Heading back to windy Welly 💨

After bidding a fond farewell to our little camper van in Christchurch, it was time to get back on the public transport bandwagon and start our return journey to the North Island. We spent an evening doing an inordinate amount of laundry and then woke up the next morning bright, early and extremely disoriented – it might not have been very comfortable, but our 12 nights in the camper had been by far the longest we’ve slept in the same bed since leaving London in August. Neither of us could work out where we were for quite some time! It was still dark outside and pouring with rain, but we had our priorities firmly in place so ventured out for one last visit to C1 Espresso to pick up lunch supplies for our bus journey. You can tell how much we liked it as we were banging on the door when they opened at 7am!

We then hopped on the bus and spent 6 hours travelling north to Picton. This was a little odd as a lot of the journey was retracing our steps from the previous day, including a long break in Kaikōura, from where we’d just come. As much as this felt like a waste of time (and carbon!), it was necessary because Christchurch was the furthest north we could drop off the camper unless we wanted to take it all the way to Auckland, another 1000 km north.

Until this point, the journey was going almost boringly smoothly, but the slightly rough ferry crossing to Wellington soon livened things up. I had the great pleasure of re-experiencing my lunch very publicly, and according to Oli, inadvertently set off a chain reaction where several other passengers joined in. Whoops! Despite my best efforts (and those of the very large waves), the chunder rate didn’t get anywhere near our journey between mainland Vietnam and Côn Đảo, so that was something.

Is this the worst photo Oli’s ever taken?! I wasn’t feeling at all well so put him on ship photography duty and this is the monstrosity he came back with 😂

We’d already spent a sunny few days in Wellington so didn’t plan to stay for long this time, but we did have to attend to a couple of pieces of unfinished business. The first was (predictably) food-related: our Italian correspondent Mario had given the Pizza Pomodoro menu his seal of approval when we were there together a few weeks ago but sadly they’d totally sold out that evening, so we needed to put this right. We happily gobbled a couple of Neapolitan pizzas and they were every bit as good as we’d hoped. No photos were taken as I was still recovering from my exploits earlier so ate dinner in my PJs in bed!

The second item of unfinished business was to go on a tour of the New Zealand Parliament. I’d read about this last time but the tours were all booked up during the school holidays, so I was happy to get a second try. True to form, as we walked there early the next morning, Oli announced that my beloved Swiss Army knife was still in his backpack. Thankfully the security staff were thoroughly nice (just like everyone we’ve met so far in NZ) and stored it for us while we were on the tour, but it’ll still be a miracle if the penknife makes it through the year – it’s now been temporarily confiscated at least five times!

The three buildings we visited: the Beehive (left), Parliament House (centre) and the Library (right)

I’m a big fan of NZ politics – both because they were the first country in the world to allow women to vote in 1893 and also because former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a bit of a feminist icon, so I really enjoyed the tour, even if it felt a bit like our guide was making it up as she went along! Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos, but we saw backstage in three of the buildings that make up Parliament, including the aptly-named Beehive (below left; and see below right for a pretty impressive 7000-matchstick model of it from 1981). The coolest part was seeing the debating chamber first hand, but it was also great to nose at old photographs on the walls, see the themed select committee rooms, and learn more about the political system. Did you know that NZ has a unicameral legislature, meaning there is no upper house?

That afternoon, we headed to the highly-rated Wellington Museum. This was a very well-executed version of our new favourite genre: the baffling local museum. A whole floor was dedicated to travelling by sea, and in particular the perils of crossing the Cook Strait. One particularly memorable exhibit was entitled 160 years of Cook Strait Shipwrecks, and I was very glad we’d got the crossing out of the way the day before.

A model of the Wahine disaster in 1968, during which 51 people died after the ship was driven onto a reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and then capsized in a storm

Most of it was much more lighthearted, though. In a very small space, they managed to cover UFO sightings, local television studios, a stuffed lion named Rusty, memoirs of US soldiers stationed in NZ, and much, much more. But probably the best bit was the section covering Saatchi & Saatchi’s Absolutely Positively Wellington campaign from 1991, which became a bit of a modern classic. I’ll just leave this here…

That concluded our time in the Wellington, and after a great second visit, we continued our journey north to the Art Deco capital of the world, Napier.

Dophins and waterslides (not dolphins on waterslides!)

Reluctantly, we left behind the stunning Kohaihai Conservation Campsite and began our journey back towards Christchurch. Not wanting to rush this leg, we broke the trip with overnight stops in the towns of Murchison, Hanmer Springs and Kaikōura en route.

After overnighting next to a beautiful river in Murchison, we realised we needed to fill up on fuel before navigating the Lewis Pass over the Southern Alps. Easy, you say? Well…

First, we investigated a truck stop, and had already prepaid for $200 of fuel before realising the nozzle wouldn’t fit in our vehicle. 😢

Next, we tried a normal fuel station, but here I only succeeded in getting the nozzle stuck in our van. 😰

With difficulty, the station attendants removed the stuck nozzle and were then keen to demonstrate just how straightforward it should be. Instead, they pumped fuel in 10-cent increments before agreeing that something was definitely wrong. 🤯

Aha, not so easy after all! Although we were delighted the problem wasn’t us (for once), we still didn’t have any fuel… By this point we’d had quite enough of Murchison, so we skipped town and drove 80 km to the next fuel station where we finally managed to fill up. Phew! 😅

Our site in Murchison right next to the Buller River

After this debacle, we proceeded over a thankfully-not-very-snowy Lewis Pass to Hanmer Springs.

The town itself didn’t feel anywhere near as remote as we had expected, and instead we found a pleasant, comfortable and laidback mountain town centred around its namesake hot springs.

We’ve come to realise that New Zealand takes its pies very seriously. So when we happened across the PJ Pies stand with our stomachs rumbling, we deemed it the morally right thing to do to check out its offering. Even at this little stand, there were still eight or so flavours on offer, with Sara opting for BBQ brisket while I went with a pork and hoisin pie. Both were deep fill, very tasty, and Sara’s might have made it into her top 10 pies ever. Even the local birds had developed a taste for PJ’s signature offering.

With our stomachs full, we purchased tickets for Hanmer’s main attraction – its hot springs. This consisted of 22 outside thermal pools, each with a subtly different theme and water temperature. With an English-speaking welcome, clear norms on swimwear, gender separated changing rooms and mixed bathing, the whole process felt almost disappointingly straightforward compared with our confusion and uncertainty at hot baths across Kazakhstan, South Korea and Japan.

In addition the beautifully relaxing hot pools, the springs also featured a couple of slightly incongruous but thoroughly enjoyable water slides. Since we didn’t have our phones with us in the hot springs, I’ve done my best to recreate the layout of two of the slides below:

Clear? Probably not. But if you imagine the first slide was like being flushed down a toilet bowl, and the second like being hurled towards a wet skate ramp, you’re probably most of the the way there.

Having expected the slides to be full of screaming kids, we were surprised to find them almost empty. The only other folks using them were a couple in their 60s, who seemed to be having the time of their lives. Not only were the slides quite a bit faster than we’d expected, but they also required climbing six or so flights of stairs to get to the top. I couldn’t help but think – these folks are who I want to be when I grow up!

Beyond Hanmer Springs, our last overnight stop on the way to Christchurch was the seaside town of Kaikōura, famous for its seafood and marine wildlife. We cruised straight through the town on the hunt for a Seafood BBQ Kiosk located right on Jimmy Armers beach. While the seafood menu was impressively large for a tiny kiosk, we were keen to try the town’s speciality; crayfish. Everything was freshly caught, grilled right in front of your eyes, and beautifully presented with a simple lemon garnish, rice, salad and garlic bread. There was even a drinks cart next door selling New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for Sara. Bliss.

In an attempt to work off some of some of the calories, we went for a walk atop the cliffs of the Kaikoura Peninsula. Not only was the scenery dramatic, but it was the perfect vantage point to watch the colony of seals snoozing on the rocks and playing in the waves below. There must have been hundreds of them spread around the peninsula, having made this spot their home due to the broad biodiversity present at the meeting point of northern (warm) water and southern (cold) water. We later learned that an earthquake in 2016 resulted in a major coastal uplift, exposing a plateau of rock that had previously been underwater. The seals seemed delighted with their home improvements!

As if the day couldn’t get any better, we spotted a pod of dolphins just off the coast as we arrived back at our camper van. I’m not sure what they were celebrating, but many were leaping clear out of the water in beautiful arcs. Some were even performing full somersaults in the air, as if they were practicing acrobatics for a circus performance. It was quite unbelievable to see this in the wild, and we almost had to pinch ourselves to check it was really happening.

Look closely for the two somersaulting dolphins close to the horizon!

As we headed back to Christchurch, we had quite mixed feelings about dropping off the camper van. On one hand, we’d loved the freedom it had afforded us, and this felt like a quintessential NZ experience that we just couldn’t miss. On top of that, the camper allowed us to cook for ourselves each night, which we’d really missed while staying in hotels and short-stay Airbnbs. On the other hand, we were looking forward to a warm and comfortable bed with an en suite bathroom, which we’d begun to miss over the past 12 nights.

Overall, we had a great experience in the camper van, were very happy with our choice of vehicle, and were consistently impressed at how straightforward it was travelling 2185 km around New Zealand’s South Island.

Driving to the very end of the road (Punakaiki and Kohaihai) 🌴

We were very excited about the next stretch of the Great Coast Road, because we’d be driving right next to the sea the whole way (actually, I think this is the only section of Highway 6 that’s officially called the Great Coast Road – Oli may have got slightly ahead of himself a few posts ago!). Anyway, it was gorgeous and there were definite California vibes.

After our shortest day of driving yet, we stopped just an hour north of Hokitika in the village of Punakaiki, another recommendation from Michael (thanks, Michael!). In his words, “The area has a very Jurassic Park feel when it’s not raining.” So of course, it was pouring with rain when we arrived, but then again I think this is pretty much Punakaiki’s regular weather. It stopped for long enough for us to visit the famous Pancake Rocks, which are made up of horizonal layers of rock that are said to look like a stack of pancakes. They didn’t look at all tasty (lucky really, or I would have got hungry again), but they were very nice to look at all the same.

Punakaiki is also famous for having spectacular sunsets. Our campground was right next to the beach and we were parked up just steps from the sea, so we popped out in another break from the rain to catch a very moody sunset from the beach.

The next morning, the sun was back, so we headed inland on an 11km walk to explore the Jurassic Park landscape a bit further. It turned out we didn’t really need the sun for this walk, because the rocky mountains enclosed the valley so tightly that we were in the shade nearly the whole way anyway! But it was a beautiful route, particularly the first half, which passed along the Pororari River Track (this should have been the last half of the walk, but we accidentally walked it backwards – thanks, Oli!)

The only slightly disconcerting part was the sheer number of signs we passed telling us not to linger in certain areas because of the risk of rock falls. Looking up the slopes, we could see why! Anyway, it certainly stopped us from dawdling, which was lucky as it also meant we didn’t meet any dinosaurs.

Just up the road, we found an incredible spot for our lunch. It felt like we were nailing #vanlife!

After this, we were really on the clock. We picked up supplies and fuel in Westport, the last big(ish) town we would pass heading up the coast, and then raced the sun right to the end of the road, 112 km further north.

We didn’t quite make it to our destination before sunset, but thankfully the road by this point was a tiny single track and ran right next to the beach, so we still had a pretty good view.

At the very end of the road sat Kohaihai Conservation Campsite, which was run by the Department of Conservation. We’d decided that just for one night we would trade a power hookup and showers for sea views and seclusion, and we’re glad we did as the setting was incredible, right on the beach and with no one else around. Although we’d missed sunset by a matter of minutes (and only because a band of pesky cloud was sitting on the horizon), we still headed straight to the beach to greet the many sandflies who were eager to join us for a glass of wine and entire bag of crisps.

It was a slightly chilly winter evening without any heating, but being surrounded by kiwi calls and quite possibly the brightest stars we’d ever seen more than made up for it. We were nearly two hours from the nearest proper town at this point, so the starlight came in very handy when finding our way to the toilets, which also didn’t have any lights. We really were in the middle of nowhere!

The next morning, we awoke to the sound of the waves and took a walk along the beach to where the tannin-stained Kohaihai River met the sea.

After a lovely (albeit brief) offgrid adventure, we headed south back to civilisation, satisfied that we’d covered every inch of the west coast’s roads.