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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hardship Holiday

Now that I have recovered from the New Zealand trip, I hereby promise myself that I will never go camping again. Gee... what was I thinking when I signed myself up for that?!

Budget Style Travel in Europe
As young parents, The Husband and I devised a perfect way to travel in Europe, USA and Australia without breaking the bank. We would rent a car and a cottage at every stop. See HERE. Maybe 5 days in one cottage before we move on to the next stop, next cottage. So, a fifteen day holiday would need 3 different cottages plus perhaps 2 nights in a city hotel near the airport - one night when we arrived, and another night before we flew home.

The cottage would be the base from which we would make day trips to tour the sights within an an hour's drive. It allowed us to discover corners not found on the internet. It allowed us to flexibly plan our visits in active discussion with the kids. We made sure we did something for everyone.

Cottage rental worked out to be about the same as hotel room rental. Cottages had kitchens. If I planned properly, I could cook for every meal. Lunches would be packed. Dinners would be pre-prepared and heated up in the microwave no matter how late we got back. Ovens would be pre-set to start at a certain time so that we would get back home to a hot roast or seafood en papillottes. If I was resourceful, we could have rare specialty cheeses, an informed selection of fresh oysters, deli delights that would cost 5 times the price in Singapore or in the restaurants there.

Eating out in restaurants can easily make up half of the cost of a holiday in Europe, Australia or USA because labour costs in such countries are high. Travelling this way, I effectively halved our travel costs whilst ensuring that the children ate well. Little kids have peculiar food habits which restaurants don't cater to. For a long while, before she became more adventurous with food, The Daughter only ate fried rice. Little Boy had to have spaghetti bolognaise. If I cooked as we travelled, the children ate more and we had less fights about eating.

It was a formula that worked.

Me No Gypsy
Then I had to go and mess with it because I had this romanticised notion of a gypsy's life. It was a hardship holiday I tell you. We were all very very tired at the end of 14 days. It ain't fun trying to sprint across the camp grounds to the communal toilet in the morning chill, only to realise that I had left my toothbrush back at the RV. Then I had to run back. It ain't fun trotting back and forth from the communal kitchen to the RV with pots and bowls and such.

The Husband knocked his head on the ceiling a few times. Little Boy closed the RV door on his own head a couple of times. My bed was used as the repository for bags and shopping. Little grains of I-dunno-what collected on it and irritated my skin at night, before The Daughter figured out how to carry out the quilt and shake it down before bedtime.

At first, nobody thought it necessary to clean out the excrement tank daily. Nobody liked that job, you see. It made perfect sense to collect enough to make the dirty task worthwhile. The thing though is that all that excrement decomposes into rather pungent gaseous byproducts. When the toilet bowl's toilet hatch is opened to receive the errrr.... newer droppings, putrescent fumes (the like of which would delight Milo) arise from below. Since my bed was right next to the toilet, the olfactory centre of my brain was given a fair bit of stimulation. We soon devised a way of pouring bleach into the hatch after every ummm... exercise of relief. I was very enthusiastic about that. I poured in lots and lots of bleach. The result was an updraft of another type of gas which corroded our ummm... delicate parts, and made us cough. In the end, we learnt to use the bleach sparingly to good effect. We also learnt to clean out the excrement tank everyday.

Conjunctivitis and Sinusitis
Then, The Husband's nose went on strike. Mud from the thermal mud pools had got into his eye. The tear duct was blocked up and then his nose decided to deny entry through its passages to the little specks of mud. His eye became infected with bacteria because with blocked tear duct and nose, the eye could not clean itself. The poor man couldn't breathe. Both nasal passages were so stuck that no amount of trying could get air to pass. They were hermetically sealed.

Then I came across a signboard outside a thermal pool that warned people against putting their heads inside the water of a thermal pool in order not to catch Amoebic Meningitis. Curious, I went to google the condition and scared myself SILLY. It was documented on the internet that the amoeba (which lives in hot springs) first colonises the nose and through the nose, it colonises the brain... and travels to the brain stem and there it begins to EAT the brain. Apparently, it's fatal. The amoeba liquefies your brain. It literally turns your brain to mush. We had visited 2 thermal springs. I stood there with the Sword of Damocles over my head, wondering if there were amoebae in The Husband's nose.

I didn't tell anyone my fears for 2 days. Then, the stress was too much to bear. I told everyone and freaked them all out. Poor Little Boy was VERY insistent that his father go and see a proper doctor. A little bit of Google is a scary thing.

Since The Husband couldn't breathe, he couldn't sleep. He lay next to me and emitted all sorts of hissing, puffing, gurgling and bubbling sounds. He sounded like a noisy toilet bowl trying to clear its own choke. I too woke up. Over two nights, I spent 3 hours administering pine essential oil and tea tree oil. I did it with great gusto (believing the enemy to be a species of brain eating amoeba). The Daughter called a helpline which advised that we call an ambulance and admit him to Emergency. However, the nearest hospital was 1 hour away... so we decided to wait till dawn before we drove that 1 hour to the hospital. By that time, the pine essential oil and the tea tree oil had done their job.

We went to see a doctor anyway because Little Boy was most insistent.

The worst thing was that we didn't SAVE money. We spent MORE than we had thought we would. Now THAT makes me really sore. We got the most expensive RV available for 4 people because we had intended to do freedom camping. However, I was just so grossed out by the dirty toilets in the freedom camps that The Husband decided to let us camp quite often at Full Service Campsites with showers, toilets and kitchens. It's like paying for accommodation twice.

I'm so going back to cottage style travelling.

Nonetheless, out of the ashes of this experience rose a resplendent phoenix of joy and hope. Our little family really bonded. The experience allowed us to see the mettle of both our children. Both Little Boy and The Daughter were strong under pressure. I have good kids.

No... I have GREAT kids!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Waipara Sleeper Camp Grounds

The Kitchen

Old Forgotten Bicycle

Chess Pieces

An Ancient Boiler

This was the cheapest campsite at $35 a night for 4 people. Most things here look like they've been DIY-ed. Everything, starting with the rusted train carriages (made over into charming bedrooms for those who travel in cars instead of RVs) look run down and worn. Tables have wood peeling off them. The toilet showers are mismatched. The formica countertop looks like it was recycled from somewhere else. The stove... I remember that stove from the French countryside 30 years ago. It was already old when I was young.

Yet, this place is absolutely charming. There are hedges of rosemary growing gustily, and left somewhat unpruned. A hot water dispenser that is at least 40 years old hangs over the kitchen sink, still doing its job. The train carriages look rusted and old. A rusted bicycle without pedals lean on the side of one train carriage. Giant chess pieces sit in one corner of the garden on old tiles.

The showers are hot though. The kitchen is clean. The tables and chairs are an eclectic mix of rejects from people who don't want them? A loaf of bread sits on the kitchen counter and all are encouraged to slice some off to eat. The lawn is trim and there are NO sand flies! This place has my thumbs up.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lavendyl Lavender Farm, Kaikoura

Kaikoura is along the eastern side of New Zealand's South Island. It is well known for its Swim With Wild Dolphins Tours. We found a hidden gem here though. It was a lavender farm run by Jan and Corry Zeestraten (a husband and wife team). They do it all... from tending the lavender plants, to designing the gardens, to distilling the lavender oil in their own oil distillery. They make their own lavender ice cream too.

We explored the garden with oohs and aahs. It looked like it had leapt out of the pages of a stately Georgian novel. There were benches that beckoned you to sit down. Turning a corner or ducking under a branch, you would come across little touches of humour or elegance. There was a little wooden mask leaning against a tree. There was a petanque set neatly arraigned along a stone path. A burst of red roses burst out at you from behind the neat rows of lavender coloured a gentle purple. The whole garden was filled with the heady smell of lavender oil.

An Inviting Bench

A Row of Trees

Lavender Coloured Coffee Corner

Lavender and Rosemary Muscle Ache Cream

I went berserk in the shop. Every single product was packed with a powerful lavender punch. We walked out with bottles of shampoo, jars of muscle ache cream, bottles of massage oil, spritz bottles of lavender water for spritzing the air, and pots of lavender honey. The Daughter asked me if I intended to buy the whole shop.

We tried the lavender ice cream and lavender tea in the tiny cafe right next door. I had never tried lavender ice cream before. This was so very very good that I think I shall try to make lavender ice cream when I get home.

Seals by the Roadside

The road to Christchurch from Picton borders the coast at some parts. The open ocean stretches towards infinity, with the horizon shaded in misty colors of blue, grey and white. Then Little Boy squealed, "There is a seal on that rock!"

And so there was.

It was raining a fine mist so we decided to come back the next day. I'm so glad we did. We spent the better part of an hour just lookng at Mommies frolicking in the water with their pups. Grandpa seals basked in the luminous light. Their coats are well camouflaged against the smooth rocks worn down by centuries of waves crashing upon the shore. We almost tripped over the one above and it was too lazy to move.

It was very very exciting. We had never been this close to a wild seal before.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Waterways Boating Safaris, Queen Charlotte's Sound

The children really had fun today. Gu niang Petunia just hung on for dear life. The Daughter and Little Boy drove their own motorboat. The Husband and I took another. We took a tour from HERE. 3 boats (i.e., 6 people) went out today together with the leader's boat. 

It was massive fun.

The mussel industry is a NZ$200,000,000 million industry that operates from Picton. Queen Charlotte's Sound has the pristine waters needed to grow HUGE and FAT mussels for sale all over the world. Seriously... the mussels here are HUMONGOUS. People who stay around here throw away the blue mussels that people like me pay to eat in Singapore. They deign only to eat the sweeter and much more meaty green mussels. We drove around to a few mussel farms and heard a lecture on how they are farmed... how people apply for resource concessions from the government to use the water for mussel farms.

We stopped by at a deserted beach for lunch and a local wild bird came by and ate from our hands.

The children made their own fun by zig zagging the boat on the waves. If you ride against the waves, your boat hops up and down on the water. It's something of a joy ride, which I don't really fancy but young people have plenty of adrenaline to spare.

Ohhhhh... to be that young again!

The Daughter piloting her motorboat with Little Boy standing up enjoying the boat hopping on the waves.

A weka bird coming by to beg for scraps.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Freedom Camping VS Holiday Parks

Freedom Campsites
These sites are free.

As such, they are very popular with young Europeans who drive up in a car, unload tents and sleep on the ground. There are toilets but these often are huge plastic boxes with a toilet seat. You look into the toilet bowl and see a pool of blue disinfectant... and of course errr... excrement passed by other people. There are no showers, no kitchens, no plug-in electricity. In both the freedom campsites we went to, there was a river with sparkling clear water to boil and drink. If you're not afraid of the cold, you can swim in there to freshen up. Just don't use soap. The views at freedom campsites are stunning.

With a self-sustained vehicle (i.e., one with its own toilet, excrement tank and grey water tank) it is quite comfortable to spend the night in a freedom campsite. It's also easy on the wallet.

Holiday Parks
The 4 star holiday parks (i.e., paid campsites) usually charge $20 per person. You get access to communal kitchens, showers and toilets. These are spotlessly clean in the 4 star sites... and there may be other fun stuff such as a trampoline, a swimming pool, a thermal pool. One even had an aviary. Another had a glow worm cave, warm muffins on arrival and lamb feeding. We've been camping at these sites every other night because they allow us to plug in and recharge the battery that powers the lights. We also get access to water supply to fill up our 120 liters water tank. There are washers and dryers for laundry too.

There'll also be a waste water and excrement dump for campers with self-sustained vehicles to offload all the icky stuff.

Self-sustained vehicles rental don't come cheap - about $4000 to $6000 for a 4 person.

Another option is to rent a car and then pay for the cabins in the holiday park. These also have beds and then you share the cooking facilities. There are also lodges with private cooking facilities.

RVs are only cheaper if one does a fair bit of freedom camping. I'm not keen on freedom camping because I dislike showering inside the RV. The Husband, to indulge his wife's fanatical need for cleanliness (laundry has to be done every other day and showers to be taken every day) has very kindly booked us into paid campsites quite often.

We met another family which spent 2 out of 18 nights in paid campsites. They did freedom camping every other night, subsisting on water from the free water top-up stations, and daily driving to recharge batteries.

Oven and Sink at Smith's Farm Holiday Park

Fridge and Microwave at Smith's Farm Holiday Park

Dining Area

Laundry Room


Midges and Sandflies
We've learnt to keep the insect screens of the RV down shortly before dusk. The first night, midges came in and flew around our lights. They don't bite but when they die the next morning, they litter the insides of the RV.

Sandflies, however, do bite. Like mosquitoes, they all come for me and mostly leave the others alone. Their bites are a lot worse than mosquito bites. They itch horribly for days and days! I've got them all down my legs. Sandflies reproduce in areas of running water, laying their eggs on leaves and stones. The female sandflies used to feed on seals and other mammals before humans came along. Now they make a meal of us.

We learnt to eat inside the RV at dawn and dusk because these nasties love to bite at those times.

Rewards of Camping
There are definite rewards to camping out. It is a near magical experience to wake up to stunning views in the morning, of crystal clear waters and sunlight shimmering on the leaves of the trees. The birds sing in the morning too. Along hidden pathways bordering the campsites there are magical corners that let you pretend you're in Rivendell (the home of the elves in The Lord of the Rings).

In early December, the temperatures range between 12 degrees celsius to 25 degrees celsius. These are very comfortable temperatures and it's wonderful to wake up and breathe in clean and pure air.

Hidden corner of the Whakapapa Holiday Park at Tongariro, resplendent in the evening sun. 
Just the place for dinner. 

Clear waters of the mountain river beside the freedom campsite at Reid's Farm, Huka Falls.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Self -Contained Vehicle

The Kitchen

The Dining

The Excrement Tank

Clearing Waste From the RV Into the Sewage System

The Pipe from the Waste Tank

When I embarked on this camping adventure, it didn't occur to me that I would have to clear emmmm... night soil from the RV. It didn't turn out too bad though. The camping infrastructure in New Zealand is beyond world class. I think New Zealand sets the standard for camping facilities. There are waste disposal stations and water top ups everywhere. I am very impressed by the civic mindedness of the Australian, French, German and local campers. Every facility that we have been to has been spotlessly clean. Everyone cleans up after themselves and disposes of waste responsibly. In a communal kitchen at a Full Service camp site, I took over a table from a German man, to prepare dinner. He came back with a cloth to clean up one tiny smudge of a spot that he had left behind. In contrast, a Singaporean family had their lunch on an adjacent table. They left crumbs and bits of tuna behind. I was embarrassed so I mopped their table too before I left the communal kitchen.

We're getting certain procedures in place quite nicely. Shoes are taken off outside the RV and bagged before we all climb inside. Everyone using the RV toilet has to wipe down with an antiseptic wipe. The space constraints are such that to be liveable, everyone must maintain very high standards 0f communal hygiene. Else, the RV fills up with dust in just a few hours and blades of grass get onto the bed.

I threw a hissy fit at the end of Day 2 about hygiene.

After a tense family discussion, we figured our way out. Every day, Little Boy mops the floor before he sleeps. The Daughter navigates and plans the itinerary. The Husband drives. I dictate procedures such as How To Use the RV Toilet-cum-Shower Responsibly, and How To Shake Out Dust From All the Duvets Everyday. Everyone pitches in to cook whilst I plan the menus and the groceries lists. If I am too ill, we look for a restaurant.

Everyone is happy to be living in a clean space again (though small).

You. Don't. Wash. Your. Dishes. In. The. River.

We went to a free campsite the first night (i.e., no communal showers nor kitchens nor barbecues). It had nothing but a Long Drop toilet (i.e., a toilet bowl with no water closet... you look down into a deep pit where everyone else's shit has dropped a long way down).  Ok... I was grossed out too (which contributed to my hissy fit)... but well...  I had made the dubious choice of camping, and so I guess I have to make the best of it.

We woke up the next morning to the magnificent sight above. It seemed like sacrilege to wash anything in that pristine river. What would our dish soap do to the fishes swimming in the clear water? How would it affect the black swans gliding placidly along the glassy waters? So, we took our waste water and emptied it into the sewage system.

I'm not sure I've made an entirely bad decision to do this camping thing. It does have its rewards. I guess I need to get used to it. It can be quite pleasant especially since The Daughter and Little Boy pull more than their weight.

They LOVE this camping business. All the hard manual labour doesn't faze them at all. They enjoy every bit of the hard work.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hobbiton, at Mata Mata New Zealand

A Hobbit's Sunday Brunch

Steps Towards Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit Hole at Bag End

The Very Unfriendly Note on the Gate

Samwise Gamgee's Hobbit Hole

Fishing in Hobbiton

The Veggie Patch

The Mill

The Mill

It wasn't something I expected because I didn't plan the trip. Also, I had understood that the film sets had been taken down after the movies had been made. It turns out that they had only been taken down after The Lord of the Rings. The movie sets constructed for The Hobbit have been preserved because the owner of the farm negotiated to have the sets stay permanently.

The place is actually a 500 hectares working sheep and cattle farm. It now runs Hobbiton tours as a side business - a very profitable side business. This is really what is meant by Reality is a Social Construction. Hobbits don't exist. They have no real existence. Yet, because everyone knows what hobbits are, real money rolls into Ian Alexander's farm by the truck loads. Whether hobbits exist or not is beside the point. It's what people believe.

It was a magical morning.