A Swiss long time Caravanner in New Zealand
19 May 2022
Stuck in Godzone for 18 months – how divine is such a life?
Born in Switzerland and having travelled a lot all over the world due to my job as a hydrologist, I’m used to remarks like: “Oh, Switzerland, I know Switzerland, everybody’s rich!” Especially in poorer countries in Africa or Asia, I heard that quite often. I cannot agree 100 per cent with that statement, but I have to admit that there are worse places to live than Switzerland – perhaps there are better ones as well. Could it be that God’s country might be such a place?
Since 2005 I’ve had the chance to travel quite extensively in New Zealand, but travelling on a visitor visa meant that after three months I always had to leave the country. After I retired in 2016, I decided to say goodbye to fog and snow and spend as much time enjoying summer as possible – summer in New Zealand and summer in Switzerland. What a life! And then in 2020 Covid struck with all the consequences we’ve all experienced ever since. My flight back to Switzerland scheduled for May 2, 2020 was postponed first to July, then August then maybe Christmas and finally the return ticket was extended to the end of 2021. So here I am still, waiting to get back safely as one of around 10,000 foreign tourists still in the country. As such, this is the first chance I’ve had to stay in Aotearoa for a longer period and see how life is in Godzone, all from a seven-metre motorhome.
My friends in Switzerland keep on asking: “Roland, don’t you get bored? How can you live in such a small place for so long?” What a question! So let me take you along on tour to some of the most stunning places I have visited during my extended stay.
First of all: How would you answer the question, “What is the most beautiful place in New Zealand?” Stop reading now, think carefully first!
Every time I am asked this question, I just don’t have an answer. There are simply too many wonderful places on both islands. Maybe the Twizel area? I spent the lockdown parked in front of the bach of a good friend just 50 metres away from the Ōhau canal. Being a keen fisherman this was by far the best place to spend the lockdown, with all of these wonderful big trout just waiting to be caught. And there would be enough time to catch them so I thought before I realised that fishing would be completely banned during Alert Level 4. So Twizel suddenly turned into the worst place to be for a keen fisherman. Why? As you might remember, walking and cycling around were still allowed while locked down, so the few people living in houses nearby used the time to go for walks with their dogs or cycled alongside the canals. And imagine what I saw when following suit – trout of dimensions I could hardly dream of were sitting just half a metre away from the bank in the glass-clear water. I am sure some of them even blinked at me knowing precisely nothing was going to happen to them! Funnily enough, the time slipped away quite quickly near the deserted canals. I found fresh mushrooms around the van – Kiwis call them Slippery Jack – and they made a welcome change to the diet. Good internet with the Wireless Nation modem on board allowed me to keep in touch with my brothers and friends, and see what was going on back home while the weekly shopping trip to the supermarket in town was a highlight. Since masks were hard to get, my Thai partner sewed a few highly sophisticated and flashy ones for our friends in town that we could place in their letterboxes on the way to the supermarket. The autumn sun rises above the grassland and over the foggy canals were fabulous. Just after the lockdown, my partner had a chance to fly back on a Thai Airways flight specifically organised for Thai citizens.
It was quite emotional when we said goodbye at the airport in Christchurch, but we were sure that in a few months I would follow her and we would be together again. Well, that was in April 2020, and ever since then, there has been no chance to do so, which is really hard for both of us. After the lockdown, I remained in the Twizel area during winter. Apparently, I had found the coldest place in New Zealand to enjoy wintertime. But fishing for the big trout in the canals was now open, as well as in Lake Benmore. Our friends in the Razza Bar in town took very good care of me. Mike, the owner is married to Lek, a Thai lady who prepares the most wonderful Thai dishes I could dream of, so at least I had hot Thailand food on my plates in spite of increasingly chillier temperatures outside.
Now I had a lot of time to catch one of these famous big Twizel pellet trout, but it was not as easy as it seemed to be when I watched all the movies on YouTube. There were lots of hardcore fishermen on the canals trying their luck. Being Swiss, from a country that is only 320km from one end to the other, I was amazed to see how far Kiwis would drive, without a care, for fishing. A day trip to Twizel from Christchurch, around 600km return, was nothing exceptional. Fishing in temperatures below freezing needs a big portion of enthusiasm and passion. The fingers are freezing, but much worse, the braided line freezes in the eyelets, and even worse, on the reel. So, during the early morning best fishing times, it could happen that there was finally a fish on the line, but it was impossible to reel it in. What a calamity! So good to have a few other crazy fishermen around with the same passion. We shared many hot coffees on board my van, as well as hot Thai food while talking about fishing. In this way I got to make friends all over New Zealand, from Invercargill, a five-hour trip away, and even 1000km from up north in National Park where a group of four young keen hunters came for a week of fishing. They did the long drive, including the ferry crossing, in around 20 hours and started fishing immediately after arriving. Incredible! I could not even invite them for a beer since that would have made them feel sleepy, but a strong coffee was more than welcome. I gave them some of my most successful lures, small orange-pink egg imitations, and amazingly after a short time they landed a 12-pound rainbow and put her on the smoker straight away. What a reward for the long drive! That evening we had lots of laughs and shared a very pleasant time around the table in my warm spacious motorhome. I am already excited to meet these young gentlemen again and go for a hunt around National Park once I am back on the North Island. I am always surprised by how welcoming people are here in New Zealand. In Switzerland we are much more reserved, preferring to keep a certain distance unless we know each other better. But then a friendship can easily last for years. Maybe we have too many high mountains in our country and a kind of mountain dweller mentality.
It’s not only the landscapes here that are stunning. It’s most of all the kindness and warmth of the people in New Zealand that makes any stay so pleasant for oversea tourists in the country. The infrastructure for motor homes is unrivalled anywhere in the world and just a dream for Europeans. Thanks to the efforts of the NZMCA we can stay in many places with an RV we would never have the chance to visit otherwise in such an unforgettable way. Almost every little town has a free dump station and water.
In September the Covid situation was still no better. Indeed, in Switzerland, after a drop in daily new cases following the lockdown in April, numbers went up dramatically to way over 2000 cases per day at the end of the month and peaked at 10,128 in November. Switzerland has about double the population of New Zealand with 8.7 million inhabitants but we are very hard to isolate due to around 360,000 frontier workers who have their jobs in Switzerland but live in the neighbouring countries – Italy, France, Germany and Austria. Without them we had to close down many of our hospitals, factories, and restaurants, etc.
Winter slowly faded away. At the most we had about 15cm of snow around Twizel, which gave me a kind of Swiss winter feeling. The temperature never dropped below minus 10 degrees. While some motorhomes faced problems with frozen pipes and no running water in the morning, luckily I had no such trouble in my van. The danger of black ice had vanished, so I had the chance to explore the more remote areas of the South Island.
Remote? Well, do you remember how the area around Cromwell looked in the year 2005? That was the first time I visited there. Cromwell gets an average of 390mm of rainfall per year. That’s about half the amount they have in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in the Sahel zone in Africa, a famine-stricken savanna area. So Central Otago is a dry place, a very dry place. And how does Cromwell look now? It’s almost a Garden of Eden with all the fruit that’s grown there and all the produce stands on the roadside with their staggering selections. What a difference due to extensive irrigation. But Cromwell wasn’t the place I intended heading to – my goal was two reservoirs: Lake Poolburn, around 30 kilometres southeast of Alexandra, and Lake Onslow, 40 kilometres east of Rox-burgh. Both lakes hold the best-eating trout in New Zealand, with meat red as salmon only tastier. No, dear Kiwi readers, that’s not a spelling mistake, really – trout tastier than salmon and all-natural, not pellet fed. This is due to a diet mainly consisting of small crayfish. To get to Lake Poolburn in an RV is not that easy. The gravel road that climbs up to the reservoir (completed in 1931) reaches an altitude of 840 metres. But what a breathtaking view awaits the few people who get there. The rock formations are incredible, a real The Lord of the Rings landscape. Early morning at dawn it seems as if lots of orcs would creep out of the ground, still mystically covered in sheets of fog. There was almost no wind for 10 days, every day sunny and warm. The biggest problem was that I filled my memory card too quickly with all the pictures I took. The panorama was so amazing in the hourly changing light with the towering clouds building up at the horizon and the long shadows at sunset. It’s for sure one of the most stunning places I visited in New Zealand. About fishing; well, that’s another story. It was so warm that the trout were desperately looking for cold water in the deepest parts of the lake. It was so hard to catch them. But they are fantastic indeed. The colour is deep golden and the meat red and tasty. This year there were not so many caught, I was told, but they were bigger than in previous years. After 10 days I left and made my way to the other reservoir, Lake Onslow. There is a 60-kilometre track that winds from Lake Poolburn to the lake over the hills, but only for 4x4 trucks, so I had to drive back to Alexandra, then to Roxburgh and up into the hills again. I was advised to carefully pack the fridge contents since the road up to the reservoir was good, but clayey. And that means that after a good rain it gets too muddy and slippery for driving, and highly dangerous in some places for a heavy motorhome.
Lake Onslow is similar to Lake Poolburn, with just a few fishing baches and even fewer people. I only met three people during the four days I spent at the lake. The landscape reminded me of the grassy hilly areas in Mongolia. Just with more sheep and cows. The weather was not that good, very windy, and I mean very windy! But the clouds and scattered rainfall added to the attraction of the scenery. Again, fishing was interesting and I managed to catch a few decent trout around two to three pounds. So I tasted these crayfish-eating trout as well. I fully agree with the fishermen who say these are exceptionally flavoursome fish.
So my journey went on. January saw me in Jackson Bay, then I passed the almost-deserted Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph, and from there my Bürstner took me all the way up the West Coast to Karamea, not forget-ting a longish stop at Lake Brunner. I was quite proud to find out that a person with the same name as my brother, Thomas Brunner, is such a famous persona on the West Coast that he got a memorial plate in the cathedral at Nelson.
In March I hiked as far north as possible on the South Island to the Farewell spit in Golden Bay. Still no farewell to New Zealand though. In February 2021 my tourist visa was extended again until September 2021. I am very thankful to the government of New Zealand that I am not forced to leave the country. The vaccination programme picks up very slowly in normally well-organised Switzerland and most of the other European countries – Covid waves two and three not yet dealt with – so I am more than happy still to be in Godzone and have the chance to enjoy a normal life in the currently-for-sure safest and Covid-wise luckiest country in the world. All the same, in spite of all the happy moments and wonderful encounters I have had with so many friendly people in the country, I am longing to say hello to my loved ones again.
Story and images supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine.
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