We met this friendly Belgian couple on the Milford Sound cruise only to discover that they too were travelling around New Zealand via camper van and actually had planned pretty much the same route as us. We said our goodbyes expecting to bump into each other somewhere on route. More by chance than by planning we actually spent time with them on everyday of the following nine.
Most evenings we spent in the same camp / rest areas and ended up playing some unique Belgian card games (anyone heard of Boonanza?) over food and drinks while getting to know each other and swapping travelling tips. We were happy for the company and they were happy to get out of the confines of their tiny Juicy Camper. It was a true pleasure spending so much time with these two and for any of you who can speak Dutch (a surprising number of my loyal readers do), check out their blog at www.brendaenbruno.be/.
We rarely set off in convoy, but sure enough, every lunch break, sight or camp area we met up for yet more boonanza and chat. In the beautiful Queenstown we shared experiences such as Jetboating in the shootover canyon (think very fast boat and narrow unyielding rocks) and several earthquakes!
In Queenstown there are so many outdoor activities to do. This is true of most of New Zealand, but Queenstown is the adventure activity capital. There are so many things that appeal, multi day treks, parachuting, horse riding, jet boating, fly by wire (planes), off road adventures and also some that don’t appeal at all like bungi jumping. Unfortunately these all work out expensive so we had to skip most of them. Living here in NZ would be great though. What the small cities lack in culture and liveliness is made up for by all the things you can get out and do. I did at least manage to get out for a day’s Mountain Biking. Unfortunately I tried some downhill slopes that were too difficult for me. Getting up the mountain nearly killed me through exertion, coming down nearly killed me through out of control steep slopes, falls and wild jumps and on top of that it rained really hard all day leaving every item of clothing fully saturated and covered in mud. I did, however, manage to get a good run in half way down the mountain that was a lot more suited to my skill level which turned out to be immense fun. I want to do more of this mountain biking stuff.
After Queenstown we moved onto Wanaka, playing spot the luridly green coloured camper of Bruno and Brenda. It only took half an hour before we found them or they found us (can’t remember which) and like our last visit, Wanaka treated us to a lot of rain.
Checking my email I discovered that Admiral Car Insurance had helped themselves to £200 from my account. Dealing with companies in the UK while the other side of the world can be quite a chore and generally works out quite expensive. I called HSBC in England, got routed through to a call centre in India and proceeded to get wound up by a phone operator and then his supervisor who had no idea about tactfulness when dealing with annoyed customers. Winding me up more as they went they took details of my complaint as I explained that I didn’t want further car insurance as I had sold the car and that Admiral had taken the money without my permission on a debit card that had expired. Once all the details had been taken and I was ready to hang up from expensive international call the supervisor tried to sell me the latest HSBC product which was, of all things, car insurance!
The following day the weather was good and Espe, Bruno, Brenda and I tackled a stunning 4 hour walk climbing 800 metres or so to an incredible viewpoint with Lake Wanaka below and snow capped mountains all around. An excellent way to spend a day.
Crossing over the Haast pass into West Coast region we had the coldest night of our trip. The temperature dropped below zero giving us icicles inside the van and freezing the washing up left in the sink. I was afforded great frost covered scenic views though, once I’d managed to coax myself out of bed, thermals and all.
Our last port of call together with Bruno and Brenda was in Hokitika where we treated ourselves to a proper campsite, which as it happened had a hot tub. We celebrated with some final games of Boonanza and some beers. The following morning before saying our goodbyes for the last time we sat down over breakfast to watch the rugby world cup final, during which I tried to explain to Bruno and Brenda about rugby (difficult with my limited knowledge) while at the same time seeing my country defeated.
This however, was not before the obligatory visit to the incredible west coast glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef. Truly incredible geological features enhanced greatly by the wealth of information on hand to explain their formation, growth and change of recent history. These two, in fact buck the current worldwide trend, and are advancing rather than retreating.
With the threat of rain we rushed up the coast to Fox Glacier town where we checked out all the scenic flight options. An English guy I’d met in Te Anu highly recommended the flights here as they weren’t as expensive as elsewhere and gave incredible views as well as a glacier landing. We settled on a company who offered a glacier fly over and a fly by of Mount Cook, which also happened to be the cheapest. With the cloud cover closing in we were worried that the flight was going to be a bit meagre, but the staff encouraged us to go immediately as the cloud cover was just forming and was still very low.
I was not disappointed. I love helicopters, I love mountains and I love looking down on areas, map style spotting all the places I’d been too. We soon passed through the clouds as we ascended above the glacier. Snow capped mountains were visible in every direction and we got close up views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman before we flew over the massive 27km long Tasman Glacier and touched down on a peak the other side staring across at New Zealand’s longest glacier and highest mountain. This was especially cool as we were able to see where we’d been trekking alongside the Tasman Glacier not two weeks earlier. The return journey was even better as we swapped into the front seats giving clear views in every direction except behind.
I can safely say that this was my best experience in New Zealand and probably in the Southern Hemisphere for that matter. Riding in a helicopter (man’s greatest invention – if anyone wants to sponsor me to get my licence please get in touch via the comment box below) and taking in the surroundings, I just can’t begin to describe how I felt.
Here are a selection of photos from that day. These, compared with the experience itself, are rubbish, and hopefully that speaks volumes.