When Autumn Leaves

Autumn is many seasons rolled into one. Gone now are the Keatsian days of early Autumn, that abundant time when the garden finally comes good with the fully blown fruits of an earlier season’s hard work. Then my mornings were filled with preserving: now I sweep and rake fallen leaves and gather ‘morning wood’, dry sticks and kindling to store for lighting fires. I often think of Lao Tzu when sweeping. An old black and white ink print on rice paper rises again to haunt me, flashbacks of Nepal, Swayambhunath and Francis, friend and Nepalese expat who helped revive the lost art of Tibetan ink printing during the 70s. Daoist, peaceful, impressionistic, the memory of this print and the act of sweeping helps clear the brain.

Daily raking and sweeping. Melia Azederach sheds early and often.

Autumn’s cold snap, a preparation for things to come, is followed by days of sunshine and warm weeks, a glorious Indian summer, confusing some plants and encouraging others to linger. Chillies have re-flowered, fruit tree buds are swelling: all in vain I’m afraid.

May 26: Borlotti beans are flourishing but I’m keeping an eye on them.

Just as I begin to indulge in the melancholy that comes with late Autumn, along come the Borlotti beans in their splendid pink scribbled coats and plump promise. I’ve been watching them and feeling them for weeks. One of their alternate names in Italian is Fagioli Scritti, a more vivid and appropriate title for this colourful and useful bean. I grow the tall variety and usually plant them late in the season. They are adapting to our microclimate as the same seeds are picked late and saved from year to year.

Borlotti beans prefer Autumn.

The cheery colour of pink tinged lettuce is also a mood changer. All the lettuces are better in the cold: cos and romaine, curly endive, bitter escarole, the butterheads and the soft oakleaf varieties, rugola, each one delicious on its own but more so when mixed. Large pink radishes and the ‘heart of darkness’ radicchio are now in their prime. Beautiful colours painted by cold.

Baby leaf mix of late Autumn
Heart of darkness radicchio

This version of Autumn Leaves seems to suit this season. It makes sense of nostalgia, missing and parting more than the crooning versions of the 50s, although the original French version, Les Feuilles Mortes, written in 1945, is also rather charming.

Reflecting in Oamaru Public Gardens

The light down the south coast of New Zealand is glorious in May. It is the best time to go for Autumn’s deep colours, nature’s majesty and that hypnotic chiaroscuro that precedes the depths of winter. The nights are chilly and the mornings frosty, then the days open up splendidly. A leisurely walk through Oamaru’s public gardens is one of the highlights of this wonderful town. It’s a place of reflection for some: for the energetic, it’s a place to run: for children and the young at heart, it’s a fairyland, with sculpted mushroom tables and chairs, hidden stone grottos, and mysterious dark places to explore. It is also a place to consider the foresight of Victorian planners, who, in 1858, set aside 34 acres as a public reserve. Oamaru Gardens opened on this site in 1876, making it one of the oldest in the country.

Some highlights of the gardens include the Japanese Red Bridge, the Oriental Garden, the Fragrant Garden and the large trees around the band rotunda. Details from the Victorian era can be seen everywhere – a sundial, croquet lawns, a wishing well, an aviary and a peacock house.

Oamaru public gardens, South Island, New Zealand

 

 

Garden Prozac with Thai Salad

On mid Autumn days when the sun shines and there’s not a breath of wind, my enchantress, the vegetable garden, lures me through her gates. No matter how much I try to limit my work to an hour or so, time just flies by. I read recently that it has a lot to do with Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microbe in the soil, which is said to have a similar effect on the neurons as Prozac. The bacterium found in soil may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Great, dirt is a natural anti – depressant. My fingernails are now full of garden Prozac. Or is it the sun, fresh air and exercise? I feel very content and at peace in the garden, despite what my back is telling me.

Today’s Pick/1. Carrots, cucumber, pumpkin, tomatoes, zucchini, baby leeks, Thai basil, mint, regular basil, French radish, beans, chilli.
Today’s pick

In the garden there are late borlotti beans, rambling cucumbers, and zucchini ( of course!). There are a few courageous tomato bushes, some self-sown specimens appearing out of nowhere after a big clean up. The strawberries are re-flowering, fruiting and throwing out runners which are taking up residence in the pathways. The lemongrass has turned into a giant, the chilli bushes are in their prime, and bok choy and celery have self-sown everywhere. There are three metre high amaranth plants, looking like it might be the invasive new crop I do not need. Definitely Triffid material. What was I thinking- grinding up amaranth seed for bread? This one has to go.

The potential pest. 3 metre high Amaranth giant about to shed its seed.

A transitional time, our beds are being prepared for new crops. Each bed receives a few loads of fresh compost and some spent straw from the chook house. So far, I have sown broccoli ( Calabrese), Tuscan Kale ( Cavolo Nero), regular kale, rugola, three types of lettuce, dill, radish, beetroot, spring onions, peas, snow peas, broad beans, parsnip, turnip, and cima di rape. Due to good timing- warm soil, followed by good rainfall and mild weather- all the seeds took off. Please dear reader, if you live near by, come and get some seedlings. I can’t transplant them all.

The seedling bed. Lots to spare

After a garden pick, I feel like one of those contestants on Masterchef, except less stressed. You know that segment where the judges hand over a bunch of odd ingredients and the contestants have to cook something using what’s on hand. Not wishing to see the freshly pulled carrots and herbs go limp, I put together this salad for lunch. As I was eating it, I thought it would go rather nicely with some grilled prawns, or freshly cooked prawns, peeled and chopped through it. But then, who needs to go shopping.

Fresh Garden Thai Salad

Garden Thai Salad

  • one medium zucchini, grated
  • 2 small carrots- I used two medium white carrots, and one small orange
  • leaves from mint, coriander, Thai basil, regular basil
  • one Thai chilli, chopped very finely
  • two teaspoons of light brown sugar
  • juice of one-2 limes/1/4 cup of juice
  • fish sauce to taste/ optional
  • a little neutral vegetable oil, not olive oil
  • unsalted peanuts, fried and chopped if you have some

Grate the vegetables. Tear the leaves and mix through. Mix the chopped chilli, sugar, lime juice, oil, fish sauce, together in a jug. Pour over the ingredients and toss well. Pile onto a serving plate and add chopped peanuts.

All for me.

Rewriting Tradition. Easter Cuisine Old and New. Part 1

I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.

Ready for the oven

I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way.  Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.

Just glazed. Who prefers the top half?

I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.

To serve with butter, not margarine.

The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing  from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.

Fish pie includes Shetland smoked cod, flathead and shrimp

One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.

Three serves later….

This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.

“Enter the 60’s & 70’s: Traditional Good Friday cooking of smoked cod, which was smelt from miles away on the farm, still lingers in our psyche. We (all seven kids) all started to gag at the thought of having to consume his hideous boiled, vile muck served with over-cooked spuds and grey cabbage. Tradition beheld that we all sit at the kitchen table and dare not complain as the Compassion donation box was placed in the middle of the table with forlorn starving African children’s’ faces staring back at us which reflected those much worse off than ourselves. If only our parents knew that when we took those money boxes back to school they were much lighter by many pennies and the occasional thrupence than when they left their position placed strategically near where food or indulgent entertainment was involved. When visiting childless Aunts and Uncles visited our eyes bulged as they loudly dropped loose change into said box and we immediately tallied up how many kangaroo or umbrella toffees on a stick , yard-long licorice straps of triangular frozen Sunnyboys we could buy at the tuck-shop on the next school day. I’m sure tens of thousands of children in Africa died of starvation by we greedy Catholic kids but obligatory confession ultimately absolved us even if we had to lie to the priest to protect our guilt. So now we celebrate Easter by holding a “traditional” Bad Friday by sharing all the amazing regional and seasonal foods abundant in our region. Last week-end was the annual sugarcane and banana plantation pig shoot – sponsored by the local pubs. We bar-hogs waited for hours until the slaughtered swine were unceremoniously chucked off the blood-splatted Utes by the shooters whose faces were akin to orgasmic stimuli at the thought of winning the $25 stake. The weigh-in is a serious event all greased with gallons of booze and much humourous joshing . However, those of us on the peripheral could only see that these beasts can’t possibly go to waste and commence bartering for the whole hog. My point being is that this Bad Friday’s fare is a 57 kilo pig on a spit to be shared with all the local collapsed Catholics, a few bevvies and lots of stories about how we all ended up in the wonderful wet tropics of Far North Queensland – and not a hot-cross bun in sight. Ahh! Bliss!!”

Thanks Peter for making the effort to add such entertaining recollections to my posts. I am sure many Australians of a certain age may have similar memories.

That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion…..

Smoky Cullen Skink Soup

When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.

A taste of winter.  Southern Cross station, April 10th. Autumn turns mean.

And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica with crusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.

Soup for two in found English bowls.

One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.

Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.

  • I tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
  • 300 ml water
  • 250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250 ml milk
  • ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives

In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.

Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,

Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.

* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.

My everyday sourdough loaves, to serve with soup.

An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.

Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?

 

Pearl Couscous, Halloumi and Fig Salad

Returning to the kitchen with a basket of Autumn bounty presents a challenge: pasta, soup or composed salad- that is the lunchtime question. I’m not a sandwich person: too many school and work lunches, eaten on the run, killed the sandwich option for me forever. The provincial classic, Soupe au Pistou, combining green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, new potatoes, shelled red and white beans, then topped with a spoon of pesto, is an all time favourite. Warm composed salads are the other. With a few pantry and fridge staples, such as couscous and Halloumi cheese, this salad came together magically.

Insalata di cuscus, formaggio fritto, zucchini, figo e menta.

Ingredients for two large serves

  • 100g pearl couscous
  • 1 tablespoon EV olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ red capsicum, finely diced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  •  Halloumi cheese, drained or one small packet, cut into serving shapes*
  • a little EV olive oil for frying and grilling
  • one small zucchini, chopped thickly into 2 cm chunks on the diagonal
  • two or more fresh ripe figs
  • honey
  • mint leaves, torn
  • ground sea salt and pepper
  • vinaigrette or lemon juice to dress (optional)

Method

  1. Make the pearl couscous. In a small heavy based saucepan, add the oil, then add the couscous, capsicum and garlic and quickly toast over medium heat, stirring for 30 seconds on medium heat.
  2. Add the stock. Reduce heat to medium/low and cook, covered, for 20 minutes or until the stock is absorbed and the couscous is soft.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a stove top grill pan and grill the zucchini chunks. Remove and set aside. Season.
  4. In a regular frying pan, cook the Halloumi pieces in a little oil until brown on both sides. Remove and set aside.
  5. Halve the figs. Dunk the cut side in a little honey and fry in the on the cut side until brown and caramelised.

Assembling the salad.

Lay the warm couscous on a flat serving plate. Then add the zucchini, followed by the Halloumi, then the figs. Scatter torn mint over the dish, season and dress lightly.

* Notes.

  • I buy Halloumi in 1 kilo jars for around AU$10. The cheese keeps well in its salty brine and provides enough cooking cheese for around 6 months. Small packets of Halloumi from supermarkets would make this dish more costly.
  • Kefalograviera cheese fries well and would make a good substitute for Halloumi.
  • Other pantry staples could be substituted for the pearl couscous, such as orzo pasta. Use what you have.

This is an Almost Italian original recipe, inspired by this year’s stash of fresh figs.

 

Autumn and Keats. A Pictorial Conspiracy.

When I first studied Keats’ Ode to Autumn as a 17-year-old student, I was naive, optimistic and ignorant, full of expectation and youthful determination. The possibilities of life stretched out endlessly before me. I was in the Spring of my life: this metaphor, now considered clichéd, was not lost on me at the time, but then again, how could I have fully understood the real depth of this Keatsian analogy, not having travelled very far through the successive seasons of life. My literature teacher laid strong foundations for future and deeper understandings. Good literature requires frequent visitations.

‘To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core
.’

Heirloom apple varieties, maturing at different times. Not so prolific but each one offering unique taste and texture. Not perfect, and never supermarket worthy. Some to stew: others to slice to go with a sharp cheddar or soft cheese.

I’m now in the Autumn of my life and am delighted to be here: I wouldn’t want to be 18, or 38 or 55 still. Those times were good: each season brought blessings and joys, angst and worry. Each season does. I just happen to love Autumn more and cling to whatever this season brings, knowing that my winter is not so far away.

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’
Symbol of female sexuality. Ripe figs are autumn’s bounty. Spring and Summer played a part with rain then sun. Maturity comes in Autumn.

I visit the vegetable garden now and am rewarded with the products of our particular Summer: volatile and untrustworthy, youthful and full of energy, promises are made and broken. Patience is important when dealing with summer. Autumn is long and slow, with cool beginnings, windless warm days and soft pink, crimson, turning to tangerine sunsets. The ‘conspiracy’ is now over: we are loaded and blessed with fruits and vegetables and I’m not in a hurry to tamper with the season or hurry it along.

Chillies mature slowly, abundance comes in Autumn

Hiding along walkways, slow maturing pumpkins need another two lazy months before they surrender their sweetness and hard flesh for storing. Meanwhile, the zucchini are on display again, more loud and showy than the petite summer offerings: new flowers, bees and prolific fruits appear daily. Large seed filled zeppelins appear far too quickly now.

‘To swell the gourd’

Only in Autumn do the Pumpkins emerge. They don’t enjoy the harshness of young summer.

There could be a part two to my Keatsian story: to think that we have only just begun our gentle waltz through Autumn.

Just picked, a bowl of Zinfandel grapes ripen further then dry to sweet nuggets.

My previous Keatsian posts can be viewed here and the full verse can be found here.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road: Central Otago, New Zealand

Along the way, the Clutha river is dammed, forming huge inland lakes for irrigation.

Golden poplars march up steep volcanic hills, their Autumn confetti brightening this forbidding desert. The mighty Clutha river roars down below, a deep turquoise and tumultuous presence, as it moves at swift pace carrying its huge load towards the sea 338 kilometers away.  Fertile river communities huddle in valleys, surrounded by these dark majestic hills, with apples, pears, quinces and pumpkins for sale, as the orchard leaves turn scarlet. The local wines taste like their place. It is not hard to appreciate how the notion of ‘terra’ can flavour a wine. The white quartz and schist deposited in these ancient glacial valleys give that tingling mineral sensation, so readily discernible on the palate, to the Pinot Gris from Central Otago.

Wandering through small colonial towns, the old gold mining villages of Clyde, Cromwell, Arrowtown and Wanaka, enables you to step back into the 1860s. The preserved and partly reconstructed Chinese huts in Arrowtown attract many Chinese visitors from Guangdong province as Chinese tourists begin to take more interest in the history of the Chinese diaspora during the gold rush era. Old Cromwell Town is a quaint precinct within the larger modern, sprawling town of Cromwell, with ‘saved’ buildings after the construction of a dam and Lake Dunstan in the 1990s.

Old Cromwell Town
Old Cromwell Town

These small places are well-developed tourist haunts but also make good bases for day touring around the district. We stayed in Cromwell, Arrowtown and Wanaka, all quite striking in different ways.

‘Keep your eyes on the road and your hand upon the wheel’. The views are so stunning in Central Otago, it’s like driving through a dream.

Turquoise Turbulence. the Mighty Clutha river, the largest by volume in New Zealand.
Turquoise Turbulence. The mighty Clutha river, the largest by volume in New Zealand.

Motorhome Travel in New Zealand- Bargains and Contracts.

This years Mercedes Sprinter van- parked next to Lake xx, Central Otago
This year’s Mercedes Sprinter van, Central Otago, New Zealand

The best time to travel around New Zealand in a hired camper van/RV/motor home is in May, given that the weather is still pleasant, the Autumn colours, particularly in the South Island, are spectacular, and the rental price on a large motorhome plummets to around AU$29 a day.

A Lunch, a wine and a snooze. Somewhere on the Southern coast of the South Island, New Zealand.
A lunch, a wine and a snooze. Somewhere on the southern coast of the South Island, New Zealand.

Camping in a 7.6 metre long motorhome is not exactly roughing it. The back seats convert to a comfortable queen sized bed, a TV/DVD player is situated close by, the internal lighting is bright, there is a built-in toilet and bathroom, a fridge, gas stove top, microwave and heater. Basic pots and pans, cutlery and linen are also supplied. I enjoy the independence this form of travel provides, being able to pull up in front of any view for morning tea or lunch or a quick snooze. The other main bonus is getting away from commercial restaurant and pub food, which jades the palate after the novelty wears off. Stocking the fridge with all sorts of wonderful New Zealand farm products and wines to enjoy en route is one of the joys of travelling in this fertile land.

Farmgate Apples Galore- Central Otago, New Zealand
Farmgate Apples Galore- Central Otago, New Zealand

The following information was put together by Mr Tranquillo, of Nomadic Paths , dealing with campervan hire in Australia and New Zealand. It is a long but good read. Or you can read the original article here,  https://nomadicpaths.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/campervan-hire-in-australia-and-new-zealand-save-on-cheaper-deals/

1. Know the contract terms

Each hire company uses its own detailed contract. While there is no standard form, most share common features that often parallel car rental contracts. When a booking is made in advance, the hire company supplies a summary of contract to be signed on collection of the vehicle. I treat this document as an important and lucrative (or loss-making) issue. The one finally presented usually adds some additional onerous terms.

The hire contract will contain many restrictions. For example, most campervan contracts prohibit the hirer from driving on unsealed roads (or off-road), unless it’s a short defined distance on a well maintained road to a recognised camping ground. I hire a 4wd camper if I want to explore on dirt roads or go off road.

2. When to hire

Prices are highest at peak holiday times, particularly around Christmas, Easter, school holidays, and at seasonal times when demand is likely to be high. In Australia, winter holiday-makers flock north (to northern New South Wales and Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory) to escape the cold or cooler weather further south. The reverse migration pattern applies in summer.

Camper hire companies cut hire rates drastically out of season. For example:

(a) In New Zealand and Tasmania, May to September rates are relatively cheap.

Factor in the weather if choosing to hire within these dates. My own experience is that the North Island in NZ is fine to visit in May (as is Tasmania) with sunny days, little or no wind, days that are around the high teens to low 20s (celsius) in temperature, and cool nights. Nice for camping. Higher altitudes will be colder, of course. A larger campervan should have a gas or diesel heater for warmth if required. (Check the contract).

Hire companies regularly offer specials. For example, Britz in November 2015 offered a 25% discount on hire charges for Tasmania over March and April.

(b) Relocating a camper can be very cheap, sometimes for nil to $1 a day.

A relocation may also include reimbursement of fuel costs, and if relevant, a sea crossing (in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and in Australia, the Bass Straight crossing between Melbourne and Tasmania).

There could be major savings involved. I recently read a quote of AU$750 for a return crossing of Bass Strait – Melbourne to Tasmania – for a 7 metre long motorhome. As a reference, a Mercedes Sprinter motorhome is about 7.6 metres long.

However, watch the insurance issue as noted below. It also applies to a relocation.

As an example of relocations, check:

https://www.apollocamper.com/press_relocations.aspx

The main negative of a relocation is that the hirer is only given a limited time to complete the journey.

3. Liability and Insurance

Essentially, the hire contract provides that the hirer (renter) is responsible for any damage to the vehicle or its fittings (usually including tyres and windscreen) or for damage to another vehicle or other property. The liability is regardless of  fault.

Here, major savings can be made.

(a) Use an appropriate credit card to pay for your campervan hire, one that includes travel insurance cover, specifically covering your hire vehicle accident liability.  Read your credit card contract carefully, as the terms differ from issuer to issuer. Examples of some differences and issues:

  • Some cards only cover passenger vehicles.
  • All have limits on the maximum accident liability cover. The ones I’ve checked have an upper limit of $5,000. Some hire companies impose a higher sum for liability, for example, $7,500 for a Britz motorhome and some of Apollo’s larger motorhomes.
  • Some cards, like my ANZ Visa Platinum Frequent Flyer card, apply to passenger vehicles only in Australia, but also apply to passenger vehicles and campervans overseas.
  • If you rely on your credit card for cover, ensure that you have activated the cover. For example, the credit card contract may require a minimum amount to be spent on travel costs using the card before the cover applies.
  • If you do rely on your credit card for cover, hire companies generally require a payment of the full amount of your accident liability under the hire contract. With my last hire, I was required to pay $5,000 (the accident liability amount) to the hire company (Apollo) – only by credit card – for the amount to be refunded within 28 working days of the completion of the hire. Plus their 2% surcharge. In fact, the refund was made after about 3 weeks.

This practice seems to be designed to strongly discourage people from opting out of the hire company’s insurance scheme. If you have a lazy $5,000 of credit with your card, you will incur fees – cash advance interest – before receiving a refund.

If it’s an international transaction, an overseas visitor hiring a vehicle in New Zealand for example, then the credit card payment to the hire company attracts currency conversion fees from the hirer’s bank, and the hire company’s bank initially, then the same again when the refund is made.

(b) Take out your own insurance cover. If you have travel insurance, it may cover you. On my recent 28 day campervan hire, I paid $125.80 for my own insurance cover that simply covered hire vehicle excess liability instead of paying $1,232 to the hire company.

I used RACV, one of Australia’s motorists’ organisations. See:

http://www.racv.com.au/wps/wcm/connect/racv/Internet/Primary/travel/travel+insurance/choose-a-plan/rental-car-excess

3. Dodgy payment issues

Apollo is representative of hire companies in only accepting payment by credit card. It charges a non-refundable fee of 2% on Visa and Mastercard and 4.5% for American Express or Diners Club.

This means that you cannot take advantage of saving by paying by direct deposit or in cash.

4. Other extras and issues to watch out for

It’s convenient to hire various extras along with the vehicle to make your holiday more comfortable. On the other hand, some can be easily obtained elsewhere at better prices.

  • GPS – Hire companies charge around $10 per day (usually with a maximum of $100). Bring your own if possible. Most smart phones now have a GPS, although you may need an app or map if visiting a foreign country. Paper maps still work.
  • Outdoor table and chairs. Rather than pay the hire fee of $17 per chair and $24 for the table (total $58), I buy them from a shop like KMart or Bunnings for around $7 per chair and $19 per table (total $33). Donate them to a charity (Opp Shop) or give them away at the end of the holiday.
  • Don’t assume that the daily hire rate is cheaper the longer the hire period. This is true up to a point, but with my most recent hire the daily rate increased after 28 days.

5. Cooking for yourself

Buying meals constantly can be both expensive and unattractive, depending on your food preferences.  Travelling provides opportunities to buy fresh produce at markets and farmers’ outlets, and seafood along the coast.

I prefer a picnic or meal in the open air with fresh local ingredients, together with a cheeky local wine, rather than a deep fried generic meal in a pub or cafe that offers nothing notable about its taste, location or origin.

Of course, eating out is important when it’s notable for the food, view, ambiance, or cultural experience, laziness….

As one whose culinary skills are most advanced in the fields of kitchen hand and washing up, I am acutely aware of the importance of observing the views of the chief cook on the issue of eating in or out.

6. Check the state of the vehicle at the time of hire, and at the end

Make sure that the vehicle report you sign when collecting the vehicle accurately states any pre-exisiting damage. I’ve found Britz and Apollo good on this issue of vehicle condition, but have experienced the opposite elsewhere. Take similar care on the vehicle’s return.

Take photos.

7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?

Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.

Paid camping

In Australia, the nightly fee for a campervan with on-site power at a commercial camping ground/caravan park/holiday park will generally be about $35 to $45 for 2 persons. Extra fees are charged for additional guests.

As an illustration, my daughter recently paid $66 nightly for a powered beach front camping site at Tathra on NSW’s south coast for 2 adults and 2 children.

Higher fees are usually charged for peak periods, popular locations, and where there are more facilities (swimming pools, water slides, entertainment centres and so on). My experience of New Zealand is that the fees are at least as high.

Cheaper paid camping is available, although not necessarily in the most popular or well known destinations. National parks, and campgrounds in less frequented locations generally offer lower fees or none, usually for fewer facilities, or none.

Free camping

Most hire campervans and motorhomes have a dual battery system that allows camping using 12 volt power from the auxiliary battery for lighting, while the cook top and refrigerator use gas. Therefore, it’s feasible to camp away from mains elecricity for a few days.

One potentially relevant issue is whether your campervan has an onboard toilet, as many municipalities require free camper vehicles to be self-contained in terms of toilet and waste water facilities. On the other hand, experienced Australian campers know that in the bush, a short walk with a shovel can solve those issues.

New Zealand is generally more accommodating than Australia towards free camping, and doing so at beautiful coastal locations is much easier than on Australia’s east coast. On the other hand, Australia has great free camping opportunities away from the coast. One of my favourites is to camp on the Murray River, our longest river, where there are numerous free camp sites stretching over hundreds of kilometres where you can enjoy Australia’s unique timelessness, most often without anyone else around.

Central Otago, Lake Dunstan
Lake Dunstan, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Linked to Ailsa’s travel theme this week, Camping.

The Best Time of the Day

Few words are required to describe the serenity of dawn. My eastern sky and garden in Autumn, as I wait for the bread to prove.

Facing East
Some time after first light. 6.30 AM, April 18
 a setting for breakfast on a still morning in Autumn
A setting for tea on a warm verandah in Autumn
A pot of succulents pciks up the rosy hues of dawn
A pot of succulents picks up the rosy hues of dawn