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Toddler Under Canvas – A Camping Adventure in New Zealand’s South Island PT 1

Warning: This is a very long winded post, thus I have separated it into two parts to spare you a marathon eye glazing session of words and images.

Although I’m only getting around to posting this now, during the UK winter our little family spent 2 months in New Zealand visiting friends and family and enjoying the great outdoors in the only way you can truly savour it, camping.  If you are planning to visit the land of the long white cloud during the southern hemisphere summer months, now’s a good time to start planning.  Typically the best weather is in late January through February, but you can always expect sudden downpours and changeable conditions much like the UK so always take your rain jacket!

Squigglet nonchalantly trying out her new camping chair…….

New Zealand is a great place to camp, whichever way you choose to do it.  There is a choice of fully equipped ‘holiday parks’ which offer tent, caravan and campervan sites along with basic cabins or more upscale lodge rooms, communal kitchens (with fridges and freezers), games/tv room and shower/toliets and the quite often spa/swimming pools/tennis courts. At the time of writing these average between $18 – $24 per night per adult for a tent pitch, most places don’t charge for under 2’s.

For a more back to nature experience, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has basic camping sites all over the country, usually in stunning locations but with little more than a fresh water tap and a long drop toilet. These sites are well maintained and cheap at around $6 per night per person and are really the best way to get a feel for the country, you can also pick up free booklet featuring all sites from any DOC office.Freedom camping is also entirely possible, although only self-contained vehicles can camp in areas where there are no toilet facilities and there are often ‘No Camping’ signs in popular tourist carparks.

Postcard perfect if I do say so myself…Lake Ohau, our first camping spot

Our initial plan was to hire or borrow some sort of campervan or at least large vehicle that we could sleep in for those days we just wanted to park up in the wilderness and stay overnight.  Friends kindly lent us a minivan with seats that folded down which would have comfortably sleep all three of us, if it weren’t for an under-inflated airbed and no curtains to block out the streaming morning sun.  Still we had a pretty awesome first night of camping along with a insect netted gazebo, we parked up in the grounds of the Lake Ohau Lodge in the Mount Cook area which also does awesome food and has heaps of activities for kids.  A big thank-you to chef Brad Alty and owner Mike for making us feel so welcome and letting us share the amazing wild venison stew! We were the only campers so had the pick of spots in a sheltered clearing amongst the pine trees over looking the lake….check out this view:

Sweet camping spot!

Whilst it was a pretty sweet set-up we decided to grab a cheap tent from the Warehouse (Large NZ discount store) so that at least we could set up Rhiannon’s cot in the evenings and have a bit more space to store things.  The gazebo was an impulse buy from Mitre 10 and we did feel a bit ridiculous setting up this huge apparatus for just the 3 of us, but it proved invaluable as a contained outdoor play area for Rhi and protection from the mosquitos and sandflies, especially when enjoying a glass of wine after the sun had set.

From Lake Ohau we headed North to Hamner Springs and decided to take a night off from camping as Rhi wasn’t feeling too well, still we were on a budget so we checked into the YHA’s Kakapo Lodge and got a good deal on a triple room for $75 NZD.  The facilities were pretty good, as they tend to be with YHA – it wasn’t all backpackers and party animals, there was a real cross section of mature travellers, NZ families and international nomads.  Hanmer Springs hot pools make a great 1/2 day activity for families with toddlers and full day with older kids.  After a recent refurbishment, the complex now includes quite a number of both natural hot springs at different temperatures, swimming pools, waterslides/toys, a restaurant and bar and of course day spa.  Be aware that the hottest pools aren’t suitable for small kids and the attendants recommend babies and toddlers spend no longer than 10 minutes in some of the warmer pools.  There are some great camping grounds in Hamner though, so if you are sticking to tenting you won’t be disappointed.

Kahurangi National Park, top of the South Island

The gorgeous Mapua Estuary viewed from the holiday park restaurant

Onwards to the small town of Mapua, not far from Nelson.  This time we were staying with family for 10 days at the Mapua Chalets – a lovely little spot tucked away in the hills behind the town, with views out over the bay, a wonderful swimming pool and spa.  The Nelson Lakes and Abel Tasman area is one of the most beautiful and relaxed parts of the South Island, there are golden beaches and rivers to swim in, beautiful native forests, a thriving arts scene and wonderful food and wine.  My idea of paradise.

The golden sands of Kaiteriteri Beach – a childhood favourite

Mapua also has a lovely holiday park right on the estuary with sites for tenting, caravans, campervans and a range of self catering chalets, motel rooms, recreational facilities and a beachside restaurant and bar.  You might want to take note of your travelling dates however as the park is ‘clothing optional’ during the months of February and March for those who like to get a little closer to nature.  The rest of the year its business as usual.  The broader area has plenty of gorgeous little camping spots on beachfront reserves or DOC sites so check out the DOC website or guides.

How to camp Hippie style….groovy house buses near Ruby Bay

The New Year arrived and we headed for the West Coast via the Lewis Pass and then the Buller Gorge, which is rated at one of NZ’s most scenic drives……you’ll get pretty close to the scenery at Hawks Crag where the road narrows to one lane with a cliff overhang above and a drop the river on one side!

Westport was our first stop, purely because I had never been there and was curious.  The Westport Holiday Park was a pleasant surprise, welcoming staff, lovely soft grass pitches and camp-wide wifi.  There were plenty of families staying here and they even had something close to a toddler bath in the ladies shower block.  Westport itself was a bit like an outpost town with one main street but its a great base for exploring the surrounding areas and trying out a few adventure activites (perhaps not with the toddler in tow).  We visited the ominously named Cape Foul Wind, which turned out to be a gorgeous area of wild beaches and seal colonies.  I still want to have a holiday home down the Tauranga Bay Road some day.

One of the local residents of the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony

Tauranga Bay Rd…..idyllic isolation

Moving South we made our way to Hokitika, home of the famed Wild Food Festival and centre for all things greenstone in the South Island.  Between Westport and Hokitika the scenery is nothing short of breath-taking, even for a Kiwi like me who has seen alot of stunning vistas in my travels.  There’s something a bit Jurassic Park about the West Coast and as we had to stop every hour or so to let Rhiannon run off some energy, there are plenty of great picnic and sightseeing spots like the beach at Charleston (pictured below), Fox River Mouth and caves & Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki.  Greymouth is not much of a tourist town except that the Tranz Alpine Express train to Christchurch leaves from here, although it is the first large town on the coast after Westport so handy for stocking up on supplies or if anyone needs to see a doctor.

An almost secret beach at Charlestown….perfect pinic spot

The spectacular Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

Somewhat surprisingly, Hokitika is rather lacking in decent camping facilities – especially if you’re tenting.  We checked out 3-4 spots which were listed in the AA guide book and online and none of them were particularly inspiring.  Among these the Top 10 Holiday Park, which is a chain and usually pretty reliable was in the shadow of a gigantic milk factory and was pretty run down, another place called ‘Seaview Lodge’ claimed to be luxurious but in fact it is a former pyschiatric hospital with only a small lawn to pitch tents on, or rooms within the complex which still very much resembles its former designation, its just a little creepy.  ‘Shining Star’ looked really nice, but they didn’t have areas for tents and are more geared to those looking for chalet-type accommodation.

After 2 hours of searching we were at a bit of a loss & Rhiannon was getting pretty grumpy, luckily Ioan spotted a listing in one of our brochures for the Riverview Cottage and Cabins, just outside of Hokitika and after a quick phone call they offered us their lawn to camp on, saved!  Set on a small holding just off Kaniere Rd and a short walk to the Hokitika River, Riverview is a great little spot with all sorts of farm animals, a very friendly Labrador and resident cats to keep kids amused.  The Kiwi/Brit couple that run the place are very helpful and down to earth, they even let us bath Rhiannon in their personal bathroom and hung out our washing!  There’s a small vege garden that guests can take produce from as well.  Highly recommend giving this place a try if you’re ever in Hokitika and on a budget.

The surreal blue waters of Hokitika Gorge

Things to do with a family in Hokitika? Well if its not Wild Foods Festival time, then have a wander around the town centre to check out the Pounamu (Jade) carvers at work or have a go yourself, Hokitika Beach can be good for a dip on calm days and kids can make sculptures or dens out of the tons of twisted driftwood strewn along the sands, then there’s always the intriguingly name Sock Machine Museum.  We drove up to Hokitika Gorge (above) and went for a stroll down to the unbelievably blue riverside – well worth a visit but remember the insect repellant.

2 nights later it was time to move on, this time we were bound for the Glacier town of Franz Josef.  Planning wasn’t our strong point on this day, as by the time we pulled into the township at 5pm, it was pouring with the particularly wet blend of West Coast rain and we weren’t savouring the thought of pitching a tent in standing water amongst the downpour.  There are a few options for campers in Franz, but most are a short drive outside the actual town such as the Top 10 Holiday Park here, which looked pretty decent and you can also camp in the grounds of some of the backpacker lodges, but we opted for one of the last and cheapest motel rooms which was also outside the township and apparently not on the net as far I as I can see…..anyways it was comfortable and clean and dry!

My secret Shangri-la – Lake Mapourika

Kureru (native wood pigeon) drunk on berries

We awoke to brilliant sunshine the following day, stocked up on supplies and headed for my secret spot….Lake Mapourika, just North of Franz town – signposted Ottos Corner or MacDonalds at the North end of the lake.  The carpark had certainly expanded since I last visited, when I lived on the West Coast in my early 20’s, but the lake was as magical as ever with a gorgeous grassy campsite encircled by native trees just up from the lake foreshore.  We pitched up and spent 3 blissful nights there, swimming, reading and going for day trips to the wonderful Okarito Lagoon and beach nearby and of course the Franz Josef Glacier.  As its a DOC campsite, there was only a well-maintained but mosquito and sandfly magnet long drop toilet a short walk from the camp and a fresh water tap in the way of facilities but the location more than makes up for any inconvenience.  Some other not so responsible travellers were using this pristine lake as a bath, washing themselves with soaps, shampoos and shower gels which inevitably harms the delicate eco system of places such as this.  Be prepared with some eco-friendly toiletries such as Faith in Nature or pop into any health food store or pharmacy and they usually stock plant based natural alternatives.

DOC campsite at Otto’s Corner…our little set up

Squigglet and I post dip in Lake Mapourika

Finally we managed to prize ourselves away and continue down the South Westland coast, with a plan to take our time en-route and camp in Haast for a day or two.  The journey itself was magnificent, although famed for its damp climate which feeds the lush rainforest year-round, when the sun shines on the coast it is up there with the most beautiful places in the world.  We stopped off at Lake Mathieson, the subject of many a tourist postcard with its glazed mirror surface reflecting the vista in a perfect mirror image.  There’s a relatively easy loop track around the lake that takes about 35-40 mins return, but its not suitable for buggies so best get out the baby carrier, we bought a second hand version of this Kathmandu carrier  and it was ideal.  At the entrance to the lake there is a nice cafe, gift shop and gallery where you can sit and take in the views over an ice cream.  With that I’ll sign off and continue with part 2 over the weekend……..

Just another stunning day at Lake Mathieson

Family Fun in Japan: Summer Festivals

According to Wikipedia Japanophilia is an interest in, or love of, Japan and anything Japanese. One who has such an interest or love is a Japanophile. That about sums me up I guess.

I’ve had an obsession with Japan since first visiting the country on a working holiday after my first year of university and falling in love with the fascinating culture and people. On this first trip I was fortunate enough to stay with an amazing ‘host family’ the Watanabes, who have become like my own family over the years and on the many subsequent visits to work, live and travel in Japan. The connections to this awesome group of islands don’t stop there however, as my older brother has resided in the mountains of central Honshuu for over 16 years now, running an outdoor adventure business (Canyons Japan) and bringing up three children with his Japanese wife.  Needless to say, I have plenty of reasons to keep going back there but with a young family of my own, financial constraints and worries about lingering radiation, I won’t be watching the rising sun on those shores anytime soon.

Still, one of the things I remember most fondly are the amazing festivals or matsuri’s which are on throughout the year but particularly busy in the summer months.  In addition to the famous larger festivals, each town or village holds its own celebrations to mark everything from the seasons to folklore, buddhist or shinto holidays, but mainly its just a good excuse for a party.  The Japanese really know how to put together great family events, so there are plenty of fun activities for kids and adults (the latter mostly consists of copious eating and drinking) and there are even quite a few national celebratory days and festivals specifically for children such as girls day (Hinamatsuri), boys day (Tango no Sekku) and Shichi Go San (literally 7-5-3, for children of these auspicious ages).

If you visit Japan any time from late June to late August you are pretty much guaranteed to come across quite a few famous and smaller local festivals, with all of these expect Japanese festival-goers to be dressed in brightly coloured Summer Kimono, side-show style games, Taiko drumming and a plethora of hot food stalls selling delicious snacks such as sweet miso-dipped dango balls (glutinous rice), yakitori skewers, anko confectionary (sweet bean paste), Yakisoba (stirfried noodles with vege and meat) among other tempting bites.

Delicious custard cream, chocolate or sweet bean paste Taiyaki cakes

A few of the popular nation-wide goings on:

In July there is Tanabata (star festival) where adults and children write wishes on strips of brightly coloured paper which are then hung on bamboo poles in the garden or housefront and the streets are decorated with ornate versions of the same.

Tanabata decorations up in a pedestrian mall in Takasaki

Omikoshi festivals, held throughout the summer, are one of the most lively and hilarious from a visitor viewpoint. Linked to shinto shrines, townspeople carry a large wooden mobile shrine believed to contain the spirit of a deity around their village, dancing, singing, shouting and generally enjoying themselves in a ridiculous fashion.  For those who think the Japanese are a serious, straight-laced bunch, a visit to an Omikoshi festival will quickly disabuse you of the notion.  There is usually a considerable amount of Sake consumed by the shrine bearers as they stop at stations around the town to refresh themselves, needless to say the progress of the procession gets rather eratic and drunken by the end of the evening!

My beautiful niece Kaya dressed in summer kimono for a festival

Of course festival season wouldn’t be complete without the Hanabi (fireworks) displays, which I’d wager are among the best in the world, even in the smaller towns. Tokyo is famous for its yearly display but I prefer the smaller gatherings in countryside villages where there is hardly any light pollution and  you can get a viewpoint from a mountainside.

At the end of the summer calendar is Obon which celebrates and remembers family members who have passed away, but it’s certainly not a sombre affair and everyone takes part in Bonodori dances, which are not to dificult to master even if you are a Gaijin with two left feet and no rhythm. As with most festivals there is a good deal of eating and a carnival like atmosphere prevails however it ends with the more poignant ceremony of illuminated paper lanterns floated down rivers symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the dead.

Twin lantern bearers – cute!

The local ladies cooking up a mammoth Yakisoba feed

For families, these festivals are a highlight of the year and a chance to shake off some of the more rigid aspects and stresses of daily life. Whole neighbourhoods and communities join together in a spirit of participation and cooperation that is both harmonius, fun and everyone looks out for everyone elses kids. Sweet.

With the dreary weather this UK ‘summer’ (more like a Monsoon season) I have been dreaming of the warm, humid Japanese summer evenings filled with the aromas of sizzling festival food and blooming with beautifully coloured summer kimonos. I guess I am also a little homesick for Japan, which over the years I’ve come to regard as one of my spiritual homes, with many lifelong friends made there.

Oh well, in lieu of actually being there in person, I’ll don my own summer kimono and the Squigglet can wear hers, we’ll make some yakitori and Somen noodles and sit out in the garden under colourful paper lanterns with friends and of course plenty of Sake!

This post is dedicated to all my wonderful friends and family in Nippon xx

Squigglet wearing a summer yukata from her Japanese cousins

Rural Charms vs City Perks……..Family Lifestyle Pros and Cons

If you had told me 6 years ago that I would be living in rural mid Wales with an 18 month old daughter and the love of my life, I’m sure I would have had you sectioned for delusional behaviour.  In those days I was more night club queen than a welly-wearing mama, squandering my disposable income on dining out, regular clothes shopping and overseas holidays.

It was a heady and undeniably enjoyable period of my life, I was lucky enough to live in some of the worlds biggest and most exciting cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, Dubai and London but I also spent time in smaller, more rural settings in New Zealands South Westland and the mountain town of Minakami, Japan so I’ve had a pretty good overview of the pro’s and cons of both as a singleton, but with a family I now have a fresh perspective.

I’ve always felt very strongly about location, its part of my lifelong travel addiction to naturally gravitate towards places based on their lifestyle merits and not so much to do with practical things like jobs and infrastructure.  This topic will mean different things in different parts of the world, as city and rural environments are so diverse.  A small city in New Zealand for example, is probably not going to present the same issues as say Los Angeles or Bangkok and by the same token, the lifestyle in rural Nepal will be a far cry to that of countryside Wales, but I guess you never know!

Here’s my overview of both scenarios, let me know if you have any more to suggest!

CITY FAMILY LIFE

Pros:

More choice: From healthcare providers to educational institutions – a huge range of services and products are on your doorstep which makes life more convenient in many ways

Entertainment abounds:  From movie theatres to museums and specialised kids activities, parks and amusement centres – there will always be something new to do whatever day of the week so kids have no excuse to say they are bored!

Dining out is an option!: This may not seem inportant and actually is often a nightmare with young kids but for mums and dads it is a treat to have a choice of cuisines to choose from aside from the requisite Chinese, Indian and soggy fish and chips

Work is more abundant, at least for most industries: Being able to support a family is easier (on the surface anyway) and salaries are significantly higher

Cons:

Weirdos everywhere: This seems to be more true for some cities than others but whenever I visit London at least, I am constantly aware of people acting very strangely all over the place, especially public transport and public parks…..these are the ones that you read about in the news for going beserk for no reason, its scary.  Sure there are weirdos in the country as well but more often than not everyone knows who they are!

Negotiating buses, trains and ridiculous amounts of steps with buggys:  I can’t stand the tube, especially when pregnant but even without the bump its not a pleasant experience being packed like sardines up against other commuters sweaty armpits in an muggy, airless underground box.  Add a few kids to the equation and perhaps a baby buggy and it becomes a logistical nightmare.  Buses are not much better.  This isn’t so much of a problem in smaller cities where driving isn’t akin to the Bahrain Grand Prix and you can bundle the clan into a car (supposing you drive).

It’s bloomin expensive:  Whilst you might get paid better in the city, most things cost way more as well so the benefits are kind of cancelled out.  To buy or rent a decent flat/house you’ll either be paying throught the nose or living on the outskirts of the city anyway and spending longer commuting in the morning – worklife balance quicky goes out the window.

Crime:  Ok I might be a bit of a nervous nellie about this one but its really just a numbers game, more people = more crime……yes it may never happen to me or mine but there’ve been enough close calls for me to consider this one of my most major deterrents to big city life.

Stress:  I know this is present everywhere so not exactly the preserve of metropolis dwellers but I think there is an ambient level of stress involved in daily life in the big smoke, everyone is in a hurry, people start to blend into a faceless mass, there is a sense of aggression in the air, the noise, the pollution……

RURAL FAMILY LIFE

Pros:

Space and pace!:  Room to breath and fresher air to go with it, here a daily commute always involves greenery and less of the traffic jams (unless of course you are commuting into the city).  The pace of life is slower, it’s not a cliche its true…..there is just not such a rush to get everything done all at once and kids can also have room to move and play.

People actually talk to each other, sometimes even strangers:  Catching someones eye with a friendly smile is not perceived as a threat or challenge and you can usually presume the same in reverse.  People take time to stop on the high street of rural towns and have a natter, albeit sometimes about the neighbours/local scandal etc etc but you get the idea, its a nice thing and I want my kids to have a relationship with the community they live in, not be afraid of it.  I have to admit that in New Zealand even most of the cityfolk are pretty approachable and will often strike up random conversations over the bananas in New World and you’ll know their life story before you leave the shop, its an endearing quality of my countryfolk which I had all but forgotten before my recent trip home, at first I was pretty suspicious until I realised perhaps it was me being cynical.

Cost of living is more economical:  What would you rather?  1 bedroom flat with no outdoor space in a bad area or a 3 bedroom barn conversion with an orchard just outside a market town?  They can cost about the same unless of course you’re talking about posh country areas where city folk have second homes, or just mansions….then its extortionate but you get the idea…..generally living in the sticks, even if its a smaller city or small town is much cheaper for rent at least.

Peace of mind: The odd crazed gunman aside, generally there is less violent crime out in the wop wops (as we’d call it in NZ)……maybe its something to do with all that space and green, it just chills people out.  Obviously there are still people to watch out for, especially around your children but the sense of closeknit community can help to reassure.

It’s beautiful: Sure, there are some magnificent cities out there with awesome architecture and sprawling parks but it can’t compete with the absolute serenity of the mountains blanketed in snow or a lush green forest in a quiet mossy valley.  It feels as if these beautiful places impart a little of their special energy to all that live within their fold.

Cons:

It can be hard to get into social circles:  Whilst most people are very friendly, they have also likely known everyone else in the area since pre-school and can be a little wary of new-comers, especially from the city!  Joining the Country Womens Institute isn’t going to be for everyone, especially if like me you don’t know your flans from your filigree frosting.

Finding work can be difficult:  There is a much smaller job pool and not the same range of positions, if you are a farm hand, mechanic, teacher or medical professional then there are plenty of opportunities….but for others it can prove challenging especially if you don’t fancy working for minimum wage

Small town, small talk: It happens!  Your business is generally not just YOUR business and everyone will have an opinion whether they express to you directly or not.

Shopping or getting supplies can be a mission:  Often involving a lengthy drive to the next big town or city to stock up…..luckily internet shopping has been invented and as you don’t really get to window shop much, you don’t feel the need to buy all the shiny things in the window! So I guess thats a pro really!

I think the conclusion I have come to for myself, is that overall I prefer the country life……but would like to be close to or in a medium sized town that has some character and sense of place….oh and the some decent eateries and shops would be a bonus too!

What’s your take on this and can you add to the pros and cons above?  How do they relate to where in the world you live?

Sarah

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