When organizing this impulsive trip, we gave a lot of thought not only to where we would go, but also how we’d get around once we got there. We planned on mostly using public transportation – trains, buses, ferries and so on – instead of renting cars, but in New Zealand, we wanted to rent a campervan. And we are so pleased that we did.
If you’re British, you probably get the inside joke of the license plate.
New Zealand is roughly the same size as Great Britain or Japan, but holds just over four million residents in comparison with Britain’s 64 million and Japan’s stunning 127 million. This means, of course, that there is a great deal of open country – and because food and accommodation might be few and far between, a campervan is the perfect way to explore. (It’s also called caravanning, but that’s usually only when you’re using a regular vehicle to tow a caravan that has no engine of its own. That’s commonly known as fifth-wheeling in the U.S.)
New Zealand is so friendly and welcoming to campervans; we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of vans of all shapes and sizes during our time here, proving that it is one of the most popular ways to see the country. There are campgrounds everywhere, from basic and rustic to luxurious; most of these have small motel rooms as well as powered and non-powered sites plus places for tent campers. Amenities vary, but almost always include common showers, toilets and kitchens, and there is often a pool or hot spring too.
Fernland Spa, near Tauranga, offers private open-air hot spring pools. The pools are filled from the spring, then drained into the nearby estuary, cleaned and refilled after every use, eliminating the need for chemical treatments.
The greatest advantage of campervanning is definitely the flexibility. We drafted a rough itinerary before we arrived, mostly based on N’s year living here back in the early 2000s, of places he wanted to revisit or had never been. But once we got on the road, we loved being able to stay in a place longer or leave early if it suited our plans. Had we booked all of our accommodation at B&Bs and hotels in advance, there would be none of this.
One of our very favorite campsites right on the ocean in Clifton, Hawke’s Bay.
The other biggest draw, especially on a trip of this length, is the ability to save a lot of money by cooking most of our own food. While I’m not making anything fancy, I am cooking simple, delicious meals appropriate to the summery weather and what we discover on our travels. We’ve been in a lot of agricultural regions, and many farms and orchards have unmanned honesty stands on the side of the road. Signs advertise what’s available, you select what you want and put your money in the box. We’ve bought just-harvested tomatoes, dried figs, zucchini, new potatoes, tons of fruit and anything else that catches our fancy. We’ve eaten a lot of local lamb, plus fresh sausages from the butcher, and it’s refreshing not to agonize over my meat purchase for endless minutes: all of the meat is pasture-raised in New Zealand, and none of it comes from a CAFO. Even tiny grocery stores in dusty little towns have a great selection of local meat. Just being able to make our own coffee and tea saves so much money rather than buying to-go drinks every day.
On the menu: local venison and merlot sausages, grilled potatoes and onions, fresh tomatoes with olive oil and salt, and a simple cabbage coleslaw.
As in the U.S., there are various membership programs you can join that offer discounted rates at particular campgrounds; we’ve used an invaluable (and free!) app called CamperMate to navigate our way to parks in a particular region. Freedom camping is also popular and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: sleeping in a designated area for free, but without any services like showers and sometimes not even toilets. This is often not popular with local residents, however, because there have been many cases of freedom campers basically turning a lovely local spot into their own unserviced campground, and therefore freedom camping is heavily regulated and often banned outright. We’ve freedom-camped a couple of times, but it’s not always ideal for a variety of reasons.
Camping by a gorgeous river near Tongariro National Park.
If you want to travel New Zealand by campervan, do your research; it’s essential to understand exactly what size and style of vehicle you’ll be renting. If you plan on doing any freedom camping, you’ll need to be certified self-contained, or CSC. The CSC sticker allows you to stay in more remote sites where other vehicles wouldn’t be permitted, and there are definitely rangers patrolling who will issue stiff $200 fines if yours isn’t displayed. You should also know that renting a campervan isn’t cheap; when we were first researching, we were stunned by quotes of nearly $8K for our month here, and after that you still need to pay for campgrounds unless you freedom-camp exclusively. There are also diesel taxes, tolls, and hefty charges for the ferry if you want to travel between the North and South Islands.
Semis at sunrise on the Interisland Ferry en route from Wellington to Picton.
For our American readers, remember that New Zealand drives on the left; unless you’re very comfortable with handling larger vehicles, you’ll absolutely want to book in some practice time in a safe area before you hit the open road. And finally, New Zealand has basically one major north-south motorway; all of its other roads are relatively small two-lane roads, especially compared to our massive flat, straight American highways. Journeys here are measured by time, not by distance; you can’t read “Auckland to Wellington, 658 kilometers” on the map and assume that will only be an six-hour journey – it’s closer to ten. It takes a lot longer to get to places here than you might expect, and the driving can be challenging and tiring with a lot of hills and narrow, windy roads. Driving a campervan in New Zealand isn’t for the faint-of-heart – but we’d argue that it’s by far the best way to see these gorgeous islands.
P.S. A million thanks to my amazing, incredible partner, who grew up driving on the left and took on the challenge of this journey with literally no help from me whatsoever. I will never be able to make him enough coffees to thank him!