At last the big day has come. A weight allowance of 20kg each proved a challenge to Lynne but was amicably resolved when I found my “empty” case already with Lynne’s boots, shoes, toiletries and medications and weighing 10kg before I even started packing. Fortunately another 10kg full of clothes for Eve, Maisie and Finlay went off to Dan and Lucy as part of Hamish’s allowance.
So, after tidying the house and sending the dog on holiday with Irene, eventually our good friends Yvonne and Steve ran us to Heathrow. The journey down and check-in were painless but that was where the pleasure ended. The promised giant A380 Airbus was replaced by a Boeing 777 with virtually no empty seats. I was in the middle with Lynne by the aisle on one side and Mr Fat on the other.
Day 2 - Sunday 3rd March
There wasn’t much Sunday because of time zones, but the 5 hour break in Singapore was both welcome and pleasant. We found an outdoor swimming pool at the airport and wallowed, sunbathed and showered before getting on an equally squashed plane to Christchurch.
I thought I was being thoughtful ordering Lynne vegetarian airline cuisine but none of it seemed to resemble any known vegetables. There was a block of yellow pollyfilla followed by a bowl of wallpaper paste with bits floating around. Other meals for Lynne had a different theme – one could easily double-up as a convincing cosmetic implant.
Day 3 - Monday 4th March
At last we arrived mid-morning in Christchurch but immediately got detained by the quarantine police (as did half the plane). A speck of dust was spotted on one our walking boots – enough we were told to bring ruin on the entire Southern Hemisphere farming economy if it was contaminated. One of the questions on the entry form was “Do you have any clothes with you that have ever been outside?” Being honest we answered “yes” – what was surprising was how many people answered “no” and the quarantine police seemed to accept this!
After a long wait we eventually got into our campervan and off we went for a 2.5 hour drive north to Kaikoura (see day 4). Lynne seemed to think the campervan was too small and wondered why there wasn’t a bath, separate bedroom, conservatory and gym onboard. I found it a bit OTT with all mod cons – certainly not camping how I remember it.
Totally knackered we eventually completed the jigsaw puzzle otherwise known as a bed and fell asleep, only to both wake up perky at 4.00am.
Day 4 - Tuesday 5th March
Kaikoura has some remarkable marine life – whales, dolphins, seals, albatrosses, etc. Apparently this is because there is a deep trench a couple of miles offshore, providing plenty of squid and other food.
We booked on a whale watching trip and had no idea what to expect. It started with a safety briefing and a short bus trip and we then boarded a catamaran that set off at 30 knots (fast!) over very bumpy sea.
Soon the first whale was spotted - 30 tons of sperm whale that needs to eat around a ton of food a day! They dive to huge depths for up to an hour at a time and then surface to breath for just a few minutes before going down again – showing off the magnificent tail.
We saw four more sperm whales plus a killer whale (actually a member of the dolphin family) up really close. Bird life included various varieties of albatross.
Seeing all these magnificent creatures in their natural setting was truly awesome and quite humbling. The whales were almost completely eliminated by hunting. They are slowly recovering now but still survival remains precarious and human pollution and rubbish are just as effective killers as the Japanese whaling ships.
Day 5 - Wednesday 6th March
An early start to go swimming with dolphins at 8.30am. We resembled the chuckle brothers as we wrestled with wet suits that just refused to fit, but eventually two zombies from a low budget horror film waddled onto yet another boat with a dozen others – all of whom seemed younger and much more competent and agile.
The dolphins (species – dusky dolphins) were located and in we went – apparently much to the amusement of these beautiful animals. Singing songs underwater through your snorkel and trying to impress the dolphins by diving and circling seemed to do the trick and altogether over 500 dolphins got to see the show.
They are truly magnificent animals – elegant, gentle and inquisitive. To experience them up close in their natural habitat is something I will never forget.
After a lovely cliff walk, spotting seals, we stocked up and then drove a couple of hours to Picton at the north end of South Island and renowned for Marlborough wines, ferries to North Island and a huge network of sounds and creeks, which we will explore tomorrow.
Day 6 - Thursday 7th March
A golden rule when camping on official sites is to use the site toilet and not the chemical potty in the campervan. Unfortunately us 60 somethings can rarely go a whole night without a comfort break, so today was the first dump day.
In fact the process is fairly painless - remove the potty casssette from the van, empty it into a designated dump station, rinse it out, add some sanitiser and put it back in the van for more nocturnal action.
After the exertions of yesterday, today was quite gentle. Picton is a beautiful port situated at the head of the Marlborrough Sounds. We joined the mail boat on a 4.5 hour trip in and out of the most beautiful sounds and coves. At one point we decided to emigrate!
Back at the site, Lynne had decided we needed more vegetables so she made her signature ratatouille, with enough for everyone on site. Apart from having enough ratatouille now for the rest of our trip, I sense the potty on the van may see some more action, leading to more frequent visits to the dump station.
Ah well, such is life!
Day 7 - Friday 8th March
At the crack of dawn, or so it seems, Lynne nudged me and said "come on Crichton - we need some aerobic exercise" so, obedient as ever, up I got and we set off at pace to climb the local hill overlooking the bay. It was signposted a 45 minute climb but we did it in 25, all down to Mrs Crichton's competitive streak.
Following ablutions we decamped and set off through the Marlborough wine country to eventually end up, after a 4 hour drive, at Motueka at the southern end of the Abel Tasman park, where we will spend tomorrow.
We have booked for kayaking - something neither of us have done before. As we glide up the coast in our boats the scenery is apparently stunning and the wildlife (seals, penguins, etc.) amazing.
When we arrived Lynne got the exercise urge again so off we went on bikes along a coast path for an hour and then back, to find the pizza man had set up next to our campervan, so we duly succumbed, but it had to be accompanied by yesterday's ratatouille - and even after stuffing ourselves there is still enough rat for two more days.
Day 8 - Saturday 9th March
Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer who discovered New Zealand and Tasmania around a century before Captain Cook. Unfortunately he didn't endear himself to the natives, who cooked and ate four of his men, so he never returned!
The National Park named after him at the North West of South Island is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been - an unspoilt mixture of gentle blue sea, golden sandy coves, unspoilt forest, cliffs, islands, seals, mini-penguins and abundant bird life.
Today was to be kayaking and walking interspersed with water taxis - effectively supercharged speed boats driven by maniacs.
We squeezed into our kit and Lynne (in the front) and I were first to launch. Just at that moment a big wave appeared from nowhere and drowned Lynne!
Thoughts of poddling gently round pretty coves quickly evaporated when we started with a 4km open water power paddle. fortunately this was followed by some more gentle stuff before we beached and set off for a 2 hour walk along the coast, joined by a young Dutch couple - Pietr and Nora. We thought Nora was quite frumpy but were shocked when she said her hobby was paragliding and they had brough all their kit with them.
It was a brilliant day, spoilt only by having to finish off the ratatouille, but at least it has now all gone. There are rumours that Lynne plans to boil up cabbage in the campervan tomorrow!
Day 9 - Sunday 10th March
Today was the first of two big travel days to take us down south to the mountain region around Queenstown. This is where all our offspring have bungeed, skydiven, paraflown, helidropped and done all sorts of other brave and stupid things. We will do none of these!
We said a sad farewell to the Abel Tasman area and headed to the west coast, stopping en route to visit New Zealand's longest swing bridge over the treacherous Buller Gorge. Lynne got halfway across and froze, but realised it was probably easier to keep walking than turn back. The return journey was another matter as she refused to cross - a problem as there was no alternative. Just then an 85 year-old lady with a hip replacement marched across in double time. Lynne had no choice but to follow!
The coastline was stunningly beautiful until we reached a really grim town called Greymouth - an ex-mining town and still an industrial centre. We quickly passed through and eventually reached Hokitika - still over 400km to our destination in the Queenstown area but a good place to bed down, after a distinctly unimpessive walk in the dark to the "world famous glow-worm grotto". I suppose bioluminescence is a wonder of nature but it is nothing like twinkling LEDs on a Christmas tree.
Day 10 - Monday 11th March
The second big travel day, starting in Hokitika on the west coast and heading 400km upwards and inland to Wanaka in the Southern Alps.
More great views en route. We stopped at Franz Josef for a very nice lunch in a very nice café. We spent the time people-watching as they prepared for helicopter flights to the glacier or returned from the caves.
After turning inland we followed a bus into the only café for 50 miles. It turned out to be a backpackers bus of the type Katy, Martin and Emily travelled on and a dozen or so gap year youngsters duly emerged. The driver was quite chatty and waxed eloquent about his home town of Gisborne on North Island.
We made it to a site in Wanaka as darkness started to fall, washed our smellies, ate an enormous corn on the cob each, drunk alcohol and collapsed into bed. Tomorrow we will relax!
Day 11 - Tuesday 12th March
Another lovely day - there has been no rain in much of NZ for 3 months and a drought has been declared in some regions. Grass everywhere is brown and some trees and shrubs have died. The level in lake Wanaka seems to be a metre below normal.
At Lynne's insistence, our relaxing day was to be active, so we donned Lycra and hired mountain bikes. The surly sales girl gave us maps and pointed out an ideal route for us. In fact we went way off the map and did 50km over quite rough terrain.
After 5 hours in the saddle, bum is sore and rest of body is knackered.
Mrs C then decided we needed more greens so we bought enough lettuce to make a Caesar salad for the whole camp site. Did Julius Caesar really eat lettuce, croutons, shaved parmesan and a light dressing while he set out to conquer the known world?
While we are on this theme, did Garibaldi really feed his troops biscuits with squashed flies in them? It seems only Wellington with his beef prepared for battle with proper food!
Not sure what to do tomorrow - possibly start the long treck back to Christchurch with a stop at Lake Tepako? Alternatively make a diversion to Arrowtown?
Day 12 - Wednesday 13th March
The Europeans came to New Zealand in the 18th century and, in effect, took it from the Maori’s. In fact the Maoris had themselves come from Polynesia starting in the 12th century – before then there was no human habitation in the country. This is unlike Australia where the Aborigines have been around for over 20,000 years.
By and large Maoris seem better integrated into “white European society” then the Aborigines, though they still have lower life expectancy and poorer economic prospects than whites.
The Maori phrase for vegetarian is Tahuri Whenua which translates roughly as “incompetent hunter”.
Today we made a start on the long journey back to Christchurch, passing through some stunning countryside, including the turquoise lakes Punaki and Tepako.
We stopped at the latter, climbed a big hill to an observatory, came down and wallowed in some hot pools before resuming our journey to a really ordinary place called Fairlea, almost running out of diesel on the way – definitely Lynne’s fault.
Not sure where the rest of Lynne is in this photo!
Day 13 - Thursday 14th March
Not sure whether to go directly to Christchurch or make a detour of up to three hours to the beautiful Akoroa on the Banks Peninsula. Over our first breakfast out, decided to make for a campsite around 10km out of Christchurch on an estuary near New Brighton.
Signs of earthquake devastation all round – roads and bridges closed, houses condemned, demolition and construction contractors everywhere. The city has a positive attitude to reconstruction, but so much infrastructure has been ruined and many people have lost their homes, with quite low levels of compensation.
We hired bikes, cycled up the estuary footpath, making detours around closed areas then realised we could cross the peninsula and reach a “proper beach” leading to New Brighton pier. It was great fun cycling on the beach at the water’s edge but then we managed to get lost trying to find the site again.
Unfortunately our neighbours tonight (from Aberdeen) have a giant luxury campervan with kitchen, full-size shower, permanent bed and comfy seating area. Whilst ours is at the top end of two-person vans, the neighbour’s van is as different from ours as first class is from economy class. I think their van also comes with a servant. Why did they have to park next to us?
Sadly our New Zealand sojourn is coming to an end. The van goes back tomorrow – we are then staying in an airport hotel prior to catching the 7.00am flight to Sydney on Saturday morning. Lynne has just spoken with Esther (ex teacher at Meridian who lived with us for a while) and we will be seeing her tomorrow evening.
Day 14 - Friday 15th March
Sadly the last full day in NZ had arrived. We woke up again to beautiful weather and skilfully transformed the campervan for the last time from sleeping to sitting mode, followed by a final visit to the dump station (see previous entry!).
Making the most of the morning we walked to the beach at South Brighton where I was able to wallow in the rolling surf - Lynne had previously been for a run so sat on the beach and read a romantic novel about a celebrity chef who had problems keeping his trousers on.
And so began the trundle in the van to the other end of Christchurch and a visit to a gas station that had run out of diesel. Eventually we joined with hundreds of other campervans converging on the rental depot, recovered our cases and checked in to the nearby airport hotel in a state mixing depression (goodbye NZ) and ecstasy (hello proper bed and bath)!
We had arranged to meet Esther, who moved from Cambridge to Christchurch 8 years ago. She is teaching in a special needs school and is in the process of selling her earthquake-damaged house and buying a plot of land to build a new house.
Following a delicious Italian meal it was back to the hotel for an early start and flight to Sydney to see Rob, Claire, Eve, Maisie and (for the first time) Finlay.
Day 15 - Saturday 16th March
Brring Brring Brring! It is 4.15am and we need to check in by 5.00am for a 7.00am flight. Sydney is 2 hours behind, se we got up at 2.00am Sydney time!
3.5 hour flight was unpleasant - we were initially not even sitting together and in the back, non-reclining row. Luckily we were able to move but then found our ticket only permitted us tea, coffee and water - no food. The only positive thing about the flight was the safety video featuring Bear Grylls. Click here.
Quarantine was non-eventful - apparently everyone from the UK imports a huge jar of marmite - and there they were: Rob and Finlay!
It is a funny feeling seeing a grandchild for the first time - Finlay is 9 months old - so some of our time in Australia will be spent getting to know him. One thing was obvious from the start though - he is definitely a Crichton!
For the rest of the day we met with Claire, Eve and Maisie, played with the children, went shopping, had lunch out, went to the park and then enjoyed a chaotic bath time, during which Eve and Maisie had to test out the umbrellas Lynne bought in the toy shop.
Finally Lynne and I departed to our lodging house just down the road and run by a madame of East European origin and with a strange sense of dress.
Day 16 - Sunday 17th March
Another glorious day as we left our doss house to walk to Rob and Claire's, where Dan, Lucy and Hamish had already arrived, heavily jet-lagged. In fact Hamish had gone hyper - Lynne and I took the children over to the local park and he decided he could swing on big swings, slide down big slides and climb up big climbing frames.
Eventually we hit the road south towards Jervis Bay - a 3 hour drive during which Rob and I took it in turns to keep Dan awake by talking mindless drivel.
The house is stunning - right on a secluded beach with a huge living / dining room, balcony and well-equipped klitchen. Rob did something amazing with a barramundi and some huge prawns and before long, everyone had gone to bed.
The picture shows Finlay at bath time - he seems to be very tolerant of his sisters prodding and poking him, with the occasional submersion.
And that's all!
Thank you for reading our blog and putting up with our various antics. I hereby do solemnly declare that I have written the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Anything you may have read in a parallel blog by Mrs Crichton is largely made up!