Road Trippin’ Kiwi Style

MY HUSBAND FREQUENTLY TOYS WITH THE IDEA OF DRIVING A RECREATIONAL VEHICLE (RV) ACROSS CANADA, THE USA AND PERHAPS EVEN DOWN TO THE SOUTHERN TIP OF SOUTH AMERICA.

Now, I do realize some North American models are huge and equipped with every modern appliance and convenience one could ever imagine needing on the road, giving a whole new meaning to the term “road warrior.” Yet, I cannot fathom life trapped in a metal container on wheels for a year or more. So I decided to challenge his dream on a road trip through the South Island of New Zealand.

BABY STEPS

As I planned our trip to New Zealand’s South Island, I rented an RV. We would drive it on the left side of the road for three days, between Invercargill and Christchurch. That, I hoped, would surely discourage him from pursuing such a dream.

A 20-minute flight from Stewart Island brought us to Invercargill Airport where a Britz agent waited, eager to hand over the keys to our camper van. It was much smaller than I had anticipated. However, I didn’t have much time to dwell on size as the agent immediately began to explain how to operate everything. “Turn on the water pump when using it. Turn gas on outside first. Flip switch. Remember to empty the toilet.” Really? It was too much information, too fast. “Any questions?” he asked. Other than begging him to repeat everything slowly, we really didn’t have any so we hoped for the best as we watched him scurry off.

Who could resist a brunch stop at the Niagara Falls Café? (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

In the rear, two cushioned benches doubled as a place to eat and sleep. Linens and bedding were neatly stored in compartments under the seats. In the centre, a kitchen area featured a sink, a gas stove, a microwave, a kettle, a toaster, hot and cold pressurized water as well as dishes, cutlery and cooking utensils. Between the kitchen and the driver’s seat, a miniature washroom contained a shower and a toilet. This was to be our home for the next 72 hours.

ON THE ROAD

Dunedin was our first destination. We took the Southern Scenic Route along the Chaslands Highway, an estimated five-hour trip for those familiar with the roads. Along the way, we stopped at Florence Hill Lookout to view the picturesque Tautuku Bay and South Pacific Ocean where surfers come from all over to ride the huge waves. Known for its symmetry and beauty, it’s hard to believe this beach was once a European whaling base.

An inspiring view of Tautuku Beach from Florence Hill Lookout. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

Other points of interest along the way included the Purakaunui Falls, among the most photographed in New Zealand. Another, Nugget Point, is great for viewing seals, sea lions and penguins. An historic lighthouse built in 1869 still works today. Of course, being residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, we couldn’t resist brunch at the Niagara Falls Café.

SAN FRANCISCO VIBES

Once we’d checked into the Dunedin Holiday Park we embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Dunedin Railway Station; the University of Otago; Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world according to the Guiness Book of Records; the peaceful Dunedin Chinese Garden; and the historical (c. 1876) Speight’s Brewery, where an outside tap pumps water up from a deep spring below, providing fresh, pure water to all free of charge. How civilized! Our day ended with a delicious dinner at Plato Café.

It was a cool February evening when we returned to our camper van. I waited patiently while my husband made our bed. I can’t say he executed the task perfectly but we did manage to sleep in spite of some discomfort.

The following morning, we headed off to the Royal Albatross Centre to observe these majestic birds in their natural habitat. Making our way down to the water’s edge, we embarked on a one-hour cruise around Taiaroa Head on the Monarch Wildlife Wellers Rock tour for unrivalled viewing of the diverse array of wildlife.

Fur seal off the coast of Dunedin. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

Then, we were off to nearby Larnach Castle, built in 1871 by William Larnach for his beloved first wife, Eliza. It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the castle shell and master European craftsmen spent another 12 years embellishing its magnificent interior.

The majestic Lanarch Castle near Dunedin. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

We loved Dunedin. It reminded us of a much smaller San Francisco and exuded a quirky, youthful vibe. Dunedin is also home to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory and, every July, people flock to the weeklong Dunedin Cadbury Chocolate Carnival, which wraps up with the iconic Jaffa Race when 25,000 orange-coated, chocolate filled balls (a Kiwi favourite) are released to roll, jump and jostle down Baldwin Street that’s lined with cheering crowds. What a sight that must be!

MORE DISCOVERIES AHEAD

It was time to visit Oamaru. Stops en route included the Moeraki Lighthouse and boulders; a walk on the beach at All Day Bay; and a lookout point on the coastal route via Kakanui overlooking Oamaru.

In Oamaru, we strolled through the Victorian Precinct, a magnificent collection of limestone buildings built in the 1870s as grain and wool stores and offices for the commercial district.

Oamaru is where the Steampunk phenomena began. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

Later we dined at the Portside Restaurant, immediately adjacent to the scientifically monitored Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. This memorable event invites visitors to sit and watch as rafts of adorable penguins return from their day at sea. This sweet, must-see experience begins every evening around dusk.

Back in the camper van, I was particularly pleased to learn my husband had figured out how to make a proper bed and we slept like angels.

THE LAST STRETCH

On the final leg of our road trip, we took the inland scenic route to Christchurch, which brought us through small towns and past stunning turquoise glacier lakes backdropped by snow-capped Mount Cook. The scenery was simply spellbinding and frustratingly impossible to capture in a photograph.

Backdropped by Mount Cook, the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki are spellbinding. (V&V Hospitality & Media Services)

By mid-afternoon, we reached Christchurch. We had survived the trip with our marriage still intact. I have to admit I enjoyed the RV experience much more than I thought I would. However, at that moment, I yearned for a long, hot shower and the king-size bed that awaited us at the nearby Commodore Hotel.

TRAVEL PLANNER: Air New Zealand offers direct non-stop service from Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Auckland. When renting a camper van, keep in mind that New Zealand’s twisting roads usually consist of two lanes. So bigger is not always better.

Sadly, much of Christchurch was devastated in the 2011 earthquake and it is still struggling to come back. It’s been a slow process, but I’m told progress is happening.

For more information, visit Air New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand, Tourism Dunedin, Visit Oamaru, Britz, Hotel Commodore, Monarch Wildlife Cruises & Tours, Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, Royal Albatross Centre, Speight’s Brewery.

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