“We’ll pay for that,” I called to the campground owner as my husband and I plowed our way over a flowerbed and into our first night in a motor home on New Zealand’s South Island.
It was a line I feared I would use often in the coming days. Not only was this our first time to drive a vehicle bigger than the family mini-van, we were doing it on the left-hand side of the road.
But the people of New Zealand were friendly and forgiving, and the island’s legendary beauty had beckoned to us for years.
We could have signed up for any number of pre-packaged tours and let others do the driving. We could have rented a car. But oh, no. For some reason, my husband thought renting a motor home would be fun and this trip was his birthday present, his bucket list experience. We just didn’t count on such well-landscaped campgrounds.
On Your Bucket List because…
- You love the Lord of the Rings trilogy and want to see the movie locations.
- You love the outdoors, the natural environment, and a bit of a challenge.
- Good for those who like to travel independently and function well in small spaces.
Motor Home vs. Camper Van
In North America we would call this experience an RV vacation. But in New Zealand, they call it a camper van. There are few, if any, monstrosities on the road that would compare to the Class A or Diesel Pushers that fill U.S. road ways and campgrounds. The camper vans are Class B vehicles. Ours was 7.2 meters, which is about 23.6 feet long. And the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the vehicle.
Camper van vacations are quite popular in New Zealand and much of Europe. We encountered a number of Europeans — German, French, Irish, and several Australians. They are the masters of cooking, sleeping, bathing and traveling in a vehicle the size that most Americans use to transport the kids to soccer practice.
It was cozy, but we immediately got the hang of it. The kitchen had a tw0-stove burner, a microwave, sink, refrigerator, toaster, coffeepot and a basic collection of pots, pans, dishes and utensils. We used the outdoor grill and table on a couple of occasions and loved it — grilled chicken, fresh tomatoes, sliced cheese and a bottle of wine while we watched the sun set on the Tasman Sea.
The indoor kitchen table was also comfy, allowing me to get some work done each night. Then, it dropped down, we shuffled some cushions around, threw down some sheets, blankets and pillows and had ourselves a king-sized bed. The only thing I wish we had done differently is to pack in soft-side luggage or duffel bags. Our hard sided luggage didn’t fit in the storage space, so during the day, it traveled on the couch/bed.
At night, we moved the luggage into the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Not a big deal, but it would have been easier to fold them up and stuff them under the seats.
The only serious concern for most people would be the bathroom. In a space smaller than my kitchen pantry at home, the camper van designers cleverly installed a Munchkin-sized toilet, sink and shower. You would have to be mighty nimble and quite a bit smaller than most Americans to comfortably accomplish your daily personal needs in a space that small. I used it just a couple of times in a pinch and, yep, pinched, that’s how I felt. The good news — emptying the holding tank at the end of our trip was easier and not nearly as disgusting as cleaning our cats’ litter boxes.
Fortunately, for the bathroom challenged, New Zealand has some fabulous camping facilities. Wow! These were great places with sparkling clean restrooms, showers, laundry facilities, communal kitchens, movie and Internet centers.
Exploring New Zealand by Camper Van
We chose to explore New Zealand’s South Island, the lesser populated island, thus more rural areas, wide open roadways and little traffic. However, we flew into Christchurch on a Saturday and were fairly jet-lagged. If you are new to the camper van experience and are the least bit nervous about driving on the left hand side of the road, I would highly recommend you not try too much on the first day or two — even spend the first night in a hotel to get rested up.
We rented our camper van from the Maui Rentals, with a location less than a mile from the Christchurch airport. They picked us up and gave us about 30 minutes of safety training, discussing any significant differences in driving laws and other practicalities. Then they took us to the camper van that would be home for the next week and showed us where everything was neatly tucked away and how this & that worked. Before they gave us the keys, we then watched a DVD explaining other details. Did I mention we had a little 15-inch flat screen TV tucked away in a compartment?
With that, and another warning about driving on the left hand side of the road, they gave us the keys. We were off!
Sites to See on New Zealand’s South Island
We only had eight days and we easily could have spent two weeks or more on the South Island. We had a tentatively set a schedule and a route, but each scenic overlook or intriguing little community we passed through put us farther off our course.
We visited beautiful Hamner Hot Springs, drove the Lewis Pass to the Island’s west coast and traveled along Coastal Highway 6, which is considered one of the top scenic coastal roads in the world. We watched colonies of fur seals playing in the surf and we climbed on the Pancake Rocks at Parapoa National Park. We did a flight seeing tour over the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers all the way south to Milford Sound. We explored Mount Cook, the highest point in New Zealand and we dipped our toes in beautiful Lake Wanaka.
We drove about 1500 miles on the left hand side of the road in our little camper van, loving every minute and mile of it. And only that first night did we do any damage requiring my much feared line “We’ll pay for that.”
No matter the price, it was the trip of a lifetime!
- Remember that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, so when we’re experiencing spring and summer, they are experiencing fall and winter. Schedule your trip accordingly.
- We spent our night in campgrounds with the Holiday Parks of New Zealand endorsement. It’s kind of like KOA or AAA. You know it’s going to be good, and we were not disappointed.
- Before you spend too much on groceries, stop in at the communal kitchen in the campgrounds. You’ll often find spices, cooking oils, canned goods and other non-perishables donated by those who just finished their camping vacation. Remember to do the same when you leave.
- If you want to explore both islands in your camper van, plan on at least three weeks.
- Air New Zealand, the airline with the best bathrooms ever, offers daily direct flights to Auckland from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver on North America’s west coast.