Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New Zealand, Day 8 - Lake Tekapo and Clay Cliffs

It was raining when we woke up in Christchurch (notice a theme here?). I promise you it did not rain the entire time we were in New Zealand, or even most of the time. But it certainly seemed to rain a lot. We had an ambitious day of driving before us. We were trying to keep our agenda flexible, but with the plan to drive as far as possible so we could spend the bulk of our final week in Queenstown. So we left the campground first thing in the morning and drove straight through until lunch.

I didn't know what to expect. No, actually, I did know what to expect. I had read (and re-read several times) Tsh Oxenreider's blog post on the South Island, as well as the NZ chapter in her book At Home in the World. I thought I knew what we'd see, but instead, it was just straight roads through farmland and pastures as far as the eye could see. Granted, that wasn't very far since it was rainy and foggy for the first hour of our travels .

After driving well out of the city and any form of civilization in general, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and THERE THEY WERE! The mountains. The superbly majestic, perfectly snow-capped, mountains of New Zealand. That's what we were looking for!

It was crazy. They were all around us. Just when I thought we had surely taken a wrong turn and would be driving straight into snowy peaks, the road would bend and the mountains would suddenly be beside us, then behind us, and new mountains would rise up in front. Needless to say, I have countless blurry photos of snow-capped mountains from the campervan windshield.

This was to be our longest day of driving on this trip and the kids did great. I'm sure it helped that it was the first day we figured out how to use the DVD player. We also pre-empted the winding roads with some Dramamine. Jude was on his second day of a fever (I think I forgot to mention this in my last post??), but thankfully, I had packed Tylenol for our trip knowing that he tends to get run down when we're traveling or doing a lot in a short span of time. Normally, I'd let a fever run its course, but if there's one time I'm okay with utilizing the miracle of Tylenol--it's on our "family vacation of a lifetime" on the other side of the world.

We made it to Lake Tekapo and pulled into a scenic overlook for a potty break and to make some sandwiches. Lake Tekapo is fairly well known in the tourist world and I'd read a few blogs on visiting it. We had our eye on a campground along the lake but since it was still early in the day and we were feeling good, we decided to push on through.

We did make some time to stop at The Church of the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the top tourist stops on the South Island, but fortunately, we unintentionally timed our visit in between two tour buses. So we were able to capture some unobscured photos of the chapel as well as meander along the shoreline and teach the kids how to skip rocks. It was crisp and still, and with the mountains reflecting off the lake, it made for a stunning view. There's not a lot to do at Lake Tekapo, but there was plenty to see.

Reinvigorated from our rest stop, we continued our drive southwest--stopping every few miles for the occasional photo-op. While preparing for our trip, one of my friends' gave us the book NZ Frenzy for the South Island. There's also a volume for the North Island. These are your "off the beaten path" guides for both islands and, while they're nothing fancy to look at, I love the author's enthusiasm for adventure and appreciate his reviews and "obscuremeter" for each attraction. We didn't use the book as much as I'd have liked, since we were limited on time and easily filled our itinerary with all the "big" tourist attractions. But I did find one of his recommendations right on our way to Queenstown.

Not exactly campervan friendly but this gravel road just screams "adventure awaits!"
I assumed it was right off the main road, but what I didn't realize was you had to drive a few miles off the highway, then turn onto a gravel road and travel another 10km. It's private property, but they allow visitors and just ask that you drop a $5 donation in the box before opening the gate to drive the final stretch. Once you reach the end of the road there's a bit of walking involved as well. Jude wasn't feeling too well at this point and I think Jon wasn't as enthusiastic about the Clay Cliffs as I was, so just Jack and I made the trek.

We had a little mommy-son adventure and were both impressed by the Clay Cliffs jutting into the sky. We squeezed through a thin passage and entered "the cathedral" which was a beautiful and surreal open space surrounded by the cliffs. The sun was close to setting so we didn't stay too long (and also why my photos didn't turn out quite as dramatic as it looks in real life.) I thought it was worth the $5 and the short detour, but the experience would have been improved if Jon and the other kids had joined us and we had set aside more time for exploring.

"The Cathedral" (I feel like that word is used a lot in NZ.

There were some gorgeous views looking out from the cliffs too!
View of the Clay Cliffs from the motorway. If only you could drive straight across that pasture ...
As it was, we wanted to get to the nearest campground by dark. This was right down the road in Omarama. (I mistakenly kept pronouncing it OMA-rama--rhymes with that event in Virginia called "Homearama," but it's actually O-mara-ma.) It was another Top 10, but sadly I must admit, it was my LEAST favorite of the resorts we stayed in. There was no pool, and only one tiny playground. The kitchen and bathrooms were frigid and the lights would randomly go off if you were still for too long (or in the shower??) I also don't think it helped that the entire campground was basically empty. There was one other man staying there. I think he may have lived in a camper there. He was the epitome of "creepy guy that lives at a campground." In fact, if any of you are making a movie with a character of that description, may I recommend the man that lives at Omarama Top 10? He comes complete with long, gray beard and shifty eyes. But I digress.

One other campervan rolled in after we arrived so it wasn't TOO desolate.

Not quite what we had become accustomed to at other campgrounds.
The one thing this resort had going for it were the fabulous mountain views. Unfortunately, those same mountains also blocked the sun, which made it seem to get darker even earlier. And this may have been the coldest night during our visit to En Zed. It got down into the 20s (fahrenheit!!) For dinner, I attempted to bake a frozen lasagna in our tiny oven but after 45 minutes gave up and decided to microwave each portion individually. It actually wasn't too bad, especially with a side of garlic bread and cucumbers.

Speaking of which, we loved the cucumbers in New Zealand. Now that I'm thinking about it, we enjoyed most of the produce. After living over a year on an island where so much of our favorite produce has to be shipped in, it was nice to eat some local vegetables again! It was good we ate our fill, because our next stop was Queenstown--a region known as "the adventure capital of the world." And adventure is something our family just can't say no to!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

New Zealand, Day 7 - That Campervan Tho' (North Island to South Island)

Day 7 - Auckland to Christchurch

Here's the thing, New Zealand is an island, but it's a big island--and actually it's two islands that are not connected. Several other families we talked to and blogs I had read just focused on one island and it was usually the South one. But there were places we wanted to visit in both regions and we viewed this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to be on that side of the world, so we decided to try to swing both. Originally, our plan was to drive to the southern tip and take the ferry across to the South Island but it would have consumed a huge portion of our limited time to drive there and a huge portion of our limited funds to transfer 6 people and a campervan on the ferry. Turns out, it's actually cheaper to fly. So that's what we did!

This allowed us to focus on just one loop on the North Island, return to Auckland, fly down to Christchurch, do a circle on the South Island, and fly back to Auckland for our return flight to Hawaii.   We had to devote an entire day to travel but it was worth it for us to get to experience both islands and still have time to visit most of the sites on our list!

So on Day 7 we left Waitomo first thing in the morning and drove three hours to Auckland. After days of roaming the hillside, it was strange to be back in the city--with straight highways, multiple lanes, and on-ramps and off-ramps.

We had eaten as much of our food as we could and frantically started cleaning out the campervan once we pulled into the rental lot. We paid extra for a package that exempted us from having to return the RV with a full gas tank and an empty toilet tank (more on that later.) So it was actually fairly easy to pack everything up, wipe it all down, sweep it all up, and hit the road again.

New Zealand is so campervan friendly. Most places had parking areas designated for RVs.
The RV rental location provided a shuttle to the airport that pulled up just as we were finishing one final bathroom break. We were soon back at Auckland, all checked in, and enjoying brunch at the airport McDonalds--which actually made a delicious Flat White, if I do say so myself.

The flight to Christchurch was less than one hour. We splurged on the Kids' Snack Pack that the airline provided and they all got to pick a treat at the gift shop which made for a quick and pleasant flight. As we were flying in to the South Island you could begin to see the difference. More brown than green, more mountains than rolling hills. And snow! Well, not on the nearby ground, but definitely on the mountains in the distance. We were all shivering in anticipation!

We landed, picked up our luggage, caught another shuttle, and then waited some more at the campervan rental, which was actually quite nice and accommodating! We rented through Britz, but they work in conjunction with Maui. So our first van was a Maui and our second one was a Britz--even though they were exactly the same on the inside. We were really happy with our rental experience and loved touring the country in our campervan.

Cappuccino machines for the adults and crayons and coloring pages for the kids!
That said, there were definitely some challenges to sharing a tiny living area with six people. Naturally, space was a big issue. There was plenty of room for us to store our groceries and smaller items, and there was a large storage space under the camper that was great for a folding table (that we never used), camping chairs, muddy boots, and other outdoor stuff. But there wasn't much room for our bags. We had packed everything in soft bags to make storing them easier. But our modus operandi soon became piling the bags on our bed during the day, and stacking them up in the dining area at night.

Kitchen area

As you can see from this photo, there's only space for one adult to walk through at a time. 

Kitchen storage. We also had a TV/DVD player but we didn't figure the DVD player out until halfway through our trip.

We did most of our cooking in our campervan kitchen, but I usually did dishes in the resort kitchens--more space and unlimited hot water!

Another example of a campground community kitchen.
You could only set the tabletop up during the evening when we weren't driving, since two of our kids needed to be in carseats and they didn't fit in the leg space. At night, we'd set up the table and move the carseats to the driver's cab for storage.

Play time

Meal time.

Driving time

More play time
Jon and I had the double bed in the back of the van. The dining area turns into another double bed, but we preferred to use that for storage and put all four kids in the double bed up above the cab. They thought this was fun for the first few nights but soon reality set in and some evenings it was a challenge to get them all to settle and sleep (no matter who was sleeping next to them.) Then we could shut the curtain on their bed and get the rest of the camper to ourselves.

Kids' bed

Our bed. And since I slept next to the window but am always the first one up--it involved acrobats to get out of bed every morning.
Dirty laundry presented another challenge. Mainly because it was actual, dirty laundry. Lots of rain + all our hiding and touring adventures meant there was no re-wearing of clothes. So we started a pile in the one free corner of the camper. And with six people, it didn't take long to grow! Muddy shoes stayed in the bucket-step at the front door.

This is what things looked like when we were parked for the evening.

Hanging laundry on every spare inch!
But the wet towels, robes, and swimsuits were impossible to dry in the cold weather. Anytime we weren't on the road, wet items were hanging everywhere in attempt to somewhat dry. Sometimes we'd throw them in the campground dryer but at $4NZD a pop, it's not something we wanted to do every day in addition to our regular laundry. And wet sneakers were a whole other story. I spent a good portion of my vacation time in dreamy En Zed standing by a hand dryer with a stinky pair of my boys' shoes.

We also used the dryers for just getting warm period.

Heat lamps!
And then there's just the whole experience of living in such close quarters with your children every second of every day. Our only hope was to wear them down sufficiently enough during the day to guarantee an early, peaceful evening. And while it certainly helped that the sun was setting at 5:30. It made for some very long and quiet evenings for Jon and I. On the warmer nights we sat outside under the stars on the camping chairs. But on the colder and rainy nights (which was the majority), we just sat together on the bed and read or watched the iPad. And then went to bed early.

Coloring on the floor while sitting on a bag of dirty laundry.

Enjoying a breakfast of oatmeal cookies while siting next to the space heater.
Oh, and let's talk about the convenience of having your toilet RIGHT THERE. Like, right next to our heads as we slept. I mean, it's great, having such amenities available anytime we needed them, especially with four kids. But still... ew. And don't even get me started on the time one of our kids had an emergency situation while we were ON THE ROAD and Jon took a crazy sharp turn that ended with us having to reinstall the bathroom door... I'll leave the rest to your imagination and just say, this is why you only use the toilet when the van is parked.

I tried to capture this bathroom but it was so tight I couldn't fit it into my camera view. But this is the toilet  and that hose you see next to it ...
... is the shower, hanging directly above the toilet and the sink, which folds into the wall. We didn't use the shower, but I was regularly awed by it's functionality.
We tried to utilize the campground restrooms as much as possible! (Note Julia standing under the hand dryer in the background.)

Some were nicer than others ... can you say heated floors?!?

She's showing you an example of a campground shower.

Some campgrounds had stricter shower policies than others!
We tried to encourage the kids to save up their "big needs" for when we were at the campground, but--kids. So instead of lasting us 2-3 days, our sewage tank needed emptied every day. Which was another reason we stuck to camping resorts rather than free-camping (that and power--we needed heat and to charge electronics.) Daddy was an absolute hero in emptying the tank each day and the rest of us cheered him on through the window.

Doesn't the term "cassette" make it all sound so pleasant?

So anyhow, we acquired our second RV and made our first stop at Countdown for more food. They say that New Zealand is expensive, but add shopping with [the distraction and wants of] four kids to that equation and it adds up even more. For example, if you just grab the first eggs you see (which aren't refrigerated by the way), they could end up being the fancy-pants, organic, free-range, fresh-air, $9/dozen kind. Yikes!

There was no La Croix in En Zed, but this was a delicious alternative!

Cheerios, but not General Mills. Interesting.
And while we're on the topic of stores in New Zealand, can I just point out the garishness of signage in this country? It never ceased to amaze me that a place of such jaw-dropping natural beauty had such eye-assaulting, man-made marketing.

This is "The Warehouse" which would be similar to our K-Mart/Wal-Mart/Target.
After a long day of travel, we knew we needed an early evening to relax. So we made a short drive right within Christchurch and stayed at the Top 10 there that night. This was a really nice campground and the only one we visited with a DRIVE-THRU CHECK-IN. So this was also the only  time I was present during the check-in process. And it was also when we realized these campgrounds charge extra per person beyond the initial two campers and why we were busting our budget on overnight accommodations. Instead of $43/night, it turned into $119/night for a family of six!!! I always find it frustrating when I feel like I'm being punished for having kids. But I digress.

I never understood why they always filled campgrounds one next to another when the rest of the park was open. But it did make things feel a little less desolate.
So it was a nice campground and a populated campground--we were surrounded by other camper vans. But we still had the showers and kitchen to ourselves most of the time! The Christchurch Top 10 had an "indoor heated" pool. I use the terms "indoor" and "heated" loosely. It was located in something resembling a shed. And not nearly warm enough for me. But they somehow managed to squeeze a kiddie pool and a slide into the shed-space and that was enough for our kids!

It really was as ghetto as this pictures makes it appear.
This campground also had a hot tub (and it too was located in a separate shed--more like a tiki hut.) But you had to pay extra and reserve it ahead of time. So we did. At 8:00pm, we ensured the kids were fast asleep, locked the camper up, and headed across the road to our own private hot tub. Woo woo!! (and no photos.) It was the perfect peaceful ending to a long day of hustling, and a needed break before what was about to be our longest day on the road in New Zealand!
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