New Zealand: Van Life to Christchurch

27/02/19 – 05/03/19 

Aoraki, Mount Cook, and Lake Pukaki

When we arrived back in Arrowtown we knew, and it really felt like, the end of our time in New Zealand was nigh. We spent two nights in Arrowtown which enabled us to explore Queenstown and make up our own minds about it once and for all. It also enabled us (Olly) to easily ride to Frankton, just outside of Queenstown to pick up the campervan that we relocated to Christchurch. Our ‘van life’ lasted just two days, but we enjoyed it! In the van we were able to lend a hand to a friend, visit Mount Cook and spend the night camping with Grace and her parents at Lake Tekapo. We were also able to arrive in Christchurch under our own steam and park up on Alex and Tim’s drive with bike boxes already on board the Britz wagon which really facilitated our departure from The Land of the Long White Cloud. Our stay with Alex and Tim in Christchurch was the perfect way to round off our time in New Zealand: a peaceful, peace-loving, friendly, welcoming, easy-going and truly naturally beautiful country. A week after our departure from Christchurch, a chilled-out city still rebuilding and remembering the 2011 earthquake, we learnt of the mosque shootings and we felt empty. Alex and Tim were so sad and so sorry that something so tragic had, and could, happen in their city. Honestly, terrorism and New Zealand were not words I ever heard uttered in the same sentence. It felt impossible. It has been so uplifting to read of the kindness and togetherness that has boomed in the wake of the attack. Our time in Christchurch, the final stop on our almost three-month adventure, was characterised by superb sunsets, delicious homemade pizzas and lime-scootering around Cathedral Square with Grace O’D. Even now I find it hard to believe that ‘the NZ leg’ is over. It had been so anticipated and looked forward to. It was thoroughly enjoyed and I don’t doubt that we’ll return to Aotearoa one day.

We hope to be back one day.  Us and Mount Cook.

It was a chance encounter with Jon at Warm Showers host Kevin’s house in Hokitika that impelled us to book a “campervan relocation” from Queenstown to Christchurch. We had been considering getting a bus from somewhere in Mackenzie County to Christchurch in time for our flight to Phuket on 5th March, but Spanish Jon’s talking about relocating a campervan to Auckland got us thinking. Whilst I was brushing my teeth and preparing to leave Hokitika, Olly did some quick research and we decided to just book it there and then. The whole process took about ten minutes! Campervan hire is notoriously expensive in New Zealand, with the big names anyway such as Britz, Maui, Apollo, Tui, Mighty and Wilderness. You can be paying £50-£200 a day before you’ve even set foot on a campsite. There are some cheaper alternatives and we think these are Jucy, Rocket, Spaceship, Wicked and Happy. However, for our relocation, we paid NZ $5 a day (£2.50) and had to return the campervan with a full tank of fuel. The catch is that we only had three days and a limited mileage, so we couldn’t go from Queenstown to Christchurch via Auckland, for example. For us, this was perfect. We got to spend more time in Otago and Fiordland; see Mount Cook; spend a night with Grace and her parents at Lake Tekapo and get to Christchurch stress-free and in relative comfort, all for about the same price as it would have cost to get the bus. 

Van Life

We chose to return to Arrowtown over staying in Queenstown primarily with our budget in mind. A night at a campsite in QT was likely to set us back NZ $65, whereas in Arrowtown is was ‘only’ NZ $40. Plus, we liked Arrowtown and the pies and slices that could be bought there! 

The return to Arrowtown

Whenever we met up with Léa, she talked to us about hitch-hiking. She spoke with such confidence about it to the point of being blasé, and as she had been to some amazing places (such as Milford Sound) thanks to it I tentatively suggested to Olly that we hitch a ride to Queenstown in order to check it out once and for all. I couldn’t quite believe what I was proposing (the bus that left from outside the campsite being a far more sensible option) and found myself giddy with nerves and excitement at the very thought of it! Olly has a couple of hitch-hiking tales, but I had none. At some point in New Zealand I had resolutely decided that I could not go my whole life and never hitch-hike.  The time was now.  (The jury’s still out regarding this same line of thinking and a tattoo.) 

At 10 o’clock on Thursday morning, we stood in what Olly called ‘a prime spot’ and as cars went past, we stuck up a thumb and smiled crazily (the adverb added by Olly). I immediately started to sweat, dance on the spot and attempt ventriloquism through my ‘crazy smile’ and out loud ask myself what on earth I was thinking. Three cars sped past in about as many minutes. That was it, I’d had a go. The bus stop was just down the road and I’m sure Olly was only going along with it for a quiet life: he didn’t want to go to Queenstown anyway. I had no prior knowledge or hitch-hiking resilience to rely on and so I was feeling less than hopeful when a vintage car headed our way. We decided we ‘might as well try’ and low and behold, the indicator of the racing-green car started to flash and we (I) skipped over to where it had pulled over just ahead of us. An old guy (almost 80) with a twinkle in his eye asked where we were heading and as he too was en route to Queenstown, as he needed to dry-clean his boules trousers which he’d got a grass stain on, he told us to hop in if we didn’t mind taking it easy in a vintage machine. Oh boy, Murray, did you set the bar high for all future hitch-hiking adventures. 

We rode in style, and at a very pleasant speed, to Queenstown with Murray as our chauffeur, guide and hero. We chatted about our cycling trip and his planned, riverboat adventure to Europe in the winter/summer that would leave him skint but happy, he said. The car was beautiful and I realised how much fun driving must have been when that was how you did it. It took no time at all to reach the dry-cleaners where we bid Murray goodbye. That incredible ride to Queenstown, and the joy of successfully ‘hitching a lift’, was to be the highlight of our trip to New Zealand’s “adventure capital”. Olly should have felt quite smug as we plodded around, nosing in a few outdoor shops and eyeing the queue already forming at the famous Ferg Burger, before settling on a bench at the waterfront to take advantage of the town’s free Wi-Fi… He hadn’t wanted to go to QT in the first place having already decided he wouldn’t be a fan. An hour after we arrived, we were stood opposite the dry-cleaners trying to thumb a ride back to Arrowtown for a pie and a slice from the bakery. 

Ferg Burger: not too busy at 10am

It was a slightly more arduous and less glamorous journey ‘home’ involving four different people in four different cars, and it took about an hour whereas the journey was really no more than fifteen minutes. It was a classic case of ‘type-2 fun’ though, because as soon as we were back in Arrowtown, I realised I’d loved the experience. Firstly, we drove two minutes further up the road with a couple en route to an ‘opp-shop’. Then, we got into a huge 4x4 with a very well-spoken man who used to work for the World Bank and gave us his low-down of the Central Asian countries having been there countless times, once stepping off his flight onto a red carpet! (As we jumped down from his car he pointed straight ahead and said, “I’m quite well-known around here, that’s my mountain”.) The third ride was with a Dutch lady, spending a season in New Zealand working for a paragliding company: she was driving a minibus and was en route to pick up her ‘flyers’. She took part in paragliding competitions herself and said on a good day you could glide all the way to Wanaka from QT! Finally, we rode back into town with Graham, who was working at a site in Arrowtown and took us in the pretty way so that we could see some of the older houses on the outskirts. He’d been for an x-ray on his shoulder in QT on his lunch break. After all of that excitement, we spent a quiet afternoon eating cheese-on-toast, drinking tea and reading. 

It was definitely cooler this time around in Arrowtown and there was a light dusting of snow on some of the higher peaks in the Crown range that encircled the campsite. On our second morning in Arrowtown the second time around, Olly left on his unloaded bike for Frankton in order to pick up our van. We didn’t really know what we were getting, though we’d said we needed a two-berth. My job was packing and organising, and I had only just finished carrying everything over to a picnic bench by the campsite entrance and had just put a ‘Squiggle biscuit’ to my lips when I saw Olly striding over to me, a huge, white van behind him in the carpark. It felt like Christmas morning looking around the van! Having seen and met so many people exploring New Zealand in this way, it was exciting to be having our own taste ‘van life’ adventure.

We set off from Arrowtown and back to Queenstown to pick up supplies from Pak’n’Save, and from there we started to head north-east towards Mackenzie Country, Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo. It was a real novelty to travel in the van and it would have taken us a week to cover the same distance on our bikes as we did that day. However, landscapes changed so quickly and I came to understand why I had seen so many people sat in the passenger seat filming as they sped along. I felt there was very little time to appreciate each view, they came and went so quickly. It is very different on the bike as you move into each view gradually. Rarely do we wish for so swift a change of scenery. 

Sitting on a bench in Queenstown the day before, making use of the free Wi-Fi, we learnt that Léa was once again just a few steps ahead of us and had just left QT, having taken her ElliptiGo bike out of storage, and was heading north to Christchurch. We jokingly said we’d stop and pick her up if we saw her en route the next day. We hadn’t got too far when we spotted a little orange flag on the horizon and then recognised Léa’s walking-cycling style. We wound down the windows and whooped and cheered as we went past, probably scaring Léa silly. (We had all talked about the unpleasantness of people heckling when you’re cycling.) We pulled over and waved Léa in to the little lay-by. It hadn’t been so long since we had last seen each other: we had met for coffee at ‘The Sandfly’ in Te Anau and then had bumped into each other again in Manapouri. We never knew if ‘this time’ would be the last time which added a real ‘presence’ to our relationship. We had already passed a couple of hitch-hikers that morning, and we had said to each other that we’d definitely pick up the next one we saw: buoyed by and grateful for our experiences the day before. We asked Léa if she wanted a lift up and over the Lindis Pass, and it wasn’t a given that she would say yes. (Cycling folk can be quite strict with themselves and everyone has personal goals and challenges.) Not so that day for Léa who jumped at the chance of a ride.  After some furniture rearranging, three bikes, three people and a load of luggage were packed into the Britz wagon and off we went again. 

Reunited with Léa

Britz and Elliott the ElliptiGo bike at Lake Pukaki

After a quick pause at the top of the pass and then descended into Canterbury, whizzing through towns that we had initially planned to ride through.  Even just passing through on a bike you get a feel for a place: you smell its smells and hear its sounds in a way that you don’t in a van, even with the windows wound down. Omarama, where Léa had originally asked to be dropped of, and Twizel, where we just missed Uwe, flashed by as we continued on SH8 to Pukaki and the vivid turquoise waters of the glacial lake at whose northern most point, Aoraki, Mount Cook, stands watch over the land. The blue-green water was incredible. 

At the top of the Lindis Pass - minimal pedalling

Every pass we crossed in NZ brought a real change of scenery

The vivid turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki

We then turned left and headed towards Mount Cook: the village and the mountain. We had been told about a big bit of glacier had broken off and was currently floating in Tasman Lake. We had also been told that this was a perfectly natural phenomenon that occurred roughly every two years and not a direct result of global warming. What was difficult to see was how far the glacier must once have stretched as there was a sort of no man’s land between Lakes Pukaki and Tasman. It was a long diversion off State Highway 8, but with Lake Pukaki to our right and the mountains looming ahead of us, growing larger by the minute, it was quite a spectacular diversion too. 

Mountains looming large 

Finally, we jumped out of the van and sprinted up the steps to see the glacier in Tasman Lake. It wasn’t at all what I had been expecting, which was essentially a cross between a polar bear stood on a block of ice à la the Fox Glacier sweet wrapper and the triangular/conical shaped ice-berg that sunk the Titanic. Lots of little bits of dirty ice bobbed in the grey lake. ‘Little’ was definitely not the correct adjective though. After a few minutes of confused, but awe-struck staring, I spotted a little red bird swimming on, what must have been, the freezing cold waters of Tasman Lake. Although I had started to point to the bird, no words had yet escaped my mouth. It was as if my brain hadn’t yet flipped the image being projected onto my retina the right way around. A second later I realised that what I was looking at wasn’t a bird, but a person in a red kayak. It was truly like an optical illusion! Pointing, and now talking too, I hoped Olly and Léa would be able to see what I could see. They too were disbelieving at first. We couldn’t quite angle our cameras correctly or quickly enough to capture the different scales, but we talked about them for a good, long while afterwards. Those ginormous hunks of ice and the tiny, little red kayak. 

Little, red kayak

Little, red kayak visible again in this photo - just!

Back at Lake Pukaki we said goodbye to Léa who was due to meet up with another travelling friend. Back on her bike, we enjoyed seeing photos from her time spent in the landscape of the glacial lakes which we hurried through and vowed one day to return to, slowly. It wasn’t far from Lake Pukaki to Lake Tekapo where Grace and her parents had already set up camp and were busy cooking our dinner! It was fantastic to pull up alongside side their monster wagon, waving and smiling like mad and to have them wave and smile madly back. We had a brilliant evening with the O’Donovans.

We enjoyed ‘van life’ that evening and the next morning, but were keen to get on the road to make it to Christchurch before 2 o’clock in order to pick up bike boxes from The Crank House, a bike shop owned by a friend of Andrew’s who we had stayed with in Nelson. We made it by the skin of our teeth! Perhaps we shouldn’t have stopped for “a treat” from the bakery in Fairlie…

Britz at Lake Tekapo

We covered a lot of ground in just two days and I’m not sure now what we talked about, or if we did much talking at all. Although I’ve made my case for bike travel, it was nice to watch the world go by without straining and sweating copiously too! I had volunteered to do some of the driving, but Olly was determined it was only he who was to sit in the captain’s seat. We listened to music and podcasts and ate through our bag of snacks, realising another perk of cycling was not having to worry about how many mint slices (packets of…) you got through in a day. 

It was a relief to arrive at Alex and Tim’s, though parking the 7.2m-long bus on their steep drive was a little stressful. Alex and Tim were away for the weekend at a friend’s wedding and had left their house to us which is an incredible generosity that we’ll never be able to repay. Our stay with Alex and Tim had been long-planned. We had just missed each other in Rome at Suzanne’s place and she had put us all in touch. Alex had provided so many hints and tips for the entirety of our trip in New Zealand, in addition to offering us her home, and so we were so keen to meet the pair the following evening whose garage Olly was in awe of! 

Sunset over the city in ChCh

Our three days in Christchurch disappeared. From a relaxing first afternoon, to a busy Sunday of cleaning, preparation and returning the campervan, to a final day of chores in the city, we were soon setting the alarm for 2.50am so as to be on time for our taxi transfer to the airport and our early fight to Melbourne and then Phuket. 


It is always hard saying goodbye to Warm Showers hosts who quickly become treasured friends. Al Humphreys talks about how heavy it makes his heart to keep having to ‘break fragile connections’ and I know just how he felt. Alex and Tim had recently bought their home on the hill that offered an incredible, panorama view over the city of Christchurch. They were so kind and welcoming, affording us the time and space we needed to prepare for the next leg of our adventure, whilst chatting happily with us and sharing stories with us around the table at dinner times. Alex and Tim made the most incredible pizzas, a hark back for all of us to our time spent in Italy. As Alex left on her bike for a night-shift at the hospital where she works as a doctor, we bid goodnight to Tim who was still recovering from his groomsman duties at the weekend, and really hoped we might meet again one day.

Similarly, we bid goodbye to Grace O’D in Christchurch. She had so brilliantly and kindly offered to ferry us around as we picked up some last-minute purchases and also act as a bit of a tour-guide to the city she had called home for the past six months. We ambled through the beautiful botanical gardens, played on lime-scooters and drank L&P whilst debating exchange rates and how best to go about getting some US dollars. It was great to spend this time with Grace. I was sad to say goodbye for we would be neighbours no more when we all returned home and ‘the future’ is a topic we only briefly touched upon. 

The "cardboard cathedral", erected after Christchurch Cathedral was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake

185 empty white chairs to remember the 185 people who lost their lives in 2011

When the alarm sounded at 2.50 we fumbled and stumbled around, but made it out of the house without issue. Our preparations had felt much smoother and more organised this time around. It was a shame, then, to be told that Olly’s bike box was too heavy and to have to open up the carefully packaged box at the airport just to one side of the winding queue and “redistribute” the weight amongst our other bags. We weren’t the only ones who fell under the wrath of a particular airport worker who must have been struggling with the 4am blues, a Dutch couple, also cyclists, were doing some redistributing of their own to the other side of the queue and we nodded over at them glumly. We will be forever grateful to the smiling airport worker who weighed our redistributed bags and boxes and waved us towards the next part of our adventure in full knowledge that everything was just as heavy as before, but in a slightly different place. Freed of our luggage, we walked towards the departure lounge and in our own uniquely tired and miserable, 4 o'clock in the morning way started to get really excited about South East Asia.

In Arrowtown
At Lake Pukaki
Thanks, NZ.  Hope to see you again.