New Zealand RVing Adventure
October/November 2003, Jaimie and her granddaughter Gabrielle flew to New Zealand, rented a campervan, and traveled around the south island. The following appeared in RV Lifestyles ezine. (Subscribe here.)
Our camper van was an older model so we got a good deal. It had a toilet, but you still emptied the tank like a porta pottie so it was only for emergencies. It ran on diesel, which was about 61 cents/liter as opposed to 107 cents for gas. When the main bed was down you could barely move by. Newer models may be different. Ours was a 2 + 1, so we had another bed which folds down from the ceiling. We ran out of propane one nightóvery chilly! On our walk-through, the agent told us it ran on electric when plugged in. That is true of the newer models, but not ours.
We have never seen so many sheep! Pastures and pastures of them, plus some cows and also deer, which are raised for meat. It is spring so pastures and hillsides are green. The rhododendron were in bloom as was gorse, a noxious bush brought in from England. Like tamarisk in the Southwest, gorse has spread and pushed out native plants.
The exchange rate certainly favored Americans with $100US getting about $160NZ. Another bonus, Gabrielle qualified for the "childrenís rate" on most things, saving us lots of money. In most cases, a child qualifies for discounts through age 14.
CAMPERVAN AND MOTORHOME RENTALS: We used Pacific Horizon (Eclipse 2+1 campervan) and found a good deal on their "specials" page for one first used the 1998-99 season. Rental was the equivalent to about $55/day and included insurance, propane, and unlimited mileage. The highest rates are mid-December through February, during the summer. Other frequently seen rental companies are Kea, Britz, Maui. One RV friend gave this guideline: if you are staying more than six weeks, buy a vehicle or van and sell at the end of your trip. If less, then rent. It is definitely worth taking the time to do research on the Net and find the best deal. Prices vary tremendously.
Caution: If you purchase a used vehicle, get it inspected first. Our rear brakes disintegrated on the trip. There are lots of hills and mountains and many drivers do not know to use their transmission along with their brakes. Pacific Horizon responded by providing a newer model van. However, if you purchase youíd be stuck with a repair bill. Some RV rental companies will sell you an RV with a buy-back agreement. Make sure you can exchange it if problems or have an inspection.
HOLDING TANKS: Campervans and motorhomes have removable tanks for black and gray water. In our first campervan we collected water from the sink in a bucket! In the second campervan we could have pulled up to the dump spot to empty the gray water but had to physically remove the tank for the toilet to empty it. You did not have a place to connect a sewage hose at your site.
FUEL: It is probably worth paying extra to get a diesel engine. Diesel was $.60/liter while gasoline was $1.06/liter. Most gas stations also sold propane. We were reimbursed for any propane we used.
TIME TO VISIT: One Christchurch couple told us that May in the last few years has had excellent weather. Rates drop mid-April in the NZ autumn so that might be a good time to go. Though we had a lot of drizzle, clouds, and rain, we never had a problem getting a site in a campground. We also were able to do all the tours except one making last minute reservations. Better weather means higher prices and crowds.
MOTOR PARKS: The RV or motor parks were great! Besides electric sites, you could tent-camp or get a room. Most were motels too or had backpacker rooms. Each park had at least one kitchen, an amenity block (toilets and showers), laundry, and usually a lounge with TV. Most campers cook and eat in the park kitchen so it was an excellent way to meet other travelers from all over the world.
You could purchase a card for the two major motor park associations: Kiwi Holiday parks and Holiday Accommodations Parks, including the Top Ten Holiday parks with more amenities. The second one cost $20 for two years and also extends to KOAs in the US and Australian parks. A few other discounts on attractions were included. I didnít keep track but might have broken even. Some motor parks had a rate for two that was fixed, others charged less because my granddaughter was 14 and a "child." Most parks ranged from $15-24NZ for two with a campervan. ($9-!4 US)
The Department of Conservation had camping with no hookups. Since I was traveling with a teenager I didnít boondock though there were some places you probably could have done so.
E-MAIL: All but two motor parks had Internet/e-mail machines. The larger towns had e-mail centers, which were considerably cheaper and you could also plug in a laptop. You need a power cord ($14.95NZ and a different phone connector (I purchased one from TeleAdapt at 877-835- 3232 ext. 442) Only one RV park would let you download e-mail on your own computer for a charge. At that point I didnít have the proper power cord. Best to leave the computer at home and check e-mail on their machines.
FOOD: We were able to shop at supermarket and warehouse-type stores for a weekís supply at a time. Our refrigerator was pretty small so we had to be careful what we bought. The freezer was practically non-existent. We picked up more milk and other items at small local markets.
Our meals were a source of humor! We bought a turkey roast. Gabrielle noticed it was only 73% turkey. That got us to laughing about what the other 27% was. We didnít have a roasting pan so cooked it in the electric frying pan with a vinaigrette dressing. The frying pan was a big mistake. It took an hour of scrubbing to get it clean (most of the Teflon was already gone) and we smelled the cooked vinaigrette for the rest of the trip whenever we bent down by the sink area. Most of our meals were quite tasty. When your granddaughter cooks for you, who can complain?!!
RESTAURANTS: We didnít eat out too much, but lamb and seafood are both popular. Chuck Woodbury had recommended a restaurant called Green Mussels with you-guessed-it green mussels on the roof. I give Gabrielle credit for trying three. She ate the bread, I ate the grilled mussels. Another time I ordered a whitebait sandwich. Whitebait is a very small fish that people catch with nets as it swims upstream to spawn. The tiny flecks of white in a 1/8 inch thick egg pancake on white bread was not very tasty. I didnít try it any other way. In Christchurch at a food court we had delicious Thai food and excellent seafood in Invercargill. Hokey pokey ice cream was a favorite.
GUIDEBOOKS: I have heard Lonely Planet was the best. I had three others, the best of which was New Zealand Handbook by Moon Travel Handbooks. Check with the visitor center at each town for local information and several regional guides are available free too.
CADBURY WORLD: We toured Cadbury World chocolate factory and received lots of samples. Their chocolate is MUCH better, in my opinion, than any American chocolate and did not give me the usual headache. White chocolate is a favorite in NZ. KitKats and M&Ms could be purchased covered with it. (donít miss it!), these are some other things we particularly enjoyed.
PENGUINS: I really wanted to see a penguin after discovering they inhabit NZ. We actually saw three different species. In Omaru we saw the rarest (the yellow-eyed penguin) and the smallest (fairy or blue penguins). The yellow-eyed penguin nested in the bush way up the hill from the beach. While vulnerable and easily spooked coming to shore, we got within ten feet of nesting penguins on a guided tour led by long-time volunteer, Jim. Up the road a few miles, nesting tunnels had been built into an old quarry and were immediately occupied. The yellow-eyed penguins come to shore alone but the blue penguins come in "rafts" of 25-30 penguins, waiting until after dark. The area was lit so we watched them come ashore to feed their fluffy babies, many of which came out looking for dinner! In Doubtful Sound we also saw the yellow-crested penguins. For me seeing penguins was a real thrill!
OTHER BIRDLIFE: The other two birds I hoped to see were the kiwi and albatross. Since kiwis are nocturnal we were satisfied to see two feeding on worms and grubs at the maritime museum and kiwi house associated with the Christchurch visitor center. On Otago peninsula, near Dunedin, you could visit the Albatross Colony where Royal Albatross nest. We missed them but saw several wandering albatross on our whale watch trip in Kaikoura. Birders will be delighted with other species they can spot, particularly shore birds that nest in various colonies.
OTHER WILDLIFE: In our guidebook we read about a one-hundred year old tuatara named Henry, who resides with other tuataras in the Southland Museum in Invercargill. Looking a bit like lizards, they actually belong to a reptilian order called Sphenodontia with ancestors dating back 225 million years. The guidebook said it might be hours before Henry moved. We were in luck, however. A teacher had brought his students to learn about the tuatara and tossed in a locust. As soon as the locust moved, Henry ran and grabbed dinner. We also saw sperm whales and dusky dolphins on a whale watch tour.
MUSEUMS: The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch is free and has wonderful exhibits. The botanical gardens adjoining it have wonderful trees and gardens and the Avon River flows through it. Many small towns had interesting museums, which are worth seeing. Most charge a small entrance fee. At the Otago Museum in Dunedin we were lucky enough to see the last day of a special exhibit of dinosaur skeletons from China. And the Maritime Center on Otago Peninsula gives daily behind-the-scenes tours where you can even feed some of the sea life.
ANTARCTIC CENTER: Dick S had mentioned the Antarctic Center in Christchurch. This is the staging point for New Zealand, American and Italian scientists going to Antarctica. Adjoining their offices is a center for the public. The displays were excellent but the Antarctic storm we experienced was the highlight. Jackets and rubber shoe covers are provided, then you enter a room with ice and snow at 24 degrees F. The lights dim, the wind kicks up and temperatures drop, simulating an Antarctic storm. Brrr! You could also ride in a Hagglund vehicle over crevices and through deep water. Antarctic Center. Discount with a Top Ten Holiday Park card.
LORD OF THE RINGS: Gabrielle was interested in was seeing locations for filming of Lord of the Rings. We picked up a book, Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, with vague directions. A newly revised one came out while we were there and was a little more specific. We eliminated some locations because a 4WD vehicle would have been necessary. In Queenstown a tour operator offered two different LOR safaris. Though pricey, we took one. Our guide, Lyndon, had been an extra. Another customer that day, Erica, runs the largest LOR Web site in New Zealand. Between the two we learned more than we ever wanted to know about the movie! I just watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and could recognize at least one location, that of Isengard. Several other places near Queenstown were used.
- Flights: $910 each with taxes. They can be as low as $700-750 to Aukland from L.A. About $100 extra to Christchurch.
- Campervan: $1376 or about $62/day. We were reimbursed for propane. We had an older model so got a deal and also traveled before the high season. Even lower rates are available during the winter.
- Camping: About $250 on motorparks, averaging $11.90 per night.†
- Fuel: Diesel fuel was only $125. We changed vans so I donít have the exact mileage but I believe we drove about 1750 miles. That would cost a lot more in the US to drive that much!
- Groceries: About $200 on groceries for the 3 weeks. We ate out a few times. One meal was $86NZ! I ordered crayfish (their lobster), not realizing I would be charged the market price. I was shocked at the bill!†
- Internet: At least $30 on the Internet. Since we would keep putting in coins, Iím not sure of the total.
- Phone cards: $50
- Other: Laundry, snacks, parking, souvenirs and tours.
Temperatures: Usually ranged between 57 and 62 degrees F. Only a few days warmer than that. An early, cold spring.
Read Julianne Crain's Wheel Life column, "A New Zealand road trip might be calling" in the Spokesman-Review.