On the road again

Jill Malcolm embarks on her first post-lockdown road trip – and finds RVers doing their bit to rev up the tourism industry

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Govett-Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth

With night-time temperatures dropping below zero in Christchurch, it seemed like a mad dog time to be heading off on a road trip to the South Island; we should have been home by the fire. But we went because we could and, after two months in lockdown, it felt like a privilege.

Rental company Wilderness Motorhomes kindly offered to lend us a vehicle. This was a double bonus. It was a Bürstner Lyseo 590, smaller than any we’d toured in before and because we’re considering a downsize of our own RV, it was an opportunity to test how we’d fit. The Bürstner also had a dropdown bed, which was another novelty. But the real purpose of the trip was to see how tourism was faring.

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Back on the road and heading south

It was an auspicious day the morning we set off to the south from Auckland; we’d all moved to Level 1 and I felt proud of the way our nation had pulled through. Despite what seemed like endless roadworks, driving to New Plymouth through the King Country was a joy. The road is a roller-coaster through high ribby hills that plunge into watery gullies. Towards the coast it runs alongside the Awakino River, where whitebait stands protrude into the water like giant invading insects.

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Te Kuiti honours Colin Meads

Humming along in New Plymouth

Our priority in New Plymouth was a visit to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The Len Lye exhibition had just reopened. Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures and films are extraordinary, and so too is the building in which they are housed. The concertina folds of the reflective exterior and the dramatic interior columns of undisguised concrete are artworks in themselves.

It was evident at my favourite New Plymouth eating place that social distancing had been left off the menu. The Federal Store on Devon Street was so crammed with lunching locals that we had to share a table. "Most places for visitors are at least partially open," said our tablemate. "New Plymouth’s humming along okay." 

We were humming along quite nicely ourselves. For a small van the Bürstner’s layout was comfortable, we’d mastered the ins and outs of the dropdown bed, and were happy with the spacious lounge and the surprising amount of storage.

The impressive number of RVers on the road was a surprise, but it was also a wonderful time to travel – no battling the madding crowds. Just north of Whanganui we spent a night at the Kai Iwi Beach Holiday Park, which the new owners, Bruce and Di Taylor, had bought a week before lockdown.

"Bad timing," he grinned, "but we’ll be okay. I’ve dropped the price to $20 a night meantime. We’ve got 25 sites booked this weekend."

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One of Whanganui’s glass artists

Wide-eyed in Whanganui

Parts of Whanganui were not just humming but in full voice. The Saturday River Traders Market crammed on the downtown riverbank was selling an abundance of interesting, locally produced crafts and goods. A short walk away, the furnaces in the New Zealand Glassworks studio had roared back to life. Glass art tuition is so popular here that aspiring artists come from all over the country and sessions are booked up into 2021. We stood on a balcony and watched the molten material take shape in the studio below.

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Finished pieces on display at the New Zealand Glassworks

Another drawcard just around the corner is the Quartz Museum, home to an astonishingly large collection of top New Zealand potters collated by renowned artist Rick Rudd. If ever you want to go potty, this is the place.

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The vintage MV Wairua at the Whanganui River wharf

Visitors can take excursions up the historic Whanganui River in two vintage craft. Both were rescued from watery graves and restored. The small riverboat MV Wairua was back in action, but the paddle steamer Waimarie is laid up for the winter.

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Snow-sprinkled mountain peaks define a South Island winter

Going overseas

We had a watery journey of our own to undertake. After parking over at the Plimmerton NZMCA park on the Kāpiti Coast, we boarded the Interislander for a smooth and foggy trip across the Cook Strait. It was uneventful except that, seated not far enough from me, a man was coughing vigorously. I knew it was Level 1 but still I spent the three-and-a-half hours washing my hands and trying not to breathe.

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Kaikōura Peninsula

Kaikōura keeping on

Getting to Kaikōura took time. If you’re fascinated by road works, this is the place. It was stop start all down the coast. I’m not complaining; reconstructing the route post-quake is a gargantuan task. With the 2016 earthquake and then lockdown, Kaikōura’s solar plexus has taken two mighty whacks. Today the little town, so dependent on tourism, is limping along and hoping for the best.

"In a way we are lucky,’’ said the new i-Site manager, Fiona Farquhar, who was transferred here from Glenorchy just before lockdown. "Kaikōura is a playground for Cantabrians and people are still coming here at weekends. But 50 percent of the population worked in tourism so there have been big job losses. After a government cash injection, dolphin and whale watching tours will resume in July and other tours are operating. We’re very happy to have you motorhomers coming through in such numbers."

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View of Mount Fyffe and the Seaward Kaikōura Range

A town entrepreneur and owner of the popular Pier Hotel, Bernard Harmon was about to open his new attraction a week before lockdown. Instead silence echoed through the intriguing Harmon’s Car Museum with its display of classics and its flash new American diner. "I’ll open soon," said Bernard. "Classic cars draw enthusiasts from around New Zealand. We never intended to rely solely on overseas tourists."

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Harmon’s Classic Car Museum in Kaikōura has just opened its doors

Visitor numbers might be down in Kaikōura, but the colonies of cormorants and other seabirds have flourished in the absence of hominids, and hundreds more seals have claimed the rocky shore. We stayed in the shadow of the snow-drizzled mountains at the campground of the Donegal Irish pub and, with other road gypsies, dined on crumbed blue cod in front of a roaring fire.

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Canterbury Plains, Akaroa

The appeal of Akaroa

It was evening when we drove south to Akaroa. Sparkling necklaces adorned the frontages of the village, which is arguably the most charming in the country. Pretty dormer cottages and colonial public buildings cling to the steep-sided harbour, but since the cruise ships started coming here, the village has almost entirely given itself over to tourism. Despite the wintry weather, weekend leisure seekers had come from Christchurch to sit in the colourful cafes or fatten up on waffles, ice cream and homemade fudge.

The Little Bistro Akaroa

We wandered through Hettie’s Rock & Crystal Shop and the Blue Pearl Gallery on the wharf, where seeded pearls from pāua shells are turned into exquisite jewellery. "Our future is very uncertain," said the jeweller’s assistant. "Ninety percent of our customers were foreign tourists."

The Top 10 Holiday Park hadn’t dropped its prices and so we parked up in the village. In the morning the sun struggled to break through a heavy sea fog. A bevy of little yachts were pinned to the harbour’s glassy surface and the village looked peaceful and untroubled. On the drive back to Christchurch we came across a Mini Cooper that had spun off the road and come to rest on its roof, a reminder that the road to Akaroa is not to be taken lightly. Steep and winding, it is often greasy with frost. The Bürstner handled it well.

Christchurch was in a foul mood – cold, wet and windy – but we visited Orana Wildlife Park, which is one of my favourite places in the city. Feeding the animals during lockdown had been a huge worry, but with help from the community none of the residents starved. In no danger of starvation ourselves, we lunched on dumplings in the undercover Riverside Market, which was busy and crammed with intriguing food booths. In such weather all else we could do was seek warmth and shelter. Luckily the Bürstner had an excellent heater.

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The Riverside Market, Christchurch

Warming up in Hanmer Springs

Next day we turned north and, at the lovely little town of Amberley, stopped for cherry tart and excellent coffee at a bakery run by genuine French baker, Sebastien Bresson. Highway 7 to Hanmer Springs leaves the main road a little further north. That cold winter’s day it was a lovely drive, with fluffy fog spilling down the sawtooth hills and hiding in the valleys. The home fires were burning in Hanmer, but as daylight waned the little alpine village went into a coma. Like Akaroa, the place has been expanded to meet the needs of foreign tourists. At the moment there aren’t any and the town is relying on weekenders from Christchurch and stragglers of domestic travellers. "We’re getting by," said the owner of one of the many boutique clothing shops. "Who knows what’s gonna happen?"

The famous thermal pool complex will always be the town’s greatest lure, and even on a cold Monday morning there was still a queue to get in. Sadly, the exploratory part of our journey ended in Hanmer Springs. We were out of time and had to set the satnav for home. Still, as my grandmother said, "Always get up from the table wanting more."

Our whistle-stop tour had revealed that tourism is not completely in the doldrums. Most people were putting a brave face on it. RVers had been lured back on the road as an antidote to lockdown, the lack of foreign tourists, or as a replacement for holidays abroad. They were a driving force for keeping things stitched together. "And we’re doing our bit for the country," said one fellow traveller. We’ll be doing our bit again sometime soon.

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Waiau River near Hanmer Springs

Noteworthy stops 

  • Ōtorohanga: Outdoor clothing store Haddad Karam & John Menswear 
  • Te Kuiti: The large statue of Sir Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads 
  • Kaikoura: The Kaikoura Cheese shop 
  • Hanmer Springs: The picturesque minigolf course 
  • Akaroa: Hettie’s Rock & Crystal Shop 
  • Whanganui: The Bamboo Forest at the Paloma Gardens 
  • Petone: Jen De La Haye Italian clothing shop 
  • New Plymouth: The Federal Store cafe 
  • Cheviot: Knox Presbyterian Church built of river stone 
  • Christchurch: Ballantynes updated department store (founded 1854).

Wilderness Motorhome Rentals

There are other options but the smaller Bürstner Lyseo 590 and 560 are a clever compromise between space and comfort. Here are some of the advantages:

  • Ease of driving, parking, turning and reversing 
  • A very workable layout for easy flow 
  • The amount of storage space is impressive 
  • The beds, either permanent or dropdown, are surprisingly comfortable 
  • Insulation, heating and double-glazed windows offer great winter comfort 
  • Air-conditioning, roof vents and windows provide excellent ventilation 
  • Each window has easy-pull concertina blinds and insect screens 
  • The bathrooms and kitchens are meticulously designed 
  • Renters have exclusive access to an outdoor guidebook called NZ Frenzy

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