Harriet Rouse shares details of her 11-night road trip in New Zealand - with her husband and two teens.
There are few times when I’ve truly questioned a holiday that I have booked, but booking for eleven days in a campervan – in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter – in New Zealand with my two teens, husband, and associated luggage was one that had me googling hotel alternatives in advance, with us betting as a family how many days we’d go before we booked into something with walls and a bed. And a bathroom.
It’s not that we only do fancy. We love nothing more than a Premier Inn, but camper vans are notoriously small. With four of us firmly adult-sized and two teens who do not pick up or clear up after themselves (most of the time, there are surprises now and again), the whole van living was a concern.
Spoiler alert: we not only survived all eleven nights in the van, but we finished our stint in New Zealand closer as a family, craving the simplicity of the open road and wishing this beautiful country wasn’t the other side of the world.
Given our time constraints, we only explored the South Island and booked a Maui Elite – the luxury end of the camper van experience, but still delightfully basic. All towels, sheets, and crockery are included, along with links to YouTube guides for the heater, house battery, cleaning the loo, and wastewater.
Being entirely new to van life, we learned quickly because we had to, and people we met on our campsites were super happy to share their experiences and advice. Overwhelmingly, the takeaway is that New Zealand is set up for van life. As it was winter, we only used powered sites rather than ‘free camping’ since we wanted to plug in and guarantee heating (also, having issued a strict ‘no poo in the van loo’ mandate before stepping on board. There was an app we downloaded with every site, petrol station, dump station, and it was invaluable. That said, everyone was so helpful, I can imagine a time pre-wifi where you could follow your nose.
We travelled in August – winter in New Zealand - and flew into Christchurch. We spent the first night at The Observatory Hotel and had a wander, stocked up on provisions, acclimatised to the cold (having come from a 40-degree Tokyo), and had a very loose plan. Because it was winter, there was a lot of availability on the sites, so we only booked on the day. The drives are long, but you can stop anywhere. Be that a viewpoint, a vineyard, or a random picnic spot just because. Oh, and pretty much every petrol station sells the best pies: mince and cheese. I am basically half pie now.
We travelled south to Wanaka on day one via Lake Tekapo, where we got out and stretched our legs (simply beautiful) and arrived at our first campsite in the dark. This added to the ‘how do you plug in’ jeopardy, and a pasta-based dinner (there were many of these), but was rewarded with heating, warm showers, and skies full of stars. We hired mountain bikes and took a ‘nice easy trail’ that was about 20km and involved a couple of sheer drops. One of which I dropped down (I am not good on two wheels). One child nearly wet themselves with laughter, the other wept as she thought the two-metre fall would kill me. My husband retrieved my mountain bike from the tree I’d lobbed it into. Then we went to the pub.
Now, I’m not going to gloss over sleeping arrangements. We had a six-berth caravan for four people, but this was a squeeze because we are all adult-sized. The teens took a small, coffin-height double above the cab. We left the dining area and four seats, converting the back area into our bed/daytime snug. Now, I’m all for multi-purpose spaces, but had this been my van, there would have been a single piece of foam to go over the cushions. As it was, my husband spent the trip sleeping in a groove, and my right shoulder will probably never be the same again (or perhaps that’s just because I’m forty-three). I appear to be turning into the Princess and the Pea.
From Wanaka, we headed south for four hours and dog-legged back, taking a trip to the mountain pass into Milford Sound, which we were told was a must-see for the trip. Said mountain pass was closed a few hours later due to snow, so we were stuck. This would usually make me panic as we had to shift dates and plans around, but van life is fluid! You can change reservations! You can stay somewhere you love (perhaps more importantly, leave somewhere if it is rubbish). The solitude and nature of the temperate rainforest, the birds, the rain, and the water were just wonderful. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, so we count ourselves extremely lucky to have seen it that way. I had – fortunately – enough wine to see us through the extended stay, which went from one to three nights. And as I said earlier, there was a lot of pasta!
From Milford Sound, we headed up to Queenstown for two nights, which involved jetboating and a distinct lack of bungee jumping (no thanks!). We headed north to Lake Tekapo again, booked into the hot pools, and soaked away our aches looking out onto the lake. And just like that, it was time to head back to Christchurch, where we stayed in a campsite north of the City on a beach we had to ourselves for two nights, catching an Uber into town to eat and partaking in a ‘nice easy’ aerial tree trek, which was about as traumatic as the bike ride. If a Kiwi tells you something is easy (physically), it won’t be.
I know that New Zealand is probably more of a summer destination, but I feel the roads, campsites, and tourist sites must get very busy. We made up our trip as we went, having only looked at an outline. Everything felt really… well, easy. The space was small, but we had everything we needed, and what we have are eleven days of unforgettable memories all shared together. And it turns out the kids are pretty capable. Both helped with navigating, plugging the van in, and even helping with water and wastewater (not the loo, though; that joy was all mine!). And one wants to travel in a van for a gap year, so it can’t have been too traumatic.
Next van trip coming soon….*
*Just joking. We’re staying in hotels next holiday. But I would never say never! It was a special trip.