Upon arrival in Christchurch we started tackling the most important task needed before starting our road trip through both islands — finding a suitable camper-van.
Finding a camper-van in New Zealand
The best two places to find camper-vans are either in Auckland (North Island) or Christchurch (South Island). Since we wanted to start our adventure in the South and work our way up to the slightly warmer North we chose Christchurch as our starting point.
Originally we hoped for a VW-type camper-van, i.e. with pop-top, fully-equipped kitchen inside and bed-convert-into-table layout. We soon realised that this wasn’t really on the cards. The vast majority of camper-vans are ‘self-designed’ ones, i.e. trade-vans, people carriers or just cars transformed to a ‘camper-van’ by chucking-in a mattress and crushing-in a mini-sink and never-to-be-used ‘toilet-bin’ in the back. These vans typically meet the requirements for a ‘self-contained vehicle’-sticker and, therefore, allow their owners to stay in the DoC provided free campsites with no facilities (as in theory at least, you have your own). In practice it seems no one actually uses their own toilet but rather prefers the intimacy and carefreeness of the bush. Probably not quite what the people who look after these spots had in mind…
Alex located a professional camper-van seller nearby and we decided to have a look what was on offer to get a feel for the market and different models. The slightly scruffy looking, but knowledgeable salesman and former mechanic showed us his cars and quickly persuaded us that maybe we were better off with a different type of van after all.
He explained that with us going into the colder autumn season and then looking to re-sell the car to winter-tourists a smaller car would be more suitable as it keeps the warmth in better than a larger model. He also pointed out that we should be looking at insulated vans (which the one he showed us conveniently was) rather than a ‘tin on wheels’ for the same reason. He reasoned further that the ‘self-contained vehicle’ sticker would indeed not be that desirable since many of the free campsites are tiny and cars crammed together and above all we could spend the money we saved for not having the sticker on slightly nicer campsites that do have at least some facilities (which surely we would want to do). He underlined the safety features of the car, i.e. the double-wheels in the rear, giving us extra grip on potentially icy roads, the shorter base, making it easier for the rear not to break away and of course the van’s comparatively young age (built 2001), giving us higher reliability.
After this convincing pitch we took a stroll and had a think about what he said and what we wanted. We haven’t really thought about how a long-wheel base car would be to drive up winding mountain roads or that maybe cooking inside a tiny car not designed for the job would leave stains, smells and perhaps a few accidents behind. We also investigated a map of all campsites and identified that the whole country is pretty much plastered with them, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one when needed.
We decided to take the camper-van for a closer inspection and a test drive around the block. Alex investigated every detail, asked questions and seemed satisfied with what he saw/heard. My investigations were more aligned with the ones of a four-year old, “What is this?” “What does this do?” However, I found out that the funny looking cat-robot brand logo was not a weird NZ brand after all, but rather the symbol of the Transformer (yes, from the movie) called ‘bumble bee’ which also explains the yellow colour.
All questions answered we decided to buy the van for 6,000 NZD (around 3000 GBP).
Have we made the right decision? Will bumble bee let us down? Will he ever show us his Transformer-self?
We shall find out soon!
Below are the websites and resources we used to find our camper-van:
Touch.trademe.co.nz (this is what people use instead of Google to buy/sell stuff)
Buy and Sell Campervan’s, Motorhomes, Camper-Cars IN New Zealand !
Motorhome Friends New Zealand
Sites for renting a camper-van from private people, similar to AirBnB:
First day in New Zealand and the camper-van was sorted. Phew! Now some other, albeit smaller, tasks loomed upon the horizon.
Getting a NZ SIM card
Luckily, through our UK Three ‘Feel at Home’ mobile package we can use our data abroad which turns out is especially useful in NZ were data seems to be ridiculously expensive ($30 for 1 GB). Speed of mobile data and most WiFi spots is still pretty shoddy in comparison to UK standards. You can only get 3G but even that seems so be more like Snail-G. Today trying to upload pictures for the blog took me a few good hours, a ton of failed attempts, a few years of my life and almost all of my battery….
Given the slow speed and expected poor coverage of mobile data in remote areas and the fact that many campsites need to be booked in advance one has to get familiar with the traditional ‘calling-method’. We found a good pay-as-you-go deal at The Warehouse (the local cheap-and-sells-everything shop) and voila we had a NZ phone number.
NZ Route planning
I had already planned 4 high level itineraries for the South Island and in the end we settled on option 4, mostly because it would take us through the most southern bit of NZ first and then moving steadily up north, see below:
Here are the other options:
The shortest of the four routes, encompassing the South island’s ‘must-sees’ but leaving out the most southern cities and coasts. If you don’t have endless amounts of time this one might be for you (still takes about 21 days).
A good route through the whole South island starting with the Arthur’s Pass which is supposed to be a beautiful drive, bringing you to the west coast, then south including a trip to Steward island, and then up north along the east coast.
Again a route encompassing the whole of the South island but this trip is starting up north first, before going south along the west coast and up north again on the east coast. Route 2, 3 and 4 would take about 4-6 weeks as a guess.
We also purchased Lonely Planet’s “New Zealand’s Best Trips – 26 Amazing Road Trips” which I can recommend for anyone doing a road trip themselves. It has detailed routes and points out any highlights, top spots or local oddities that can be viewed or visited along the way. The other advantage is that it picks the ‘scenic’ route rather than Google’s fastest.
For a ‘up-to-date’ (or as much as it can be) itinerary of our world travels view this: