By Conal Healy
(AKA Mick In The Middle)
TAKING a campervan around the South Island of New Zealand in winter is not for the faint hearted. This was the thought that struck me as our campervan hit another patch of icy-snow, started sliding off the road and stopped – luckily – before we went over the cliff.
A bright but chilly afternoon turned nasty as we headed over the Arthur Pass after collecting our vehicle at Christchurch.
Rain turned to snow and eventually a blizzard as we hit the top of the pass, the heating on, wrapped in our winter clothes, rugged up with the van’s doonahs (duvets).
Now this is cold, I thought as we started our mountain descent down what can only be described as a glorified goat track. The windscreen wipers, even on high speed, had difficulty clearing the snow as the blizzard turned horizontal.
We drove slowly avoiding the waterfalls which poured onto the road. At the same time we had to keep a watch for ice patches which threatened to slide us over the cliff to the valley floor hundreds of metres below us.
The road was being upgraded so most of the guard rails had been removed.
To add to the holiday’s excitement we had to share the pass with heavy earth moving equipment which would loom out of the snow storm like technicolour dinosaurs.
It was a great relief when the snow turned to heavy rain again as we reached the valley floor.
As night fell – at 4pm – we realised we were over the worst part of the journey, on what had been our first day on the road.
With the first overnight stop of Hokatika still an hour away, we drove through a scenery which was losing the battle against the annual 2.5metres of rainfall.
Grey, bedraggled sheep, sheltered from the storm behind granite boulders or bushes of yellow flowering gorse. Tiny two-roomed humpies (small homestead) lay hidden, surrounded by sparse windswept trees.
The barely two-lane road, regularly narrowed as we approached a bridge which usually doubled for both rail and road traffic.
Another of our nightmares was for the campervan to be trapped on one of these bridges and not see the train looming out of the mist … until it was too late.
That first night, Hokitika could have been anywhere, all we saw were the town’s neon signs shining bright out of the storm. We were happy and relieved to reach the guide’s suggested campervan park, make dinner and warm ourselves at the open fire of a nice West Coast pub.
With the wind gently rocking the van and the rain washing the mud from the outside we fell asleep.
THE next morning the local radio station told us that the Arthur Pass had been closed by our blizzard, that cars were trapped and the pass wouldn’t be re-open for three days. We had been the last people over the pass.
Outside the rain had cleared, the snow-capped Southern Alps shone pink in the early morning sunlight.
The plan was to go down the West Coast, stopping off to see the glaciers in the Franz Joseph National Park, head for Queenstown and turn north and finish back at Christchurch.
The circuit would be three days of driving but with plenty of rest between each long haul.
As the six-berth campervan handled like a brick and the road conditions meant we rarely got over 50km/ph the driving duties were shared among the four of us. One person would drive, the other front seat passenger would ride shotgun (scouting for icy patches, scenery and sign posts) while the other two would sit in the back looking after the two children.
Backseat passengers also had to tidy the cutlery and clothes from the floor of the van after the drawers and cupboard emptied after we took a sharp turn.
Even when everything was secure there was still the almost constant rattle from within the van.
The millions of potholes we seem to have bumped over in the course of two week ensured we appreciated the regular stops to admire the beautiful – and silent – scenery.
Mirror flat azure lakes reflected the greens of a rainforest, the browns of heather covered mountains, the white peaks and the cold blue cloudless sky.
Hard sandy beaches, edged with giant boulders, lashed by huge Tasman Sea waves.
Wide, stony grey riverbeds, empty expect for a central channel of swift glacier blue torrents. A twisted ribbon of a road scratched into the narrow stretch of land between the cold grey sea and the sharp, angular mountains which rose like a wall.
Deep steep ravines occasionally littered with the axles of smashed vehicles warned us that it was best not to travel that stretch of the road when it rained or at night.
FOR two days we waited at the town of Haas for the mountain pass to Queenstown to open. Snow eventually turned to slush and then rain before we felt brave enough to load up the van and set off.
Hidden – by rain clouds – from the watchful gaze of Mt Disappointment, the van slugged its way up to the Hass Pass passing Misery Creek.
“A very appropriate name,” muttered someone as we were enveloped by mist.
Even though we followed the tyre tracks cut in the slush by the previous vehicles, we could made out where others had skidded and ended up in the ditch. With the rain now turning to snow we debated whether to keep driving or risk being stranded after spending 30 minutes attempting to put on the van’s snowchains.
Our lack of confidence about the snow chains decided we drive on – slowly through the snow storm.
As we reached the top of the pass the weather cleared to a fine winter’s afternoon and the road ahead to Queenstown seemed clear.
IT wasn’t until we turned a corner and were confronted by a road crew that our hopes were dented.
An earthquake the previous week had closed the only route through.
“We’ll open a single lane for 20 minutes, in two hours time. After that the road is closed til tomorrow,’ said the foreman to the queue of 10 vehicles stopped at the barricade.
The kettle was just coming to the boil and the soup simmering when the foreman changed his mind and we all had to leave “Now” or stay the night.
Whoever was in the back strapped in the kids, held onto the hot lunch and tried not to be throw around too much.
Upfront, it needed one set of eyes to spot the debris on what was now a goat track. Meanwhile the driver made sure the van didn’t get too close to the edge of the ravine which plunged down to Lake Wanaka.
Twenty terrifying minutes – and five kilometres – later we hit tarmac again, we pulled over at the first safe spot and settled down the two scared children. It took a long lunch before the four adults recovered.
It wasn’t until we were packing up that I looked over the edge of the ravine and saw the undercarriage of another campervan which lay rusting on the edge of the lake shore. I slowly walked back to the van and kept my mouth shut until we hit winter ski resort of Queenstown.
Like most of the places we stayed at on the South Island, the Creeksyde Campervan Park, offered excellent facilities.
A well furbished kitchen/dining room/heated TV lounge offered a welcome a break from the cramped van.
The lounge also gave us a chance to gleefully swap horror stories with other campers over a couple of beers: “Our toilet backed up, flooding the van…we ended up in a ditch…the heater broke down and we nearly froze…my wife couldn’t stand the campervan’s constant mess so we flew her home to Sydney…our gas water heating system doesn’t work…”
Nearly everybody agreed that taking a campervan around mid-winter New Zealand was something of an adventure.
Which is fine, if you want an adventure, a family planning a relaxing break shouldn’t consider it.
CAMPERVANS can be cramped, the on-board facilities are best described as adequate.
How many families would relish the prospect of spending two weeks in the space smaller than a large bathroom. (We regarded ourselves as lucky that six of us didn’t have one argument in the two weeks we were holidaying in the van.)
A campervan allows you a certain amount of freedom as to where you travel, however an NZ tourist body suggested it was safer to use the van parks.
“Several isolated van have been attacked an robbed,” we were warned.
As already mentioned, most parks have good facilities, but these are geared mainly towards summer campers when it might be bracing to have a shower in an open-shower block.
In winter it’s a different matter, especially if you are used to showering on a daily basis.
The South Island is beautiful, the scenery fantastic and the people friendly – next time we’ll go in summer, hire a mini-van and stay in motels.
February is the hottest month in Hokitika (on the west coast of NZ’s south island) with an average temperature of 61°F (16°C) and the coldest is July at 46°F (8°C) with the most daily sunshine hours at 8 in August.
During the winter, Queenstown has snow-capped mountains and crisp, clear days, while during the summer, the days are warm and can reach a temperature of 26°C. There is not much difference between seasonal rainfall in Queenstown, but March tends to be the wettest month with an average of 80mm.
Simple rules for safe winter traveling in NZ
- Allow extra time
- Ensure your vehicle is safe for winter driving
- Drive to the road and weather conditions
- Slow down and be prepared for unexpected hazards
- Allow greater following distance between you and the vehicle ahead
- Make sure your cell phone is well charged, check car charger also
- Have blankets, snacks, bottles of water ready in case of emergency or a breakdown.
- (Source: https://www.nzta.govt.nz/media-releases/winter-journeys-be-safe-plan-ahead/)
Things to do in Queenstown:
Things to do in Hokikitta:
Where on earth?
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