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We always used to say: ‘If we would dig a hole in Belgium right through the earth, we would end up in New Zealand.’ For us Europeans, New Zealand is really one of the furthest destinations in the world. So being relatively close in Australia, it seemed a bit easier to take the plane than to dig a tunnel. After a short flight of 3 hours we arrive on the Southern Island of New Zealand, in Christchurch.
It is a dream coming true, because New Zealand has been on our bucket list for years, but so far it seemed literally almost out of reach. It is very expensive to go there just for 2 or 3 weeks because of the expensive plain tickets from Europe. So we are very excited to start our 5-week New Zealand adventure! Because NZ is an expensive travel destination, and we do travel on a low budget, we have decided to rent a car for our first 3 weeks on the Southern Island. Hotels are not an option, so the plan is to buy cheap camping gear and discover NZ with a tent.
Christchurch, our first stop
When we pick up our rental car, he turns out to be quite big, luckily. We were already worrying a bit (read: Heleen does not worry at all and me a lot ?) whether all our luggage, camping gear and children would fit in the car. But luckily it doesn’t seem to be a problem! After the airport, we immediately go to the Warehouse in search of a tent, chairs, cooking fire, etc. … We read that this is the place to get cheap, yet fairly high-quality equipment.
Unfortunately we are in the absolute high season (not so well planned by us) and the prices of the campervans are outrageously high. Which is a shame, because that still looks like the best and most comfortable way to travel around here on a budget. But we’ll have to discover NZ with our tent. Anyway, a few hours later we have a car, camping gear and food to survive for a few days!
For our first night we have booked a stay at the Wigram hostel through Airbnb, just to be sure. It is an old army building from WWII where the British pilots stayed. Afterwards it was a training station for the NZ pilots. What a pleasure to stay here! It feels like walking back 50 years in time. A soldier from World War II could just walk in. It is an old building and they try to renovate and maintain it based on the income of tourists who stay here. So if you don’t mind the building to be old, this is an absolute top stay for a very reasonable price!
Wigram Air museum
Near our hotel is the free Air Force museum. Because you do not have to pay an entrance fee, our expectations were not really high. We are therefore pleasantly surprised by the number of beautiful aircrafts on display. They have quite a history of WWII here in New Zealand. Many of their pilots and soldiers came to Europe to free us from the Germans. And also here in the Pacific there was a lot of misery. Interesting to discover this part of NZ. It was a very informative and beautiful museum to walk around! Definitely worth a visit!
But now it’s time to go inland! We will visit Christchurch when we bring our rental car back! Now we cannot wait to admire the famous natural beauty of the Southern Island!
From Chirstchurch we head for Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak and part of the beautiful Southern Alps. We almost make a detour along Mount Summer, but due to the bad weather we opt for the fast road to Tekapo. They talk about real mountain passes, and we don’t feel like going immediately to the limit on our first day. As soon as we enter the Mc Kenzie region along the MW73, the mountains loom before us. We drive past Geraldine, Fairlie and Burkes Pass until we see Lake Tekapo popping up.
Lake Tekapo is a turquoise blue lake with fantastic mountains in the background. You really can’t believe your eyes, the bluest water we’ve ever seen! The color is apparently caused by melted water from the glaciers. Fortunately the weather has cleared up a bit and we have a superb view over the lake and the high mountain tops.
Our first campground in New-Zealand
We don’t linger by the lake for too long, because campgrounds (especially the budget-friendly ones) can fill up quickly. That is why we continue to Lake Alexandria and there we find (thanks to WikiCamps) our first amazing camping spot. We sit among the rolling hills and in the middle of long grass. Soon Yuna and Hanne disappear in the grass and mom and dad can pitch the tent for the first time. Fortunately, it all works out pretty good, also thanks to the electric pump that we purchased. In Australia we didn’t have one of those and about 500 up and down foot movements were needed to get the necessary air into a plastic cover, nicknamed air mattress.
The first wine can flow and with a nice homemade pasta the sun sets further behind the hill. We go for a walk and enjoy the sunset by the lake before we crawl into our tent fairly early. The temperatures, that is something else however. We still have to adjust a little to the colder weather and at night we crawl close together, because it is not warm in our tent. But what an amazing first campsite this was! That promises for the rest of New Zealand!
Church of the Good Sheppard – Mount John
The next morning, before driving on to Aoraki / Mount Cook, we want to explore Lake Tekapo a little bit more. Next to the lake is one of the most famous churches in New Zealand, the Church Of The Good Sheppard. That it is well-known, is immediately noticeable … Buses Chinese arrive to take THE photo of the lake. We have nothing against the Chinese, but they are most of the times with a lot, loud and they all want to be photographed in a fantastic pose. So after a fair bit of patience we also have the opportunity to enjoy the view ourselves, and OK, also to take THE photo. After some more fun at the lakefront, we drive up Mount John.
For €8 you can drive up and down Mount John. Fortunately I don’t have to steer and Heleen makes sure we get up safely! Despite the wind we have a fantastic view over the meadow surroundings and Lake Tekapo. There are also several star domes set up because this is one of the best places in the southern hemisphere to look at the stars. Luckily there are digital cameras nowadays, because otherwise our budget for NZ would have been gone to buy all the film rolls.
But we have to go on … we decide to drive to Mount Cook National Park despite the somewhat lesser weather forecast (rain and gusts of 125 km/h).
Mount Cook National Park
246 photos and 13 videos later we pass Lake Pukaki and take the M80 towards Mount Cook. Normally you can see Mount Cook and his companions in the distance but the clouds are increasing and it starts to rain harder and harder. We just succeed in visiting a lavender field before bad weather strikes.
White Horse Hill Campground
When we reach White Horse Hill campground, we can hardly see anything anymore and the rain is pouring down. This is a DOC campsite. That means it is organised and supervised by DOC, the official department of conservation of NZ. These are very cheap campsites, with few facilities but often in the most beautiful places, right in the middle of nature. What it looks like here, no idea. It’s raining so hard that we can’t get out of the car. So we park our car and watch Lord of the Rings. Since we are in New Zealand, we think that the children should have seen those films. They are almost completely recorded here and we probably will see lots of film sets along the way.
We decide to spend the night in the car because the wind is raging and the water is flowing down the slopes. Heleen makes sure (despite my ‘silent’ protest …) that the back seats go flat and all the luggage is put to the left side. That way the children can lie down to sleep. In retrospect, a golden move because the kids fall asleep quite easily. Our seats also go way down so in the end the night in the car is better than expected. By the time we wake up, we see the last clouds and rain drift away. Together with a rainbow we finally see the first glimpses of the beautiful mountains!
The reason we sleep at this campsite is that it is also the start of the Hooker Valley track. A fairly ‘easy’ 3-hour walk back and forth through the valley of the Hooker river. Altimeters that we have to cover, only 80m … sounds good. The weather forecast predicts rain by noon, so we hit the road early.
Hooker Valley Track
After a quick start we arrive at the first footbridge over the Hooker. We immediately get a phenomenal view over the valley. Safely over the bridge, we go further into the valley and suddenly Mount Cook looms behind the clouds. The highest mountain in Oceania, covered in snow and some clouds. Occasionally he appears and from then on he remains in our sight. The wind is blowing harder and harder and when we finally arrive at the glacier we are literally blown away. But it’s breathtaking! A glacier, with a river full of ice and Mount Cook in the background! The children look surprised at the large chunks of ice, or small icebergs as they call them.
After taking some stunning pictures and seeing the disappearance of 200gr nuts in Yuna’s pouch, we start the retreat. This is without a doubt the most beautiful walk we have ever taken. Despite the strong wind, the children also enjoy the walk. They are very brave and walk happily all the way. Hanne’s energy is gone one km before the end (probably because she gets hungry), but thanks to the songs of mama they continue without many complaints.
The delicious warm tomato soup with bread tastes twice as good when we arrive back in the mountain hut of the campground. What a walk! A glacier, small icebergs in a lake, suspension bridges, beautiful views, … One to never forget!
Because the weather is turbulent, we decide to move on to Oamaru. But that is for our next message.