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Rain is drumming on the tin roof of our self-contained campervan. I roll over just in time to catch my husband, Mark, once again bang his head mid sleep on the panel which separates the double bed from the bathroom in our temporary living quarters. Perhaps spending the night in the middle of a New Zealand rainforest in a mobile home exposed to nature’s thundering acoustics was not the best idea.
We were on our third day of a 10-day road trip around the South Island and little had gone to plan. Our helicopter ride and hike atop the Franz Josef glacier was cancelled as a three-day rainstorm began to roll in on the west coast, while the tripod I’d packed to capture the starry night sky at the Dark Sky Reserve near Lake Tekapo lay untouched in my suitcase. We’d managed to spot just one star in a snatched break between wall-thick clouds, before retreating to our six-person campervan and toasting to better luck tomorrow with some Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and manuka-honey cheese. (Tip: if you want to rent a campervan for two, best to do so weeks in advance to avoid ending up driving through the country in what can only be described as a house on wheels).
Despite the setbacks (and pouring rain) our spirits could not be dampened. There was too much to see to dwell on missed opportunities. We drove past acres of leafy vineyards, through the wheat-coloured valleys of the Lindis Pass, down narrow ocean pathways with the waves crashing beneath and marvelled at sparkling, glacier-blue lakes in the distance. We couldn’t resist stopping at salmon farms, fruit and honey stalls along the way to load up on snacks for our already well-stocked fridge.
In the driver’s seat, Mark was adamant about waving enthusiastically to each and every fellow camper who passed us by, as if we were in some sort of club. Some would happily oblige – usually those in M&M-green JUCY vans that we could see coming a mile off – others were concentrating so hard on navigating the winding roads that the gesture would go unnoticed, leaving Mark temporarily crestfallen. Inspired by the laid-back Kiwi spirit, we picked up a 19-year-old German hitchhiker en route to Franz Josef. He’d been hitching his way around the country for several months but we were the first camper van to stop and give him a lift (much to Mark’s glee – campervan club brownie points to us).
By the time we reached the Marlborough wine region, Mark’s campervan love affair was beginning to show cracks and he was all too happy to trade it for a ride through the vineyards on a tandem bicycle. Equipped with helmets and a zealous thirst, we wove our way down the trail, stopping for plenty of wine tastings along the way – and becoming increasingly wobbly. At each of the six tastings we were confidently told that 2013 had been an excellent year for Marlborough, but for me it was the Framingham Sauvignon Blanc 2015, the Hans Herzog Merlot Cabernet 2006 and Cloudy Bay Te Koko 2012 which made me wish that I also had luggage space for six people.
Towards the end of our trip we checked out New Zealand’s diverse marine life. What was meant to be a seal-spotting pit stop at the Ohau waterfall just off the highway turned into hours of fun watching dozens of seal pups play, while when spotting dolphins in Kaikoura we had a surprise encounter with a blue whale – such a rarity that even our tour guide was left speechless.
As much as I relished being on the road and taking in the dramatic New Zealand scenery, what I looked forward to most was peeking out of our campervan window each morning to discover totally different surroundings. Queenstown had an undeniable energy, but I was equally captured by the desolate air of Haast with its wild beaches, as well as the tranquility of the Hapuka forest. Murchison – a town between the west and east coasts to the north – bore a striking resemblance to the Wild West, the path to it a genuine road less travelled.
I can’t imagine exploring and the magical rhythm of the South Island by any other means than the comical convenience of a camper van – but next time I’ll be packing earplugs and be sure to leave space for sack loads of wine.
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