Nourishing New Zealand

Our month in New Zealand was an entirely positive experience, nourishing in multiple ways. We tasted the delights of the North Island, from farm-stand avocadoes to grilled green-lipped mussels. We soaked up the fresh air and spectacular views all the way from the island’s top to its tip. We visited the film set and workshop where Middle Earth was created for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, where Sam got plenty of encouragement about blending his creative and computing sides into a fulfilling career and a happy life. It was completely inspiring, to him and to us.

The great surprise of New Zealand is how much we enjoyed camping. We expected to be amazed by the scenery and amused by our Middle Earth pilgrimages, and these did absolutely delight us, but I must confess that I was convinced we’d be enjoying all this through slightly gritted teeth. True, Patrick and I both have fond memories of camping as children, and we all had fun “glamping” our way down the Pacific Coast Highway a couple of years ago, but we’re not what you’d call keen outdoors people and Sam absolutely wilts if he goes too long without decent wifi. My qualms were so far from the reality of our experience that we are now thinking about further camping adventures before Sam gets too old to tolerate such an intense dose of togetherness. It was great!

What was so magical about camping in New Zealand? We need to start with Miss Sunshine, the classic orange VW campervan that we rented from Kiwi Kombis. She had her quirks, including a slightly tricky second gear and power nothing that gave Patrick a persistent crick in his neck, but we loved the freedom of carrying our home with us, especially when a bout of rainy weather made it useful to alter our itinerary. Wherever we went, there we were, along with whatever gear we needed from swimsuits to rain boots plus the ability to make lunch or a cup of tea at the drop of a hat.

Miss Sunshine was a magnet that attracted a steady stream of friendly people wanting to strike up a conversation. Their assumptions about the kind of family we are made me wish that she were truly ours: I liked being that kind of family.  There are probably people who drive around New Zealand enjoying the splendid isolation of “freedom camping” in the wilderness, but for us the camaraderie at serviced campsites, thanks in no small part to our choice of vehicle, was a wonderful surprise. Patrick had loaded an app that allowed us to locate the best site in any area, so we always had access to a well-equipped communal kitchen and clean showers, and often to pristine beaches, spectacular playgrounds, heated swimming pools, and other perks that made “roughing it” an inaccurate description of what we were doing. We could have had all of that with a tent instead of a camper, but Miss Sunshine played such a starring role in our social life that we never regretted our choice, even when Patrick was having an emergency massage to undo some of the ravages of full-body driving.

Miss Sunshine took us far and wide, allowing us to see the best of the North Island up close. That experience itself is the highlight of the trip, but in addition to the sheer joy of exploring New Zealand in a camper we can also recommend:

Driving Creek Railway in the Coromandel Peninsula, a completely bonkers project dreamed up by a failed teacher turned potter, Barry Brickell. He bought a farmstead that turned out to be rich in clay deposits with plenty of pine for his kiln, then built a railway to cart the earth’s bounty – and eventually tourists — up to his workshop. During the one-hour journey the conductor does casually mention the fact that Brickell had no engineering training and built most of the line with his own two hands, but those insignificant details are shared only after the train has crossed a few impressive viaducts and negotiated multiple switchbacks. It’s probably pretty safe anyway, and the views are spectacular. Don’t miss the Driving Creek Café – this restaurant became shorthand for the kind of food we sought out for the rest of the trip: a “Driving Creek place” meant fresh, local ingredients served in a friendly atmosphere, and though we found that combination often we never quite outdid this charming little Coromandel café.

Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island is the most spiritual place in New Zealand, where, the Maori believe, souls depart this world for the afterlife. It’s visibly the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, marked by churning waters overlooked by dramatic cliffs and a picturesque lighthouse. We spent a pleasant hour here as part of an all-day tour with Harrison’s that brought us up 90 Mile Beach in a specially-modified 4×4 bus that could handle the quicksand, steep inclines, and rough terrain of the journey. Among other highlights, the tour included a chance to toboggan down a sand dune, some gorgeous scenic stops on both coasts, and a substantial picnic lunch.

Te Papa Museum at the complete opposite end of the island in Wellington is a vast and free museum capturing New Zealand’s Maori and pakeha (settler) history in a collection ranging from a slightly terrifying earthquake simulator to a gripping long-term exhibit focusing on the human stories behind the battle to take Gallipoli in World War I. We were there for a full day and certainly didn’t run out of things to see and do. The pleasant café was a perfect spot to refuel, and we even spent the night in the parking lot: it’s a recognized “freedom camping” location, so we were in good company. I did feel a bit funny cooking breakfast in our van the next morning just as besuited office workers were arriving to park their Audis and BMWs, but after a hot shower at a public pool nearby we were perfectly presentable and none the worse for our unusual night’s accommodation.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Ruakuri Cave mid-way between Wellington and Auckland are best visited together for maximum impact. The 45-minute Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour includes a magical boat ride through a dark cave with thousands of glowing points of light overhead; with fewer glowworms but more of everything else, the two-hour Ruakuri Cave walking tour includes spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations with expert commentary, in our case from a guide called Boss who is an enthusiastic caver. His excitement about the unexplored reaches of the cave was completely infectious, though his scientific explanation about the glowworms rather dimmed their appeal: we were able to get within a few inches of these worms, which are, we now know, actually maggots whose bioluminescent excreta is the result of digesting the insects they catch by secreting long strands of mucous. Maggot snot and poo sounds a lot less romantic than “glowworm caves,” so were glad that we did the shorter and more magical tour first, followed by the longer and more informative one.  Sam glued himself to Boss for most of the tour (not with maggot snot) and seems to have retained tons of useful information about the cave and its formations as well as its inhabitants.

Hobbiton Movie Set is a must-see for any JRR Tolkien fan visiting New Zealand. We listened to the audiobooks of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings during our drive, and after much deliberation we allowed Sam to watch Peter Jackson’s movie trilogies even though they were a bit too scary for a kid his age: we wanted the landscape of New Zealand to come alive for Sam, and this turns out to have been the magic recipe. Both trilogies were filmed in New Zealand, and we were constantly noticing scenery that looked like one of Jackson’s backgrounds. At Hobbiton we saw what’s left of the set: the party tree where Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday is celebrated, the bridge and the mill that serve as landmarks for the hobbit’s home, and a full hobbit village complete with a pub where we drank ginger beer. Our guide, Christy, was full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, reminding us of key moments in the six films and showing us where they had been shot. It would have been the highlight of our trip, at least for Sam, except that a few days earlier we had been to an even more amazing place where another part of the movie magic was made…

Weta Workshop in Wellington is responsible for the props and costumes seen in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Despite being a world-class special effects shop, Weta still has the ambiance of a small, local company – the stories of people being hired based on a chance encounter with co-founder Richard Taylor were almost as numerous as the recognizable relics from Middle Earth and the other worlds created here in the workshop. We had a lengthy but entirely captivating tour, made even more special by a chance encounter of our own: the night before, in Wellington, we had a random chat with a woman, Caitlin, who, it turned out, would be working her last shift in the Weta giftshop the next day. She made good on her promise to roll out the red carpet for us by giving Sam the chance to hold and take photos with some of the shop’s most precious replicas, including Bilbo’s sword Sting and Gandalf’s staff. We hope that when Sam reads the books he’ll remember Weta and Hobbiton – and even more, that as he makes his career plans he’ll remember the good advice he received from some of the Weta artists who were not only inspiring examples but also genuinely interested in engaging with him. Sam has had some extraordinary teachers during this year without school.

A week in Auckland wraps up our amazing month. We’re here living yet another borrowed life: Miss Sunshine’s hippy family is currently ensconced in a fashion and furniture designer’s all-white modernist house, just the right size for a family of three and complete with a pedigreed dog to walk twice a day past multi-million-dollar mansions. The creature comforts here are a welcome change, including really top-notch wifi for Sam, but we do miss the friendships we found so easily while camping. There’s no shortage of nice people in New Zealand, even here in the Big City. The CEO of Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology liked our Instagram feed so much that he offered us free admission, so Sam and Patrick spent a great day there while I did some work, and we enjoyed a free French film festival at the Auckland Art Gallery with the lovely ladies of the Alliance française who were, of course, delighted to chat with a gang of Canadians far from home.  We even managed a quick visit to Parnell Baths, the local Lido, for a lovely heated salt water swim on our penultimate evening.

As our New Zealand adventure comes to an end, we’ve learned that we are “the camping type” after all, at least in New Zealand. Patrick isn’t quite convinced that our next car will be Miss Sunshine’s Canadian cousin, but maybe once he forgets that she was a literal pain in the neck for him he’ll warm up to the idea — or maybe the next Airbnb will give us different inspiration about what constitutes The Good Life for us. One thing is certain: travelling in a way that invites nice people into it will be a big part of the life we choose, even after our sabbatical ends.

This entry was posted in Destinations