IT didn't exactly start perfectly, with Zenchai throwing a tizzy in a car park in Christchurch (a case of being too hungry). But it only could get better from there. And, thankfully, it did.
The landscape in NZ is overwhelmingly spectacular. Each day, when I thought it couldn't get any better, it did. Often we'd see ice-capped mountains, rolling green hills, blue lakes - all in the same location!
The roads, especially on the South Island, were practically empty. No traffic jams. There were occasional, though brief, roadworks. But it was a pleasure getting around.
However, we tried not to be on the road too long each day (between two and three hours) to save our children from boredom and confinement. Often we'd time the driving for when Kobra would take her nap.
We did most of our camping in DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites. We received a booklet when we hired our Rocket rental vehicle and each night aimed for a DOC site near where we aimed to stop.
The sites are all relatively cheap (around NZ$15 per night) and in some extraordinary locations. The entry fee goes towards maintenance of the sites. Facilities are usually quite basic. We did most of our bathing in chilly but stunning, picture-postcard lakes or rivers. For shaving, I would try to find a public toilet en route or use the reflection of the car windows as my mirror.
We were mostly fortunate with the weather. It was summer time after all. We hardly saw rain the first week and there were just a few days when we were washed out.
The rain would also make it harder for sleeping. Not only did it sound loud pounding on the roof, but our canopy at the back of the vehicle would, in the case of a heavy downpour, leak a little. We just turned ourselves around, so our heads were in the middle of the vehicle rather than the back.
But, generally, we all slept reasonably well. We were tightly packed, but that was great on the few chilly nights when the skies were clear.
In campsites there would often be children for ours to play with. We could see Zenchai's confidence growing in approaching other youngsters. He had a ball. So did Kobra. One day when we stayed by the amazing Lake Hawea, north of Queenstown, Zenchai just walked over to some children and the next thing we knew he was on a speedboat trip. He just took off on the lake. We laughed about how our son was off with some strangers we'd never met. But we felt sure he was safe and loving it. I heard him brag to one other child as he boarded the boat, "I've been on a ship called the Sea Shepherd. It's a real pirate ship, you know?"
However, Kobra fell asleep while Zenchai was out on the water and, because we needed to get going, Jamie and I started looking at each other, thinking 'How long is he going to be out there?'
In the end, I had to kayak to the boat (using a kayak our camping neighbours had kindly offered to us) to get Zenchai back. Like those neighbours, the people we met along our trip were always friendly. I found customer service in NZ to be outstanding, too. The Kiwis are a welcoming bunch.
From there we made our way across land, via Gore towards Te Anau, where there is a fabulous lake and we stayed the night. The following day we headed north to the unforgettably stunning Milford Sound in Fiordland, taking in the mountains, valleys and breathtaking scenery.
There is just one road there, Milford Sound being the only fiord accessible by land. Make sure you fill your vehicle with petrol before you head there as there are no gas stations.
Although it's full of young people on adrenaline rushes (lots of adventure-type activities going on here) and a ski town in the winter, Queenstown is beautiful. The water, almost turquoise in parts, reminded me of Europe's fantastic Adriatic Sea.
Queenstown can be expensive, so we headed out for our next stop at another special DOC campsite at Moke Lake.
The next day, after passing through sparkling Wanaka, we stayed at Kidds Bush at Hawea Conservation Park, again by the lake. It was also breathtaking.
We didn't feel disappointed until the next day, when we camped out at Paringa Lake and got ambushed by sand flies. We had been warned. But it didn't help. It was so severe they came through into the car during the night along with mosquitoes. We slept mostly with covers over our faces and then Jamie and I made an executive decision first thing in the morning - to sling everything in the back of the car and get out as fast as we could!
On the next stage of our journey we passed through the gold-mining town of Ross, which is apparently sitting on NZ$700 million of the precious metal. Zenchai got his own mining pan and gave it a go in the nearby river, excitedly hoping he'd get rich. No such luck.
By the time we reached Hokitika further up the west coast, rain was on its way. For the second night running (but for different reasons) our sleep was broken. But the kids didn't seem to be affected much. With rain lashing down, we took to the roads and, because we couldn't see a great deal, just kept driving, getting as far as Motueka.
There, we found a decent campsite, full of children for Zenchai and Kobra to play with. The next day we headed to Golden Bay in the impressive Abel Tasman National Park, where we had the beach to ourselves. The sun was out, but the wind fresh. Zenchai and I did some sprint training and then built sandcastles.
We moved on to Kaiteriteri, staying in the Bethany Park campsite where they offered a family deal for only NZ$20. Zenchai made friends again. He was playing football in the dark. The next morning, with the sun shining gloriously, we headed for the beach before hitting the roads, passing through Nelson as we proceeded north.
Hours of driving took us to Rarangi, where we stopped at the remote Whites Bay. It took some finding, going up lots of winding roads. That night, before dinner, firemen came to our site to warn us of a possible Tsunami from the earthquake in the Soloman Islands. The beach was closed. But nothing happened.
It wasn't far from there to catch the ferry across the Strait from Picton, where there is an excellent kids playground. Luckily for us the Strait was calm (ish). It was a glorious day. By 4.30pm we were in Wellington again. We didn't stop, instead heading onwards Otaki, where we camped at Otaki Forks, a gorgeous spot in the Tararua Forest Park. We had the place to ourselves and a glorious river to bathe in the next morning - though it was the coldest plunge pool I'd ever experienced!
We did a spot of shopping in Otaki at outlet malls, especially for Icebreaker clothing as we equipped ourselves for our next stop, Vancouver. Icebreaker clothing is expensive (it supposedly doesn't smell from prolonged use), but there were some great deals.
Our journey took us back to Napier, where we stayed with friends for three nights, having intended to be there only two. We just couldn't bring ourselves to leave and I got to revisit CrossFit Napier - three times!!
From Napier it was a two-hour drive to Taupo, where we stopped for lunch, and then another 90 minutes to Tauranga, where we ended up at a caravan park not typical of the places we had frequented on the rest of our journey. It was cheap (NZ$20), but the notice in the kitchen warning about theft in the area didn't exactly make us feel at home.
The nearer to Auckland we went, the more traffic we encountered. Tauranga, for instance, was surprisingly congested. We ended up racing the clock a little to reach our hostel in Auckland, buy food for dinner and our flight out of New Zealand the next day and then take our rental Rocket to a car wash before dropping it off by 4pm.
We made it without a hitch. The staff at Spaceship (Rocket) were friendly as ever. They didn't baulk at the broken tent either. It was a (standard) NZ$25 cab fare back to the hostel as we entered our final 24 hours in New Zealand.
In terms of travel highlights since we departed the UK over three years ago, New Zealand is right up there at the top.