen in this tiny fishing village.

Fleur welcomed us in herself, the fish were fresh as anything, the preparation was perfect, a fabulous meal. It’s a classic example of if you do it right they will come, however far from anywhere you might be. Fortunately there is a helipad out the back if you need to get there a little quicker and if you want to see some more wildlife there are sea lions chilling on their beach just round the corner. Only in New Zealand...

And then onto Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the south, they literally took the Edinburgh street map, plonked it onto the chosen site and built a town, or so they say.

It is the home to the world’s steepest street, some amazing beaches (we were lucky with the weather) and the Taieri gorge railway and NZ’s only castle. Top Tip - Skip the railway and enjoy the town/beaches/castle.

a nervous moment - will it make it?

and if it does will there be any fuel left...

Lanarch castle (NZ’s only castle) is now a private home that is open to the public and it is a real treat with lovely gardens and incredible views to the lake below.

It was then time to head west and across the southern alps. We had been advised to drive across the alps as often as possible in as many different places as possible and we can see why. 

As with any mountainous scenery it is a recipe for the spectacular and these mountains do not disappoint with a size and proportion all of their own.


  1. humbug!. All the cool kids have campervans. I'm sure I detected a hint of regret at not having fluffy sheets. Are you really roughing it? or are you in fact staying at 5 Star hotels and then posing for pictures in your 'travellers clothes'...

    Paul Cluskey

  2. An awesome way to get around New Zealand is definitely through that colourful and themed campervan. Oh, by the way, that picture with your shadows in the beachfront is stunning.