Through the Viewfinder
And What Alice Found There
New Zealand is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and in a way it’s been a part of my life since before I was born as I have family members that live over there. After a lifetime of hearing all about this supposedly beautiful place from family & friends I thought it was about time I paid a visit myself so tying it in with our Australia trip seemed like the ideal opportunity. And what better way to see the place than yet another road trip!
First of all, all those people who told me how beautiful New Zealand is certainly weren’t wrong! Even as the plane was coming in to land in Queenstown we were immediately greeted with amazing views of the mountains dusted with snow and turquoise blue lakes dotted in between. Our first job after being wowed by the scenery, was to pick up our next campervan and to be honest I couldn’t contain my excitement! For many years both Greg and I have dreamed of hiring a classic VW Kombi for one of our road trips, but they’re quite hard to come by if you want to do a one-way rental (which is what we usually do) and the prices can be unbelievable in places. After hours of scouring the internet for classic VW’s to hire in NZ, I finally came across Classic Campers and they checked all the boxes – pick up in Queenstown, one-way rental, and loads of awesome vans! It was perfect! We took a look at the price and although it was almost three times the price of our van in Australia, we decided it was now or never. We either pay the price and live out our road trip dreams, or we go with the cheaper option and settle for the standard vans that everyone has. An easy decision really!
The company itself is run by a couple called Bevan & Andrea who are based in Auckland but can arrange pickups and drop offs in other major cities in NZ. When booking, you can’t choose a specific van but you can say which category you’d like – we went for a T2 bay window, and I had my fingers crossed for the light blue one! We ended up with Van number 6 which was a gorgeous yellow bay window kombi called Mellow Yellow – it was beautiful! The guy we picked up from, Duncan, was really helpful and went through everything with us, showing us all the ‘quirks’ of the van and giving us some useful tips. Inside, the van sported a retro black and white checked floor, yellow interiors, a comfy sofa which folded out to make the bed, two stoves to choose from, a fridge, a sink and even a little Porta Potti toilet! It’s safe to say it was love at first sight for both me and Greg and we couldn’t wait to drive away with Mellow Yellow ourselves! After a short test drive with Duncan we were free to go, and so the adventure began…
Our time in New Zealand was packed with adventures, hiking and exploring – a bit different to the chilled out beach days we’d had in Australia. In Queenstown we enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and the stunning lake views, not to mention Perky's Floating Bar which is essentially a boat serving drinks in the harbour! We also took a ride on the Skyline Gondola (a bit like a cable car) up the side of the mountain to see some jaw-dropping views of the lake and the valley. It was here that we also discovered the Luge – an awesome ride that is essentially a plastic sledge on wheels which you can ride down various tracks, racing each other and having photos taken as you go. Once you cross the finish line just hop on the chair lift back to the top and start again – so much fun! Our campsite (Lakeview Holiday Park) was perfectly placed just a few minutes walk from the Skyline, and also about 5 minutes from the town centre meaning we could leave the van safely parked up and enjoy heading out on foot to explore. If anyone ever heads to Queenstown, one thing I highly recommend is getting a Fergburger – so tasty! Don’t let the long queues put you off, they’re so worth it!
After Queenstown we headed out to Milford Sound, stopping at Te Anau for a lunch break. The drive was stunning with so many great stop-offs for photos! We’d heard that this road can be quite crazy and some rental companies actually ban you from taking hired vehicles along there, but to us living in rural Cumbria, these winding roads were nothing and we found the drive really enjoyable. One thing we found throughout most of NZ is that it’s very similar to the Lake District in a lot of ways. Driving along quiet roads, through the countryside with rolling hills, green fields and livestock grazing, it really felt like home on a good summers day. Even in the more dramatic areas, the mountainous landscapes with lakes and bays were very reminiscent of our beloved Lake District and we agreed that New Zealand was basically like a warmer version of home! Around every turn we were greeted with another beautiful view and it took us a whole day to do the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound taking into account all the photo stops!
Camping at Milford Sound was really cool – we could walk straight from the campsite to the shore where we discovered a perfectly placed swing with views of Mitre Peak! We also enjoyed a fantastic morning of kayaking with Roscos Milford Kayaks which took us closer to Lady Bowen Falls and helped us experience the place from a completely different perspective. The downside to Milford Sound was the sandflies! Tiny little things, very much like the Scottish midges, that seem to get absolutely everywhere and would bite you all day and all night if you gave them half a chance! Despite this, it was a gorgeous place and the sandflies wouldn’t put us off going down to the water’s edge where they were most prominent.
We then took the gorgeous drive back to Queenstown and spent another night there, stopping by a cute little place called Arrowtown on the way. This is an ancient Chinese settlement that still has some of the original buildings standing. Take a short, easy walk through the old town and you can discover so much about the original settlers here and imagine how it would have looked in it’s hey-day.
Our next stop was Wanaka for a hike up Roy’s Peak offering amazing views over the lake. This was our first proper hike in NZ and it was so unlike our Lake District walks! The paths were so busy even though we set off really early in the morning, and we also discovered people in NZ often walk with music playing out loud – kind of spoils the natural atmosphere doesn’t it? When we got to the viewpoint we had to queue for about 10 minutes to be able to take photos – everywhere we looked there were people appearing! Often in the Lakes you won’t see a single soul on your hike all day long, so this was a very strange experience for us! Despite it being busy we enjoyed the walk and the views were just spectacular! We finished off the day with a nice refreshing swim in Lake Wanaka and a spontaneous visit to Wanaka Lavender Farm which was amazing! So many colourful rows of flowers, plus a rose garden, farm animals to see, a shop & a cafe. It was lovely to wander through the plants and see the bees buzzing around and I also bought some lavender sleep balm from the shop (the one I took with me from home melted in Alice Springs!) - it's a really great place to stop off even if it's just for an hour like us or you could spend a whole day there. Finally, after a jam packed day, we parked up for the night by the side of Lake Dunstan and enjoyed a few drinks while the sun went down.
We had a slightly shaky evening with some issues with the van cropping up (turned out nothing was actually wrong, it just threw a bit of a tantrum and didn’t want to start!). Luckily we had a VW enthusiast camping just down the lakeshore from us, and Bevan from Classic Campers was on the other end of the phone to reassure us everything was OK! So on we went with Mellow Yellow to further explore the South Island. We visited:
The next stage of our trip involved a 3 hour drive to Picton, a 3 hour ferry ride along the Cook Strait to Wellington (we booked through Interislander), then a 4 hour drive up to Whakapapa Holiday Park, all in one day! We battled through, ticking off the miles and eventually arrived at our campsite ready for a good night’s sleep. We’d booked this campsite well in advance as it’s one of the best situated for doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which was something we both really wanted to do! The 19.4km hike takes you over volcanoes and craters with some apparently awesome views – sounded ideal to us! The walk can often be cancelled due to adverse weather (which can be very changeable in the mountains) but luckily on the day of our hike all was looking good! We hopped on the 7am shuttle bus which took us to the start of the track, and off we went! We were hiking for almost 7 hours, eventually making it to the finish line for about 2.15pm (just in time for the 2.30 shuttle back to Whakapapa!) and it’s safe to say we both felt a bit broken, especially after our 23km hike just 2 days earlier in Abel Tasman! The walk was amazing though, going through so many different landscapes – barren rocky ground, moon-like craters, volcanoes, emerald green lakes, grassland and finally a path through the forest to the finish point. We saw some truly stunning views – the emerald lakes were a favourite! The downsides were too many people (making it hard to get photos sometimes) and also the horrific smell of sulphur in the air which I just couldn’t get used to! All in all, a fantastic day out and something I would highly recommend to anyone visiting that area.
We took a more chilled out approach to the rest of our time in North Island, stopping off at:
Our time in New Zealand had been full of fun and we were sad to be saying goodbye to our family, Mellow Yellow and this beautiful country. We’d had such an amazing time and so many adventures, it was hard to believe we’d packed so much in to just two weeks! Mellow Yellow had been a dream to drive and we made so many fantastic memories, with all sorts of people stopping to talk to us about the van. VW enthusiasts, fellow travellers, and even the locals were all amazed to see a classic camper coming through their streets and we had loads of people waving at us, asking questions and wanting to have a look inside. We brought a smile to so many people’s faces and it brings a tear to my eye thinking about how happy we were in our little van! Eventually we tore ourselves away, dropped off our dear Mellow at Bevan’s house near Auckland, then flew out to begin the last leg of our epic adventure…Fiji here we come!