"Is that a kiwi? No that's just a bird" – New Zealand

Back in February we thought we should decide how to tackle New Zealand and ended up booking a campervan through Jucy. We'd heard of them before, when we were researching for our trip before we left and we saw them regularly on the roads in Australia. So with less than a month to go until we arrived in New Zealand we booked a month in a small Jucy Cabana campervan for an as yet unplanned road trip around New Zealand.

The furthest our plans got were that we'd land in Christchurch and drive a circular loop around the South Island. And that's what we've been doing since the start of March.

Christchurch

We landed in Christchurch on the 1st and picked up our new home, then headed to a campsite only twenty minutes drive away because it was already early evening.

Picking up our home for the next four weeks

We've both camped before but sleeping in a camper van is a new experience, so the first evening was a case of buying dinner ingredients, excitedly cooking dinner in our van and figuring out how to set up the bed and where we'd put everything. I also figured out at 10pm that night that the doors will open from the inside if the car is locked, but the alarm will go off – sorry fellow campers!

Figuring out how to organise and store things Veggie nachos, a yummy first meal

On the drive out of Christchurch, for the second time this trip, a stone flew up from a passing lorry and cracked our windscreen. Bloody great. Luckily the damage was nowhere near as bad as our Hertz car, but we rang Jucy up nonetheless and they said if it's not big then don't worry until we get back. Well, at least we didn't have to drive back to Christchurch and swap the vehicle. But we kept a nervous eye on it for the rest of that drive (and continue to do so).

FFS

Rakaia Gorge

If our first campsite had been a bit boring the second definitely made up for it. After staying in the nice but uninteresting 'Top 10' holiday park we headed to a campsite just an hours drive outside of Christchurch at Rakaia Gorge. We got there in the early afternoon and bagged one of the best spots, which had a view right over the gorge! The woman who worked there/owned it was nice and recommended a walk and the facilities were good too. We thought that if this was what the views were like an hour outside the city then we were in for a good road trip! We stayed at Rakaia for two nights, and went on the recommended walk in the intervening day.

Nikki busy in the 'office' writing the post about the Great Barrier Reef The view out the open side door

Our walk started later than it might have done because the blinds in the van are too good at blocking out the light! A big part of camping for me is having the sun rise flood the tent with light and wake you up naturally, or at least rouse you a little from your slumber. Eventually though we got out for a walk, and what a walk. It wasn't a walk you'd find in the guidebooks and didn't gain much height, but it treated you to some spectacular views over the gorge. It was both a little longer and muddier than we bargained for, I was only wearing sandals! [A bit hotter too! – Nikki]

Welcome, to New Zealand

We cooked dinner out the back of the van again when we'd showered after our walk. We sat and ate our long cooked pasta (bloody wind) with a cider to share while overlooking the gorge. We also started to get a little taste of what was to come as we travelled further South – the cold.

The first of many new ciders we've tried!

We were sad to leave Rakaia Gorge after our second night there but were looking forward to seeing what else was to come. We got our first hint of mountains to our right as we drove south, passing them at a distance on our way to our next stop, Temuka.

Temuka

For the last fifteen minutes of the hour long journey to Temuka I desperately needed the toilet and when we were just 1 minute away from the campsite we pulled up to a small junction and a saw a toilet sign about thirty meters away, so while Nikki stopped to look for traffic I said, in one breath "there's a toilet, I'm going to the toilet" and promptly jumped out leaving a bemused Nikki behind. Sufficiently relieved, I got back in the car and we drove the remaining few hundred meters to the campsite.

We stayed just one night in Temuka, and to be honest I was glad to leave the campsite we'd chosen. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but it felt weirdly empty and just a bit boring. Fine for a night or two but I wouldn't want to have a week long holiday there. The highlight of the site was that it had a mangle. Yes, one of those things from back-in-the-day to squeeze water out of your clothes.

Herbert Forest

From Temuka we drove to our next home for the night at Herbert Forest. On the way we stopped to pick up ingredients for dinners and lunches, as well as picking up some rope from Mitre 10 to use as a washing line. [Josh got a little bit too excited about the prospect of going in a DIY shop, so now I make sure to point them out and make a big fuss if I ever see one because I like to be annoying – Nikki]

The campsite at Herbert Forest is sold as a 'camping how it used to be' type campsite and is tucked away from the main road, set in amongst the trees. We both really liked it, it had a good combination of rustic charm while having well maintained facilities and really nice surroundings. We arrived in the early afternoon and had lunch before heading out for a little exploratory walk. We found turkeys, sheep, cows and alpacas in the field next to the campsite and continued to follow the path down to a nearby river.

I contemplated dipping a cautious toe into the water to see how cold it was and found it not too bad. The river was uniformly just over ankle deep on the stretch we'd found so we went for a walk across and upstream a little way. Once again this little, unplanned experience really made me happy. Just to find this stream and have it to ourselves to explore at our leisure was lovely. There was nothing particularly special about it, but I spent an enjoyable thirty minutes just wandering up and down, taking photos and feeling the water run over my feet. [I on the other hand was being a biologist doing kick samples so I could see what was living in the river that looked perfectly clear – quite a lot was in there! – Nikki]

We showered quickly that evening, thanks to the five minute timers on the showers that were placed outside, so you couldn't simply push it while you were showering if you ran over! We both showered and dressed again before the timer ran out, keen not to be left half showered when the water turned cold. The next morning the guy next to us packed up and drove off, leaving a still warm fire behind. I quickly moved our car over to get a bit of warmth! Neither of us were used to the temperatures we were now getting. Since July last year we've fairly consistently experienced temperatures of at least 25º, going as high as 40º+ and generally hovering around the low thirties. So daytime temperatures of around 15º, with morning and evening temperatures of less than 10º felt very cold indeed!

We peeled ourselves away from the free fire and left Herbert Forest. The weather was grey as we drove to our next campsite, just south of Dunedin and as we stopped off to see the Moreaki Boulders the clouds burst and the rain that had been threatening us all morning fell. We scurried down to the beach, saw the distinctive boulders in the distance and promptly retreated back to the warmth of the cafe. The many photos dotted around the cafe and gift shop gave us a better view of the boulders than our own visit to them; grey, overcast and miserable wasn't the best weather to appreciate them!

Dunedin

Nikki discovered that there was a Cadbury factory and accompanying tour in Dunedin so as we passed through town we stopped to book a tour for the next day. We also took the opportunity, having found a town with shops again, to find a warmer layer for me. I struck lucky in Kathmandu, finding a down jacket in the sale section which had been reduced several times and was only £50 and the right size!

Uh oh

Our next campsite was a little south of Dunedin and was pretty basic. It was quite optimistically named Taieri Mouth Beach Holiday Camp, which made it sound much more inviting that it turned out to be. Not that there was anything really wrong with it, it just needed a bit of love and was overpriced. I was grateful to have my down jacket though, as this was the coldest site we'd stayed at as it was right next to the beach and a cold wind blew in from across the sea. It was here that we gained the quote used for the title, as Nikki spotted a bird that looked nothing like a kiwi bird but apparently thought it was.

After a cold night we both woke up with ice for feet and shivered through breakfast. We packed away the bed and got back on the road, this time driving north back to Dunedin for our tour around Cadbury World. After driving in circles for a while trying to find a parking space we eventually arrived inside Nikki's dream attraction. Buzzing like a small child at, well, a chocolate factory she listened eagerly as our guide, Jay, explained various chocolate related facts. [Not only did he explain facts, he also gave us chocolate as he did so! When he said 'help yourself to as much melted chocolate as you want' I don't think he knew just how much chocolate I can eat! – Nikki]

I could describe the various things we saw on our tour, but disappointingly this didn't include the factory itself as that was due to close in the next few days after our tour. So everything we saw was purely stuff made for the tour and is all due to change soon anyway because though the factory itself is moving but the public Cadbury World bit will be expanding.

I must say though that while I'm not a massive fan of chocolate and am generally a bit of a pessimist about 'touristy' things like visiting Cadbury World I found it interesting and entertaining. The free chocolate was a bonus and the retail price of it all probably added up to more than half of the tour price.

Kaitangata

I'd already eaten half of my free chocolate by the time we arrived at our next campsite. Nikki was faring better, having eaten none of her own chocolate, instead having half of what I ate of mine. [I was way too full from all the melted chocolate that I'd scoffed – Nikki]

The Campermate app we've been using to find campsites told us that the campsite we'd picked was small but when we arrived we realised that it meant tiny. With space for about 5 camper vans, a few tents and a few caravans it was the smallest site we'd been to. The campsite office was a room at the back of the owners house and the campsite itself felt much more like a garden turned carpark than a real campsite. It wasn't all bad though; the facilities were clean enough and the owners also ran a (very informal) pizza place in the same room as the office. We treated ourselves to a pizza, having heard good things and were pleasantly surprised.

This happens a lot The stalk from a bunch of grapes, because why not

We went for a short walk around town, which was short because Kaitangata is pretty small; the campsite owner seemed surprised that he had so many guests! The weirdest thing about Kaitangata is that it has a relatively very good skatepark as well as a BMX track which look like they belong in a town much, much bigger than Kaitangata is.

Catlins

We'd had our first glimpse of mountains several days ago and now, as we neared the very southern tip of New Zealand and into Catlins Forest Park we got a real taste of the country's ruggedness. While Nikki was getting ready to leave the campsite at Kaitangata I sorted out directions to our next campsite and found a couple of points of interest at random along the route.

That last minute finding of places to stop backfired, when an hour later we turned off the main road and the tarmac ran out. We were aware that gravel roads existed in NZ but weren't expecting to come across one yet! Nikki voiced her concerns without actually saying anything but we carried on anyway. Things got a little squirrely as we headed downhill on the loose stone as the wheels lost and found enough grip to keep our speed down as I squeezed the brake pedal. The first hint that this was not as it should be was when I glanced ahead and saw a grader coming toward us.

It turned out that this wasn't a gravel road at all, but a normal tarmac road covered in a foot of gravel, currently being rebuilt as we were driving on it. I thought perhaps I missed a sign saying the road was closed and was surprised when the driver of the grader passed us with a smile. We crawled up the hill on the other side of the dip we'd driven down and found tarmac again.

It didn't last for long though.

We soon found ourselves on an actual gravel road. And we continued to be for the next hour or so as we drove, slowly, toward Jack's Blowhole. We followed Google Maps' instructions and found ourselves on another, narrower gravel road. Now only one lane wide and with patchy grass in places Google Maps proudly announced that our destination was on our left. It was technically correct, but there was nowhere to pull over. We drove for another few hundred meters expecting to find at least a small lay by to park in, as the place was signposted and listed on Google Maps. But there was no sign that there was any attraction here at all.

The first gravel road… …led to this gravel road. Which got narrower as we drove… …until it ended (the faint 'keep left' thing you can see is a sticker reflected in the windscreen to remind people to drive on the left)

The final nail in the coffin for this being the right place was another gate, after which the road turned into a farm track. With no space to turn around I had to reverse a couple of hundred meters back, downhill and round a few bends to find a wide enough gap to turn around! We shuffled into a small lay by, now confident that there would be no passing traffic and looked at my phone to see what Google Maps had done to us. It had done exactly what I'd asked it; got us as close as possible to Jack's Blowhole. But it had taken us as close as possible in the car, not to where you could actually find the trail to walk to the blowhole. So having found that out we drove back to the now wide feeling gravel road we had previously been on and ten minutes later found ourselves at the start of the walking path.

There was loads of giant seaweed washed up on the beach. The widest pieces were about a foot wide! You see all sorts of things when you slow down and look around

The walk to the blowhole was scenic and had already made the drive out there worth it. Neither of us expected much from the blowhole itself but when we finally got near to it we could hear it before we could see it. The rushing noise of swirling water greeted us several minutes before a hole opened in the trees ahead and the ground dropped away.

Impressive in person, but tricky to capture in a photo

We marvelled at this geographic feature for a while before walking back to the car to make lunch, which we made and ate with a view over the coast as waves crashed onto the shore in the distance and washed over the beach in front of us.

Another tedious drive on gravel shook our bones before we reached the sweet smooth tarmac that would take us to our next stop; McLean Falls. Before we reached the falls though, we stopped off at a cliff top viewpoint.

Ugh, stop it with the amazing views NZ. We're trying to get somewhere Seems like a great place to keep cows

We pulled into the car park near the falls and walk to the falls was short and felt like a rain forest. The falls themselves were cool, with one main fall and then a series of smaller falls spreading out over the rocks downstream.

We flipped a coin to decide on that night's campsite and ended up driving to Curio Bay, where there was a chance we might see penguins. We arrived, paid, cooked dinner and then went on the hunt for penguins. We walked down onto the beach and surveyed the rugged coastline, watching the waves break on a shelf of rock a little way out. Over to the right and a few hundred meters away the full force of the waves crashing onto the rocky cliffs sent water spraying high into the air and raining back down.

We waited on the beach as more and more people came down, eager to spot some penguins. After a while I jogged back up to the campsite toilets and left Nikki on the beach, hoping there wouldn't be any penguins in the time I was gone. The irony being that as I walked back to the steps that lead down to the beach where everyone, including Nikki, was still waiting to see penguins; I spotted one at the top of the cliffs on my way back from the toilet. I could hear a squeaking and a rustling noise of an animal moving and out popped a young penguin! Evidently getting hungry while waiting for its parent to come back with food. I'd left my camera with Nikki, on the beach, so I just watched for a while as it tottered around making noise.

Back on the beach I asked Nikki if she'd seen any penguins yet, knowing that it was unlikely. The look she gave me when I said "I have" was hilarious. We waited for another twenty minutes or so until the rain teamed up with the wind and drove away all but the most keen penguin spotters. As we hurried back to our camper van I kept an ear out for more noises in the place I had spotted the little penguin and sure enough it was still there, albeit a little obscured by undergrowth this time. We paused in the rain and watched until we really started getting wet and then walked very quickly back to the relative comfort of our Jucy van.

Er

We were happy to have spotted a penguin, even if it was only one but now had the challenge of drying off our surprisingly wet gear inside what is basically a people carrier while we were also inside hiding from the downpour.

In our first week we'd made it to the southern tip of New Zealand – technically we weren't at its most southerly point but the difference is negligible. We got as close as you can be to Antartica without being in Antartica (except for Stewart Island) and saw a penguin in the wild. We were cold nearly all the time and the bed in our camper van was too short by about 10cm meaning we both got cold feet every night.

Despite being cold though we were enjoying our NZ road trip so far and loved the sense of freedom that comes from camping.

We're now midway through our NZ trip, with another blog to come soon to cover our second week but spoiler alert: it gets even better.


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