I HAD FINISHED SCHOOL and had been working for a year, saving money. University wasn’t on my agenda yet, and didn’t want to stick around working for another whole year. So I thought: Hey, NOW would be a good time to go on an ADVENTURE!
My friend Martha from Germany, (whom I’d met while she was an exchange student at school) had always talked about the two of us travelling around the South Island in a campervan. At the time, I thought it was just one of those crazy ideas you have with friends that never makes it out of the ‘chat’ on Messenger. But when she told me she had booked a flight back to New Zealand, it was time to get serious!
I wasn’t new to the world of travelling. In 2018 my family spent six months exploring the South Island in a caravan. We’ve gone back several times since, and it’s become a place I love – filled with fun memories (and some not-so-fun ones: like the six of us cramped-up in a small space on rainy days). Anyway, I was itching to return … only this time I’d be in a campervan with a friend, just before the start of winter.
I badly wanted this to happen. But first, I needed a van to convert. And, after having a good look around, I settled on the Mitsubishi Delica. You can read all about this first part of my adventure in Dad’s article: Van-Life (Grapevine Issue 1, 2023).
My mate from Germany had arrived in town, so we set a date for the ferry crossing – things were getting real! The build-process was slow, but we finished the van just in time. And before I knew it, departure day had arrived. We had no time to iron out any faults in the van – our ferry was waiting!
I got a bit emotional when it came to saying goodbye to my family. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry – but in the end, I did both, a mixture of excitement and nerves. Then, with hugs all done, we jumped in my new camper and headed off on our grand adventure.
I was pretty nervous driving onto the ferry myself. Every other time we’d gone to the South Island, I was in the backseat, half asleep, while Dad did all the work. But there was no time to think as we crept forward into the gaping mouth of the Blue Bridge Ferry.
I’d done the Cook Strait many times before, but the view when sailing through the Sounds never gets old. And, before long, we had arrived. We climbed out of the steel belly of the ship onto the South Island, and our journey now truly began …
It wasn’t a great start, to be honest. Rain bucketed down the first few days, keeping us confined to the van – not what I’d imagined! Wasn’t I supposed to be hiking up mountains or trekking through forests by now? For a while there, the feeling of homesickness churned in the pit of my stomach. But I gave myself a talking-to: surely this was the point of the whole trip – to gain experience and independence, to learn and adapt, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, all that good stuff!
My mum loves to say: “Boredom is the beginning of creativity!” And we discovered there’s actually plenty to do when you’re bored and it’s raining – whether playing a simple game of cards or chucking on a rain jacket, grabbing your camera, and seeing what photos you can capture in the moody weather. And if I really couldn’t think of anything, I mustn’t have been bored enough!
But, soon enough the clouds cleared, and the sun –along with my spirit – rose again.
Encouraged by a good forecast, we headed to the West Coast and stayed a few nights at Gentle Annie alongside the Mokihinui River. The campsite has a big outdoor pizza oven for the campers to use, and after instant noodles the previous night, we were ready to step up our game! We thought making some pizzas would be easy. However, after multiple trips to the beach to find dry wood, then waiting an hour for the oven to heat up … we were starving by the time we pushed the coals over and placed our pizzas inside.
YUM! Our labour had paid off – and that food was nothing short of delicious!
Sticking to the West Coast, we headed north until the road finished at Kohaihai and the start of the Heaphy Track, where we battled the infamous sandflies. We tested the van’s 4WD as we drove the narrow windy road into the Oparara Basin to explore the limestone arches. Then turning south, we parked beside Lake Kaniere near Hokitika for a couple of nights, swimming in the lake and embracing the cold water. A cheeky kea welcomed us as we looked for glow worms in the bush near Franz Joseph.
We took the van onto unkempt gravel roads at the isolated Gillespies Beach, where we witnessed the sun setting over waves in the west and reflecting on the snow-covered mountains to the east. Nothing beats those West Coast sunsets – and it’s places like these that I’ll never forget!
As we crossed stunning Arthur’s Pass, leaving the rugged coastline behind, the cold weather settled in … preparing to stay for the long winter ahead.
The nights were becoming increasingly frigid – especially in South Canterbury and Otago. Thankfully, my mum and my sister visited us in Tekapo, and we stayed in a nice (warm!) Airbnb for a few nights, going ice skating and swimming in the hot pools. We also took a drive over to Mt Cook Village and walked the beautiful Hooker Valley track.
We continued to Wanaka, where we hunkered down for a week, waiting for the rain to pass. I was always watching the weather forecast, hoping to drive to where the weather looked best. Of course, you can’t always outrun Mother Nature! And if it was wet everywhere, we would park up in an area with lots to do.
When it cleared, we ventured out on my favourite (and most challenging) hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier on Mt Aspiring. Driving there was a highlight for me … crossing several fords and avoiding livestock farmed in the valley. But the track was magnificent: with swing bridges, waterfalls, and stunning views of the glacier.
Not all our time was spent out in nature. We did the cities too … Nelson, Queenstown, Christchurch, Dunedin. We spent time in libraries (taking advantage of the free wifi), and checking out art galleries and exhibitions (one of my favourite time-wasters!). And we always managed to find cafes to sit down and eat.
It was here that I practised my city-driving skills. Being raised in a small town without a traffic light in sight,
I didn’t have much hands-on experience. So at the beginning of the trip, I left the city-driving to Martha, who had learnt to handle Germany’s busy streets. (I figured she gave us a better chance of making it to our next destination in one piece!) By the end of the trip, however, I was pretty well adjusted to traffic and motorways, and decided I could make it anywhere.
We continued our adventure through the Catlins and on to Slope Point, the most southern tip of NZ. One night at Purakaunui Bay, the wind blew with such force it shook the whole van, and rain pounded so heavily on the roof it kept me awake rather than putting me to sleep. But the trusty Delica never faulted – not even for a moment!!
Eventually, it was time to return to Picton and the North Island. I was both happy and sad. Happy to be going back to my family and exchange our cold nights in the van for the warmth of the fire at home. But sad that these were the last moments of the trip. For months now, we’d been constantly on the go, from one place to the next, adventure after adventure. Now it was time to hang up the hat and settle into normal life again.
To anyone who has left school (or is about to leave), I recommend giving something like this a go. Challenge yourself – and set out on an adventure! It’s something you’ll never regret.
I’m now looking forward to summer and a chance to set off in my camper again! Time to explore another part of this wonderful country I call home …