Friday, February 3, 2012

Traveling in New Zealand by campervan

Camping in Mt. Cook National Park
When I started planning the New Zealand trip, we considered our transportation and lodging options.  I wanted to rent a vehicle, and we both prefer camping to staying in hotels.  But car camping was looking like a bit of a pain, as we'd need to bring camping gear from the states or buy stuff when we arrived.  Since we planned to bring our road bikes (and attendant cycling clothes, shoes, helmets, etc), it was looking like a lot of luggage to bring and drive around once we arrived.

Oceanside camping in Punakaiki, kind of- the beach was few steps through the path to the left of the van
Someone at work suggested that we rent a camper, and that idea really clicked.

In the Southern Alps near Arthur's Pass
I got right down to the research.  Campervan travel is extremely popular in New Zealand and there was no shortage of options.  I prioritized finding a smaller van (both length and height wise) for easier handling and better fuel economy.  I also wanted to be able to put the bikes inside the van while in transit, and we did not need a toilet and shower in the van.  I was pleased to find a VW van that was kind of a souped-up VW vanagon complete with a pop-up roof!
Harbor view from our Akaroa campgroup
We picked up the van in Christchurch and headed out for 19 days of adventure.  I must say at this point that I was not completely sure how much I would enjoy traveling by campervan.  I'd never even rented a car for an extended trip before, let alone a fussy van full of comfort items like a bed, power, water, a stove and fridge. It seemed sort of decadent, and also possibly a bit middle-aged :)

Morning rainbow over Lake Te Anau, from our campsite
I adapted to driving on the left fairly well and the van was pretty easy to handle once I got used to the wider turning radius required for the van.  And we settled in pretty well to life in the van. After about a day, we had everything mostly organized inside the van and had sorted out how to deal with the bikes (answer: inside the van upright without front wheels, lashed in, while traveling; outside the van locked to a wheel or nearby tree or fence while camping). 

Dan data-geeking in the van. The table was removable and stowed in the rear of the van. Pop-up roof created more headroom, which was nice when cooking and moving around in the van
After about two nights, we confided in each other how much we loved traveling this way.

Things Dan particularly liked: having a movable home, not having to deal with the hassle of checking in and out of lodging, unpacking cars and the like, super easy to find camping with no pre-defined itinerary, the speed and ease of setting up/breaking up "camp" (about 7-10 minutes, max). Things I particularly liked: the comfortable chairs (guess I am officially aged), having our stuff organized in a compact mobile space, no hassles carrying the bikes, easy in and out, being able to sit and chill in an insect-free space in beautiful places, minimal hassle in finding places to stay.  We both liked the power (charging up things, the electric tea kettle).

Interior of the van with table removed. The seat folded down to make a bed, but we used the other bed in the pop-up
We mostly stayed in holiday parks, which typically included powered sites for RVs and vans, tent camping and communal cooking facilities and laundry. Oh, and wireless for an additional fee. Decadent. The layout of the sites tended to be a bit utilitarian: lawns and slots for vans or tents, though we stayed at one site which had more vegetation separating the sites and thus was a bit more like a US state park campground in that respect.  We sometimes cooked at the communal facilities and sometimes in the van.

Rainforest vegetation in our Franz Josef campsite
Many of these campgrounds were in spectacular locations and while they were often moderately crowded, they were generally pretty quiet at night (with the exception of Queenstown, where we had a noisy drunk at 2am ). We had no trouble getting into campgrounds, even when arriving late in the afternoon. 

Storage space in rear of the van. I mostly lived out of my duffel bag, but Dan partly unpacked into a small closet space
We also stayed at department of conservation (DOC) sites, which were relatively undeveloped (no power, pit toilet and cold water) but really cheap and in great locations.  Both types of camping had their advantages, though I think we both would have liked to spend more nights in DOC sites.  There was a tranquility to the less developed sites and we really enjoyed the lower key atmosphere.

Bed in the pop-up top. We slept up here, which was very cosy and had the added advantages of being able to leave the bed made-up the entire time and letting me sleep in while Dan did stuff in the early morning
We ended up driving about 1300 miles, getting about 23-24 mpg (diesel).  We started the trip with three days of a few hours of driving in the am and activities in the afternoon and evening, but switched to a pattern of driving then staying in one place for two to four days.  In retrospect, we both thought the trip had a lot of driving, perhaps too much, though I would be hard pressed to think of what I would have eliminated from our trip.  We went to so many beautiful places!

Van with roof folded down for travel, in DOC campground on Lake Wanaka. Lower height while traveling = better fuel efficiency
All in all, a fantastic trip! Here is my blog post with lots of New Zealand travel, cycling and campervan information.


djconnel said...

Nice! Kea should hire you as marketing director! :)

Anonymous said...

I found your blog through the NY Times frugal traveler. Thanks for sharing this. My wife and I have been to NZ twice. I'd move there if they weren't so strict on immigration!!!

Thanks for posting this. It brings back great memories.


NadiaMac said...

Thanks for the comment Steve! We both thought this was one of our best vacations ever. I'd go back in a heartbeat.