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Campervanning Across New Zealand
Wait, which side of the road do I drive on again?
If you ever want to travel in a country that feels like you are venturing through the planet of Pandora (Avatar) mixed with Lord of The Rings, go campervanning in New Zealand.
Kervans, later anglicized as "caravans," have been cruising around since the 10th century in medieval Turkey. The human race has come extremely far in just over 1000 years; now our caravans range from gasoline engine powered campervans on the ground, to rocket propelled space shuttles that trek humans into space.
While my travel comrade and I could only afford the gasoline route for our 40-day campervan journey from the top of New Zealand to the bottom, it was ironic that the vehicle we chose to navigate with was called a Spaceship. And at times throughout the journey, it felt like it had taken us to another planet.
As a freelance photo journalist, I am always looking to find experiences that most people will only ever read about in some travel magazine they found in the basket next to the toilet at some random buddy's Saturday night house party. Well what I can tell you, basket reader, is that if you find the time and money to rent a campervan and tour New Zealand's immaculate and untouched North and South Island's, you will have an out of this world experience.
We checked out all of the campervan rental companies, and after finding them the cleanest, newest, and having the most advanced amenities, Spaceships got our business. They call themselves the Swiss Army Knife of campervans; I would say it felt more like a Hattori Hanzo sword that could battle any landscape “Aotearoa” (the Maori’s name for New Zealand) challenged us with.
The diverse geography and stunning landscape is what makes Nova Zeelandia appealing to the courageous campervanner. While only 990 miles long and never more than 250 miles wide, some might assume that a car ride there on vacation would be a walk in the park. No, my friend. It’s the active volcanoes, thermal vents, sub tropical foliage, fjordlands and tectonic snowy alps that make it no chump change for the holiday road warrior. Not to mention, New Zealand consistently ranks in the top 5 countries for most motorist deaths per capita every year.
Wait, which side of the road do I drive on again?
Our mission started on the sub-tropic gorgeous Coromandel Peninsula, on the north end of the North Island. And the roads were flooding over. What usually is a dry paradise became like a cranky monsoon. Streams turning to rivers over the roadway, rain coming in sideways, gravel road turning to mud; we became stranded on a small road on the very first night.
However, by lunch time the next day, we were bathing under the sun gods in the pleasant sands of Hot Water Beach on the top end of the peninsula. Shoveling hot tub holes in between tides, I began to realize how ALIVE New Zealand is as an organism, not just a country in the middle of the Southern Ocean. These geothermic vents were nice to us in that we could find comfortable spa temperatures (95 to 105 degrees), but at the same time if you weren't careful you could find yourself scalding yourself in bubbling water reaching 146 degrees Fahrenheit.
Finally, after a quick hike down to the famous Cathedral Cove (large walk through only during certain tides otherwise you get stuck), it was time to head south down the "Thermal Explorer Highway."
Now Day 5 of 40 and we have nearly washed down a stream, been severely burned by water on a beach, and could have been trapped in a cove if not paying attention. I told you, she demands respect.
The drive down the North Island reminded me of something out of the Twilight Zone...in a good way. Almost as if the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy took place in the 1920's on the West Coast of the United States. Tiny tinsel towns that are more asleep than the volcanic thermal underlay the North Island harbors. You drive through, day or night, and see in these small towns solely a dairy, a shop (small grocer), a bakery, and a butcher. Half of them are closed or gone for the afternoon. We even came across fruit stands along the road that would have no one manning them; just an "honesty box" to leave what you feel is worthy to pay the local farmer.
It was as if our Spaceship campervan had gone through a wormhole, and came out in an up-and-coming utopia of relaxation and wholesomeness.
Campervanning takes you to these places. I am not just talking geographically, but in regards to mental and transcendental states. You think a ton; you ponder a lot; you read, write, and view the world in ways you would never experience by taking airplane flights and staying in hotels. You cook for yourself and buy groceries and wake up in completely changing landscapes. Self sufficiency is not only required, but at times appreciated and longed for. Every town is a new experience, every person you meet a new fresh face, every drive is new scenic wonderland. Campervanning is priceless in so many ways.
Our next interstellar stop was in the capital city of Wellington, NZ. WHAT A BLAST. One of the most fun capital cities I have ever partied in. Streets don't start buzzing until close to midnight, and clubs and bars play an awesome, eclectic mix of the latest trends from electronic to indie synth to dub step. Just walking down the streets, you have handfuls of different tunes/vibes hitting your right and left eardrums enticing you to go check it out.
We created our own club crawl by asking each bouncer as we left bars, "where would you go if you were off work tonight?" It ended up being a locals tour for us that was designed by 5 to 10 bouncers, who had no idea they planned our night. One local summed it up best for us when he said, "people don't just party in Wellington- they almost break the hinges off of it."
With last night's outfit and black dancing shoes still on, we woke up to a morning of clouds in our minds and in the sky. I can't remember the details, but a major network TV reporter was interviewing me that morning about “left turn oncoming traffic yielding changes in New Zealand.”
Limping now into the ferry line to cross the Cook Strait to the much anticipated South Island, the lady at the counter told us that the only difference between them and the other company that transports campervans across the strait is "they give out a free smile with every booking." Thank you ferry booking lady, you have no idea how much I needed that, my friend.
After an absolute stunning and breathtaking cruise across Cook Strait into the Queen Charlotte Sound (Totaranui), we stumbled our craft onto the welcoming and solid ground of Picton, NZ. Looking back on thermal vents and dormant volcanic mounds of the North Island, we now have our sights on the spinal cord of the Southern Hemisphere: The Southern Alps.
Before endeavoring towards these notorious mountains that divide the largest landmass before you reach Antarctica, my co-pilot and I decided to absorb the sunniest region of New Zealand as a whole.
Destination: Abel Tasman National Park.
Tucked into the northeast corner of the South Island, with the artsy city of Nelson as its hub, this national park provided us with one of the greatest adventures we had on our journey. Loading all our gear for three days into a two person sea kayak, we tramped (NZ verb for hiked/trekked) for two days by sea and one day by land up the coast.
With no guides and just a map, we paddled and and hiked through stunning terrain towards heavenly sandy inlets that were accessible for lunch, dinners, and overnight tent camping. Baby seals playing under and around our kayak, inside hidden lagoons where humans have never walked, was a cosmic experience to say the least.
Our first experience with the awe-inspiring Southern Alps mountain range, that the South Island seems to cherish and almost hide from the rest of the world, was at the Franz Josef Glacier. While glaciers around the world are retreating, the Franz Josef glacier still flows almost to sea level. Less than 10 miles from the ocean, the seasonal changes in regards to the ice, rock, and surrounding foliage is a must-see.
We were lucky enough to see it via two modes of transportation; 4x4 Quad bikes and a private chartered propeller airplane. AMAZING. The South Island is known around the world for being untouched and pristine, and after seeing this glacier from the earth and the sky, I now know why South Islanders are huge on preventing urban expansion.
Good luck developers.
The mission down the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand is highly regarded by travel experts as one of the prettiest drives in the world. Not to mention, people hitchhiking like it was second nature.
I remember talking with the local tourist office representative, that lined up some activities up for us on our trip to from Greymouth down to Queenstown. We met him at a pub to get him a beer for helping us out, and he explained what "Coasters" were. Coasters are east coast South Island citizens that live by a code (if you will), that supports picking up people that need a ride on the side of the road. They ALWAYS pick someone up without thinking twice about it.
The lovely lady that rented us our sea kayaks told us, "you are in one of the last places in the world where there is no crime." They live in a state of open trust and honesty that we no longer get to experience in most parts of the US; it felt like a huge breath of fresh air. How long are these places going to be around for? I hope forever, my fellow kiwi mates.
Queenstown was the final star system to visit on New Zealand's astrological map. Let me tell you, it is the prettiest light in the sky. It is the tranquility mixed with a fun nightlife, combined with surreal natural beauty that makes this gem of 17,000 people an international must see.
Nestled along a lake and sandwiched by the Remarkables Mountain Range, it is one of the greatest cities I have ever had the privilege of traveling to. Not to mention, it is a 4-hour drive from what is considered “The 8th Wonder Of The World,” the Milford Sound.
After helicopter & mountain bike excursions, tandem bungee jumps, canyon river jet boat rides, and horseback treks, it was time for the cherry on top. We booked a small plane to fly us over the Alps, to the ocean to then enter Fjiordland National Park's magical Milford Sound.
There haven't been many times in my life where I write that something was life changing, but I must make an exception here. It is like the mountains of Switzerland mixed with the salt water sounds of British Columbia, while maintaining the unparalleled pristinity of Alaska.
There is a reason that multi-hundred-million-dollar movie production companies go to New Zealand to film. There is a reason that you probably have had mysterious thoughts about New Zealand throughout your life, knowing that it isn't just trees and sheep. And finally, there is a reason that my visa to work and travel-write there was approved within 48 hours. It is awesome, uncrowded, untouched, and magical there.
With only 4.5 million people, Aotearoa, when experienced with a campervan, is an experience that is unforgettable. Now add a modern day Spaceship and a good friend,...and as the local Australian friendly neighbors would say; "we're laughing." Or relating this type of "on the road" experience back to my great home country, who helped spearhead the caravan and camper movement just after the turn of the century.
"Houston, we DON'T have a problem."
Special Thanks to: