Up until now, nearly midway through spring in early October, it’s felt like we’ve had New Zealand to ourselves. Up on the North island, we might go days without seeing another campervan or motorhome. But now we’ve been working our way south down the west coast of the South Island and are nearly to Queenstown. We’ve found ‘em.
But the whole island hasn’t been this way. After getting Wing’n It WOF’ed in Nelson (which included having her rear brakes rebuilt, some minor electrical issues fixed, and a new clutch cylinder put on—causing a night’s stay at a hotel while she was in the shop which nobody complained about one bit) we headed out to Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. On our way back through, we stopped at a tiny coffee/wool shop atop Takaka pass and chatted with the barista. “We see a lot of locals out here, but not many tourists. It’s just too far off the beaten track. They don’t have the time.”
After, we made our way to Nelson Lakes (which are stunning, but still frosty at night so our stop was quick at NZ$45/night for a powered campsite where we could plug in our space heater). Then back out to the coast again to make our way down the wild west coast. In sleepy Westport we felt like we’d driven through a portal to the Oregon Coast: slight gray overcast, wide sandy driftwood-covered beach, a breakwater to cut the swell for incoming boats, blooming yellow gorse (a relative to scotch broom and just as invasive).
A couple of days later we found ourselves down the road in Greymouth. What used to be, like most of the towns on this coast, a rip-roaring gold rush town has been turned into a tourist trap. Not only is Greymouth the terminus of the Tranz-Alpine train which crosses the island from Christchurch, it’s also where rental motorhomes make the right turn to cross the island via Arthur’s Pass back to the barn in Christchurch.
In working our way down the coast from Greymouth, we found ourselves in a whole other country. The locals down here call the South Island the mainland and we’re still trying to figure out what they mean by that exactly. But considering that tourism provides 7% of New Zealand’s GDP I think we understand quite what they mean.
Life in rural New Zealand is pretty slow. We’ve passed quad-bikes on the road driven by sheep farmers, a couple herding dogs riding on the back, all of them smiling in the breeze. Sheep look up at us lazily, sometimes, as we drive past. The prancing newborn lambs seem to be the quickest thing around. Shop keepers always have time to chat. When they learn that we actually live here they are quick to divulge local secrets: from the best (cheapest) shops to buy groceries in to hidden trails perfect for kids to good free places to camp.
Yesterday we stopped at a small roadside stand that was selling whitebait patties. (It’s the season to catch these tiny juvenile fish at river mouths. They are about 2” long with clear bodies. Each delicious mouthful consists of at least 5 of these fish, which taste like sweet cream fishy butter. I wish I could show you a photo, but I left the camera in the camper). The couple who’d stopped along with us, took some photos, gulped down their patty, then jumped in their rental car and drove away. We stood around chatting with the stand owner while she finished frying ours up. “Tourist season must be starting up?” I asked her. “Do people fly in to Queenstown and start there?”
“It’s getting busy, for sure,” she replied. “Most people fly into Christchurch, then do a loop through Queenstown, up the coast then back across the pass to Christchurch. We call them ‘loopies’.”
We all laughed at that, then I mentioned that we were off to Haast to hopefully find some groceries for dinner. She grabbed her local map and gave me directions to the shop that didn’t raise their prices in tourist season.
While we chat, the tourists zip by outside. They’ll stop to take a quick photo to Instagram, then they fly away again on to tick the next box on Lonely Planet’s Must-Do List. Trails longer than 30 minutes are virtually empty. People here for two or three or four weeks just don’t have the time for anything longer it seems.
But look, maybe we’re just jealous. While we’re currently rich on time, we’re poor on cash (it’s either one or the other, right?). At the Franz Josef Glacier visitor’s centre we held a brochure in our hands for helicopter rides over Franz and nearby Fox Glaciers. The girls were pleading please please please. Franz Glacier has receded so much that the only way to really view it is to land on it via air (earlier that day we’d walked the hour to the viewing point but were still a kilometer or two away from the face). All of us really wanted to get on that glacier.
But in the end, we just couldn’t do it. NZ$600 for a 20-minute ride (20-minutes!) was just too dear. Our denied helicopter trip joined Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (NZ$85/family), kayaking in Abel Tasman (NZ$200/pp/day), Shanty Town (NZ$75/family), and beer tasting at Tui Brewery (NZ$20/tasting). I’m going to bet we skip skydiving in Queenstown and heli-skiing on the Tasman Glacier, too.
But what we can afford to do, we do a lot of and that is walking. We only need to drive an hour or two each day until we find another interesting spot to explore on foot. We’ve hiked to waterfalls via the Pelorus River; along the Abel Tasman coastal track; along the dunes to Wharariki Beach; licked anal tube excretions of insects living in trees on Lake Rotiti in Nelson Lakes (tastes like honey, I swear); through ghost towns and a 140-year-old cemetery in Lyell, Buller Gorge; atop cliffs misty with crashing waves at Cape Foulwind; read historical signs along the Hokitika river; walking along the river in Nelson we heard a Tui’s call in a tree overhead and stopped to listen to his enchanting guttural chatter. Yesterday we pulled into a small park along the west coast, meandered through native Kahikatea (white pine) swamp and learned most of these huge trees had been shipped offshore in the form of crates for butter and cheese that the cows make that live on former forest land.
But listen, you don’t have travel slowly to experience slow travel as we are, trail by trail. There’s an intimacy in getting to know a place step by step and we’ve always relished walking wherever we’ve traveled, even if we’re only there for a week or two. And there’s a lot of walking in New Zealand; the entire country is connected by trails (someday maybe we’ll even attempt some of the Great Walks). But the hour or two we spend on each trail with our young crew is enough for now. Each path is uniquely it’s own in history, nature, and beauty. All the things that make this country so lovely, what’s it all about.