Kia ora New Zealand!
Gabby is home for a visit. Wicked. We had her shipped from the UK back to New Zealand late last year and she arrived in Auckland ready for summer. Getting her back to Queenstown at the other end of the country deserved a road trip (of course) that needed to be written up – so here’s the story of the trip south…
We flew to Auckland from Queenstown late in December and collected Gabby from storage – she was mighty pleased to be out of that shed I can tell you! The journey home was epic. We planned a trip around East Cape of New Zealand’s North Island for some beach time then across the Cook Strait before heading down to Queenstown and an amazing trip up the Rees River Valley – stunning. So read on!
Bay of Plenty and East Cape
After a reasonably short drive from Auckland to our East Coast starting point of Mt Maunganui, we managed to scoop a beachfront camping spot at the Mt Maunganui campground – unbelievable for the middle of summer just prior to New Years Eve! The Mount (as its known) is a lively spot with a good surf beach and plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from – so its not exactly “getting away from it all” – but I still like the Mount. Its typical New Zealand beachside holiday town and has a nice vibe.
From here things start to get a bit more remote, especially as you get past Opotiki heading towards the most eastern point in New Zealand. However, one piece of guidance I would give for this trip; go a bit later in January or February when the camping grounds aren’t so full! The locals advise caution with free-camping; some of the areas are pretty remote and we heard that things went missing from your camp site (like the wheels on your car). The camping grounds we stayed at were excellent, especially as we started coming down the eastern side of the cape. Beautiful beaches, great surf and nice places to stay.
We really enjoyed Tolaga Bay (pictured below) and with the historic Tolaga Bay Wharf down the southern end of the beach that was built in 1926 that is now just a heritage attraction. There’s a great surf break under it and the perfect way to see the day out. All the beaches around the East Cape are great – there’s no point in me trying to recommend one over the other. Try to get off the beaten track by heading down some of the dead-end roads that take you to these white sand pieces of paradise. I’d allow at least 5 days to get from Mt Maunganui to Gisborne otherwise you are going to end up rushing.
Gisborne, Hawkes Bay & Porangahau
As we got further south, there was a little more civilisation with the bustling surf town of Gisborne and some excellent wineries making the best Chardonnay in New Zealand. We stopped for lunch at Matawhero Vineyard and had a bottle of their Irwin Chardonnay, excellent is all I can say! If you are a keen surfer, the Mahia Peninsula is a must and well worth a drive. Next down the coast is Hawkes Bay, with more wineries specialising in some epic reds – I mean really really good reds. Our favourites where Alpha Domus, Beach House, Black Barn (for lunch), Craggy Range, Elephant Hill (also for lunch), Ngatarawa, Sileni, Tony Bish, and Trinity Hill. We missed heaps of them! There are a lot…
If you get a chance, head out to Cape Kidnappers; there is an amazing Gannet colony out there, one of the largest in the world – and really worth seeing. Things got interesting again south of here, with some less visited beaches and small coastal towns, but so very worthy of some time. Porangahau Beach was really nice (and less populated with tourists) with a great free camping area in the sand dunes up the northern end of the beach. Good surf, a spot under the trees; could have easily spent a few nights here! The old “Duke” Hotel is a must stop for a beer in Porangahau township. It, and the locals who drink there, certainly have some character!
From here we headed inland (wasn’t quite the plan but a incident with a surfboard meant a quick and unplanned trip to A&E in Masterton – don’t ask) and we stayed the night in Martinborough – another great wine area and a cute wee village – before bailing down to Wellington to catch the ferry to Picton ahead of a cyclone coming down the country! We managed to get a standby booking and had a smooth crossing before the storm hit.
Rainbow & Molesworth Stations
After the Cook Strait crossing, we stayed the night in Blenheim (another great wine area – there’s theme emerging here…). Rather than go traditional, we found a great Mexican restaurant called Cartel that had an excellent range of Tequila – we did our best to try them all! The next morning rather than take the main drag, we decided to go off piste and drive through Rainbow and Molesworth stations which is a great offroad drive that took us past Rainbown ski area and through the station. The Rainbow Station section is pretty rough and 4WD only – especially one section that had been washed out and gave Gabby a good old test with the ARB diff lockers working hard to get through the section.
Once we hit the Molesworth Station road at the southern end of Rainbow the track was much better and would be easily drivable with a car. Most people drive the Acheron Road though Molesworth, however we took the less traveled Tophouse Road on the western side of Molesworth. This route takes you past Lake Tennyson before coming out at Hanmer Springs. If I had more time I would have spent the night camping at Tennyson. Its stunning and no one was there! It reminded me of some parts of Scotland as you can see from the picture below. If you have a chance, go and see this part of the South Island. It’s worth it.
Rapahoe and the West Coast
After a night at Hamner Springs we headed out to the West Coast of the South Island. I love the West Coast, its wild, raw and pretty beautiful. We drove through Blackball on the way. Weird. They have a hotel there, once named “The Blackball Hilton” now known as “Formerly the Blackball Hilton” due to a lawsuit by the Hilton hotel chain. We didn’t go in – the place is full of strange people, potentially inbreed. Worth a drive through, get out of the car with caution.
We headed north of Greymouth and took a chance on a wee place called Rapahoe. What a great find. We found a camp ground right on the beach and set up camp listening to the waves pound the coast. What a cute spot! Even better, 300 metres down the beach is the Rapahoe Beachfront Hotel and Restaurant. What a spot for a beer in the sun. We had a beautiful evening, sun setting as we cooked up a storm on the beach.
Rees River Valley
The next day we pulled a long drive all the way down the West Coast and headed to Queenstown. Glenorchy, at the far western tip of Lake Wakatipu, was the next stop and from there we headed further west onto the gravel road that takes you into the Rees Valley. The Rees Valley forms part of the Rees / Dart tramping loop that takes 4 – 5 days to complete. The Rees River runs through the middle of the valley and there is a vague 4WD track that can be followed, with some care required. The gravel road into the valley floor quickly became a track, then disappeared completely as we hit our first of many river crossings. Some of them were quite deep!
There were two occasions where we hit mud on the river bottom during a crossing and had a moment of panic as Gabby started to flounder. The ARB diff lockers saved the day (again) and we crawled out the other side unscathed. This valley is beautiful. We drove to the head of the valley surrounded by rugged snow-topped mountains and glaciers. There are trout and salmon in the river that we chased without any luck. But hell, fishing in that valley is about the experience. Catching a fish is just a bonus!
We camped half way back down the valley on a delta at a bend in the river. We were in our happy place – looking out from the roof tent we had a view of Mt Earnslaw and the Glacier with the Rees River bubbling past the Land Rover. Spectacular.
That’s all for now, more New Zealand adventure coming!