A Travellerspoint blog

January 2016

Caravan Diaries: Pt V

To Karamea and back

Westport strikes me as a town at the end of the line (this is not necessarily a bad thing). You drive over the Buller River and up its long main street, to find that it terminates at the edge of the river. In ways I can't describe, the town also has an end of the line vibe. Kaitaia feels the same to me. But it is not the end of the line: by turning right half way up its main street, there is more - 100 km of gloriously wild coastline, coal mines, country music museums, pizza parlours in cowsheds and historic sites before you get to Karamea. Even then, for the determined, there is more: a multi day walk over the Heaphy Track will see you emerge near Golden Bay.
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I spent a couple of days north of Westport, parked up in a holiday park in Seddonville, a tiny settlement named in honour of former PM Richard ("King Dick") Seddon: I don't think he had any connection to the town, although he adopted the Coast as his home when he arrived in New Zealand (and was Mayor of Kumara). Seddonville was a mining town, and as far north as the West Coast railway line came - it sits just across the Mokihinui River from the Karamea Bluff, which is a major obstacle for trains. The camping ground is very low key, in the former school with check in at the local pub. There were just an older couple - who come every year for the fishing (the man grew up here and went to school in the very building used for the camp facilities) - a family in some tents, and a group of indeterminate size in a large converted bus.
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There are actually three camping grounds in this area - the Mokihinui Domain ground is on the southern side of the rivermouth and the Gentle Annie is to the north. The former didn't look very appealing and I found my place before I drove in to the Gentle Annie - a busy park in a beautiful spot.
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It is here I found the pizza place in the cowshed: the people who ran the farm found that a lot of people wanted to stay, so they turned over some land to camping, and that business grew to the point it was better to stop the dairying and provide some food. After a few years, they contracted out the food side of the business, which led to an odd system of payment. You can pay for camping with a credit card, but for food it is either cash or direct payment from your bank account to theirs: they watched me as I made the transfer on my phone. Pizza range was pretty limited, but I enjoyed the Margherita.
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I could not be this close and not carry on to Karamea: as I drove over the Bluff, I was so glad I was not towing a caravan - it is about 30 km of curls, first up, then down. Karamea itself is pretty small, and very quiet on a summer Sunday afternoon. I sat outside the shop with an ice cream, amused by the young guy who parked his bike beside me, engaged in an elaborate ritual of locking up his bike, went across to the shop aver the road and was back to unlock his bike before I'd finished my ice cream. The only people around were a few locals coming in for beers, and tourists in campervans after ice cream: no security risk. After a nosey around town and a quiet ale in the Karamea Village Hotel ("Best Country Hotel 2011" according to Hospitality New Zealand), there was no real reason to stay.
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Beach @ Karamea


South of Seddonville is much more interesting. I stopped in Granity several times - initially to have a quiet ale at the pub. My only companion seemed to have a certain hostility to outsiders coupled with a need to talk - his sole conversational gambit was an attempt to tell me my caravan lights were on, dismissing any suggestion by me that they were not on the basis that he knew better. I drank up quickly and went out the back to the rather good Tommy Knocker cafe, which faces the beach.
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It has only been open since Labour Day, but is by far the best source of rogan josh pies on the West Coast, has good coffee and, at least on the Sunday after Christmas, was doing a roaring trade. I was past several times and stopped in, but when Drifters, the original Granity cafe, re-opened after the break I went in out of curiosity. I remembered it as this ramshackle place, with furniture which was a mixture of the hand-made and whatever someone wanted to get rid of - in other words, quite cosey. Now, it looks like any other cafe with corrugated iron bar facing and proper tables and chairs.

Just up from Granity is Hector. On my first pass through, I saw a sign for the Hector Country Music Heritage Museum, but the first couple of times I checked, it was closed. Finally, about a week into the New Year (I was back in the area) I had my chance. It doesn't reveal its secrets from the outside
Hector Country Music Heritage Museum

Hector Country Music Heritage Museum


but the place is jam-packed - some memorabilia, a homage to Dunedin band the Tumbleweeds (who had the best selling single in New Zealand for a couple of decades with their version of Maple on the Hill), a few Indian-American artefacts (why not?) but the bulk of the collection was music and signed photos of country music artists. The fellow who runs the place, another Barry, was keen to chat, told me of the difficulties of having modern artists provide photos without payment and of having people want him to make recordings from the collection without payment. The collection is impressive.
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The big thing on the coast is, of course, mining. The Denniston mine has tours, but they were not operating the days I was there. The Stockton mine is still producing coal, and very much closed to the public, with a big security fence several kilometres from the mine. All I could see were the gantries constructed above the railway line so that coal can be poured into carriages.
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The best I could do was wander around the old Millerton mine, which closed in the 1960's. There are still a few houses scattered about but the equipment and buildings from the mine have been taken away, leaving behind just a few (significant) signs of activity.
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This is a grand part of the world in which to hang out, but I had bookings elsewhere, so it was time to cross back over the Buller River and head north.
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Posted by NZBarry 12:51 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Caravan Diaries: Pt IV

Christmas in Punakaiki

Having an accidental day in Westport had its advantages. I could stock up for Christmas in the supermarket. I could buy hardware to make repairs to my caravan (window flapping open) in Mitre 10, then go back to buy Christmas lights with which to adorn the caravan. Most importantly, I could visit what is probably the best cafe on the West Coast - Westport is sadly depleted in terms of cafes, but the Bayhouse at Tauranga Bay is still going strong. After a quick look at Carter's Beach
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I made my way there and had my first taste of Punakaiki Pilsner, which is made in Westport and has apparently won awards, although I have not been able to identify which one(s) - my source at the Punakaiki pub could only say it was something to do with a wine and food thing. It is very tasty, with a touch more hop than the traditional pilsner. I couldn't just drink beer, so also had a chowder, as I (correctly) thought they'd know their way around seafood.
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Bayhouse Cafe

Tauranga Bay

Tauranga Bay

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Another cafe worth knowing about in this area is the one at Charleston, about 25 km south of Westport, which is attached to the Adventure Underground Tours - I was in here 3 or 4 times as I drove up and down this stretch of road: it is in a cool building.
Underworld Adventures Cafe

Underworld Adventures Cafe

I spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and quite a bit of Boxing Day in Punakaiki, without much of a plan. I looked at the beach behind the camping ground, several times.
Punakaiki Beach

Punakaiki Beach

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I have decided that living one's life according to a few rules helps provide shape and certainty to life and came up with one rule for living while in Punakaiki: every time in my life that circumstance takes me through Punakaiki, I am to stop in at the pub and have a Punakaiki pilsner (you have to start somewhere when setting up rules for life). It is a good, casual pub, right beside the camping ground, so I popped in each day I was there.

Of course, I went down to look at the Pancake Rocks - this was on Christmas Day. The cafe there was open, but its prices are high and augmented by a holiday surcharge, so I just had a coffee while I enjoyed access to cellphone coverage and went for a wander on the rocks.
Pancake Rocks @ Punakaiki

Pancake Rocks @ Punakaiki

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I didn't feel very Christmassy or energetic, so spent the day reading Michel Houellebecq's Submission and watching The Bridge. I took a late afternoon walk around the camp and its environs before droving up to Bullock Creek. It was dry and very stony - I tried driving along the creek bed a bit, but the stones became too big for comfort. Christmas dinner was not much - chips in the pub followed by a toasted sandwich (it did have ham in it, as a nod to the Christmas tradition). One thing I noticed about the camp was that although it was very busy, all but about three hardy souls in caravans were in campervans.
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Bullock Creek

Next day, I was feeling like doing more - I'd walked about 7 km before I'd even had a cup of tea. This was a walk up the Porarari River. It has a well formed track which takes you in to Cave Creek (it also loops around and ends up at the Pancake Rocks). There were a few people out walking and a couple of runners but very peaceful - the main interruption was from people talking to each other in canoes on the river. For the most part, they were obscured by bushes, but when I did get to see people canoeing, I started to think it looked so peaceful on the water that I wouldn't mind having a go. One day.
Porarari River

Porarari River

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The track comes out into an area where the trees have been felled but there has been regrowth so it looks kind of chaotic, in a good way. The swing bridge takes you to the Bullock Track Creek, so I expect you could walk out that way as well. I was quite happy to retrace my steps, have a quiet beer and some lunch, then hit the road.
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The coast between Greymouth and Westport is pretty spectacular - but better is to come!
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I never did get my Christmas lights on my caravan.

Posted by NZBarry 02:38 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Caravan Diaries: Pt III

Greymouth - Punakaiki

Greymouth. It is a town with a varied reputation. Not everyone likes it. I do. I've made at least four prior visits, have managed to spend an entire day making a very slow visit to the supermarket, have done a stint for a couple of hours on the radio there due to a chance meeting with a guy in the hostel and have just enjoyed meandering around. Steve Braunias likes it. In Fool's Paradise (which I happened to be reading while I was there) he says he likes it for its smell of coal and the hardiness of its people (he tells a story of a bloke who, back before the floodbanks were built) canoed into the local pub to buy a drink as if there was nothing untoward with the streets being a couple of feet deep in water). He writes of his arrival on the train:

The high riverbank cliffs give way suddenly, and there's the flat town, slinking towards the treacherous bar and the white, foaming Tasman Sea... Greymouth is worth a good, long gawk. It feels like the most forgotten town in New Zealand. There are other places more far flung, isolated, amputated. None exists with such independence or strength of character... In the town, attractions include the ABC Quick Lunch Cafe which at this time of year serves excellent whitebait sandwiches on white bread for $5.50. The only printing press in New Zealand that is visible from the street whizzes out copies of the Greymouth Evening Star behind glass....

The Star is still there, still being printed behind windows - I was able to watch it as an edition was being printed. Sadly, the ABC Quick Lunch is no more: the entire building in which it was located was due for demolition, has probably now been demolished, with no clear vision for what will take its place. I did find three cafes I liked to hang out in. The DP1 Cafe has been there as long as I have been visiting Greymouth, undergoing several transformations - I can remember it being a surprisingly alternative place and quite busy. It has taken on quite a retro identity these days, featuring kitchen tables exactly like the one my parents had when I was a kid, but unfortunately not featuring any customers.
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The Gap Cafe is the local winner in the Restaurant Association's best cafe competition: aesthetically, it could be anywhere but it served up a good coffee and decent food, so I was happy to pay a couple of visits. It was Freddy's, however, which became my favourite: I think there is something special about upstairs cafes accessed by nice wooden staircases, and by my second visit, I was recognised as a regular ( perhaps because I demanded that they put my coffee in a much smaller cup than their norm). In the several days I was in or around Greymouth, I would have been in 4 or 5 times.
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I visited the local museum (or history house) - which told the story of Greymouth according to a number of themes, such as gold, flooding, local identities and the 43 or so ships which had come to grief trying to get into the quays at Greymouth. In about 1867, there was more trade in Greymouth and goods passing through its port than anywhere else in New Zealand. The history house had real depth - in addition to the normal collections of artefacts and photos. the people who run it had put together hundreds of folders of information - it would have been easy to spend a week reading through it all.
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Although a breakwater has been built to make shipping easier, the waters at its end are still wild, and people still come to grief - most recently when the Lady Anna had problems getting across the bar in 2013, leading to the death of one of the crew. I went out a couple of times - I think that if I lived here (it is one of my possible retirement plans), I'd come out to the end of the breakwater every day, just to see what was going on and to enjoy nature.
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On one of my visits, a couple of guys had set off on surfboards from the beach in the last photo, but in the time I was there, they were so pushed back by the waves that they were closer to the shore when I left than when I arrived: I doubt that they ever got out far enough that day to actually get up on their boards.

Greymouth also has a grand old theatre, so I had to watch a movie there. Most offerings were for kids, but Freeheld stars Ellen Page and Julianne Moor, making it worth a punt. Unfortunately, it was not screened in the main theatre, just a small room off to the side, but I enjoyed the movie - it was based on a true story in which a cop battled county officials to allow her pension to be paid to her (female) partner: the county resisted because they were not (and could not be) married. While in the theatre, I noticed publicity for a forthcoming event which made me revise my plans so that I could return to Greymouth before heading home.

My plan was to spend a couple of days over Christmas at Punakaiki, but (as Jimmy in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin might have said) there was a bit of a cock up on the booking front - after checking out of the Moana Holiday Park, I had a spare night before I was due in Punakaiki which I had filled by booking in at Westport - which meant I had to go north of Punakaiki for a night and then backtrack 50 km. At least that part of the coastline is truly fabulous. Here it is going north out of Greymouth:
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Oh, and this is what my caravan looks like on the inside (at least, this is what it looked like when I bought it):
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Posted by NZBarry 03:23 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

Caravan Diaries: Pt II

Home - Lake Brunner

After buying my caravan, I heard so many stories I was nearly put off, thinking I'd be better off if I bought one of those tiny houses made from a shipping container and put it on the back of a truck (staying home was never an option). The people selling the caravan in Balclutha told me they were on their way to the summer vacation spot when the front window blew in and the back window blew out. Useful if you want a wind tunnel, I guess. Then I saw a news article about a caravan which was caught in the wind, and had its walls blown out, so the roof collapsed on to the floor - a very elaborate, one-time mouse trap? Of course, there were the usual stories of punctures, speed wobbles, angry motorists, bearings collapsing and the like but a bloke I met in Christchurch possibly had the best tale. He set off from new Plymouth, taking his father's pride and joy, a recently acquired caravan to Taihape. He was not the most observant of chaps but did manage to get all the way to Taihape, when he finally noticed that he was no longer towing a caravan: it had gone over a bank somewhere along the line. Not long afterwards, he noticed he had an unamused father. I myself had a mishap before I had even taken delivery of my caravan. I had bought a towbar, which Toll brought down from Christchurch. We're talking a half inch thick steel bar, which gets attached to the Jeep's chassis with the ability to tow 2.5 tons of caravan. Somehow, Toll managed to smash it in transit, so my mechanic had to hurriedly find a replacement.

Still, I couldn't let myself be put off by these stories and a week before Christmas, I set off. Unusually, I was pretty much on top of everything at work and home so there was no mad panic to finish anything first. I had to get my car stereo installed in my Jeep, and that led to me losing my phone necessitating an urgent temporary replacement (one beauty of Windows phones is that they allow you to restore everything from a lost phone to a replacement), but that was it. I had a quiet drink in town and attended an awful Christmas party - knew no-one except the person who took me and was cornered by someone who shared way too much information about herself, punctuated by the statement "but you don't care", then quit town earliesh on the Saturday.

I made my customary stops for coffee - Tees Street in Oamaru and Verde in Geraldine - and although I was going on a caravvaning holiday, spent the first night in the YHA in Springfield, just because I'd seen photos of its library. What the photos didn't make clear was that the books were mainly in Japanese. No matter, I had quite a swag with me. It was a very pleasant, very quiet night.

Another memory of the caravan trip I had with my family when I was a young boy is of the fear we had that whatever car my parents had would not make it over Arthur's Pass. Not sure why, because from the East the pass is very easy - there is barely a climb. Another fear I have developed in the meantime is that the provisions in the cafe there are over-priced nastiness: not so. I was impressed with both the coffee and the chips I bought. Of course, going down the other side through to Otira is a different story - there's quite a gradient (as a bus driver has recently tested, with unfortunate results for his passengers).

At Jacksons, if you turn right you'll wander along a bit through a mixture of scruffy land and developed farms and be at Lake Brunner, a 40 square kilometer lake surrounded on most sides by bush and frequently moodlit with mist. It is one of my favourite lakes - I'm pretty sure my first notice of it was when I came over by train and we stopped briefly at Moana.
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I've been back a number of times - for a barbecue on the jetty (where the yacht club guys were very clear about me not having permission to sleep), to visit the formerly well-regarded Stationhouse cafe and to stay in the hotel. This time I'm staying in the caravan park for three nights: on my first night, it was deserted, apart from a number of permanently sited caravans, only one of which was occupied (by a woman baking a delicious smelling cauliflower pie). Moana itself is on the move - a lot of new homes have been built here, as well as a sort of resort, since I last visited. The cafe and pub are still going strong and despite its rationalisation, even the train still stops.
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I didn't really do very much here - wandered the lake front, visited the cafe and the pub (way too busy and full of over-friendly drunk people for my taste), assembled my new bicycle in the TV room, and made day visits to Hokitika and Greymouth. In the former, I checked out an excellent photography exhibition in the art gallery - all of local scenes, my favourite was an evening shot of the jetty in Okarito - and went up to the airport (not sure why - there were no flights in the middle of the day and the place was closed). I liked the look of this building up there
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and took a particularly lazy shot of the de Havilland Fox Moth which is behind glass there.
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This is an important aircraft, as it was used for New Zealand's first licensed passenger airservice (there were earlier unlicensed services), from Hokitika to Haast on 18 December 1934. Naturally, I checked out the library and then went to the 6:00 showing of the Star Wars movie - very impressed with Rey, but the story was hardly new. Nice to see it in a classic cinema.
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Near Moana, there's an intriguing sign saying "Miniature Bungalow" which I passed several times before I went up the little side road to explore. Back in 1935, the teacher at the Jack's Mill School thought that kids aged 10-12 should get a practical education, so he had them build a house. A full size one was probably beyond what they could do, so they built a smaller version, still quite a bit bigger than what I expected from a miniature: it is actually 3/4 size. Apparently the teacher tried to get this adopted as a programme throughout New Zealand, but this is the only one built.
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I happened to be there when the (I think) grand-daughter of the owner of the mill which provided the timber for the house was there, showing some of her friends around, but didn't learn much more from her than was on the notices onsite.

Back on the main road into Greymouth, there's a wee town called Dobson - the pub looks like it closed fairly recently, but it looks like the mechanic hasn't turned up to work for a while.
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Posted by NZBarry 03:46 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Caravan Diaries: Pt I

The acquisition

I am not exactly sure what my inspiration was for buying a caravan. When I think back to my childhood, I can't think of anyone who had a caravan. Even through my adulthood, I've never really known people with caravans. Sure, when I was 8 or 9, my parents rented a tiny silver version and we did the sort of trip all of the Destination Experts on Tripadvisor would say was mad. Two parents and four kids (I was the oldest) in something that was probably no more than 14 foot long, from the top of the north to the far south in just a few days of long driving. My only distinct memory of that trip plays no part in my acquisition: being rolled up in a tarpaulin and sleeping outside on a very cold night in Greymouth. I don't see this journey as creating a thirst for buying a caravan.

If there was any particular cause, it was probably a very slow evolution from my first visit to Takaka, many years ago. I had gone across by bus and stayed in a backpackers, but was very envious of the freedom of those who had vans - they could go anywhere and sleep where they liked (this was well before the days of restrictions on freedom camping). So, I bought a van, not a campervan, just a van, an old Ford Econovan with a couple of caravan squabs in the back. I called him Webster and, yes, we went to Takaka one summer and explored many places and I slept whenever and wherever the need arose. He and I saw most of the country together but our ways parted under unfortunate circumstances some 8 years ago.

Apart from that childhood trip, I have only actually slept in a caravan twice. Once, I was doing a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney via Broken Hill and came across a town called Bogan: it seemed curiously appropriate to go to the camping ground and hire one of the static caravans they had onsite for the night. Then when I returned from a year away, in 2015, I did the same in the Takapuna Beach Motor Camp. Having been out of the country for a year, I had a wee plan to spend this summer doing a roadtrip around my own country and thoughts turned to a suitable vehicle. I wanted more comfort than an old van would provide, and was very tempted by the idea of a campervan. It is hard, however, to get a cheap one with a high enough ceiling to allow me to stand up. In addition, it would mean that every time I wanted to move, I'd need to pack up - bugger that! Thus was born the idea of getting a caravan.

This created a condundrum slightly easier to resolve than the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first: ought I buy a caravan and then the vehicle with which to tow it or would doing things the other way round be better. Obviously having a tow vehicle would make the purchase of a caravan easier, while the reverse was not true. Cheap caravans are necessarily old caravans and old caravans are necessarily heavy caravans, so I needed something with grunt. I looked briefly at utes and my brothers have Toyota Surfs and Nissan Terranos, but my selection process took me to a choice between a Land Rover Discovery or a Jeep Cherokee: the latter struck me as more reliable and easier to fix than the former, so a Jeep Cherokee it was. Hardly any came up in my home town of Dunedin, and only a handful in the South Island. Those that did were noticeably pricier than North Island Jeeps. Finally, 2 days before my birthday and just before I had to go back to teaching, I found the one I wanted - in Kerikeri. You can't get much further from home than there and still be in New Zealand. After a bit of anxiety, because the seller claimed to have "stuffed up" in accepting an offer I had made, he finally on the Thursday morning agreed. I had to arrange a last minute flight to Auckland (luckily most of the demand was by students returning to Dunedin so it was still quite cheap) and then a bus to Kerikeri to meet my vendor and take delivery. He was surprised that I would take the Jeep in whatever condition (I was equally surprised to find my supposed tow vehicle had no tow bar) but a deal's a deal: I transferred the money to him and set off: my first destination was the first of many petrol stations.
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Kerikeri is not far from where I spent my teens, so I took a memorial drive out the gravel roads to my family's former farm. On the way, I learnt the hard way that the Jeep doesn't much like gravel roads: we ended up exiting one corner sideways. Not a good start. This is the house I lived in (and a piece of the farm I lived on) from about the age of 11 until I went to University: my parents actually moved the very day I started there.
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I went to the local school for 5 years, so decided to see how the old place is looking: a few expansions but otherwise, much the same. My Form 1 year was spent in the second classroom from the right. The town itself had lost a couple of shops (it never had many to start with), but it was good to see it had retained its butchery and that the local service station seemed to have developed a pretty useful general store.
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Now for the caravan. I spent a couple of months at least looking on trademe and had up to around 30 caravans bookmarked. I only really had two requirements - it was not to be grotty and it was to have a permanent bed with a separate table. I looked at one near Balclutha but it tended towards the grotty, and had all its air vents sealed up with sticky tape to prevent flies getting in: removing them was imperative but would leave unsightly marks and cause difficulties if I wanted to paint it. Then the perfect caravan came up just over the hill from my house - a mid-70's Zephyr (made right in Dunedin by Modern Caravans) which had its beds stripped out and replaced with a proper bed at one end and a wee cafe style table at the other, with 1970's "leather" and timber kitchen chairs. This caravan had a bit of a sad history: the owners had bought it, only to find that they had been lied to, and it needed serious work to replace rotten framing and the like. They set to and did all that work, it took a couple of years, but before they even spent one night in it, their employer transferred them to Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, I bargained them down on the price and the deal was done: I had a caravan!
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My first trip in it was just an overnighter, down to the top of the Catlins near Owaka the weekend after I took possession. Of course, I had to get a few bits and pieces for it, and about 10:00 p.m. I was working out what I needed when an ad for Briscoes (who else, right?) came on, saying they were open till midnight. So, I went in to get some sheets and a duvet but somehow came out with more than $400 worth of stuff - caravanning is evidently an expensive hobby. The trip to Owaka was uneventful - the caravan is heavy so my speed was reduced somewhat but it tows well and rarely wobbled. The plan had been to stay at the old hospital there but it was closed, which gave me my first learning experience. I tried to back around into a sidestreet, but the caravan brakes locked on so fiercely when I started to reverse that all 4 wheels on the Jeep were skidding uselessly. I had to belt the handbrake with a bit of wood to make the brakes release, and there was no way my caravan was going to allow any reversing. Luckily, there was just enough room to do a U-turn and find another caravan park - the rather lovely Pounewa Motor Camp, which has cute cabins right on the water's edge.
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Luckily there were spaces I could just drive on to without having to reverse, but I couldn't have a caravan that would never go backwards so went on to the motoring forum on trademe to find out what the story was. It turns out that the braking system has the caravan slide up a shaft connected to the coupling, which is what it does when you try to reverse, but that there is a doohickey (I think the blokes on trademe called it a pawl) which can be deployed to stop this happening.
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Problem solved. I had a very nice day driving down the Catlins road as far as the Niagara cafe (leaving the caravan on the main street of Owaka) and back home again. My next trip was a bigger trial run: I had a conference in Christchurch, so stayed in the South Brighton Beach Caravan Park and then left the caravan in storage in Timaru to await further adventures.

Posted by NZBarry 23:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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