We fished for salmon and trout in picturesque, bush-enclosed lakes while stags roared their love-sick sonnets just out of sight. We traversed mountain valleys, climbed glaciers, and dodged tourists driving on the wrong side of the road. We followed the remote highway to Jackson Bay admiring the lonely whitebait stands on the Arawhata, Waiatoto and Turnbull Rivers, all waiting patiently for the season’s start …
I’m sure that if you read Gypsy Life … six months in a leaky caravan last issue, you’ll be keen to know whether we’re surviving our new-found, nomadic existence, right? Well, let me put your worried minds at ease: the six of us are alive and well in our cramped quarters, and, in fact, are doing more than surviving. We’re thriving! Except when it rains for days … then we’re surviving.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a brief run-down. In the spirit of my Gypsy (and my wife’s Māori) ancestry, we’ve packed our belongings and hit the road in search of new lands … literally and metaphorically. Donna, me, our kids aged 11 to 16, and a caravan. For six months we’re travelling around Te Waipounamu (South Island) finding roads-less-travelled, all while looking for adventures that’ll stay with us for life.
We’re now over halfway through and, honestly, it’s exceeded my expectations … partly because I had no idea what to expect! Already I’ve realised that we could’ve done with a year. There are corners of Te Waipounamu that we haven’t done justice to, and other places we would love to experience during a different season. Although, I say that because we’re currently dealing with frozen wetsuits in the surf-rich Catlins … (what I’d give to be here in summer!)
So (do I hear you ask), what’s been happening? Well, where do I start …?
We’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer power of nature as we travelled down the earthquake-ravaged Kaikoura coastline – the scars still fresh as we navigated the enormous rebuild of rail and road. We surfed places where once-underwater rocky shelves now stand metres above the sea, and shared waves with seals who had simply got on with life in their new-look home.
We explored incredible vineyards in wine-rich Marlborough, and sailed through the maze-like Sounds in a mailboat, delivering letters and parcels to homes without roads. We ate mussels in Havelock while weathering Cyclone Gita, had a haircut and beard-trim at an old-school Nelson barber, and watched vintage powerboats as they raced around Lake Rotoiti.
We followed the Buller into Westport, caught and smoked kahawai at the mouth of the Mokihinui River, and explored the incredible limestone arches at Oparara. We surfed up and down the wild West Coast and spent a sleepless night on the beach at Greymouth, wondering if our three-and-a-half tonne caravan was going to be blown over on the windiest night in the known universe.
We got stuck in Hokitika – loathe to leave our favourite town on the coast. We met some local greenstone carvers and enjoyed the legendary ‘coaster’ hospitality with a feed of whitebait and a cuppa. We learnt how to carve the precious pounamu and the kids were all given their own pieces from locally-sourced stone. We travelled to Marsden, home of the beautiful ‘flower jade’, where I was gifted a beautiful ‘toki’ now hanging around my neck.
We crossed the Haast saddle and camped at the outlet of Lake Wanaka – the start of the mighty Clutha – biggest river by volume in the country. I hunted tahr and deer in Mt Cook and caught salmon in the Twizel canals. We spent a month in Queenstown exploring the charming towns of Glenorchy, Arrowtown and others. We hooked rainbow and brown trout in glacier-fed rivers and lakes, and most importantly, we experienced autumn in Central Otago – the hues of gold, orange, yellow and red a visual feast!
Phew! (And we’re only half-way through!)
Probably the one thing that has added to our trip more than anything else, and was (in hindsight) a stroke of genius, was taking the bikes; we very nearly left without them! Fitting six bikes into/onto our mobile home-away-from-home was almost in the too-hard-basket. But thanks to some clever engineering and creative packing, we left with all our bikes safely tucked away.
We’ve cycled in towns all over this great southern land – from Nelson to Naseby, St Arnaud to Alexandra. From technical ‘double-black-diamond’ mountain bike runs, to the groomed ‘roads’ of the Otago Central Rail Trail. We’ve ridden trail centres like: Gorge Rd, Seven Mile, Sticky Forrest and Signal Hill. Tracks with names like Rude Rock, Grin & Holler, Haggis Basher and Moustache Express.
We’ve pedalled into the Gibbston Valley and sampled some of New Zealand’s best red wines; biked from Clyde to Alexandra along the beautiful Clutha River; and, after riding down Alexandra’s Flat Top Hill, watched the rare karearea (native falcon) swoop and dive in the Roxburgh Gorge. Those locations with a promised café stop are a favourite of the girls – and the black diamond (technical) runs, the boys. And thankfully, there’s an abundance of both.
The other benefit (aside from keeping fit!) is that cycling is a great way to explore a new town. Both Donna and I have left the kids to their school work in the caravan while we’ve ridden into town to explore the highways and byways … sampling the local caffeine outlets as we go. It’s a tough life …
One thing that’s become abundantly clear on our travels, is that cycling – particularly mountain biking – is thriving in New Zealand. And it’s attracting people of all ages. The numbers of kiwi-owned motorhomes and caravans we encounter with bikes on the back are huge – more have them than don’t. With the advent of the ‘eBike’, cycling has now opened up to those who previously ran out of puff before the first coffee stop. And judging by the average age of these cyclists, they may not be hitting the black diamond runs, but they are getting out there, making the most of the ever-increasing opportunities to explore our country on two wheels.
And if a particular cycle trail has a side-detour to a café or winery? Well … who can blame them?!
How are you dealing with the inevitable extended wet spells?
Two answers: one; we all have good raincoats, so try to get out anyway. Like, for example, when we went to watch the yellow-eyed penguins come ashore the other evening. It was raining, but we went anyway, and it was awesome. And, two: we spend time hanging out in public libraries. We’ve seen the insides of more libraries these last few months than I have in a lifetime! I’m actually writing this article in the Owaka public library in the Catlins. And it, too, is awesome!
What do you suggest is a good length of time to be away?
Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, we’re away for six months. And if you’ve read this article (which I hope you have!), you would’ve heard me say that we could’ve done with a year. The reason for this is that we don’t want to just visit places on our travels. We don’t want to be the tourist who goes to see the main ‘brochure’ attractions and then leaves. We want to live in these places. We want to get a taste of the culture, history, people … we want to ‘connect’.
I know it sounds romantic, but we do try to travel that way – which is why we rarely spend less than a week in any one spot – and have spent more than a month in some! But ultimately, you live with the cards you’ve been dealt. And if you have a limited time? You do what works best for you.
Aren’t you sick of seeing the same faces? And do you miss your friends back home?
Yes, and yes. And no, and no! Sure, we have our days when the kids are driving us crazy. Or my wife has made one-too-many navigational errors while I’ve been driving, resulting in a less-than-perfect response from me. But we deal with it. Thankfully, we actually like each other (most of the time!) and enjoy hanging out together.
While we do miss our tight little community at home, they’ll be there when we get back … and as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder! Who knows, maybe we’ll be liked more when we return?
(To be continued …)