Tuomas: Finding Middle-Earth – Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass, Hokitika
Hokitika, New Zealand
I covered our arrival in New Zealand in the last entry, but I'll put it here short again; don't bring food here. We didn't get into any real problems, but got a little more attention from the customs people than we would have liked…
Our plane arrived to Christchurch from Sydney at about 0.15 in the night, which meant that there wasn't any real reason to head out to an expensive hotel/hostel. We spent the night at the airport instead, first in the drafty arrivals hall where staff members would occasionally come and harass people who dared to sleep on the floor. At some point someone came to tell us that the upstairs had been opened again (initially there had been a fence) and we could move to the domestic departures hall, which was warmer and had power outlets beside some fairly comfortable sofas. No-one bothered us or any of the other sleepers there, but it was surprisingly lively even in the middle of the night. We failed to find the showers we had read about, but I still hear that there were some somewhere. They also had great wifi, which you could only use for two hours or 200 megabytes. Unless you were smart enough to log off every now and then and later just state that you are a new user instead of providing them with the access code from the previous session… We were naughty…
We got a bit of sleep on the one couch we had occupied but none the less the night was pretty long. We had rented a campervan from Mighty and they didn't open for pickups until 10 a.m.. After reorganizing our things we started in their general direction a little before that. We walked to the rental place, as anyone could, since it was near and took us only about ten to fifteen minutes. Once there we waited for a while for someone to acknowledge our presence and take our details before handing us a six minute long video of driving in New Zealand. I had seen it already on YouTube, it was great and really helpful, you'll find it by searching for Mighty campervans. I'd post the link here, but I'm writing this ahead on a powerless freedom camping site and I'll forget to add it as I'm posting this.
We went through all the necessary paperwork before actually seeing the car. We opted for not taking the prepaid petrol option, which would have allowed us to return the car with a partially empty tank for $128. We also chose not to pay the extra $99 for our insurance to cover damages done by a roll over or the car tipping on its side. The guy had a toy van as he illustrated how the car might fall on its side if a breeze happened to catch it while in a curve, which sounded promising (and ludicrous). Later the same guy basically said that we didn't have to worry about scratching the car since our "Almighty" package had insurance to cover all normal damages. They had some pretty lousy extras for sale, like 500 megabytes of wifi for $100. We did take the heater for $16 because it was very reasonable and we knew we would be using it a lot.
I said that we didn't get to see the car before the paperwork… Turned out, on one of those papers it said that we had rented the Mighty Highball - or similar. That last bit there was done in considerably smaller print. It wasn't the Highball in the end of course, but a Jackpot, both of which are Toyota Hiace based and with elevated roofs. In the end I think we got the better one though, since inside the Jackpot we found a surprise: a toilet! It was only a porta potti really, but it meant that the car classifies as a self-contained vehicle and can camp anywhere where camping is allowed. It lacked the microwave the Highball was supposed to have, but I doubt we would have used that much anyway. And the sleeping setup seemed better than what I had deciphered from the Highball pictures, the Jackpot has a seating area next to a movable structure which folds down either as a table or a bed. Additionally, we had a fridge with a freezer compartment, a portable gas stove, a big pile of kitchenware and towels, pillows and blankets for three (there was a curious hammock-type thing that folded away into nothing for a third person to use as a bed). Also, at the office they had a shelf of discarded items from which we picked up paper towels, peanut butter, canned goods and a reusable ten liter water canister.
The car had manual transmission which I haven't used in years, so Sini took the first shift with the driving. The car handled surprisingly well for a van and could negotiate the exit from the parking lot with relative ease. We headed to the nearest and supposedly cheapest holiday park, The North South, about ten minutes away. They charged $39 for a power site which was more than we would have liked, but we hadn't slept much the previous night and were content with paying a little extra to avoid searching further. Also, stopping so early gave us sufficient time to organize the car the way we wanted, we were pretty happy with the result in the end. Better still, going to a decent campsite so close to the airport had a special perk in the form of more free things! I snatched Footprint's travel guide to New Zealand as soon as I saw it in the office, as well as some pasta and salt. Later we got to talking with an Australian couple parked next to us who were leaving New Zealand in a few days. They parted with a massive amount of things in our favor, including spices, porridge, oils, tin foil, toilet chemicals and a foldable bucket. After we had visited the nearest Pack n' Save we were incredibly well off with enough supplies to get us through the oncoming winter should we get stuck somewhere.
Sleeping in the campervan proved to be even nicer than we had hoped. Before heading to bed we used the heater shamelessly and even after it was turned off we had massively thick blankets to keep us warm. And the mattress was as soft as a normal bed, infinitely better than the bottom of the station wagon we had slept on in Australia. It was a good way to start the road trip, in the morning we didn't feel like leaving the inside of the car. Eventually we had to though, so we filled up our fresh water tank and the extra canister and even remembered to disconnect from the power outlet. We headed to central Christchurch where we parked in the carpark of the botanical garden, which had no limits during the weekend. We took a good look at the damages still evident after the two earthquakes in late 2010 and early 2011, which left the city in ruins. Some of those were still standing, with almost half the buildings surrounded by fences at points, others had been bulldozed to the ground and some had been replaced by new designs. The old cathedral was supported by steel beams and seemed to house a congregation of pigeons and cats, its bell tower was gone and the angel statue in front was held in place with ropes around its neck and waist. The Re-Start Mall, constructed of shipping containers, gave color and a sense of hope to the city center, but was too expensive for us to shop in. Christchurch seems to be renewing itself after the devastation, but even after so many years there is still a long way to go. Parts of it still look like a warzone or an abandoned city, but others support fancy stores and motels beyond count. It's a work in progress, but progress is being made, evidently. Meanwhile in Nepal the death toll from the recent earthquake has topped 6000 the last we heard it. Kathmandu is a world away, I can't really see them rising from such a disaster as gracefully as Christchurch had from its smaller one.
After the gloomy town center we returned to the park, which is almost as big. We visited the information office and got some fairly good advice, but we could have done with a little more or better. The lady just basically circled out some spots on the south island that we might like to see, mainly Arthur's Pass National Park, the Fox Glacier, the Queenstown area and such. We had both planned the roadtrip in New Zealand ahead of time at home, Sini had made notes of her cousin's exchange year here and I had made a detailed map of a possible route to take us through places like the Lord of the Rings filming sites. Only, we had made those on our own laptops. To our great dismay, we discovered that neither of us had saved them on the new laptop that we took with us. Bummer… I remembered planning to go south from Christchurch and then eventually up the west coast, but we decided to do something different and start by heading straight through the island and going south later.
After visiting the information center and changing our itinerary completely we went to see the park and the gardens, which were great. They even had a greenhouse with basically a tropical jungle in it, free to enter. And speaking of more freebies received, we also picked up a free SIM-card from the tourist information that we can use to call the free line to our car rental place should we feel the need!
We finally got on the road at about two p.m. and started heading west on road number 73. It started out as a highway type of thing but pretty soon dissolved into a smaller country road. There were some scenic tourist drives diverging from it, but I can't see how they could have been any better. In half an hour we came from the apocalyptic rubbles of Christchurch to Middle-Earth! As any excessively suspicious person would assume, I had thought that the talk about the beauty of New Zealand's nature would be exaggerated greatly. I mean, of course the spots where they filmed the Lord of the Rings movies were awesome, but those were special places, handpicked for the task. It wasn't so. Anywhere we looked would have been perfect for the movies, each rock looked like a dwarf could jump from behind it, each creek seemed like a place Strider could stop for a drink, every hill looked like a suitable spot to build Edoras on. It was simply magnificent, and getting better. As we drove on the mountains became clearer and clearer, some of them topped with a layer of white snow. Apart from just a movie set, everything looked exactly like we had thought New Zealand would, it was green and fertile and filled with wonders and sheep. We stopped at a spot we thought would be pretty much a rest area with a view and found the Castle Rock Hill. It was simply unbelievable, a minute or so after getting out of the car we were surrounded by limestone cliffs sprouting from the ground like discarded pieces of a giant's fortress. There were no entry fees and hardly any people, apart from a few oriental tourists and some locals bouldering on the rocks. There was a middle-aged couple from Christchurch that had never been to the place before. For us this was one of the greatest natural sites we had seen on the trip, for the locals it was still great, but apparently nothing to get too excited about. If this was the case, what would the rest of the trip be like?
We had charged our car's battery full and filled the water tank at the holiday park in the morning to be able to do freedom camping in the evening. We had also showered accordingly. With darkness slowly setting in, we drove to Klondike Corner about eight kilometers south from Arthur's Pass Village. It proved to be a nice place to spend the night, with an OK pit toilet and a round canopy for cooking, surrounded by lots of space next to a river. We were immediately greeted by keas, the local parrots that screeched from the trees before landing just meters away to take a closer look at us. We had a fine dinner of spaghetti and Bolognese sauce made from textured soy protein that we were finally able to find at Pack n' Save (we actually eat the stuff fairly regularly at home). With all of the things we got for free from the Australian couple, mainly tomato paste, barbeque sauce, spices and lots of garlic, we made an exceptionally tasty meal never once leaving the inside of the campervan, which got nice and warm in the process.
Arthur's Pass and beyond
In the morning we headed first to the visitor information center in Arthur's Pass Village and got a couple of ideas for short tramping treks in the area. The guy basically gave us two options, either to do two one hour walks or go at it with one three hour trek. All were just return treks, there were no good circular tracks. We figured we could see more by doing two treks instead of one and headed just a minute or so north to Devil's Punchbowl Walking Track. The easy to walk road took us up some stairs to a lookout facing a tall waterfall, which was very nice. The track was short however, it only took us 35 minutes to complete even though it was estimated to take a whole hour. Once back at the parking lot we looked at our options again; it seemed that they were overestimating the times it took to finish these things, just as they did in Australia. It's better that way I guess. Anyway, the Otira Valley Track that we had thought about doing next was supposed to be about the same length as the Punchbowl Track. It might be a little short. So instead we decided to go ahead with the longer trek, the Temple Basin Track leading up to Temple Basin Skifield.
It was the right thing to do. The shorter track would have taken us around the bottom of a valley which could have been nice, but the Temple Basin Track was great. It was also pretty rough, much harder to complete than, say, the treks we did in the Blue Mountains National Park in Australia. It was all uphill, the first part on a rocky strip of road that looked easy but the gravel was very loose and we really had to watch our step. Good hiking boots were definitely essential. Further up the wide path narrowed down and became less treacherous but also steeper. We kept pushing though, because the view was getting better and better as the campervan in the parking lot grew smaller and smaller. The path leads to a somewhat shabby looking ski resort that I bet could be a pretty lively place once the season is right, there were a few buildings and a couple of lifts, one of which apparently could transport the skiers' things up the hill if not the skiers themselves. We could only imagine doing the climb in winter… It would be worth it though, the view was simply unbelievable. They call these mountains the Southern Alps and for a good reason, we were surrounded by gorgeous peaks, some of which were snow covered. We sat enjoying it all for a good while eating our snacks, listening to the distant roar of waterfalls. We were definitely in New Zealand now…
The track was supposed to take three hours return, we made it up in 55 minutes and down in 50, in between we spent about half an hour at the top. The descent was almost as hard as the climb up, though less sweaty. We both lost our footing a few times where the gravel was loose, but neither fell. Back at the car we had a quick lunch before continuing along the highway towards the west coast. This part of the road was a lot steeper than the way there and we finally saw why they had posted all those "Not suitable for towing vehicles" signs. Some of the downhill parts were in 16% declination. That didn't stop a number of big trucks that passed us, in both directions. They drive fast down here… We made it to the coast safe and sound and turned south to Highway 6 which we took all the way to Hokitika. There we sought out the Shining Star holiday park that we had read about in our Footprint guidebook. It wasn't particularly cheap, putting us back $40 for a powered site, but it had great reviews and free wifi. Turned out it was worth the money, more or less, since the kitchen area was one of the best we've seen (indoors with tables and chairs and even all the necessary pots, pans, utensils etc., they also had two real gas barbeques outside) and the free wifi was both fast and extensive. We both got separate usernames and passwords with 1024 megabytes to use. We were finally able to put some more pictures into Google Drive, thus continuing the project that had been on hold since Thailand. The holiday park was also right on the beach, which on a different season could have meant penguin spotting. There were none of those as we visited, but we did see a seal. Sadly it was long dead, someone had been eating its eyes…
As a side note, it seems to be worth a mention that my newest niece, the firstborn daughter of my brother and his wife had been given a name a couple of days before. The news of the naming of Nella Susanna were a little slow in reaching us since cellphone coverage is somewhat limited in the mountainous regions of the island. We were informed in the end though, via a delayed text message and a few emails. Freedom camping may have its benefits, mainly being free, but being out in the civilized world has its own perks. Hopefully we'll be able to combine them both during the almost three weeks we have for this road trip.