New Zealand Road Trip – Part 4

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Objects May be Further Away Than They Appear

I hope you’ve been enjoying the trip so far. It’s amazing that when you write about something a ways after it happened the kinds of things that stick out in your mind compared to right after it. I kept a log of the trip as it was taking place but hadn’t looked at it in years – I glanced at it just before I started to write this and the things I wrote down reminded me not only of things I forgot but just how much my travel tastes and perspectives have changed since experiencing it. That’s the beauty of travel.

On our second day of the New Zealand road trip we made our way from Greymouth down to the Franz Josef glacier. Before leaving, I made sure to allow for time to check out the ice monsters of this country because I’d never seen that before. Rather than organize a tour of them, I heard that just driving up to them and walking it yourself was still a great way to spend a day.

MUCH further away than it looks

MUCH further away than it looks

Let me tell you the thing about the Franz Josef glacier. From the time you park the car until you reach the face of it, it will take you about two hours. I don’t care what you think as you emerge from the woods and see the glacier, it is a lot further away than it looks. Is the walk worth it? Totally.

Walking the distance gives you an idea of the power of glaciers, how they aren’t just solid ice and how they carve out the landscape and in a way are living things all of their own. The sediment dropped by the glacier can range from pebbles to giant bolders and makes for a rather desolate landscape. One of the reasons I chose Franz Josef to check out instead of the nearby Fox glacier was on appearance alone, with the former resembling a frozen tidal wave hurdling down from the mountains – it’s just incredible to see up close.

So people would know we were here!

So people would know we were here!

By the time we reached the front where the yellow rope keeps people back from the face, the sun was already starting to hide, despite the fact that it was only 2pm. This was because the cliffs were so high that direct sunlight was only present for about four hours a day. Even though it was winter and we were next to a mountain glacier, the weather was surprisingly comfortable and I didn’t wear a jacket. We saw quite a number of people going beyond the rope with a tour group to go inside the glacier – which made us jealous, but we were trying to do this trip as cheaply as possible – so we built an inukshuk out of the rocks and headed back to our campervan.

As we made our way to the campsite for the night after having a burger at a nearby restaurant, we couldn’t help but still be amazed at the incredible stuff we’d seen thus far. What an incredible country and the trip was basically just getting started!

Next up, a very long drive! (go road trips!)

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 3

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

Through the Mountains and Off the Rails

Road trips are a beautiful thing and anyone who has ever taken one knows the key to a successful adventure is a majestic destination, good company and a vehicle that works. Well, we had all three (one that occasionally gave us doubt but never let us down!) so it was bound to be a sensational trip.

We headed out of Christchurch for the route through Arthur’s Pass – a road that would wind and bend from the city to the ocean and on a map looked deceptively short. The only issue being the road bends and winds so much (and it was winter), that consistent speeds were not an option. Plus, factor in all the stops to walk around and soak up the surroundings and this was a leg that took us the whole day – not that I’m complaining though!

Let me just say, starting out, I knew it was going to be amazing. There’s just something about heading out onto the open road when mountains are in foreground that just shouts adventure. Coming from a place with relatively flat topography, mountains have always blown my mind and just seeing them makes me feel good. Australia is a fairly boring place as far as landscape goes, so to see this and some snow, was a welcome sight. I never got over seeing people pulled over to the side of the road picking up snow for the first time and throwing it at each other. It’s something I take for granted having grown up in Canada… and something I curse when it gets in the way of a good time!

Nothing boring here!

Nothing boring here!

We drove for a few hours through mind blowing scenery, winding around bends until we made it to the little town in the middle called, appropriately enough, Arthur’s Pass. Stopping to check out the general store and take a few pictures, we decided to hike one of the small trails that said it would take 30-40 minutes. Sure, why not! Granted it was probably better in the summer, it led to a waterfall and was a great way to stretch our legs and see things up close and personal.

Back in the car, we made our way towards Greymouth where we stayed for the night.

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Just mind blowing…

One thing I realized very quickly upon our drive through the mountains was just how dangerous this expedition could be if the weather was bad. The guardrails on the side of the roads were not always in place and traffic was sometimes a bit crazy – for an inexperienced campervan driver such as myself who was prone to stall, this did create a few issues. I felt bad for the drivers behind me but then also for myself, because some of them were driving way too fast. This wasn’t an unwarranted fear but very real, as the many crosses lining the road and billboards advising people to slow down seemed to indicate just how many lives these places had claimed.

Maybe they were staring at the scenery? I was guilty of that many a time… it was spectacular. My travel agent was kidding – it really was a postcard around every turn.

Next up. The Glaciers!

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 2

Arriving – A Bit of a Shock

(This is part of a multi part series – to check out the previous entry, click here!)

It was finally time to head to New Zealand and for me at least (I can’t speak for my buddy, but I’m pretty sure he felt the same way), this was the real beginning of the trip. Sure, in the future I would take vacations where I wished I had cut it in half because cramming too much in became exhausting, but this was not the case for this excursion.

Not really a fan of this place...

Not really a fan of this place…

We left Sydney at 8am, meaning we had to get to the airport around 6am, which meant leaving our hostel around 5am… which meant we didn’t really sleep that night. It was a combination of nerves but also because the lovely establishment we chose to patronize didn’t offer wake up calls and had no outlets in the rooms to plus a clock into. In hindsight, we should’ve brought a battery operated one (something I make sure to pack nowadays!) or at least our iPods, but again, with no plug to charge them after they died, it wasn’t really an option. Needless to say, we were exhausted but so excited.

With a three hour flight and a two hour time difference, we were set to arrive in Christchurch at 1pm and that part of the trip went off without a hitch. It was a nice little airport, not too far from the city and right next door to the car rental places – which removed a lot of the stress on the ‘how am I going to get from here to there’ front. It’s just something you assume will be easy until you take a few trips where it isn’t so much… and then you meticulously plan it out from that point on.

We filled out all the paperwork, inspected the van – a bit of a relic, but it would do (plus it had a shower, toilet, stove and fridge!) – we got the information about which roads we could drive on and how to put the snow chains on if it came to that (thankfully it didn’t) and then we were just about to leave when the girl at the counter asked us if we wanted a GPS. Having never driven in NZ before I was curious as to whether I needed it, so I asked. She got this funny look on her face and said something I will never forget: “Well, you see we only have like one road in New Zealand…”. So that settled that – no GPS.

It was around 5pm and the sun was almost gone, so we decided to find a place to crash for the night and got directions to a campsite not too far from where we were. Hopping in the drivers seat, I set out to get going. There was only one problem.

It was standard.

Now, I have driven standard vehicles before with varying degrees of success, but to say that I am comfortable with them would be a gross understatement. This campervan though was not an easy standard as the shifting was stiff… plus the stick had to be done with my left hand because, well, New Zealand drives on the left side of the road. So imagine me, jet lagged, kind of overwhelmed, driving stick in a different country on the opposite side of the road and just about to head into a roundabout.

Ugggghhhhhhh.

So full of promise - and not bad looking for the winter!

So full of promise – and not bad looking for the winter!

After a few wrong turns, stalling at intersections a half dozen times and some choice words between us (my buddy wouldn’t drive because of the insurance on the van being just for me, but was intent on giving suggestions that weren’t all that helpful), we somehow made it to a grocery store for provisions and then the campsite where we found a spot and plugged in for the night. We were asleep by about 10pm, set to get up at 8am to head out and see the country, hoping this first day was just working out the kinks and not an indicator of how the rest of the trip would go.

Next up, Arthur’s Pass!

New Zealand Road Trip – Part 1

The Planning – Months in the Making 

(This is part of a multi part series – to see the previous entry, click here!)

When I take a trip I do have the habit of working out as many details as I can so I can be sure that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. Planning for New Zealand was very much the same, as this was somewhere I knew had a lot to offer and more than likely I was going to have limited time.

Also, because I was in school for the entire time leading up to the vacation I was holding onto this as my light at the end of the tunnel.

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Awesome, but not as great as New Zealand…

The timeframe was rather fixed and the budget was lean but with room for expansion. I had four weeks off, one of which I wanted spread out as a kind of buffer to decompress from school and then after getting back from travelling. Some of the time was going to be spent in Sydney and in the Outback at Uluru, which when that was planned out, left me with eight days to spend in New Zealand. Was this enough? Was I making a mistake by trying to cram too much in?

I stopped into the nearest travel agent and discussed the various points of the trip. He suggested to us (I should say at this point that I was travelling with a buddy), that not only was a New Zealand holiday like that possible but he did one very similar just last year at exactly the same time. He suggested instead of renting a car and trying to do the hostel thing that we should rent a campervan and just park at the campsites every night, of which there were an abundance.

This all sounded great but I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough time to see it all, to which he brought over the resident kiwi (he said he had to talk slower when she was around – gotta love the Aussie/New Zealand rivalry) and she said if you only have a week, definitely stick to the South Island as they’re roughly the same size but the South has ¼ of the population and much more rugged. Well she had us sold!

All in all, the trip was going to cost us $600 AUS each and include our campervan and return flights – uhh…. That’s amazing. It was a diesel van as well and because diesel wasn’t taxed in New Zealand, it was great for the long hauls and wasn’t even that much to fill. Sadly, we spent as much in Sydney for four days as we did in our entire time in New Zealand – and while I really loved Sydney, it just couldn’t hold a candle to NZ.

Our humble chariot

Our humble chariot

With the dates figured out, the fees paid and a guidebook firmly in hand, we started to map out how we wanted our trip to look. There were some things that were just off the table, like big hikes or anything too outdoorsy because it was the middle of winter and who knows what the weather would be like the day we got in. The travel agent told us just to drive the entire island and that would be enough… so we charted out a route that would take us out of Christchurch, through the mountains, along the coast to the south and then back up in six days (first day for getting in, last day for getting out).

It was ambitious, hectic and oh so nerve wracking as neither of us had taken a road trip in a foreign country let alone driven a campervan. We had a solid itinerary mapped out that mostly consisted of driving, stopping to stare and driving some more until the sun went down. We knew the margin for error was slim – if a blizzard hit or our vehicle broke down it would cause major problems that we maybe didn’t have room to accommodate. But we weren’t concerned – it was going to be an awesome trip!

What could possibly go wrong?

New Zealand Road Trip – Preface

Was I Ever That Young?

A long time ago, when I was a wee lad of seven or eight years old, I had a classmate who went to New Zealand with his family for a few weeks. Little did I know years later I would find myself there as well (that being said, I really had no idea I would do half the things I would come to do), especially when at that time I wasn’t really clear on where New Zealand was.

New Zealand? It just sounds made up.

New_Zealand_relief_mapI was familiar with Australia from the stories my mom and I used to read together before bed and movies – all the crazy animals, place names, that funny looking building by the water –  but New Zealand was something else entirely. Supposedly it was close by Australia. Maybe it was kind of like Australia but slightly different, like Canada and the USA. Interesting.

Years went by and I learned a bit more about geography, enough so that I knew where New Zealand was on a map but not it’s remarkable history or how very different it is from Australia – not to mention how far away the two really are from each other. To say it was on my list of travel destinations would have been generous as the typical places rounded out the list first – like Italy and Paris. New Zealand would be cool to visit if I got the chance but with it being as far away as it was and I being a lad of very little money, it just never seemed like a possibility.

Then two things happened in my life.

The first was watching Peter Jackson’s 12-hour long New Zealand promotional video, aka The Lord of the Rings. After that, everyone and their cousin had dreams to visit this far away land and have their own Middle Earth adventure. The second thing that happened, which ultimately made such a trip not only possible but insane to pass up, was my decision to study in Australia. While I was now aware that you couldn’t see one from another, I did know that I would probably never be closer to New Zealand than this again in my life.

LOTR

Even though I was that close, I still had reservations about visiting it, namely that taking the three hour flight would likely be more expensive than travelling within Australia itself. I later found out that being stationed in Australia opened up many deals that squashed my fears and made me realize it wasn’t a matter of if I was going to visit New Zealand but when.

And so began the planning…

Why Winter is Great for Travel

Every year as the weather warms up people jump at the chance to get out there and see the world – and why shouldn’t they? If you’ve been stuck inside for what feels like an eternity, getting outside and shaking up the routine can give you a new lease on life. Summer is the time for road trips, barbecues, beach parties, concerts and everything else in between – what isn’t too love?

The only problem is, everyone has the same great idea.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the summer as much as anyone, but after travelling to a few dozen locales during peak season and going through the same habit year after year, I’m ready to try something different. This is why I’m advocating winter as a travel season – and here’s why:

Fewer Crowds

One of the biggest reasons travelling anywhere is irritating is the sheer number of others who are also doing the same thing. As I mentioned before, peak season is that way for a reason and you have to expect that it’s going to be a bit nuts if you travel somewhere in the height of summer. Winter on the other hand, doesn’t have as many travellers. Maybe it’s because of the hazardous weather or maybe it’s because of the various holidays that mar being away from home, but you can be sure others won’t be doing the same things you are!

Hot Food is Amazing

Eating out on a patio is great, but enjoying a hearty warm meal in the cozy indoors is hard to beat too. A lot of destinations have great winter festivals centred around such food as chilli or roast meat because it’s best enjoyed when the temperatures plummet.

Deals to be Had

Most deals for travel come in the off season because there doesn’t need to be an incentive to travel during peak season. Places like New Zealand have great road trip potential through their flight and camper van packages that are far cheaper in the winter than in the summer. Resorts are about the only place that does get a lot of business in the winter, but even they offer deals in the winter months!

It’s Summer Somewhere!

The beauty of living on this planet with it’s tilt and wobble is the seasons we enjoy – meaning it’s never the same everywhere on the planet. If you live in the northern hemisphere and it’s summer, you can get away to a winter locale by visiting the south. Likewise, if it’s winter and you want a summer getaway, just head to the opposite side of the globe. Peak season isn’t universal everywhere as every region has their own set of holidays and favoured activities, giving you no shortage of great travel options.