Two humans, one dog, the open road, and a nearly COVID-free New Zealand
For most of us, life is still far from normal right now. But there is one little country where things are just about back to the way things were, pre-pandemic... New Zealand! Hellie is a Kiwi, and she's here to share a trip report from her latest road trip with her pup Indie.
Known as the Land of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand is a place of snow-capped mountains, impossibly reflective lakes, and rugged beaches. Every Christmas (summer down here), the majority of the country shuts down for a few weeks and everyone heads to the beach, the bach, the lakes, or the mountains. And it’s not just the locals – the roads are usually packed with backpackers driving bright green Jucy rentals, as synonymous with summer as jandals, barbecues, and long lazy days at the beach.
Being expats from the UK, we’ve always taken advantage of this time to head off and explore our wild country. This year was no exception, although it was not altogether an ‘ordinary’ road trip.
Firstly, we were hitting the road with a new four-legged family member in tow. Indie came to us from Gisborne SPCA when she was 11 weeks old, and we instantly fell in love with her; we couldn’t wait to head out and explore this awesome little country with her. I’ll admit I had some reservations. What if she was a nightmare? What if she made a mess at accommodations? What if she howled through the night? What if she threw up in the car? But we had done our best to introduce her to as many new places and experiences as we could early on, and had faith in her awesomeness… so off we went.
Secondly, to the rest of the world, it seemed like a strange time to be going on holiday. The unknowns and the realities of the pandemic were present worldwide; lockdowns, rising cases, limited ICU beds, and worse.
New Zealand, however, has had zero community cases of COVID. The NZ government did a fantastic job of curbing COVID by closing the borders to non-residents and non-citizens right at the start of the pandemic in early March. We had been at various stages of lockdown over the next couple months, and in early June we finally moved to Alert Level 1, which we have stayed at since, except for one brief resumption of Alert Level 2 a few months ago when a COVID cluster appeared in Auckland.
Of course, there were concerns about the economy, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern maintained that we needed to protect the health of the nation first, before turning the focus back to trade and economic development. It worked: as I write this, New Zealand has 76 active cases of COVID-19 (from overseas and quarantined at the border), we’ve recorded 2246 cases total, including ‘probable’ cases, and suffered 25 deaths. Which, looking at the global headlines, is pretty staggering really.
New Zealand has already moved on to getting the economy back on track. Prior to the pandemic, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export industry; losing it has the hit the economy hard.
In an attempt to address the fall in international tourists, New Zealand has been running a marketing campaign aimed at getting Kiwis travelling again and exploring our home country. “Do something new, New Zealand,” is the clarion cry, and it seems to be working. The popular bungee jump company, synonymous with adrenaline junkies, has said that it had definitely been quieter than non-COVID times this summer, but surprisingly busier than they had expected. It was great to see so many locals taking up the challenge to travel at home, and getting out to enjoy our beautiful backyard with plenty of beers in the chilly bin, and a friendly “Kia ora.”
So off on our trip we went! It was ambitious – getting the ferry down from Wellington we travelled south down the east coast, spending a night in Blenheim, then Kaikoura, two nights in Christchurch, a night each in Tekapo, Queenstown, and Wanaka, before heading back up the west coast to Franz Josef, and Greymouth, then heading back across through the middle of the South Island to Kaikoura, back up to Blenheim for two nights, and then home to Wellington. We alternated camping with accommodations, so it worked out pretty much 50/50. This was very much an experimental trip with Indie, so we wanted to see what worked and what didn’t. (For the record they both worked, camping was probably more fun… except when it rained!)
Despite lugging around all our camp cooking gear, we ate out for most meals; no face masks and no social distancing, just the odd bottle of hand sanitizer. The NZ government created a COVID Tracer QR Code to encourage Kiwis to track their movements, should there be an outbreak announced later. Likewise, the traditional advice of Slip, Slop, Slap (Slip on long sleeves, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat) has been updated to Slip, Slop, Slap, Scan. But that’s it. The odd warning to remind us there’s a pandemic out there… while over here life goes on as normal.
Despite the global situation, and the pandemic always being in the back of our minds, I have to admit we had a fantastic time. It’s hard to beat running on wild beaches, swimming in crystal lakes, drinking in vineyards, and sleeping under night-sky reserves. The beaches are incredibly dramatic in the evenings; long wild stretches with monotone canopies of clouds overhead. In Kaikoura the contrast of the black sand and white surf in stormy lowlight made the ocean look luminescent. The lakes down here are cool and crisp, calling you in as the sun beats down and reflects off the dusty trails. We played around in Lake Tekapo, where the legendary dog Friday was from, and fittingly this was where Indie showed us her first doggie paddle!
We plunged down into the deliciously cool waters of Lake Wanaka, floating around under bright blue skies. Indie the pup, still cautious not to swim too far, was a great little watchdog, sitting patiently on the warm, smooth rocks, eyes following me as I swam. We could hear the fun and laughter from the beach around the corner, and I couldn’t help but reflect how lucky we all were, being able to enjoy a ‘normal’ summer. This was emphasised the next day when, as the music festival Rhythm & Alps was in full swing, it was almost impossible to find a breakfast spot in the hot, bustling town, and we resorted to sharing a table with various festival-goers. As they smiled their hungover smiles, drank their breakfast bucks fizz, and commiserated about the cramped and messy camping quarters, it really felt like we were lucky.
I was pleasantly surprised by just how many facilities along the trip had been dog-friendly. Not only did we have some great accommodations, but there were even a few surprises, like the freshwater hot tubs in Franz Josef allowing Indie to sit on her blanket chewing a cow hoof next to us. The forest of ferns are surrounded by soaring mountains that disappear into clouds shrouding the receding glaciers, hiding their precious gems. And the wine bike tour in Marlborough - the owner had prepped two separate travel options for our pup to bike along with us to wineries. The first option was a fully enclosed child’s trailer we could tow behind one of the bikes; Indie doesn’t love being confined, so we went for option two – a large basket on the back of trike, even kitted out with a memory foam pillow! My partner Mike, a hard-core mountain biker, was slightly mortified at his new role as a trike-rider, but Indie looked like an absolute princess and stole the hearts of everyone on the cycle tour that day. One of the helicopter tours even offered to look after the pup while we went up, but as she’s still a bit clingy we decided to save that for the next visit!
As the trip came to an end, and we went back home to the North Island, everyone was eager to hear how the trip went. For the record, Indie chewed through one leash, and made a hole in the tent’s mozzie net! Lessons learnt included: buy your pup their own sleeping bag (or they will steal yours!). We found that the Wilderdog travel bowl and food sack is a lifesaver if you have a fussy pup who won’t eat all their food at once.
Friends and family back home were amazed that we had been able to do such a trip, and enjoyed living vicariously through the stories and photos I sent. It’s been such a relief to hear vaccines are now being rolled out, and hopefully it won’t be too long before the rest of the world can join us in exploring their own backyards…and then come and visit New Zealand!
It was such a great trip the pup pined for a week when we got home, can’t say I blame her! We can’t wait for the next family adventure.
After running out of money half way through a 'Round The World ticket' 11 years ago, Hellie and her partner decided to hang out in New Zealand for a while. Now fully fledged Kiwis, they love the outdoorsy vibe of the country, and its work-to-live culture. When she’s not at the office, she's swimming in the sea, running through native bush, snowboarding in the mountains, or camping with her favorite crew. Thanks for sharing what life is like in Aotearoa, Hellie!