New Zealand By Campervan

Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

Of all the modes of transportation we will take this year, and that very well might include them all, the campervan we had reserved in New Zealand for two weeks was easily the most eagerly anticipated. The boys literally counted down the days until they would be in their rolling mobile home. They were not too concerned about where it would actually take them, it was all about being in a vehicle that they could chill out in during long drives and camp out in at night. We even nicknamed it “Tourtelvis”–Tour for its main mission and Elvis after the pompadour-like overhead compartment hanging over its front end (not to mention the name of Dread Zeppelin’s lead singer).

Seeing New Zealand by campervan is widely considered one of the best ways to explore the country. Its popularity stems largely from the fact that there’s just so darn much beautiful nature to see here, and unlike in the United States, it’s all compressed into a relatively small amount of real estate. Almost one-third of the country is designated as national parkland, and on the South Island, you can see turquoise blue ocean, temperate rain forest, rolling farmland, and snow-covered mountains all within a couple hours drive. The infrastructure is also quite hospitable and easily handles all the tourists who choose this option, making it very manageable and convenient for first time renters like us.

One of the main draws, besides the fact that it would provide us with a terrific family bonding opportunity (12 months on the road together already offers plenty of that), was the luxury of having a single place to call home for an extended period of time. But I think we were smart in taking our travel agent’s advice to spend a little extra money to get the six-person model campervan. There were several less-expensive four-person models to choose from, but we were urged to consider that the space in the six-person unit would be far more comfortable and accommodating. Given the amount of luggage we had along, this certainly proved to be the case, particularly given the sleeping arrangements, which included three double beds, two of which we assembled each night. If we actually had six persons on board, I think it would be quite cozy, to put in kindly.

There’s also a lot to be said about not having to pack and unpack during a multiple-stop tour of a place. Having a campervan gave us a great deal of flexibility and freedom, for one of the advantages of traveling this way in New Zealand is the fact that you can seek out your own remote mountain view, beach, or valley for the night, and there are certainly plenty of those just off the side of the road to choose from. On the legendary track to Milford Sound, for example, we found a spot right beside a roaring river that overlooked the Fiordland’s incredible peaks. If they had hotel rooms with views like this, they probably would charge what we paid for the entire rental. And that’s the beauty of New Zealand, it’s not designed with the “exclusive traveler” in mind. Its natural splendor is completely accessible and “inclusive” to every type of traveler, and the Kiwis welcome everyone.

We also stayed at several powered campsites and holiday parks which can be found in almost every town. Most offered showers, Internet access, playgrounds, and cooking facilities, all for about $20-35 per night. Although not always as scenic, we found that it’s essential to hook up to electricity, water, and get a hot shower at least every 2-3 days. It also proved a great way to meet fellow travelers, most of whom where much younger than Carol and I, and many who we seemed to run into more than once. It’s easy to do that because on the South Island, there are long stretches of road where the only people you see are tourists, and there aren’t even too many of those (at least in months other than December and January).

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We’d often comment to each other, “Where is everyone?” Mind you, it certainly didn’t bother me having the left lane to myself, for driving a 22-foot-long/almost ten-feet-tall house on wheels was at first more than a little intimidating, especially because it had a manual transmission and the steering wheel on the right-hand side. And as Stefan so aptly pointed out, I couldn’t just run into town for a quick carton of milk–I’d have to take the whole house and family with me! So I was thankful that the roads were not crowded and were in pretty good shape, albeit quite hilly and curving in most places. Parking and backing up was often an adventure, which included getting the rear right tire stuck in the mud at a pullover for the Cascade Creek Walking Track near Gunn Lake during our visit to the Fiordland National Park. Fortunately, other day-trippers made the same stop and helped us push our way out. I was also pleasantly surprised with the decent gas mileage the van got, thanks to its diesel engine (which also costs less to fill up). All said and done, the price of the rental, fuel and site fees were probably a wash compared to just hiring a car and stopping at B&Bs, motels, and hostels along the way. However, nothing can equal the joys of quality family time around the in-board dining table or settling in for the night among New Zealand’s famous natural grandeur.

In some strange way, we all felt a personal attachment to Tourtelvis and were quite sad to return it. It was like saying good-bye to a member of our family. But unlike the boys, Carol and I very much cared about where we visited while we had it, which I’ll report on in my next posting.

Photos: Rainer Jenss

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