The most photographed mountain in New Zealand is Mitre Peak. Its sheer cliffs tower above us for more than mile, its summit cloaked in cloud. Today though, the waterfalls that usually flow freely off the steep faces in the Milford Sound are few and far between; it rains here 200 days each year, but we’d turned up during the third week of fine weather. For all that, it was still a beautiful Fiordland day, and cruising around this most stunning waterway by boat had us captivated for hours …
Three months have now passed since my previous instalment of Gypsy Life. I remember writing it in the Owaka public library down in the Catlins, furiously typing the final words to ensure we made the print-deadline. At that time, the end of our trip was the last thing on our minds. After all, we were only half-way through, and we still had ages to go!
Fast forward three months, and here I am again: furiously typing this article in an effort to make another print-deadline. The only difference? I’m now sitting at home …
While it probably doesn’t come as a shock to you – that six months have passed, and our epic adventure is over – it certainly has to me! The final few weeks flew by oh-so-quickly. And as I try to reintegrate back into society, a big part of me wishes we were still on the road. I mean, who would’ve thought I’d miss living with my wife and four kids in a 14-square-metre mobile home?!
However, before I get too morose (no one likes listening to a sooky-bubba), let me reminisce over some of our best and most recent exploits …
We’d just arrived in the Catlins (remember?), but had barely settled in when we were chased out by a looming storm. Think ‘the perfect storm’ – only much worse and much less perfect. Anyway, the thought of spending a week barricaded in our caravan, with a grumpy wife and bored kids, while the forces of nature were unleashed on us, didn’t seem overly exciting.
And herein lies one of the well-kept secrets about the gypsy life: you can move your house! So, I looked on a weather map to find where the sun was shining, and we packed up and moved … to Oamaru!
Home to an amazing historical Victorian precinct, with stunning limestone architecture, cobblestone streets, quaint cafés and shops, Oamaru was an unexpected surprise. It’s the steam-punk capital of the country (Google it!) and when we added penguin colonies, Cape Wanbrow mountain bike tracks, and public gardens (did I mention cafés?), there was enough to keep us entertained for days.
The road soon beckoned, however, and by the time we got back down to the Catlins, winter had set in –and with it a rather brutal reminder that the deep south is a little different to back home. One of the main attractions for the boys and me was the surf, and we very quickly discovered that our Coromandel winter wetsuits didn’t cut it in the chilly Southern Ocean. Luckily, one of my good mates owns a surf shop back home, and a few days later some thicker, warmer wetsuits arrived … just in time.
Now fully rubbered-up, we surfed some of NZ’s most remote beaches – sharing the waves with the local sealions and a seven-gilled shark or two. At one point, while we were out surfing, my girls were trapped in our truck by a couple of bull sealions, the smaller of the two crawling under the Landcruiser for a sleep!
This was wild, isolated country, where the bush meets the sea, and we loved every minute of it … except for one night in a little town called Niagara, when the temperature dropped to minus-15 degrees! The water in our caravan froze, and it was quite some time before we could make our morning coffee …
From here we explored our way around the south coast – searching for waves, paua and Bluff Oysters. We hit the big smoke of Invercargill, the cute village of Riverton and the cold waters of Colac Bay. We found gems on Gemstone Beach and joined a hoedown in Tuatapere, before making our way to scenic Te Anau.
The gateway to Fiordland, Te Anau boasts the largest lake in the South Island, and is the last stop before Milford Sound. The girls and I cycled around the lake to where the Kepler Track starts (one of four ‘great walks’ based in the area) – finishing our ride at the Sandfly Café, home of the world’s best chocolate & raspberry brownies … mmm!
We saw takahē, kākā, and the cheeky kea (who entertained us for ages, until it tore strips of rubber from our windows!) We set up camp at the beautiful, but chilly, Cascade Creek in Fiordland, warmed ourselves in front a fire, and watched the local trout tease us from their crystal-clear rivers. Then we made our way back up to Queenstown for a few days, over the snow-covered Lindis Pass, and into the Mackenzie Basin, our #1 favourite place of the entire trip.
In Tekapo the surfboards were swapped for snowboards and skis as we hit the slopes of the nearby Roundhill Ski Area, finishing with a soak in the local hot-springs. We filled what was left of our days fishing the canals of Twizel and Tekapo, catching and releasing trout and salmon in the most popular fresh-water fishery in the country. It was here, on a return trip a couple of weeks later, that my son hooked and landed a 25+ pound rainbow, bettering my heaviest trout by 18 pounds … (What a tin-bum!)
With Aoraki beckoning, we travelled along turquoise Lake Pukaki into Mt Cook National Park, where we camped in the deep snow at the White Horse Hill campground, and the start of the Hooker Valley. A passing DOC ranger was surprised to see us in there, even though our truck was well-equipped for the snowy conditions. But it was no surprise for us – we were here for adventure!
Mt Cook is one part of New Zealand where superlatives like ‘majestic’ and ‘awesome’ truly find their meaning. It’s also a humbling place. The thunderous crack of an occasional avalanche tumbling down the mountain was a reminder of its treacherous nature. More than 230 climbers and explorers have died in the park since the early 1900’s – nearly 80 of those have never been found.
From Mt Cook we made our way up to Christchurch to meet family who were motorhoming in the same region. We spent a fantastic day mountain biking in the Christchurch Adventure Park, but couldn’t resist a return trip back down to the Mackenzie for a little more fishing, plus a poke around the Godley Valley looking for deer.
About now, we were beginning to think about the end of our trip, just a few weeks away. None of us were overly excited about heading home, especially the kids who’d soon be going back to school! So we decided to pack as much into our time left as possible, not knowing when we’d get down here as a family again.
We did the big mission from Twizel to Hanmer Springs … spent time up in sunny Nelson and Kaiteriteri riding some amazing mountain bike trails … and made it over the hill into Takaka (which Cyclone Gita stopped us doing earlier in the year). We rode the epic Rameka Trail, then did the full road trip over to Kaikoura to score some more waves, before finishing where we started six months earlier … back on Ward Beach.
The day before our ferry crossing, the boys and I decided to ride one last trail in the rain – a double-black-diamond run called Double Eagle. It was one of our more ambitious rides, a little dangerous – yet super-fun! And we finished filthy, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear … a most appropriate way to end our trip!
For ages, my wife and I had had a dream to travel the South Island in a caravan, with our kids, for at least six months. We wanted to have an epic adventure together, exploring and discovering hidden gems around Te Waipounamu … the land of water and greenstone. So we decided to make it happen … to follow that dream … to just do it!
And it’s been the best thing ever … seriously.
A most epic adventure!
(To be continued …)