Leaving the farm and getting back on the horse.
We haven't been here for close on twenty years, not like this in a travelling, road tripping way. Our plans are to catch up with family in Invercargill while keeping an eye out for that little piece of land. We chose to fly to Queenstown and pick up a camper van, rather than to drive down from Auckland and cross islands on the Cook Straight ferry. Today, as we get ready to fly back I'm very happy we made that choice, for many reasons - not least because the weather report is brutal. High seas, gale force winds . . . yikes!
WHERE WE STAYED
Friendly, fabulous and grateful to have us.
The theme to our accommodation here is sumptuous newness. The Holiday Inn at the Remarkables is the newest of their four Queenstown properties and it feels like we're the first people to stay in our room. For us who have been living in a tent for a while, this is luxury. Vast, comfy bed with a choice of hard and soft pillows, fluffy white dressing gowns, designer bathroom complete with a rain shower head. . . we feel like movie stars.
Driftaway Holiday Park is also brand-spanking new, opened in March, and we've never stayed anywhere in New Zealand that offers this level of luxury for campers. Glamping with to-die-for views.
The Remarkables are the backdrop to both. Awe-inspiring when we first got here and - just for us it seems - a dusting of snow now that we're about to leave. Magical.
Fiery autumnal setting, customer service as frosty as the temperatures.
A grown-up, high-end trailer park is what this feels like. Huge, sleek, white vans populated by retirees and skilled migrant workers. There are facilities for children but, mercifully, they've all gone back to school. Maybe the old couple running this place are struggling with the shock of dealing with tourists again. The glorious, golden hills that surround us aren't enough to mitigate their frostiness. We won't be back.
Relaxed, home-grown southern hospitality.
Riverton Holiday Park is much more our kind of place. Small, tucked into green rolling hills above the estuary and not a sleek white van in sight. In fact, until nightfall we're the only guests. Which doesn't stop the owners from making a fire in the common room just for us, chatting like old friends, then giving us space to enjoy it. Later we're joined by an intrepid overseas traveller, almost at the end of an epic hike from Cape Reinga to the Bluff. Fascinating conversations, interesting connections, new discoveries - this is why we travel.
Last call before winter.
Who wouldn't want to spend the night in a holiday park called the Whistling Frog? Turns out there isn't anywhere else to stay in the area and it's getting dark. Everything seems to have shut down for the winter. It's surreal - in a good way - being the only people in a place that feels as though it should be full. We have the run of the designery kitchen, first dibs on the heater in lounge, the ablutions all to ourselves. Bright morning sun melts the frost on our van and cheers our spirits. I'd love to see this place in summer.
Some things don't change.
Dunedin Holiday Park claims to be oldest, continuously operating holiday park in the country. Certainly it was here when we did our first South Island tour over thirty years ago, and apart from the addition of wifi, it's pretty much as I remember it. All the amenities you'd need and then some. We're grateful it's out-of-season and we're the only campers in the unpowered sites. Friendly customer service and proximity to St Kilda's Beach are two more reasons to stay here.
HOW WE TRAVELLED
In a bright green and purple Jucy van. Everyone else being picked up by the complementary airport shuttle looks about fourteen but I suppose they must be old enough to drive. We feel like ageing hippies, out of place with the young 'uns and equally, with the olds. In our own place, I guess.
Our van is what they call a Cabana, basically a kitted-out Previa and we're so glad we chose it. A car when we need it, a snug bed to sleep in at night. We don't use the kitchen at the back much although the utensils come in handy. The Cabana is much easier to manoeuvre than the high-tops, lighter on fuel too. We don't plan on freedom camping and we definitely don't want to empty onboard toilets. No. Just no.
We brought our own sleeping bags with us, which, with the addition of the bright green and purple covered duvets and pillows that come with the van, ensures we're toasty even in sub zero temps.
The most southerly point in New Zealand (if you don't get as far as Stewart Island). Kind of like Cape L' Agulhas at the bottom of South Africa. Although known for its gales and big seas, it's strangely benign today. But it's late, the bite in the wind reminds us how near we are to the South Pole and we're going to have to tramp twenty minutes through paddocks of sheep and cows to get there. So we don't. Close enough to say been-there-done-that.
Autumn in Arrowtown
The time to visit Arrowtown is now, Autumn, when the streets and surrounding hills are ablaze with gold and orange. Thanks to covid there are only a handful of tourists today. It also means lots of closed up shops, pubs and cafes in the main street. We still manage to find one with a sunny garden and the famous South Island cheese roll on the menu, and everywhere is a feast for the eyes.
Nightcaps and Ohai
I've been wanting to come to Nightcaps for the longest time. Now that we're here I can't decide whether it's the middle of nowhere or the end of the world. A broke-down, forgotten place that's about as far away from the tourist trail as it's possible to get. I can't imagine what it must be like to live here. 7kms down the road is Ohai. Both owe their existence to coal mining. Such a rewarding detour on our way to Invercargill.
DAY ONE: KING COUNTRY
King Country is as I remembered it, pointy hills, green and ridged by grazing stock. Travelling it is a treat, a trip back in time and visually delicious. Could this be our place?
We’re nonplussed to discover the campground at the caves has morphed from a field into a Top Ten Holiday Park. To be fair, it has been over thirty years since we last came here. Our daughter was eleven years old then and not impressed at having to watch her favourite program on a tiny black and white TV plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter (yep, a standard feature back-in-the-day when smoking in cars was commonplace).
If we weren’t just emerging from covid travel restrictions with no international tourists allowed in and the school holidays just ended - this would be my idea of hell. The eleven-year-old kid would have been in heaven though. The LED TV in the lounge is enormous.
Everything sparkles, the sinks in the kitchens, the bathrooms, the laundry. Spotless. Someone obviously spent lockdown in frenzied maintenance. The pool and playground are deserted, not a yelling child in sight. Bliss. But also weird and surreal. A place poised, waiting for tourists that haven't come.
My favourite is the lemon tree surrounded by a herb garden which provides fresh parsley, thyme and basil to flavour dinner. No pots, pans or utensils though, luckily we’ve brought our own.
My least favourite are the cabin-y things, and the new powered sites that are being built. If I look hard I can see the ghost of that old field, catch glimpses of the old King Country. We pitch our tent at the foot of a huge autumnal tree, facing away from the cabins, screening as much of the development as we can. Trying to make-believe it's way-back-then.
Biggest surprise is the super-fast wifi. This is still the middle of nowhere.
Biggest shock is the noise. This is still the middle of nowhere. But all night long the sound of logging trucks, stock trucks, every kind of truck, echos across from the main road. In the morning, early, a digger starts up. Not too much later work involving noisy machinery begins on the new powered sites. Groan.
Camping fail, ha! Now we remember. This is a stargazer, a summer tent. Made for hot places, not heavy dewfall. The outer skin is soaked through and drippy. I want to buy a new tent. NOW.
DAY TWO: NEW PLYMOUTH
The scenery on the drive from Waitomo to Taranaki is why we road trip. Pointy King Country hills giving way to bush-filled gorges until we reach the sea. I feel an instant connection to this coast with its white cliff walkways, always have. Could this be our place?
New Plymouth is port-ish and grey, low cloud hiding it's one true beauty. But we're relieved to be here; to get phone reception and wifi to conclude urgent travel arrangements and a store to buy a tarp and cord. Keith has quietly but firmly put his foot down. No new tent. The tarp is my plan B. I put my foot down about another Top Ten Holiday Park and we opt for one that runs along the sea front.
But now, shock-horror, there are people. Staying. Here. All masked up and unfriendly except a lone Islander bro and his bicycle who says 'Hi'. They clutter the kitchen, use the bathrooms, change the TV channel to Shortland Street just as we're about to watch the weather report. Yikes! I've turned into a grumpy old person. I want my deserted, poised-and-waiting Waitomo campground back.
My favourite thing is a peep of Mt Taranaki in the morning, Even framed by houses it's magical.
My least favourite thing is the noise. Again. No longer a shock, but it makes it impossible to sleep. Not the port noise, I'm cool with that. Not even the late-night hooning and yahooing, this is city (albeit a small one) and to be expected. But the trucks that run up and down from 3.00am along the road behind the camp ground, bashing, crashing, dropping loads of something heavy until dawn. . . What's that about?
Biggest surprise is that my tarp idea worked. Really well. Despite a heavy dew fall, the tent was hardly drippy at all.
Camping fail, mmm, Keith's not as sure, but I think the air mattress has sprung a slow leak.
DAY THREE & FOUR: WANGANUI
We drive the coastal route from New Plymouth; sea to our right, mystical Mt Taranaki to our left, all blue and ethereal on a sunshiny May morning. In the foreground rolling green hills house small-holdings and the Green School. Enticing. Could this be our place?
Hawera doesn't appeal so it's on to the Wanganui and yep, another Top Ten Holiday Park. This one borders the river. Out of season there are no children, just old people parked up in enormous sleek white campers. Which means it's quiet in a doddery kind of way. We're the only ones in a tent and we feel looked down upon, both literally and socially.
Of the places we've stayed, this park takes covid precautions the most seriously; masks, posters, bottles of disinfectant and piles of wipe-down cloths. The olds mostly hole up in their vans and keep to themselves when they venture out. Apart from a too-friendly couple who want us to join them around the fire pit. We politely decline, but love that there is a fire pit.
My favourite are the ingenious lockers in the lounge room where you can leave your phones and electric toothbrushes to charge all day.
My least favourite is still the noise. Although it's quieter here, there's main road noise, train and plane noise.
Biggest surprise is a riverboat sailing by while we're drinking tea, passengers aboard waving, a glimpse of days-gone-by.
Camping fail, whoa, this one was spectacular. Keith flinging a flaming gas stove into the field because he thought the canister was about to explode. It'll definitely be camp kitchens from now on in, which most probably means more Top Tens.
Camping hack: Pitching a tent under trees virtually eliminates dewfall, but in this instance, not the need for a tarp. Wild guava trees, it turns out, are a firm favourite with many species of birdlife (think dropping of all kinds, falling fruit etc).
DAY FIVE: NAPIER
It's a stop off in Palmerston North to book flights to the South Island next week, before driving across to the east side of the island. Woodville with its hilly wind farms is appealing, but we don't see any likely little pieces of land. Dannevirke, Norsewood . . . neither are our place. Hawkes Bay? Better, but still not really . . . and then we're here, in Art Deco land, in Napier.
And it's back to another Top Ten Holiday Park. This one is situated about 8kms outside of the city, near the airport, just off the main road and next to the railway line. Alarm bells should be ringing but all we can hear is the surf churning the shingle beach, a comforting sound. We can't actually see the sea, but it's very close.
The unpowered site section is smallish but with no other campers, we have the run of it and it's pretty enough. All the usual amenities and a brand-new, designery shower block. A rather raucous group of old (and mercifully, unfriendly to us) people make for a noisy kitchen, but hey, that's camping in this kind of situ. While I still think that the air mattress has a slow leak, Keith's bought new batteries for the air pump and gives it a good rev.
My favourite is morning coffee sitting on a sunny bench on the embankment overlooking the sea. A path leads to it from the corner of the patch of grass where we've pitched the tent.
My least favourite - yet again - is the noise. We've discovered that when the tide goes out the surf-on-shingle sound goes with it, turning up the volume of main road traffic, trains and the nearby airport. Still acceptable given the location. But the big bash starts up at 3.00am and finally we get it. Roadworks! This must be what kept us awake in New Plymouth. There were roadwork signs there too. Major work done in the early hours of the morning to minimise disruption to traffic. Steamrollers, truckloads of gravel being dumped, in the words of Keith: Yowser! We have a new thing to take into consideration when choosing campgrounds.
Biggest surprise is still the fast wifi. Right here in the tent. It feels like a contradiction in terms, albeit a useful one. Along with the noise, it's been the one constant in campgrounds.
DAY SIX: TAUPO
Not far out of Napier, on the road to Taupo, we clock 1,000 kms. Our guilty secret. It's no longer fashionable to do road trips, not from the sustainability or the economic point of view; we don't dare meander aimlessly or detour on a whim. We have a mission. Find that little piece of land. And pretty as this drive through forested mountains is, it's not here.
Taupo, more than anywhere we've been so far, is limping back onto the tourist trail. Still mostly local, backyard travel, although we spot the occasional overseas visitor too. I'm not even fighting the Top Ten thing anymore and this is my least favourite so far. Small, squashed into the 'burbs and backing onto an industrial site. Nothing to show that we're actually in Taupo. I didn't even photograph it, this is the Taupo view you won't see from from your campsite. But hey, there are no nearby roadworks as far as we can tell.
We have the pick of the unpowered sites - they're empty for now. But if people come later, it's not going to be fun. There's no privacy and it's not pretty in any shape or form. The park ticks all the amenity boxes - a heated pool, spa, lounge room, games room; a store, barista morning coffee etc - but all on top of each other, cheek by jowl. And worst of all, there are people! Not just old people - families with shrieking children, teenagers, outdoorsy types come to kayak, cycle and do lake-type things . . . Then we realise what's going on. Ha! It's Friday, the weekenders have arrived.
My favourite is the kitchen and adjoining outside space. In a squished up place there IS space. And it's been so well set up; it's funky, inviting, good seating, festoon lights. Love it.
My least favourite, mmm, hard to choose. Melt-downs in the pool or the giant domestic in the van that arrived late last night, parked almost on top of us and kept opening and slamming doors.
Biggest surprise were the two children flipping effortlessly from Dutch to English (with an English accent, not a Kiwi one), depending on which parent they were talking to. On their own they took turns in communicate in both languages. Fascinating. Definitely overseas tourists. Hardy stock, I admire the family's tenacity in navigating NZ's border restrictions.
DAY SEVEN: CAMBRIDGE
The last leg and we're starting to tire. We could have gone via Ohope to check out that Top Ten Park, but it would have involved the most mileage we've done in a day so far, and Keith's not up for it. Instead it's straight to Cambridge, and the most direct route back to Auckland. It's a place we pass through on the way to somewhere else, never a destination in itself. Leafy, horsey with a cutesy village hub, if we stop long enough to look, could this be it?
We manage to lose ourselves among the straight, flat, look-alike roads and still arrive early. Not a problem to check in before the usual 2.00 pm though and we can take our pick of large, leafy sites. We choose a sunny one to dry out the tent and tarps, there was no space or sun to do that when we left a foggy Taupo this morning. Tomorrow is also on our mind. We don't want to be putting wet camping gear into our storage locker.
And now it's back to a few humungous sleek white campers and the old people that drive them, ours is the only tent. The other visitors seem to be here for family events and are staying in the cabins. We revel in the space and the golden Autumn sunshine, take full advantage of the laundry and kitchen facilities. Of all the parks we've visited this is the least covid-centric. Not a poster anywhere. Only occasionally a mask.
My favourite thing about this place are the giant trees dropping carpets of crunchy orange leaves. Deep in the 'burbs, it nonetheless feels like Cambridge.
My least favourite thing is the garden maintenance being carried out with hedge trimmers and leaf blowers. In other words, noise - again.
Biggest surprise is the patchy wifi. We've come to expect it to be faster than this and this is an urban area. Normally we wouldn't care, except we've arranged to Skype and keep losing connection.
So, did we find it?
That little piece of land in our head? A big ask in just seven days. The answer is . . . maybe. More exploration is needed, and more in our style of camping. It definitely won't be found in Top Ten Holiday Parks, which served our purpose admirably at this point in time, but once their usual visitors come back, will become untenable.