I wond’r where the padded rooms are? Staying at an old mental asylum while venturing West on NZ’s South Island

Cheating on our instant coffee with some proper latte’s at Berlins cafe, we took in the beautiful views overlooking the national park, readying ourselves for the day. We were headed West towards the coast, but not before some more inland, outdoor adventures…

Getting lost in nature

First up was Nelson Creek Reserve, that begun with a river crossing over an old rickety wooden suspension bridge. We continued deeper through the forest, and found ourselves at the edge of the dam water, glistening in the sunshine and surrounded by the site and sounds of nature. Once we broke from our trance brought on by dancing butterflies overhead, we faithfully followed what seemed to be the path, before getting hopelessly lost; forcing us back the same way we’d come.

Just outside Hokitika – a seaside town famous for its driftwood festival – was Hokitika Gorge. After a short walk through some trees, the valley opened up before us; with the milky Hokitika River below. Continuing further along the boardwalk, we followed the smoothed rocky edges of the gorge, eventually coming to a swing bridge crossing the expanse of water looming underneath – a sight straight out of Indiana Jones! The final viewing platform rewarded us with dramatic views down through the gorge, at the blues and greens flowing slowly before us.

A creepy nights stay at the old Seaview Mental Asylum

When entering the reception to book ourselves in for the night, it felt like we’d gone back in time – surrounded by floral patterns as far as the eye could see. Although not unfriendly, the lady’s distant persona gave us the shivers, while she showed us to where we could park up. Something felt odd, but we became distracted by the impending sunset, of which Hokitika is renowned for…

As we sipped our wine on the beautiful beach, watching the last of the daylight disappear beyond the horizon, our reckless decision began to sink in. “No wonder this place is so cheap and there’s no-one else here!” I proclaimed, while we made our way carefully back up through the ‘Dell’ by the light of a million twinkling glow worms. After checking reviews on Wikicamps, we discovered that we’d booked ourselves in at the old ‘Seaview Hospital’, which was once a mental asylum…

The eeriness of our surroundings aside, Seaview may quite simply be one of the most unique night stays one is ever likely to experience. Incredibly, the interior, awash with retro flowery carpets, seemed unchanged since the 1960s when it was used to home the insane. This made it scarily easy to imagine what life was like here; as we wondered through the day room, down long, dark corridors, through the canteen and finally into the wards lined with beds still made up. Feeling as though we’d walked on to the set of the Shining, we unsurprisingly opted to sleep in our van that night!


Once daylight had safely returned the next day, we spent the morning peering through the windows of the many buildings that made up the decaying facility. Failing to find any signs of padded rooms or electro-therapy contraptions, we headed East towards Christchurch, leaving Hokitika and its famous driftwood behind.

Viaducts, waterfalls and parrots while crossing Arthur’s Pass

With town names like ‘Arthur’s Pass’ on our drive East, we were confident the scenery wasn’t going to disappoint, and oh boy how right we were! Immediately after a few cheeky photos of Gandalf being ambushed by a dragon in Otira, the road took us steadily upwards towards the looming hills above.

After passing through a series of tunnels, protecting us from the perils of landslides, we continued higher as the road departed earth upon stocky concrete stilts. It was only once we’d pulled into the car park of the Otira Viaduct viewpoint that we were able to take in the awesomeness of the road we’d just travelled on – snaking between the steep slopes either side.

Before driving off we were lucky to meet our first Kea. Often referred to as the ‘clown of the mountains’, these entertaining dark green parrots are now only found in the alpine regions of South New Zealand. Having heard tales of these cheeky characters damaging cars and flying off with food and clothing, we made sure to keep an eye on it!

The town of Arthur’s Pass seemed little more than a few large car parks and buildings, lining the busy road stretching South-Eastward, towards Christchurch. However, despite its bleakness, our inquisitive nature got the better of us as we popped into the tourist information office to find out what was around. The friendly park ranger pointed us in the direction of the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl Falls’, giving us a an opportunity to stretch our legs. As we neared the end of the relatively easy half hour walk, our excitement jumped up a notch while catching a glimpse of the falling water through the trees. However, it was only once at the viewing platform we could appreciate the beauty of this 131m high waterfall, falling gracefully down from the rocky cliffs above.

Feeling right at home with Malcolm and Ann

Following another couple of hours driving through yet more unbelievable scenery, we neared out final destination for the day. Malcolm and Ann, the owners of the Airbnb we were staying at, made us feel right at home, as we chatted away while cooking up a veggie stir-fry. Originally from Scotland, hence the inspiration for calling their home ‘Cairngorms’ (after the National Park found in the Scottish Highlands), they moved over a number of years ago and never looked back. Stereotypically Ann works for a whisky importer, and Malcolm is a software engineer, (when not tending to his 200 acre farm full of cattle and chooks – chickens).

After a good nights sleep then bidding farewell to our friendly hosts, we were able to appreciate how lucky Malcolm and Ann were. Now in the daylight outside their home, we were treated to stunning 360 degree views of rolling hills and snow capped mountains beyond. Next stop – Christchurch, to pick up a familiar face who’d travelled all the way from old Blighty; Mr Sam Wilson!

I wond’r if we’re in heaven? Unbelievable picnic spots as we cross over to New Zealand’s South Side

We bid farewell to lovely Lollie in Cambridge – our joint longest housesit so far – and hit the road once again for another adventure in our plush camper named Archie. Having explored much of the area over the past three weeks, we headed straight to a campsite on the banks of Lake Taupo. Following a hearty bowl of soup eaten with giant cutlery, we spent much of the evening playing pool and darts, attempting to hit bullseye during a frantic game of round the clock!


Driving on to Wellington: ‘The city of sails’

After a failed attempt to walk a section of the famous Tongariro Crossing in what felt like a tornado, we made our way West to the seaside town of Whanganui. I can’t recall what led us there, although it may have simply been it’s funny name. On the surface there didn’t seem like much to do, but we trusted our cultural senses and soon discovered the impressive glass works, complete with a glowing furnace and shop. Frustratingly both the museum and gallery were closed to strengthen the buildings against earthquakes, so we made do with a temporary art exhibition that had been set up. Having been warned against staying in Levin due to some unruly hockey players, we treated ourselves to beachside coffees as the sun went down, before settling in for a very windy night at Paekakariki campsite.

Although rather basic, staying at a local Motel was a treat for us. Rather than a campsite out of town, we were an easy 15 minute walk from all that Wellington had to offer. After a quick caffeine hit at a student jaunt down on diverse Cuba Street, we made a beeline for New Zealand’s National Museum: ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’. Despite still buzzing from tasty lattes, our mood soon turned sombre while taking in the impressive WW1 exhibition that was on. The horrors of war was brought to life through enormous and intricate models of soldiers, along with narration and chilling sound effects.


Staying true to our ‘traveler’ personas, we then skipped paying to ride in the famous red cable car, and instead walked up the steep slopes toward Wellington’s Botanic gardens.

Having thoroughly stretched our legs and taken in the panoramic views of the city below us, our minds soon turned to drinks and dinner. After scrimping and saving all day, we gave into our tastebuds by sipping some fine porters at Chooky’s pub, before tucking into tasty nosh at Ombra across the road. There we enjoyed Venetian inspired small plates, featuring perfect pizzettes, meatalicious meatballs and lovely lentils. All this tasty grub was washed down with gorgeous pinot, as well as sour cherry vino brilliantly pared with our dark chocolate salami and white chocolate pancakes – yum!

Enjoying the oddities of Golden Bay in NZ’s South Island

Up early to catch the red eye ferry to the New Zealand’s South island, we were understandably bleary eyed, although the incredible scenery en route soon got them wide open in awe of our surroundings! While not oohing and ahhing at the luscious green rolling hills that passed us by, we were umming and urring where our travels should take us next. You see, we had 5 nights ‘to kill’ before our scheduled pick up of our mate Sam in Christchurch, who’d unintentionally found himself with plane tickets to the other side of the World, I’ll explain later…

Eventually settling on the intriguing ‘Golden Bay’, I soon begun to question our decision… The only route was via the ‘Takaka Hill Highway that ominously appears on the ‘Dangerous roads’ website, due to the 320 degree hairpins in amongst it’s steep terrain. Safely arriving at the ‘Top 10’ campsite just before dark, we were immediately relieved with our decision; Robin the owner gave us a warm welcome and we were a few seconds walk from a gorgeous beach looking out onto Golden Bay.

Having used the clever Roadtrippers app to put together our itinerary, we set off on a mornings tour of eclectic natural wonders:

  • The Grove – Described perfectly by Robin as “like Jurassic Park, but without dinosaurs”, consisted of an easy half hour walk in amongst trees, limestone formations and ferns.
  • Te Waikoropupu – A boardwalk round a natural spring, believed to contain some of the clearest fresh water on Earth and features ‘dancing sands’ caused by vents below.
  • Labyrinth rocks – An outcrop of natural limestone originally set up by a British chap, now maintained by volunteers, with children’s toys hidden in amongst the nooks and crannies.

For lunch we fancied a coastal backdrop, so ventured towards Wharakiki beach. After managing to avoid the colourful car park attendant peacocks on arrival, we set off on the hour long walk through luscious green fields, watched on by sheep acting as groundsmen. Sand dunes heralded that our journey was almost over, and soon gave way to the stunning beach that took over our entire horizon. The enormity of our surroundings was further emphasised by the epic rock formations against the deep blue skies, together with our long shadows cast across the smooth sands by the sun. On our way back to the campsite we couldn’t resist a cheeky manuka ale at the quirky Mussel Inn microbrewery, while wondering if it had medicinal qualities like manuka honey…


Out of this world picnic spots and ghostly roads

While driving south from Pohara, we begun to get hungry, so took a pit stop for lunch at Lake Rotura that I’d spotted on Google maps earlier. The scene before us as we arrived in the empty car park completely blew us away. A large lake with water like glass, perfectly framed by hills at the far end, and snow capped mountains beyond. An old wooden jetty stretched into the lake nearby, with a picnic table offering what I’m prepared to say is probably the most beautiful lunch spot on earth. While enjoying our humble tuna sandwiches, struggling to believe our eyes, two swans then gracefully swum past as if to mock our senses further. At this point we looked at one another in disbelief – had we crashed and were now in heaven!?

Despite continued deep talk about the mesmerising scenery of our picnic earlier, Joella’s eagle eyes spotted an intriguing sign up ahead that peaked our interest: ‘The Old Ghost Road’. There we started the 85km trail used by trampers and advanced mountain bikers alike, through the hilly forest not sure of what we’d find… It turned out to be another remnant from the gold mining era of the 1800s. Perched on the steep hillside on which we were walking, were once entire towns built upon wooden stilts, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Western. The information boards helped take us back, to a time when people were prepared to take great risk and hardship, in a bid to find riches beyond their wildest dreams. The end of the gold rush era, together with earthquakes in early to mid 1900s led to the demise of these towns and sadly some of its people.

Pleasantly that evening we found ourselves a picturesque place to park up for the night, in Buller Gorge. There we were treated to a spellbinding sunset atop of the nearby hillside in pre-historic surroundings before a quick nightcap of silky smooth porters to warm our cockles, at the Berlins cafe and bar.

I wond’r if we’ve time travelled around the world? A jam packed itinerary of New Zealand’s North Island

We were lucky that our North Island base in Cambridge was super central, providing plenty of options for day tripping  Being Mr Organised, I wrote up a series of itineraries, with each offering an eclectic mix of experiences and adventures that any tour operator would be proud of 🙂

Experiencing the violence of New Zealand’s geology in Rotorua

Top of most people’s New Zealand bucket list is usually exploring Maori culture or discovering more about it’s violent geology, famously incorporating earthquakes and volcanoes. Conveniently, the clever Kiwi’s have latched on to this, and developed geothermal parks covering both in one go – Choice! (NZ slang for cool; ironically, having to explain that makes me the opposite).

After what seemed like days of deliberation, we opted for Te Puia in Rotorua – home to the majority of NZ’s geothermal activity – just a couple of hours drive from Cambridge, South of Lake Taupo. Our arrival was marked with a thunderous Hakka by the locals, which frequently went from comical, to scary, then back to comical again, as they angrily ran at us with spears, slapped their thighs then stuck their tongues out. Joella and I were both surprised that none of their eyes popped out, given the intensity of their stares! As we began to walk round the thermal valley, our surroundings became ever more strange; featuring weird wooden Maori carvings, eerie bubbling mud pools and sinister clouds of steam, smelling strongly of sulphur. If you’d told me we’d been transported to another planet I’d honestly have believed you! It wasn’t long before we arrived at the main attraction: Pohutu – the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Hoping this natural wonder would stick to its strict eruption timetable, we waited patiently to the soundtrack of annoying camera happy tourists babbling on, how this geyser was the only reason for their visit. We couldn’t help but chuckle, as the size and speed of the eruption caught them off-guard, preventing the scale of what was before us from being captured for their Instagram. Despite the aggressive nature, something about it seemed almost majestic, but there’s one thing for sure; its name Pohutu – Maori for big splash – is definitely justified!

Summiting Mount Tauhara for incredible views of Lake Taupo

In search of views, our we made our way South to the steep slopes of Moutn Tauhara, on the northern edge of New Zealand’s most enormous lake: Lake Taupo. Taupo is the second largest lake in all of Oceana, and confusingly was once a volcano. This was before it erupted, emptying its underlying magma chamber; causing the ground to collapse thus forming a Caldera (a type of sinkhole) and eventually filling with water.

The beginning of the path took us across gently undulating farm land, before dipping then aggressively shooting upwards through forests covering Tauhara’s steep slopes. I can only assume this is his hair…

As with most places in New Zealand, we were fascinated to discover that Mount Tauhara has a Maori legend that brings it to life: There was once a battle between warrior mountains to win the heart of Pihanga, another mountain south of Lake Taupo. As rival Tongariro won, the defeated mountains were forced to leave. With a heavy heart, Tauhara fled slowly and was soon overtaken by the rising sun. As he’d only made it as far as the north-eastern shore of Lake Taupo, there he stands for eternity, staring mournfully across the waters at his lost love. Although it sounds sad – I’m sure there are far worse views to have!

Once we’d reached the summit following a testing 1.5 hour climb, we were rewarded to stunning views of the lake, continuing far into the distance as if it were the sea. Despite a fearsome wind constantly threatening our balance, we couldn’t resist spending time gazing out at the patchwork world below us, enjoying our hard earned ham and cheese sandwiches.

On the way home we replenished our sugar levels at Huka Honey Hive, which is probably best described as a honey Mecca. There we tried a spot of bee watching and gorged ourselves on a variety of free Manuka honey samples, while dodging the constant swarms of tourists. I even discovered heaven in a jar – Bacon Jam! Once it felt as though our teeth were going to fall out, we then reluctantly buzzed off.


Underground tunnelling on the Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk

Following in the footsteps of early gold miners, we carefully made our way along the path that clung onto the steep cliffside of Karangahake Gorge. We were glad we’d made it this far, having had to navigate our way through dark wet tunnels, lit only by daylight streaming in from the ‘windows’, framing the view of Waitawheta river below. It’s these openings from which this trail has got its name: Karangahake Gorge Windows Walk.

Along with the network of old mining passageways, the old Waitawheta Gorge bridge that creaked under foot made for an exciting days walk. As did the impressive 1km long underground tunnel, illuminated by dull orange fluorescent bulbs – just enough to make out the surrounding brickwork without affecting the eerie atmosphere they provided. Embarrassingly we partook in some caffeinated refreshments at the nearby Kawangahoke winery afterwards, I guess it’s the price I must pay for being the sole designated driver!

Tsunami warnings while exploring Tauranga

Having come from the North, headed West and been South a couple of times already, now was the time we ventured East. Our new found direction on the compass took us to the coastal port town of Tauranga, awash with gigantic cranes and containers as far as the eye could see. Having got a taste for getting high earlier in the week… after summiting Tauhara, we couldn’t resist taking the scenic, spiralling path up Mount Manganui for impressive views across the sea and further inland. On the way back down to earth, we were reminded once again just how geologically violent New Zealand is, in the form a massive ‘Tsunami evacuation information’ billboard :-/

Deciding there was little evidence of an impending tsunami, we rewarded our hard earned appetite with a visit to the harbour side ‘fush ’n’ chup shop. Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market offered exactly as its name indicates, plenty of choice in the way of freshly caught seafood, authentically perched on the quayside with fishing boats bobbing gently in the background. While keeping an eye on the encircling seagulls – you’d have thought they’d leave me alone considering I’m named after one – we enjoyed our golden parcels of joy, dipped in tomato sauce curiously contained in a tin.  

Rubbing our eyes again, we continued to be confused – had we miraculously been transported back to hipster East London, or was our journey up til now simply a dream? Before us was a pile of shipping containers grouped together; each one housing tasty street food, intoxicating liquids, boutique gifts or vintage wares. We couldn’t resist having a look around ‘Our space’, and soon discovered box parks aren’t uniquely found in the Big Smoke. We left inspired, having spoken to an English chap who’d recently setup his Paddington Store, selling lots of beautifully made hand crafted goodies. I wonder if we could do something similar?

In awe of the antique waters at ‘Blue Spring’

With our sandwiches packed – made from Joella’s tasty herb bread – we set off along the Te Waihou walk way, in search of the enchanting ‘Blue spring’. As we set our eyes on the gracefully flowing waters of the Waihou river, it was easy to understand why this was such a popular spot for the Instagram obsessed. 

Due to 100 years of filtration, particles that normally absorb red light have been removed, making the water especially blue. This pureness is beautifully highlighted further by the green plants that sway hypnotically in the current. Not too surprisingly, it’s said that up to 70% of New Zealand’s mineral water is sourced from the Blue Spring!

Horticultural journeys through time and space in Hamilton Gardens

“Look Joella” I called out, “I’m in Italy””and now I’m in Japan!”. She couldn’t help but reward my childishness with a smirk, as she walked towards the entrance of a Taj Mahal looking building nearby. We’d made a trip to the impressive ‘Hamilton Gardens’ – home to a myriad of over 20 exquisitely designed gardens, based on philosophical ideas through history, and different cultures. It felt like a horticultural version of Disney’s famous Epcot centre in Florida, and gave the impression you were time traveling around the world.


While attempting to get a nice shot of a scarecrow in the ‘Kitchen Garden’, we briefly chatted to the gardener, carefully shaking off the soil from some carrots he’d just unearthed. We asked who got to eat all the impressive vegetables that surrounded us. “A lot of it goes to local charities and other not for profits” he inspirationally explained, “although some produce is sold in the shop to fund the gardens, and of the course the birds take their share” he quipped.

After picking up an extra duvet ready for life back in the van in a few days time, we stopped by the Waikato Museum. There we were treated to an enormously large ‘Waka’ – an intricately carved wooden boat, as well as a spellbinding presentation of light detailing Maori legends, of how the Earth, Sun and stars came to be.