Thursday, February 28, 2019

Christchurch and Akaroa, then home

When we got back to Christchurch, we had booked one more night at the Jailhouse accomodations. It's a great place, but we'd also heard that the YMCA hostel was wonderful, and it is right across the street from the Christchurch botanical gardens, so we booked our 2 remaining open nights there. You think that staying at a hostel is an inexpensive way to go, but you don't expect to get the best location for the cheap price. Yet, that's exactly what you get at the Y. Across the street one way is the huge botanical gardens and the Canterbury Museum. A couple blocks in the other direction is the town center with the old church that was heavily damaged during the 2011 earthquake.

In walking around the area, we stopped in to a tourist information center where they convinced us to take a bus tour out to Akaroa - we're so glad we did!

The bus ride was quite pleasant, and the driver had rich stories of the history of New Zealand. The Dutch explorer, Abel Tasmen was the first European to discover the islands. The Maori were already here - they call it Aotearoa. I'm not sure if Tasmen was too respectful of the Maori to "claim" the land for his home country or he was just lazy. Nevertheless, Dutch laid no claim. The French sailed into Akaroa harbor in 1838 but did not have the paperwork to "claim" the land for France so they sailed back to France to consult with the King and then sail back. Meanwhile, the English signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840 and the ship named HMS Britomart sailed into Akaroa harbor on Aug 10, 1840 and immediately raised the Union Jack claiming New Zealand as part of the British empire. 5 days later, the French made it back complete with settlers and proclamations from the French king to claim the land for France. What a story. The end result was that the french were allowed to settle in Akaroa as long as they vowed allegiance to the British.
To this day Akaroa has a French section and a British section, you can tell by the names of the streets and the restaurants.
What a beautiful place.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with seating overlooking the harbor. Who needs food when you have this view? But, the food was good too.

Part of our tour included a harbor cruise. Oh Boy.

It was a gorgeous day. We even saw the world's smallest penguin.

Back to Christchurch and we moved to our last hotel, the Doubletree. This had been booked as part of our skeleton plan for the whole trip. Very nice. Good breakfast. Then we're off to the airport and our LONG flight home. So cool to see this mural in the Auckland airport. It's a photo of the Castle Hill area near Arthur's pass, the place we call Birthplace of the Gods ... been there

First flight: Christchurch -> Auckland: 1.5 hrs + 2 layover
Second flight: Auckland -> San Francisco: 12 hrs + 2.5 layover
Third flight: San Francisco -> Miami: 5.5 hrs + 1.5 hrs train home

Home safe and sound, and not even much worse for wear. We didn't feel much jet lag at all. We were even able to do our YouTube show on Sunday. We show our photos, maps, and blog posts and teach you how you can do the same to remember your travels ... easy-peasy with Google Photos, Google My Maps, and Google Blogger. Episode 161:

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Monday, February 25, 2019

A train ride, Kiwi, and beer

We like train rides, so when we heard that one of the world's great train rides went from Christchurch to Greymouth over Arthur's Pass, we booked it. That was before we adjusted our RV route to go from Greymouth to Christchurch - over Arthur's Pass. I am generally against retracing my steps, won't this be a waste of time when there is so much to see in New Zealand? Jim said no - when we're on the train, I'll actually get to enjoy the view! So we kept the reservation and I'm glad we did. Train rides are relaxing - just sit back, eat and drink, and watch the beautiful scenery.

I think it is possible to go over and back in one day, but that's not relaxing! We had heard that the small town of Hokitika was very nice, so we found a place to stay on AirBnB and took a bus from Greymouth.

What a great AirBnB we found! It was upstairs in a building that used to be an old movie theatre. People bought it and converted it to a home with the upstairs as a separate apartment. We had a full kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom. And the WiFi was screaming fast.

We had our own separate door ... the Green Door ... and the key was in a place specified on the website. We were home. For 2 nights. We almost did one of our YouTube shows from there, because the WiFi was so good - but thought better of it and went to the Kiwi museum instead!

We were just a couple of blocks from everything. Restaurants, beach, museum, bars, everything.
In case you don't know - Kiwi is not only a fruit, and the nickname for people in New Zealand, it all started with the bird. Kiwi is a flightless bird known only in New Zealand.

Did you know that, as an island, New Zealand does not have any native mammals. None. No deer, no bear, not even any squirrels. If you see a four-legged creature  in New Zealand, it was brought here by people.  The only type of animals here as natives were birds, and fish. The Kiwi is the national symbol. You simply do not see them in the wild, not only because they are almost extinct, but also because they are nocturnal. So, when we learned there was a Kiwi museum in Hokitika, and you were guaranteed to see a real, live Kiwi, we had to go. What a funky little museum. To build up to the Kiwi, you were led along a path alongside a pond full of eels. Apparently eels are a major food source? And whitebait - a kind of minnow.
Then you go down a very dark corridor with darkroom lights and arrows pointing to the pen where you should see a Kiwi - indeed, we did see a bird - kind of a cross between a partridge and a penguin. You weren't allowed to take any photos because, well, it was dark - and the flash would blind the poor bird. There was only one, but he/she was quite active. They must have left food along the edge of the pen so that it would be running along where we could see it. When you left the museum, they gave you a printed photo of him/her.

We also enjoyed walking along the beach in Hokitika and picking up some Fish and Chips to take back to our BnB. You hear that Hokitika is a place where you can buy some authentic New Zealand Jade, aka Greenstone, aka Pounamu. Yep - I counted at least 6 different Jade jewelry stores, but I couldn't find much of anything in my price range. But, after hunting through several stores, I settled on a sweet little pair of gold earrings in the shape of a spiral. We learned that the spiral is a symbol of continual advancement in an upward, albeit roundabout, course. There tiny dot of Jade in the center of the spiral, making the price affordable at near $100. After putting them on and wearing them for the day, I decided I liked them a LOT. I'm so glad I bought them ... err ... rather that Jim bought them for me! It is considered bad luck to buy jade for yourself, you always buy it for someone else. So, Jim took them to the register and bought them for me :-)

The next day we had bad news ... our bus back to Greymouth and the train was cancelled. It was coming up from further south and part of the road had been washed out in a storm. Yikes! What do we do?

Lemons to Lemonade

We emailed our AirBnB hosts, Luke and Jose, to ask if they had any suggestions. How wonderful they were! Of course, they said, they know someone who is driving up from Hokitika to Greymouth this morning and they'll get us a ride with them and take us there. Wonderful people. He is a New Zealander and she is an American who has adopted Hokitika as her home. We loved meeting them.

They got us a ride with the van than transports bicycle riders. There is a well-known bicycle trail along much of the west coast of New Zealand south island and a shuttle service for the bicyclers. It just so happened that they were driving the shuttle van from Hokitika to Greymouth on the day our bus was cancelled. It's called the Wilderness Trail Shuttle and they were only transporting bicycles that morning so they had room for us!

In Greymouth there is Monteith's Brewery. This is a stop we wanted to make, but our original bus schedule didn't allow enough time so we wrote it off. Because of our bus cancellation, we were on the Wilderness trail shuttle and, guess where they were going? ... Yep! Monteith's Brewery.

And we arrived a good two hours before our train was scheduled. We were able to take the tour as well as taste a few beers and enjoy some wonderful food - I remember a Lamb pizza that was exquisite.
On our tour, we met fellow travelers who had a car and offered to drive us to the train station! Isn't it wonderful how things work out?!
The train ride from west to east was equally delightful as east to west.

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Geeks go to jail

After we turned in the motorhome and said goodbye to Melinda, we walked outside only to be greeted by a tall man in uniform, a constable, a member of the New Zealand Police force.
"I need to see your driver's license" he said
Already a bit dazed, and now totally confused, Jim complied and produced his Florida driver's license.
"Just as I thought," said the constable, "you don't have a New Zealand temporary driver sticker. You both will need to come with me."

Just kidding!

When researching a place to stay for a while in Christchurch, we looked at Airbnb, we also looked at Hostels. Sometimes referred to as Backpacker's Hostels, or just Backpackers, these are popular places for people to stay throughout New Zealand. When we found that an old Jailhouse had been converted to a hostel, well - we had to check it out, so we checked in.
It was great! For $82NZD (about $55USD) we had a private room with a double bed and TV, and shared a bathroom down the hall.
Our first room at the Jailhouse Accomodation
It clearly had been a jail in the past

The Wi-Fi was screaming fast, fibre optic. They had fun with the jailhouse theme!

We only stayed there one night the first time because we had reservations on the train to travel back across the Southern Alps.

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Friday, February 22, 2019

RVing in New Zealand

We already know that RVing is a fabulous way to travel. We highly recommend it. You don't need any hotel reservations, or train tickets. You set your own itinerary. You can cook your own meals. You can get up when you want, go to bed when you want. You never need to hunt for a bathroom. You can share a bottle of wine and and chat while watching the sunset! Sometimes you can park for free - in a friend's driveway, or on an open piece of land. Other times, it's easy, with the right app (we used CamperMate for New Zealand) to find a campground that suits your needs.

The only drawback really is that you have to drive!

Jim likes driving an RV, he's certainly had enough practice. Staying to the left required an adjustment, but he had no problem with that. But the roads were narrow, curvy, and often steep. That made it stressful. The motorhome we had was a lot smaller than the big rigs he has driven in the US, but at nearly 10 feet high and just over 22 feet long, it was still a big vehicle. Lesson learned: we should have planned to drive no more than 2-3 hours/day. When he had to drive 3-4, or even 5 he was wasted, and no fun, by the end of the day.

Here is a little movie where I compiled some photos and video clips of driving in New Zealand:

How did we pick out this motorhome?

One of the sites we used to research RVing in New Zealand was They had such high praise for the Wilderness RV company that we didn't even look anywhere else. Since Melinda was going to be with us, we needed an RV with 2 bedroom areas. That meant that we couldn't get one of the little vans, it had to be bigger. We picked the Ranger 4 model.

The cost varies with the season and the availability. We were there in high summer season (February in the south hemisphere.) It wasn't cheap! We paid about $400NZD per day - roughly $300USD. So it worked out to $100/day each. Still well worth it for really nice accomodations and the ability to cook our own meals rather than spending for eating out. We picked up the RV in Auckland on Feb 5 and dropped it off in Christchurch on Feb 20. We drove a total of 2,150 KM (1,336 miles). Diesel fuel was just over $4/gallon ($1.599NZD/Litre) We spent $492NZD on diesel, roughly $330USD.

Here is our first look around the camper. What IS the steering wheel doing on that side?!?

Here is how the bed worked - it was really cool:

Melinda says she really liked her ceiling cubbyhole bed. The ladder you were expected to use was very awkward, so she opted to stand on the driver's seat to climb up to the bed.

Internet Access - and GPS ... 

How come I've never seen a dashboard device holder like this in any RV over here? It was oh-so perfect for holding my iPad, and the iPad, with Google Maps, made a perfect GPS. 

We sprang for the extra $10NZD per day (about $7USD) for the Internet service. That got us unlimited data with a cellular provider chosen by Wilderness. There was an antenna on the roof, and a router in the closet. I'm not sure how many devices were allowed to attach, but we had at least 4 online at any given time. Just like cellular Internet in the US - it was not always available. It ranged from high-speed, excellent service to non-existent. I'd say it was good about 65% of our trip. Still well worth it. Jim's Pixel phone, and my iPhone were on Google Fi which works Internationally with no adjustments. Sometimes, when the RV WiFi didn't work, our Google Fi did. And, sometimes nothing worked.
The WiFi router in the back of the closet


Melinda first traveled in New Zealand by camper van about 20 years ago. She remembers being able to just pull off the road anywhere that looked nice and spend the night. Something that has become known as "Freedom Camping." Other people have also told us that Freedom camping is the way to go in New Zealand. Well, not anymore. We only parked in one Freedom camping area, 2 driveways of Melinda's friends, and the rest were commercial campgrounds.

The prices ranged from $15NZD/night to $45 ($10-30USD) Now, that doesn't sound bad until you learn that it is per person, not per RV like we're used to. For the most part, campgrounds were similar to US campgrounds. One difference was that none of them had sewer at your site. That's because the RVs used cassette toilettes. You had to remove the cassette and take it to where the dump drain is. It was a simple enough matter - the only problem was that the capacity was so low. Even in our little Roadtrek, we can go a week in between dumps. The cassette was full in about 2 days of similar use. At least that's how it seemed to me.

Another difference is how they cater to car/tent campers by providing group kitchen facilities. Stoves, refrigerators and dishwashing facilities along with tables and chairs for dining. Pretty cool.

Turning it in

All in all, the RV was a great way for the 3 of us to travel together. We made it! If just a little worse for wear ... Melinda and I were happy to give our drive-weary chauffeur a shoulder to lean on. :-)

Who feels sorry for Jim?

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Arthur's Pass and Valley of the Gods

Up and over the Southern Alps!

It's a good road, she said. It's an easy road, she said. And, you have to go that way because you must see the place I call Home of the Gods.
Well, it was a good road, and it may have been easy for a car, but our rented motorhome was struggling. It got really steep right before the top of the pass. Jim had the motorhome humming steadily along - but I think his gas pedal foot was on the floor. Then the truck in front of us slowed way down, so we had to do the same. You could hear the motorhome's engine winding down. Come on baby, you can do it, come on.
Nope. It stalled and stopped. Uh Oh.
We all held our breath, not saying a word, while Jim did the only thing you could do - restarted the engine, put it in gear, and stepped on the gas. It worked! All was fine. We exhaled and made it over the crest.

OK, we will get to see this Home of the Gods place after all!
We do feel like Gods here! Thanks to Melinda for taking this great shot!

Melinda has been here before. It was great to have her for our tour guide.

What a view from here, and the clouds are even god-like
See the whale?
It's hard to capture the scope of this place

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Between a rock and a hard place, Bulger pulls us thru

​​There are a lot of one way Bridges in New Zealand. You will see a sign telling you whether you have the right of way, or the other side. If you have the right of way, go ahead,
The blue sign at the left of this photo is the indicator about who has the right-of-way on a one-lane bridge. In this case, we do - the white arrow on the left lane. (remember? we're driving on the left here in New Zealand!)
If you don't have the right-of-way, then you need to see if there is anyone coming the other way before you cross. If the bridge is situated such that you can't see the other side, there are lights to tell you whether you can go or not. Just green or red.
Here is a photo of a one way bridge where we are waiting on our side (on the left) for the oncoming truck to go by. There was a light just to our left that was red, letting us know to wait.

In the narrow, winding road that goes thru the mountains to the Tasman Sea in the North of the South island, we encountered a new feature, overhanging cliffs (see the area in Google Maps). In this photo, the road is 2 way, we have to hug the rock on the left so that oncoming traffic can drive without falling off the cliff to the river on the right.

Just past that curve, there was another where the road narrowed to one lane and we could not see around the corner. It wasn't a actually a bridge, but it operated by the same rules. There was a light pole on our side to tell us to go - green- or to stay - red. Just one little problem - they were out of order. There was a black bag over the top of the p​ole where the lights should be.

What to do?

It was a Monday afternoon on this country road in the wilderness area of the south island of New Zealand, so if we don't see anyone coming, it's probably ok to go. Jim starts driving towards the blind curve on this one lane with a rock wall to his left and a cliff to his right. Oops, here come some cars. He hasn't gotten too far .. he puts the 21 foot long, 8 ft wide, ​motorhome into reverse and backs up to where he started. The cars pass by and the road looks clear again - we can't see anyone coming.
With no lights to tell us what to do, Jim cautiously inches forward. Still no one coming. Just as he turns the corner - beyond the point of no return - we see someone coming. Not just anyone. A truck. A 2-trailer cattle truck full of cattle! OMG. Jim moves as far to the left as he possibly can. I reach out and bring the side-view mirror in (it's on a hinge) to take about 12 inches off of our width and he gets as close to the rock wall as possible without scraping the side of the RV. The cattle truck comes to a stop beside us, then backs up a little in order to get a better angle on his drive. Inch by inch the truck crawls past as we suck in our breath. As the rear of the truck reaches Jim, he brings in his side view mirror and drives forward, just squeezing past. We made it.
I didn't think to take a picture (actually, I don't think I was even breathing!) until the danger was over and we were squeezing thru - out the other side. This is the tail end of the cattle truck that had us sandwiched in against the cliff to our left.

Who is Bulger?

One of the things we like to do when we're RVing is listen to books on tape. Sometimes we don't even bother with audible, and I just read it out loud. I had been doing that with this crazy book called "Baron Trump's Marvelous Underground Journey."

No, it doesn't have anything to do with the President's son Baron, but that odd coincidence is how the book is gaining some popularity today. It was actually written as a children's story in 1893 by Ingersoll Lockwood​. I got the Kindle version on my phone on a whim and started reading it out loud to Jim and Melinda. To our surprise, we quite liked it, so I continued reading. It is about a young man (Little Baron Trump) and his dog (Bulger) on a fantastic adventure to the underworld - a world within a world. I had just read the portion about how the young Baron had found the "Giants well" which provided an entrance to the underworld. Boy and dog successfully let themselves down using ropes. The problem is he only has one length of rope, and many lengths to travel:
​Know, then, that that was the smallest of my troubles; for, as any sailor will tell you, you only need to tie your line in what is known as a “fool’s knot,” to one end of which you make fast a mere cord. The moment you have reached the bottom, a sharp tug at the cord unties the fool’s knot, and your tackle falls down after you. My method was to lower Bulger down first, and then let myself down after him. In this way we proceeded from parapet to parapet, until at last we stood upon the very edge of the vast well​ ...
By this point in the book, we are realizing how important, and wonderful is his dog, but it gets better! After descending to what they thought was the bottom, they reach a very narrow opening known as "Polyphemus' Funnel" and the pipe was too narrow for the little Baron's body. He let Bulger down first, then bound his own arms tight to his body, greased himself up and slid into the funnel pipe. He had to twist his body like a screw to continue downward movement, but still came to a halt before coming out the other end.
I was at the point of swooning when I heard Bulger utter a loud yelp, and the next instant there was such a strong tug at my ankles that I sent forth a groan, but that tug saved me! It was Bulger who had leaped into the air, and catching the rope in his teeth had dragged his little master out of the pipe of Polyphemus’ Funnel!
We all fell into the same heap, Bulger, I, and the weight, fully ten feet, and very serious might have been the consequences for me had my fall not been broken by my striking on the pile of my clothing placed directly under the opening; and, dear friends, if you talked until the crack o’ doom you could not make me believe that my four-footed brother hadn’t placed those clothes there to catch me. They weren’t thrown higgledy-piggledy into a heap either, but were laid one upon the other, the heaviest at the bottom.   
​It was shortly after reading this section of the book that we had the experience between the rock and the cattle truck. Do you think that Bulger was with us? Did Bulger pull us through and save us?.

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West Coast of New Zealand and the Pancake Rocks

The west coast of New Zealand is known for its beauty. Rugged mountains coming down to the rough and tumble Tasman Sea.

The campground was right next to the beach and you could hear the crash of the powerful waves. The Tasman Sea hitting the west coast of  New Zealand is know for it's ferocity. We watched wave after wave and couldn't help but wonder, doesn't it ever get tired?

Just across the street from the campground is a beautiful walk along a river. It was lined with my favorites - Tree Ferns.
Jim always holds the door open for me!
The next morning, it was just a short drive to the visitor center for what they call Pancake Rocks. It was a fabulous walk along a half-mile path. A very popular place, lots of people, but because the path was a one-way loop, you didn't feel crowded. Excellent stop.