We change direction and drive West. It’s about time we see some mountains! On the way, we meet again with Tim and Mat. They have stopped at Elephant Rocks, a flat grassy area scattered with big strangely shaped rocks. The boys climb the rocks for about three hours while Sylvie takes some pictures cosily wrapped up in three jackets. We say goodbye after a warm cup of tea at the back of our car.
Mount Cook appears in the distance, a snow-capped cone. The road goes through a valley, on one side yellow hills, on the other side, a deep blue lake. The landscape must be amazing in autumn when all the trees are red and yellow. Before we even get out of the car, we can feel the cold. The wind goes down the mountain and the glacier and cools down. The camp site is actually a big car park at the bottom of Mount Cook. We leave a message on Tim and Teresa’s car. They have gone for a two-day walk, we will see them tomorrow. We have dinner at the back of the car, looking with envy at the lights popping up in the campervans. The next day, we take a walk for a few hours. As usual, the path is perfectly marked. The most dangerous moment is probably when we have to step over a large puddle and the ravine is quite close. But they’ve thought of everything, a wire net prevents us from falling, thank God! We picnic next to a lake where a few ice cubes are floating (global warming?). On our way back, we find Tim and Teresa who have finished their walk. Theirs was more spectacular than ours: they slept in a hut and saw the sun rising over the glaciers this morning…
The weather is still torn between sun and rain so we decide to leave the same day. Hopefully there will be some sun at our next destination! We sleep on the shore of Lake Alexandrina in a deserted camp site. It’s still raining but we checked, there are no rivers miles around. The next day, the sun is out! We all have breakfast and enjoy the sunlight if not the warmth. We have a good time chasing the ducks looking for our crumbs. At the end Teresa finds the solution, let’s push them into the lake! We climb to the observatory of mount John where we have a great view over Lake Tekapo. The observatory was setup here because the sky is particularly clear here. The sun rays combined with a fine rock dust give a beautiful turquoise blue colour to the lake. We have a picnic at the top of the hill overlooking the lake and the plains (probably the Mordor plains). And then it’s time to say goodbye to Tim and Teresa. They go north to pick fruits near Abel Tasman.
We go east to the Banks peninsula, south of Christchurch. It nearly became a French colony. But the French were not quick enough and by the time they came back to setup a whaling station, the Maoris had signed the treaty of Waitangi, giving full sovereignty to the Queen of England over New Zealand. Today, the streets of Akaroa bear French names but no one is fooled. There isn’t even a French patisserie! We go for the ridge road but not for long. The fog is blocking the view and it’s becoming quite scary on the windy road. Too bad, we drive to Christchurch via the road ‘at the bottom’. In the evening, we meet again with Liz, Steve and the boys. Steve has cooked a great dinner: roasted lamb and grilled vegetables, whoa!
The next day, we carry on through Arthur’s Pass. This road is travelled every year by athletic enthusiasts during the ‘Coast to coast’ race held in February. The race lasts for a day or two (depending on the type of competition) and people participate alone or as part of relay. It is 243 km long, running, cycling and kayaking.
Today, the weather is depressing, for a change! The camp site in Arthur’s Pass is actually not so exciting, it’s car park on the side of the road. So we carry on and sleep in a genuine campsite near Lake Brunner. We meet two desperate cyclists who can’t bear the rain anymore. And on top of that, they have a 16% slope to climb tomorrow. We were going downhill on that same slope and Sylvie tried to go into manual. But she focused a bit too much on the gearbox and we nearly hit the railing! We then go through Nelson Lakes National Park. We can’t find Mat and Tim in Murchison. They were attending a rafting festival but it finished the day before we arrived. And we can’t find Tim and Teresa either. The weather being bad, they probably ditched the hiking and went straight to Motueka. The lakes Rotoroa and Roroiti are truly beautiful, deep blue mirrors nestled among mountains. Unfortunately we are not alone in the contemplation … sand flies are there too! They are worse than mosquitoes: we can’t hear them and they are so small we can’t squash them! Only positive side, Sylvie gets bitten too so Ben is happy. For once he is not the only one scratching himself! In the evening, we meet David and Jean, a retired Australian couple who is about to embark on a long journey … by boat! They leave Australia in a few months and plan to sail all the way to France. We are really excited (especially Sylvie) and spend the evening talking about boats.
We take the ferry in Picton, we are back on the north island where we will finally be able to walk the Tongariro Crossing. We start with Napier, a town on the south-east coast. It was completely destroyed by an earthquake on February 3rd 1931. Usually, when a city is destroyed, the new version completely lacks soul and character (think all those French cities rebuilt after WWII). But here, it’s the opposite. The new city is charming. The inhabitants turned a catastrophe into a success by expanding the city area (40 km2 were gained on the sea thanks to the earthquake), turning the streets into avenues and unifying the style of the city. Art Deco was in vogue at the time and it took over the city. All the buildings are built in an Art Deco fashion and they also bear Maori symbols. After some years, inhabitants forgot about it and several layers of paint were hiding the motives when it got re-discovered in the 90’s. Napier is now a Unesco World Heritage site. We spend a whole morning walking around and, for once, enjoying the sun.
We then drive to Taupo where, surprise, surprise, we meet Bruno! Last time we saw him was in Iran. We find him at the free camp site, north of the city, next to a river. It’s raining again and we spend the next two days waiting for the sky to clear up so we can walk the Tongariro crossing. Bruno gets up early one day to go and see the Iron Man (a super-triathlon). He used to participate and is our reference in terms of athlete … well, not that we can pretend to ever compete with him! We are not as passionate as him so we have a look at the race when we drive down to Turangi. Bruno meets us in the evening. Easy ride for him, we took all his panniers in the car. We get up before dawn and have a good breakfast … it’s a 7h hour walk after all! The sky is clear, let’s hope it holds on!
The Tongariro Crossing is supposedly one of the most beautiful walks of New Zealand, among volcanoes. There are so many walkers we have to walk in line (everyone has been waiting for days!). The landscape is just about to get interesting, volcanic, rocky, rough, when big clouds come running towards us … well, that’s it, we got our 5 min of sunshine! In no time, we are in the fog and our clothes are wet. We stay optimistic thinking, for sure, we will be above the clouds at the top. But not only it is foggy at the top, there is also a storm up there. We have to cling to each other not to fall over the ridge. We have lunch just above the turquoise lakes and are lucky enough to see them for a few minutes. Bruno stayed behind to do an extra climb but we don’t really see the point, everything is in the fog anyway. The last part of the walk seems endless, in the forest on slippery muddy paths. That evening, we are quite tired and we don’t even have great memories to perk us up. While we are cooking dinner, a girl chats to us, asks our name, where we are from… She is on her own, she is probably looking for some kind souls to speak to. She is tells us she is only here for the night, tomorrow she takes the bus for Wellington. ‘Like me’ exclaims Bruno. A while later, she rummages in the fridge and leave with two plastic bags full of food. We find it a bit strange that she is taking all her food when she is only leaving the following day. Two boys come in next, open the fridge and: ‘Someone took our food!’. It happened in less time than it took us to cook our Chinese noodles and we didn’t notice anything! Ben, concerned, leaps to the fridge, phew, his beers are still there! It is the second robbery we see in New Zealand. The first one was in Rotorua, a few days only after we had arrived. We get up one morning and see a bag open, far from all the tents. Strange. Then a girl runs to it and picks it up. Her camera got stolen during the night even though her bag was in the car, locked up. That morning, five people lodged a complaint to the police.
We wish good luck to Bruno and carry on north. He is just starting his trip in New Zealand, we hope he gets better weather than we did. We visit Coromandel peninsula, east of Auckland. It’s quite close to Auckland (less than 200 km) and the peninsula looks like the favourite place for the week-end. Small towns line the east coast, it nearly looks like Miami: promenade near the sea lined up with palm trees, flats with big balconies … The west coast is more rugged, we drive 60 km on a gravel road to reach Port Jackson, on the northern tip of the peninsula. Ben takes the chance to drive and Sylvie can relax a bit. The more we see of New Zealand, the more we want to see! So we drive between 200 and 300 km every day. And as Ben doesn’t feel confident enough to drive, Sylvie is his personal driver!! Except when the only obstacles are sheep…
We carry on north, pass Auckland and arrive in Waitangi where the treaty was signed (remember, when the French lost New Zealand?). Unfortunately, the Maori version was quite different from the English text, in part because of differences of culture (the Maori don’t understand the sense of propriety … or at least they didn’t back then!). We then reach Ninety Mile beach. It’s a very long beach, we can’t even see the end of it.
We go back to Auckland via the west coast. Ben noticed a nice hostel. We like hostels because we can camp near and take advantage of the kitchen and, usually, the lounge. The hostel is actually built on stilts in the forest. Very nice indeed but … way too expensive! It’s 15$ to sleep on the car park and another 15$ just to use the kitchen! Fine, we will take the ferry to cross Hokianga harbour. We have half an hour to kill, cool! We read and have an aperitif of rosemary crackers with cheddar and tomato relish. Add a good radio station, the night coming and the rain … ah, we love cars! In 10 min, we have crossed the harbour and found a nice camp site with a friendly owner … much better!
And that is the end of our road trip. We are a bit sad, we have to give back our nice car. It was warm inside and we felt safe and independent. In the evening, we meet Sig and Emma and Liloo, their 2-weeks old daughter. They are friends of Benoît and Albane (Sylvie’s sister). Since we arrived in New Zealand, a lot of friends have sent us contacts and we aare very grateful to everyone, friends and hosts! It’s great to be able to meet people who know the country and also to enjoy a genuine home! We can also step into the real life, talk work, babies and travels…
The next day, Sig takes us to the airport. We say goodbye to our car and Sig swaps us for some friends who have just arrived. They live in Christchurch and have come here on holiday. They are also going to look at some boats, they want to go back to France on a sailing boat. Ben has to drag a desperate Sylvie (‘Are you sure we can’t change our tickets?’) to the departure hall. In Christchurch, Liz has come to pick us up at the airport (something we are not used to!). We celebrate her birthday with an Indian take-away. We then spend a week on boring stuff: packing the bikes and the panniers … Steve gifts us with our first surfing lesson. We are a bit dubious: surfing at 6pm on an autumn day, are you sure? Ben is sure he will feel the cold and Sylvie is not too sure about it either. But at the end, this surfing lesson is one of our best memories of New Zealand! We start learning the positions on the sand and then, everybody goes in the sea. Right at the start, a big wave comes smashing the surfboard on Sylvie’s nose who cries of pain. Good start … but the teacher feels for her and spends most of the lesson helping her and holding the board so she can stands up, cool!! Ben and Tom manage easily and Sylvie succeeds by herself on the last wave, yipeee!! And we have to admit, we didn’t feel the cold at all with the great wetsuits!
We also spend one morning at Liz’s kindergarten. The children love our bikes and we have a great time giving a ride to thirty toddlers!! We leave Christchurch very early, 5:30am. Steve is brave enough to get up and say goodbye. We will have very good memories of our stay with this welcoming family. And a big thank you to Adrian for having thought of us!