Friday, 20 April 2018

Preparing for hibernation

It may be a good while yet until winter but already many people are hunkering down for the colder months and getting ready to hibernate.  Things are much quieter around here these days and I'm looking forward to having a little winter 'village' again, just us and a handful of other nomads who park up here until things have warmed up enough to move on.  We've moved to a much quieter spot and I have to admit, after the hustle and bustle of many hundreds of campers over the past few months it's absolute bliss to be just a few of us all quiet and cosy.  We've made many wonderful friends over the summer and look forward to doing it all over again later in the year - but for now, it's time to just enjoy this quiet time and get through the winter.   After months of 'happy hours', sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and socialising, all of a sudden we're all tucked away for the night by 6.30! 

We get to wake up to this view every morning from our new spot!

For a lot of permanent road dwellers, choosing where to 'winter' can be quite stressful.  It's a bit of a dilemma.  Where it will be the warmest, or the quietest, or the most economical?  It's an area where you need to be pretty organised and plan ahead if you want to be ready and sorted when the time comes.  Whatever the weather, at the end of the day it really just comes down to personal choice.  Some people make a beeline for the Far North, where it's said to be winterless, others favour the top of the South Island, with popular choices being Nelson and Motueka.  But for us, there's nowhere else we would rather be in the winter than Southland.  Let's face it, anywhere is crap when it rains, doesn't matter where you are!  The Deep South is just so beautiful in autumn and winter, I can't imagine being anywhere else at this time of year now. 

Which is just as well because we have no choice but to sit tight at the moment!  I've been having a few health issues for some time now and although we are hopefully getting to the bottom of it, for the past couple of months it has really been quite debilitating.  It's been a pain - literally - and we're just in the process of ruling a few things out, meaning we can't go travelling until the necessary tests are done, the doctors are satisfied (and me too) and I'm on the mend.  It's OK, it's good timing really, I mean it's not exactly going to be the best time to do much travelling over the next few months anyway!  But that's where we're at, and why I haven't been doing much blogging lately.  Life has been one continuous string of appointments lately, I've had 10 in the last three weeks alone!  But I'm fine.  I was pretty down in the dumps for a while but I'm doing much better now. 

Life on the road isn't always perfect - but it's pretty darn close!

Just because you're 'living the dream' doesn't mean life is always going to be perfect.  Getting sick on the road is a big fear for a lot of people - big enough to put them off ever doing it.  But the thing is, life on the road is like any other in that if that happens, you just deal with it, same as you would anywhere else.  To be honest I find it far easier being in the van when I'm unwell than I ever did living in a house.  In the van you just get comfy and rest up until you're better, without having to worry about things not getting done and the house falling down around you.  Instead of forcing myself to drag a vacuum cleaner around I'm snug and warm, smiling at the blackbirds bathing in the puddles on the other side of the window.  There's the added bonus too of being able to take your house wherever you need to when it comes to hospitals and treatments and such too! You can't put your dreams on hold because of what 'might happen'.  If we all did that, none of us would ever do anything!  Quite the contrary, we have come across countless people who live on the road BECAUSE of their health issues; people who have survived heart attacks and cancer or who have other disabilities.  Rather than letting it stop them, they embrace everything life has to offer and get on with making the most of it.  Just like we all should.

I love this picture of Casper (Now Llewelyn) eyeing us up when we came to say goodbye.  It's as if he's saying 'You're not taking me away again are you?  I like it here!'

We might not be venturing too far in the foreseeable future but we've still managed to do a fair bit of adventuring lately - enough for me to fill my blogs for quite a while yet!  You may have seen our Facebook videos of transporting our wee lamb to his new home in the van but I'm looking forward to being able to share the full story and telling you all about the beautiful and very special place he now lives and will spend the rest of his days.  He's a lucky lad indeed.  Another highlight was having a very special lady join us for a few days of sightseeing - my mum!  It had been 18 months since we had seen each other and it was an emotional reunion at the airport to say the least!  Spending a few precious days together really brought it home to me what a different life we lead and I struggled for quite a while at the realisation that I had not physically been there for my little mum all this time.  After surviving bowel cancer, a knee replacement and a stroke all in the last two years, she really is quite amazing and I was so proud of her as we strolled along the beach at Moeraki and wended our way around the Otago Peninsula.  It was a really special time and it was nice to be able to look after her the way she deserves and show her some of the area we love so much.  Lots more to come about her visit too!

Mum and me exploring the sights of Dunedin

For now, that brings us up to date as to where we're at.  Sometimes it's nice to just stop and smell the soup.  I say 'soup' because there's no chance of having roses in a van where you're going to knock them over in five minutes flat!  But our little van never smells more homely than at this time of year, where there's always something warm and comforting in the crockpot or on the stove.  And, following on from my previous blog, which seems forever ago now, the new damp-busting bed arrangement is working extremely well!  The temperature has already hit below freezing but all is well.  Over the next few days we'll be transforming Ken back into a spaceship with our annual bubble-wrap-athon and with a bit of luck (I'm touching every bit of wood here) that will see us through the winter comfortably and without too much grief and hassle.  Whatever happens, whatever life throws at us, we will be OK! 

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Going up in the world!

Ah, it's that time of year again.  It hardly feels as though there has been a respite from it, yet here we are already, dealing with our favourite nightmare - the dreaded Van Damp.  What made it all the more distressing was that we weren't even out of February yet when we first started getting damp and mould in the mattress.  At least last year it wasn't a problem until April or May, but come on, give us a break universe, this was still summer! 

The only good thing about us noticing it so early was that it gave us time to do something about it before things got REALLY bad.  We discussed all sorts of solutions, from installing vents in the roof (both an expensive and daunting thought at the prospect of cutting holes in the roof of our 'house') to installing a fan in the base of the bed, to provide continuous air circulation and keep the mattress dry.  'What we really need is something with lots of holes in, that we can put between the mattress and the timber, so that we're not sleeping on a solid surface.  Something like a plastic pallet', I said wistfully.  But where were we going to find one of those?  There was nothing for it but to keep racking our brains for ideas and try to come up with a possible solution. 

Recycled plastic pallets - just what we need!

Just two days later however, the universe provided.  Or to be specific, a very helpful bloke called Dave.  'Bevin says we can have one of these', grinned Gareth, heaving something over to the van and plonking it down in front of the door.  Many motorhomers use wooden or plastic pallets, or indeed whatever else they can find that will do the job as a front door step.  It stops the ground by the door getting trampled and muddy and prevents dirt and grass from getting traipsed inside.  Our wooden step had recently given up the ghost and in its replacement we had just been given a large, square plastic pallet. 

Immediately my eyes lit up.  'Are there any more?'  I asked, hopefully.  'Yeah, there's a whole stack of them, Dave brought them home from work', Gareth said.  Dave was Bevin's son, who when he wasn't working could often be found at the campground, renovating his bus.  'Ohh, you're thinking we could use them on the bed?' Gareth said as I nodded enthusiastically.  'Good idea, I'll go and ask!'  I couldn't believe our luck.  Here was exactly what we needed, right when we needed it - and for free!

Trimming the pallets to size

We waited impatiently over the next few days for the weather to be fine and dry enough to turf everything out of the van, then Gareth set about measuring and trimming the pallets using a handsaw to make them fit.  It took three pallets in the end, which we fitted together like a jigsaw until they covered the entire base of the bed.  Then we made up the bed as usual and admired our handiwork.  As an added bonus, we now had some handy storage space in the pallet to pop our shoes and other bits and pieces in!

The jigsaw is complete

Our new, very comfortable and totally free bed frame!

'You've gone up in the world!' laughed Bevin, when he saw the finished project.  He wasn't wrong there.  Having the pallet as an extra layer had elevated us up a good few inches!  On the plus side, we were now closer to the insulated ceiling, so as long as we didn't bang our heads getting in and out of bed we would be warmer!  I was worried about how comfortable it was going to be, sleeping on top of the plastic pallets but to my surprise we were way comfier than we had ever been sleeping on the timber.  I feel like the Princess and the Pea, tucked up snug as a bug in our big bed of layers!  Only time will tell as the air gets colder, whether we have finally beaten the demon damp but for now things are looking quite literally, up! 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

All work and no play? Not quite!

Who in their right mind would try and write an entire book during the height of summer, in a campground crawling with people?  As it turns out, me and is the main reason there haven't been any blogs for a while.  Let me tell you, it's not easy writing to write uninterrupted for eight or nine hours a day in a tin can on wheels when you have to keep stopping at what seems like five minute intervals and showing campers where to pay, how to use the laundry and direct them to the dump station!  But I thought it would be good to follow Marian Keyes' example.  She writes all her books in bed so I figured if I wrote mine in the same way (well - sitting on the bed, not in it!) then it might bring me luck.

First draft of the book!  I felt the title was appropriate :)

I couldn't have done it without Gareth; for weeks he took care of almost everything from looking after campers and doing all the cooking, to trying to fit in his own work too.  It was hard to stay on task and watch him rush around like a mad thing, doing all the jobs we normally shared together single handedly.  But we got there and the result is a 300-page book, which hopefully people will enjoy reading.  The feedback I've had from our proofreaders so far is that it has made them all cry!  I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not!  But it's made them laugh too, which is a good sign.  Hopefully it will invoke a similar response in the publishing houses we have sent it to and one of them will like it enough to print it.  If not, well we'll have to come up with another way to get it out there!  For now, we have to play the waiting game, which can take up to four months just to see if it gets accepted or not.  And we already have a second book planned to get written over the winter!  But for now, I'm enjoying having my life back for a bit and enjoying what's left of the golden weather.

We still get out there adventuring!

Today's blog is just a bit of a catch up.  We still have heaps to share from our travels with Liam, which was a crazy six weeks ago now.  I have no idea where the year is going!  We've also managed the odd day trip, which has been lovely and I look forward to telling you about them.  It amazes me how much there is to learn about our beautiful country.  We've visited some places with wonderful, intriguing and often sad history and I've learned more about Maori tales and legends in the past two months than in my whole 26 years in New Zealand!  Some of the stories are truly beautiful and really make you think, I look forward to sharing those as best I can too.

Milford Sound is steeped in history and legend

You may have seen from our Facebook page that I've been doing a lot of writing about freedom camping too, mainly for news website Stuff.  It seems the media can't get enough of freedom camping at the moment and I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not.  There's so much propaganda, the whole issue and the public's perceived scale of freedom camping - what it is and their imagined idea of how bad it is, compared to the reality - has been blown way out of proportion.  All I can do, both as a writer and a responsible camping individual as try to counteract each negative story with a positive one and use our experiences of life on the road to show how things really are.  To date, in 18 months on the road we have never witnessed any campers using the outdoors as a public toilet or intentionally dumping rubbish.  The only people we ever have to clean up after are locals.

People think of freedom campers as being only young travellers from overseas.  If they knew how many pensioners were also out there living the lifestyle, they may not be quite so quick to accuse us all of making a mess and leaving nasty presents in the bushes!  Just the thought of it makes me laugh.  I'm not saying it doesn't have its problems, there are always a few bad apples in every box but it is just a few, not every one.  It's one of those subjects that nobody will ever agree on.  The only thing they all agree on is that the current system needs to change in order to work for everyone and allow the thousands of us who live on the road to preserve and continue to enjoy the lifestyle we love.  I've written about it so much lately I'm even dreaming about it, so that's all I'm going to say on the subject here!

It may have been almost 'all work and no play' around here lately, but fortunately not quite.  When we haven't been working we've been having a very sociable time of things!  Once the school holidays are over it was time for the Kiwi motorhomers to come out and play, and what a lovely, friendly bunch they are too.  The last few weeks have been a neverending stream of invitations, happy hours and pot luck dinners and we have had the pleasure of making many new friends from all over NZ, as well as more far flung places like the US, UK and Germany.  Some afternoons there will be just four of us for drinkies, others you can find 16 or even more of us sitting out in the sunshine sharing stories.  We have a lot of laughs and it's such a great way to learn about different parts of the country or indeed the world, places to visit (or not to visit!) and generally just be around good people.  I can't think of any other way of life where you get to socialise with a whole bunch of new and likeminded people every day.  So to finish today on a warm, fuzzy note, here are just a handful of the new friends we've made lately.  If you've met us recently and there isn't a photo of you here, you'll just have to come back and see us again so we can take one!

Blowing the 'bad freedom camper' reputation out of the water, we had the pleasure of the company of these awesome Americans for several days.  Left to right we have Madi, TJ, Greg and Haydn

We had a wonderful afternoon of laughs with these travelling Kiwis!
Left to right: Corrine, John, Brent, Sue, Barbara and Wayne

Us dressed up for a change, celebrating the wedding of fellow road dwellers
Fiona and Steve, along with new friends Andrew and Annie

When John and Lynette came round for a coffee, we didn't have enough mugs or 
chairs in our van, so they brought their whole bus with them!

It's Happy Hour again!  With John, Wayne, Leanne, Lynne
Ross, Mark, Toni, Clive, Yvonne and Jan

Friday, 9 February 2018

No Filter Required

Before we lived on the road I had never seen most of the picture postcard places NZ is so famous for; the Lord of the Rings country and all that.  To be honest, I'd never even seen the Lord of the Rings movies until Gareth insisted I had to and by then we were already in the van!  Once I saw them, I could understand instantly why visitors flock here in their tens of thousands every year.  Who wouldn't want to? But until I saw them in person with my own eyes, I honestly believed that the stunning images in all the tourist guides and social media weren't quite real.  I mean, nowhere could possibly be THAT perfect; they had to have been doctored or Photoshopped in some way, surely?  After all, I'd never seen any places like that in 25 years of living here!  Like many people though, before embarking on our journey I had never really travelled far from my own backyard. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and so much more convenient just to not go anywhere!  But boy, do you miss out on a lot.

The Homer Tunnel is 1.2km of hand carved access through the mountain

As it turns out however, I wasn't alone in thinking all those flashy images were too good to be true.  Fortunately, Liam was to learn the truth far sooner than I did.  We left our little cabins at Manapouri early to beat the traffic and were soon on our way.  'This is the end of civilisation as we know it', I smiled to Liam as we headed out of Te Anau and onto the only road which leads to Milford Sound.  Fiordland National Park is the largest of NZ's 14 national parks and until 1953 Milford Sound was inaccessible by road.  Fortunately a couple of enterprising and rather helpful chaps, one of whom was named William H. Homer, thought it would be rather a good idea to build a tunnel through the saddle they had recently discovered.  This commenced literally with five men using picks and wheelbarrows and thanks to avalanches and other disasters, the project took 18 years to finish.  You only have to drive through the Homer Tunnel today to see what a monumental achievement it was, and as a result well over half a million people now visit Milford Sound every year.  

Milford Sound on a typically broody day

You don't get waterfalls like these on a fine day!

There was just one thing which put a dampener on our day - literally - and that was the rain, which whilst it wasn't torrential, was pretty much incessant.  Despite people telling us that the rain was actually a GOOD thing, we found it hard to believe.  Last time Gareth and I had visited, it had been clear and sunny and we couldn't have hoped for better.  Still, seeing as it rains in Milford Sound around 250 days of the year we couldn't be picky and besides, we had a boat to jump both on and in, with wet weather gear assured.  Two hours later, we arrived at Milford Sound and I could see Liam was impressed as Mitre Peak loomed massively in front of us, all dark and brooding and shrouded in mist.   Rain or shine, it's impossible not to be blown away and for what was going to be many times that day, I was very grateful to that nice man Mr Homer for his tunnel.

The dainty looking but drenching Fairy Falls!

The rain kindly stopped as we boarded our Southern Discoveries vessel, the Lady Bowen for our Encounter Nature cruise and as we sailed out of the dock I was immediately impressed both with the ship and our friendly and informative skipper.  Our vessel was busy but not overly crowded and Gareth, Liam and I were able to secure a prime spot at the front of the ship.  As soon as we hit the water I had to eat my words about 'touristy things being overhyped and not worth it'.  Already this was better than anything we had managed to see in our last visit!  Seriously, you just can't compare standing on the shore admiring from a distance to literally being close enough to touch it.  There is so much more to Milford Sound than we realised, so much more depth and sheer size that you simply won't see any other way.  We passed colonies of fur seals, lounging on the rocks, who waved lazily at us with their flippers and got very wet at Fairy Falls, which is one of the few permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound which actually has a name.  The reason that so few of them have names is because whilst there are literally thousands of waterfalls streaming down the mountains on a wet day, they quite literally disappear half an hour after the rain stops.  This means that you will never see Milford Sound looking the same two days in a row as most of these waterfalls are completely unique.  Cool, huh?  It also meant that once again I had to eat my words, as the whole place takes on a completely new dimension when it rains that you don't get treated to on a sunny day.  It's true what people say, Milford Sound really IS better on a wet day!

Looking glamorous after stopping at Fairy Falls!

Which is just as well because we were getting incredibly wet on our cruise, even with our raincoats.  You didn't have to - the boat was incredibly comfortable and well equipped if you wanted to sit inside but we didn't want to miss a thing!  The Fairy Falls was one of my favourite stops, not only for its beauty but also for the story behind its name.  It got its name from a group of sailors who had been away at sea for a very long time.  Upon seeing land for the first time in months, they were so delighted they hit the whiskey big time and went on a bender for three days, by the end of which the captain was convinced he could see fairies dancing at the foot of the waterfall!  Our own skipper also delighted here in being able to guide the front of the boat actually into the waterfall, drenching unsuspecting passengers as they prepared to take the obligatory selfies! 

Where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea 

It's not surprising Captain Cook sailed past here twice!

On we cruised, marvelling at our surroundings with each second that passed.  Liam isn't a fella who says much as a rule, he's not one to gush or enthuse about things but you know he likes something when he starts taking photos and he took a LOT of photos!  'So this is where the cool stuff is', he grinned, looking around.  'Honestly, you see all these videos on TV and the likes of Unilad and I always thought "Where the hell are these places?  Are they even really in NZ, 'cos I've sure as hell never seen them?!" but now I know they're real.  Now I know where they are'.  'Yep, this is where the cool stuff is hiding!'  I laughed.  Eventually the water started to get a little more choppy and we reached the watery gateway to the Tasman Sea, where it was time for us to turn around and head back.  From this direction it is actually very hard to see the entrance to Milford Sound and Captain James Cook, when exploring the area in his ship the Resolution and compiling his map of NZ actually sailed past it twice, completely missing it!  The man responsible for first discovering the Sound by sea was actually a Welsh chap by the name of Captain John Grono.  He named Milford Sound after Milford Haven in Wales, although it should technically be called Milford Fiord, as it's not actually a Sound at all!  Sound or not, Grono's arrival was very bad news for the native fur seals.  Over the 20 or so years which followed, seal numbers in the area went from two million to less than 50,000; until the government discovered what was going on and seal hunting was banned nationwide, along with Grono and his men.

You just don't see any of this from the shore!

As we passed Seal Rock, where seal numbers today thankfully flourish, the view was quite possibly even more spectacular heading in the other direction.  The rain may have eased but our drenchings were still not finished, as we sailed into the final two permanent waterfalls - the 146 metre-high Stirling Falls and the landmark one which can be seen from the shore, the 160 metre Lady Bowen Falls.  This was first named after one of NZ's first governors, Sir George Bowen, who declared it to be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen upon laying eyes on it for the first time and decided to earn some serious brownie points with his wife (who was standing on the deck next to him at the time) by naming it after her. 

The spectacular Lady Bowen Falls

So how did our taste of commercial tourism compare with doing Milford Sound under our own steam, as we had done the previous year?  Quite simply, you cannot compare the two, the cruise wins hands down.  The experience and value we got from Southern Discoveries far outweighs anything we were able to see previously and we learned so much along the way, none of which any of us knew before.  Seriously, I could keep talking all day about the things we learned - and our adventure wasn't even over yet, we still had to go kayaking!  Our advice to anyone thinking of seeing Milford Sound by boat? Just do it, you won't be disappointed; in our opinion it is some of the best money you can spend on a tourist activity and is worth every cent.  Huge thanks must go to the team and crew at Southern Discoveries for taking us out and showing us such an incredible time!  These guys are super professional, their gear and facilities are great and we would recommend them to anyone.  But don't stop there - wait until we tell you about the kayaking!

Thanks for an awesome cruise Southern Discoveries!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A Spontaneous Adventure

My goodness, what an amazing week of adventuring it's been.  In four days alone we drove 18 hours and almost 1500km!  Was totally pooped by the end of it but it was so worth it.  And the best thing of all was that I was able to share every bit of the awesomeness with my eldest, Liam.  The timing couldn't have been better as I had been feeling a bit blue up until then. It's been over a year now since Gareth and I have seen either of our mums, or Ali my youngest and I had been struggling with both the guilt of not seeing them, as well as missing them dreadfully.  Liam's spontaneous visit and the change of scenery was just what the travel doctor ordered!

Liam at Devil's Staircase lookout

Last time Liam came to visit was back in September and seeing as it was still pretty chilly we stayed in a motel in Dunedin.  This time I was looking forward to finally being able to give him an insight to life on the road and why his crazy mother loved living in a van!  The adventure started the moment I picked him up from Queenstown airport.  The drive from Gore to Queenstown is one of my favourites, as it winds past one of our most memorable freedom camps at Kingston and the mighty Lake Wakatipu.  As soon as the lake comes into view it makes me smile and I couldn't have wished for a better day to share it with Liam as the sun shone on the crystal clear water.  I could tell instantly that he was just as impressed as he took in the view from Devil's Staircase.  We stopped at Kingston and ate sandwiches at the little beach.  Liam is a champion at skimming stones and he paddled in the water for ages, sending stones skipping across the water.  Eventually we made our way back to Gore, where Liam was in for a very colourful welcome!  Unbeknown to him, he had arrived on the busiest day of the year at our campground, the A & P Show.  Far from the peaceful, pastoral scene I had described, he was greeted by hordes of people, fairground rides and enormous inflatables; not to mention goats, donkeys and even a few Clydesdales!

Skimming stones in Lake Wakatipu

So happy to share this special place with my boy!

Being Liam, he took it all in his stride and once everyone had packed up and gone, sat happily in his camping chair with a beer as we cooked dinner outside.  Several other campers stopped for a chat before we went for a walk around the grounds and to see Casper, our foster lamb who is now very much a sheep rather than human and hangs out with his flock but still knows who his mum and dad are!  Minnie loved having Liam around again and was most upset the next morning when she got taken to boarding kennels but no dogs are permitted in Fiordland National Park and that was where we were headed.  Milford Sound is a place which should be on EVERYONE'S bucket list and I had been watching the weather forecast incessantly leading up to Liam's arrival.  It wasn't looking the flashest but we decided we would bite the bullet and go.  Besides, everyone assured me that the rain didn't matter up there, in fact quite the contrary.  I failed to see how it could possibly be any more spectacular than it had been a year ago, when the sun had shone and we could see for miles, but one thing I knew for sure, you don't miss ANY opportunity to go to the Sound!

Walking the Kepler Track

Walking out of the bush into a rainbow

We arrived a couple of hours later in Te Anau, which was bustling with people as always.  The weather as predicted was drizzly and none too warm but we still had time to fit in a walk so parked at the Control Gates by the lake.  There are heaps of good walks of varying distances in the Te Anau area - in fact you can walk for days if you want to do the whole 60km long Kepler Track!  I would certainly love to do that one day but for today we contented ourselves with just a short walk to Dock Bay.  After our obstacle course hike at Piano Flat a few weeks earlier, this track was a dream!  So enjoyable and well maintained.  The many trees provided shelter from much of the rain and grey as it was, the lake still was broodingly beautiful.  As we emerged out of the bush on our way back, the sun came out and a gorgeous rainbow stretched out in front of us.  As the saying goes, you can't have a rainbow without a little rain!

Our cute little cabin

Whilst Te Anau is a nice little town, I really like Manapouri just down the road as it is quieter and in my opinion even more beautiful.  I knew just where I wanted to stay too!  The Manapouri Motels & Holiday Park looks out right opposite the lake and although we had two vans I decided to book us cabins, so that we could all travel together and Liam could just relax and enjoy the views.  As it turned out, this was definitely a smart option, as the prices were so reasonable it worked out cheaper for us to stay this way than it would have cost to fill the other van with petrol!  This quaint wee place is rather like going back in time but that is all part of its charm.  The cabins are very basic (the lady on the phone wanted to make sure I was very clear of that when I booked as many people think they are getting a motel) but are adorable and very cosy.  I slept better that first night in our cabin that I have in a long time!  'If this is what a tiny house is like, we could definitely live in one of these!' we smiled.

One thing I would definitely recommend however when visiting Te Anau is to bring your own food.  Whilst we brought enough with us for breakfasts and lunches, we had forgotten how expensive it is to eat there, not just to dine out but also in the town's only supermarket.  We managed to get through a couple of hundred dollars in restaurants on what was frankly some seriously mediocre food.  Next time we won't forget to bring the camping fridge with us!  Much better to spend a little time making decent food to take with us beforehand, even if it seems like a hassle at the time.  Despite the age and quirkiness of the campground at Manapouri, we all agreed that both the communal kitchen and the bathroom and shower facilities were some of the best we had come across.  It was funny for us being back at a regular campground after all this time, especially during peak season.  Our campground in Gore is so relaxed and spacious, there is plenty of room for everyone and you never have to worry about not being able to get in the showers or toilets.  Here however there was a queue!  In fact there was a queue for everything from the kettle to the toaster and I remembered gratefully that this was why we had decided to stay put in our peaceful Southland paradise for the summer, rather than join the merry throng of overseas tourists.

Still, it was good for Liam, who aspires to do some travelling of his own to see what it was all about and to realise the sheer extent of people touring the South Island under their own steam.  I say 'the South Island' rather than NZ as a whole because despite being from the Coromandel Peninsula, which is in itself a tourist hotspot, the number of travellers and people living the van life is nothing in the North Island compared to the South, where it's really next level.  This became even more apparent the next day when we set off for Milford Sound and every single vehicle we encountered was either a camper van, tourist bus or rental car.  The road to Milford Sound is notorious and has a reputation for being dangerous but it really isn't.  I'm the biggest wuss on the planet when it comes to challenging roads and I find it a pleasure to drive, it's easier than driving from Thames to Whangamata!  It's not the road which is the problem; it's the drivers.  We saw two accidents on the road and in both cases there were no other vehicles involved, both were Asian tourists and occurred on straight roads.  It seemed as though they were simply distracted by the scenery and veered off the road, quite spectacularly.  I guess it is pretty easy to do when the scenery is that incredible!  But in case you have also heard horror stories about the road, don't stress about it.  The main thing to remember is to use your lower gears, even in an automatic because it is very easy to 'cook' your brakes, particularly on the last 30km or so and trust me, you don't want to be out on that road needing a mechanic with no cellphone reception for 140km!

Last year's trip to Milford Sound was spectacular.  Could we possibly top it this time?

Last time Gareth and I visited Milford Sound we had no idea what to expect, just like Liam didn't now.  But this time was going to be just as different for us as the first time, and not just because of the weather.  On our previous visit we scoffed at all the touristy things, preferring to 'do' the Sound for free.  Us, pay for a swanky cruise or a helicopter flight?  No thank you very much!  We'd rather do things under our own steam.  Besides, there was so much to see along the way, the journey itself was just as good as the destination!  That's what we believed anyway; after all, we had already seen some incredible sights just from the roadside.  This time however we were going the whole hog.  Thanks to the team at Southern Discoveries, the three of us were going on a cruise through the Sound, and not only that, we would be kayaking too!  It goes without saying we were excited to say the least.  But how different was it going to be?  How much better was the touristy experience really going to be, compared to our previous el cheapo one?  All will be revealed in the next blog!

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Bad Apples, Sneaky Silverbeet & Good Eggs

It's taken me a couple of weeks to write today's post, because I don't like writing about negative things as a rule, not unless there's a positive to go with it anyway. But I've decided that I will for several reasons. The main one is that, one of the things people tell me when they read accounts of life on the road is that you never hear about the bad stuff, only the perfect and idyllic. I agree and think it's important to keep it real. The other reasons are that 1) I believe that SOMEBODY needs to speak out about this issue because it happens to too many people far too often and 2) I was actually really deeply affected by these experiences, surprisingly so. Which is pretty ironic because in my last blog I was only just saying how I felt I had grown in confidence and was a lot more comfortable in my own skin. Still, I guess none of us are bullet proof.

You don't need a big flash motorhome to be happy!

As I have previously said, no doubt to the point of boring you all silly, the majority of people we meet on the road are absolutely lovely. We have made so many dear friends, of all ages and from all countries. On the whole, the people you meet in motorhomes are a lot like us - friendly, relaxed and will do anything for anyone. But like most things in life, you only need a few bad apples to spoil the barrel - or at least make it taste a bit sour for a while - and I had the misfortune recently to encounter some two days in a row. Why? For one reason only. I choose to live in a smaller vehicle than they do. In their eyes this naturally makes me poor, quite probably European and most definitely a lesser mortal. It's not the first time we have encountered this treatment and I'm sure it won't be the last, but I need to get this written down and out of my head so that I can hold it up again and move on.

The first instance was when a jaunty lady came marching up to Gareth and I as we pottered outside our van. 'My goodness, you have wings!' she said, referring to the NZMCA sticker which identifies us as being members of the national Motorhoming association. 'Yes, yes we do', we replied. 'We've been living on the road permanently for the past 15 months'. 'In this thing?' she said, 'You know, where we come from, people call them sliders', she nodded wryly towards the van. 'Yes, we know', we said, having heard the term many a time before, due to our vehicle having sliding doors. 'Normally we try to stay as far away as possible from people like you!' she smirked. 'Well we've been here a while now and we help out around the place', we said, smiling through gritted teeth. At this, she burst into peals of hysterical laughter. 'REALLY? You? Oh that's hilarious!' she said, barely able to contain herself, before carrying on her merry way. Gareth and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. We had no idea what was so funny, but it seemed we had encountered our first real snob. Still, at least she was a friendly snob.

I'm proud of my little garden!

The next day however I looked out of the window to see a large caravan had pulled up next to the water tap and a couple had got out. I had seen them a few minutes earlier and said hello but they didn't reply. The woman appeared to be very interested in my flourishing vegetable garden and walked around it repeatedly before helping herself to some parsley and returning to her car. I chuckled to myself at the sight of it but didn't really mind. Since taking over care of the vegie patch I've taken a real pride in looking after it and it does get a lot of comments. I'm happy to share our abundance of vegies with anyone if they're going to be here for a few days. However a few minutes later she got out of her vehicle again and started thumbing through my carrots, before then grabbing hold of my silverbeet and was about to pull some out. Bloody cheek of it! I hopped out of the van and strode over to the woman. 'Excuse me, do you want something?' I said, heart pounding. It's not like me to be assertive you see. 'No!' she replied glaring at me, dropping the silverbeet as if it burned her. 'It's OK, you can have some if you like. It's just mine after all', I shrugged. 'This is yours?' she replied, gesturing to the garden. 'How did you get this?' she asked, looking at me as if I was something nasty she'd just found under her shoe.

'I live here', I said. 'I'm an assistant caretaker. I help to look after the place'. 'That's a lie', she immediately jumped down my throat. 'The caretaker died a few days ago!' 'I assure you he's very much alive and well!' I replied. 'You are thinking of the caretaker at Mosgiel who did indeed recently pass away'. Who knows, maybe she thought the garden had been the deceased caretaker's and that it was perfectly acceptable to steal the poor man's vegetables!

At this point, the woman's husband joined in the conversation and thankfully he was friendly enough. 'What's all the writing on your van?' he asked. I explained that I was a writer for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine and that often campers know who we are and go out of their way to introduce themselves. He shook my hand, introduced himself and his wife and she also grudgingly shook my hand before asking me, 'So how long have you had your wings?' From here I then had to explain that yes, these WERE my wings, they WERE the real thing, not pinched from anyone else, and I had been an NZMCA member the entire time I had owned this van and lived on the road. To end with, I asked if they had been to stay here before and on hearing they hadn't, told them where they could park and where to find everything, just as I do with all the other campers. The man thanked me and as they left I said to the woman, 'Honestly, feel free to take some lettuces or silverbeet before you go, there really is only so much we can eat ourselves!' 'No. No thank you', she replied loftily, before driving off to the other side of the ground. There she stayed and I never saw her again. She sure as heck didn't go anywhere near the garden after that either!

Now it may sound like a petty gripe to you but this nasty attitude regarding both young people and people who do not have $200,000 motor homes and CHOOSE to live in smaller vehicles quite happily, needs to stop. My case is a classic example of why you should never judge a book by its cover. In both cases Gareth and I were treated like dirt, yet we were the ones responsible for helping them to enjoy their stay. They were just lucky I was too embarrassed and shaken to ask them to leave. They were also extremely lucky in the second scenario that Gareth was not there to witness their treatment of me! Even so, it has affected me to the point that, even a couple of weeks later, I am still very wary of meeting and greeting people who display that same sticker. Fortunately everybody since has been lovely and have gone out of their way to introduce themselves first.

Us with John and Lynette.  Hooray for good people!

As I said at the start of my post, I don't like writing about anything negative unless I have a positive to follow on with. And as luck would have it, around the same time we bumped into John and Lynette. When I say bumped into I mean quite literally! We were out for a walk and got talking, as happens a lot. Most people always want to know your story; where you come from, how long you've been on the road and what you do and I mentioned I was a writer for Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine. 'I got an message the other day from someone called Jackie about an article she's writing', the woman said. 'That's me!' I said in disbelief. 'No way! I'm Lynette!' we both burst out laughing. I had no idea where she was when I contacted her, she could have been anywhere and she didn't know where I was either! We chatted for a while and then they said 'We're going across the road to the Town & Country Club a bit later, feel free to join us!' So we did, and the warmth of these lovely people, not to mention Lynette's infectious laugh really restored my faith in humanity.

A few days later I received a message from her. We're moving on today. Will be pop in for a coffee after lunch before we go'. 'Lynette and John are coming over soon', I smiled to Gareth. 'Oh heck, hang on!' I quickly messaged back. 'Be great to see you - but we don't have any mugs or milk as we don't drink coffee!' 'No problem, we'll bring our house to yours!' came the reply. And sure enough, their 9 metre bus rolled alongside us shortly after. They've got that same sticker too; as do many of our favourite people who we've met on the road. And as they say, just because you find one bad apple doesn't mean you should give up the whole tree. I just appreciate the good ones I meet even more now!

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Myths & Reality of Freedom Camping

Tourist season is in full swing and with it comes the inevitable media coverage of hordes of freedom campers descending on some of our nation's prized beauty spots and turning them into a giant rubbish dump and public toilet.  It's a frustrating time because, as with most things in life, the reality is it is usually just a small few disrespecting our country and the privilege of being able to see and experience it at minimum cost.  Unfortunately we all unavoidably get tarred with the same brush, which we hate.  Retired Kiwi couples in $250,000 motor homes are looked upon with the same disdain and negativity by those who read the stories as a group of European teenagers in a tent.  To their mind, we're all the same.  Which technically we are.  Everybody loves something for nothing after all, and some of the most incredible camping spots in the country are free.  We've stayed at them, they remain some of my favourites - often no paid campsite could possibly compare for the views and location - and I never feel luckier than when we get to stay in a place for free.

People picture freedom camping in NZ like this...

When the reality is more like this...

Even so, you wouldn't catch us dead in most of them at this time of year.  We don't need to limit our 'Kiwi experience' to the summer months, we get to enjoy it all the time! We're happy to wait until the rest of the world has gone home and we can take advantage of these beautiful free spots in relative peace and quiet.  And beautiful or not, in summer at least many freedom camps ARE eyesores.  Imagine between 80 and 140 vehicles packed like sardines into the one space every single day and night; everyone hanging out washing, airing bedding, washing dishes, clothes and bodies in rivers and lakes or in buckets.  They're all just doing what they need to do, getting back to basics, like in the good old camping days.  But unlike the 'good old camping days' these places aren't in picturesque fields, tucked away from the rest of the world.  They're in public cark parks and prominent surf and dog walking spots, on waterfronts, in front of people's houses.  They look like shanty towns or a giant hippy gathering and many people find them intimidating.  It doesn't matter how lovely the people are on the inside; from the outside it looks bad and that's why freedom camping is so often in the news.

I'm not sure whether other countries use the term 'freedom camping' as much as we do here.  But when it comes to this country at least, I'm not alone in feeling that the term 'freedom camping' gives off the wrong connotations.  What sounds very idyllic in theory is misinterpreted widely, giving overseas visitors and Kiwis alike the impression that here in jolly old Lord of the Rings land you can STAY for free, LIVE for free and all in all BE free.  Even Gareth and I thought this was the case when we first talked about living on the road and thought we would never have to pay a cent to stay anywhere again!  Lovely as that sounds, it simply isn't true.  A couple of years ago it was, but not any more. You can indeed stay for free at a lot of places if you have the right set-up - in other words a certified self-contained vehicle, with a toilet on board which can be used at all times, as well as adequate water and waste disposal facilities.  However most overseas visitors do not have the money to afford a self contained vehicle.  It's cheap enough to buy a vehicle big enough to sleep and cook in - but if you don't have that all important self-contained status, your options for getting around New Zealand cheaply and easily become a lot more limited.

If you don't have one of these, your freedom camping spots are a lot fewer and farther between!

This is where the problem starts.  Our excited young tourists arrive in the country, hop off the plane and buy or rent a non-self contained vehicle, only to find to their horror that they cannot park in a lot of places after all, at least not without risking a $200 fine for not being self-contained.  Ironically a lot of freedom camps DO have public toilets, but still do not permit non-self contained vehicles to stay there, so they still get fined, as happened to a friend of ours who was woken at three o'clock in the morning by a warden issuing her with a sticker.  This leaves them with two options - the first of which is to stay at a paid campground or holiday park, which at this time of year will cost them between $20 and $60 per night.  In all honesty, this is the way it should be - but as we found in our first few weeks of living on the road, nobody can keep that up.  Most freedom campers have very little money.  Spending even $20 a night to stay anywhere is not an option for them because they simply don't have it.  Which sounds crazy, why would you purposely travel to a country on the other side of the world for a holiday with no money?  Simple - they have been led to believe they can stay anywhere they like for free, so they arrive here without enough funds to be able to afford anything else.  So their only other option is to park up wherever the hell they can, often en masse, as long as they can get away with it.  This of course pisses off the locals no end and they kick up a stink.  The tourist industry likes to argue that they spend a lot of money in our country, but this isn't true.  Most of them have bugger all money, and the money they do have they will save for once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as bungy jumping in Queenstown, even if it means they have to live on two-minute noodles and thin air for weeks at a time to do so.

Forgive me here if that paints these poor young people in a negative light.  I'm trying to explain the situation, not the people.  We have made a lot of wonderful friends from all over the world, who rely almost totally on freedom camping to be able to fulfil their dreams.  They live on a miniscule amount of money and struggle every day to a) make ends meet and b) find the next place they can stay safely and legally.  One couple we met had managed to survive for six months with just $1200.  That's just $6.60 per day.  Most of them work to supplement their travels, picking fruit or whatever they can find, working long hours for minimum wage.  I admire the heck out of them, they are all lovely people who are not scared to work hard; they learn very fast that they have to.  It is wrong and inaccurate to call them bludgers for being 'too stingy' or 'lazy' to pay for accommodation; in the majority of cases they are simply trying to survive.  The hardest hit places are the popular tourist centres such as Wanaka, Golden Bay and New Plymouth - places with amazing lake or ocean views.  And what tourist wouldn't want to stay in a place like that for free if they could?

Still, as any New Zealander living on the road will tell you, Kiwis are just as bad as overseas visitors when it comes to flouting the rules.  In fact they're probably worse as for some reason they seem to feel that the rules and laws don't apply to locals.  Which is very poor because we have no excuse.  We have the time, the money and the facilities to all be able to achieve certified self-contained vehicles.  In addition, we also have a nationwide motorhoming association, the NZMCA which makes it super cheap and easy to stay all over the country for next to nothing in their 'member only' camping grounds.  These grounds are increasing in number all the time and cost as little as $3 a night for a safe and pleasant place to stay at anywhere from Kerikeri to Whitianga, Waihi Beach, Fiordland and everywhere else in between.  It costs around $90 a year for our membership and you get a heap of awesome discounts to boot, from the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, to insurance, Department of Conservation camps - even Specsavers!  If you're planning to travel between the North and South Islands even once a year the discount more than covers the cost of the membership.  We Kiwis are incredibly lucky and well provided for.  For overseas campers in search of freedom however, unfortunately it is only going to get harder, as more and more councils and communities are cracking down and putting new laws and boundaries in place; going as far as to literally lock campers out.  It's a huge shame, but to my mind, it seems our country has become a victim of its own misleading marketing and reputation.

Watch out!  Gareth is on the warpath :-D

No matter what though, you always get a few dishonest people who no matter what, try and pull the wool over your eyes.  We've learned that well and truly these past couple of weeks helping to look after the campground.  Our campground is a public domain, with several entrances, meaning that anyone can come in and use the showers or stay for one night or more if they want - for a small fee.  It seems however that for some people even $3 for a shower or $5 for a campsite is more than they are willing to pay and will go to extreme and often amusing lengths to get out of doing so.  Unfortunately for them, they haven't banked on a big hairy Welshman!  The other day Gareth saw a family of Asian motorhomers acting strangely and being deliberately elusive.  Sure enough, his instincts were correct, and despite having brand new signs up, specifically telling campers that washing clothes and dishes in the showers is not permitted, Bevin went and confronted them and discovered that they had paid just $3 (the price of one shower) for four people, and washed around five bags of clothes in the shower!  For starters we have laundry facilities available, as well as water sources all around the campground for washing clothes and dishes, but the biggest problem is the cost of using all the hot water meant for showering.

We ALL need to look after places like this

We've also had to get wise to several people in rental vehicles who like to try and sneak out without paying.  They typically like to slip in late at night, try and park as snugly alongside a fenceline or close to an exit as possible, then leave early in the morning before everyone else is up, so that nobody realises they have even been there.  What they don't realise is that Gareth already has their number plate and we simply ring the rental companies!  If people don't even have $5 to spend, or want to spend at a beautiful campground, surrounded by mountains and some of the most spectacular countryside they can ever hope to see, well then they shouldn't be travelling.  Places like ours are truly unique and precious; we should treasure and respect them, no matter where in the world we come from.  Or as Bevin so rightly sums up.  'If you want to have a great time travelling in New Zealand, don't take the piss!'