I know I’ve written before about my fascination with New Zealand’s camping grounds and the transient social culture they provide. Quirky, forested, seaside, urban, sophisticated, or sans amenities, whatever they are, where one stays is often a memory that lingers long after the other highlights of a destination have begun to fade.
They are also the grapevine of RV gossip: “Where did you stay in Wellington?”; “In Hokitika, when we were parked in the NZMCA camp…”; “Where’s the best place to overnight near Dunedin?”; “How did the campground in Moeraki work out?” And so reputations and recommendations are forged.
Although time can blur the details, there is a singular campground in the South Island that my mind has (hopefully) set in concrete. Jackson’s Alpine Retreat is somewhere in the heart of nowhere. Rather than planning to go there, we were driving the exhilarating Otira Highway (SH 73)—a breathtaking stretch of road on the West Coast—when we simply came upon it. We’d planned to stay that night in Kumara, parked behind the pub, but one look at this attractively landscaped 16 hectares of land set snuggly in the foothills of the Bald Ranges and I decided we weren’t going anywhere.
We parked, I unfurled from the car to take in the view, and gulped lungfuls of cool mountain air. I felt myself expand into the hugeness of the volcanic peaks and spreading valleys that were magnified by a great arc of sky. Summer was starting to slip away but the air was still warm enough for shirtsleeves. At times, it can rain dollar-sized drops here, flooding the river below, winds thunder down from the slopes, and heavy frosts stiffen the alpine tussocks. In summer, grasses bake in the heat and the depleted river forms into braids that flow gently to the sea.
Camp owners, Darren and Toni Inger were drawn to this spot in the belly of the mountains five years ago when they returned to New Zealand after 12 years spent sailing around the world—an exercise that fostered a love of open space and temperamental weather.
Such seasoned travellers perfectly understand the needs of others on the road and so they have developed their campground to be not only aesthetically pleasing but also spacious, inviting, and thoughtfully detailed. The 16 acres of terrain is landscaped into terraces and planted with toitoi, flaxes, and alpine shrubs between paving stone pathways. Each RV site is on a hard stand and has its own lawn and picnic table.
In many campgrounds, the amenities are merely functional. At Jackson’s Retreat, the cosy lounge area is carpeted, lined with timber panelling, and furnished with coffee tables and fat-cushioned lounge chairs set around a huge log firebox. The walls are hung with photographs and art works, and large windows frame the view of the river valley, the long rail bridge on the TranzAlpine route and distant hills that look as if they are covered in giant broccoli.
Adjacent to the lounge is the user-friendly communal cooking area with a wooden bench.
It’s as organised as a cafe kitchen. I don’t usually eulogise bathrooms but here they are worth of mention—modern, immaculately clean, and decorated with flowers and with fern murals over the basins. Blessedly, they also have underfloor heating.
Also, undoubtedly blessed by travellers caught out by inclement weather, is the large barn-like structure on a slightly higher ground where motorhomes, caravans, and tents can park up in shelter. Each of the eight private bays has water and 240-volt plug-ins and a window showcases the view.
The Ingers have also set up a small shop of basic camper’s needs. They grow vegetables in a tunnel house and sell eggs from the hens that peck around the gardens with the weka.
The air was bright as I left the camp to walk through the evergreen rainforest along a private track that leads to a vigorously splashing waterfall. There are apparently grottoes of glow-worms in places along here but I was too early a bird for the worms. On the return walk,
I noticed how, quite unexpectedly, the forest had become gloomy. A heavy mist was drizzling down through the treetops and, suddenly spooked, I sprinted (tottered in truth) for home.
In this mountain environment, anything can happen. Later that night, I poked my nose out the door of the van and the mist had gone. A dense black sky had split open to reveal its myriad jewels. Somewhere in the forest to my right, a morepork hooted mournfully. I thanked my lucky stars (they were out there somewhere) that I was here in this place at this time. The memory is embedded and hopefully will remain for the rest of my life.
WIN AN OVERNIGHT STAY AT JACKSON'S RETREAT
The friendly team at Jackson’s Retreat would love to host you! To be in to win an overnight stay for up to four people in a powered site, simply enter the competition before 24 August 2018.