A visit to New Zealand and Australia

12 minute video: https://youtu.be/c9Dg4NFvcjA

We spent February down under, with 3 weeks in New Zealand, and a week in Australia. After landing in Auckland, and sleeping the jet lag off, we taxi'd downtown for a visit of the city (sea buses are always a great way to see a harbour city). As we drove in and out of the city, close attention was paid to how you stay left, negotiate the numerous roundabouts, and interpret various signs. Much was yet to be learned!

We picked up our Mazda campervan (book early!), downloaded the CamperMate App (very useful!), and drove off - immediately running into rush hour, and seemingly everyone in the city trying to go our way. It was a good time to learn how to shift gears on the left, find the rear view mirror on the left, figure out the iPod connection, realize there was no air conditioning (overrated), no power in the 2 litre engine, and a general lack of handling ability. The engine below our seats made it sound like we had power :)

The CamperMate app found us our first campsite (free) at Hobiton, where various movie sets were created in the pastoral rolling hills. We did a short visit to Rotorua to remind ourselves these islands were parked on the Rim of Fire (there were a couple of shakers on the island while we were there ~ 5.5'ers). The steam vent tour we did also gave us a little Maori history.

The weather forecast steered us away from the Tongariro Crossing we had intended to do south of Rotorua, so we headed southwest towards the Taranaki area. Along the way, we found another free campsite on a lake at Whakamaru (names like this abound in NZ!). Camping is so much more social! We ended up trying out a local's handmade wood-stripped kayak - very fast! We rented bikes to try out a bike path system that took you over a very nice suspension bridge - Kiwi's like these!

After visiting with a retired dairy farming couple for the night that Carol worked with in her youth on an exchange, we headed for Mt Taranaki. This "active but quiescent" volcano is a 2518m high solitary feature on the southwest side of the island. We knew that the volcano is often shrouded in cloud - at least every afternoon, but we timed the weather just right. Even though it is in a national park, we were allowed to park and camp at the trailhead in the parking lot with the campervan. This gave us a great early start, and we were on the top of the summit (after scampering across the hard snow of the crater) by mid-morning. We were able to see the south island, the Tongariro volcanoes in the east, and the Tasman Sea to the west. Eight hours is pretty much a minimum for this rigorous hike. Much to our surprise, the retired dairy farming family had driven to the trailhead to give us a great tailgate party upon our return!

Eventually, we hit Wellington (underwhelming), and jumped  on the ferry to Picton on the south island. It should be noted that driving from Taranaki to Wellington was very taxing! The winds in New Zealand can be ferocious, and if you're in a tall campervan, it's a two handed death grip on the wheel for hours! The ferry ride is blissful! Going into the Marlborough Sound area is very scenic, and we wished we'd planned a few days for this area. Especially to kayak.

However, we were headed for the Abel Tasman are for some sea kayaking. We stayed in the Nelson area - then headed to Marahau area to jump on a water taxi. The boat was actually on a trailer towed by a tractor down the road, and across the tidal flats for a km or two until sufficient water depth was achieved to power the boat up. The taxi took us to the far reaches of Abel Tasman national park - then we paddled back through the park to be picked up again. There were numerous marine birds, including some tiny solitary penguins, seal pups with parents, excellent rock features (granite), nice quiet beaches, and beautiful aquamarine (warm!) seas.  

Driving down the west coast is definitely worthwhile if you're getting the right weather. Again, the winds play havoc with driving, but the scenery is spectacular! We jostled with crowds of selfie sticks at the Pancake Rocks, and camped by an excellent sunset beach nearby, watching gulls drop shellfish on rocks for entertainment. Eventually we were camped close to the Franz Joseph glacier park, and the following morning we started out at 6:30 from the trailhead to climb the very steep Alex Knob (1303m) trail for a view of the glacier. Apart from the annoying helicopters flying in and out of the valley (we were soon way above the flight path), the hike was excellent. Starting out in ferns and palms, you ascend through a variety of vegetation, and eventually get views of the Tasman Sea, the massive braided glacier river winding through thick alluvium, and the glaciers above. There was one Austrian hiker at the top, and within 30 minutes of our arrival, the clouds came in to shroud all views. Early works best hiking to views in NZ!

Camping in the Haast area, we were attacked by notorious sandflies. These little buggers are black flies with an attitude, and are just as sneaky. Sandaled feet are favorite targets! We scooted out of there after a night's stay, over Haast Pass, and had wicked  tailwind all the way to Wanaka.  There, not surprisingly, it was windy. We made the mistake of camping in town at a dusty campsite - taking time to rent mountain bikes (from a young gal from our hometown of Canmore) to sample some singletrack in the area. Wanaka is the less-busy small city north of Queenstown (that we did not visit), and offers all forms of entertainment if you have $$$ to spend. One of the best roads we drove was a "short route" from Wanaka south to Arrowtown. The grade was taxing on the campervan, but the views on the other side are spectacular! A great free campground on a lake was in the valley below, near Arrowtown.

Again, the weather suggested we adjust. Seeing abundant rains headed to the south island, we elected to do a somewhat marathon drive to Milfred Sound to make the last boat tour of the day. By the time we were getting close, the rain was coming down hard, and the waterfalls were getting cranked up! All the buses were headed out by the time we drove up the pass and through the 1 km-long tunnel. The switchbacks on the other side of this tunnel are pretty wild! By the time we got on the boat, there were only 12 of us - the throngs of tourists long gone. We were happy we weren't kayaking. The tour took us all the way through the fiord, to the Tasman Sea and back - seeing dolphins, seals, and a zillion waterfalls. By the time we drove out of there, and into another government campsite (DOC's), we were exhausted. We headed for Manapour the following day, hiking some of the Keplar Track along the way - one of NZ's famous hiking routes.

The weather was looking good for the Mt Cook area, and we headed there tout suite, again parking in a DOC campsite at the trailhead for a hike to Mueller Hut. The next morning (6:30 AM) we were hiking in the dark, marvelling at the fact there are no large carnivores, snakes or creepy things to worry about in the dim light of sunrise. The views along this steep demanding trek are outstanding. Mt Cook (Aoraki - 3724m) looms in the distance, but Mt Sefton, with its prominent glaciation, is a view all on to its own. The day was bluebird, and the winds were minimal. We truly hit it on the perfect day.

We visited Mueller Hut, had some refreshments, and then decided to scramble up Mt Ollivier (1933m), which was Sir Edmund Hillary's first major climb in 1939. I don't think he had a paved road to a village down below, however. Though we are lucky to access beautiful glacial views and peaks in the Canadian Rockies, this hike is a standout!

That, and the lakes below these southern Alps. Lakes Pukaki, and Tekapo are the colour of Lake Louise in Alberta, but 10 times the size. After feeding Carol her required NZ ice cream fix, we hung on to the steering wheel for a few more hours heading east towards Geraldine to visit with Neil and his dairy farm. He has 500 dairy cows, and an impressive system to milk them that he showed us. Plenty enough milk for Carol's ice cream diet.

Finally, we handed off the campervan in much relief without any damage or problems, and toured Christchurch. The botanical gardens are a great place to visit. The downtown area is a mass of cranes and construction- dealing with the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The main church is held up with steel girders, as those that matter decide on its fate. In the centre of the downtown area are shipping containers stacked and decorated to form a "temporary" shopping and eating district. Very popular with the tourists.

We subsequently flew to the very hot and humid area of Cairns in Australia. Made us realize how nice the climate is in NZ. Days before arrival, locals commented that it was as hot as ever (40C with maximum humidity). We walked the boardwalk, noting signs about stingers and salt water croc's, and realized why they built a beautiful salt water pool beside the ocean. Noting hundreds of extremely large bats in the trees on our way back to the condo, we organized for our snorkel tour on the Great Barrier Reef the next day, which turned out to be perfect weather.d

The snorkeling 2.5 hours east of Cairns, on the so-called outer reef area, is pretty good by my experiences as a landlocked Rockies sort. But not exceptional. Visibility was good, which allowed us to see the myriad of fist-sized jellyfish. Having been stung before, I was doing my best to avoid the little beasts. Fortunately, Carol was hanging with the "marine guide", who informed us that the slimming black sun suits we were wearing actually worked. After that, it was possible to forget about them - except when they were in your face. We saw turtles, sharks (OK - just one), manta rays, and a colourful collection of fish that would have made the Little Mermaid proud. The Passions of Paradise catamaran and crew did a great job of the whole affair, and I would recommend them for a day trip.

The next day, we did the jungle tour: taking a gondola up high to a small, but highly touristy collection of shops and restaurants. The couple of km walks around the area were interesting - we certainly saw a bizarre variety of spiders and butterflies. A hundred year old train is used to transport you back to Cairns - and we had our own car! Overall, an OK tour, but not that extraordinary. We took a local bus the next day to Palm Grove - and that is a very nice beach resort area to hang for the day.

Last stop was Sydney, which is a great harbour and beach city! We stayed in a boutique hotel in Chinatown, recently created from an old office building. Wish we would have spent more time in the botanical gardens! The Opal Card in Sydney, however, got us all over the place on ferries, subways, and local buses. Well worth the cost! We toured Manly beach while the Australian Open Surfing event was on - Sydney certainly has great surf! Using shoe leather, and local buses, we also visited several beaches and spectacular sandstone capes. We capped things off with a burlesque show at the Sydney Opera House and subsequent live entertainment at a local Irish pub.

Speaking of beer: it costs more than I would have imagined in Australia and NZ. Wine is reasonable. The surprise was how much fruit and vegetables were in NZ during summer months. But the fish was cheap and fresh for the BarB.

Overall a great place to go. The dollar is about par with the CND$, and a bargain for US folks. People are friendly, and they use the king's English. Too bad they didn't abandon driving on the wrong side of the road!