Friday, 19 January 2018

The Myths & Reality of Freedom Camping

Tourist season is in full swing and with it comes the inevitable media coverage of hordes of freedom campers descending on some of our nation's prized beauty spots and turning them into a giant rubbish dump and public toilet.  It's a frustrating time because, as with most things in life, the reality is it is usually just a small few disrespecting our country and the privilege of being able to see and experience it at minimum cost.  Unfortunately we all unavoidably get tarred with the same brush, which we hate.  Retired Kiwi couples in $250,000 motor homes are looked upon with the same disdain and negativity by those who read the stories as a group of European teenagers in a tent.  To their mind, we're all the same.  Which technically we are.  Everybody loves something for nothing after all, and some of the most incredible camping spots in the country are free.  We've stayed at them, they remain some of my favourites - often no paid campsite could possibly compare for the views and location - and I never feel luckier than when we get to stay in a place for free.

People picture freedom camping in NZ like this...

When the reality is more like this...

Even so, you wouldn't catch us dead in most of them at this time of year.  We don't need to limit our 'Kiwi experience' to the summer months, we get to enjoy it all the time! We're happy to wait until the rest of the world has gone home and we can take advantage of these beautiful free spots in relative peace and quiet.  And beautiful or not, in summer at least many freedom camps ARE eyesores.  Imagine between 80 and 140 vehicles packed like sardines into the one space every single day and night; everyone hanging out washing, airing bedding, washing dishes, clothes and bodies in rivers and lakes or in buckets.  They're all just doing what they need to do, getting back to basics, like in the good old camping days.  But unlike the 'good old camping days' these places aren't in picturesque fields, tucked away from the rest of the world.  They're in public cark parks and prominent surf and dog walking spots, on waterfronts, in front of people's houses.  They look like shanty towns or a giant hippy gathering and many people find them intimidating.  It doesn't matter how lovely the people are on the inside; from the outside it looks bad and that's why freedom camping is so often in the news.

I'm not sure whether other countries use the term 'freedom camping' as much as we do here.  But when it comes to this country at least, I'm not alone in feeling that the term 'freedom camping' gives off the wrong connotations.  What sounds very idyllic in theory is misinterpreted widely, giving overseas visitors and Kiwis alike the impression that here in jolly old Lord of the Rings land you can STAY for free, LIVE for free and all in all BE free.  Even Gareth and I thought this was the case when we first talked about living on the road and thought we would never have to pay a cent to stay anywhere again!  Lovely as that sounds, it simply isn't true.  A couple of years ago it was, but not any more. You can indeed stay for free at a lot of places if you have the right set-up - in other words a certified self-contained vehicle, with a toilet on board which can be used at all times, as well as adequate water and waste disposal facilities.  However most overseas visitors do not have the money to afford a self contained vehicle.  It's cheap enough to buy a vehicle big enough to sleep and cook in - but if you don't have that all important self-contained status, your options for getting around New Zealand cheaply and easily become a lot more limited.

If you don't have one of these, your freedom camping spots are a lot fewer and farther between!

This is where the problem starts.  Our excited young tourists arrive in the country, hop off the plane and buy or rent a non-self contained vehicle, only to find to their horror that they cannot park in a lot of places after all, at least not without risking a $200 fine for not being self-contained.  Ironically a lot of freedom camps DO have public toilets, but still do not permit non-self contained vehicles to stay there, so they still get fined, as happened to a friend of ours who was woken at three o'clock in the morning by a warden issuing her with a sticker.  This leaves them with two options - the first of which is to stay at a paid campground or holiday park, which at this time of year will cost them between $20 and $60 per night.  In all honesty, this is the way it should be - but as we found in our first few weeks of living on the road, nobody can keep that up.  Most freedom campers have very little money.  Spending even $20 a night to stay anywhere is not an option for them because they simply don't have it.  Which sounds crazy, why would you purposely travel to a country on the other side of the world for a holiday with no money?  Simple - they have been led to believe they can stay anywhere they like for free, so they arrive here without enough funds to be able to afford anything else.  So their only other option is to park up wherever the hell they can, often en masse, as long as they can get away with it.  This of course pisses off the locals no end and they kick up a stink.  The tourist industry likes to argue that they spend a lot of money in our country, but this isn't true.  Most of them have bugger all money, and the money they do have they will save for once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as bungy jumping in Queenstown, even if it means they have to live on two-minute noodles and thin air for weeks at a time to do so.

Forgive me here if that paints these poor young people in a negative light.  I'm trying to explain the situation, not the people.  We have made a lot of wonderful friends from all over the world, who rely almost totally on freedom camping to be able to fulfil their dreams.  They live on a miniscule amount of money and struggle every day to a) make ends meet and b) find the next place they can stay safely and legally.  One couple we met had managed to survive for six months with just $1200.  That's just $6.60 per day.  Most of them work to supplement their travels, picking fruit or whatever they can find, working long hours for minimum wage.  I admire the heck out of them, they are all lovely people who are not scared to work hard; they learn very fast that they have to.  It is wrong and inaccurate to call them bludgers for being 'too stingy' or 'lazy' to pay for accommodation; in the majority of cases they are simply trying to survive.  The hardest hit places are the popular tourist centres such as Wanaka, Golden Bay and New Plymouth - places with amazing lake or ocean views.  And what tourist wouldn't want to stay in a place like that for free if they could?

Still, as any New Zealander living on the road will tell you, Kiwis are just as bad as overseas visitors when it comes to flouting the rules.  In fact they're probably worse as for some reason they seem to feel that the rules and laws don't apply to locals.  Which is very poor because we have no excuse.  We have the time, the money and the facilities to all be able to achieve certified self-contained vehicles.  In addition, we also have a nationwide motorhoming association, the NZMCA which makes it super cheap and easy to stay all over the country for next to nothing in their 'member only' camping grounds.  These grounds are increasing in number all the time and cost as little as $3 a night for a safe and pleasant place to stay at anywhere from Kerikeri to Whitianga, Waihi Beach, Fiordland and everywhere else in between.  It costs around $90 a year for our membership and you get a heap of awesome discounts to boot, from the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, to insurance, Department of Conservation camps - even Specsavers!  If you're planning to travel between the North and South Islands even once a year the discount more than covers the cost of the membership.  We Kiwis are incredibly lucky and well provided for.  For overseas campers in search of freedom however, unfortunately it is only going to get harder, as more and more councils and communities are cracking down and putting new laws and boundaries in place; going as far as to literally lock campers out.  It's a huge shame, but to my mind, it seems our country has become a victim of its own misleading marketing and reputation.

Watch out!  Gareth is on the warpath :-D

No matter what though, you always get a few dishonest people who no matter what, try and pull the wool over your eyes.  We've learned that well and truly these past couple of weeks helping to look after the campground.  Our campground is a public domain, with several entrances, meaning that anyone can come in and use the showers or stay for one night or more if they want - for a small fee.  It seems however that for some people even $3 for a shower or $5 for a campsite is more than they are willing to pay and will go to extreme and often amusing lengths to get out of doing so.  Unfortunately for them, they haven't banked on a big hairy Welshman!  The other day Gareth saw a family of Asian motorhomers acting strangely and being deliberately elusive.  Sure enough, his instincts were correct, and despite having brand new signs up, specifically telling campers that washing clothes and dishes in the showers is not permitted, Bevin went and confronted them and discovered that they had paid just $3 (the price of one shower) for four people, and washed around five bags of clothes in the shower!  For starters we have laundry facilities available, as well as water sources all around the campground for washing clothes and dishes, but the biggest problem is the cost of using all the hot water meant for showering.

We ALL need to look after places like this

We've also had to get wise to several people in rental vehicles who like to try and sneak out without paying.  They typically like to slip in late at night, try and park as snugly alongside a fenceline or close to an exit as possible, then leave early in the morning before everyone else is up, so that nobody realises they have even been there.  What they don't realise is that Gareth already has their number plate and we simply ring the rental companies!  If people don't even have $5 to spend, or want to spend at a beautiful campground, surrounded by mountains and some of the most spectacular countryside they can ever hope to see, well then they shouldn't be travelling.  Places like ours are truly unique and precious; we should treasure and respect them, no matter where in the world we come from.  Or as Bevin so rightly sums up.  'If you want to have a great time travelling in New Zealand, don't take the piss!'

Sunday, 14 January 2018

BBQ's, Beers & Bloody Good Mates

The past few days have been without a doubt, the hottest I have ever experienced in my whole life.  To some of you living in other countries, 32 degrees celsius may not sound anything too extreme, but the Southland heat is like no other heat we have ever known.  The sun is so incredibly intense down here, you just cannot be out in it.  Which makes things rather interesting when you live in a tiny van.  But on the positive side, we can open up our entire vehicle to let the air through, which is more than a lot of people in the bigger motorhomes are able to do.  This leads to another positive in that everyone has to sit outside in the shade and simply relax.  There is simply nothing else you can do, and this makes for a very social time I can tell you!

Even grown ups love running through a water sprinkler!

Despite the sweltering heat, I am so content right now it's ridiculous.  How can anyone not be happy in this balmy weather, surrounded by lovely people? I think most people would consider me to be an outgoing person, and would probably be surprised to hear that I consider myself to be an introvert.  I love my own space, peace and quiet and am fiercely protective of it but since living on the road I have learned to share that space.  My van is still my haven and if you want to hide away from the world you can simply shut the door, or in the worst case scenario move to another location - but in 15 months we haven't had to do that yet.  I have felt a definite shift in myself lately, and I've noticed it in Gareth too.  He's always been a lovely, friendly bloke but it makes me smile so much to see how well he interacts with all the campers and looks out for everyone.  I feel a lot more confident and relaxed when talking to people and I think it boils down to the fact that I'm just so much happier in my own skin these days.  When you live this way, everyone is equal.  It doesn't matter if you're in a $200,000 motor home or a $2,000 station wagon, we are all out there doing it the same.  Sure, you get the odd sniffy person who doesn't speak or acknowledge anyone else but these are incredibly few and far between.  It's like anything in life; you get what you give, the more you put in, the more you get out.

Wayne, Leanne and their dog Milo, some of the lovely friends we have met recently

Bevin the caretaker and his wife Amy are supposed to be on holiday right now, but had to come back early as the ground was getting too dry and urgently needed irrigation.  Fortunately they knew the perfect place to spend the rest of their break.  You know it must be a good campground when even the caretaker goes on holiday here!  So last night we and some of the other campers got together for a pot luck BBQ and a few beers.  Half of us had never met before, but as tends to happen with other road dwellers, everyone just falls into easy conversation and has plenty of stories to tell.  It made for a very enjoyable and relaxing evening and I thought to myself as I often do, what an amazing life we lead, to make the acquaintance of so many people and so quickly be able to count them as good friends.  Someone said to me recently that one of the biggest fears which stops them from doing what we do is no longer being part of a community.  I could understand that; I had the same fear too, particularly after being part of a very busy and active community in Whangamata.  But that's the thing, we ARE part of a community.  Everyone who lives on the road immediately part of the same special community.  It may sound corny to liken it to being part of a huge family, but that's how it is. There really is nothing like it.

Bevin's wife and all-round amazing lady Amy, in their motor home 

No shortage of beer and banter when you live on the road!

Am struggling to even write in this heat today but heaven knows there are people faring a lot worse than me.  This morning I stopped to chat to a friendly young Asian man who had just packed up his tent.  He was carrying an enormous pack on his back and another on his front, as well as his sleeping mat.  'Are you leaving now?'  I asked in disbelief, referring to the heat.  'Where are you going?'  'Invercargill!' he smiled.  He was about to walk/hitchhike 65km along a smoking hot highway.  I hope like hell that a) somebody picked him up quickly and b) he hasn't collapsed from heat exhaustion!  But nothing touched me more than the Otago Rescue Helicopter pilot we all witnessed this morning.  Our campground is the place it always lands whenever there is an accident and emergency and we see it far too often.  There were four heat-related fires in Gore yesterday alone and this morning the siren went off early and the chopper was quickly brought in to meet the ambulance and receive the patient.  Normally this all happens fairly swiftly but for whatever reason today it didn't and the pilot had no choice but to stay with his helicopter until everyone else arrived.  There he waited, in the middle of the searing hot rugby field, with no shade whatsoever, for more than three hours.  After a while in desperation he took shelter under the actual helicopter, in an effort to get into the shade somehow.  It made quite a picture and I would have loved to photograph it but it didn't seem quite right under the circumstances.  So instead I went out to him to see if he would like a cold drink.  'I'm OK, I don't know what the hold up is, but thank you!' he grinned.  Mercifully it wasn't too much longer before the ambulance arrived and everyone was on their way but as I pottered around outside, doing my handwashing and cooking brunch I felt actually guilty that my life is so simple and my whole house and everything I need is with me at all times.  One thing is for sure though, I never take any of it for granted!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Swing Bridges and Roundabouts!

Now that 2018 is well underway it's high time we caught up on some of our recent adventures!  A few weeks ago it was my birthday.  Initially we planned to go to Dunedin for a long weekend but it seemed that everything was stacked against us, as every single thing we wanted to do was either closed or booked out.  On the positive side, it was going to save us a heck of a lot of money, and so we put our thinking caps on to see what other, cheaper activities we could come up with instead.  When you're on the road for a while, particularly if you are a member of Facebook groups along with other nomads, there are some places and names which you see crop up a LOT and one of them is Piano Flat.  I never really knew what it was but thought it had a cool name and seeing as it seemed to be such a popular destination we were keen to check it out.

Still plenty of gold to be found here in the form of buttercups!

Piano Flat is a riverside campground, surrounded by forest, farmland and mountains in the far north of Southland.  It got its quirky name from a colourful character called Harry Selig, who was known back in the 1800's as Piano Harry, seeing as he played piano in the local orchestra, entertaining the early settlers and miners in the area.  Harry was the first person to discover gold there, and it was originally named 'Piano Harry's Flat' in his honour, before being shortened to the name we know it as today.  Technically it's in the middle of nowhere, but you're not so far away from civilisation as to feel horribly isolated, with the little town of Waikaia just a short drive away.  As soon as we arrived it wasn't hard to see why so many people love to come here - this place is HUGE. Despite its popularity it's the perfect place for those seeking peace and quiet, there's just so much room!  There is plenty to do here, from swimming and kayaking to cycling, hiking, horse riding, trout fishing and even 4-wheel driving.  Being a Dept of Conservation campground it is a low-cost place to stay and is one of the few DOC grounds which also accept dogs.  Today however we had a Minnie-free day as we were planning on a long hike.  We thought we had done our research fully prior to leaving; however we had no idea how long our leisurely hike was going to turn out to be!

We jumped out of the van and immediately realised the one, most important thing we had forgotten - insect repellent.  Unfortunately Piano Flat is also notorious for its sandflies!  As they immediately began attacking our arms and legs we thanked our lucky stars we weren't staying the night.  There was only one thing we could do to try and keep them somewhat at bay and that was to keep moving.  There are several walks available, from half-hour rambles through the 10,500 hectares of beech forest, to a four-hour, 12 km loop and a seven-hour 15km hike to the Titan Rocks.  We decided we would take the middle of the road option and opted for the four-hour loop along the Waikaia River.  Tramping is one of my very favourite pastimes and I was really looking forward to a good, long birthday hike.  There was just one major challenge I had to get out of the way first and it came at the very start of our walk.

The Swing Bridge of Doom.  At least, if you're me...

As some of you may recall, I have a phobia of heights - a HUGE phobia.  I literally freeze and am unable to move, which usually leaves me with no choice but to turn back.  Swing bridges come very much under that phobia and from the photos I had seen this one was a big one.  However, this particular route had been my choice.  I had steeled myself prior to the trip and told myself that no way was I going to miss out on doing this walk!  All I had to do was get that bridge over with, waddle calmly across the boardwalk and then I could relax for the rest of the trip.  It would be just fine.  And then we saw the bridge, stretching across the entire width of the river.  I had known from the photos that it was long - what I didn't realise was how NARROW and rickety it was.  My visions of a gently wobbling boardwalk were dashed as I surveyed what was basically a glorified tightrope made of chainlink.  There was room only to put one foot in front of the other, baby step style and I knew before I even ascended the equally rickety steps that there was no way in hell I was going to be able to set foot on that bridge.

Even Gareth wasn't keen to cross the creaking, rickety bridge!

Fortunately, for once, Gareth felt the same.  Normally he likes nothing better than scaling, balancing and leaping over things but having tentatively tested the bridge he had to admit he didn't like it either.  My lip started to tremble in defeat.  I could not let this bloody bridge get the better of me!  It would put the cobblers on the whole day.  There was only one thing for it.  We were going to have to cross the river.  And so we took off our shoes, waded into the current and wobbled and slid our way across on the slippery rocks, with the sandflies mercilessly munching on us all the while.  At last we reached the other side.  Success!  I looked around in total happiness as we found ourselves standing in an enormous field of golden buttercups, surrounded by mountains on one side and the river on the other.  It took us another good ten minutes to scramble over to where the bridge officially ended and then we were finally on track.  

We did it!  

After our unexpected detour, the track itself was a breeze!  Despite searching the Internet for more information, we couldn't really find too many details about it, but four hours sounded like a good walk to us so we just followed the trail merrily and to start with we were making good time.  After a couple of hours we stopped for a spot of lunch down at the river and were amazed to see a large antler, shed by a red deer at the water's edge.  We were just about to leave when we saw a figure crossing the river, apparently coming towards us.  What were they doing, alone all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?  Unlike most walking tracks, we hadn't seen another soul on the path all day.  'It's Valentin!' Gareth suddenly said in recognition, and indeed it was!  We hadn't seen him or his girlfriend Sandra since our wedding almost three weeks before, having left the campground after the reception.  It was a lovely surprise as we weren't expecting to see them again, yet here he was, a couple of hours' drive away, out in the middle of the bush!  'I saw a huge trout, swimming down this way!' he grinned, fishing rod in hand as always.  'If I'm lucky, maybe I can catch it.  Sandra is walking the track somewhere, you'll probably see her!'

A riverside picnic in the middle of nowhere.  
This was the last place we expected to bump into our old friend!

We had a brief chat before leaving Valentin to his fishing and continued on our way.  But we didn't see Sandra.  As before, we didn't see another soul and the further we went, the harder the track was becoming to find.  In fact it wasn't so much of a track as an obstacle course.  It became almost impossible to even put one foot in front of the other without having to move something, climb over something or edge our way gingerly along cliff edges and over worryingly large chasms.  It really was quite hazardous in places and made me very conscious that, should an accident have befallen either Gareth or I, it would have been a very long, solitary and nervewracking walk back to get help.  Still, we did our best to keep smiling and for the most part we enjoyed the challenge.  As the four-hour mark drew up however, we couldn't believe it.  'Four hours already?  But the sign still says 6km to go!  We're barely halfway!' we said in disbelief.  Thanks to the quality of the track - or lack of it, the going was incredibly slow.  The one thing we did know, was that we were supposed to follow the river's edge for the first part of the trip, then return back the way we came but on the opposite side of the river, along the road.

The 'track' becomes a tad more challenging!

 And that was when the track came abruptly to an end and we saw the second swing bridge.  What second swing bridge?  Exactly - none of the literature we had read anywhere had mentioned anything about a second bridge.  We had thought the first bridge was rickety enough, but it wasn't a patch on this one!  Again it stretched across the river, but this one was attached by a steel wire wound worryingly loosely around a tree - and not even a very large tree at that.  The bridge itself was in a far worse state of repair, being covered in rust and to top it off, the HAZARD sign warning only one person to cross at a time had obviously been broken long ago and nobody had been or thought to replace it.  Piano Flat may have been a popular campground but it was very obvious that very few people ever used this track.

Another dodgy swing bridge?  Oh hell no!

Crossing the river on foot was not an option this time!

I didn't even have to voice my concerns this time.  'No way am I getting on that - no way', said Gareth, and set about finding us an alternative route across the river.  This time however it was far less straightforward.  The water was a lot deeper, the rocks were a lot bigger (as were the gaps between them) and the current was a lot stronger.  We must have spent a good half hour trying to find a safe place to cross but to no avail.  'It's no good', Gareth sighed.  'We're just going to have to go all the way back to where we saw Valentin and cross there.  We saw him do it, so we must be able to'.  So back we went, feeling thoroughly disheartened and dishevelled as we hauled ourselves once again through branches and over and under tree trunks and limbs.  Despite sounding less than idyllic, it wasn't all bad though.  A delightful South Island robin had made our acquaintance and stopped for a while to say hello, before following us happily through the bush, feasting on all the insects we were disturbing and sending up from the ground for him.  Gareth also had the most enormous and beautiful dragonfly come and settle on his hand whilst taking photos!  And complaining aside, it felt wonderful to be out in the bush just doing something; filthy dirty, drenched in sweat but thoroughly exhilerated.

This dear little South Island Robin was super friendly!

An hour and a half later, we finally arrived back where we had left Valentin fishing.  He had gone, and instead some fresh deer tracks were at the place he had crossed.  Darn, we missed the deer again!  Getting across the river was quite time consuming, but at least here it wasn't dangerous and at last we were able to climb up the steep bank and follow our noses to the track which would lead us home.  Already it had taken us a good two hours longer than planned and we were exhausted, but in a good way.  After what seemed like an age, we emerged from the bush and out onto the road, where Sandra was sitting in her van, waiting for Valentin who had gone to retrieve a fishing lure he had left behind down at the river.  We chatted briefly before saying our goodbyes and heading wearily along the road back towards the campground.  There was only 3km to go but to us it felt endless as we trudged along. 'God I stink!' Gareth remarked, sniffing the air in disdain as we wandered along.  'You stink?  I stink!' I replied, wiping my sweaty brow for the 100th time.

Testing the water.  We did get VERY wet...

At last!  The road back home

It was around then we heard a vehicle approaching behind us.  It was Valentin and Sandra!  'Would you like a ride back?' they smiled.  Gareth and I looked at each other.  I could see Gareth was keen but - 'We smell!' I said pitifully, not wanting to cram our sweaty, stinky bodies into the confines of their van.  'It's OK, we smell too!' laughed Sandra.  'We haven't been able to get to a shower for a week.  We wash in the river but - you know, it's not the same', she shrugged her shoulders, smiling.  And so we gratefully climbed in and trundled our way back down the last 3km of gravel road.  As we passed through the tiny settlement of Riversdale on the way home, Gareth almost shot into the back of the van as I braked suddenly at the sight of a bottle store!  But it was my birthday, and boy had we earned it.  It wasn't quite the leisurely ramble either of us had anticipated.  But it was a brilliant day and despite everything we had an absolute blast.

A very happy Southern Man with a box of well-earned beers!

Incidentally, just a few days ago I happened to come across a brochure on Southland walks.  It describes the four-hour Waikaia River loop as being 'Challenging, for advanced trampers only.  Track is of poor quality in places'. Really?  No sh*t.  They also mentioned the second swing bridge at the end of the track, which is the only way you can get across the river.  If only the Department of Conservation had thought to put such information on THEIR website too!  But one thing is for sure; we will go back to Piano Flat again in the near future and this time we will stay.  As long as we remember the insect repellent!  

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Our Place in the World

Rata trees in flower on the Hokonui Hills, photo credit Wild Frontier.  
We may not be by the beach this year, but the scenery is still stunning!

Ahh, it's all a bit idyllic here at the moment.  While the rest of the world seemingly is caught up in traffic jams and fighting their way through crowds, we're sitting outside in the sunshine enjoying nothing but peace and tranquility.  There's maybe another ten vehicles here, but our campground is so big everyone has plenty of room to themselves to spread out and relax.  I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be right now!  It's a little strange not being by the sea for summer but a change is as good as a break, as they say and this holiday season is certainly proving to be that!

A little corner of our camping 'village', as seen from our back door!

Most of our little Christmas village is still here, although a few have moved on now.  I have to say, I have never experienced so many consecutive hangovers in my entire life as I have this festive season!  Not that we're complaining mind; it just goes to show how much wonderful company we have been treated to lately, from old friends and new.  Christmas Day itself was somewhat quieter than we planned, thanks to the heavy rain which kept everyone from mingling as planned and cooped up in their motor homes instead.  Even so, the weather did nothing to dampen our spirits and we curled up inside listening to corny Christmas music, watching festive movies and playing card games badly until the rain subsided.  Later that evening we went to Bevin and Amy's house for a BBQ and it was so lovely and relaxing chatting to everyone on the veranda and strolling around their beautiful garden.

Us with Annelieke

The days between Christmas and New Year were a bit of a blur!  Or should that be a social whirl?  Our fellow campers were all keen to get outside and chat after the previous wet day and there was an influx of new arrivals, many from overseas.  When it comes to travellers, everyone is different.  Some people keep very much to themselves and don't interact at all except for a wave when they leave; others are extremely friendly and keen to chat.  Such as Annelieke, a bubbly Dutch lady with a great sense of humour.  From the start she was wonderfully outgoing and had only been at the campground ten minutes before she was riding a horse around the arena, thanks to a local who happened to be there practising polo.  Shortly after her arrival we were joined by another Dutch couple, Axel and Astrid, who after making smalltalk asked if they could camp next to us for the night and continue the conversation.  Annelieke returned to join us after her horse ride and the five of us were a merry group, sharing dinner and talking into the night before it got too cold and we all had to give in and retire!  Spontaneous evenings such as these are always so memorable and enjoyable and it's lovely to learn so much about different people, their cultures and their countries.  We all exchanged details in the morning before they left and promised to keep in touch.  Hopefully we will see them again one day!  It's such a special place here, often people do come back; such as the South African family of five we have camping next to us this week.  It's always so nice to see people who love it here as much as we do.

The best thing about having a BBQ is that it's always the blokes who cook it!

We have also enjoyed some fun evenings with our young French friends, which have also resulted in some spectacular headaches the next morning!  When we first hit the road, I imagined that we would naturally meet a lot of people; however I never envisaged what good friends they would also become.  With not too much going on in the way of New Year entertainment in Gore, we agreed we would spend New Year's Eve with Valentin and Sandra and the four of us settled comfortably out in the sunshine for a relaxing evening of dinner, drinks and conversation.  Here in Southland, it doesn't get dark until around 10.30 - 11pm at the moment and as the countdown to midnight drew closer a vehicle pulled up alongside us, blaring music.  It was Paul and his wife Chrissy from the other end of the campground, and they had also brought along Debra, to see the New Year in all together.  I can't remember the last time I laughed so much - or sang!  There was our merry group, all from different countries, all different ages, talking and joking up a storm.  We hugged and sang Auld Lang Syne, watched the neighbours' fireworks and carried on the celebrations until once again it got too cold.  And as I sat there in my camping chair, with Paul and Chrissy's little dog Fergus asleep on my lap, I thought to myself how far Gareth and I had come and what a brilliant year it had been.  I couldn't have possibly asked for any more from my life right then.

The next day was blazing hot and Paul and Chrissy invited us for New Year's lunch.  It had been years since I had sat round a table for New Year's Day; not since I lived in England, and tired as we all were (and hungover as some of us also were!) it was so lovely to be able to do that again.  For the millionth time I felt truly blessed to have met so many wonderful people.  It's particularly touching for Gareth and I, because being vegan we are used to doing our own thing and not wishing to be an inconvenience to others when eating out; yet both Bevin and Amy and Paul and Chrissy all insisted we join them and went out of their way to make sure there was plenty of food for us to eat.  It really was so much appreciated!

Working on one of our many projects in my outdoor office!

Who knows what this year will bring for us?  There are all sorts of things we WANT to do; it's just a question of whether we will have the time, already the year is filling up fast for us!  For now we are happy right where we are and have plenty to do, as well as some big projects we are working on.  Once those are done, then we will treat ourselves to some more adventuring!  Saying that, we had a very busy December, visiting all sorts of new places, which I will tell you about next time.  If I had one wish for 2018, it would be that my family could see and experience life the way I do.  I saw this quote recently on my gorgeous friend Lin's motivational website Inspire Beyond Belief and it really struck a chord with me:

As far as I'm concerned there are no truer words!  I may not have known where the heck I was going this time last year, and I still don't know now.  But we both agree it was the best year ever.  We've found our place in the world  - and it's the WHOLE world!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Little Christmassy Village!

I read in the news the other day that this person called Halsey is being heralded as the voice of a generation.  This was rather a revelation and it made me chuckle as I have no idea who they are.  Gareth didn't have the foggiest either, but then we have no idea of a lot of things any more.  We haven't heard a single song in the Top 40 since we left the house and we have no idea what's on everyday TV or who is famous any more.  I didn't realise just how far removed from everything we actually were until a couple of weeks ago, when I was sitting in the waiting room of the local medical centre and a large television screen loomed above, playing daytime shows.  'Ooh, that was exciting last night, wasn't it?' a woman sitting opposite me smiled.  'I'm glad that couple from Wanaka won!'  'Oh, that's good!' I smiled back.  I figured she must have been talking about Masterchef or some similar show, which she was, and I thought I had got away with it until she kept on talking about not only that, but a heap of other shows on TV which were also apparently very exciting.  In the end, I had no choice but to admit that I hadn't watched television since 2016.  She stared at me quite literally open-mouthed and neither of us knew what to say next.  Mercifully I was called in to my appointment at that moment and I didn't have to explain!  Whilst it was a rather awkward situation, it made me incredibly glad that I had been out living my life for the past year and doing real stuff, instead of sitting in front of the gogglebox.  Ignorance really is bliss, as they say.

Even so, unless you live on a desert island, there are still some things you can't escape or ignore, and Christmas is one of them.  To be fair, it's only really made its presence felt the past week or so; in the supermarket, where the carols are blasting 24/7 and the Post Office, where the queues stretch for miles with everyone trying to meet the Christmas postage deadlines.  For the most part, Gareth and I decided we would pretty much ignore Christmas this year.  We were in the perfect spot to escape all the commercial hype and would spend the day exactly as we wanted, just the two of us.  We got all our Christmas shopping done in one day and breathed a sigh of relief.  Now that was done, we could just get on with work and all the other things we needed to be doing!  But then things started to happen that made me change my mind...

The sun goes down on another peaceful day

You see, as I look out the window right now, I can see a little Christmas village happening.  Our campground is surprisingly quiet at the moment and I think that's due to the fact that almost all the overseas travellers are working further up the country at the moment, picking fruit and doing other jobs to support themselves and fund their travels.  The campers we have here right now are almost entirely Kiwis, looking for a quiet place to spend Christmas and New Year in their motor homes away from the crowds.  There's Debra, who has been here on and off since May.  Sandra and Valentine, the fishing mad young French couple we met a couple of months back, who come and go.  There's Ron and his wife, our nearest neighbour, another lovely friendly couple in a bus with their enormous chocolate Labrador, Glenn in his caravan over the other side and the most delightful Maori chap with a white, fluffy wee dog who loves nothing more than a good yarn.  We don't know all their names, despite talking at length on many occasions but they all seem to know ours!

I realised how much I enjoy seeing these people every day, how kind they are and how much they make me smile, and it made me so happy that they were all here for the festive season.  But then it got even better.  We began hearing from people we had met throughout the year, who had been to stay months before and were coming back for Christmas and New Year!  'We'll be here for Christmas, must catch up for a drink!' one message read.  'See you at New Year for a wine!' said another.  It made me so excited that all these special, memorable people who had taken the time to get to know us previously were coming back again.  To think we had originally thought our first camping Christmas might be lonely!  That's the thing about this place though; it's a special and unique place people love to come back to.

We may not have much room for Xmas decorations - but we'll make room!

Before I knew it, I was downloading all my favourite corny Christmas albums on Spotify and sticking up our Christmas cards and decorations in the van.  For the first time in 15 years I wrote Christmas cards and sent them.  It was fun to do and made me feel good to let the special people in our lives know that we were thinking of them, but the best thing of all was the lovely messages we got in return from the recipients; a lot of them were so surprised and chuffed to receive a card from us.  In a world full of technology and instant messaging, it's a rare thing these days, to receive hand written communication you can keep.

To top things off, I went to the Hospice shop yesterday to take back my wedding dress, along with some other bits and pieces.  'Your beautiful dress?  Oh surely you'll want to keep that?' said the lady behind the counter, whose name was Wilma.  'I live in a van!  I don't really have room to keep it!' I smiled.  'Besides, it's not like I'm going to wear a dress like this again, I thought if I brought it back, someone else could wear it too'.  'I'll take the rest', Wilma said, ferreting through the bag, 'But I'm not taking that dress!  You hang on to it my dear, that's precious.'  'OK, well I was feeling a bit torn about it', I laughed.  'You win!'  So I still have my dress - at least for now, and while I was there I picked up two Christmassy hats for us to wear around the campground!  If you would like to read more about our special day, more details are in this month's Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine.  Thank you to everyone for all your kind well wishes and lovely messages!

The $30 medieval wedding dress I wasn't allowed to part with!

This Christmas is going to be our first Christmas ever without our families.  It's going to be hard and I know there will be a few pangs of sadness; but as long as they are happy, we are happy.  We didn't make any plans to eat with anyone, as we didn't think anyone would want a couple of vegans around on a day when everyone traditionally stuffs themselves with turkey and ham!  However, Bevin and Amy, lovely as they are accept us for all our weirdness and have invited us to a Christmas BBQ in the evening, with home made vegan burger patties!  I have a feeling our first Christmas as nomads is going to be a very happy and special one after all!

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Bestest, Most Perfect Day Ever

I'm not very good at keeping secrets, as a rule.  No doubt you've guessed that already, seeing as I've been documenting every minute detail of my life for the past 13 years!  But when it comes to BIG secrets; really important stuff, well that's different.  I'm very good at keeping those.  Which is why we hardly told a soul that we were getting married last Friday!  Being the minimalists we are, we wanted to keep things very simple and low key and that's just what we did.  Even so, it was still every bit as perfect as any large scale, big budget wedding!  The whole day cost us just over $700 and included everything from food and drink to wedding outfits, hair and make-up.  Here's how we did it:

The secret's out at last!

THE VENUE: When it came to planning the wedding, Gareth had only one stipulation - it HAD to be in the South Island.  The question was, where?  The answer as it turned out, was simple.  'Why don't you get married here?' said Bevin, our campground caretaker, looking around the 40 acres of park-like surroundings.  'The trees will all be out, the roses will be in bloom and there's plenty of room for everyone'.  As soon as he said it we realised he was right; we already had the perfect venue!  Our friends were here, our hearts were here - and unlike the other places we had checked out it wasn't going to cost us $500 just for the two of us to turn up.  From then on, for weeks leading up to the wedding we walked past 'our' special spot and smiled to see how the bare trees were indeed transforming into enormous shady canopies and the multitudes of rose bushes were becoming a beautiful backdrop of colour.  This was the place, no doubt about it!

The perfect wedding venue - our campground!

THE CEREMONY:  This was something we gave a lot of thought to.  Had we been married in the North Island, I would have asked a friend of mine who is a celebrant to marry us, but we didn't know any down here.  What we did learn however on doing our research was that they are expensive!  Now call us unromantic, but we felt that we really didn't need to pay $600 or more to get someone to come and stand under a tree just so that we could say some flowery words to one another!  Our solution was a lot more practical but just as lovely.  We went to the registry office in the morning for the ceremony, with Bevin and his wife Amy as our witnesses, and invited everyone else to the reception at the campground that afternoon.  I'll admit, I did have my misgivings about being married at a registry office.  I was worried that somehow we would be 'missing out', or that it would be too plain and not as special.  But it wasn't like that at all!  The lady who married us was lovely and the whole ceremony was very informal, we had a lot of fun.  The basic exchange of vows cost us just $240 in comparison to a celebrant and we figured we could say whatever flowery words we wanted to say to one another that afternoon in front of our guests for free and it would be just as special.  And you know what?  It was. I even got a bit teary! 

Us after the ceremony, with Bevin and Amy

HAIR, MAKE-UP & OUTFITS.  My wedding dress was one of the most awesome wedding bargains.  From the outset I had dreamed of having a sort of Celtic, medieval style gown; however despite intensive searching online, I was looking at around $3,000 for the style I wanted!  So I decided to try the local op shops for a suitable alternative.  I figured that would do me just fine as I was after all only planning to wear it once and being in a van I was hardly going to be able to carry it around with us forever more!  'Are you looking for something in particular?' the lady in the Hospice Shop asked me.  'I'm looking for something that will do as a wedding dress, actually!' I said.  'Come with me, we might have something upstairs', she smiled, leading the way. 

At the top of the stairs there was a rack with a dozen wedding dresses on it.  Some were too big, some were too small, some were too puffy and not my cup of tea at all - and at the end, to my amazement and delight, there was a green and gold medieval style gown!  'Can I try that one?' I asked the lady.  It wasn't the kind of colour or fabric I would have normally chosen and it didn't look much on the hanger.  I could tell the lady felt the same, but I HAD to just try it on and see.  'My goodness.  It looks as though it could have been made for you!' she said.  I had to agree, it looked so much better on than it did on the hanger!  Despite trying on others just to be sure, we both agreed, there was no question, this was the dress.  I didn't even know what the price was but was willing to pay it anyway.  'Would $30 be OK?' the lady asked.  OK, are you kidding?  After seeing almost the exact same dresses for $2,770 more, I just about fell over!  To top it off I picked up a nice pair of heels for $4, seeing as the only footwear I have these days is jandals or snow boots.  Possibly the favourite part of my outfit however was the floral hair wreath Gareth made for me from a couple of dainty $2 headbands.  It looked so effective and everyone commented how pretty it looked.  I'm sure we can find a safe place in the van to keep that!

Us in our glad rags, complete with flowers after all!

Gareth had his heart set on wearing a kilt, and we found him the perfect one online, plain black for $70, with a smart black button shirt to go with it for $25 from The Warehouse.  Seeing as I didn't want to wear a full length medieval gown to the registry office, particularly when we still had to do all the setting up for the reception afterwards, I wore a plain white summer dress which I already had.  As the temperature hit 30 degrees as we emerged from the registry office, I was very glad of it!  Seeing as we were going to be surrounded by flowers at the reception, not to mention the small issue of where to keep them afterwards, I chose not to have a bouquet; however on seeing I didn't have one, Amy brought me a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from her garden, full of peonies, roses and other beautiful blooms which would have cost an absolute fortune from a florist!

Some of our guests enjoying plenty of food, drink and shade 

DECORATIONS:  With so many stunning flowers all around us, we didn't feel the need to go overboard with decorations, so went with a couple of simple church candles.  As for the table centrepieces, this was an easy decision for us.  Instead of flowers, we had little vases of parsley, in reference to how we met, when I was buying parsley in Bunnings!  We decorated plain little milk bottles with green ribbon and some leftover white flowers from my hair wreath and popped fresh parsley into each one.  They looked so simple but adorable and effective!  Our entire cost for all the decorations, tableware, tablecloths, serving spoons, platters - everything - was just $112 and purchased from a local discount store.  Obviously we made sure as many items as possible were disposable as we couldn't store them afterwards and anything which wasn't, we donated to the local pavilion so that others can use them in future.  We were very fortunate in being able to use tables and chairs for free, thanks to Bevin at the campground.

Our gorgeous surprise wedding cake and dessert

FOOD & DRINK: This is something we were very proud of - with the exception of desserts we did all the catering ourselves and the whole feast was completely vegan!  We told all our guests that they were welcome to bring meat if they wanted to for the BBQ but not one person did, telling us that they were looking forward to trying new things instead.  Gareth and I made heaps of lists of what we were going to make and buy and everything went like clockwork.  We were super lucky to be allowed to use the kitchen at the showgrounds and it was actually really nice and relaxing to shut ourselves away the day before the wedding and cook and prepare everything together.  We made a great team and being so organised meant we had very cooking and preparation to do on the day.   The only thing that we were a little sad about was that we hadn't been able to get a wedding cake.  We had asked around locally but nobody was game enough to try making a vegan one and we ran out of time to try and have a go ourselves.  As a wonderful surprise however, Amy single handedly provided all the desserts, from fruit skewers, to a beautiful panna cotta made with coconut milk - and our very own vegan wedding cake.  Everything tasted just as good as it looked and we were so chuffed to have a wedding cake after all!  Our entire bill for food and drink was $260 and there was enough of both left over that we haven't had to cook or buy another thing since, almost a week later! 

Us looking and feeling dead posh in the Thomas Green 

PHOTOGRAPHY: This was one of the most important things to us.  Living the way we do, we were well aware that the photos of our special day were going to be the only thing we had that we could really keep, and share with our families who were all far away.  Gareth is a great photographer as we all know, but how was he going to be able to photograph his own wedding?!  We thought about hiring a photographer but again it was a huge expense and one we didn't really feel was necessary for such an informal and low key reception.  So we agreed we would just have to content ourselves with a few happy snaps outside the registry office and with a bit of luck someone would take a few photos at the reception.  Armed with a selfie stick we arrived at the registry office and thought with a bit of luck we would have time to take a few photos of ourselves before having to rush straight back to the kitchen to get ready for the afternoon's celebration.  Our witnesses, Bevin and Amy, had other ideas however.

'Come on, I'll shout you a drink to celebrate', said Bevin, as the four of us left the courthouse.  He took us across the road to the historical Thomas Green Public House, which is quite possibly one of the grandest and most beautiful places you could ever imagine.  There we sat and enjoyed a drink together before Amy jumped up and said 'let's take some photos!'  In all my days I could never have imagined a more glamorous place for our wedding photos!  We had a ball climbing up and down stairs, hanging over balconies and admiring ourselves in the impossibly enormous mirrors.  Our photos were going to be so much more special than either of us had ever imagined.  Amy was far from finished, though!  A talented photographer with a wonderful eye for detail, from there she took us all around Gore, from the Public Gardens to the Eastern Southland Gallery, taking hundreds of photos as we went.  It was honestly the most precious and wonderful thing anyone could have done for us and still makes me fill up with tears thinking about it!  We had so much fun as we went around, hamming it up for the camera and smiling until we could almost smile no more.  To think we thought we were going to be spending the morning stuck in the kitchen! 

With some of our wedding party in front of the rose garden

The temperature continued to climb that afternoon but us and our guests were all comfortable in the shade of the enormous trees.  That was another thing we loved about our wedding, was the diversity of our guests; all ages, backgrounds and countries.  Some of them were from Gore and we had known them for a while, others were from as far away as Germany and France and we had only recently met, but each and every one helped to make the day extra special.  Everyone mingled, the atmosphere was so informal and relaxed and although we may not have had our immediate loved ones with us, it felt as though we were among family.  It truly was a perfect day and best of all, unlike many newlyweds our choices meant that we were not going to be starting our married life in debt or under financial pressure.  We could have had a big, expensive wedding, but decided that we wanted to save our money for more important things, to be able to travel and maintain the lifestyle we love for years to come.  The money we saved on a celebrant alone amounted to almost the cost of the entire wedding!

To everyone who took part in our special day, a sincere and heartfelt THANK YOU.  To the few people who did know our secret and sent gifts, cards and well wishes, thank you too, for your thoughtfulness.  We received some truly beautiful gifts and all of them were absolutely perfect for a couple who live in a van.  We even have some gorgeous Christmas decorations to hang in Ken and make him look festive! 

We received such gorgeous and appropriate gifts!

So what's next for us?  No more secrets, at least not for a while!  We have a book to write, more videos to make and hopefully many more exciting things to bring you over 2018.  This time, however, we'll keep you posted!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

You Get What You Give

Crikey, has it really been two weeks since I last wrote?  I apologise, although there are two fairly good reasons for that.  Firstly, I can honestly say I have never been so freaking hot in my life - and it's not even summer yet!  Even the water in the outdoor taps is running hot!  Hence I've been trying to spend as little time inside as possible as even with a huge fan right next to our faces and the whole van opened up, the heat is still crazy as there is no breeze.  Still, we can't complain really; we could be in Central Otago!  Several of the campers we've met around here were supposed to start fruit picking work in Roxburgh today but have had to stay put until the flooding has abated and water has been returned back to the town.  As for the second reason for not writing?  That's a bit of a secret, but we're busy getting ready for something rather special.  All will be revealed soon enough! 

With Christmas just around the corner and the weather really hotting up, our campground is getting busy as expected.  I know I say this a lot but we are truly privileged to have met so many wonderful people this past year.  When you live the way we do, your fellow campers quickly become like family.  Everybody sees each other at their worst and despite being from countless different countries and backgrounds, we all have, or have had at some stage - the same challenges.  We laugh, we sympathise and most of all we try and help one another.

Us with Scott, Serena, Conner & Neillidh.  Will miss these guys!

Most of the time people only stop for a night or two passing through, but sometimes you get people who stay longer.  This morning we just bid farewell to Conner and Neillidh; a delightful young Scottish couple whose adventures got put on hold for a couple of months when Conner broke his hand and needed surgery.  Later on this week we'll be waving off Scott and Serena, two lovely and very quick witted New Yorkers who come and spend three months here every year.  Well, we THINK they're moving on this week, but when you're a keen fisherman like Scott and you're staying in the home of the best brown trout fishing in the world, it can be a little hard to leave!  We know just how he feels!  Then there's Margaret and Ivan, who have recently left but have been coming to this very campground every autumn for the past 18 years.  They'll be back in April but in the meantime we have been fortunate enough to take over the care and maintenance of their extremely fertile and productive vegetable garden!  Honestly, we couldn't feel any more fortunate than we do at the moment.

Just some of the vegetable garden we have been lucky enough to take care of!

Every day starts with us 'doing the rounds', and depending who is here, this can take a long time, often a couple of hours or more!  The actual objective of the mission is simply to get to the bathroom in the morning before everyone else does and take Minnie for a quick walk, but you meet so many people along the way, all wanting to stop for a chat, that there is nothing quick about it!  Still, this is one of the best and most enjoyable parts of the day; this is what this lifestyle is all about.  Most people have all the time in the world to talk and even if they don't, they'll still talk anyway!  The difference between us and people living a 'normal' life is that the majority of the people you talk to when you live in the same street, or work in the same building in the same town each day are always the same.  You see people that you already know and rarely meet new ones.  In our case however, we make new friends every day!  Some of the people we have met are among the most treasured and special in our lives now - to think we would never have met any of them if we hadn't started this journey.

Life really IS a bowl of cherries!

Just this morning we were coming out of the shower building when we were stopped by a young French couple asking if we would like a free mini camping fridge as they didn't have room for it in their vehicle.  It couldn't have come at a better time, now Batty has a lovely new little fridge!  Then yesterday we were given an ENORMOUS bowl of cherries, freshly picked and brought down from Alexandra by Margaret and Ivan, along with the sweetest strawberries you have ever tasted.  We ate as many as we could and still had three bags left to share with other campers!  The day before that, our lovely Scottish friends presented us with a bottle of Prosecco and a few days earlier we met a man in a bus who did knife sharpening.  Not only did he enable me to rescue the knife I had dropped down a drain a week or so before with his telescopic magnet, when I explained the knife was useless and had been blunt for years, Scott and Serena insisted on letting them get it sharpened for us and now it's the best knife we have!  So many things to be grateful for, every single day.  In return we do our best to give back wherever possible too; for example whatever we harvest from Margaret and Ivan's garden, we replace with new seedlings so that when they return they will have plenty of nice, new produce to come back to.  It really is a special place we have found here.

We all love this place!

Just a quick one today as we have stacks to do but wanted to share how happy and blessed I was feeling.  You probably won't see or hear much from us this week but we promise to be in touch next week with a whole heap of news!