We wind our way down the road. Past trees and paddocks full of sheep. House’s tucked away behind their fences sit around every other bend. Then we round another corner and the ocean appears. It looks a faded, gentle kind of blue from this distance, bathed in the soft evening light.
The car sweeps around a big corner, across a bridge and we are there. Of course Oliver is first out of the car but he gets distracted by the playground so I am the first to see this wildly glorious beach. I could actually hear it the moment the cars engine stopped, long before I climbed up the small bank to it’s rocky shores. The waves are pounding in. Churning the rocks over and over in a raucous display of their strength.
Shortly the boys join me on the beach. We meander along, discovering the bounty this sea has brought in on other evenings when the waves tossed their treasures high above the tide line. Treasure left to dry in the sun until another storm see’s them whisked away on another surging wave. Rocks are tested for splashing capabilities. Wobbling stone towers are built then knocked over with shrieks of six year old delight. Sticks become swords, then spears, then guns. We hunt make believe prey with our small child whose imagination is bigger than all of us. We let ourselves get sucked into that magical world of his where everything is possible.
Then we see a hammock strung between some trees and the moment shifts. Wayne and Oliver climb into the hammock. I find a log a short distance away to sit on and listen to the roar of the waves. My thoughts drift for a while and when I look back to the hammock I see a miraculous thing. The boy who was so full of energy, movement and noise a moment ago now lies in the hammock safe in his fathers arms. Their heads rest against each other and I can see they are talking. I could go over and join the conversation but decide that it is enough to watch this moment from here.
Far to soon it is over. We are back in the car. Winding our way past trees and paddocks full of sheep. Heading away from this magic evening on a rocky beach.
When we found out Wayne would have a couple of weeks off over the Christmas period it was a fairly easy decision about which way we wanted to head. If we traveled through Arthurs Pass and then back towards Christchurch through the Lewis Pass then we would have explored the final places in the South Island that we so far hadn’t got around to. When we left we were unsure whether we would loop around via Lake Brunner or go all the way to the coast. It is one of the wonderful things about traveling this way, even at a busy time of year you can choose to just play it by ear and hope there’s a spot wherever you decide to stop. A lot of the camps we were staying at run on a first come, first served basis, no bookings and they were we guessed the kind of places that wouldn’t get to busy until after Christmas day.
So we set off with very little plans, enough groceries to last us a couple of weeks and one very excited wee boy. We set off from Christchurch close to midday so our first days plans were purely to get to the first camp we planned to stay at so we would be ready to head out the next morning and see the sights. We arrived at the first spot to find it small and rather busy, essentially it was just a carpark where you can stay overnight as well. We debated carrying on to the next spot which wasn’t far away but since Wayne didn’t really want to reverse the bus out we decided to settle in and see if the majority of the cars would clear out as the day went on. Luckily our patience paid off and we found a spot that suited us perfectly and left us facing in the right direction for a speedy getaway the next day. We eased into our holiday with an afternoon playing platonk and slapping on copious amounts of insect repellent.
The next day we had a slight bit of back tracking to do so that we could visit Kura Tawhiti or Castle Hill. Easily visible from the road this is a fascinating little stop. There’s a short well maintained track from the carpark to the start of the large limestone rock formations and then a myriad of unmarked but well worn little paths to wander along as you explore this wonderful area. This is one of those wonderful places that you can really spend as little or as much time as you have and still enjoy the place. With small children in tow it’s the sort of place you could happily while away most of the day playing amongst the rocks. We settled for a fun hour or so before heading back to the bus to carry on with our adventures. As sometimes happens we didn’t end up going very far at all. Probably not much more than ten minutes down the road we pulled in to Lake Pearson to have lunch and decided that actually we’d just stop here for the night. Wayne had been working a lot of hours in the lead up to Christmas and been away from us more nights than we would normally like so I think we were drawn to a much slower pace of travel this time around. So apart from a small drive down a dirt road to find nearby Lake Sarah our afternoon was full of playing on the edge of the lake, trying to entice the mother ducks to bring their ducklings closer and sipping a few cold drinks while we took in the views.
When we set off the next morning it was Monday and we had two nights until Christmas. We moved the bus to Klondike Corner and found a great spot beside the beautiful river with views up the valley to one of the last peaks with snow still clinging to its top. We had one walk that we definetly wanted to do in Arthurs Pass and it was the Devils Punchbowl falls, so this was our first destination for the day. You can actually see the falls from the carpark but it’s more than worth the climb up for a closer peek.
After that we wandered through the little town and took a drive to the lookout at Deaths corner to look at the view of the viaduct we would be crossing as we made our way to the West coast. This was about where Oliver decided he’d had enough of playing tourist for the day, he remembered that gorgeous river we had parked the bus beside and the only way he was interested in spending the rest of his day involved that river. Luckily as it turns out his parents more than share his love of icy cold rivers. By the end of the day we had all had a very refreshing swim and a good dose of time spent basking in the sunlight, soaking in natures beauty.
That night we decided that this was where we would leave our exploring of Arthurs Pass. We were all feeling like spending Christmas at the beach would be a great idea so the next day we got up early to get ahead of the traffic and headed for Westport. We had stayed at a beautiful NZMCA camp there when we explored the west coast, right beside the beach it would be the perfect spot to celebrate on christmas day. Once we made our way down to the coast we were travelling through areas we had already visited so we opted to just keep driving with a lunch stop beside the beach at Fox river being pretty much our only stop. It was so worth it to arrive in Westport, find a nice spot and settle in to just enjoy what Christmas is ultimately all about. Time spent with the ones you love.
Our second Christmas with our wee family just by ourselves was just as lovely as the first. Oliver is still completely in love with the magic of Santa and Christmas but I am at the point where I can see that we may not have many more of those years left. I think I was more mindful this year of just enjoying those little things while they are there to enjoy. Then of course the big plus of having no where to rush off to and only three people to cook for is that we all got to spend most of the day on the beach. So once the presents were all opened and properly inspected, we swam. Then we had a BBQ lunch and of course we swam some more. It was obviously a winning formula because we decided to spend two more nights at Westport and that was pretty much how all our days went. It’s truly amazing to me how many hours of entertainment you can get out of a long stretch of sand, some water and whatever the waves have washed in. By the time we left, despite our best efforts there was sand creeping it’s way from the front of the bus right up to the back. It was even managing to infiltrate the bed. But all the vacuuming it would take to get rid of it was more than worth it for those four days beside that beach.
Once we left Westport we were right in the middle of the busiest holiday week of the year. We could still find places to stay but they were definetly more crowded than we prefer. So we stopped in Reefton and explored a little of the towns history. Then we stopped in the Lewis Pass and enjoyed the views from the top of the pass, whiled away a few hours beside the river and checked out the wall that’s built on top of the Alpine Fault. After this we opted to head back to Christchurch and spend our last days of Wayne’s holiday somewhere we knew would be relatively quiet. As 2019 drew to a close it felt really wonderful that with this last trip we have slowly worked our way all around the South Island. It may have taken us a lot longer than we originally thought but we did it and I for one would not trade one single moment of it.
When we talk to people about the way we are living I know their minds instantly take them to images of all our fun times and imagining all this free time to just do what we want. And yes there is lots of fun and a whole lot more free time then what we had in our old lives. But Wayne’s still working hard a lot of the time and finding work and juggling how long we will stay in each place is sometimes a bit of a tricky decision to make. It can feel like rolling the dice, stay here with a job earning this known amount but with these factors that make us want to move on, or go on to somewhere new where you have no idea what job you might get. We’ve also realised in the past eighteen months that it’s actually hard for us to say no to work, that urge to take a good opportunity and further your career is very ingrained. This winter Wayne has had weeks here and there were the company he was working for didn’t have a full weeks work for him. Somewhere in the midst of this we decided Wayne would apply for a fixed term contract that we had seen advertised. It would mean staying in Dunedin longer than we planned but we thought that we would have a break before it began and then come back for it, it was after all a very good opportunity. Then the application process was a lot more drawn out then we had imagined it would be so the holiday before it began wasn’t a possibility. I was really ready to leave but didn’t want to stop Wayne from taking the job if he really wanted it. Then the week rolled around where we would find out on the friday if Wayne had the job or not. It just so happened that this was a week where he didn’t have work until later in the week. So we headed to Brighton beach for a couple of nights to make the most of his days off. I am not sure if it was the ocean breeze or the feeling of being parked somewhere new again reminded us of how good the travel is but by lunch time Monday we had decided that actually we were leaving. Sitting around for a week waiting to hear if we had a job lost out to spending that week traveling and enjoying some time together. In the end it was the right decision to make, there are always more jobs and more opportunity’s in the next town we stop at.
Less than 24 hours after making our decision we had left Dunedin, it was a vivid and wonderful reminder of all the advantages of living in a bus. It also felt in some delicious way like we were just running off on some big adventure. Not surprisingly our spirits were all high when we arrived at our first stop for this trip and it was absolute beachfront. After lunch with our fabulous views we headed off in the car to visit a few things nearby. First we stopped at Shag Point to see a few seals lazing in the sun. Then it was on to the Moeraki boulders which we timed perfectly as the tide was on it’s way out. We spent a bit of time exploring these unusual rocks and waiting as the tide went out a bit further to reveal some more.
Then there was one more place to stop before heading back to the bus. By this stage it was well in to the afternoon and Oliver was asking to just head back to the bus so he could play on the beach. I actually considered just doing that but am so glad that we carried on and visited Katiki point instead. We headed past the lighthouse and down the track to what they call the neck, seeing the signs that said we might see penguins but actually not thinking we would, our experience so far has been that normally our timing is wrong for these sorts of things. Today however our timing was so right. It was hard to believe it when we rounded a corner and there were three yellow eyed penguins within quite close distance to us sunning themselves on the hillside. These birds are extremely endangered, so much so that there are predictions that within the next twenty years we may no longer have them on the mainland of New Zealand, only on off shore predator free islands. As I watched my son stand patiently and take in this rare creature it really struck me how horrible a prediction that is.
After that Oliver did get his play on the beach before it was time to tuck him in to bed. I love the first day of a trip. It never stops being full of excitement. There’s always a stupid smile plastered on my face as I drive along behind the bus watching my whole world heading off down the road in front of me. Then that first night after Oliver is snoring contented, tired snores from his little bed, we sit and work out where we are heading the next day. What we want to do on the way and where our stops will likely be. This is pretty much a nightly ritual while we are on the move but that first night has an extra layer of excitement with the whole trip stretched out before us, so much to see and so much to look forward to. This trip was one I was really looking forward to as we were heading for the Mackenzie country and back in to an area I had never visited before. Safe to say that when my head hit the pillow that night I was very glad we had decided it was time to leave Dunedin.
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.
Our time in the Catlins had been an absolute dream, beaches, sunshine and lot’s of time together, but boxing day was our day to head back to Gore so Wayne could get back to work the next day. There were plenty of walks and places we could stop on our way back to break up the driving but we had chosen just two to keep the day a bit more enjoyable. Our first stop was a short walk to Matai falls, they were pleasant enough and the walk was nice but after the three-tiered majesty of the Purakaunui falls we saw the day before to be honest I wouldn’t have missed these one’s if we hadn’t stopped.
From here it was a big climb over some hills for our old bus until we popped out by yet more gorgeous beaches. Here we found a spot to park the bus and headed off in the car to Nugget Point. It’s moments like this that I am so grateful we have a car, the road was narrow and windy then once we got there really busy. Throw in a bit of questionable parking by a few people and even some of the smaller motor homes were finding it hard to manoeuvre their way into a spot.
The sun was out making the water shine the most glorious shades of blue and green as we made the easy walk out to the lighthouse at Nugget Point. And there were plenty of seals and their pups on the rocks down below, lazing in the sun, frolicking in the rock pools their cries echoing up to us on the track high above them. It’s not a long or hard walk to begin with but all this makes it a great walk for families with plenty to keep children interested.
Even though it was really busy when we were here the viewing platform below the lighthouse has been very well designed, with a few different levels to give plenty of spots to snap pictures and take in the view without getting in the way of every one else. The wind picked up a little as we were heading back to the car so it was an easy choice to head back to the comfort of the bus for a bit of lunch before we decided what our next move was. In the end we simply decided that a bit of time playing on the beach we were parked next to would cap our time in the Catlins of perfectly before we headed back to Gore.
For us and our beach loving ways this trip was probably the best Xmas gift we could have given ourselves. I’m not really keen to pick a favourite place we have been or thing we have done during our time in the bus, primarily because it really is too hard. Just when you feel there is one that really stands out you go somewhere new and it steals a spot in your heart as well. Well the Catlins has carved out a little corner in my memories and my heart that’s for sure. And until we go somewhere else that has a bit of that magic feeling to it I will think back on our time there and wonder if we can top that experience.
We woke on the morning of Christmas eve and we had one very excited little boy bouncing around the bus with dreams of Santa in his little head. I was extremely happy that we had a busy day ahead that would hopefully give all that energy a good outlet and the ultimate in parenting wins a happy but tired little person who would fall straight to sleep that night. Because owing to limited places to hide presents and limited time away from child to procure and hide said presents I had hidden them all away unwrapped, and unwrapped they still were. A rookie parenting mistake really leaving all the wrapping till Xmas eve.
Our first stop of the day was only accessible an hour and a half either side of low tide which on this day was at ten thirty. So we were on the road bright and early before joining the crowds of people who were also exploring the Cathedral Cave that morning. The cave is a sea cave and access is through private land so there is a small charge to use the road and track down to the beach. After a quick chat with the friendly parking attendant and a pleasant 1 km walk down through the bush we emerged onto a gorgeous beach.
When the tide is in it comes right up to the cliffs where the caves are so there’s only a small window each day where they are able to be explored, we arrived with plenty of time to wander around and I am so glad we did. The first cave you come to is the Cathedral cave and it’s actually two caves that have joined so you can walk in one entrance and out the other. But there are numerous caves as you stroll along the cliffs edge, some large, some small, some very wet and some awfully smelly. And yes in case you were wondering we poked our noses in all of them.
This spot was by far my favourite place we visited on the Catlins, it’s truly amazing how nature can create something like this with just the water, the weather and a whole lot of time. I don’t always agree with being charged to visit beaches, they just feel like places that everyone should be free to visit, but in this case I can see why. The number of people who were there in the time we visited and how dangerous it would be if people went on the wrong tide mean it needs to be monitored. And if the $11 we paid helps to preserve this place and keep it as pristine as it was then I am more than happy to pay.
After the caves we stopped at a couple of short walks, one to the Tautoko Estaury and one to Lake Wilkie. Then all that was left was a stop at a lookout to admire another sweet little beach down and on to where we would spend Xmas day. Papatowai is a DOC site that’s nestled right beside the estuary and we conveniently found a space right by the track to the beach to make camp. The remainder of our day was spent at the beach where we all braved the icy waters for a swim. Then after the food had been set out for Santa and his trusty reindeer, Oliver headed off to bed and fell asleep in the delightfully quick way that only a tired child can.
The big day itself was the most relaxed and enjoyable day. Of course there was the fun of watching Oliver wake to discover the presents under the tree and the joyous excitement of discovering what’s in those parcels. Then after breakfast we headed out for a walk to some waterfalls and a visit to Purakaunui beach. There’s a DOC camp at Purakaunui and it would be an amazing place to stay but it would take a while to get the bus in along the dirt road so really not worth it for the two nights we had. But the beach and the big rocky cliffs beyond are a sight to behold. After a bit of time playing at Purakaunui we headed back to the bus for a late bbq lunch, an afternoon spent playing with Oliver’s new toys, another swim and a bit more yummy food to end our day. This night as we tucked our tired boy into bed he told us it was the best christmas ever. It’s the most wonderful, reassuring thing to know that just the three of us, hanging out at the beach and enjoying each other is really all that he needs to achieve that. That for me is the best Xmas gift I could have received.
This time last year we were literally spending every spare minute with family. Partly because we were temporarily without our own home and partly because we knew that soon it would just be the three of us in the bus. Now I am so glad that we spent that time cramming in all those moments together, I think it helps in our lonelier moments to have those shared memories to remember. So this years challenge for me as a Mum is that we are about as far away as we can get from everybody that we love without actually leaving the country – so a trip home for Xmas is not an option. So how do I make this an amazing christmas for us as a family and more importantly for a little boy who is still very much in love with all of the christmas magic.
We have always tried hard to make Oliver’s idea of christmas be just as much about the time spent with the people he loves most as it is about all the trimmings and trappings and presents. Because for me that is where the real magic of this time of year is. So the answer seemed to be some time away from our temporary home in Gore so we could make some great memories of our first wandering christmas. We had five nights and there was no question where we were going to spend them. The Catlins had been high on our list of places we wanted to see ever since we arrived in Southland but we knew it was a spot that we wanted more than just a quick weekend visit to, so now we had five nights and it was the perfect chance to tick this off the list. We left Gore on a friday night and made our way to Fortrose, the closest freedom camping spot in the Catlins. We arrived fairly late and the spot was busy but still more than enough room for us to spend a night. After an evening walk along the beach, taking in some Spoonbills feeding at low tide and the few remaining pieces of a shipwreck, we tucked a very excited little boy in to bed with promises of more beaches tomorrow.
The next day we weren’t travelling far. Even with a stop at Waipapa Point lighthouse and a play on the delightful little beach on its doorstep we were at our new spot by just after lunch. Weir bay reserve was another little freedom camping spot, this one beside a beautiful harbour. The tide was very close to being all the way in when we arrived so of course the priority was a play on the beach and a swim for Oliver while there was still sand to dig in.
Once the tide came all the way in and stole all the beach away for a spell we headed off to visit one last spot before the end of the day. Slope Point was just a short drive away from our camp and since it is the southern most point of New Zealand we decided it was worth a visit. It was only about a twenty-minute walk out to slope point and back to the car park, twenty minutes I’m so glad we took as it was surprisingly cool. Rugged, windswept and with no islands lounging offshore in your line of vision it certainly felt like you were on the edge of the earth. I am however very grateful the weather was relatively nice when we visited here, the land and trees tell their own stories of how harsh the weather here can be.
The next day we were visiting one of the main attractions on the Catlins coast, Curio Bay. Curio Bay is home to a petrified forest that is around 175 million years old. You can walk right down on to the rocks and get an up close look at it as well as the fascinating rock pools that have developed beside them. It is also the home to some yellow eyed penguins and if you are lucky you will catch a glimpse of the adults coming home to feed their chicks, we were unfortunately far to early in the day for this delight.
This was another day where we didn’t have very far to travel so we were settled in to our next freedom camping spot overlooking the Waikawa Harbour in time for lunch with the absolute waterfront views. Our afternoon wasn’t hard to fill with water on our doorstep and Oliver enjoying his extra time with Wayne. The Catlins was proving to be just as amazing as we had hoped it would be, I know if we had explored here when Wayne wasn’t working there were a few places that would have tempted us in to staying longer than we had planned. With Xmas eve arriving the next day we enjoyed a quiet evening drinking in the views, with a warm relaxed feeling inside that is so typical of a holiday by the beach.