Driving the East Coast

Since the snow season in New Zealand was off to a terrible start, I decided to tour around the South Island while I waited for the snow to fall. The car rental companies in NZ have these amazing car relocation deals where you get a free rent car and a free tank of gas to move cars around the country, so I was able to find a free car from Christchurch to Queenstown. I had three days to move my Jucy El Cheapo relocation, so I decided to tour the east coast through Akaroa, Timaru, Oamaru, and Dunedin on the way to Queenstown.

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My first stop was Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a quaint French village on the New Zealand coast. On a midweek day during the winter this town is mostly asleep, but I enjoyed a short walk along the shore and a bit of hiking through some fields before moving along. I also grabbed a car USB charger from the store in town as I quickly realized my phone wasn’t going to last the day running Google maps as I drove around New Zealand.

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Sunrise from my camping spot in Timaru.

I made it to Timaru after dark and decided to freedom camp at one of the coastal sites available there. I had my sleeping bag to stay warm, and the seat in the rent car reclined enough to make for a comfy seat. I had picked up food on the way out of Christchurch so I had plenty of sandwich supplies for dinner, and sacked out for the night. As you can see, the El Cheapo rent car is exact that: an old Nissan Sunny with over 270,000 kilometers on the clock. It drove like crap and burned way more fuel than it should, but for the price I shouldn’t complain too much.

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The next morning I headed down the coast to Oamaru where my first stop was the excellent Steam Punk Headquarters. This is a museum/art installation focused entirely on steam punk creations and was full of fun surprises. Particularly fun was the “time machine” which locked you in a small room and put on a boundless light show for two minutes. They also had plenty of great creatures made out of all types of machines and parts.

I dropped in on the NZ Malt Whisky Company and tried a sip, but concluded the bottles were way to costly for what you were getting. After that I had a nice walk of the historic downtown area and the large gardens in town: I’m learning that every town and city in New Zealand has a large garden, I didn’t realize how British everything is here.

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The next stop down the coast is a unique rock formation called Moeraki Boulders. These are old volcanic rocks that have been exposed by coastal erosion and rounded by the sea. They have a neat crystalline pattern on the surface from how they formed, and some have split open like a cracked egg. It was great fun watching folks posing for pictures with the rocks and getting caught by an incoming wave they didn’t see 😉

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Everyone Kiwi that I talked to about driving the east coast said I had to stop for a meal at Fleur’s Place, so after the boulders I headed that direction. I had a lovely walk around the coast line, complete with sea lions basking in the sunshine, and then had a fabulous fresh blue cod lunch at Fleur’s. Apparently Fleur has her own fishing quota, so she has the fisherman catch on her behalf and deliver directly to the restaurant daily. The ocean surrounding you on three sides and the fishing boats bobbing out in the bay really sent the fresh message home.

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I might have eaten half the plate before I remembered to take a picture.

I took the scenic route down the coast the rest of the way to Dunedin, and made my home at Geeky Gecko Backpackers for the night. Dunedin is apparently known as Little Edinburgh and the Scottish influence shows heavily on the buildings downtown. It is also the home of Otago University, so there is a large student population in town. I found a great little bar in the evening with live guitar music and some nice Kiwis, and as I was headed home I got to enjoy the spectacle of all the university students as they headed to the clubs to dance the night away.

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I spent the morning in Dunedin handling boring logistical details while I had quality internet available, and then exploring the Otago museum in town I headed out to the Otago Peninsula. It was a beautiful drive out along the top of the peninsula, and I made a nice stop at Sandfly Bay. Here you can hike down to the beach and enjoy a nice walk along the coast, as long as you don’t mind sharing the beach with plenty of Sea Lions.

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At nightfall I went to the Albatross Center at the end of the Otago peninsula to watch the Blue Penguins come ashore. The Blue Penguin is the smallest penguin, only 20-30 cm tall, and sleep on the beach every night. We had to wait on the platform while being buffeted with massive cold winds for the penguins to eventually decide it was time to return, but then we got to watch 15 or so of them work their way out of the surf, carefully through the rocks on the beach, and finally scamper into their dens for the night. The penguins were every bit as cute as you would expect a tiny penguin to be, and they were only a few feet away so you had a great view of the entire show.

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This was the best picture I could manage of the penguins running up the path to their dens in the low light.

After that concluded it was time for the late night drive to Queenstown as I had to return the rent car early the next morning.

Christchurch, New Zealand

My first morning in Christchurch wasn’t as restful as I had hoped as the standard checkout time in New Zealand is apparently 10 AM. After quickly packing out of my hotel room I got a cheap Uber to move myself and my pile of luggage across town to the Kiwi Basecamp Backpackers. The hostel was perfectly nice, and included fresh baked bread and jam for breakfast every morning. In a trend that repeated itself at many of the hostels I’ve stayed at, many of the residents at the Basecamp were long-term guests on work visas. I’m not sure if this is always the case in New Zealand, or if there are just less visiting backpackers in New Zealand during the winter.

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After finishing my move I spend the afternoon walking around Christchurch, and it was immediately clear how much of the city is still devastated from the 2011 earthquake. The only old buildings you see are boarded up and abandoned, with new buildings and construction everywhere. The huge cathedral in the center of town is missing an entire wall, and they still don’t know if they will ever be able to repair it. There is a temporarily cathedral that was built a few blocks away and uses a mixture of shipping containers, simple steel structure, and cardboard tubes instead of wood for decorative siding.

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The Re:Start mall is one of the more popular post-quake sites: a shopping mall built out of shipping containers. It was a very nice place for lunch with plenty of outdoor seating, food trucks, and an excellent guitar player in the courtyard. One of the few things in Christchurch to survive the earthquake was the botanical gardens, so I spent a lovely afternoon walking around the gardens. The Canterbury museum also made a pleasant stop after my walk through the park.

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In the evening I met up with two other folks from the hostel for a nice dinner. The plan was to go to Pedro’s House of Lamb, a to-go place that just serves lamb and potatoes. However, when we arrived they were already sold out for the day, so we had a tasty Thai meal nearby. After a fun evening hanging out with them I wished them the best on their trip, and packed up to leave Christchurch the next morning.

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I woke up to the most amazing sunrise from the hostel kitchen in Christchurch. One benefit of winter here: sunrise isn’t until 8 AM so you don’t have to wake up early to enjoy it!