On Valentine’s Day we woke up from a night at a youth hostel for the second time in our marriage (the first time was night 1 of our honeymoon). That afternoon we picked up the motor home we rented for a 10-day RV trip through South Island, New Zealand. I know what you’re thinking, and yes- apparently we are trying to regain our youth. Or something.
Life in a motor home is nearly exactly as I imagined: a worthwhile adventure full of every day difficulties.
Ours is a full motor home with a stationary double bed in back, full (though small) bathroom, kitchenette with 3 gas burners, fridge, and small oven, table flanked by two comfortable bench seats, and a second double bed which elevates down from the ceiling. In many ways it’s perfect for a small family. We each have a comfortable place to sleep, access to a shower, and ability to cook virtually anything we want with more creative storage space for more necessities plus “Just in case’s” than we actually need. Add the fun factor that it doubles as your mode of transportation and I can easily see the appeal to make these mobile homes your permanent living space.
Except for one factor: What they boast in storage and amenities they lack in personal space. And when three people are virtually trapped in a metal box for hours upon hours on a long drive through terrible rain personal space becomes very important.
I was expecting a few personal bumps in our road, and I’m grateful that we only really had one. And I admit it was my fault.
We were sure to clearly designate each other’s storage spaces, what was allowed to be out vs. put away while driving, chores to keep the motor home as “homey” as possible, and general rules of civility when living in close proximity. We did really well with these rules, except once when Ben and I bumped egos around who was in charge of what.
About halfway through our trip we were stuck in a fun town with no immediate plans. It was like option paralysis; there was too much to do, so we planned nothing. I asked Ben to look into what he’d want to do, which included making reservations on a popular boat ride through the fjords, while I made lunch and Whit played at a playground. Ben went outside with Whit, but didn’t end up finalizing the boat reservations. After lunch Whit went back outside to play while I laid down (I suffer from intermittent insomnia, which meant virtually no sleep the first 3-4 days on our motor home). I kept mentioning that I’d like to complete one of the popular hikes in the area that afternoon, but Ben was stuck on his phone researching the boat. I decided to take care of our lunch dishes myself, a job that has always been Ben’s, despite being dog tired just so we could get on our way faster. Ben did not pick up on the fact that I was doing his job or the times I dropped, “Boy, I am soooooo tired.” He just kept on his phone until the tickets were bought and he happily announced, “Ok! Let’s finish the dishes!”
At that point all that was left was drying the last few, so I started to lose it. Let’s finish the dishes? They’re done, mate! How about some recognition and maybe a thank you? Or a reason why it took the last 2 hours to buy boat tickets? If I check your latest app usage will Reddit pop up?
It sounds so incredibly stupid as I write it out, but when flitting from one country to another, changing hotels every night for almost a week to a motor home, and driving all over a new place in a small space with almost no sleep the little things become very big. I felt like I’d been the one to run back to get things while Ben drove (hitting my head or hip against a random cabinet 50% of the time), I was the one helping Whit do schoolwork (which takes sooooooo much patience) on the road and yelling back and forth with him (it was too loud for normal volume) about robots whenever he felt bored, and a number of other small errands to keep the boys comfortable. But I wasn’t thinking about how bored Whit must be in the back seat as we were in the front engrossed in an audiobook or how taxing it was for Ben to be the sole driver on narrow, winding roads.
It was selfish of me not to realize that when you’re in close quarters there is no such thing as personal time or personal space. You share all resources, so everyone can get along.
Sacrifice. That’s the name of the motor home game.
We had a few other interesting experiences along our way, too. Here are a few:
Night of the Mosquito Massacre
Our third night we drove through baron darkness, in search of a suitable space to camp with phone service, until almost 9:00 pm. In an effort to make a u-turn Ben pulled into a grassy lot, not realizing the soft earth had absorbed a lot of the recent rain. It only took a moment for us to get stuck. In an internet- free area. 5 km from the ocean. I was annoyed that we were giving up the internet and not even getting a good view in return, but Ben felt terrible about the ill-timed turn so we all decided to make the most of it and settle in for the night.
Ben and I couldn’t sleep. We were both preoccupied with the work we’d been hoping to get done, feeling bored, and annoyed that the angle we’d been stuck on had us rolling into each other.
Then the buzzing started.
Once we both did start to drift off we were awakened by buzzing so loud that it sounded like we were in the middle of a vacuum cleaner. We tried in vain to brush off the bug messing with us and sleep with our heads under the sheet until Whit woke up complaining of buzzing around his head, too.
Great. There are TWO relentless bugs in the motor home?
At 2:00 am we were talking back and forth with Whit about some ideas to help him sleep. Could he sleep with a sheet over his head? What about wearing his headphones so the noise didn’t bother him so much?
Nothing worked, and I couldn’t blame him.
I finally suggested we turn on the lights and have a bug-killing party, to which Ben reluctantly agreed among Whit’s emphatic pleas.
When we got ourselves out of bed and turned on the lights at 2:30 am we were shocked to see not two but at least 100 mosquitoes swarming around the roof of our motor home. I let out a shriek, feeling completely overwhelmed at the sight in front of me.
As Ben checked every window and vent to see where the mosquitoes were coming from, I started raising my hand to kill bugs on the ceiling without even thinking. Whit, too short to be helpful, cheered me on as my hand turned black from bits of bug flesh.
A few minutes later I came to, realizing this was NOT a game of whack-a-mole but an honestly terrible situation, and started to retreat in panic. I washed off my hands and resigned myself to sweeping up the carcasses, shaking them out of my hair, bed sheets, and sHoes as the fell from the ceiling. I stayed crouched on the floor as Ben and Whit finished off the threat and used cleaning wipes to destroy all evidence of the massacre.
The battle took one hour.
Ben and Whit were able to fall asleep once the majority of mosquitoes had been taken care of, but my anxiety was heightened and I didn’t rest until 5 am.
At 10:30 am we all woke up, but our motor home stayed planted until the sun could dry up the mud pit around us. Ben and Whit put rocks and stones under the tires as I made a breakfast worthy of upstaging our bad luck – sausage, scrambled eggs, and toast with fresh New Zealand butter.
It took another 1.5 hours to get our motor home unstuck, which included many small maneuvers with the re-positioning of rocks and sticks, and one final push of reversing the motor home completely off the grass and turning it across both lanes of traffic. I stood in the road yelling at Ben when to drive and when to stop, prepared to either stop oncoming traffic around a blind curve or get hit by a car, but, miraculously, at the moment Ben whipped out of the grass and turned onto the street it was vacant just long enough for him to be safe and Whit and I to get inside.
We did reach a news level of contentedness as a family through the ordeal. “Sorry, the stress is making me gassy.” And ” I just want to warn everyone Im feeling a little sick and we’ll need to head to a public bathroom once we start moving. Actually… WHIT, get out of the bathroom now! You guys should put on some music because I get embarrassed.” Are things I’d been too Southern to say to my husband in 9 years of marriage.
As I sat in our small bathroom with the window open to the busy street and hearing the boys jump around to Walk The Moon’s Ghostbusters I couldn’t help but think, this is life. It’s a strange one, but a good one.
The Mama Bear of Hooker Valley
A Thousand Tiny Waterfalls
Another highly anticipated stop was Fiordland National Park. Fiordland, in the southwestern portion of the South Island, is a complex series of rivers carved by ancient glaciers. It’s home to two major tourist attractions which feature boat rides through the fjords, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. Milford Sound is easier to get to, the day’s boat ride doesn’t take as long, and it’s not as expensive, so naturally we chose Doubtful Sound. We’re almost always inclined to go the extra mile if an activity seems a bit more beautiful or less touristy. We heard that both were beautiful, but that Doubtful Sound was just a tad more “worth it” than Milford.
We spent 2 days in the area waiting for our ride. We woke up at 5:30 am to torrential rain, left the camp site by 6:00 am, arrived at the boat jetty by 7:00 am, made quick sandwiches to take for the day (because we were not going to pay $25/ person for a boxed lunch!), and boarded a small transport boat across a Manapouri Lake. We docked at the other end of the lake, took a 45-minute bus ride to Doubtful Sound, departed for a catamaran through the Sound, then back onto the bus and transport boat until making it back to our motor home at 2:00 pm.
The ride was not amazing.
In the brief moments of less (though not never) rain we could see beautiful views of steep mountains arising from the water, but those glimpses were few and far between. It was too rainy to leave the covered seats for a 360-degree view, and the rain too thick to get much of a view (had we been willing to get wet, anyway).
We made the most of the trip by hanging in the front with the captain and first mate, getting better views than those sitting in benches, and learning more about the Sound. Our captain felt bad about the high winds preventing us from entering the Tasman Sea (Sea between New Zealand and Australia), so he talked up the fact that the heavy rainfall had created thousands of brand new, opportunistic waterfalls down the steep mountain walls. Luckily Ben loves waterfalls and got a big thrill when the captain drove our boat so close to a few that the downpour covered the bow of the catamaran.
The photographer (and penny pincher) in me was disappointed with our trip, but the traveler realizes that you just can’t control some things. Weather is one of them.
My expectations for the landscape and adventure of South Island, New Zealand were pretty high. We chose to stay for the maximum 3 months allowed to citizens of the United States because not a single person we knew who has been ever said it was anything less than spectacular. They all say they wish they had more time.
Well, the poor weather, exhaustion from near-constant travel the last 2.5 months, and close space made the South Island less paradisaical than I’d hoped for. Until we reached Kahurangi National Park.
We had a flexible 10-day itinerary, but realized on day 7 that we’d unexpectedly sped it up (for fear of missing what we wanted to see) and had 2-3 days with nothing to do. I desperately wanted to see the national parks along the northern end of the South Island, but, at 9-12 hours away, it seemed like making a stop there on this road trip was too ambitious. Until Ben realized we had an extra 3 days with the motor home and no other boxes left unchecked.
So we headed north.
It took a full day (with minimal but interesting stops) to reach Abel Tasman National Park and then neighboring Kahurangi National Park, but the drive was incredible. The Golden Coast between the two parks is full of quintessential beach towns of family owned ice cream parlors and ocean-themed mail boxes with beautiful views of the ocean against tall mountains as you drive the winding roads up and down the coast.
I felt the drive, alone, was worth our northern excursion, but the real kicker met us that afternoon.
It was the place most often cited when someone in a travel Facebook group asked what one thing someone should see when visiting the South Island, and they were all right.
We drove 30 minutes into the park then took a gorgeous 30 minute tramp to the beach. The path wound around mountain foothills with views of meandering sheep and cows, and passed underneath tree tunnels and around blind turns leading to incredible views of diverse, lush landscape. I was newly stunned every 10 feet. I kept repeating “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.” as we passed through the diverse hike, oblivious to my family, weather, or bugs.
As if the hike, itself, weren’t enough (it would have been), it opened up to one of my favorite things on Earth: sand dunes. We played across acres of thick, soft sand dunes between the lush foothills and coastline, eventually leading to the famous views of giant rocks sitting at the edge of the water.
We spent a couple of hours at Wharariki Beach, but I wish we could have stayed all day. I wish we could have gone back the next day. I wish we could go every day!
There’s been a lot of competition for my Happy Place on our travels, but now it’s the sand dune opening of Wharariki Beach. When I close my eyes that’s the place I see. I feel like this one tramp was worth all of the rain, mosquitoes, frustrations, nights of lost sleep, and waiting to poop in public bathrooms we endured on our road trip.
Here’s what I’ll ultimately remember about our 10-day road trip through South Island New Zealand:
- How much I loved cooking every meal. It’s been months since I’ve had any sort of kitchen, and I took a lot of pride in filling our small fridge with versatile ingredients and using our two pans to create pretty delicious meals.
- Whit popping up from his suspended bed every morning. I was always awake before everyone else, and he would perk up and look down into our bed every morning to see if we were awake
- Ben and Whit using spare sheets to turn the hanging bed into a fort
- Watching Madam Secretary and Pitch Perfect on my phone with Ben when we couldn’t sleep at night
- Having to get out of the RV to help Ben back up Every. Time.
- Ben taking the first turn to dump our toilet waste and letting me walk away so I didn’t throw up
- How good a long, hot shower felt in the large shower stalls at the two holiday parks we paid to stay at
- Yelling robot stories back and forth with Whit
- Finishing 3 fantasy audiobooks with Ben (Skyward, The Fifth Season, and Singularity Trap)
- Elation whenever we got cell service or WiFi
- The incredible milky blue of the water
- Wishing my pilot seat would recline
- Banging into random cabinets All. The. Time.
- Being so grateful that our motor home was big enough for two beds and full bathroom whenever we saw people pulling out their portable kitchens to cook in the cold rain
- Joy when we found a free camp site with a beautiful view
- Texting pictures of our trip to my 13-year-old niece and her happy responses
- Looking behind me to check on Whit and see him looking out the window for hours on end
- Discovering tang sticks, sour peaches, and other delicious New Zealand bulk bin candies