After 2 weeks on the Kiwi Experience, we decided to slow our travels down a bit by renting a campervan to traverse the remainder of New Zealand’s South Island. A campervan is essentially an RV – a van that provides both a means of transport and accommodation.
We know… it sounds weird. But for some reason campervaning is the mode of transport in New Zealand and the country is replete with campervan infrastructure (and even an iPhone app that helps you navigate the whole concept). Imagine driving on an open road through New Zealand and getting to choose (essentially) anywhere beautiful to pull up, set out chairs, read, open a bottle of wine, cook up dinner, sleep, wake up, and repeat. That is exactly what we did for 10 days straight.
We learned a lot over the course of our 10 day, 1,000 mile journey from the South Island’s West Coast, in Milford Sound, to the Island’s East Coast, in Christchurch. Here are our Top Ten Lessons Learned in a NZ Campervan:
1. Splurge on a newer, more comfortable camper.
It is well worth the extra cost to get a van you are really comfortable in and that you don’t have to worry about breaking down. We opted for a Britz Venturer complete with a kitchen (i.e. a fridge, a sink and two stove tops), a toilet and shower (i.e an airplane-like bathroom stall), and two couches & a table that converted into a larger-than-king-size bed (and, to top it off, electric and gas hot water and heating systems). While sometimes we felt silly in our giant, fancy camper, we more often felt like it was the best money we spent.
2. Park & sleep in the most beautiful places you come across…
New Zealand has hundreds of both paid & unpaid campsites throughout the country in addition to “freedom camping” – the ability to camp on any public land that isn’t sign posted against it (sidenote: only “self-contained” vehicles can freedom camp, which is why we opted for a campervan with a bathroom). Each night, we found the most beautiful of these sites, and proceeded to cook dinner & breakfast, read & relax and sleep & wake up surrounded by lakes, forests and mountains.
3. …but make sure the campervan can get into and out of the campsite you choose.
After a wonderful first evening & wake-up alongside Lake Te Anau, we started the car and tried to head out, only our campervan couldn’t make it back up the loose-gravel slope we had taken down to the campsite. Luckily, we generously received help from 8 Germans and 3 Englishmen who offered their strength, a Frenchman who offered a rope, and a Swiss girl who offered a 4-wheel drive car, and after an hour of pushing, pulling and revving, we made it up the slope. From then on, we were much more cautious with our campsite selection.
4. Catch as many sunsets, sunrises, and star-filled nights as possible.
We lost count of the number of dusks and dawns we spent surrounded by a spectacular, colorful sky; the sight never ceased to amaze us. The even more spectacular sights often came after sunset when the stars of the Southern Hemisphere came out in full force. In Lake Tekapo we joined a night sky tour to admire Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve. Sleeping under the stars takes on a new form in an NZ campervan.
5. Practice “Whack-a-Mole” – you’ll need the skills to kill all of the dreaded NZ sand flies.
No matter how good of a campsite we found, we always ran into some amount of sand flies. These blood suckers leave tiny bites that are itchier than mosquitos bites. Several nights, after making the mistake of leaving our windows open while cooking at dusk, our campervan was swarmed by these pests, and we resorted to an all out whack-a-mole war. The better lesson is to leave your windows shut, but regardless a few sand flies are bound to find their way into the campervan, so be prepared.
6. Spend a few days exploring and staying along the Milford-Te Anau Highway.
Milford Sound is often at the top of people’s lists when they visit New Zealand. But almost everyone takes a day-trip there on a bus from Queenstown and by doing so misses out on so much of the area’s beauty. Driving the Milford-Te Anau Highway (the 2.5 hour highway to Milford Sound) over 4 days, we were able to take advantage of many hikes and viewpoints, such as Summit Peak (part of the Routeburn Trek), and we had more time at the beautiful Milford Sound. In addition, by staying in Milford an extra night, we were able to see the Sound in two completely different yet equally stunning ways: 1) via kayak on a clear day, watching the sun set between the gigantic granite slopes and 2) via cruise boat on a rainy day, watching the waterfall count in the Sound swell from a mere two to several hundred as the rain cascaded off the granite mountains.
7. Don’t plan to trek any of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” while you have your campervan, but do take advantage of day-hikes on at least one of these incredible treks.
New Zealand has 10 famous “Great Walks” on which hikers can spend 3-6 days trekking across the country’s beautiful landscape and sleeping in huts. Given the overnight nature of the hikes, it doesn’t make sense to rent a campervan to just sit it in the parking lot while you hike. Still, even with a campervan there are a number of awesome day hikes along the Great Walks. In addition to the Abel Tasman and Tongariro hikes we did on the Kiwi Experience, we tacked on a few days on the Kepler and Routeburn tracks. We did a day on each end of the Routeburn, both of which were phenomenal.
8. Load up on delicious New Zealand wine.
New Zealand has a burgeoning wine industry and makes some of our favorite wines: Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. We stocked up at local grocery stores and spent a day tasting and buying directly from the wineries in the Otago Lakes region, home to many Pinot Noir vineyards. Enjoying local wine with a sunset was the perfect way to end each day in our campervan.
9. Don’t over-plan, and leave room for flexibility.
As hard as it was for us Type-A personalities to leave our campervan adventure unplanned, we were so glad that we did. First, our random, spontaneous drives and stops through the New Zealand countryside proved to be one of our favorite parts of the trip. And second, we were able to adapt to the weather – this turned out particularly well at Milford Sound and Mount Cook, where instead of cloudy, windy & overcast weather we enjoyed sunny, blue & clear skies and spent the rainier days driving.
10. Quality over quantity.
While we enjoyed the Kiwi Experience (mostly because of the friends we made) we felt rushed as we travelled long distances and made several stops each day. We slowed things down in the campervan, and as a result had more time to soak in the scenery of NZ, simply posting up at a mountainous lakeside. In our 10 days campervanning we visited only three main regions – Fijordland, the Southern Alps (including Otago Lakes), and Canterbury – but felt like we actually got to see and experience more of New Zealand.
Campervanning proved to be one of the most peaceful and rewarding parts of our entire trip to date – we never wanted it to end and can’t wait to do it again. It is certainly not your typical vacation (and it is a little work) but that is part of what makes it so special. We can’t recommend it enough.
Additional lessons learned (the hard way):
- The water has not run out: turn on the water pump
- The electricity isn’t low: the battery meter is just schizophrenic (and you don’t really need to charge every other night – we charged once in 10 days!)
- Someone is not shaking the campervan: you are just caught in one of the South Island’s 180 daily earthquakes (and the 4.4 magnitude quake we felt is a relatively common occurrence)
- The counters aren’t suddenly slippery: you parked on a severe slope
- The campervan is not stuck (again): turn off the parking break