New Zealand: there really isn’t anything quite like this country. Everywhere you turn there’s something stunning to see. At the end of every day you crawl into bed and think, there is no way I’ll see anything more beautiful than what I saw today. The next day your jaw will drop and you’ll be speechless yet again. You’ll be doing yourself a dis-service if you don’t see the country by road and stay in camp sites along the way. See New Zealand by campervan.
I spent two full weeks living the van life in New Zealand. Most people thought I was a little nutty to be going on a road trip in a foreign country in a right hand drive vehicle that I’ll be living in with someone I’ve been dating for only 6 months. In true Fox fashion I’d just laugh. Naw, it’ll be fine. It was as close to perfect as I’d ever want it to be. You learn a lot about someone on the road, especially in close quarters. Squirrel and I realized that we are of the same tree on that trip. It was an experience that I will soon not forget.
The trip didn’t come without its fair share of challenges. I was accustomed to traveling through the developing world on a dime; sleeping on couches, eating unknown food at street stalls, and sitting next to chickens over long rides on public buses. Squirrel…well Squirrel went on a cruise through the Caribbean once. Needless to say, New Zealand by van offers adventure and excitement for everyone, regardless of their travel resume.
I could write endlessly about New Zealand. However I thought I’d start out by giving some ins and outs about daily life on the road in NZ. And how to do it without breaking the bank. Let’s face it, compared to relying on the hospitality of strangers and local bus “schedules” in Vietnam, New Zealand is much more expensive. However, by going at the start of the shoulder season, and relying on yourself for your experiences, it isn’t all that tough on the wallet either.
Choosing the Right Ride for the Job
It took a good deal of research to figure out what to drive and find the best deal. There are countless options out there and hundreds of companies to choose from. I’ll save you the boring bits and get to the point. First, we narrowed it down to a van. RVs are simply too cumbersome and overpriced. Sure, you can pull over and camp practically wherever if you have a toilet on board (New Zealand law), but honestly DOC campsites suited our needs just fine (see the next section). We ruled out a car for two reasons, one it does not provide housing. Yes, you can definitely bring or rent camping gear and give it a go that way. We saw lots of younger 20-somethings doing this. However, we definitely didn’t envy them when it rained for three days straight and we watched a group argue with a girl in tears because they put their wet tent in the same bin as their sleeping bags.
Our mighty ride of choice was from Escape Campervans. We wanted something with a little bit of space, a touch of luxury, and some good ‘ol flair – Escape offered us just that. All of their vans are uniquely painted by local artists. The van had a queen sized bed in the back which was a plus compared to other brands. Our van, dubbed the Volcan, was an older model. It ran smoothly and tackled both mountains and dirt like a beast. The service Escape Campervans provided was top notch and booking was a breeze. We read complaints about the bed being a bit too stiff (the pads were wearing thin), we just brought along our Thermarests for backpacking and had zero problems. The Thermarest actually came in handy for lounging around outside the van as well. The company was laid back but professional and very easy to deal with.
Home is Where You Park It
New Zealand is beautiful, period. If you aren’t staying in DOC campsites you truly aren’t doing it right. DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites are scattered throughout the country. They run you about $6-$7 NZD (roughly $4 USD) a night. They had toilets of varying degrees of cleanliness but definitely much more well maintained than almost anything you would see on park land in the US. The sites were always in beautiful spots. The one knock I have with camping in NZ is that everyone is up in everyone else’s business. Coming from someone who usually car camps for free with quite a bit of privacy on the backroads of Colorado, having someone park right next to you ruined the experience at times, especially when there was plenty of open space elsewhere (I still to this day don’t get that). We went in March – the start of the slow season out there, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like during the high season.
What about a shower you say? Laundry? You guys must have STUNK. Well, partially true, but fear not, if you’re not comfortable being a little more dirty there are options for you. When we just couldn’t stand the smell of ourselves anymore (ie tired of the famous dirtbag “Wet Ones bath”, or there was a particularly interesting place to stay near, we would stay in a holiday park. Holiday parks are more upscale, privately owned, and cost a little more to stay in. Amenities included: flush toilets, showers (usually for a small fee), sometimes laundry, a common kitchen, playground, RV hookups, etc. Some even have small trailers or rooms for rent. We stayed in one holiday park in a rural part of the central south island where there were definitely permanent residents. They vary as well, but the hospitality was always fabulous.
We relied heavily on the CamperMate app since we were often flying by the seat of our pants. We had a route, but definitely left where we were going to stay each night up to the joys of adventure!
I probably could – and should – write an entire post just on this topic. To keep it short I’ll hit the highlights.
Rule 1 – Wait
The first rule of vanlife in NZ would actually be to wait. Yes, you read right, wait. Squirrel and I thought it would be “no big deal” to fly for 24 hours across the globe, arrive in Christchurch, pick up the van, drive through a construction ridden city in a right hand drive vehicle, and then continue onwards for an hour or so until we reached Akaroa. To make matters worse, we arrived utterly exhausted at where we wanted to stay that night only to realize that there was a drum circle festival going on. Not really what we had in mind. I would definitely not recommend going about business that way. Stay somewhere in town, get some rest, get your wits about you, then hit the road the next day.
Rule 2 – Balance
Rule number 2 for vanlife is to stay balanced. I’m an American living in the western US. We pride ourselves on being road warriors. Distances are so vast from place to place out here that a 16 hour drive just gets me to shrug my shoulders. Don’t try to cram too much in here – you’ll be stopping every 30 minutes to get out and freak out over how beautiful it is. Eventually we had to stop stopping or we wouldn’t make progress. There really aren’t any endless boring stretches of road like – no offense – most of the state of Nevada. Beauty is everywhere, and I’m convinced the road designers built the roads so they would be best enjoyed in a sports car.
We looked into what we could accomplish in 2 weeks and decided to rule out the entire North Island (the South Island is more beautiful anyway). Our itinerary was pretty aggressive. We wanted to see the entire South Island top to bottom, and we did. It was quite funny, most of the Europeans we ran into thought we were slightly insane, but we never felt rushed. We drove just over 2,000 miles in two weeks and we spent the night at a different place each night. We averaged about 3-5 hours of driving a day (with the exception of one 10 hour day early on in the trip – but we stopped quite a bit). Whatever your style, you’ll see quite a bit in 2 weeks.
This daily life of drive a little play a lot was easily accomplished thanks to the prohibition of campfires. At first I thought it was a bit ridiculous – how can you camp and not have a fire?!? However, we ended up living by the sun. Sun went down, we went to sleep. The sun rose, we were awake. Generally we rose early and beat the crowds. We’d take our time arriving at our next destination and still have most of the day to hang out and enjoy the sites.
Rule 3 – Be Creative
Rule number 3 is be resourceful. Don’t go buy a ton of stuff you only need for your time on the road. Get creative. Escape had a little nook in their shop where you could pick up things other campers had left in their vans. Someone left a bag of tea lights. Each night Squirrel and I would light a row of them up on the sink/counter of the van and write in our travel journal.
I would wash my clothes in the sink and air dry them by clipping them to the drape wire in the van with clothespins I found. Raining? No problem, pop the hatch of the van up and sit underneath it, no need to retreat inside. Buy local wines, ciders, fresh fruit/veggies/eggs at stalls along the road. Use only what you need (we used the cardboard from cider purchases for a cutting board). Enjoy living simply. You don’t need a million things to get by.
Just enjoy the van, scenery, open road, and wind in your hair!
Want to hear more about my trip? Others like it? Got any expert advice? I’ve just scratched the surface! Comment below.