Sunday, 23 July 2017

Living on a shoestring in the Land of Giant Vegetables

Ugh, have got my first winter blah virus of the year!  'Tis my fault, I jinxed myself by getting all smug about how well I've been looking after myself and actually daring to say out loud, 'I haven't been sick all winter!'  Nek minnit, it's all on.  Ah well, I can't complain really; aside from getting knocked around by the paint fumes a while back, this is the first time I've been properly crook since the very start of our travels almost nine months ago!  Which is a blessing, because let's face it who on earth wants to be sick when you're stuck in a van?  Still, we have everything we need right here, including enough pumpkin to make a big pot of comforting pumpkin soup, thanks to Bevin and his wife Amy.  

Straight out of the Southland soil!

Enough to keep us happy for many yammy dinners!

They also gave us a huge stash of yams, which we love in any shape or form and have been adding to everything!  NZ yams are different to the yams you get in other parts of the world. They originate from the South American Andes and are also known as oca.  They might look a bit odd, sort of like short, fat pink caterpillars but they taste marvellous!  I've never seen as many of them as I have here in the South Island.  I kid you not, here in Southland they grown the crazy biggest vegies I've ever seen.  Parsnips, pumpkin and yams are all much bigger than their North Island counterparts and as for swede, holy heck!  I'm waiting for the local dairy to refill their basket outside the front door so I can show you.  Despite Googling 'Southland Giant Swedes' as accurately as I could, I was only rewarded with photos of large Swedish people so I guess I'll just have to wait until I can photograph the real thing. Seriously though, these things are the size of a human head!  For $1.80 you could eat it every day for a month!  I guess it's the perfect climate for winter vegies here.  Talking of climate, we've been extremely lucky in that we've only had a bit of drizzle this past week, compared to the devastating floods in other areas of the South, particularly Christchurch and Timaru.  We couldn't believe it when we saw a photo of the petrol station in the main street of Oamaru completely under water.  We were only there a few weeks ago!  We felt very fortunate I can tell you.  That's one of the good things about living in a mobile home though.  As long as there is enough advance warning, you can get yourself out of most situations.  Having our entire house on board with us, we're always prepared!  

Trust me, you really CAN have too much of a good thing...

One thing is for sure, we've learned a heck of a lot these past nine months.  It makes us laugh now, to think how green we were at the start!  We carted around way too much stuff and poor Gareth would have to climb onto the roof and unload a heap of things every time we arrived at a new place, then heave it all back up there again when it was time to leave.  Our worst area however was definitely food, which was both surprising and hilarious considering we were both lovers of real food and had always cooked from scratch.  For some reason we got it into our heads that we would no longer be able to eat properly and our entire pantry consisted of tins of tomatoes and salsa beans and two minute noodles.  As a result, I haven't been able to eat two minute noodles since December. Every campground kitchen we encountered in the Far North was full of travellers cooking packet after packet of the bloody things until I couldn't even stand the smell of them any more.  Even so, we persevered with the salsa beans and tomatoes for considerably longer until we were both so sick of them we can only bear to have them once in a blue moon these days!

We were also woefully disorganised, which you would think wouldn't matter in a life with supposedly no schedule but if there was a way to make anything harder, or take three times as long, we would find it!  Because of our crap eating habits we would also run out of food every two or three days, which would mean we would constantly be having to go out of our way to top up again.  Invariably we would also be limited to a random out-of-the-way dairy or corner shop, which cost way more than a supermarket and didn't carry much range either.  These days however we have it down to a fine art. We go shopping only once a week; even longer if we can stretch it out and that's literally the only day of the week we spend money.  Seriously, we have six 'no spend' days a week now!  We plan our week's worth of meals together before we go and make a list throughout the week of anything else we need, so we can get all our shopping out of the way in one go.  We walk to town and carry everything home again on our backs so we don't even spend anything on petrol!  Even the daily routine is like clockwork now, from the moment we wake up until the sun goes down.  That probably sounds dreadfully boring and regimented but it's not at all; we've just learned what methods work best and what tasks need to be done when.  All in all our total costs work out to around $200 every 10 days, so I guess you can say $20 per day.  That covers our food, campground fees, power, water, showers, laundry facilities - absolutely everything we need.  In the warmer months, when we don't need to rely on power you can cut that figure in half or even less.  The only bills that come in are for our phone and Internet. We eat really well and don't go without anything - well, certainly not anything important anyway!  I honestly can't imagine going back to a 'normal' life now.  The brilliant thing is, there are so many more people out there doing it than you think.  Honestly, you would be amazed!

Apologies for the lack of photos today, my brain just isn't functioning and I need to go and make my soup!  If you haven't already seen them, do check out our Facebook page for a couple of video compilations Gareth has put together in the past week or two.  The first is a bit of an intro to our travels, the second covers some of our recent adventures in Dunedin and Oamaru.   I was embarrassed when I watched the first one to find that I actually welled up and got a bit teary!  It was so wonderful to relive some of those special moments and places.  We really have seen a heck of a lot of cool stuff - and there's so much more yet to come!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

When You Wish Upon a Snowflake...

Thank you so much to everyone for your lovely posts and messages following our last blog!  I forgot to include a photo of our rings in the previous post, thought you might like to see them.  We wanted to photograph us actually wearing them but it was so freezing cold without our gloves on that our hands turned bright red!  So we decided to use Mother Nature to our advantage instead and were chuffed to bits with the result:

Our engagement bling!

As mentioned briefly last time, we were finally able to move back into our van shortly after our return from Dunedin and thank heavens all traces of painty pong have gone.  We're still not sure why the heck it took so long for the paint to dry, obviously the cold temperatures and damp air didn't help but we came to the conclusion that the actual timber itself must have also been too damp for the paint to be able to dry.  Not that we could do anything about it at this time of year!  Still, at least it's done now and Ken looks much smarter with his fresh, white paint rather than wet, mouldy timber!  It's still not perfect, whilst it seems to have taken care of the mould (at least for now, time will tell), we still have the problem of the foam mattresses getting soaking wet underneath.  This means every couple of days when the weather allows we have to dismantle the bed and do our best to air dry or heater dry the squabs in between sleeps.  It's not ideal but it is what it is; we looked into other mattress options but they were all horrendously expensive or too big or both.  'Tis all just part and parcel of van life in winter!

Ken now has shiny white timber bench seats, instead of damp, mouldy ones!

Here you can see where we have had to drill heaps of large holes to aid
ventilation.  This goes some way to prevent all our stuff contained in the bench seats from
getting damp and mouldy.  Hopefully now the storage interior has now been painted, it should
help even more.  We hope!

We also took the opportunity of giving Ken some nice new upholstery as his side panels had also been affected by the moisture.  He feels much nicer and brighter now and with a bit of luck our renovations will see us through to the end of winter.  I'm really proud that we've made it this far, but in all honesty the winter is really not that bad here, we love it.  Here in Gore we seem to miss a lot of the weather extremes the rest of the country gets hammered with, and after years in the Waikato and Coromandel we don't miss the incessant rain and wind one bit!

Our incredibly technical and expensive upholstery procedure

Ken now has a nice touch of Kiwiana with his paua shell fabric!

And at last we are finished

Besides, today one of my biggest wishes came true!  Although we had a smattering of snow a few weeks back, it didn't come to much and we missed it actually snowing.  I'd been watching the weather forecast all week and although all the weather reports were warning of snow storms across the south, I wasn't overly confident we would get that much in our little weather haven, if any at all.  'I wish just once it would snow when we could see it and actually be out in it, rather than when we were asleep', I pouted to Gareth.  'I'd love to see snowflakes again!'  The last time I saw snow falling was when I was about 13, back in England.  The first flakes started to fall around 10pm last night and I stuck my head out of the van for a few seconds, grinning like an idiot at the white flecks spattering the night sky. Even if we didn't get any more than that, at least I'd seen it.  We planned to wake up early though, just in case.

A lovely sight to wake up to!

'Looks pretty white out there!' called Gareth, as he peeked out behind the curtain around 7am.  'Awesome!'  I said, taking a look.  It wasn't the three feet I'd hoped for, but it was still a decent couple of inches; the most either of us had seen in a long time.  And it wasn't snowing; once again we had missed it overnight but at least we could go out and play in it!  I hopped outside with Minnie to take some photos and couldn't stop smiling at the sight of everything covered in a snow blanket as far as the eye could see.  The hills, the trees, the cars, the buildings, Brian and Evelyn's bus.  And then all of a sudden my wish came true.  It started snowing, REALLY snowing, millions of snowflakes falling all over me and Minnie.  It was magic, it really was.  Honestly, I felt as though I was in Narnia or something!

One very happy big kid!

The first of several snow showers we got to enjoy through the day

Gareth came out to join me and everyone we saw was smiling.  Our new friends, Fred and Linda who had arrived the day before.  Brian and Evelyn, with little Brandy bouncing along in her bright blue jacket and of course Bevin and Inca.  Inca was beside herself with excitement, rolling around in the snow, tearing around like a mad thing and demolishing snowballs with her paws.  Her enthusiasm rubbed off on a rather bemused Minnie and the two of them were a delightful sight as Minnie tried her best to keep up with her exuberant friend!

Minnie still hasn't decided if she REALLY likes snow.  But she certainly likes eating it!

The perfect spot for snowman building!

One very large snowman, complete with funky Steampunk glasses!

In all the years I've lived in NZ I've seen snow twice, at Mount Ruapehu on the ski fields.  Both times however I was a bit disappointed - the snow was so hard, it was more like ice and although you could toboggan on it, you couldn't actually play in it; being hit with a snowball was more like being stung by a paintball!  The snow today though was perfect.  Soft, crunchy, powdery, perfect for making snowballs - and snowmen!  It didn't take long for momentum to gather as we rolled what was to become our snowman's head and body around the field.  In fact, they grew so big, it was quite a challenge to lift the enormous sections on top of each other!  But we got there and we patted and preened and smoothed him off until he stood even taller than Gareth!  Our beautiful big snowman attracted quite a few admirers and much hilarity was had as we raided our vegie supplies from the van to give him potatoes for eyes, a yam for a nose and a celery stick for a mouth.  We had so much fun that once we finished we didn't want to stop, so built a snow lady as well, to keep him company!

We made snow us'es!

I don't know what it is about snow that turns grown adults into big kids but it really was the most perfect day and the most unbelievable fun.  Who knows whether we will get treated to another spectacle again any time soon but if not, that's OK.  I've already got my wish!

Monday, 10 July 2017

A Bit o' History - & New Memories Made

Aghhh, where has the time gone?  So much news to catch up on!  For starters, we've been back in the van for about a week now, hooray!  Just as we were about to give up hope we finally bloody got there.  But that's another blog.  First I need to fill you in on our travel adventures!  I'll be honest, the first time we went to Dunedin I didn't really like it all that much.  Sure, some of the old buildings were cool but I found it really spread out, a lot like Hamilton so that it takes you ages and 50 million traffic lights to get anyway.  I hated driving in it, all the lanes and one way systems were so confusing and for such a massive place there seemed bugger all to do!  It probably didn't help that it rained the entire time we were there either.  Unfortunately for me, Gareth's favourite shop, Warhammer is located right in the heart of Dunedin (it's actually the only shop of its kind in the whole South Island) so a few months later it meant going again for a flying visit.  This time it didn't rain at all and although I still couldn't navigate my way around to save myself, I enjoyed it far more, particularly cruising around the Otago Peninsula.  It reminds me a lot of driving the Thames coast road in Coromandel; narrow, winding and picturesque, passing through several small settlements as you go.

Gareth goes to Dunedin for Warhammer, I go for the food!

There still wasn't much to do in Dunedin though in my humble opinion, except eat, which we did an awful lot of.  As Murphy's Law would have it however, no sooner had we got back to Gore than I read a travel blog by NZMCA member Shellie Evans talking about her visit to a place called Tunnel Beach in Dunedin that very day.  It sounded awesome - why had none of the locals told us about it when we asked them what there was to do?  All any of them had had to say was 'go and see the penguins and seals', which you had to pay a fortune for to get taken out in a boat.  Having walked among them for free in the Catlins we didn't feel we could top that.  That's the way it often goes though, many locals don't even realise what's on their own back doorstep; it's travellers like Shellie who make it easier for the rest of us by sharing their remarkable finds and spreading the word.   After that we couldn't wait to get back to Dunedin and check it out.

Tunnel Beach - we missed out last time!

Unfortunately what with first Minnie being ill and then all the shenanigans with the van, it took more than two months for us to get there again but we looked forward to it with every week that passed. One thing was for certain, after all the heartache we had been through with the damp, mould, stinky paint and everything else, when the time finally came, we were going to do it properly and treat ourselves to a nice motel.  By that time, I had also had a chance to read a lot more about Dunedin and its surrounding areas.  It was going to be a busy few days when we eventually got there!  As the end of June approached we finally dared to hope that the time had come.  We booked Minnie into a rural boarding kennel where she was in her element out on the farm surrounded by doggy friends and at last we were on our way.  Ken was about to get his first decent run in quite a while!

Bubbles, rubbish on TV and cosy slippers - just like a 'normal' life!

The journey wasn't the most enjoyable as the van was still full of paint fumes and despite the freezing temperatures we had no choice but to drive most of the way with the windows down and our heads hanging out so that we could breathe!  Still, it's an easy drive from Gore to Dunedin on the main highway and I never get sick of admiring the beautiful rolling hill country and the ever-changing Southland sky along the way.  A couple of hours later we were checking into our motel, the Aurora on George Street.  We stayed there once before and it was lovely, however this time we made sure we chose a smaller room as the last one was much too big for us!  This time it was perfect, not that we spent too much time in it as we were too busy exploring and wandering around the city at our leisure. One thing I still can't get used to is how devoid of people South Island cities are compared to North Island ones.  Don't get me wrong though, it's a wonderful thing!  After the craziness of Auckland and Hamilton, the cities I was most accustomed to, it's a lovely novelty to be able to walk the streets and browse the malls without people constantly jostling you and getting in each other's way.  Even in the bustling bars and cafe's in the Octagon we would often find ourselves almost the only ones!

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Municipal Buildings

Och aye, it's Robbie Burns!

Another reason for our trip was to do some research for an upcoming Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations article.  The theme was to be art galleries and sculptures and we had everything planned. First stop was the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and on entering I was embarrassed to realise I was setting foot in perhaps only the second art gallery of my whole life; the first being Auckland a few years before.  I have to say, I enjoyed the Dunedin one far more.  It was smaller and far more intimate but none the less impressive.  The highlight for me was coming face to face with my first original Monet painting!  He was my favourite artist since I was a teenager and the rockstar posters on my bedroom wall back then were interspersed with framed prints and cards of his work.  It was a really nice and relaxing way to spend a morning and we both walked away feeling glad that we had done something different from the usual beach/bush/climbing outdoorsy stuff.  We also took the time to have a leisurely browse around the surrounding architecture - the Municipal Buildings, St Paul's Cathedral (not 'the' St Paul's obviously!) and my favourite, Writer's Walk, with a big bold statue of Robert Burns proudly in residence.

We had plenty to go on already for our Motorhomes article - but there was another place we thought would really be the icing on the cake and decided to bite the bullet and add another day to our stay. Our destination?  Oamaru,  the Steampunk Capital of NZ and home to Steampunk HQ!  The road to Oamaru was a new one for both of us and we were really excited to explore some uncharted territory. As we set off over the hills to Blueskin Bay and Waitati I also found myself up against another new experience, driving on black ice.  At such altitude and under the shade of thick trees and bush, there was no chance of this stuff melting today.  I didn't want to let on to Gareth how scared I was but I had never driven in the stuff before and that very morning a car had slid off the road at Portobello, just a few minutes away and plunged into the harbour!  'I like this road!'  Gareth beamed happily, blissfully unaware that I was in fact crapping myself as I tried to stay focused on the road and maintain a safe speed.  Was the whole 100km journey going to be like this?  Mercifully it wasn't, and as we passed Waitati the road flattened out, the sun shone and I was able to relax and enjoy the journey.

Oamaru's Victorian Precinct.  No doubt brilliant on any day but Monday!

We had checked online beforehand to make sure the Steampunk museum would be open, which it was.  However as we discovered on arriving, you shouldn't really visit Oamaru in winter on a Monday as pretty much everything else is closed - and being Murphy's Law it was indeed a Monday. Still, even in its closed-up state it was obvious that Oamaru is a very cool town.  Despite driving through many quaint and historical towns on our travels, Oamaru really is next level.  I felt as though we were in a Dickens novel as we made our way down the narrow cobbled streets, dotted with old fashioned sweet shops, artisans and forges.  The Victorian Precinct felt like being in a ghost town, with everything closed the way it was.  It was such a shame that we were unable to pop into the many craft shops, galleries and boutique cafes and shops - but on the other hand it was plain to see that we hadn't allowed ourselves enough time to 'do' Oamaru properly anyway.  To see everything would easily take a whole day, if not two.  That was fine with us though, it meant we could go back again! And this time we would know to stay, rather than return to Dunedin the same day.

Welcome to Steampunk HQ!

Very cool playground equipment for grown ups!

Cue spooky Scooby Doo music!  Gareth doing his best to look menacing on the Intergalactic Pipe Organ

Besides - just around the corner across the railway tracks was Steampunk HQ!  You can't miss it, with its imposing building and gloriously wonky steam train perched precariously out the front.  Entry is $10 per person and whilst it's not as big as we thought it would be (it took just half an hour for us to cover everything, and that was stopping to take heaps of photos for Gareth's mum too) it was still well worth the money and the visit for the enjoyment factor and to see such a collection of wonderful creative minds come together.  There is such a huge element of fun here and we loved the interactivemess of the museum.  Compared to most museums where you have to be quiet and are not allowed to touch exhibits, at Steampunk HQ you are encouraged to climb in things, on things, see how stuff works and generally marvel at how the heck anyone ever thinks of coming up with any of it.  As one middle-aged English tourist happily told us, 'I feel like a kid again!' Definite highlight for us was The Portal, a beautiful walk-in experience of light and sound that you won't want to end.

The Portal - we're in there somewhere!

Mission accomplished, and with pretty much nowhere else for us to go, we made our way back to Dunedin before the roads started to freeze again.  When we arrived back at the Aurora Motel, a lovely surprise awaited us and we had been given a complimentary upgrade to the most luxurious suite in the complex as an apology for some noisy guests keeping us awake the night before!  You cannot imagine my delight at wandering in and discovering a spa bath - I never thought I would ever be able to have a bath again!  After all our adventuring we fell soundly asleep in our pristine king sized bed - which was just as well seeing as there was absolutely nothing worth watching on our 55 TV channels. Good to know we haven't missed anything!

The start of the Tunnel Beach track.  Before the sheer drop!

The following day it was time to return to Gore, but we still had one more item to check off our 'must do' list.  This time we weren't going to leave without visiting the historical Tunnel Beach!   This little spot just 7km out of Dunedin is heralded as possibly the most romantic beach in NZ, due to the story behind it.  Back in the 1870's, a politician named John Cargill commissioned the beach for his family and actually carved a tunnel right the way through the cliff, 150 stone steps and all, so that his wife could sunbathe in private, away from prying eyes.  She would have had to be one heck of a keen woman to go sunbathing there very often though I can tell you, as just getting down there and back involves a solid hour of effort!  The descent to the beach entails navigating a long, winding and very steep track from the top down to the cliffs.  This is itself can be quite tricky, especially at this time of year when the track can be wet and slippery.  What concerned me the most however was how the hell I was going to get back up though!  Judging by the tales I had heard and the sight of several young men who passed us drenched in sweat and struggling for breath (one had to literally sit down in the middle of the path until he could go on again!) I was positively scared at the prospect.  Even so, the two of us had a laugh trying to stay upright all the way down and by some miracle we managed to get down to the bottom without stumbling and rolling off the cliffs.  Another very important thing I forgot to mention is that you can only get down to the beach at low tide, otherwise the water comes up too far and you'd never make it through the tunnel.

150 steps and a tunnel carved right through a cliff.  Let's face it,
that's a pretty special thing to do for your Missus!

Talking of the tunnel, now I was faced with it I was having problems getting myself to go through it. It was pitch black and literally had been carved through the cliff but we're not talking a huge cavern here, but a very narrow space.  I'm pretty claustrophobic (that sounds ironic for someone who lives in a van doesn't it, but nonetheless!) and several times on our travels I've been pissed off at it getting in the way of my adventuring.  This time was nothing short of heartbreaking though - I mean, it was SUCH a long way down and we'd gone to such lengths to get there!  Even the rain had stopped long enough for us to be able to make the trip.  I couldn't let it stop me this time.  'Here, take my hand, you'll be OK.  Just take it easy', said Gareth.  'Nope, I'm getting down those 150 bloody steps and out the other side as quick as I possibly can!' I said.  So I did and rushed out the other side to - an enormous group of school kids out on a field trip.  Hmm, so much for being the most romantic beach! It didn't worry me too much but Gareth seemed really quite furious to see them.  To be honest, there wasn't much we could really do anyway though.  Although it was only half an hour past low tide the water had already come in too fast for us to be able to explore the beach fully - and besides, to get onto the sand you first had to scramble your way across a large stretch of unstable and very slippery rocks.  As I said before, Mrs Cargill would have had to be one very game woman!  The school kids, Gareth and I and a few other tourists all did our best but it was just too unsafe and none of us relished the idea of having to get ourselves or each other back up that track with a broken leg.  For anyone reading this, to attempt Tunnel Beach you really need to be fit and well.  Definitely not recommended for small children or the elderly!

Us - right after Gareth popped the question!

'Come on then, we might as well go', sighed Gareth and I duly bolted my way back through the tunnel and out onto the path.  It really didn't worry me that things hadn't gone quite to plan, or the beach hadn't been as easy to get to as we had thought, but Gareth seemed really upset about it.  'It's fine!' I assured him.  'Well - how about we go up this cliff over here then, we can do that at least', he smiled.  That was fine with me, so off we went, climbing up until we stood looking far out to sea, with the waves crashing on the little beach which had eluded us below.  'This is lovely', I said - and as I did so, something happened.  Gareth pulled out a ring and went down on one knee!  'I would love for you to be my wife', he smiled up at me.  So that's why he'd been so agitated!  Lucky I wasn't standing closer to the edge of the cliff or I might have fallen off with surprise!  But of course I said yes and I don't know whether it was because I was fitter than I thought or because I was so ridiculously happy but I didn't find the hike back up to the top bad at all, I wasn't even puffed!  So is Tunnel Beach the most romantic beach in NZ?  In all honesty, not really, it's the story which makes it so.  But it will always be special to us from now on!