Monday 30 March 2020

Cruising into a Crisis; Part 2


Continuing on from Part 1 

We left Marfells Beach on Friday morning, March 20th, headed for the NZMCA Old Beach Road Park in Kaikoura. Once again there was a steady stream of RVs heading north on State Highway One, we would have passed at least another 130-150 vans over the 100km trip. This time they were in large groups having been caught up at the many stop/go road works along the coast road.

Marfells Beach, Marlborough
We reached Kaikoura early afternoon and while there were a few vans parked up it didn't seem overly busy. We found a good spot between a tape fence and a pile of dirt to 'self-isolate', a new term that had been working its way into the vocabulary over the previous few days. It was nothing so dramatic though, we actually needed to run our generator and this is the area to park for those with gennies.

Things had changed by early evening though, RVs of all shapes and sizes had been piling into the park through the afternoon, the gloomy day seemed to match the general atmosphere around camp too. 

Over the previous few days NZMCA members had received several emails from the President, Bruce Stanger, advising us of the rapidly changing situation regarding Coronavirus. The NZMCA Parks would stay open for now but there was to be no social gatherings in the buildings and any rallies were to be cancelled. Several POPs & CAPs had advised that they were closing and many of the manned DOC camps had been closed without warning.

It was Friday evening and there were few people to be seen, and those that were out walking were keeping to themselves. The odd person was talking rather loudly to their neighbour while keeping the required two metre social-distancing space between themselves (another new term).

The next afternoon, Saturday 21st, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, had an urgent message for all New Zealanders. 'Stay calm & stay at home' she said. Over 70 year olds (a large proportion of NZMCA membership) and those with compromised immune systems should stay at home as much as possible and everyone should limit their travel within the country. 

The Government also introduced an alert system; we were currently at Alert Level 2 which meant that the risk of community transmission was growing.

With so many parks & freedom camping sites closing around the country, many full-timers started to worry about where they could go. Another email from head office informed members that NZMCA Parks couldn't be used to self-isolate and the length of stay conditions would not be extended under any circumstances (I sensed that this was the precursor to the parks being closed outright).

We decided we'd stay until Monday morning and then head towards Twizel, 460km away, giving Christchurch a miss this time but stopping for a night somewhere along the way to break up the journey. We had already arranged to stay at the Ohau C Camp at Lake Benmore until we took over our property in mid-April. Lake Benmore was where we'd stayed for seven weeks over December & January, it's one of our 'happy places'.  David could get the boat out & go fishing & I could photograph the autumn colours. We had it sorted. Or did we?

We did a few errands Sunday afternoon, topping up with diesel, gas and buying a few groceries. And while we'd heard of the panic buying going on at supermarkets it wasn't because of this that I shopped, it was my last chance to buy at a larger supermarket, there are only two smaller 4Square Stores in Twizel. Sunday evening we decided we'd head all the way through to Lake Benmore in the morning, we'd hunker down there away from the masses for the duration of whatever was to come.

We set off mid-morning Monday and it became apparent before we'd even left town that the steady stream of RVs we'd seen on previous days had now become a tidal wave; campervans, caravans, motorhomes, buses, house trucks, fifth-wheelers and rental motorhomes of all sizes & shapes; hundreds and hundreds of them, all making their way north. Some lines of traffic had over two dozen RVs in them with just one lonely car or truck. My waving arm got very tired and we once again passed friends & acquaintances driving in the opposite direction.

Angry storm clouds hid the Southern Alps as we exited Burkes Pass
We stopped at a rest area in Oxford (which will now live on in infamy) for a late lunch and that was where we were when the Prime Minister dropped a bombshell. The country had moved to Alert Level 3, effective immediately (2pm) and within 48 hours the alert would move to Level 4. This would mean the closure of all non essential businesses and the restriction of movement for everyone except for essential workers for the next four weeks. 

To say it was a shock is an under-statement, it's been the only time during all this upheaval that I had a moment of despair and a few tears. It was more to do with the sadness that I felt for fellow New Zealanders and the worry about how some of them were going to survive this turmoil. Personally though, we felt it was the only option available if the country was to get on top of this hideous virus. Although at that moment we were oblivious to how far reaching the ramifications were going to be. 

Lake Pukaki with Aoraki/Mt Cook hidden beneath the storm clouds
We headed off again, now a little shell-shocked and starting to worry about our own plans. I kept refreshing my email and within an hour or so there was another email from NZMCA informing us that all parks would be closed within 48 hours (5pm Wednesday, March 25th). Knowing how many RVs we'd passed on our journey south, I knew there was no way on earth that they'd all be able to get across Cook Strait by lockdown at midnight Wednesday. 

So many people would be stuck in the wrong island, how were they going to go into lockdown, where were they going to stay. Thankfully the Government extended the Cook Strait crossings for another 48 hours, through until Friday night and the NZMCA allowed members in transit to stay at Plimmerton & Kaikoura on their way home.

This allowed many more members to get home although there are still plenty that have chosen to stay behind or in fact didn't manage to get a booking. Offers came in from far & wide from many generous people offering  places to stay; spare paddocks, front sections, driveways and motor camps.

It wasn't long before I realised that there would be no mid-April settlement on the property now, how could there be? With lockdown, the vendor couldn't shift out and we couldn't shift in, we'd have to defer settlement.  And within 24 hours our lawyer had been in touch to confirm that this was the case. We were now in limbo for the next 4 weeks or for however long this will last.

Our last camp site under the tree on the right didn't look quite the same
Lake Benmore didn't look quite so inviting by the time we arrived just on dark, it was very cold and the wind was blowing hard. David backed the 5th-wheeler in beside the lake, unhitched and we quickly set up. We'd sort the finer details out in the morning, we were both tired and a little emotional after the day's events. 

Within 5 minutes of setting up and with the heater now warming us up inside, a massive squall came ripping around the point, straight across the lake and hit us square on the rear. We rocked & rolled for a few minutes as it got stronger, we looked at each other and quickly made the decision to re-hitch and shift into the willows to shelter behind the unoccupied caravans.

Early the next morning (Tuesday) we made the decision to move to a commercial campground for lockdown. Originally Ohau C Camp was going to be closing after Easter, which suited us fine as we were taking over the property not long afterwards. But with the new government directive, the family who own the camp had to close it within the next couple of days. 

It only took me a moment to decide where we'd go, I sent off a message and our 'knight-in-shining-armour' responded within minutes. 'Come on over, she said, we have room for you'. Relieved to have a solution and a base, we once again pulled out of camp and headed off to the highway. Our new backyard, Lake Ruataniwha & the Ohau Range, will have to wait for our return. 

We headed south on SH8 towards Omarama. This time the traffic was mostly rental campervans and independent travellers in their small sleeper vans, about 50 in the space of 30kms. It was like they'd only just got the message that the country was closing down in 36 hours and they were making a mad dash to God knows where. I felt very sad for them all.

We turned off at Omarama and headed down a deserted Waitaki Valley following the lakes and river all the way to the coast, 140km away. A smattering of snow on the surrounding hills warned us that winter was on it's way.

It was a great sense of relief for both of us when we finally arrived at Glenavy's Waitaki River Holiday Park and were met by our lovely hosts Anne & Joe. 

November 2019
It felt like we were coming home, it was even better when Anne gave us our old site to park on. We stayed here last November when we toured Riverstone Castle, which is just down the road. Who knew we'd be back so soon.

We're sharing the camp space with approximately two dozen other motorhomers, we're in our own 'bubbles' and there are protocols in place for using the laundry, with toilets & showers out-of-bounds to most of us. And just like other neighbourhoods we practice 'social distancing' when we meet each other in the grounds.

Anne & Joe check in with us daily and we had daily newsletters for the first few days as things fell into place. And even though we are usually self-sufficient, it's such a relief to know that we have power, fresh water, a dump station and access to a laundry during our lockdown.

We even have some 'We're not scared' Teddy Bears waiting to be spotted.

Just out the gate is State Highway One; left & right (how's that for a deserted main highway) and just a few hundred metres away in 'my own backyard' is the mighty Waitaki River and the very long (and narrow) road bridge and equally long rail bridge. We have a fuel station and a dairy just up the road; nice and close for the essentials. The supermarket is 25km away in either direction; Waimate to the north & Oamaru to the south.

I checked the bridge out early looking for a good position to capture the sunsets but so far the clouds haven't played ball.

We've taken to walking the 2km loop track that leaves from the rest area beside the bridge, it passes through a pine plantation...

...alongside a lovely clear stream and exits at the back of the village, with just a short walk along the road back to camp. I think we may get bored with it quite quickly though so I'll have to mix it up with walking a few of the village roads. Although there aren't many of those either. 

I know how you feel mate. 

I found a tiny pedestrian refuse platform hanging off the bridge about a third of the way along, it will make the perfect spot to catch the sunrise in the other direction. One day. I guess I'll have plenty of those.

One bonus of living on the road is that we always have a regular supply of disposable gloves and hand sanitiser for dump station duties so there was no need for us to rush off and purchase any before lockdown.  And other than milk, bread, fresh fruit & veges we are pretty well set up for the duration; I have long life milk but its one of my pet hates (I LOVE fresh cold milk) and it will only be used in an emergency. I guess that emergency might arrive sometime soon.

There was no need to panic buy groceries in the Evans household. I've always been known for having an extra full pantry long before we hit the road, and much to David's consternation sometimes, (extra weight to carry), nothing changed afterwards. The photo, bottom left, is just one storage area, there are several others in the van including a stash of treats which I was surprised to find, I'd hidden them so well. Now that the rainy day has arrived it's time to make a large dent in my 'will use them one day' supply.

And regarding panic buying, each time the PM and other officials asked us to please stop panic buying, I wanted to shout at the TV or radio. 'They're not panic buying because they might miss out' I'd say, 'they're buying because they don't want to leave the house after lockdown!'

I've always been a 'cup-half-full' type of person and just a couple of days into lockdown I thought to myself, other than the cliche or serious stuff, what have I got to be thankful for during this trying time. So here's my list;

I'm thankful...
that's it's not the height of summer with 35c+ heat
that I live in a RV with a slide-out
that I went au naturel over Christmas and don't need a hairdresser
that I had a haircut just before I left Napier
that I can stay in my PJs all day
that no one will knock on my door while I'm in my PJs
that I can wear the same clothes 3 days running & nobody will know
that I can catch up on my blogs and photos
that I'm a hoarder of supplies including toiletries
for our diesel heaters
for two folders full of recipes that were sorted for 'van living' and that I've never had the time to try out
for the bathroom scales to keep me in check, just in case I eat too much

(I'm not thankful that I'll miss the autumn colours though)

Stay safe & well my friends. And stay home. We've got this.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Cruising into a Crisis; Part 1


It's very hard to comprehend how much the world, our world, has changed since this photo was taken just one month ago. As we usually do on our way to and from Napier, we called into one of favourite campsites for a couple of nights before continuing on to say cheerio to Mum & Dad in Napier.

Night Sky- Glenfalls
Glenfalls DOC camp is beside the Mohaka River and not too far off the Napier-Taupo Road. We'd wanted to stop for one last camp at Glenfalls before we returned to the South Island. It could be 18 months or so before we'll be back in the North Island. We'd also been having some exceptionally hot days (35c+) and the thought of cooling off in the river was very enticing.

We'd spent the previous few weeks in Tauranga after making a dash up the country in mid January from Lake Benmore in the Mackenzie District where we'd be having a lovely time waiting for the summer heat to kick in. We needed to sort our gear out which we'd had in storage for the last 8 years, we'd gone unconditional on a property we bought in Twizel, with settlement in mid-April.

We were going to whittle down our gear and only take essential items & furniture to Twizel. As it turned out we decided to ship it all to Twizel and sort it there; finding somewhere to sort it in Tauranga, the triple handling, disposing of furniture we didn't want and even the extremely hot days, all worked against us. Crown Furniture Removals came and filled two containers; yes, we did have a lot of gear! The containers were then shipped off to Christchurch where they will be held until we take over the property.

Sunrise- Matata Lagoon
Happy to have that all sorted we spent the rest of the time catching up with family & friends, staying at the Mount Holiday Park and the Matata DOC Camp to escape the sweltering heat and visiting friends in Kawerau before heading off to Napier.

Grandchildren, Maddie & Joel enjoying a Sunday paddle at Sulphur Point, Tauranga
Towards the end of our first week in Napier, I started to feel a little anxious about getting back to the South Island. New Zealand's first case of Covid-19 virus was about two weeks old and new cases were still in single figures. All of them had been traced back to overseas travel and there were no cases of community transmission. Yet.

I just had a niggling feeling of wanting to be across the Strait and in the South Island should anything happen. What? I had no idea. Like most people, never in my wildest dreams (David's favourite saying) did I think a lockdown would happen. Heck, I don't even think we knew what a lockdown was or what it would entail a week ago.

Ferry Landing Reserve, Ballance Bridge & the Manawatu River- Woodville
When WHO (World Health Organisation) declared an official pandemic on Wednesday, March 11th, I felt it was time for us to make a plan. I booked our crossing with Bluebridge for Thursday, March 19th and this time, for the very first time, I also booked a cabin. I have no idea why, it wasn't because of the virus, that didn't seem such a threat then. I just felt it would give us a place to rest after an early start. And as it turned out, it was very fortuitous. 

From March 14th, many large gatherings and events were cancelled and all people entering New Zealand had to self-isolate for 14 days. But there are still only 8 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country. 

Titahi Bay Boatsheds, Wellington- South Side
We still weren't in any rush though, we said our goodbyes to Mum & Dad and headed out of Napier on Monday 16th. We stopped overnight in the freedom camping area at Ferry Landing Reserve near Woodville and then travelled onto the Plimmerton NZMCA Park for the next two nights. We'd leave for the ferry from there. I even had time to photograph the Titahi Bay Boat Sheds, something I'd been wanting to do everytime we passed through Wellington but had never had the chance.

Titahi Bay Boatsheds, Wellington- North Side
Thursday, March 19th. There were now twenty eight Covid-19 cases confirmed and over 7000 people self-isolating (or meant to be, with reports coming in of people arriving in the country and still sightseeing). That cabin earnt it's weight in gold as we self-isolated away from other passengers.

Canada Geese & Onepoto Road Boat Sheds, Porirua Harbour
I was still a little anxious about the crossing and whether I'd chosen a good day to sail. I don't usually book until 2-3 days out just in case there's a major weather event or a southerly blowing. Luckily we had a very smooth crossing and I felt a great sense of relief when we pulled into Picton, not only because of the good weather but we'd also made it back to the otherside. 

Rumours were swirling around on various motorhoming social media pages that the Cook Strait might close, many people had started to worry that the ferries would stop running and they'd not get home. Others also said that the Government would never close Cook Strait. Hmmm....I wasn't so sure.

Lake Grassmere Salt Ponds
Obviously others thought the same as me, there were many motorhomers lined up at the Picton ferry terminals and parked up in town waiting to cross back to the North Island.

February & March are the height of the holiday season for many retired motorhomers; the Christmas and New Year rush is over, children are back at school and families have returned to their home bases, the weather is usually much more settled and the South Island is a premium destination to visit at this time of the year.

Harvesting salt at Lake Grassmere Salt Works
Adding to the usual influx of motorhomers to the South Island, the NZMCA National Rally & AGM was held in Oamaru in early March, with the occupants of a several hundred extra motorhomes attending the rally and then continuing on to Warbirds Over Wanaka, the Bluff Oyster Festival and Arrowtown Autumn Festival just to mention a few.  All of these events had been cancelled in the previous few days due to restrictions around the gatherings of large crowds.

Marfells Beach DOC Camp, Marlborough
We called into the Blenheim Racecourse as we had a couple of errands to do in town and thought we'd stay the night there but when we saw how full the park was we decided to carry on south and stay at the DOC camp at Marfells Beach. We'd do the errands when we reached Christchurch.

We had a late lunch parked on the side of the racecourse drive, all the while motorhomes just kept on arriving. And we sensed a quiet urgency in the orderly stream of 40-50 RVs heading north on State Highway 1 during our 32km trip south to the Marfells Beach turnoff. We waved as they streamed past, waving extra hard as we spotted friends & on-the-road acquaintances heading in the opposite direction.

I started to relax a little once we were parked up on our usual site at the end of the Marfell's camp. We then heard that the government had closed our borders to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, things were starting to ramp up. But still we had no idea what was to come.

Wild spinach would have provided campers with plenty of greens
 if the camp had been open during lock-down.
We thought we'll be fine now that we're in the South Island, we even decided to spend a couple of days at Marfells; it was lovely, warm and sunny and there was no hurry to get to Twizel. Settlement was still three weeks away.

But nature decided otherwise and we woke to a howling gale and the rig being sandblasted so we made the decision to pull out and head to Kaikoura.

To be continued....Part 2

Sunday 22 March 2020

Bluebridge- Crossing Cook Strait


I've had quite a number of queries in the last few days with regards to our Cook Strait crossing so I thought I'd do a blog on our recent trip with Bluebridge Ferries. We crossed from Wellington to Picton on the 8am sailing last Thursday, 19 March.

We're making our way south again for winter, this time we'll be basing ourselves in Twizel in the Mackenzie District. We stayed at a very busy Plimmerton NZMCA Park for two nights while waiting for our sailing. Plimmerton is a good base to leave from, it's a 26km, 30 minute drive along the motorway (non-rush hour) to the ferry terminal.

NZMCA Members parked in the centre overnight
The NZMCA park is large and there's plenty of space for all the comings and goings as people travel up and down the country. If the parking spaces are taken up around the perimeter, you can park in the centre as long as you keep the gate and dump station clear.

Sunrise over the capitol
Our check-in was at 7am and in usual Evan's style we departed well in advance at 5:45am giving us some 'just in case' time. The 'just in case' went against us this time. As we were cruising along the near empty motorway we received a text from Bluebridge advising us that there was a 2 hour delay in departure which we later found out was due to weather conditions affecting previous sailings.

Of course this isn't a problem for those of us that have our homes on our back. We can make a hot drink, read the daily news, have breakfast (or lunch or dinner) while we wait in line.  We weren't the first in line but once we'd checked in, and being a bigger rig than most, we were directed to park at the start of Lane 1. All the other early birds and new arrivals were directed to the other side of the terminal to wait in line (see photo above).

It didn't seem too long before our ferry arrived into Wellington and the unloading began. We turned our gas bottle off (as everyone should when crossing the Strait), re-checked everything was ship-shape inside the van and then waited patiently inside the Ranger for the nod to move forward.

After the walk-on passengers had been escorted on board and several cars, smaller campervans & caravans had been loaded ahead of us, it was time for us to drive on following the excellent directions given to us by several high-viz Bluebridge crew along the way. Once in the hold everyone was turned around in the large turning bay at front of the ship and lined up facing the rear, for an easy drive off at the other end. Large stock and freight trucks had already been parked on the top deck. 

We had booked our crossing 10 days prior to sailing and had decided to book a private cabin this time which turned out to be fortuitous considering this fast changing world we're currently living in. And we were so pleased we did, at $40 a double with an ensuite toilet & shower, fresh towels and linen and free wi-fi, the cabin provided a nice little bolthole to retire to for the three and half hour journey. There are also single and family cabins available.

And as luck would have it we were in the most forward cabin, right in the centre of the ship. For me this was an excellent bonus because as a fair weather sailor, I like to see where we're going not we're we've been or even not see at all! It's just a pity there weren't little window wipers that you could turn on to wash away the salt from the previous sailings. 

Right on time (the new sailing time that is) we pulled away from Wellington and headed across the harbour. 

I left David relaxing in the cabin and checked out the facilities downstairs. Due to the recent travel restrictions there weren't too many people onboard although I suspect going by the number of motorhomes & caravans we saw later around the top of the South Island there would be a few more onboard crossing the other way, from Picton to Wellington.

Bluebridge have two ferries, the Strait Feronia which we were travelling on and the Straitsman which we pass just before we leave Wellington Harbour.

Once we are in Cook Strait I retired to our cabin, we'd had an early start and I thought I'd make the most of it and have a rest until we reach the other side. It was a relatively smooth crossing although the wind was quite strong. 

If you are at all worried about rough weather check the long range forecasts and select a day when there's either no wind (rare given that Wellington is known as the windy city) or there's a Northerly blowing, this flattens out the waves. If you are a fair weather sailor like me, then it's the Southerlies you need to watch out for. An early morning sailing can also be relatively smooth as you'll be well inside the Sounds or harbour before the afternoon sea breeze kicks in.

I moved to the front viewing area to watch as we approached the entrance to Tory Channel; East Head on Arapawa Island is on the right & West Head on the left (click to enlarge the photo & look for the small white lighthouse) is part of mainland Marlborough Sounds.

A few passengers; each group keeping a respectable distance from others- it certainly feels like there's an elephant in the room here- arrive to watch as we enter the Channel too. Arapawa Homestead is directly in front of us and I hear someone say there must be a road out here. No there are no roads, those are farm tracks, it's an island and the only way there is by boat.

I follow the signs and stairways up to the top viewing deck where there are fabulous views in front and down both sides of the Channel. 

There's even fewer people up on the top deck, it's breezy but warm in the sun.

The top deck overlooks the stern of the boat and the upper vehicle deck where there are very few trucks parked on this sailing. We leave the Channel entrance in our wake... we cruise past several salmon and mussel farms...

...and numerous secluded houses and holiday homes tucked into calm little bays & coves along the way.

...and then we turn into Queen Charlotte Sound and head south up the Sound...

...passing Waikawa first- a small settlement with a large marina- just over the hill from Picton. Passengers near me ask if that is Picton. 'No' I tell them, that's around that lower green headland centre left.

We sail around the point and directly ahead of us is Picton (as predicted). Crewmen move out onto the bow to ready the boat for docking.

Picton is a small picturesque seaside town tucked in below the surrounding hillsides and nestled on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound. It's also the arrival point for many visitors to the beautiful South Island.

We head directly for Port Marlborough and the ferry terminal.

The Strait Feronia spins around and...

...we back in nicely along the wharf. The captain has obviously done this before. The call has been made to move to the vehicle decks and I have to quickly head down five flights of stairs...

...catching up with David on the last stairway before we make our way back to the rig.

And then without further ado, we're driving off, back onto familiar soil and our new home island. 

It's hard not to recommend Bluebridge, they run a slick operation with friendly and helpful staff and good systems in place which makes for a stress-free crossing. Thank you Bluebridge for another smooth sailing.

I know a few of my readers have asked about Bluebridge's pet policy. Pets are welcome on Bluebridge ferries, they can either be booked into one of the kennels or, as most travellers prefer, left in their vehicle. But please let Bluebridge know when you check in so that you can be given a 'Pets Onboard' mirror dangler. Please also read this information and the crew will park your vehicle in a well ventilated spot that is sheltered from the sun.

Bluebridge Key Facts-
  • Pets are welcome on Bluebridge 
  •  44 sailings a week
  • Around 300,000 passengers cross the Cook Strait with Bluebridge every year.
  • Ships have the capacity for around 400 passengers each (check this link for regular Covid-19 updates)
  • Sail four times a day Wellington to Picton including a 2.30am overnight sailing- and three times a day from Picton to Wellington
  • Free wi-fi, movies and kids packs on board