At the beginning of May, just as the growing season for our garden was beginning, we packed our bags, left our Border Collie with a local friend and headed off to New Zealand for a month. The intention was that I'd complete a Permaculture Research Institute course in Permaculture Design - whilst staying at www.livinginpeace.com & www.rongobackpackers.com.
My wife & a friend who traveled with us from Japan for the 1st 2 weeks of the trip + 3 small kids took off soon after we reached Karamea (One of the most remote North Western villages of the South Island) to visit the North Island together, whilst I begun my course in Permaculture design.
The course was very well taught and I was surprised at the quality of content & interesting variety of subjects. Tim Barker the teacher had been an intern at the Australian Permaculture research institute for some years (The most advanced of Permaculture organisations worldwide) and the curriculum was from PRI too.
A total of 6 of us took the course & got to learn many things from how to design a very effective self-sustainable food garden, to methods of making buildings from naturally available local materials.
We even learnt how to make a self-sustainable building which would collect & supply it's own water, very efficient heating and how to put together solar panel systems (DIY these are cheap to install nowadays) & we got to do & see several practical examples locally including things like hydro-electricity from a spring using the innards of a washing machine!
As part of the course we also built a rocket stove which we promptly connected to an old electric oven and burnt a loaf of bread as it cooked. Rocket stoves burn at up to 1,000 Deg C but can be used for efficiently heating a house!
With the knowledge learnt & things we saw - I feel so much more fired up now, ready to continue our eco-home project here in Japan with more direction and vision of what's possible & how to go about it.
Vision is important I think... Don't be surprised to see a duck pond irrigated from the roof of our old animal shed and a large greenhouse in the future, plus much more!
It was wonderful to see all that my old friend Paul Murray had achieved with the help of woofers over the last 8 years, having started out with just a dream of creating the project. We of course met his family there too - they're actually in Japan as well now (Seeing Sanae's parents) and we'd be seeing them again later in Japan too.
(Above picture taken in Rongo's lounge during the presentation of the permaculture projects we'd designed during our course).
- their backpackers hostel is a very special place including lots of art from people of the corners of the world who travelled to NZ & stayed there including 1,000 paper cranes hung from the ceiling made by a French girl!
Paul has been largely detached from how it would turn out (As long as the artists could convince him they knew what they were doing!) but the result is tasteful. It's by far the nicest of all the backpackers we stayed in during our onward travels.
People are very comfortable to be themselves there and often stay much longer than they intended to begin with.
Apparently over the years it's been a place people have rested and found a healing comfort from being accepted by the other occupants without judgment, etc. Hence the space for people to be artistic.
Anyway, I could see why Paul & Sanae have so much passion for their project & of course met some sweet people there during the few weeks we were there... They have Karamea's radio station there and a small cinema too. And there's always pretty girls staying too, which never fails to be a nice thing.
Dinner conversations with around 20 of us around a long table made from drift wood found at the nearby estuary was always interesting and the NZ wines were usually good too. The veggies were usually picked from their garden within hours of being on the table and on one night we had the best lamb I'd ever tasted - slaughtered from their paddock by Paul the same day to feed all of us that evening!
Paul kindly insisted I shouldn't pay for the course, nor for the stay in our own self-contained 2 bedroom holiday motel - with very 1970's styled décor! www.karameafarmbaches.co.nz
He said I'd already paid 10 years ago when I gave him $10,000 NZ as a shareholder in his project, which was very kind. So I insisted on at least giving a gift of money for food & electricity so I wasn't a drain on their resources.
Some beautiful walks there through some old growth forests with very interesting trees covered in mosses. On our day off from the course I walked a 25km hike through the Oparara Valley on my own.
After the course Yuko returned driving by herself with both kids from the North Island having covered a total of around 3,000km over 2 weeks (They'd gone to see some of the North Island - which is apparently much more developed & less beautiful than the South).
We spent a few days relaxing together, continuing to make new friends & playing with the kids.
Together we re-visited Pete, a local naturopath (who has an amazing permaculture project himself) who shared some very interesting things about food health (& the health giving benefits of eating mostly raw foods!).
Apparently he's not been sick for 38 years, not even a cold... Assuming this is true, it's quite amazing if not inspiring!
We also went to visit some of the beauty of Karamea, something not to be missed!
Then, as people begun to leave to continue their trips we continued on our travels too, to tour some of the Island and see the natural beauty.
As the weather was due to be poor, we avoided taking the road crossing from the West to East side over Arthur's pass - since there would be low clouds & we wouldn't be able to see the views (Apparently it's rated as one of the 10 most scenic roads in the world - so we'll save that for another trip!). Instead we drove down the West coast heading South. Stopping in Hokitika we visited the amazing pancake rocks before continuing on. Nobody knows how they were formed like that.
The following evening we arrived in Wanaka, a small and trendy Winter sports resort town. The drive down had been stunning (Our progress was usually slow because we stopped so many times to take in the views & shoot pictures!).
The next day we passed through Queenstown, which had the most charming town built beside a large lake with surrounding snow-caped mountains.
That was one of our favourite places this far but needing to continue on, we headed South to Te Anau, which we believed would be one of the most beautiful areas, being a Fiordland.
We discovered as we arrived that due to a partial rock wall collapse at the end of the road that the main tourist attraction, Milford sounds wasn't accessible! Being low season there was only one company still running day trips to see the other alternative - Doubtful Sounds (Sounds are mountain ranges with channels that were carved out by glaciers leading out to the sea. It's named Doubtful because apparently Captain Cook had doubted he'd be able to sail back out if he explored it).
Upon inquiring we were told there were only 3 seats left so we promptly booked!
Leaving early the following day, we opted to find a backpackers near Manapuri, which was where the catamaran vessel would be docked. Here we stayed in a simple wooden hut with a small pot-bellied wood burning stove. The stars that night were even more visible than elsewhere.
Doubtful Sounds didn't disappoint. The first boat took us to a land locked area of the Fiordlands where there's apparently 7m of annual rainfall per year.
Here they have a huge hydroelectric power plant (Which we didn't get to see unfortunately).
A bus with a chatty tour driver took us to a 2nd boat ride which was spectacular.
We saw lots of small waterfalls cascading down mountainsides, Albatross, Penguins and Bottle nose Dolphins too. The vessel went all the way to the sea before turning around to return with exploration of some of the Fiordlands on the way. Turning some corners it was amazing how from the lack of sun's exposure the temperatures at the front deck would instantly drop some 10 degrees C!
The following day we headed to Lake Tekapo and along the way saw more beautiful vistas.
Tekapo to us turned out to be the most beautiful town of all (With a population of only 350). There's a stunning emerald blue lake whose surrounding mountain range had received it's first snowfall of the season just 2 days before we arrived!
This being our last day I'd hoped to travel to Christchurch in time to see http://www.britten.co.nz - a homemade & very uniquely designed bike built by John Britten (Who died some years ago from cancer) which had challenged Ducati's top racing bikes in the late 80's. Unfortunately the building they'd been stored in had been destroyed in the earthquake and the bikes partly damaged - so when I called that morning to check - I was told there was no display at this time.
So as our flight was at 5am the following day we had another full day and night to see more.
After a walk at the front of the lightly frosted lake (With amazing looking snow - see picture) we took a small road to the top of one of the mountains to the café there & to take in the stunning views. Truly beautiful.
Here we met two nice NZ ladies who had hiked all the way up icy paths early that morning and also a young chap from Hong Kong.
Offering them a lift down, they invited us to their luxury B&B for coffee which had a stunning view of the lake too (& great coffee!).
Asking if there were any other great things to see in the area & being a beautiful clear day - Stephanie suggested a drive to Mount Cook.
We saw beautiful snow-capped mountains with glaciers and eventually arrived at a glacier lake, with small icebergs floating in it! Met some South American Christian missionaries there who kindly took some family pictures before bidding us farewell and continuing on their travels.
We drove on into the sunset and stopped to take pictures of daylight with beautiful colours in the twilight, before returning to Tekapo for dinner at a Japanese restaurant which had been warmly recommended by Stephanie.
Very authentic and the Sashimi was very fresh too. Yuko had by coincidence met one of the waitresses during their travels in the North Island too!
We had about 3 hour's drive and 6 hours + to kill before checking in, so the family slept whilst I drove slowly, stopping to look at the clear night sky on the way. As we'd heard of the damage still remaining from the 2011 quake in Christchurch, I drove into the centre to see by night. There were still buildings waiting to be demolished, twisted metal frames of previous offices, abandoned library and many vacant plots of land. Progress with rebuilding is slow.
We'll probably return to NZ to see more, as we really enjoyed the whole trip. Next time we'll probably rent a camper truck, as these are a relatively inexpensive way to travel there as a family.
It's a stunning country to drive in. Lots of changes of scenery around mountain corners & over into new valleys. Perhaps next time (When Akira's a bit older) we'll go during the summer, but going at the beginning of the winter wasn’t so bad as we got to see the mountain peaks with snow on, which is perhaps prettier. Someday I'd really like to tour NZ on a motorcycle. That would be an amazing trip indeed and I know bikes are available for rent too!