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2 Weeks, 53 Driving Hours, and 3829 km Later, New Zealand Part 1


Sydney Airport Decked Out for Christmas

So first off, we'd like to acknowledge that it's been awhile and we are sorry for that, but most of you know we spent Christmas and New Years in New Zealand and writing about that felt a bit daunting. We've finally decided to get it out there to the fans. There is a lot to cover so this will be our first two-parter and will mostly be the highlights and funny blunders of our trips with a bunch of photos. Here, we will walk you through the first half of our trip, where we were on the road from Auckland on the North Island down to Queenstown on the South Island. Hope you enjoy! (For those who need to know and didn't look it up 3829 km is approximately 2379 miles; also, those are our total numbers not just the first half of the trip).



View of Auckland from the Top of a Dormant Volcano

As mentioned, we started our journey in Auckland. We flew in on the December 22nd and spent one night in the city before we picked up our camper van, yes you heard it CAMPER VAN, for the road trip around the rest of the country. After walking up a small remnant of a volcano in the city our first stop was only supposed to be about 2.5 hours away, but we hit some traffic so it was about 4 hours. Eventually, we made it Rotuorua where we stayed at a Holiday Park (what they call campgrounds) near the geothermal vents. (Aside: New Zealand is well known for it's Holiday Parks. They come with usually pretty nice accommodations. The private parks, which cost a little bit more, come with nice hot showers, common kitchen and lounge areas and some of the nicest ones came with free WiFi access. There are Department of Conservation camps as well, which are run by the government and have lesser accommodations, but almost all of them come with showers and bathrooms for people without a self-contained camper van. Self-contained basically means a van with some sort of toilet system in it and there are less restrictions on where you can camp if you are self-contained. Up until 2011, you could "freedom camp" almost anywhere in NZ, basically, allowing you camp anywhere that you could find a place to park. In 2011, they changed the laws so that only self-contained vehicles can freedom camp. We were not self-contained, but we did have a nice small kitchen and fridge in the back of our van.)


Traditional Dance at the Māori Village

Our first event was a Māori Village Tour in Rotuorua that evening. The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They are descendant of the Polynesian explorers who first arrived on the islands via giant sea-faring canoes between 1320 and 1350. Our tour of the village included a show of Māori songs and wartime chants, a Hāngī dinner (a traditional method of cooking using heated rocks in a pit oven), and a walk through the village at night to see some of their native glowworms.



Greg Sleeping in on Christmas Eve

After the tour, we made our way back to camp and began our first attempt at converting our van into a studio apartment. The first night was a little tricky, we learned quite quickly that the awesome little mini fridge that kept our drinks nice and cold also put out a loud humming noise for about 2 minutes and then would turn off again for about 6 minutes before repeating the cycle. (Thank you Allison for figuring out the timing on that while it kept you up all night the first day! Greg, while he didn't sleep well was not as distracted by the loud noises of the fridge and more the geothermal smells along with the shorter than usual bed.) Now, there were several iterations of sleeping conditions before we got to the right one, but we will spare you the details and just say by the end of the trip sleeping in the van was almost as good as some of the hotels we stayed in. It came with mosquito nets for the windows so we could keep them open and cool all night (although there was incident that lead to a mosquito war, which we think we lost not due to being bitten but due to the fear of being bitten). We did not spend every night in the van as you'll learn because we wanted to make sure we were in WiFi on the holidays to correspond with you lovely people!

Māori Rock Carving

The next day (Christmas Eve) we got up early to drive down to Taupō for a Māori rock carving sailing tour on Lake Taupō. This was a bit underwhelming in that it was about an hour boat ride to a single rock carving and then an hour boat ride back, which we did not expect. We thought it would include several rock carvings throughout the tour. We learned, however, that rock carving is not a typically part of the Māori tradition. They mostly carved wooden objects like totem poles, masks and weapons. The rock carving was created in the 1970s by a master Māori carver as a gift to his grandmother. His original goal was to carve the largest tree in all of New Zealand, but in his search nothing inspired him. He eventually happened upon this flat rock wall on Lake Taupō and was given permission to carve it. The effort was joined by students at one of the local universities and several were chosen to do their own smaller carvings near the large one. While we were at first disappointed in the fact this was not an ancient traditional carving, we softened to this idea because we realized it is a very cool connection between the traditional ways of the Māori and the modern world. It's a great example of the support the Māori people have in NZ and a good guide for other places on how to incorporate the indigenous traditions today.


Our Camp Site at Camp Elsdon

After the sailing tour we continued our journey south for about four and a half hours on the road. We ended up about a half hour from Wellington at a camp called Camp Elsdon. Being Christmas Eve, by the time we got to the camp the staff was gone, but we pre-booked a space so we just took an open campsite for the night. The camp was by no means full, but there were some people there. A few sites even looked as though they were for long term residents. It was an interesting site, but met our needs for the night. We met a man who was walking all of New Zealand. Starting form the far north and he planned to walk all the way south in a few months. We cooked macaroni and cheese with sausage dinner and opened a bottle of wine to go with it. Greg happened to have four Christmas songs on his phone so we listened to those during dessert. Christmas morning we made our classic Sunday breakfast of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches on a bagel. They were just as tasty as usual. In the camp there was one older guy who played Christmas music in the morning. It started a bit earlier than Greg would have liked, but when we were eating and packing up it was much appreciated. We wished him a Merry Christmas before we departed for the day.

Waiting in Queue to Board the Ferry

Christmas Day was a big travel day for us (remember we are living in the future over here so it was still Christmas Eve for most, if not all, of you readers) we had a 4 hour ferry ride from Wellington to Picton and then a small journey beyond that to our accommodations in Blenheim. We had a little time before the ferry so we stopped in Wellington for a little wander around the city. Then we checked in for the ferry as planned around 12 o'clock for a 1 PM departure. The ferry was nicer than we expected. Large seats and a limited WiFi connection. It moved very slowly but we had gentle seas and took some time to relax a bit.


Empty Blenheim on Christmas Day

We got to Blenheim around 5:30 and checked into the hotel and decided we should go get some food sooner than later (oh man, let me tell you... New Zealand shuts down at like 6 PM every day... this was something we were learning but had not quite internalized yet... more on that in Part 2). So, here is where we'd like to remind everyone this is Christmas Day in a small Christian country, without the crazy work expectations of the United States. One member of our team tried to warn another member of our team that it might be hard to find a place open for dinner or even a grocery store so we should prepare a meal in advance. But said member of the team was assured that their would be something open and not to worry about it, so he stopped worrying about it (out loud). We quickly found that nothing was open. The place was a ghost town. So we got in the car to look for anything that might be open: fast food, Chinese restaurant, whatever we could find. After a short drive it started to seem as though gas station Christmas dinner was inevitable so we stopped at the first one we saw and were, for lack of better words, uninspired. We decided to try our luck at one more place before pulling the trigger and en route we witness a true Christmas Miracle... McDonald's was open!! So yes, we ate at McDonald's for Christmas dinner. We suped up our Chicken sandwiches with some leftover bacon and got milkshakes for dessert. It was unexpected but it was better than gas station burritos (Greg was secretly pretty pleased he got to have McDonald's at all on the trip). In the end it was all good. Afterward we watched Home Alone 3 on TV and just hung out for the evening (we had just watched the first two before we left so it felt appropriate).

Lake Rotoiti

The next day, a holiday itself called Boxing Day in many parts of the world, we made time to FaceTime with family and then started a slow road trip down the west coast of the South Island. (Boxing Day has two possible origins. One is in regard to the alms box used to collect donations in the middle ages in Europe and were opened on this day and money given to the poor. The other is from the 1700s when it was customary for trades persons to receive a Christmas Box bonus from their employer.) This part of the trip is less about the destinations and more about the journey.


The Pancake Rocks

We made our way from Blenheim to Queenstown in three days. Our first leg got us to the Greymouth Seaside Top 10 Holiday Park (Top 10 Holiday Parks is a brand. Like staying at a Sheridan). On the way we stopped at Lake Rotoiti to stretch our legs, the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge for a short hike and the Pancake Rocks. The Buller Gorge Swing Bridge is New Zealand longest swing bridge (see photos below, but none of us are ON the bridge because we were two scared to take our phone out for fear of dropping it). The Pancake Rocks are essentially rocks that look kinda like a stack of pancakes. They are made of limestone and slowly degrade as the water washes over them, but scientists are not sure why they layer in the unique way they do. They seem to only appear in New Zealand leading to more questions on their origin.


Hokitika Gorge

Ok, this is where we'll take a quick break to talk about the Water of New Zealand. Everyone knows NZ is known for its stunning landscapes and some beautiful mountains. We've seen them in movies like The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, and scores of other movies, but the water is amazing! It's like a brand new color of blue was created just for the water of New Zealand. The further south you get the better the water becomes from our experience. It doesn't matter if it's a river, a lake or even the ocean water, it's this amazing greenish blue that photos don't entirely do justice to. It's worth the trip there just for the water! (This paragraph is brought to you mostly by Greg. Al thought the water was great, but Greg was blown away by it. Almost every time we saw the water he'd mutter to himself, "That water though.")



Sunset Viewing Station at Greymouth

And now back to our originally planned programming: The Greymouth Holiday Park might have been the best place we stayed on the whole trip. We were camped about 5 minutes from the beach so we made our way out there after dinner to watch the sunset with some wine. It was glorious. People down the beach from us were making a bon fire. Great vibes all around. Highly recommend if you ever find yourself looking for a place to say halfway down the West Coast of New Zealand.


Dorothy Falls

The following day we drove from Greymouth to Haast, staying at another holiday park. In between, we went out of our way to see Dorothy Falls, which we could have skipped, and the Hokitika Gorge, which might have been the best water we saw on the trip! After that we stopped in the town of Ross (yes that's Al's last name for those who still don't know that somehow) for lunch. It's an old mining town so we did a short walking tour to learn about some of the history and got to go into a home that was built in the mining heyday around the 1860s. Then we continued south to the Pakihi walk (most of the walks we mention here are about 30-45 minutes) and tried to go to a Kiwi Sanctuary but it was closed for the Christmastime holidays (New Zealand was mostly closed from December 23rd to January 6th. More on that in Part 2). Finally, we went to see the Franz Josef glacier and the Fox glacier. The Franz Josef we were able to get fairly close to see, but it had receded a lot since the last time Al was there. The Fox glacier requires a longer hike to get close, so we just stopped at the viewing area, which if you blinked you'd miss it. New Zealand has several glaciers on both islands bust most are up higher in the mountains. These are two of the larger glaciers and can be seen from the foothills.


Us at Lake Wanaka

After leaving Haast we made our way to Queenstown via Wanaka. Before we got to Wanaka we stopped at Thunder Creek Falls and the Blue Pools. The Blue Pools were named very appropriately. They were very blue and very awesome! We also stumbled upon Puzzling World right outside the town where we took about 45 minutes to complete the puzzle maze! Wanaka is a beautiful little town right on Lake Wanaka, which up to this point was the prettiest lake scene we'd driven by. We stopped in Wanaka for lunch (Greg also got some ice cream) and just hung out by the water for little while before we needed to continue on to Queenstown. Wanaka is a place we'd like spend more time in if we go back, it was unfortunately just a pitstop for us this time.


On Lake Wakatipu in front of the Remarkables

Next we will talk about Queenstown and then we will end it for this post (It's already a lot longer than we expected). Queenstown is an interesting place. It's safe to assume you've all mostly heard of it. It's called the adventure capital of the world, but it's population is only about 15,000 people in the town itself. The total area being around 50,000 if you include places like Wanaka and Arrowtown (which we will get to in Part 2.) It doesn't break the top 20 cities by population in New Zealand, which only has a population of about 5 million. That's the same as South Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado or Alabama. Sorry, we digressed; Queenstown is cool vibe, but because it's so small most of the fun things to do are outside the town. It's really a jumping off point to day trips and adventures that we just weren't able to fully take advantage of on this trip so we used it as a time to recharge a bit, which felt strange in the adventure capital of the world but it was what we needed. It was the first time we were in the same place two nights in a row.


Map of the Trip This Far

We stayed at the Southern Laughter Hostel, which was a great location for getting to where we wanted to be, about a 10 minute walk from everything. We went up Bob's Peak via the Skyline Queenstown, which boasts of being the Southern Hemisphere's steepest cable car. There we did a few runs on the Luge and stopped for a snack to take in the views. You can also mountain bike and zip-line, but we did not have bikes and the zip-line was sold out for the times we wanted to go. We made it to the famous Ferg Burger, which lived up to the hype for Greg. Al could take it or leave it but she doesn't really like burgers in general. We also did another boat trip. This one was better than the last one with the captain giving some history about the town and stopping for some great photos near the Remarkables, a mountain range near Queenstown that are aptly named. That evening we had dinner by the water and met some travelers from France and one from the UK. We ate dinner and had a couple beers with them because the tables were seat yourself and they needed a place to sit. They were all on working holiday visas and had been in the country for at least a few months each. It was nice to chat with some fellow travelers even though we weren't on quite the same level as them in terms of time of stay and slow traveling.


The next morning we packed up our things and made our way to Arrowtown. That will be saved for Part 2. Hope you enjoyed the stories and definitely hope you enjoy the photos. Until next time!



Train into Auckland

Auckland Sky Tower at Night

Random Ice Cream Photo at Auckland Construction Site (Not a Unilever Brand)

First Day with the Van

Back of the Van

Al Behind the Wheel

Greg Behind the Wheel

A Fun Road Sign

Al Enjoying Some Sal's NY Style Pizza

Greg Excited about his NY Style Pizza

Random Stop for a Photo Op

Hāngī at Māori Village

Part of the Show at the Māori Village

On the Walking Tour of the Māori Village

Night Walk at the Māori Village

Christmas Eve Dinner at Camp Elsdon

Christmas Eve Dessert

Cleaning Up After Dinner

On the Rock Carving Sailing Trip

Student Carvings

Us On the Rock Carving Trip

Al Enjoying the Sailing Trip

Walking Around Wellington

Greg Enjoying Free WiFi on the Ferry

Us on the Ferry

Wellington from the Ferry

Christmas Dinner Setup

Christmas Dinner

Christmas Dessert

Greg Touching the Water at Lake Rotoiti

Al Getting in on the Water-Touching Action

Al on the Swing Bridge at Buller Gorge

Greg on the Swing Bridge at Buller Gorge

Greg Taking in Nature at Buller Gorge

Al Checking out the Pancake Rocks

Al Exploring the Pancake Rocks

Lamb Sausage for Dinner at Greymouth

Sun Setting at Greymouth

Random Scenic Overlook on the West Coast

Us at Scenic Overlook

Swing Bridge at Hokitika Gorge

A Ross at Ross Wilderness Trail

Greg Thought This Was Fun

Greg Taking in the View

Al Honking at Some Sheep Crossing in Her Way

Franz Josef Glacier

Us at Franz Josef Glacier

Fox Glacier

Us Barely Able to See Fox Glacier from the Lookout

Finally Got the Bed Setup Right at Haast

Us at Thundercreek Falls

Bridge Limit Warning Sign at the Blue Pools

The Blue Pools

That Water Though!

Greg Skipping Rocks at the Blue Pools

Maze at Puzzling World Wanaka

Ferg Burger Acquired

Eating Ferg Burger on a Floating Bar in the Harbor

The Sky Line Gondola

Us at the top of the Gondola at Bob's Peak

View from Atop Bob's Peak

The Luge Track


Enjoying Some Ice Cream with a Harbor View

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