Travelling around the South Island of New Zealand is like being immersed in an old Cinerama movie. The skies seem too big, the mountains too austere, the clouds too close, the Autumn colours more vivid. Earth, in all its majesty, is on show. Enter this landscape and be overwhelmed by the urgent need to protect it.
A World War One Anzac sculpture stands in the main street of Invercargill, the soldier’s silhouette rises above the street, back turned to the May sunset. I turn to admire the decaying facade of a Victorian building along the main street and hope that a benefactor will come to its rescue. As I contemplate the fate of this building, I see him again – the soldier mirrored in the windows.
It is unusual to find French settlements in Australia: it seems that on every occasion when French explorers, cartographers and naturalists came sniffing around, they were pipped at the post by the Poms.
Given the absence of historic Frenchness in Australia, it was a surprise then to find a quaint little French village in the South island of New Zealand. Akaroa ( its French name became Port Louis Phillipe for some time before reverting back to the original Maori name) began its French life in 1838, when Captain Francois Langloir
‘ made a provisional purchase of land in the greater Banks Peninsula from Tuaanau… On his return to France, he advertised for settlers to come to New Zealand and ceded his interest in the land to the Nanto- Bordelaise Company of which he became a part owner. On 9 March 1840, 63 emigrants left from Rochefort. The settlers embarked on the Comte de Paris – an old man-of-war ship given to them by the French government – for New Zealand. The Comte de Paris and its companion ship the Aube, arrived in the Bay of Islands in the North Island on 11 July 1840, where they discovered that the Banks Peninsula had been claimed by the British. The French arrived in Akaroa on 18 August and established a settlement.’¹
Today, Akaroa and the nearby smaller settlement of Duvauchelle, retain a pride in their French beginnings, fostering French detail in the local architecture, and ambience as well as holding a biennial French festival held in odd-numbered years in Akaroa.
Rue Croix, Akaroa
Wine Bar Akaroa
Butcher shop with pies
Ma Maison Restaurant
Those looking for a French conversation will most likely be disappointed. Most of the old-time French speakers have long passed. There is a French cemetery, French named streets and of course, French bistros and restaurants, the local gendarmerie and a boucherie, a French backpacker hostel and wine bars. The local council is active in preserving its French heritage; new buildings and beachside apartments come with de rigueur French roof lines. It stops short, just, of being theme parkish.
Other pleasant pastimes include a stroll down the long picturesque jetty, stopping along the way for a tray of Murphy’s freshly caught and grilled fish. In town there is a famous cooking school, coffee shops and restaurants along the promenade, sea voyages to visit the Akaroa Dolphins and other wild sea creatures, getting completely lost in the Garden of Tane, strolling through the older parts of the village, and the listening to the Tim Minchin -like guy who plays classical music on an old piano along the main promenade.
Like many place names in New Zealand, the name Akaroa is Maori, meaning “Long Harbour”, which is spelled “Whangaroa” in standard Māori.
Akaroa is around one hour’s drive from Christchurch. It is a great road trip, with scenic views along the way. The town, being so close to Christchurch, makes a great place to start or finish a trip around the South island of New Zealand.
Not all the buildings in the Victorian precinct of Oamaru, New Zealand, are covered with ornate detail. Many are delightfully dilapidated and spare, adding more character to the streetscape with their simple austerity. This preserved corrugated iron shed caught my attention. Was that window strategically placed to catch the reflection of the roof mouldings on a nearby building? I would love to go back and see what the window sees from other angles in different light.
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.
Rolling plains near Gibbston
Central Otago drama
Before the Snow
Wild poplars, 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.
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.
Long white cloud moves across Autumn hills
central otago in autumn
Lake Dunstan, Cromwell
Keep your eyes on the road..
Lakes of Central Otago
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?
Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.
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.
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.
Linked to Ailsa’s travel theme this week, Camping.
The Steampunk gallery and sculptures around the town of Oamaru, New Zealand make one feel jubilant. Set amidst Victorian streetscapes and along parks and playgrounds facing the old harbour, these joyful sculptures are another reason for visiting this amazing town.
What is steampunk you may ask?
“Steampunk is a quirky and fun genre of science fiction that features steam-powered technology. It is often set in an alternate, futuristic version of 19th century Victorian England.
The Steampunk future is driven by unusual steam-powered devices – the ‘world gone mad’ as Victorian people may have imagined it. Examples are machines like those in the writing of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and in TV shows such as Dr. Who.
Oamaru is an ideal setting for Steampunk art and activities, given the wonderfully preserved and thriving Victorian buildings.”¹
Jubilant is this week’s prompt on the Daily Post, WordPress.
Sometimes fate sends you a nice little surprise. We were driving along the highway heading towards Dunedin, about 40 kilometers south of Oamaru, when I noticed a sign on the road promising a bowl of seafood chowder at the local tavern of Moeraki. Moeraki, the tourist brochures informed me, is known for its boulders sitting on a beach: no mention of the nearby town or tavern. Stuff the boulders, I thought, just give me that soup. We detoured off the main route and pulled up at the Moeraki tavern only to find it well and truly closed. Chiuso. We knocked and banged a few times in the hope that someone might magically appear but it remained locked. Seats up. Lights out. I felt really cheated. My taste buds, alert and eager, now grieved as they slowly considered the inevitable exchange- a big bowl of fishy chowder was about to become a mundane home-made cheese sandwich in the back of the van.
At this point, still hoping for a loaves and fishes miracle, I peered down towards the sea and noted a rather large group of cars gathered around what looked like an industrial tin shed. It was a Wednesday and around 1.30 pm- a funeral perhaps, or maybe a fishing co-op? or a party? There were no other signs of life in this deserted holiday town.
We headed down a narrow one way road towards the tin shedded promontory and, lo and behold, we discovered the fabulous and very famous little restaurant, Fleur’sPlace, sitting right on the edge of the sea. It was busy, mostly with young Asian travellers who were obviously in the know. I hadn’t heard about Fleurs, making the discovery all the more serendipitous.
On entering, I felt very much at home. The wood lined interior, which utilised recycled materials, windows and staircases and lots of quirky decor, contained an upstairs mezzanine, reminding me of my old home and those of all my friends. Old hippy houses, hand-built idiosyncratic places that I have come to miss. Then I noticed the chalked sign offering freshly caught fish daily. It was a hallelujah moment. A table for two please.
We chose an inside table- the last one available, although the upstairs section, with its few tables looking out to sea, was also very inviting.
We shared a platter consisting of a generous serve of smoked eel pâté, some smoked salmon slices, a beetroot chutney, croutons and assorted gherkins and caperberries. It was very good indeed.
We followed this with seafood chowder. It was not the chowder of my imagining, but rather one made from a rich tomato and home- made fish stock. Studded with local clams, mussels, fish chunks and scallops, it was a generous bowl and came with plenty of bread.
There were some lovely desserts on offer, including slow poached quinces, but we were ready to hit the road again. It was only much later that I found out a little more about Fleur and her life as a chef at Oliver’s Restaurant in Clyde, Central Otago, as well as the comments by Rick Stein. I recommend this place highly although beware, most main course fish dishes are costly, around NZ $40 or so, but then the sizing is generous. Fresh fish includes blue cod, John Dory, moki, blue nose, gurnard, sole, flounder, groper, and crayfish. Regional organic growers supply most of the other ingredients, including unique New Zealand vegetable varieties and the wines come from Central Otago.
Outside area, Fleurs
From a window in Fleurs
The bay near Fleurs
Seafood and view
Rustic furniture, Fleurs
Entry to Fleurs
You can find out more about Fleur’s restaurant here
I was so captivated by the quaint town of Oamaru in the South Island of New Zealand that I plan to return there one day to ‘loiter with intent’. This town deserves a week of strolls, dining and waiting for the light to fall on those historic and evocative limestone buildings. I’ve found a nice pub to stay in; I’ve done my homework. The Criterion Hotel, built in 1877, ticks all the right boxes for me. It is well situated in the Victorian precinct, with rooms at a sensible price and a toasty fire to sit by. The decor is just lovely and the food is very good too.
We began our two-week road trip of the Eastern, Southern and Central half of New Zealand’s South Island in this extraordinary town. Our first day was memorable, deserving a fine beer and a lunch in this old and quiet establishment of note.
The Criterion, just for the colour.
Hapuka, baby potatoes, salad, capers,
Wall decor, the Criterion, Oamaru.
Inside lies a gem of a pub.
The beginning of our wine tour
View from the window of the Criterion, Oamaru
Following the lunch at the Criterion with a long walk through the town and its extensive park, we returned to the Victorian precinct in the evening to feast at Oamaru’s fine dining establishment, Cucina 1871. As the name suggests, this restaurant is Italian, but with a modern New Zealand twist, while the dessert menu is classic French. I ordered an entrée of scallops on a bed of polenta. This was a sensational small dish of creamy white polenta, a hard to source ingredient, topped with four lightly cooked fat scallops, and a puddle of brown butter sauce which included deep-fried capers. It was not a dish I was happy to share! For mains, we both ordered the squid ink pasta with local littleneck clams, or vongole, in a gentle garlic sauce. The charming woman who worked and most likely owned this restaurant mentioned that the desserts were made by a chef trained in patisserie. This is code for no sharing. They were sensational. A perfect little apple Tarte Tatin for me, and a Creme Brulee for him, along with a small pot of something chocolaty on the side. We shared a bottle of Chard Farm Pinot Gris, a delightful wine from Central Otago. It was a fitting start to a memorable New Zealand voyage.
Taken with my smartphone, just for the memory.
Apple Tarte Tartin, in a puddle of caramel sauce
Classic Creme Brulee.
Chard Farm wine
A tangle of squid ink pasta and a generous serving of little neck clams.
This meal was independently paid for. I rarely post restaurant reviews but both these establishments in Oamaru deserve high praise.
The Criterion Hotel, 3 Tyne St, Oamaru. http://www.criterionhotel.co.nz/
Cucina 1871, 1 Tees St Oamaru. http://www.cucina1871.co.nz/
Some towns have a profound effect on the psyche. The moment you wander through their streets, or enter their buildings, an overwhelming sense of déjà vu confounds you. Oamaru, in North Otago, New Zealand, is one of these special places. Did my ancestors spend some time in this town before heading down south to settle in Invercargill all those years ago? Or is it the multitude of well-preserved Victorian architecture and streetscapes that enables a visitor to re-enter an imagined past?
Open the following photos individually to get a more intense view of this exceptional town.
Historic quarter, Oamaru
The streets get narrow and Victorian
walking through a Dickensian novel. Oamaru
Our favourite pub Oamaru
More glorious architecture
Once a bank, now a book shop.
Some streets are beautifully restored and are occupied by craftspeople, galleries, cafes, bakeries, and brewers. Further south, towards the sea, the dark grey stoned industrial area bordered by an old railway, is more mysterious, in a ‘dark satanic mills’ kind of way.
omaru, dark satanic mills
Old steam engines
The Oamaru Historical precinct was built of local limestone from the 1860s onwards. This is New Zealand’s most complete Victorian streetscape. You could spend days wandering around this town. It is an evocative place and not to be missed if travelling through the South Island of New Zealand.
Next time: Oamaru’s other attractions- food, parks and steampunk.