Ex­plor­ing Hob­bit coun­try by camper van

For Sally War­ren, a tour of Hob­bit coun­try by camper van was a jour­ney of many de­lights

Friday - - TRAVEL -

Ifell in love with New Zealand watch­ing it on the big screen. For years I held the epic scenery from the Lord of the Rings tril­ogy in my mind: the misty moun­tains, blue rivers and rolling coun­try­side with Hob­bit Holes. But it didn’t oc­cur to me to go there. It was too far, too ex­pen­sive, too trau­matic a flight, es­pe­cially with a child. When a friend sug­gested a road trip in a camper van – a rel­a­tively keenly priced way to see the coun­try – my hus­band and I were hes­i­tant. We were en­trenched in our easyJetto-south­ern Europe in­er­tia. Once we shook our­selves out of our tor­por, thanks in no small part to our 11-year-old son, Ed­ward, who shares my Tolkien de­vo­tion, we re­alised this would be our very own Bilbo Bag­gins-style ad­ven­ture. And so it proved. New Zealand is beau­ti­ful on a dif­fer­ent scale to any other place I have vis­ited. From shell-strewn, golden beaches to Gar­den of Eden-like fjords, it is in­com­pa­ra­ble.

Once in Auck­land, we took a short flight to Christchurch, the largest city in the South Is­land. There, we tried to beat the jet-lag by watch­ing the Test match.

We had flown half­way around the world to watch cricket in what looked like an English pas­toral par­adise.

New Zealand is not Eng­land. Once we took own­er­ship of our Maui camper van, dubbed The Beast for its im­pres­sive size, and es­caped into the wilder­ness, all sim­i­lar­i­ties ended.

Our itin­er­ary, or­gan­ised by the Caravan and Mo­torhome Club, took us on a mostly coastal route an­ti­clock­wise along the top of the South Is­land and down the west coast to Queen­stown. We would spend only two days in the North Is­land, vis­it­ing the Hob­biton film set, a prom­ise to Ed­ward. OK, and to me, too.

Our first stop, after a three-hour drive from Christchurch along the east coast, was the small town of Kaik­oura, cho­sen mainly for its whale­watch­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. To my scep­ti­cal mind, it was in­con­ceiv­able that we would see a whale. In fact we saw eight: two sperm whales and six or­cas. It was the first of our once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ences and a mag­i­cal mo­ment for our son.

Con­tin­u­ing along State High­way 1, spot­ting seals from our win­dows, we headed to Kai­teri­teri. This re­sort is the gate­way to the Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park, the small­est of New Zealand’s 13 pro­tected parks. Its long stretches of empty, glit­ter­ing beaches skirt a wilder­ness re­serve wild with the sound of bird­song.

Our camp­site was a stone’s throw from the beach and af­forded spec­tac­u­lar views of the south­ern skies and their sun­sets. We spent three mag­i­cal days here, one walk­ing along the Abel Tas­man coastal track lis­ten­ing to tui and bell­birds.

We also went kayak­ing. Our Aus­tralian

The free­dom of a camper van comes at a price: namely un­ap­peal­ing do­mes­tic tasks such as emp­ty­ing the lava­tory ev­ery other day. My hus­band is not a prac­ti­cal man. Ask­ing Ed­ward to do any­thing do­mes­tic re­quires an ini­tial re­fusal pe­riod. At mo­ments, I feared we might end up killing one an­other at the sewage­dump­ing sta­tion.

But we tran­si­tioned from new­bies to old­timers quickly. The Beast be­came a breeze to run. New Zealand’s camp­sites are clean and well-equipped with laun­dries, hot show­ers and kitchens, plus hot tubs, games rooms, cafes and the all-im­por­tant Wi-Fi.

It was tough leav­ing Kai­teri­teri, but we then spent the next six days on the wild west coast,

When we fi­nally ar­rived in Wanaka, we were sur­prised to see peo­ple and shops again. We stayed by this beau­ti­ful lake­side town for two days

stop­ping at re­mote places such as Pu­nakaiki, famed for its Pan­cake Rocks and Blow­holes. At Franz Josef, we trekked for an hour and a half to see the glacier of the same name.

When we fi­nally ar­rived in Wanaka, we were sur­prised to see peo­ple and shops again. We stayed by this beau­ti­ful lake­side town for two days, the high­light be­ing a very fast jet-boat ride along the Matuk­i­tuki River into Mount As­pir­ing Na­tional Park.

Once we had con­quered The Beast’s do­mes­tic du­ties and the strangeness of the South Is­land roads, we found we be­came free. Ed­ward be­came a laugh­ing, hug­ging, af­fec­tion­ate child once again. Here he could be cud­dly with­out fear of judg­ment. This was an un­ex­pected and to­tal joy.

One of our last stops be­fore leav­ing the South Is­land was Mil­ford Sound, de­scribed by Rud­yard Ki­pling as the eighth won­der of the world. It is the only fjord in New Zealand ac­ces­si­ble by road but, thanks to its re­mote lo­ca­tion, has re­mained un­spoilt. Bounded by steep cliffs, wa­ter­falls and rain­for­est, my hus­band re­marked that it was like Eden be­fore the Fall. We took an overnight cruise on the fjord. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, a pod of dol­phins swam along­side the boat.

And yet it wasn’t quite over. We left the South Is­land for Auck­land, from where we would be fly­ing home, but not be­fore one last trip: Hob­biton. As we walked past those de­tailed Hob­bit homes, to my as­ton­ish­ment, I found my­self welling up with emo­tion. It had been an un­ex­pected jour­ney – just like Bilbo Bag­gins’s. And we re­turned home ready for an­other ad­ven­ture.

The Caravan and Mo­torhome Club (01342 779349; camc.com/newzealand) of­fers a 22day tour of New Zealand.

From top: Auck­land, the Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park and Pu­nakaiki

guide, Shaq, showed us stingrays and made us a pic­nic by the Fall River. When a seal popped its head up along­side our son's kayak, he lost his cool and whooped for joy.

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