There and Back Again
With Christchurch as the pick-up and drop off destination, and the Catlins the ultimate destination, a brand-new motorhoming family covers 1572 kilometres in six days, and creates a whole load of special memories.
Words and photos by Hannah Dickson
As the crow flies the quickest way to get from Christchurch to the Catlins is definitely not via Mount Cook. But luckily the whole point of travelling in a motorhome isn’t about getting somewhere according to how that ubiquitous crow might navigate, or even the way the map says is most efficient. It’s about adventure, spontaneity, and going where your fancy takes you. Which is why the first night of a family holiday with the ultimate aim of going to a part of the South Island none of us had been to began by visiting a familiar part that already held great memories and one we wanted to introduce our children to.
The Southern Alps wasn’t our children’s first introduction of the day. As brand new NZMCA members (#82199), this was to be our first family holiday in a motorhome, which we picked up from Wilderness Motorhomes in Christchurch. We had a slightly ominous start to the day as we waited outside our Christchurch motel to be picked up by Wilderness. As we chatted with the motel owner about our motorhoming plans for the next week, she looked at our daughter and asked how old she was. Then Lucy replied she was 14, we were met with this response.
“This must be your worst nightmare - a week in a campervan with your parents!” We were quick to disagree on her behalf. While we were realistic about the challenges of travelling with a 14-year-old and her nearly 12-year-old brother, many of the things that probably made the motel owner think were recipes for disaster, were exactly the things we were looking forward to.
Our lives are busy and our children are growing quickly. With everyone’s different work, school, sport and social activities, we have to be very deliberate about making sure we have enough family time. What’s what this holiday was all about, complete with a near total ban on the screens that are such a big part of teenage life these days. Sure we’d be spending a lot of time in each other’s pockets, but bring it on!
Actually, there was space for everyone in our outback 4 - Carado from Wilderness. The extra-long vehicle ensured our island bed was made up the entire time, as was the drop down bed for the kids that meant the seating area wasn’t cluttered during the day. The bathroom door opened and locked into the opposite side of the interior wall, separating the bedroom and bathroom from the living area, giving privacy. There was plenty of storage (in fact we kept on finding more places to put things as the week went on) and the roomy fridge and garage space at the back were perfect for all the food and gear a family of four needs. Excitement levels were high as we left Christchurch and a picture perfect day made the drive to Mount Cook one to remember.
The kids decided to start making a list of ‘the old-fashioned things Mum says’ when we stopped at Tekapo to drink in the archetypal view of snow-covered mountains and vivid blue-green water. I mentioned it was so perfect it ‘looked like a chocolate box lid’. Lucy and Milo had no idea what I was talking about, and I realised it’s a very long time since chocolates actually came in boxes with picturesque views on the cover. For them, it was better described as Instagram-worthy view (for me also, if you go by the number of photos I took on my phone).
There was a bit of a convoy of vehicles heading up to Mount Cook, but luckily plenty of room at DOC’s White Horse Hill Campground (TD #8077). We arrived in time to do the easy Kea Point track walk that ends at a viewing deck with stunning views of Mount Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier lake and Aoraki/ Mount Cook. The plan was to ease the children into walks that would get harder and longer as the week went on!
The timing of our trip in early October was a bonus daylight saving hours had just started which meant that we had the longer evenings, but were still treated to plenty of snow on the mountains. It was balmy enough to have drinks outside before dinner, but after a quick toast to the magnificent view, it was nice to head into the van, turn on the heating, and applaud the brave souls who were setting up their tent outside. We certainly knew we weren’t in Auckland anymore when we fell asleep not to the sound of traffic but the occasional sound of an avalanche rumbling down the mountain. The children might still have been working on their list of annoying things mum says, but I was working on my list of why travelling with teenagers is actually great, as opposed to the mutual nightmare cliche. As we feasted on pancakes made by Lucy, then had coffee while Milo did the dishes, I knew we were onto a good thing.
We still get quite a sense of achievement looking back at the map to see the distance we travelled on the second day of the trip. It was a long way from Mount Cook to Roxburgh, but the dramatic changes of scenery kept it interesting. The mountain lakes were replaced by a stark Lindis Pass which morphed into the dramatic emerald green water of the Clutha River and the gorgeous blossoms of orchard country. Of course, nearly all the orchard stores were still closed, but we did manage to buy a huge bag of locally grown frozen raspberries that were liberally sprinkled on muesli for breakfast, and ice cream for dinner (there’s no roughing it when your motorhome includes a freezer).
We spent the night at Pinder’s Pond (TD#8866) - thanks to Carla and Neil Rein’s recommendation in the October/November issue of The Motor Caravanner. It’s a peaceful spot and while Geoff tried a spot of fishing, the trout weren’t biting. It’s always been a family motto that you should never eat anything larger than your head, but we made an exception for the very generously sized cinnamon buns we had at the Store in Roxburgh. They were delicious and fortifying and kept us going all the way to Nugget Point in the Catlins, where we arrived just in time for a lunch and a swim. Yep, swimming in Southland in October, two out of the four of us were crazy enough to attempt just that. Although to be fair Geoff and Lucy’s springtime dip was better recorded in terms of seconds, rather than minutes. Thank goodness for the motorhome, which provided instant access to hot soup and warm clothes.
Nugget Point with its iconic lighthouse (one of the oldest in the country) was a priority when I started planning my list of places to visit, and the panoramic views of the coastline and the wide sea beyond didn’t disappoint. Captain Cook gave the point its name because of the rocks that looked like pieces of gold, they certainly made good sunbathing spots for the seals we saw. Milo reckoned the little islands off the coast looked just like the spot Luke Skywalker hung out on in the latest of the Star Wars movies. The rain set in that afternoon which made our stop for the night all the more picturesque; as the rugged beauty of Curio Bay was truly dramatic with heavy seas and dark skies.
The Tumu Toka Curioscape Campground (TD#9463) offers great views across the bay and provides easy access to the crescent-shaped Porpoise Bay. It’s the perfect spot to view two of the highlights of this area; the fossilised remains of an ancient forest that can be seen at low tide from a specially-built platforms and the yellow-eyed penguins who nest in the area and can be seen leaving their nest for the sea early in the morning and in the early evening. We didn’t manage to see any penguins, perhaps because of the stormy weather or perhaps because we were there right in the middle of nesting season, so they may have been staying out of sight.
While there are many advantages to travelling in early springs it’s worth noting that some points of interest in the area are closed for lambing during parts of September and October, these include Slope Point, the southernmost point in the South Island, and Jack’s Blowhole, a large hole 55 metres deep, 200 metres from the sea in the Tunnel Rocks Scenic Reserve, accessed from Jack’s Bay. We’ve set both down for ‘next time’ along with some of the longer walks that would have been a challenge in the wet weather. Waterfalls however, only improve with the rain and we loved McLean Falls, accessed via an easy 40-minute walk through beautiful bush. With screens off limits, we made the most of a trusty pack of cards for evening entertainment (how many games of Last Card is too many?), but we got to up our game when we arrived at Newhaven Holiday Park (TD #8998) at Surat Bay. The life-size chess set was the perfect release after another long driving stint, and the children had to be dragged away for a walk along the beach.
Luckily, our insistence was rewarded when we came across several large sea lions swimming close to shore and lolling about on the sand. But the best moment came the next morning, when we awoke to find one hanging out just a few metres from the campervan, entirely nonplussed by our presence. I’ve always felt slightly sheepish that I have been to so many cities around the world, but never quite managed to fit in a visit to Dunedin. My mother and several of my friends have often shared colourful stories of their student days there, and I always felt I was missing out on something.
Now I can say I have been to Dunedin, but that’s about it. We passed through very quickly, because we were keen to make it to Moeraki in time for dinner at Fleur’s Place, a true bucket list experience for me. Open from Wednesday to Sunday, the waterside restaurant’s menu is simple, and based on the selection of seafood caught by the Moeraki Bay fishing boats that unload their daily catch on the wharf beside the restaurant. It can be risky finally going somewhere you’ve long wanted to visit, but there was no disappointment here. The restaurant’s rustic, wood-lined interior is covered in signatures, drawings and messages left by previous diners and reading them is a very entertaining distraction while you wait for the food to arrive.
We shared a huge bowl of giant mussels, then I had some of the first whitebait of the season while everyone else enjoyed the catch of the day. We were reminded how small New Zealand is when friends who live a couple of streets away from us in Auckland arrived just after we sat down. Small world indeed. We ended the evening rugged up, sitting outside with night caps and hot chocolates marvelling at the stars. It’s one of those moments that will stay etched in my memory. After staying overnight at the Moeraki Village Holiday Park (TD #8295), we covered some of the Millennium Walkway. The full track goes from the village through to the Moeraki boulders, but we just walked from the campground up to the old pa site which gave fantastic views of the area.
We felt very lucky to have the Moeraki Boulders completely to ourselves, yes, that made the photos better, but also gave us an uninterrupted chance to marvel at the mystery and shape of the spherical stones. Much of this trip was spent in awe of nature and the sheer beauty of the New Zealand countryside, so it was interesting to arrive in Oamaru for a completely different focus. As we got closer, Geoff and I struggled with how exactly to explain the Steampunk concept to Lucy and Milo. The definition that made the most sense was ‘a quirky, somewhat-crazy, steam-powered future as Victorians may have imagined it’.
Definition notwithstanding, they loved the theatricality and scale of the concept. Steampunk HQ was a hit with its sculptures, hands-on machines and at times unnerving sound effects. ‘The Portal’ was a highlight, an infinity room of mirrors and lights that felt like a never-ending Christmas display. Walking into the Jessie Roberts Store with its shelves jam-packed with jars of forgotten sweets was a real trip down memory lane. While some of them I remember more from reading about them in old-fashioned storybooks (hello Milly Molly Mandy) than in real life, we were delighted to come across boxes of Space Man candy sticks - called Space Man cigarettes back in the day.
I still remember the fury in the playground when they were banned because of the possibility they were encouraging children to smoke. The distinctive red tips that made the sticks look as though they were lit are now gone, but it was nice to introduce them to our children, albeit with a strict warning about the perils of tobacco! Up until this point, our trip had been pretty much following a predetermined itinerary, the result of wanting to achieve as much as possible in a limited time. But after Oamaru, we knew we had to be back in Christchurch to drop the motorhome off the following afternoon, but had flexibility as to whether to stick to the coast road heading back via Timaru, or go inland for the journey back. The latter won out, and while trying to find a shortcut back to the Mackenzie Country we ended up in Waimate, marvelling at giant murals painted on the silos that have dominated the landscape since they were built to house grain in 1934 .
They’re now owned by Transport Waimate, who commissioned local artist Bill Scott to paint images of the people who were an integral part of the town’s history. They include Margaret Cruickshank, the first woman to be registered as a doctor in New Zealand, who worked in Waimate from 1897 to her death in 1918; World War II hero Eric Batchelor, and Waimate-born former Prime Minister Norman Kirk. Another shows one of the first European settlers to the area, Michael Studholme, being welcomed by Chief Te Huruhuru.
The murals were completed earlier this year and are well-worth the detour, with a pedestrian lane around the property giving good viewing opportunities. We nearly completed full-circle for our last night, staying in Fairlie. With everyone telling us about the legendary pies from the Fairlie Bakery, how could we not? But while the first night of our trip was spent sitting outside, marvelling at the stars, our last was spent rugged up inside, while the temperature dropped to near freezing outside. But those temperatures provided another deposit in the memory bank - delicate snowflakes that melted before they touched the ground, but that could be caught on tongues and noses. Quite an experience for a city-dwelling North Island family.