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Although I'm only getting around to posting this now, during the UK winter our little family spent 2 months in New Zealand visiting friends and family and enjoying the great outdoors in the only way you can truly savour it, camping. If you are planning to visit the land of the long white cloud during the southern hemisphere summer months, now's a good time to start planning. Typically the best weather is in late January through February, but you can always expect sudden downpours and changeable conditions much like the UK so always take your rain jacket!
New Zealand is a great place to camp, whichever way you choose to do it. There is a choice of fully equipped 'holiday parks' which offer tent, caravan and campervan sites along with basic cabins or more upscale lodge rooms, communal kitchens (with fridges and freezers), games/tv room and shower/toliets and the quite often spa/swimming pools/tennis courts. At the time of writing these average between $18 - $24 per night per adult for a tent pitch, most places don't charge for under 2's.
For a more back to nature experience, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has basic camping sites all over the country, usually in stunning locations but with little more than a fresh water tap and a long drop toilet. These sites are well maintained and cheap at around $6 per night per person and are really the best way to get a feel for the country, you can also pick up free booklet featuring all sites from any DOC office.Freedom camping is also entirely possible, although only self-contained vehicles can camp in areas where there are no toilet facilities and there are often 'No Camping' signs in popular tourist carparks.
Our initial plan was to hire or borrow some sort of campervan or at least large vehicle that we could sleep in for those days we just wanted to park up in the wilderness and stay overnight. Friends kindly lent us a minivan with seats that folded down which would have comfortably sleep all three of us, if it weren't for an under-inflated airbed and no curtains to block out the streaming morning sun. Still we had a pretty awesome first night of camping along with a insect netted gazebo, we parked up in the grounds of the Lake Ohau Lodge in the Mount Cook area which also does awesome food and has heaps of activities for kids. A big thank-you to chef Brad Alty and owner Mike for making us feel so welcome and letting us share the amazing wild venison stew! We were the only campers so had the pick of spots in a sheltered clearing amongst the pine trees over looking the lake....check out this view:
Whilst it was a pretty sweet set-up we decided to grab a cheap tent from the Warehouse (Large NZ discount store) so that at least we could set up Rhiannon's cot in the evenings and have a bit more space to store things. The gazebo was an impulse buy from Mitre 10 and we did feel a bit ridiculous setting up this huge apparatus for just the 3 of us, but it proved invaluable as a contained outdoor play area for Rhi and protection from the mosquitos and sandflies, especially when enjoying a glass of wine after the sun had set.
From Lake Ohau we headed North to Hamner Springs and decided to take a night off from camping as Rhi wasn't feeling too well, still we were on a budget so we checked into the YHA's Kakapo Lodge and got a good deal on a triple room for $75 NZD. The facilities were pretty good, as they tend to be with YHA - it wasn't all backpackers and party animals, there was a real cross section of mature travellers, NZ families and international nomads. Hanmer Springs hot pools make a great 1/2 day activity for families with toddlers and full day with older kids. After a recent refurbishment, the complex now includes quite a number of both natural hot springs at different temperatures, swimming pools, waterslides/toys, a restaurant and bar and of course day spa. Be aware that the hottest pools aren't suitable for small kids and the attendants recommend babies and toddlers spend no longer than 10 minutes in some of the warmer pools. There are some great camping grounds in Hamner though, so if you are sticking to tenting you won't be disappointed.
Onwards to the small town of Mapua, not far from Nelson. This time we were staying with family for 10 days at the Mapua Chalets - a lovely little spot tucked away in the hills behind the town, with views out over the bay, a wonderful swimming pool and spa. The Nelson Lakes and Abel Tasman area is one of the most beautiful and relaxed parts of the South Island, there are golden beaches and rivers to swim in, beautiful native forests, a thriving arts scene and wonderful food and wine. My idea of paradise.
Mapua also has a lovely holiday park right on the estuary with sites for tenting, caravans, campervans and a range of self catering chalets, motel rooms, recreational facilities and a beachside restaurant and bar. You might want to take note of your travelling dates however as the park is 'clothing optional' during the months of February and March for those who like to get a little closer to nature. The rest of the year its business as usual. The broader area has plenty of gorgeous little camping spots on beachfront reserves or DOC sites so check out the DOC website or guides.
The New Year arrived and we headed for the West Coast via the Lewis Pass and then the Buller Gorge, which is rated at one of NZ's most scenic drives......you'll get pretty close to the scenery at Hawks Crag where the road narrows to one lane with a cliff overhang above and a drop the river on one side!
Westport was our first stop, purely because I had never been there and was curious. The Westport Holiday Park was a pleasant surprise, welcoming staff, lovely soft grass pitches and camp-wide wifi. There were plenty of families staying here and they even had something close to a toddler bath in the ladies shower block. Westport itself was a bit like an outpost town with one main street but its a great base for exploring the surrounding areas and trying out a few adventure activites (perhaps not with the toddler in tow). We visited the ominously named Cape Foul Wind, which turned out to be a gorgeous area of wild beaches and seal colonies. I still want to have a holiday home down the Tauranga Bay Road some day.
Moving South we made our way to Hokitika, home of the famed Wild Food Festival and centre for all things greenstone in the South Island. Between Westport and Hokitika the scenery is nothing short of breath-taking, even for a Kiwi like me who has seen alot of stunning vistas in my travels. There's something a bit Jurassic Park about the West Coast and as we had to stop every hour or so to let Rhiannon run off some energy, there are plenty of great picnic and sightseeing spots like the beach at Charleston (pictured below), Fox River Mouth and caves & Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Greymouth is not much of a tourist town except that the Tranz Alpine Express train to Christchurch leaves from here, although it is the first large town on the coast after Westport so handy for stocking up on supplies or if anyone needs to see a doctor.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hokitika is rather lacking in decent camping facilities - especially if you're tenting. We checked out 3-4 spots which were listed in the AA guide book and online and none of them were particularly inspiring. Among these the Top 10 Holiday Park, which is a chain and usually pretty reliable was in the shadow of a gigantic milk factory and was pretty run down, another place called 'Seaview Lodge' claimed to be luxurious but in fact it is a former pyschiatric hospital with only a small lawn to pitch tents on, or rooms within the complex which still very much resembles its former designation, its just a little creepy. 'Shining Star' looked really nice, but they didn't have areas for tents and are more geared to those looking for chalet-type accommodation.
After 2 hours of searching we were at a bit of a loss & Rhiannon was getting pretty grumpy, luckily Ioan spotted a listing in one of our brochures for the Riverview Cottage and Cabins, just outside of Hokitika and after a quick phone call they offered us their lawn to camp on, saved! Set on a small holding just off Kaniere Rd and a short walk to the Hokitika River, Riverview is a great little spot with all sorts of farm animals, a very friendly Labrador and resident cats to keep kids amused. The Kiwi/Brit couple that run the place are very helpful and down to earth, they even let us bath Rhiannon in their personal bathroom and hung out our washing! There's a small vege garden that guests can take produce from as well. Highly recommend giving this place a try if you're ever in Hokitika and on a budget.
Things to do with a family in Hokitika? Well if its not Wild Foods Festival time, then have a wander around the town centre to check out the Pounamu (Jade) carvers at work or have a go yourself, Hokitika Beach can be good for a dip on calm days and kids can make sculptures or dens out of the tons of twisted driftwood strewn along the sands, then there's always the intriguingly name Sock Machine Museum. We drove up to Hokitika Gorge (above) and went for a stroll down to the unbelievably blue riverside - well worth a visit but remember the insect repellant.
2 nights later it was time to move on, this time we were bound for the Glacier town of Franz Josef. Planning wasn't our strong point on this day, as by the time we pulled into the township at 5pm, it was pouring with the particularly wet blend of West Coast rain and we weren't savouring the thought of pitching a tent in standing water amongst the downpour. There are a few options for campers in Franz, but most are a short drive outside the actual town such as the Top 10 Holiday Park here, which looked pretty decent and you can also camp in the grounds of some of the backpacker lodges, but we opted for one of the last and cheapest motel rooms which was also outside the township and apparently not on the net as far I as I can see.....anyways it was comfortable and clean and dry!
We awoke to brilliant sunshine the following day, stocked up on supplies and headed for my secret spot....Lake Mapourika, just North of Franz town - signposted Ottos Corner or MacDonalds at the North end of the lake. The carpark had certainly expanded since I last visited, when I lived on the West Coast in my early 20's, but the lake was as magical as ever with a gorgeous grassy campsite encircled by native trees just up from the lake foreshore. We pitched up and spent 3 blissful nights there, swimming, reading and going for day trips to the wonderful Okarito Lagoon and beach nearby and of course the Franz Josef Glacier. As its a DOC campsite, there was only a well-maintained but mosquito and sandfly magnet long drop toilet a short walk from the camp and a fresh water tap in the way of facilities but the location more than makes up for any inconvenience. Some other not so responsible travellers were using this pristine lake as a bath, washing themselves with soaps, shampoos and shower gels which inevitably harms the delicate eco system of places such as this. Be prepared with some eco-friendly toiletries such as Faith in Nature or pop into any health food store or pharmacy and they usually stock plant based natural alternatives.
Finally we managed to prize ourselves away and continue down the South Westland coast, with a plan to take our time en-route and camp in Haast for a day or two. The journey itself was magnificent, although famed for its damp climate which feeds the lush rainforest year-round, when the sun shines on the coast it is up there with the most beautiful places in the world. We stopped off at Lake Mathieson, the subject of many a tourist postcard with its glazed mirror surface reflecting the vista in a perfect mirror image. There's a relatively easy loop track around the lake that takes about 35-40 mins return, but its not suitable for buggies so best get out the baby carrier, we bought a second hand version of this Kathmandu carrier and it was ideal. At the entrance to the lake there is a nice cafe, gift shop and gallery where you can sit and take in the views over an ice cream. With that I'll sign off and continue with part 2 over the weekend........