Winter has been chugging along for us in the bus. Wayne’s working and Oliver and I are busy with his learning. But on the weekends we have been keeping ourselves really busy with all the things that we want to do while we are based in Dunedin. One place that has lots to offer and has required a few visits to tick them all off is the Otago Peninsula. I’ve found a few places on this journey that have claimed a wee piece of my heart and this is the latest place to do that. It’s just a really beautiful piece of this country of mine. If you want somewhere to go that you can disconnect from the hustle of everyday life and ground yourself in the flow of nature, then this could be your spot. It has beautiful harbour walkways to roam, wild beaches to explore, epic lookouts to soak in the views, a castle and a plethora of wildlife. All this and it’s less than an hours drive from Dunedin city to Taiaroa Heads.
On our first visit to the peninsula we came with a clear purpose, to find some Sea lions. We had seen plenty of signs at various beaches around Dunedin telling us what to do if we encountered one but we had yet to see one in the flesh. So after a bit of googling we headed to Sandfly Bay, this is not the first sandfly bay I have encountered and I was happy we were visiting in winter when the small biting creatures aren’t present. But on arriving we discovered that this bay is named for the sand that is often flying across the bay because of high winds. Thankfully it wasn’t to bad the day we went, there was a strong, cold wind but no sand flying! As we are discovering at many beach walks in the area the walk down to the beach was via a very steep, sandy track and then down across some massive sand dunes. But it was all worth it when we got to the beach and there were actually sea lions sleeping on the beach. We saw a few lone males snoozing away and a small family with a pup making their way higher up the beach to a sheltered spot.
At the opposite end to which we accessed Sandfly bay is Sandymount Reserve. The advantage of such hilly terrain is clear when you visit here. The views are breathtaking from the carpark alone. But a short climb up to a lookout or quick walk to Lovers leap and they get immesaurably better.
Of course we had to pay a visit to Larnach Castle on one of our visits to the peninsula. This is the only castle you will find in New Zealand and it has a suitably interesting history to go along with that status. Once you have finished wandering the rooms of the castle, taking in the views from the tower and letting your child climb the small winding staircase to the tower repeatedly then the gardens here are well worth a stroll around.
By far my favourite thing we did on the peninsula was watch the little blue penguins come in for the night at Pukekura. When we spent our night in a hut on the Abel Tasman we met a young couple on our evening beach walk who were hoping to see penguins, it was not to be but Oliver remembers that moment and ever since he has often asked if we can go somewhere that he can see them. At the albatross centre at the very end of the peninsula they do evening penguin watching tours so we decided it was something we really wanted to do while we were here. We were lucky enough to be able to do it while my brother and his family were here visiting which only made it even more special. Right on dark you are taken down to a large viewing platform by the beach, they have special lights that won’t harm the penguins eyes so you can see the beach and the well worn path the tiny little penguins are going to take up to their nests. Then you wait for the penguins to arrive, trying to distinguish if that thing floating in the water, in the dark is a penguin or just a piece of sea weed bobbing around. The penguins gather in groups called rafts then make their way on shore in groups and I am not sure there is anything more adorable than the worlds smallest penguin waddling it’s way on to the shore. Unless it’s the way they launch their bodies over the patch of rocks that lie between them and their cosy nests. These are the worlds smallest penguins and clearly designed to move better in the ocean then on land they do not let any of this deter them for long. We made the drive back to Dunedin that night with one little boy so happy that the penguins had been just as wonderful as he imagined, though a whole lot smaller.
Again I am struck with that feeling of how much we have seen and done on this journey of ours. We started with such a big wish list of places to go, things to see and experience. To be honest I didn’t know how many of them we would actually do it was just all part of the fun of dreaming up this new life and a great way to get Oliver involved in the process. But there are some pretty big, happy ticks against that list now and some pretty big happy memories to go along with them. The fact that some of those memories happened in this little part of the country is probably how it stole a piece of my heart.
There is something about this time of year that always makes me really aware of how much of the year has passed us by already. Wayne’s birthday is on the 30th of June and I know this plays a big part in this for me. From there on in it always feels like the year is just sliding away in a huge rush towards christmas. I find myself taking a mental tally of all the things we’ve managed to tick off that list of things we hoped to do this year because even living like this I have a to do list for the year, it’s just infinitely more interesting than its ever been before. This year even though it felt like we were slow to get started on it at the time we are working our way through that list quite nicely.
Of course the only choice when you live in a bus and it’s your birthday is to go away somewhere new. So we spent the weekend beside Warrington beach for Wayne’s birthday. Even in the bus it’s not a long drive to get there from Dunedin and there’s a great little freedom camping spot which is just a short stroll through the sand dunes to the most perfect beach. We had the most beautiful winter days while we were there. Days so crisp and clear the sun sparkles on the water and you shed your heavy winter layers in the afternoons warmth. From the moment we woke on the Saturday morning Oliver knew how he wanted to fill his day, he wanted his spade and he wanted to head to the beach. I love when we are parked somewhere that he can just head out the door with a clear purpose in mind for what he wants to do and go fill his day with it. So that’s how most of our Saturday was spent, sitting on the beach, walking on the beach and watching Oliver dig holes on the beach. Not a bad way to spend a sunny winters day in my opinion.
We have in fact been in beach heaven since arriving in Dunedin. There are so many little bays and hidden treasures to explore. The drive out to Port Chalmers and Aramoana was a highlight for me, with views across the harbour to the Otago Peninsula it’s just gorgeous. We walked out along the breakwater at Aramoana and saw some seals lounging in the afternoon sun. There’s also a short boardwalk out onto the salt marsh here that I think in the right season could be a great place to bird watch, unfortunately a few ducks and the odd seagull was about all we saw.
Oliver’s favourite beach to visit so far has been Tunnel beach. Like a lot of walks in Dunedin it’s a fairly steep track down to the beach but well worth the effort of hauling yourself back up the hill after you’ve seen the beach. I imagine this walk is hugely busy in the summer months as even in the middle of winter there were still a few tourists heading here and a few locals as well. The views continue to get better and better as you head down the hill towards the beach. But it’s not until you are almost right on top of it that you can see the man made tunnel you use to access the little beach below. The tunnel was made by a family that owned the land I think in the late 1800’s so they could have access to a private beach. The beach below is pretty and Oliver loved having a tunnel to go through to get to it, but for me the views of the rugged coastline unfurling before us as we walked down were the star of the show. That is one of the great things for us about doing these sorts of things as a family. Even when we all loved a walk it’s often for completely different reasons. As Oliver is getting older it’s really interesting to hear his take on things we do together and what he’s noticed or enjoyed the most. Sometimes he see’s or points out things that I have completely missed. Sometimes it’s just that simple delight children can find in things that we as adults have forgotten was there. But once reminded it’s easy to see it through there new fresh eyes and share in that delight as well. I hope that even after he is not my little boy anymore I remember how to see the world through that fresh, shiny, joyful filter he’s reminded me of.
In the dreaming and planning stages of this journey we are on the times that we would have to stop and work were not the times that kept me inspired to keep going when things were difficult. I knew they were necessary but didn’t imagine they could be just as interesting as the traveling times. But spending extended periods of time in places actually adds to our whole trip in a unique way. We were really looking forward to spending a bit of time in Dunedin for this stint of work. It would be the biggest city we had been in for quite a while and one that we expected to have plenty of options for filling our downtime while we were here. Wayne and I had visited Dunedin before, spent one night and crammed as much in to two days as we could but left feeling it was a place with so much more still to offer.
We arrived in Dunedin on a weekend and had two days to spend just exploring a little, finding our feet in this new place before Wayne started looking for work. We have always read up about our options of places to park before we arrive. But when you are looking for a bit more long term options, in winter, in an 11.5 metre bus it sometimes means your plans aren’t completely clear until you arrive somewhere and see the options for yourself. Dunedin is very hilly, lots of narrow streets and flat space is at a premium. But we found two good options in Mosgiel and decided that we would most likely float between them during our time here. One had power for $15 a night but the walk to town from there was along a busy main road with hardly any grass verge to keep Oliver (and this Mums nerves) intact during the 10 minute stroll meant we would be largely stuck at the campground when we stayed here. The other option had no power and is just a carpark but at only $5 a night and with a playground, library, Mosgiel town center and a bus stop all just a few minutes walk along a nice safe footpath. Clearly the second option was going to make my weeks with Oliver go much quicker so we settled there to start with but with the knowledge that being the middle of winter we would have to float between the two a bit to keep our batteries charged.
I have to admit that our first couple of weeks in Dunedin flew by in a bit of a blur. We always expected it might be easy to find work here but never dreamed how quickly it would all move. Literally the first place Wayne visited offered him work, but there was a slight catch. They wanted to fly him to Christchurch the next day where he would work for the rest of that week then after that there would be work back in Dunedin for him. So then began the whirlwind of moving the bus to the spot with power so I didn’t have to worry about that while our driver was away, packing a bag and waving goodbye to Dad as he headed off on his plane. I know it shouldn’t have been because he was so little at the time but it was a bit of a shock for me during this process to realize that Oliver has no memory at all of the time when Daddy being away working every week was our reality. I guess I am grateful that he doesn’t remember how absent Wayne was in those years, that he can’t imagine a life where Daddy is not around. He wasn’t the only one who was glad to pick Wayne up from the airport and have that missing piece back again. Bus life (and life in general) is just better when we are together.
We have already found a few favourite spots in Dunedin. The beaches are beautiful, I think my love of a good beach is well documented by now and life just feels better when there is one close enough to get to on a regular basis. The botanic gardens here are great, you can get free food for the ducks and there are also swarms of pigeons keen to get in on the action who will literally land all over you to get to the food if you let them. There are a multitude of paths leading through the gardens and an amazing aviary at the top of the hill with a huge array of both native birds and colorful parrots from warmer climates. The city itself is interesting to wander around, scattered with old buildings, gorgeous churches and plenty of street art. So far Dunedin gets a big thumbs up as our home for the winter.
Once we left Mavora Lakes behind our idea was to head towards Queenstown where we would spend a few days. It’s not a long way from Mavora to Queenstown but with a portion of it being on a dirt road it slows us down a little so we decided to break the trip up and spend a night at a freedom camping spot just past Kingston. For an area that doesn’t have many spots you can freedom camp at this one sure is a beauty. There’s no facilities so it’s purely for self contained vehicles and the reasonably flat spots here are very few. But if spending a night with million dollar views out your windows is on your list of things that make your heart sing then this is a spot you might want to stay at. Kingston is just down the road and worth a visit to wander along the lake edge. It’s also home to the Kingston Flyer which sadly sits currently unused, but there is an abundance of old train carriages sitting around to have a look at, a hit with our young train enthusiast.
We woke the next morning after a night of torrential rain in a situation we have tried our hardest to avoid in the time we have been in the bus. The firm ground we had parked on the previous day was really not firm anymore and for a time we all had serious worries that this gorgeous spot may be a more long term arrangement. But with some cautious and skilfull manouvering, the help of a few pieces of wood we found to give our back wheels some traction and in Wayne’s opinion a whole lot of luck we managed to free ourselves with only a short time spent in heart pounding stress. The rain didn’t let up as we made it to Queenstown and our day seemed to be one we should have just pushed skip on altogether when Oliver managed to get his hand stuck in the buses automatic door as it was closing (thankfully nothing a big cuddle and an iceblock couldn’t fix). But as seems to be the way with bus living, things can seem really bad one moment and back to really good the next. By the time the afternoon was over we had settled in at Twelve Mile Delta just out of town and managed a visit to Arrowtown to stroll around the Chinese miners cottages. A nice, firm spot to stay and somewhere interesting to explore is all we needed to remind us of how much the good moments outweigh the not so good in our life.
All our luck with the weather ran out when we were visiting Queenstown. We spent almost a whole week here but still didn’t do a lot of the things we had thought we would. Because plans simply have to change when it’s raining. We did get one clear morning so we could drive to Glenorchy and admire the stunning landscapes. But after that we ended up doing a few more touristy things that may not have been in the plan. We spent one wet day visiting the gondolas and Oliver had his first turn on a luge. He loved it so much that even in the pouring rain he was keen to keep riding that chairlift up so he could finish all his rides. We visited the Arrowtown museum and spent a morning playing in the lazy river at the local swimming pools.
Then on our last full day in Queenstown we woke to find the rain had stopped, the clouds were lifting and all around us the mountains had been dusted with a pretty decent amount of snow overnight. To us the snow still seems a little bit magical. So to wake up and see the first big dump of the winter felt like a great way to end our Queenstown visit. We made the most of the clear day with a bike ride and a stroll along the lake edge. We had timed things perfectly with the start of Luma, Queenstowns take on a light show. So we ended our day with a picnic dinner of Fergburger on the waterfront and a stroll around the lights.
This trip had been a study in contrasts. We had been to places wild, isolated and undeveloped. Then to the bustling, growing tourist mecca that is Queenstown. As we set off the next day it felt to me like we were on the homeward stretch of our South Island journey. We were heading for Dunedin and from there the plan is to work our way back up the east coast. After spending so much time lingering in the deep south we were finally heading closer to home instead of further away. Hopefully with a few more adventures along the way!
When we left Te Anau this time we were all keen for a few quiet days somewhere that we could spend some time in nature and not be to busy for a spell. We thought we had the perfect place in mind. If you take a detour off the main highway and go for a drive down some dusty gravel roads you’ll find Mavora Lakes. Here there are walking tracks, two beautiful lakes, mountains to gaze at as you sip your coffee and a really great camping area. There’s also no cell reception and at this time of year very few other people. For us that sounded like the perfect ingredients for a few days of relaxing time as a family.
The area you have to camp in here is so immense that our normal walk around to pick the best spot was just not an option. So after a bit of a drive around and some excited discussions over the walkie talkies we found the perfect spot. Flat, a great view out the front windows, lake just a short stroll away and a fair distance from where the other campers had set up. This last one may seem a little anti-social but when you live this way you often have to deal with other people parked fairly closely to you and lack of privacy is just something you have to deal with at times. So when you have the opportunity to be parked on your own boy do you take it!
Oliver was particularly happy to find outdoor fireplaces at this camp. They are becoming one of his favorite parts of places like this and I can’t say I blame the kid. There is just something about an open fire in a big wild place like this. Our first afternoon was easily filled with a wander by the lake, a stone skimming competition and a good dose of firewood collection for the evenings entertainment. I have never seen a dinner be consumed more quickly or with less complaint then when he knows it is all that stands in the way of him and lighting that fire. Then wrapped up against the cold we toasted marshmallows, gazed at stars and played spotlight until we could finally convince our little man to come in to bed.
The best part of being parked in places like this with no huge plans for the day is that it really gives Oliver time to explore all the wonderful things that are right there on our doorstep. It’s amazing how much time he can spend really wrapped up in little things. Trying to master the art of skimming a stone which normally turns into an experiment of how high he can splash the water. Stomping in puddles is a current favourite, or just wandering amongst the trees finding fallen logs to climb and balance on. A whole day can disappear easily filled with these kind of things. When we are parked in places like this his toys are ignored, the desire for tv is non existent. I’m so glad he finds as much value here as we do, it would not be as easy to live this way if he did not.
So after a day filled with just enjoying our surroundings, another evening filled with a fire and outside fun. We snuggled down for our last night by the beautiful Mavora Lakes. If we had been in a different mood we could easily have done some serious walking here, there were plenty of options. But we were content with the many short strolls along the lake that we had taken instead. Our next destination was going to be Queenstown, a serious change of pace from the isolation of Milford and Mavora lakes. So this little time of quiet and rest felt like the perfect transition.
On our last full day in Milford we woke early and were on the road just after 8am. We had a boat trip booked to explore the actual sounds and a fair bit of ground to cover between our camp and where we would board the boat. There was plenty of thick cloud hanging around as we set off and a few people heading in the same direction we were. Some one had been up long before us all setting out cones and black ice signs on any sections of the road you needed to take extra care on so we were happy to have the extra time to pull over and let impatient people past or see anything that caught our eye. It didn’t take long for us to find something worth stopping for. We rounded a bend and sitting in some car parks at the side of the road were a group of kea’s. Kea are a parrot native to NZ, they are incredibly intelligent and will actually seek out interaction with humans. Sadly their numbers are also dwindling so we were pretty happy to run into a group of eight of them here. We spent a good 15 minutes here watching these delightful birds interacting with anyone who stopped and their vehicles.
Eventually we pulled ourselves away from these glorious birds and headed on towards the Sounds. There’s only one road in here and one of the highlights of the drive is a trip through the Homer Tunnel. Once you’re through the tunnel and the mountain that it takes you through the valley seems to unfold before you. You zig zag down and down into this epic landscape. This is a corner of my country that really drives home to me how small a part of this big world we are, it’s easy to feel dwarfed by the size and grandeur of the peaks and valleys that surround you. Once you make your way down it’s a pretty glorious drive through bush and alongside the river until you finally make it to the end of the road. By this time it already felt like we had seen enough sights for one day but luckily for us it was just the beginning of our days adventure.
There was still a fair bit of cloud around the hills as we got on our boat and started cruising but Milford is one of those places that is stunning no matter what the weather. We had opted for the cruise that had the longest time on the water so we had plenty of time to wander around the boat and take in the views. The boys joined in with all the other tourists and stood at the front of the boat when they went in super close to a waterfall, I was quite happy to stay dry and watch from inside. The clouds lifted as we turned around to make our way back and the views were amazing.
After a stop at the underwater observatory our time on the sounds was shortly over. All that was left was to hop back in the car and make our way back to the bus. We made a few brief stops to look at things that had caught our attention on the way in but to be honest we were all feeling ready to just be home so we could enjoy the mountain views from our front window for a while before we moved on.
The next day was a bit of a special one in the bus, it was Oliver’s sixth birthday. He woke to pelting rain which was the perfect excuse for a slow morning opening presents and eating pancakes. Then it was time to head back to Te Anau where we planned to spend a night before heading on to somewhere new. I have to say I love celebrating our special moments in this low key way. Sure we did our best to include things in the day that Oliver would enjoy, a trip to the local bike park and a special birthday dinner. But it’s much less effort and work for me than I would have previously put in to birthday celebrations. Which it turns out equals a lot more time to actually spend with the birthday boy. It also turns out that just having time with us is what Oliver actually wants most as well. Our time in Milford left me feeling completely recharged on every level. It had been the perfect way to spend Oliver’s last few days of being a five year old. Starting our holiday on such a great note also meant we had high hopes for what the rest of our trip would bring.
Our last week before we left Gore we had the worst stretch of weather we have probably had in the whole time we have lived in the bus. It was very wet, very windy and just generally cold and miserable. For six long days. It made the week feel like it was stretching on and on for ever. It tested my patience and the limits of how long Oliver can spend cooped up in a small space. But finally Friday arrived, Wayne toddled off to work for the last time and we celebrated as we saw the sun coming out. We made the most of Wayne finishing up a few hours early, said our goodbyes to the other campers and headed off to Lumsden. Lumsden is really unique in that they allow freedom camping right in there town centre. We arrived just as the sun was going down and settled in to our spot with a view of the playground out one window and an old train out the other.
The next morning we were keen to get moving. For the first part of this trip we were heading to spend some time exploring Milford Sounds. I’ve been lucky enough to visit here before and couldn’t wait to do it with a bit more time up my sleeve. I also couldn’t wait to share it with Oliver. So when we arrived in Te Anau to find more rain we hunkered down in the bus for the afternoon and hoped for the weather to clear for us. We got all we hoped for and more the next day when we woke to a frosty morning and clear skies.
You lose cell phone reception not long after leaving Te Anau and then you begin to wind your way in towards this special piece of the country. Our first stop for the day was at Lake Mistletoe for a short but charming walk around this little lake and through the surrounding bush to be serenaded by some resident bellbirds who were enjoying the sunshine as much as we were.
By mid afternoon we had arrived at the Totara campsite the first spot we had chosen to stay at on our way in to Milford. We had views of mountains, a gorgeous river alongside us and much to Oliver’s delight outdoor fireplaces for campers to use. The rest of the afternoon was easily filled with a drive down the road to the mirror lakes and a bit more sightseeing along the way. Then we had just enough time left to collect firewood and explore our camp a little before dinner, followed by roasting marshmallows on our fire then a quick game of spotlight before bed.
The next day we were all up and ready to go early, a good thing considering how much we wanted to see. First up we moved the bus a bit further down the valley to the last available DOC camp site the cascades. Even at the time of year that we are travelling in there is a steady trickle of visitors to Fiordland, the size and scope of the cascades campsite gives you a clear idea of how busy it must be in the peak season. This camp was pretty amazing, with stunning mountain views from every window of the bus. After a short time looking around we headed out to explore a little bit down the Hollyford Valley. There is so much you could do here, walks for every age, capability and time frame. Picking which ones you want to tackle is probably the hard part. We stopped at the Lake Marian track and did a section that led to viewing platforms along a cascading section of the river. Oliver was completely absorbed here watching the power of the water tumbling below us. Then after a bit more of a drive down the valley we did a short climb to see Humboldt Falls. They are a large three tiered waterfall and they are a stunning specimen amidst the many that you will find in the Milford Valley.
After a few stops on the way home to gaze at mountains we arrived back at the bus. Since we were staying in a valley the sun had dropped early and we were quite happy to tuck ourselves inside by the fire for the rest of the afternoon. Living in places with all these mountains is still a novelty for me. The landscape here is so beautiful that it doesn’t seem real at times, every corner there’s a new peak to marvel at, another waterfall to look at, another piece of this valley carved by some ancient glaciers. Spending time in all that natural beauty was rejuvenating for the soul, coupled with being disconnected from technology it was the perfect way to start this holiday for us. A visceral reminder of why we wanted to go on this crazy adventure in the first place. Spending time in places like this was high on the list of things that motivated us. If just two days here had been this good we were keen to see what the next day and more exploring might discover.