Monthly Archives: December 2014

New Zealand, Part 2: The North Island

 

For much of November 2014 Donna and I were two adventurous and outdoors minded people living out of a van with 54,000 miles of New Zealand’s two lane roads ready to take us wherever we thought fun and excitement awaited.   We didn’t have a concrete plan because we thought a stiff itinerary would stifle us. Instead we had a rough idea that we wanted to mountain bike in as many places as possible while driving from Auckland to Queenstown and back. Of course we also knew that there would be much more than just mountain biking to do and part of the fun of each evening in the van was planning the next day’s route and adventure. I have to praise technology for making everything so easy: on our phones we had GPS + Google maps to ensure we’d never get lost, we had the Camper NZ app to ensure we’d find a campsite to safely park the van, we had the Internet to discover activities, locations, and for checking weather, and we could always use the local phone number to call business owners and inquire about when conditions would be best for their adventure offering. Some of our best recommendations actually came the old fashioned way, by talking to locals and fellow travelers about the awesome stuff they’d done. Below I describe the week or so of our travels through New Zealand’s North Island in the small campervan Donna described so well in our previous post.

 

Our route through the North Island

Our route through the North Island

Matamata

 

We left Auckland on a Monday afternoon after obtaining the campervan and picking up a few items downtown. While in Auckland I had at first imagined heading to the tip of Northland in order to surf a large incoming SW swell at the right points of Shipwreck Bay, but at the last minute scrubbed that plan as the incoming swell would be ripped apart by onshore winds from the very storm responsible for the waves. A second idea was to head to Coromandel for gorgeous beaches and mountain biking, but upon talking to a bike rental shop in that area, he recommended to me that the best mountain biking in the North Island was in a place called Rotorua. Donna’s ears perked up upon hearing this and so we decided to head southeast toward Rotorua.

 

After a few hours we found ourselves in the hamlet of Matamata. Being our first day on the road we desired to find a place to park the van before it was dark and so Donna fired up the NZ Camper app and found a place nearby. On our drive through town we saw a very hobbit-like building with a sign reading “Hobbiton Tours” and so it was that we’d struck upon our first activity for the road trip: a tour of The Shire setting Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies.

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This very obvious building in Matamata perked my interest that we may be close to The Shire.

 

The tour seemed pricey at NZD 75 each, but it was worth it. The clouds parted during our tour, which made for nice photos, and it was a hoot checking out how intricately the Hobbiton set had been created. Plus it was pretty cool to randomly post onto social media a few pictures of ourselves in such a recognizable location. My roommate Trevor identified The Shire location within seconds of seeing the photo.

 

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander's Farm.  This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander’s Farm. This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

Rotorua

 

After the Hobbiton tour we drove straight to the mountain bike park near Rotorua. We were not disappointed, this was by far the best mountain bike park I’d ever been to and overall Donna and I agreed it was our favorite in all of we visited in New Zealand. The cost was only 45 NZD for each of us to rent full suspension bikes for a half day. The shop owner gave us a map and showed us few good routes through the park, explaining that each trail was marked as one-way, either up-hill or downhill, so that you are assured never to have to deal with oncoming traffic. I wonder why I haven’t seen this anywhere in the US?!  The trails flowed wonderfully though the Whakarewarewa Forest of mixed of fern and pine groves. Dirt logging roads often made for easy ascents. We biked hard for several hours and returned exhausted but stoked.

At first Donna was abhorred that logging was so prevalent in the pine forests we saw while mountain biking in Rotorua and throughout New Zealand. But to our surprise we learned pine trees are in fact an invasive species in New Zealand, introduced in the time of English colonization because pine trees grow quickly and are perfect for harvesting wood for construction.   The invasiveness of the pines means that to the Kiwis it is not so sad that large swaths of pine forests are routinely planted and cut down in a largely sustainable forestry industry. The forests native to New Zealand look different: there are no pine trees and instead you’ll see a more Jurassic looking fauna dominated by ferns and more twisted, smaller trees. In some places you can find a dramatic line of demarcation where a pine tree grove meets a native forest, both seemingly edging out the other for dominance. In other locations naturalists even poison pine trees in an attempt to rid restore the land to its original state! Once we learned this we were less alarmed by the logging, athough for us it was still hard not to be sad when seeing land scarred by cut down pine forests.

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park.  Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park. Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

 

At a coffee shop in town the next day saw a painting of a beautiful lake and learned from an employee that this was Lake Tarawera and that it was nearby. In this way we decided to set off on a drive to find Lake Tarawera, and we also found two other beautiful lakes, called the Green and Blue lakes. At some point I learned of the Tarawera Waterfall and I became intrigued so Donna and I decided to check that out too. To get to the waterfall we had to drive to the small town of Karewua and then the next morning drive into the national forest and to do a short hike to the falls. The site of the waterfall is a sacred place to the Maori people, who were especially fascinated by the waterfall eminating directly from the side of the large rocks.  This is caused by underground lava flows having carved tunnels that the stream descends into just before coming to the rock ledge.

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

 

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Lake Tarawera

Lake Tarawera

After the waterfall hike we couldn’t resist the temptation to go for another half day in Rotorua’s mountain bike park. It was so fun! Immediately after finishing the ride we hit the road towards our next destination.

 

Tongariro Crossing

 

The next adventure we set out for ourselves was to make the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  I first heard about the trek at Hobbiton, where it was pointed out that the alpine landscape of Tongagiro National Park was used in Lord of the Rings as the backdrop for the evil land of Mordor. Later I found out the trek is one of New Zealands 7 “Great Hikes”: read about them all here at this link.   The single day Tongariro hike is a 20km route that weaves up, over and between volcanic peaks in an alpine environment. As the highest part of the North Island the vistas are awesome and you encounter unique sulfuric lakes that are a brilliant blue color as well as areas of active volcanic acitivity.   We linked up with a tour bus company that dropped us at the foot of the trail and picked us up 7 hours later after we made the crossing. The weather was far from perfect as it started off cloudy and with strong, icy winds just before we passed the highest point.  Fortunately, things cleared up as soon as we arrived to the lakes and for the second half the weather was mild and pleasant as we descended from the alpine into the temperate forest below. The tour operated told us we had actually been lucky with the weather, as few had made the cross the past 5 days due to snow and bad conditions. We were stoked!

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

We love alpine environements!

We love alpine environements!

The vista on the descent was fantastic

The vista on the descent was fantastic

This is just before the fog cleared

This is just before the fog cleared… we were lucky that it did, as it revealed the fantastic scenery

From the highest point

Panoramic vista of the red crater

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

 

After the hike we treated ourselves to our first night in a hotel, where we took long, hot showers, and relaxed after a long day. Donna made friends with Queenie, the resident mouse-killer of the hotel, while I had a beer at the local pub where I learned more about New Zealand from the owner and bartender.

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

Donna and Queenie getting along well

Donna and Queenie getting along well

 

Wellington

 

By this point we were four days into our road trip and we’d only made it half way down the North Island, so it was time to make some way south. That morning during breakfast Donna and I met two ladies our age, one from Norway and the other from Spain, who were trying to catch a bus that day to Wellington in hopes of catching the Rugby League Final* that night, with Australia challenging New Zealand for the title. Donna’s friend Prashant encouraged us to check a game out and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, so we came up with our next plan: drive down to Wellington to watch our first rugby game.

 

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Everything worked out perfectly. As soon as Donna and I showed up we drove straight to the stadium and bought our tickets. Once in town we found a campervan park, literally right in the downtown waterfront area – only in New Zealand! We explored the downtown scene a little then headed to the game. The pre-game show included the Kiwis doing a Haka dance, which is a Maori war chant meant to instill fear into the Kangaroos. The game itself was fast-paced and we were both amazed with what momentum the players would hurl themselves with at one another.   In an exciting game that came down the last minute, the Kiwis won! So we headed back into town with the crowd and checked out a few bars before calling it a successful night of New Zealand culture.

 

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

 

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

 

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer's market.

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer’s market.

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher's ships

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher’s ships

Martinborough

 

While in Wellington we purchased a ferry ticket to take the van and ourselves to the South Island. However, our ticket was for Monday afternoon, so we had a day to kill, so we decided to head to the North Island’s premier Sauvignon Blanc wine country.   We learned that there would be a wine tasting festival in a famous wine town called Martinborough, only about 2 hours drive from Wellington. When we arrived we saw that the event was clearly awesome, the weather was nice and everyone was dressed up for wine tasting with buses to shuttle people to the various wineries. However, Donna felt the price was too high at NZD 75 just to attend, plus at least another NZD 100 more in “tasting tickets”, so instead Donna led us off to visit a few wineries in the nearby town of Masterton instead.  Near Masterton we found 2 quaint wineries: Gladstone Vineyards and Johner Estate. The experience at these wineries was better for us because not only were they completely, but also in both cases we had the undivided attention of the wine representative who enthusiastically took us through any wines we wanted to taste from their winery. We walked away a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Gladstone and a Pinot Noir from Johner, both of which we drank in the van through during the road trip.

 

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Gladstone Vineyard

Gladstone Vineyard

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

That evening we pulled into a freedom campsite at a park in Carterton. We walked around the large lake and observed a huge variety of waterfowl, including white swans, black swans (yes, they exist!), ducks, and various types of ugly geese. The next morning while we made breakfast we fed the ducks and I got some cute photos Donna feeding a mother duck and her four ducklings – so precious!

 

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Big time duck feeding went down this morning.  Donna couldn't resist the cuteness.

Big time duck feeding went down this morning. Donna couldn’t resist the cuteness.

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #2

Duckling shot #2

A baby ... something ... that we found in the grass

A baby … something … that we found in the grass

After the duck-feeding morning, we drove back to Wellington and drove our campervan onto the Ferry to Picton. For our small van plus us to cross to the South Island with us cost about NZD 250. The Ferry ride was on an overcast morning but I enjoyed a breakfast IPA and couldn’t keep my eyes off the scenery as we we glided through the Sounds towards the more spectacular of the islands of Aotearoa.

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

 

Raglan

 

At this point in the narrative, I’ll skip over all of the South Island, which will be covered in the next post, but in keeping with this being the “North Island” post, I will pick up once we returned to the North Island after spending nearly 2 weeks on the South Island.   We were back on the North Island for less than 48 hours, needing to drive back north to Auckland in order to return the van and catch a flight to San Francisco.

 

Epic rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Awesomely brilliant rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Nearing the last day of our New Zealand trip I still hadn’t surfed, but I finally saw a good window of weather and swell for New Zealand’s most famous break, Raglan. For pretty much the entire time we were on the road, New Zealand was in a weather pattern that would see a low sweep to the NW across both islands, dropping inches of precipitation and bringing strong SW winds, so that most any west coast spot would be blown out. After the storm and rain we would see a day or two of decent weather before the next system moved in. Meanwhile late spring is the worst season for east coast waves as there were no storms below Fiji, in the Coral Sea or in the Pacific west of New Zealand.   The window of good surf I saw meant I’d be surfing in the morning and heading to the airport that afternoon and I was stoked of the idea of leaving on a high note.

 

We crossed from the South Island back to the north island and spent all day driving straight north to Raglan. We parked our campervan for its final stop right in town and spent the early morning packing all our gear and cleaning the van in preparation for leaving that afternoon. On the way to Raglan I stopped by a surf shop and rented a fun looking fish and a wetsuit. We pulled off onto the first vista and I had my first view of the perfect point-break setup that produces such good waves at Raglan. I could see surfers dotting the lineups from Manu Bay all the way and well over a mile though Indicators.

Looking over the entirety of Raglan.  Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

Looking over the entirety of Raglan. Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

 

Because I didn’t have much time I just opted for the easiest to find but also most crowded lineup at Manu Bay. Donna was happy to be by the beach and took a few photos with my big SLR camera. The weather was bring and sunny and the waves were small and eventually blown out, but still I got some fun, long rides.

 

Suiting up for a surf!

Suiting up for a surf!

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

Fun cutback

Fun cutback

Down the line way on the inside

Down the line way on the inside

 

We drove back to Auckland, dropped the van off and got a ride to the airport. With that our epic New Zealand road trip was over … but you haven’t heard many of the best parts yet, so stay tuned for the real meat of our adventure: The South Island and Queenstown!

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Categories: Martinborough, National Park, New Zealand, Rotorua, Wellington | 2 Comments

New Zealand, Part 1

Auckland

Brandon and I arrived in Auckland on November 7th to begin our last adventure traveling together before we move to France in January. We agreed to go big in New Zealand for the next four weeks, and aside from our “budget” campervan, we followed through with that promise.

Brandon and I spent the first 4 days in the trendy Ponsonby area in Auckland to tour around the country’s largest city by population and roughly sketch out our plan to tour the rest of NZ. NZ has a total population of about 4.5 million and about 1.5 million are living in Auckland. The number of sheep in NZ, on the other hand, tops over 60 million – approximately 13 to 1. One would think that wool is NZ’s greatest export, but it’s actually dairy! As we witnessed firsthand while driving some 5,000 kilometers throughout the country, the livestock in NZ live happy lives in large green pastures they can roam freely. I can’t help but share these stats because we had just come from Shanghai (city population 24 million) and Singapore (city population 5.5 million). Compare NZ’s landmass of 100,000 square miles to Singapore’s of 277 square miles, it was like night and day to what we experienced a few short weeks ago.

 

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Prashant and me jumping for the camera to capture an INSEAD moment in Auckland!

 

View of Auckland

View of Auckland

 

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Marina in Auckland near the location of the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003.  Some big nice yachts in there!

 

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Another part of the marina housed some beautiful sailing yachts … these are more Brandon and my style!

 

 

In early October, while spending some time in San Francisco, I was able to meet the only classmate going to INSEAD from New Zealand as he just happened to be passing through the city before embarking on an epic road-trip around the US. His name was Prashant. It was over dinner in the Mission with Prashant and a few other INSEAD classmates that we planned to meet up again a month later in Auckland, where Brandon and I didn’t know anyone. How lucky is that?? Call me biased, but INSEAD is proving to admit very personable, friendly, intelligent, fun and sharp candidates from around the world. 😉

 

Brandon and I met up with Prashant on our second day in Auckland where we went on a tour to check out the views from various vista points around the city. It was absolutely beautiful. We took an obligatory INSEAD moments photo to let our class know that there were at least two of us celebrating our pre-INSEAD days in NZ! Prashant also brought us to a marina that held some incredible yachts and sailboats docked in the same location that had been the center of the 2000 and 2003 America’s Cup races. Later we stopped off along a beach to have a couple of drinks and to enjoy our first (of many) NZ burgers. I was pretty quickly falling in love with NZ. We had a great time with Prashant and learned a ton about NZ. He left us with many ideas of things to do and must-see places both in Auckland and around NZ. I’m still trying to convince him to start the program in France, but unfortunately my time is running short and I may just have to wait until Brandon and I move to Singapore the second half of next year.

That night, Brandon and I walked over to the Sky Tower in the center of Auckland to check out sunset views over the cityscape. We topped off the night with about as romantic a dinner as I could ever squeeze out of Brandon, a bottle of wine with an amazing meal on a slowly spinning platform overlooking the city. Many brownie points were earned that evening (thanks for the rec Prashant!!).

 

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Dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the SkyTower overlooking Auckland!

 

 

Life in a Campervan

 

The next day, it was time to pick up our campervan, which would act as both our transportation and home for many nights around New Zealand. We settled on a budget that would cost ~$1,150 for 23 days, including unlimited mileage. It was a cozy, trusty, eye-sore of a vehicle which we would come to love. It had a huge sticker of an Australian rugby player, obvious due to the yellow shirt and green trousers, stuck to its side which more than once arose the playful contempt of the Kiwis. The van was minimally stocked with sheets, pans, plates and few other essentials. When I say cozy, I mean it was a tight squeeze for us both to sleep in the back … when we put the cushions down, only one of us could comfortably lie on our backs, while the other would have to sacrifice and sleep on his/her shoulder until the other was ready to flip onto his/her side. After the first few nights, we grew accustomed to sleeping in the van and it became natural and surprisingly, comfortable. This would be a first for us – living out of a minivan on the road for over 3 weeks. The best part of living out of a campervan was the freedom that it afforded us; we woke up in a different part of NZ every morning until we reached Queenstown.

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Our home on wheels – the Amazing Campervan!

 

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Roadtripping to Milford Sound in the camper van!

 

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GoPro selfie during a stretch of the NZ drive!

 

Seeing that many visitors in NZ choose to roadtrip around the two islands via car or campervan, NZ has made roadtripping very easy and convenient. Brandon downloaded a Camping NZ app to his phone, which gave us all the information we needed to find a place to park our van and crash every night no matter where in NZ we were. The campsites ranged from full service motels offering basic private rooms for about ~$80 to so-called “freedom camping” sites that were more like free picnic sites on the side of the road. Most nights, Brandon and I posted up on what they call “unpowered vehicle sites”, which simply meant we paid for a flat square patch of grass to sleep in our van. The price for the night ranged from $20 – $40 per night, which gave us access to a communal kitchen, bathroom and hot showers. A handful of nights, mainly when Brandon and I thought one more elbow to the face might cause a physical fight between us, we decided to get a small motel room for a few more inches of sleeping space. A couple of times we also chose to “freedom camp”, but this was a little risky in our budget campervan because in order to legally freedom camp one is required to have a “self-contained” sticker on your vehicle, which certifies that you have a working toilet on board. Overall, after experiencing campervan roadtripping around NZ, I can vouch that traveling by campervan is a great way to see NZ; the roads are great and there are campsites/motels every few kilometers along most roads and anyplace remotely frequently by travelers.

Many mornings we made our own breakfasts directly from the back of the van or kitchen (if the campsites provided one) and enjoyed a cup of coffee together to kickstart our day. Brandon learned to master the art of on-the-road gourmet coffee using his Jetboil plus its handy plunger press accessory. Our meals were basic: scrambled cheesy eggs with veggies and toast or oatmeal with local honey and bananas. I have learned to love camping for the way it temporarily strips complexity from daily life: cooking basic meals with your partner, enjoying the art of conversing without distractions from the internet or TV and sleeping as much as you want!

 

 

 

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Enjoying one of Brandon’s morning brews from our freedom camping site!

 

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Breakfast of champions from the back of the van!

 

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Living the good life from our camper van!

 

On our first night with the campervan after departing from Auckland, we pulled into a small museum’s parking lot, which allowed campers to crash overnight. Brandon and I were hunched over trying to pull the sheets over the seat cushions while swatting flies off our legs to make our bed for the night. Not even 10 minutes later, a McMansion on wheels decided to drive in and park right next to us! The Britz was a luxury self-contained mobile home with the bed on the roof, stovetop and microwave, power outlets, a bathroom, and even a primitive shower. This thing was fully stocked, putting our little guy to shame! What our guy had was character, 340,000 km of experience on the NZ roads and most importantly us, so after a good laugh and a hint of jealousy, we settled into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.  Later on we couldn’t resist the temptation to analyze the pros and cons of our budget campervan decision against the other, more luxurious campervan options. It turns out that a decent motorhome like the Britz would run more like $150+ per day in the high summer seasons versus the $50 we were paying. A bigger campervan would comfortably sleep 3 or maybe 4 adults.   You’d get the option to save some money by freedom camping (legally), but my guess is most nights you’d still end up at a campground and thus paying $30-50 per night for a powered site. Also, gas would cost more and the vehicle itself would be slower and less maneuverable to drive, which is an important consideration in the harsh and windy road conditions that NZ can present. In the end we were happy with our decision to go budget for the two of us on this trip. Doing so incentivized us to spend more time away from our van to explore the beautiful country and the extra money spent on the luxury of a big van would’ve been wasted. If we come back to tour NZ with other people or a family, the bigger campervans will make much more sense.

 

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We took turns driving, here is Brandon doing his thing…

 

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… and here I am putting some KMs on the van!

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Our sleeping area in the van was overly comfy, but we learned to love it. And those Curtains!

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Brandon drinking a local brew one fine evening in the van

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After picking up some tasty sauvignon blanc in wine country, we got to enjoy it in the van

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At another freedom campsite we had some pleasant morning company in 4 ducklings that were eager for my bread gifts

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I included this pic because who doesn’t want to see baby swans on their momma’s back!

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Just us and one “self-contained” motorhome freedom camping somewhere in the South Island

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Our campsite lakeside near Queenstown

 

The next few posts will chronicle our adventures around the North and South Islands of NZ !!

Categories: Auckland, New Zealand | 2 Comments

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