World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
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Well here we are. The last chapters of the chronicles, making it higher in number than Game of Thrones, though not quite as long :). It was only fitting for our final foray in New Zealand that we head to the beach. But not just any beach – Mount Maunganui is a fantastic spot where smooth sand splays out in the shadow of an extinct volcano. Perfect place to reunite with our travel buddies Grant & Jess for a day of relaxin’ and exploring the beach's rock outcropping. We had so much fun with the couple that we all started traveling together for the next few days as we headed inland to Karangahake Gorge via a campground at Dickey’s flats. But first we passed by one of the ancient Kauri Trees that grows in the north – this one is more than 600 years old!   

Once at Dickey’s Flats Campground, the hike to the Gorge via the Crown Track was a pleasant bush-walk along the river, but things got more interesting as we approached the ruins of the gold mining operations that had taken place there between 1880-1950s. Diana Clement from the New Zealand Herald gives an informative snapshot of our time there:
“The Crown Track Tunnel is 180m long and not much more than 2m high. Just high enough for the horse-drawn mining trucks that carried quartz back to the Crown battery on the Ohinemuri River.
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Grant & Jess in the Crown Track Tunnel
We learned from the numerous signs how water- and steam-powered stampers crushed the quartz, and cocktails of potassium, cyanide and other nasty chemicals helped with the extraction process. One of the batteries even cooked the quartz to remove the valuable metals within.”
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The Gorge with the walk along the old mining route below
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Grant goes out the "window"
It was a brutal process on the environment to extract all the gold, but luckily these days the whole area is a protected park. One fascinating features of the old mines was the “Windows Walk” alongside the canyon wall of the gorge. The tunnels burrowing through the rock here have “windows” where miners would dump the debris while digging their tunnels through canyon. It makes for a lot of fun to walk through these old tunnels as sun beams stream in from the intermittently spaced windows. To cap it off, on the way back Scott directed us to some hidden pools near the tunnel entrance. We splashed through a dark tunnel with water flowing through it and popped out to some beautiful pools with waterfalls at the far end. Time for a swim!

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Swimming in the hidden pools through the tunnel (click link above to see tunnel entrance)
With our rivers and waterfalls quota met it was back to the beach with Grant and Jess! Waihi Beach was a perfect freedom camping spot right on the sand and we all cooked up together and played Rummy to the sound of the waves. The next morning saw a beautiful walk to Orokawa Beach, an isolated “pristine stretch of sand and surf backed by sprawling Pohutukawas”. 
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Getting ready to chill at Orokawa Beach
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Perfect place to inhale the fresh herbally infused air and have a day chillin’ on the beach with G&J (Grant & Jess aka Gin & Juice). The fun took a brief hiatus when a local council member wearing a sweet-as cowboy hat told us to move on. That is always the risk of freedom camping, even when it seems like a legitimate place! Luckily, some German campervanners told us about a back-up freedom camping spot also with a public bathroom on Tuna Road so we took our chocolate porters to the beach. I woke up to the sounds of a local Kiwi woman in her 80’s running an automated sled out to her “torpedo" - essentially a little mini-submarine with a fishing line attached. As she pulled the torpedo in she had caught 8 snappers on it! Then she rolled away – all under battery power. Now there is a Kiwi who refuses to bow to age! As the Kiwis say, “Good on ya mate!”.

  Next stop was heading up north to the Coromandel for some classic tourist attractions. The score was split with the Hot Water Beaches getting a thumbs down due to being way overcrowded and only offering the tiniest bit of hot mineral water spurting up through the sand into the beach – not nearly enough to compete with all the people busily digging holes with rented spades. 
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Hot water beach was a hot mess
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Yoga in sea cave
Cathedral Cove was nearly a bust with an overcrowded car park and heavy crowds but the lush scenery won the day. A 45 minute walk past several beautiful bays brings you out to the gorgeous beach. This place truly has everything with a high cathedral-like rock arch, multiple offshore rock formations, and good rocks for jumping down into the sea. It also features hidden sea caves only accessible with a short swim. Inside the ambient light darkens whenever an incoming wave occludes the entrance. Could it get any better? Yep, just throw in a freshwater waterfall at the end of the beach where you can wash the salt off after all those adventures. Truly one of the best beaches we’ve ever been to!

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A drive over some coast hills took us out of Whitianga and to some of the only affordable camping on the Coromandel at Simpson Beach. Our last night with Gin & Juice was a memorable one as we stayed out late drinking on the beach and singing 90s song we all remembered with no one listening but the wind. The unruly mosquitoes forced us to say our goodbyes to G&J as we headed around the top of the peninsula and down into Coromandel town. There we indulged in a bit of paid tourism as we took the Driving Creek Railway (DCR) toy train up to the “Eye-full” tower. The DCR is interesting not just for the ingenuity of the track, which features multiple switchbacks, direction changes, and bridges as it snakes up the clay filled hills. It is also interesting because the potter turned conservationist who founded it has used the money for a massive native forest restoration project. 

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The view from the "eye-full" tower
After a triple espresso milkshake to get me prepped for the windy road down the peninsula we were on our way back to Auckland. A short stop-over at the Miranda Hot Springs provided Neda and I with our final camping before we headed into town to meet up with Eve & Wayne. Eve is the mother of Frank, who we met along with girlfriend Cat in Laos 

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Neda's oreo truffles won over 3 generations of Kiwis!
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The couple is fantastically generous. We walked to the store to get some groceries and when we got back they had already cleaned up the outside of Faith to get her ready for sale. A post on Gumtree yielded quick interest. As Neda and I were driving downtown to put up flyers a couple contacted us who was nearby. Their mechanic thought our car was in great shape and well cared for so we agreed on a price and it was over! With the sale we covered all of our transportation costs in New Zealand (minus petrol) making it a heckuva lot cheaper than a rental which would have cost $5-7k!

The rest of the week with Wayne and Eve was full of fun socializing, cooking Bulgarian and Kiwi dishes, playing a bit of poker and also some "work" as Neda and I sort through heaps of pictures, write blog after blog and do research so we are prepped and ready for our trip off to Sydney and then later to Japan! New Zealand has proven to be one of our absolute favorite places with a great mixture of kind people and unbelievable landscapes. The Campervan Chronicles were a unique adventure for us, but between you and me (and the rest of the internet), we don't mind sleeping in a bed one bit now that its over!

 
“This is my last word," said Elrond. "The Ring-Bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid..."
                                                                   - J.R.R. Tolkien
We awoke in the darkness of a new day, eager for what is touted as the “Best Day Walk” in all of New Zealand – the Tongariro Crossing. As we boarded the shuttle bus to head to the trailhead, the sun crested above the horizon and for a moment we glimpsed Mt. Ngauruhoe (a.k.a Mt. Doom) outlined in fiery hues of pink and orange. Was it the heat of Sauron’s forge we were seeing?
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Emerald Lakes
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Red Crater
The walk itself is truly spectacular as it traverses the active volcanic terrain surrounding Mt. Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu. Flowing water merges with wildflowers and volcanic rock as one tramps along this unique landscape. With each footstep, we got a bit closer to Mt. Doom until we passed her on the eastern side. From there, a climb up the Red Crater gives stunning views of the mountains and of the Emerald Lakes found below. The Lakes are filled craters which get their brilliant colors from the dissolved minerals present in the thermally active area.

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Steam rises out of a vent near an Emerald Lake, which is fed by a blood red creek off to the left...
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Clear Hot Springs
Mt. Doom isn’t the first place you think of when it comes to romance, but the walk’s beauty proved both amorous and exhausting. As we finished up the walk the perfect end to the day for our sore bodies presented itself. We drove down out of the park to the shores of Lake Taupo where the little village of Tokaanu is nestled. There the local Maori people have a wonderful hot-spring which is heated from the depths of the earth and filtered through the rocks so that it lacks the sulphuric smell and cloudiness of other thermal pools. Neda and I splurged for a private pool and sat in our birthday suits enjoying the soak and each others company. To top it off, we found a sweet-as freedom camping spot at the Tokaanu Wharf and toasted a unique and splendid Valentine’s Day while drinking white wine and watching the black swans float idyllically by the water’s edge.

To see all the pics of the Mt. Tongariro crossing, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEbBaC5

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Huka Falls with a rainbow
Then it was off driving along the shore of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. Its fascinating origin goes back nearly 27,000 years when a supervolcanic eruption in the area left behind a massive caldera hole which would later fill with water and become Lake Taupo. For the modern day tourist, this volcanic activity means lots of fun! Our first stop in the area was the Spa Park Hot Springs, a local park where the Waikato river is joined by a flowing hot spring. The fun part is to sit in the water where the cold river mixes with the burning spring and enjoy a free temperature controlled soak courtesy of nature! Even better, while hanging out at the spring we happened upon our travel buddies Grant & Jess (mentioned at the end of Chronicles Park 6) and camped up with them that evening at the free Reid’s farm campground outside of town.   
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Craters of the Moon
The next day we cruised through Taupo’s other attractions like the phosphorescent surging waters of Huka Falls and the hissing cauldrons of Craters of the Moon, a geothermal area that was created when the nearby hydroelectric power plant siphoned off water for electricity and left the remaining liquid near the craters to boil up to the surface. The last stop was the Aratiatia Rapids, where the Waikato River is diverted out of the turbines and into its naturally flowing path every 2 hours. The result is a dry canyon transforming into raging rapids as the dam releases to oohs and ahhs from the watching crowd.
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The Aratiatia Rapids are released!
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Farting mud pools
The thermal wonders continued as we drove up to Waiotapu, where it seemed like magma was bubbling just below the surface of the whole area. We giggled at the belching and farting noises of the Mud Pools. The hot water here has turned the soil into liquid-hot mud that splatters and shoots into the air at random intervals. Then as the sun began its descent Jeff charged up Rainbow Mountain for a 360 degree view of the whole area. Up at the stop sat a firetower where a local ranger named Barry was scanning for possible danger due to the dry climate. Barry pointed out the various geological formations surrounding us, including hills that were shaped like waves when a shockwave from a long-ago eruption had emanated outward only to rebound off of the distant granite hills and come back to strike the volcano. The evening closed with freedom camping along the banks of the tiny Lake Okaro, where Jeff enjoyed a swim in the warm waters.

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The "shockwave" hills and various Lakes in the distance. Lake Okaro, where we would camp that night is the little one in the front.
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The vibrant colors at the Champagne Pool in the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland come from the interaction of the mineral waters with various compounds such as arsenic and antimony sulfides.
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Devil's Cave
For our commercial fix the next day the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland was on the ticket. This thermal park involves a 90 minute self-guided walk through a particularly geothermally active area. Highlights included the multi-colored steaming champagne pool and the vividly green Devil’s Cave. On the way out, Scott gave us a riddle to find a wonderful secret in the area. A hidden waterfall hot spring! With no signs and no people, a short tramp through the bush led to Neda and I  enjoying our own personal hotspring showers- wicked! 

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Though you can't tell in the picture, that is hot mineral water pouring over me in a secret spot in the woods! No tourists here!
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Taking the plunge
Then we headed to Rotura for a quick viewpoint hike and new warrant and an oil change for Faith. Last stop was the Okere Falls/Kaituna Rapids where we saw a raft plunge down Tutea’s Falls, which at 7 meters is the largest commercial raft drop in the world! Having gotten our fill of rivers and waterfalls, we knew it was time to get back to the beach to finish off our journey! We'll finish up the Chronicles on the Coromandel Peninsula in the next post...

To see all the pics of thermally wonderfully New Zealand click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEbM6Y3.



 
After leaving Hokitika, we were ready to depart the west coast of the south island, but not without a bang (or a sea-surge I should say). The Punakaiki rocks are a fascinating formation of layered limestone created over many millennia as hard and soft layers of marine creatures and plant sediment stacked up over time. To add to the beauty, the rock formations create multiple blowholes at high-tide, where salt water sprays up into the air and the resulting mist casts rainbows over the rocks.
The surging of the blow-holes wasn’t constant however. There were moments of pause where the sea held its breath before unleashing its power. In this moment, all things seemed to come together as one. As Zen Master Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen school, says in his writing “Uji” (time-time):  
“Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any
being or any world is left out of the present moment.”
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Often as we travel we see such beauty that the present moment seems crisp, vivid and alive. But Dogen reminds us that each moment – whether it be the grocery store or the splendours of Punakaiki, is complete in itself and contains all other moments within it. While we were pondering these thoughts and  also waiting for high-tide at Punakaiki, we visited the splendid rock formations along remote Motukiekie Beach. There were plants clinging to rocks that jutted out of the sea at different angles and the great sea arches were sculpture of the highest order. One could lose oneself in their intricacy and unique fingerprints. As Dogen continues:

“Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses
throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the
entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice.”
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Double Sea-Arch on Motukiekie Beach
Can we take each object we see in everyday life and see it as the whole earth? Each moment of time as our whole existence full of unlimited possibility? This point was hammered home even more as we veered off the west coast and swept upward to the Abel Tasman region, named after the Dutch explorer who explored the northern part of the island in 1642. The beaches there are known for their glittering golden sands (each one of which is Dogen tell us is the entire earth...), but a cloudy day left us with a few detours beforehand.  
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Cows munching on Faith
The first was Rawhiti Cave, a fascinating stalactite filled cave brimming with life. Its “phytocarst” formations are among the most wondrous natural phenomenon in the entire island. It is where rock comes to life as the mossy light-seeking flora that grows along the stalactites pulls the rock up at jutting angles towards the sun. The sheer number of stalactites makes for a stunning effect as you stand at the mouth of the cave. Rawhiti packed one more surprise for us as we exited the walk to find that a farmer had let his cows out on the land surrounding the trailhead. They were ravenously licking all the vehicles and munching on whatever rubber components they could rip off! Trouble-makers! After quickly extricating Faith, we sped out of Rawhiti and spent a few more hours exploring the limestone formations of the Grove before the sun cleared up and we headed to Taupo Point for our first glimpse of the beaches of the Abel Tasman.

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Taupo Point in the distance off Wainui Bay
The next day we traversed the gravelly and windy road to the Totaranui DOC site, the base for our grand expedition to Anapai and Mutton Bays. As we walked through the Bush over hills and along the beach we came out to Anapai beach with its gorgeous waters and a swing set up on the trees in the middle of the beach. Another hour saw us to Mutton Bay, where a rocky outcrop splits the bay into two parts, which I happily swam around in the warm ocean waters. As my breath mingled with the movement of the water and view of the golden coastline, Dogen whispered through the breeze:
“The time-being of all beings throughout the world in water and on land is just the actualization of your complete effort right now.”
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Anapai Bay, Abel Tasman
In zazen (meditation), when we sit wholeheartedly with everything that arises (both joyous and painful) within the present moment, we connect fundamentally with all things in space and time. This ability is always available to us with right effort.
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Swimming in beautiful Mutton Bay
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Ironically after all this talk of unity, our lunch that day was at “Seperation Point”, but it refers simply to the point where the Tasman Sea and Golden Bay split apart on the rocks and is also the home of many cute fur seal pups who were diving and playing in the pools below! The rest of the day saw some R&R as we hung out with our Kiwi camp neighbours and enjoyed a nice evening time fire at Totaranui.

Now it was time to head even further north with a stopover at the beautiful Wanui Falls, where the surging falls inspired us to meditate together nearby. Then it was to the northernmost tip of the South Island – Farewell Point and Wharariki Beach. A stark contrast to the Abel Tasman, Wharariki Beachs’ winds howl with discontent and mystery. The sand burned at our skin from the piercing wind, but the allure of the looming sea caves drove us forward. With the tide low we took our torches into the caves as crabs and cave-wetas scurried out of the way to reveal hidden parts of the beach swathed in color. 
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The fun continued back at the campground where we met Marty and Lane over dinner. A newly-wed couple from England who were each others 2nd marriage, they were a delight to talk to and before we knew it we were driving with them out to the local Mussel Inn to catch a didgeridoo player who had played at the recent Illuminate Festival nearby. As we approached the inn in the middle of nowhere, cars were packed together outside and we knew were approaching a local happening. Sika, the didgeridoo player, sounded bass-thumping tunes mixed with native wisdom while two voluptuous dancers writhed alongside of him and sweaty hippies crowded in to absorb the vibes.

The Mussel Inn is also a notable brewery and Neda fell in love with the “Captain Cooker” brew, which is notable because it is brewed with tea-tree leaves instead of hops. Apparently when Captain Cook came to New Zealand he was out of hops and the crew morale was getting low. The boats botanist said that the Manuka (the local Maori word for tea-tree) would do the trick for brewing and Manuka-based beer was born. The tradition had died, having only recently been revived by the brewmaster at the Mussel Inn. In the end, our evening with Marty and Lane was one of our most memorable of the whole trip!
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A flight at the Sprig & Fern
Our time on the South Island was coming to a close, but first we stopped for a hike at the northernmost point of the Island, Cape Farewell, before heading down south to the Nelson region, where most of NZs’ hops are grown. Stops at the Monkey Wizard Brewery, the Spring & Fern, and the Freehouse in Nelson gave us ample opportunity to sample the local hops and say goodbye to this part of the island. But with travel every goodbye is a chance for a new beginning. As we scoped out the sign at a bay in the Marlborough Sounds for freedom camping, another Estima pulled up and the two travellers reassured us that we could sleep there the night. We ended up hanging out with Grant & Jess from Cincinnati that night, but little did we know we’d be running into them a lot more as the journey continued!

As we look back on these wonderful times, it is strange to see them flowing away behind us. And yet we understand, with Dogen’s help, that each of those moments is still perfectly present. This truth encourages us in our practice – beyond time and within it. As Dogen says: 
“People only see time's coming and going, and do not thoroughly
understand that the time-being abides in each moment. This being so, when
can they penetrate the barrier? Even if people recognized the time-being in
each moment, who could give expression to this recognition? Even if they
could give expression to this recognition for a long time, who could stop
looking for the realization of the original face?”
 
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Jeff had the guts to take a dip!
As we drove to Milford Sound, we knew we were entering the most popular part of New Zealand, and for good reason. The soaring alpine heights and majestic glacial views make this region an eye popping delight. The only downside is that the increased popularity leads to overcrowded campsites and reduced opportunities for freedom camping but it is an acceptable sacrifice for the region’s beauty. We were moving quickly through the east side of the island trying to catch the good weather on the west, where it is known to rain 110% of the time. The drive to Milford was somewhat cloudy, but the weather started to break as we approached the heart of Fiordland. To cap off the day, we climbed the rugged Marian Lake Track, which led us to the edge of a glacial lake nestled in a hanging valley. Jeff washed off the heat of the climb with a dip in the chilling pure blue waters!

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Beautiful glacial Marian Lake
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Full rainbows at the Milford waterfalls!
Next day was PACKED as we boulder hopped and waded up the riverbed to see the 270 meter high Humboldt Falls. The base was a cascading stream of splintering waterfalls that almost made us forget about the tiresome journey to get there! Then off to the Gertrude Valley Track where we found ourselves in a valley surrounded on all sides by majestic alpine peaks. A slightly misjudged clamber up the base of a waterfall to refill our chilly bin had us fearing getting caught in a landslide, so we scrambled down and headed off through the engineering feat of the Homer tunnel and into the famous Milford Sound. The sound is actually a “fjord” or inlet created by the retreat of a giant glacier millennia ago. We hopped on a Southern Discovery cruise of the sound and were awed by the sheer granite rising up out of the sea and the force of the waterfalls that pounded down from the high cliffs. The ship took us right into the falls making for a wet and fun experience as we tried to snap photos while being buffeted with glacial mist! 

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This is what 170 meter high waterfall looks like up close! It is a wet one!
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Milford Sound - the rocks here are hard granite so it is harder for the rains to erode them, which is why they just come out high from the waters.
The foreshore walk the next morning was a perfect time to snap a few great photos of Mitre Peak rising out of the 400 meter deep waters as the sun glistened off the water. 
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Earland Waterfalls
We saved the best for last with the Key Summit track and its stupendous alpine views of Lakes Marian, Gunn, and McKellar and the three valleys they rest in. We decided to continue after the Key Summit along the Routeburn Great Walk for another few hours to the Earland Waterfall that splash right down on the walking path. The time of the day to do this one is in the late afternoon when the waning sun projects a double rainbow through the water wafting up from the waterfalls base. As we emerged from the sound, the night’s stay at Henry Creek had a surprise in store for us, when we went to brush our teeth – Jeff had left his trusty companion for the past year and a half, his toiletry bag, all the way back at the Milford Sound Lodge. Out of all the places to forget it, this one happened to be 200 km away down a windy, hilly, dead-end road. Lucky for us, a one way road means everyone going there, must come back, and we were lucky enough to find a sweet couple, who agreed to retrieve the bag and drop it off for us in Te Anau, while we embarked on our greatest day hike yet.

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Double Rainbow!!!!
As if the 8 hour Routeburn jaunt wasn’t enough, we decided to tackle the Kepler Great Walk with a 12 hour return trip starting down at Te Anau Lake all the way to the highest point of the track, the peak of Mount Luxmore. A leisurely stroll through the beech forest led to a grueling 2 hour switch back packed ascend, which found us practicing walking meditation as we stepped and breathed in rhythm while pushing the limits of our physical endurance. Much like a Zen sesshin, pushing yourself to your limit, whether it be physical or mental can be an effective way to force the ego-mind to wear itself out, leaving only the fertile field of the present moment for the senses to graze upon. After finishing the walk and cooking up a king’s breakfast of eggs, shoulder bacon, and toast the next morning, we got a call from the local i-Site, that the couple dropped off our toiletry bag. Excitedly, we picked it up and left Fiordland complete again!
For all the photos from our Fiordland adventure, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjE9X98T.

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So happy to make it through the ascent!!
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Basket of dreams on Queenstown Hill
Next stop was the crazy duo of Queenstown and Wanaka. Known as the “adventure capital” of the world, we found Queenstown’s manufactured adrenaline highs (bungee jumping, jet boating, hang gliding, etc.) to be overcommercialized and overpriced. The city has a beautiful location surrounded by the Remarkables Mountain Range on the edge of a clear blue lake. In the end we opted for some “natural highs” by climbing Queenstown Hill to get 360 degree views of the area. Wanaka is like a laid back version of Queenstown with a similar setting of mountains and lake. The environment was chill enough, however, to enjoy hangout time reading by the lake and some truly spectacular hikes, including the Rocky Mountain Loop Track overlooking Lake Wanaka and the surrounding environs. The most memorable was the Rob Roy Glacial Valley Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The three hour roundtrip hike takes you to a magical valley, where the Rob Roy glacier perches atop the mountains. Meanwhile, the alpine parrots – keas – keep you company while they swoop down to feed on the brilliantly yellow wild flowers spanning the valley or on any tidbits that tourists inappropriately give them. Oh, and did we mention that there are maybe five waterfalls pouring down the crevices of the mountains – truly a magical place. For all the pictures from this leg, click here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjEaeMMf.

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Rob Roy Glacial Valley
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Crazy keas at Rob Roy Hanging Glacier
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Fox Glacier Snout
After Rob Roy, we were primed and ready for more glacier fun as we headed north through the Haast Pass to the sandfly-ridden west coast, where the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers awaited. These remnants of the ice age past, continue to retreat up the amazing valleys they created and into their origins in the high mountain peaks. Walking to the snouts of each glacier, we found them impressive reminders of what the world once was but less atmospheric than the wondrous setting of Rob Roy.  

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Nowhere else in the world, can you see a glacier surrounded by jungle! Fox Glacier view from the Chalet Track.
As we finish off this post at Lake Kaniere outside of Hokitika, we are huddled inside of our van taking shelter from the hoard of blood thirsty sand flies that ravage tourists’ skin each dawn and dusk (and during the day in the really bad spots!). Still, they couldn’t take away from Hokitika’s charming driftwood beaches, abundance of pounami jade stones, and damn good mac ‘n cheese! 
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The winner of the driftwood art competition - Hokitika
 
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Arriving on the South Island
 Ahhh, the south Island of New Zealand! For many it is THE destination of the country, with the North Island only getting a cursory few stops on the way down. Having had such an amazing time on the North Island, we were eager to see how the south would compare. It didn’t start favorably, as the ferry ride over Cook Strait was cloud ridden (though still pretty) and the rain started to fall once the driving started. We didn’t get far that first day, but were pleasantly surprised about our ability to freedom camp along the eastern coast in a little car park with a pleasant lakeside viewing platform. 

The next morning our wildlife encounters began as we drove through the downpour to Ohau point, a known breeding grounds for the New Zealand fur seals. The little fellas could care less about the pouring rain, and as we watched amid the drenching we saw them frolicking about, both adults and cubs alike. What a wondrous introduction to New Zealand wildlife.
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Cute fur seals lounging in the rain!
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Strange formations at Castle Hill
From there, having to make some tough choices about where to go with the weather remaining relatively foul, we headed up a bit to Arthur’s Pass to see the city of stone that is Castle Hill. Featured in the “Narnia” films, this limestone outcropping features a variety of bizarre shapes and found us climbing and laughing at the various oblong shapes created! From there we bypassed the large city of Christchurch due to time and weather and along the way to Mount Cook stopped for a quick hike at the Rakaia Gorge. 

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Beautiful Lake Tekapo
  Then it was on to the main event! The weather started to clear as we drove west towards Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand. Our first stop was the phosphorescent glowing waters of Lake Tekapo. The lake is glacier fed and as the water flows from the glacier to the basin of the lake, it grinds the surrounding rock into “flour”. This flour serves to refract the light in the lake, making it glow almost like ectoplasm! The view is even grander after a drive up to the hilltop observatory outside of town, where you can compare the glacier fed lake to the more typical Lake Alexandria. 
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Lake Tekapo vs Lake Alexandrina
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Lake Pukaki
After Tekapo, we drove the long length of Lake Pukaki on our way to Mount Cook. Lake Pukaki shares the same lineage as Lake Tekap so the 55km drive was pure delight on our first crystal clear day on the south island as we drove the turquoise waters with Mt. Cook beckoning from the horizon. If that was the ice cream, the cherry on top was arriving in the Mount Cook National Park and doing the glorious Hooker Valley walk, which passes several swing bridges before breaking views of the stunning Mount Cook holding court over the valley. We slept at the Mount Cook camp with the wind buffeting Faith (the name of our van) and dreaming of our humbleness before the rocky towers that the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates have created in their millennia long embrace. 

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The stunning view of Mt. Cook, freshly capped with snow, as we turned the corner of the Hooker Valley Track
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The Clay Cliffs outside of Twizel
The next day saw us overwhelmed with what to do next as the weather in Mount Cook was already souring. A quick peek at the Tasman glacier was followed by a visit to the Clay Cliffs of Omarama. The experience was almost ruined for Neda when she was climbing behind me and I dislodged a soccer ball sized stone that nearly took her out. But the cliffs, which rose like a giant striated clay organ into the sky, were a sight to behold. Still, afterwards we found ourselves a bit frazzled as we drove towards the town of Oamaru, wondering how to make our schedule work. Now let me tell you a true piece of wisdom from the road – if you ever feel in a funk, find some penguins! For us, a drive off the coast outside of Oamaru to Bushy Beach at dusk was just the ticket. It is at this time in the evening that the world’s most rare penguins, the yellow-eyed variety, waddle up out of the ocean to bring food to their waiting chicks. Neda spotted one of the sea birds while it was still in the waves and we watched as it let the tides bring it to shore and started its ritual walk up the beach. How special to witness this nature made domestic ritual! We bedded down that night at a DOC (Dept. of Conservation) campsite, feeling amped up and recharged for our trip down the east coast of the south island.

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  And it did not disappoint! In one of our best days of the whole trip, we hit all the high notes. A trip to Katiki point to start the day saw us surrounded by lounging fur seals and penguin chicks burrowed in their nesting holes off the hiking track. Wildlife was followed in quick succession by wild things as we bounded off to the famous Moeraki boulders, beach bound balls filigreed with quartz-like calcite crystals.  If that wasn’t enough sexual allegory, our next stop was the peninsula at Shag Point, where a hidden tidal shelf holds mysteries of ages past. It is here that ancient dinosaur skeletons were discovered, having been entombed in spherical stone over the ages of sediment buildup. These “dinosaur eggs” were a delight to discover and explore. 

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Sediment build-up like this at Shag Point led to the creation of these "dinosaur eggs" over millions of years - entombing goodies for scientists to discover years later, including NZ's largest dinosaur fossil of an 8 meter long Plesiosaur!
The night reached its apex down in the car park off of Shag Point, where we freedom camped with sweet little spot right on the beach. We partook in some Raglan hospitality as we watched the seagulls butcher a slew of fish on the beach before digging into our own delicious meal of pan fried local salmon, seared zucchini, and bottle of a local sauvignon blanc, the NZ specialty. We were thinking of our friend Jane back in Austin, who introduced us to delicious sauvs and grilled fish off the balcony of the Roc!
The wandering continued down the coast to Dunedin where a quick visit to the city’s Otago museum showed us the Plesiosaur that had been discovered at the aforementioned Shag Point. Then it was off to some hikes on the barren and majestic Otago peninsula where we stood on the edge of 300 meter drops at lovers leap, meditated at the chasm loop and finished off the day descending the homemade passageway through the rock to the beautiful tunnel beach. The waves thundered around us and the scenery swept us away, only to find us freedom camping at a cozy little surf beach in the tiny village of Brighton. The morning was a fine one for yoga and meditation on the shadow lapped beach and the cold public showers felt like a premium sauna after 3 days of roughin’ it!
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The amazing tunnel beach also featured a scary land bridge (bottom right) that you could walk over while listening to the waves booming onto rocks beneath
I know this post seems likes a whirlwind, but trust me the real wind didn’t begin until we got down into the “Roarin’ 40’s” of the Catlins. This southernmost region of NZ is among the windiest part of the planet and it’s normal to see near horizontal trees who have been bent but not broken by the ceaseless airflow of the region. Though we stopped for a scenic hike to Jack’s blowhole (where we saw a penguin narrowly escape the sea surging waters), the true purpose of the journey might be have been our favorite spot of the whole trip – Curio Bay. The near southernmost part of the island, Curio Bay is one of the most unique places on earth. It has a tidal shelf which at low tide reveals the remains of a 170 million year old petrified forest that was preserved there after a volcanic eruption.
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The eerie naturalistic landscape of Curio Bay - a petrified forest preserved by volcanic ash and only visible as the tide lowers each evening. The not-so-discerning eye will also notice our yellow-eyed penguin friend making his nightly stroll up the shelf with his gullet full of fish, ready to feed his molting chick!
If that wasn’t enough, the shelf is also home to the friendliest group of yellow eyed penguins on the island. We watched slackjawed as one of these rare penguins came within 10 meters of us, called to his chick, and then waited as the partially molted chick emerged from his burrow to retrieve the fish his parent was holding in his gullet. We watched this amazing feeding process up close! It was at once intimate, wild, and humbling to be given this window into these creatures’ lives.

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The eager chick gets his feeding. He is almost fully molted now and will soon be ready to go out into the wild. His final molting, however, created a cute little afro - see more pics on the flickr link below!
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Jeff hangs 10...
This spot couldn’t get better right? Well it does. The adjacent Porpoise Bay, just a few minute walk away is home to a pod of the rare mini Hector dolphins, who feature a dorsal fin that resembles a Mickey Mouse ear. The Hector dolphins are somewhat unique not just due to their small size, but that they tend to live close to the shore, making for a good bet you can see them swimming there. For us the perfect solution came in Nick, the proprietor of the Catlin’s surf school. We took a surf lesson from him on a perfect windy day. Not only did Neda and I both get up and hang ten multiple times, we also got a show from the resident dolphins as they jumped around the waves while we surfed. It was endorphin overload to the max. Could anything top it? After all, it was the west coast of the South Island which receives all the hoopla…can’t wait to see what awaits!

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...but Neda shows him up!
 
Having broken in the van with our beach side escapades, we had yet one more beach to explore before heading to Taranaki region’s crown jewel, Mount Egmont. Unfortunately, our search for the low tide boulders at Tongaporutu beach was a wild goose chase, but we were rewarded of views of sea rocks in the remarkable likeness of an Asian elephant.
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Enchanted Forest Track
Then off we headed to a windy freedom camping spot at Dawson’s Falls carpark high in Egmont National Park. Freedom camping used to be the norm in New Zealand, where campervans could park in public car parks and rest stops. However the burgeoning tourism here has led to some abuse of this lenient policy, and as a result choice freedom camping spots are a bit harder to come by, especially in the popular areas of the islands. The down side of this is not only the obvious factor of cost, but the fact that tourists tend to be huddled in characterless motorparks with little privacy. Freedom camping offers the opportunity to experience New Zealand the real kiwi way with just you and the bush. We got a good taste of that when we inadvertently observed a stoat (a pest introduced to kill rabbits, who now eats native birds) catching and killing a rabbit (which have becomes pests after being introduced for hunting by the European settlers). Our morning hike showed the weather ‘becoming fine’ as we tramped through a gnarled goblin forest and crossed wobbly swing bridges. The highlight was when shy Mount Egmont revealed herself through the fluffy clouds.

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There she is! The pay-off as the shy lady comes out for a brief viewing!
On our way out of the mountains, we couldn’t resist a stop at Waverly Beach for a famed sea arch that has since collapsed. Luckily, the trip was not in vain, because we saw the remains of petrified trees on the beach that one of Egmont’s eruptions preserved many years ago.

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no arch, but still some "wow" moments on the off-the-beaten path Waverly beach
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a flight of local brews with seafood stew
Our final stop before heading to the South Island was the capital city of Wellington, which is so windy that it puts Chicago to shame. A drive to the Mount Victoria view point saw Neda almost take flight as the wind gusts there can frequently reach near hurricane levels. We had a noteworthy experience at the Fork and Brewer downtown Wellington, where the Joe, the local bartender, gave us tips and tastes of a variety of local craft brews. He also reassured us that freedom camping on the Oriental Parade street facing Oriental Bay and just a 10 minute walk from downtown was not a big deal. We were concerned as the closest camping spot we found was 20 minutes outside of town, and the hostels didn’t have parking spaces. Sure enough, we pulled into Oriental Bay and found a host of campervans all sleeping for free for the night and using the public toilets across the street. In New Zealand, we call this set up ‘sweet as’ and to top it off, the guy at the front desk of the local gym gave us the ‘traveler discount’ of much needed free showers. We are loving the kiwi hospitality! 

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an extinct Moa at Te Papa
The morning saw an interested but convoluted visit to the renowned Te Papa Museum, where we learned about New Zealand culture and wildlife but found the rather scattered displays difficult to follow.  The true highlight of the day for us was the drive around the bay to the Weta Cave, the home of the now famous special effects studio driven to world fame when it partnered with Peter Jackson in the creation of the Lord of the Rings films. The fascinating ‘Windows into Workshop’ tour would make my uncle Tony drool as we got a firsthand look at the work of the highly skilled sculptors, painters, smiths, and computer gurus who have brought to life not only Lord of the Rings but also the Narnia films, District 9, Avatar and many other films. So how could we top off such insight into the world of Middle Earth? 

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The trolls from the Hobbit look to Jeff for a nice stew!
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How about a visit to the famous Embassy Theater where the Hobbit had its world premier! The Embassy had specially equipped speakers to screen the premier to celebrities, and the 3D high frame experience there was a true immersion experience. We felt like we were visiting middle earth after having just visited middle earth! Our action packed time in Wellington left us breathless and eager for what lay beyond as we boarded the early morning ferry to the South Island, where the scenery would really heat up! Coming soon!

To see the pics from this region, click here:


For all you LOTR fanboys out there, I couldn't resist a few extra pics:)
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Neda gets in trouble with an uruk hai
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my precious....
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What Gandalf and I? Yeah, we hang sometimes...
 
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Leaving Auckland a bit late due to the post celebratory sleeping, our campervan experience began in earnest. Our destination was the fabled Waitomo caves with their fascinating glowworms, but as we set out we realized we weren’t going to make it there in time. Thus, our first “freedom camping” experience was a hilarious stopover in a residential neighborhood outside of Hamilton. Just imagine us furtively looking out of our curtains as we slept under the street lights of a cul-de-sac. We made a beeline out of there at the crack of dawn and made a bunch of minor fixes to the van to prepare her for the journey. Our road trip began with a string of fresh local fruit and veggie shops on the road, and we could hardly move a few kilometers before we kept pulling over for succulent kiwis, bags of zucchini, broccolis the size of Neda’s head, and heaps of avocados (mm, guacamole galore, miss you Austin!).

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Our first night in the van was dinner at a beautiful river before our freedom camping :)
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Before we knew it, we were in Waitomo, though the hyper commercialized and uber expensive cave tours left us searching for the right way to tackle the area. Our answer came in the form of the godsend New Zealand Frenzy guidebook series by Scott Cook. The books focus on campervan travel throughout New Zealand, with a focus on DYI adventures and off the beaten path treasures. In Waitomo, Scott recommended Ruakuri Bushwalk twice – during the day the walk is a pleasant stroll through the area of the caves and the native bush, but at night it really shines! We were mesmerized by the thousands of little azure colored lights throughout the woods and along the limestone walls. The little critters have evolved this beautiful glow to attract small insects for them to feed on. As we walked in the dark, it became hard to distinguish where the glow of the worms ended and where the glitter of the stars began (the night sky is crystal clear here). How amazing that from this perspective the tiniest of worms were indistinguishable from the enormous gas giants burning far away from us. It was truly an experience of the finite merging with the infinite - the heart of the Soto Zen teaching. 

Next, we decided to head out to the relatively isolated West Coast of the Central North Island with a couple of tramps (what kiwis call hikes) along the way. Our first stop was the Tawarau Falls off of Appletree Road. Turns out this road is an unpaved overgrown forest road that leads to a small hill parking lot from where the tramp to the waterfall begins. Let’s just say that the Estima’s low frame height didn’t agree with the road. Clinking and thumping noises accompanied our every turn as our anxiety grew that the car would fall apart as the trip had begun. With rain approaching and our fears of not being able to get out before dark, we skipped the trek and headed back to the main road. This time, the car really did tear some pieces off as we got back to the main road with plastic and metal dragging ominously on the ground. With the help of a few friendly locals, we were able to get the pieces off and got a piece of mind, that the only damage was to the unnecessary safety guards at the bottom of a car. We brought the pieces to a mechanic later, who assured us that they were Japanese add-ons not necessary and we can drive. As the noises reverberated in our ears and Jeff continued to push on the gas, hoping for minimal damage, the car earned her name. We called her Faith. The rest of the road was more peaceful as we wooed under the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and ahhed in the personal rainbow that Jeff created standing in the mist of the stunning Marokopa Falls.
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The Marokopa Falls were amazing! This rainbow was only created one I clambered up onto this rock and deflected the mist in just the right way!
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Kiritehere
Our night would end riding a locals only gravel road to the Kiritehere Beach, a beautiful black sanded cove backed by the pastoral farmlands and rolling hills common to the region. The only other camper there for the night was a local from Raglan, who offered us a beer and other Kiwi hospitality that made for some far out conversations! Lying in bed that night, listening to the waves rock us to sleep - does it get any better? 

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Through the tunnel
The isolated beach theme continued as Scott led us next to Waikawau Tunnel Beach. Accessible at low tide only, this beautiful spot can only be reached via an 80 meter long manmade tunnel (built so that shepards could get their sheep out for sea pickup) through the sandstone cliffs. Emerging through the gusting winds of the tunnel, the beach provided a brilliant walk along colorful bluffs, cute waterfalls surrounded by verdant moss, and fascinating forms that the rippling eddies created in the sand. To top it all off, we were completely alone. 

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Just us and the waves at Waikawau Tunnel Beach
That sweet remoteness would continue as we bedded down at our destination of the evening, Mokau beach. This sweet spot on Scott’s itinerary saw us literally opening our van door to the sparkling black sand beach littered with picturesque white driftwood. Being more than just beautiful, the wood provided for a warm fire in a nook carved out of a beach cliff. We felt like kings of the world, drinking beers, eating homemade guacamole and curried chickpeas in front of the warm fire gazing out at the never-ending ocean.
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We'll always have Mokau ;)
Sure, there were some bumps along the road but our first week of the campervan chronicles was a smashing success. Next, we would tackle Mount Egmont and see the birth place of the Hobbit in Windy Welly.

For the beautiful pics from this leg of the trip, click here
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The sand eddies at Waikawau tunnel beach
 
Our mission was simple – find and acquire a campervan to tramp around New Zealand with while still partying with our travel friends Chris & Lauren for New Year’s on the beach. The challenge was in doing it all in two days! We flew into Auckland on a redeye from the Gold Coast, arriving at 1am. The airport shuttle into town rang in at $16/per person, the beginning of our New Zealand “sticker shock” having just come from Malaysia and India! Flying in on a redeye Sunday morning wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that the well-known Ellerslie Car Fair happens to run only on Sunday mornings! That means after checking into our hotel, Neda and I only grabbed a few hours of shuteye before catching the bus out to the fair to find our van.
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Beautiful Gold Coast, Australia
First a little history about why we had this mission in the first place. While traveling in Cambodia we ran into a great couple, Chris & Lauren. Chris is a Kiwi and the couple had recently bought a campervan to travel around New Zealand’s two stunning islands before returning to sell the van and continuing with their travels. Their stories inspired us and logistically it seemed the best way to see NZ. To rely on public transportation leaves you missing the plethora of off-the-track destinations that make New Zealand so special and to rent a campervan for 2 months rings up between $5-8k. On the other hand, you can buy a decent minivan/full size van with a simple bed frame put in the back for around $3-4k. Then, at the end of your trip, there is a good chance you can sell the van at around the same cost or with a slight loss. 
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Auckland Skytower on our first night
When we walked up to Ellerslie, the parking lot had a string of about 10 campervans to choose. The sellers were made up of either German backpackers or seedy looking locals. We had heard that rip-off artists abound at the fair and so were hoping to deal with backpackers, who seemed less likely to outright lie about the history of the car. After perusing the vehicles though we found that there are two classes of vans – those that have been fully modified to include a sink and a table and those that really just have a bed in the back. The modified ones all had price tags in the 5k+ range, which was beyond what Neda and I wanted to risk in this endeavor. But the non-modified vans were in pretty bad shape, so we took some phone numbers but left the fair by hitchhiking with some Czech backpackers who wanted to sell us their 1989 Toyota Hiace, which a mechanic had told us might struggle over the hills in the South Island.
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Ringatoto Volcanic Island near Auckland
Back in Malaysia, I had used the precious internet time there (internet is costly and sparse in New Zealand!) to research campervans online. The best sites I found were Gumtree and the Backpacker Board. People had recommend trademe.co.nz, but I didn’t want to buy a car without looking at it first (its sort of like e-bay in that way). As soon as we got a NZ phone (I recommend Skinny for a cheap, good provider if you have a smartphone), we texted the people I had previously researched and found that most of the vans were available. So we woke up on New Year’s Eve, still jet-lagged with a mini car fair coming to our hotel parking lot! In the end, we turned down Germans with a Mitsubishi Spacegear and found the preferred model I had been looking for – the Toyota Estima. The Estima is a popular car in New Zealand and we see families riding around in them all the time (meaning high resale value to kiwis and tourists alike). It also has more power than some of the older models like the Hiace and is quite durable. Nigel (the seller) wanted $4,500 for the 1996 Estima with 222k km and a futon in the back that he had put in himself, as well as a customized little counter for storage and cooking sitting behind the futon. I offered him $3,500 pending a mechanical inspection and we had an agreement, but it was already getting late on New Year’s Eve so we agreed to put off the sale until the 3rd, since the 1st & 2nd are holidays in New Zealand. 

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Our new lady overlooking the beaches of the west coast of the north island
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BBQ'd Coromandel mussels!
 Yay! Relieved that we had a solid prospect on our mini-home, we met up with Chris and Lauren, who were visiting New Zealand for a wedding and holidays. It’s always fun to meet up with those we have traveled with over our trip, and this was no exception. On New Year’s Eve we went to a friend of Chris’ house on the beach and partied the night away. New Zealand has lots of craft beers, which I heartily enjoyed while we cooked up Coromandel mussels, shot air guns, and BBQ'd the night away. Almost like being in America for the 4th of July, except it was New Year’s Eve! New Zealand is the first major country to usher in the New Year so while we were kissing and drinking champagne, it was only 6am on New Year’s Eve on the East Coast!

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Neda wields fire as the party progresses
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The sitting lion on Piha beach
New Year’s Day found us traveling with Chris’ friend Mike over to spectacular Piha beach, which has some crazy riptides. They are so bad that a baywatchesque reality TV show is filmed there where unsuspecting swimmers get pulled out of the raging rips by a darting raft filled with lifeguards. In the evening we spent some time with Chris’ fascinating parents (his dad was backpacking around the world back in the 1950’s as part of the British merchant marine!) who hosted us for a few days. This left us time to explore the volcanic Ringatoto island off the coast of Auckland (which is essentially a city built on top of volcanoes) and walk around the Auckland harbor, marveling at $18 hamburgers and $17 gyros as our sticker shock continued! Ringatoto had great views of the Skytower and it was interesting to see the unique kidney fern as well as the breeding grounds of the black back gulls.

When the holiday was over and 3rd rolled around, we had to finish the deal with the car. The seller picked me up and we went to one of the only mechanic shops I could find that was open. FYI, much of Auckland closes down between Christmas and the first two weeks of January as the locals take their summer holidays. Not a good time to visit! The pre-purchase inspection yielded some minor fixes needed on the car like windshield wipers and a new radiator cap, though nothing major for a Warranty of Fitness (WOF). The WOF is the main car inspection in New Zealand and is required every 6 months for cars older than 3 years. In the end the car seemed in pretty good shape so we decided to take the plunge and have been loving it ever since!
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Ed, Chris, and Midori playing Carcassone at the beach mansion where Ben hosted us
I have to admit that juggling the purchase of a vehicle, its registration and inspection, as well as insurance while still hanging out and partying with our friends was a challenge sometimes. But once we actually paid for the van and it changed hands, the excitement set in! We had a mobile home by which to explore this beautiful country! The next couple days also offered pure indulgence and relaxation as we hung out with a friend of Chris’ at his business partner’s mansion overlooking Ringatoto on the coast. We had but to walk down the back stairs to head to the beach and we hung out all night playing board games and sleeping in luxury. Not a bad way to preface a trip in a campervan! After Chris’ b-day smash at Ben’s bar we crashed with Ed for the night (thanks again buddy!) and set off the next day to see what the road awaited!
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Fireworks on the beach - New Years Eve
Huge thanks to Lauren and Chris and his family for everything to get us started here in NZ! To see all of our pics of Auckland and partying with Chris and Lauren, go here!

For all the details on the process of buying, check out this wiki.