1. Booking the camper van
In New Zealand, there are many companies that you can rent a camper van from. From what we gathered from our online research as well as our own observations during the trip, it seems that Maui and Britz are the two most well established companies. There are a whole lot of other companies and could be cheaper but I really can’t comment on the quality of the camper vans.
For us, we got ours from Maui – a fully self contained 6 berther that was less than a year old. Yes, we were worried about comfort and the van breaking down along the trip so we paid a premium for the highest end camper. If you want to save, opt for a smaller or older camper van. If you really want, you can also opt for a non self-contained camper van. That means there is no toilet onboard. That also means that you can’t freedom camp and you must camp only at designated campsites. I recommend self contained camper vans because you can camp anywhere that does not prohibit you from camping. Imagine waking up to the view of your favourite mountain and just lying there lapping up the view.
Expect to pay more than 300 NZD per day during the summer peak season. Off peak season is about half that price. In any case, book early, especially in summer. They can run out and most of the companies offer some sort of early bird discounts. If you think it is expensive, you can consider renting a car and staying in hotels instead. But nothing is cheap in NZ during the summer. A Toyota corolla hatchback cost about 180 NZD per day. Decent hotel rooms are generally about 200 per night. But if you are a couple, I guess it may make more sense to rent a car and stay in hotels. But that means you would miss out on the “campervan” experience and have to pack and move luggages every time you travel.
A little on paying for the camper van. If you book early enough, you can probably ask to do a telegraphic bank transfer and save 2% on the credit card charge that the camper van company levies, as well as enjoy a slightly better exchange rate.
2. Picking up the camper van
This is generally a breeze. Just remember to bring your driving license. If it is in English, it is generally accepted. The camper van companies generally close around 4 or 5 pm. So if you are arriving late like us, take a cab or rent a small car and stay in a hotel for a night. Arrange to pick up the camper van the next morning.
Besides the usual credit card and driving license formalities, there are a couple of things you might want to take note of. First, insurance. If you do not take additional insurance, the camper van company might ask for a security deposit that is equivalent to the excess charge. In the case of Maui, they would charge the entire amount of the security deposit (7500 NZD) to your credit card. Add 2% credit card surcharge and the poor exchange rate that the credit card offers. Then when you return the camper van, they will pay you back the deposit through the credit card. So you lose on exchange rate both ways. We decided to pay for the additional insurance as the overall incremental cost was actually not that much after considering the exchange rate losses.
3. How camper van works
I think most of the camper vans are actually custom built vans. It appears that the camper van is nothing more than a standard commercial van modified to provide the comforts of home. There are some variations in design but I will just tell you about the one we rented. We had
- beds (obviously) for 4-6 people
- dining table for 4 and seats with seat belts
- gas stoves with a gas oven (we did not use the oven, but the size probably fits 1 regular size pizza)
- sink and running water
- water heater
- microwave oven
- shower and toilet
- electric and gas kettles
- all the bed linen and cutlery that you would ever need in a camper van.
The gas stove and oven is fueled by a small LPG tank that can be accessed from an external compartment door. It might be small, but over two weeks we only used about 1 kg (out of 12kg) of LPG, which cost less than $3 to top up. The LPG tank is also used to heat water for washing or the shower. Water is stored in a large clean water tank. You turn on a pump that is powered by a battery (separate from the car battery) and you get running water for the sink, toilet and shower. The camper van battery is 12V and is charged when the engine is running but the manual also says that driving does not fully charge up the camper van battery. It runs all equipment in the camper van (including the fridge) except the 240V power socket and the microwave oven. For these, you have to plug into an external power supply found at many campsites.
Our heater is powered by diesel from the camper van so we can warm up the camper van anytime. This is especially useful when we woke up freezing in the middle of nowhere. Many camper vans only have heat when plugged into a powered campsite so a diesel powered heater is a plus.
All the waste water from the sink and shower goes into the waste water tank, which must be cleared periodically at designated dump sites. The toilet essentially empties into a small cartridge that needs to be emptied regularly. For this reason, we avoid using the camper van toilet if there is a proper toilet around. Otherwise, you would need to clear the cartridge every day.
Despite what appeared to be significant limitations on the camper van, we managed to camp unpowered and unsupported for several consecutive nights in NZ.
4. Driving the camper van
The thing is a behemoth. If you have never driven anything that big, always ask for someone to be looking out for you whenever you need to reverse the thing. Here are a few tips to maneuver this thing around
- When turning, go slow, and turn slightly later. Notice that drivers of buses and container trucks always turn later. This is because these vehicles are longer than your regular car. If you turn as you would normally do when driving a car, the side could clip an obstacle.
- Keep to the speed limit or less. I have come to realise that speed limit in some countries are meant to be taken seriously and NZ is one of them. When it says 30km/h for an upcoming turn, be prepared to slow down and keep to that speed before negotiating the turn.
- Keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times and allow more time for your itinerary. No, this is not the standard road safety message. The margin for errors is much less on a large vehicle like a camper van. Because of the profile, it is much more susceptible to gusting winds. There were many occasions during our trip when you could feel the camper van drifting to the side when hit by a sudden gust of wind. And it does get very windy and gusty in NZ.
5. “Campervan keeping”
Besides the standard campervan chores like cleaning up and making your beds, there are a few additional things that need to be done to maintain the mobile home.
- First, make sure that you have enough LPG, clean water and camper van battery power. For LPG, just feel the weight of the tank. Keep and eye on water level and batter power indicator in the camper van. Top up the water and battery at power campsites.
- Second, you have to periodically clear the waste water tank and the toilet cassette. You can only clear these at designated dump sites. For the waste water tank, it is a matter of connecting a waste water hose and then opening the valve. Clearing the toilet cassette involves pouring out the waste, rinsing it with tap water, and then putting in new chemicals. Despite the chemicals, it will still smell during the cleaning but it is nothing unbearable. It is just your own sh*T.
We had 3 gas stoves and 1 electric stove. Now, the theory is that if you are plugged into a power socket at a campsite, you can save your LPG by using the electric stove. In practice, the electric stove is slow and took forever to heat up. Most of the time we used the gas stove as the electric one was just too much of a bother. Other times, we cooked at the communal kitchen at the campsite which comes with bigger stoves and more space to work with. The troublesome part was having to lug all our cooking essentials all the way from our camper van to the kitchen and this could be a pain on a wet and cold day. However, it was a great place to mingle with other campers and have a peek at what they eat. Most of them will cook very simple meals and it was kind of embarrassing that we were about the only Asian dudes who stir fried almost everyday!
There are two different categories of campsites. First, there are the holiday parks. These are fully equipped “5-star” campsites with kitchens, hot showers (though most require you to pay), power, clean water, dump sites, nice view of the mountains or a lake, etc, etc. You get the picture. It is a holiday park. And so you also have to pay more. Generally, they cost about $20-25 per adult, or half of that per child.
Second, there are the Department of Conservation or DOC campsites. DOC campsites can be minimalist with a portable toilet in the forest. Or it can have proper toilets, running water, and waste disposal. It varies, so it is important to check out the details of the campsite before making your way there. I installed this app to help us research campsites.
8. Freedom camping
This must be one of the most exciting part about getting a self contained camper van. In general, you can camp anywhere as long as there isn’t a sign prohibiting you to do so. But to be safe, check out the DOC website to understand better the rules and limitations of freedom camping.
We did this a couple of times during this trip. The first time, we had left Mt Cook late that evening and the campsite we planned to stop was too crowded. It was getting dark and everyone was tired. We decided to pull over by the roadside after driving for 2 hours and the next morning when we drew our curtains, we were greeted by an emerald green lake with gorgeous wild Lupins dancing in the wind.
9. Returning the camper van
If you paid for the express return service, just drive to the camper van company during their open hour, drop it off and pay the diesel tax (based on mileage). It’s that easy. But we didn’t buy the service so we had to top up the diesel, the LPG, and the clean water tank. Plus, we had to clear the waste water and the toilet cassette as well. It’s not too difficult either. So I guess the key consideration is whether you need to rush to the airport. For us, we had to wait a few hours before our flight departure time and the camper van company was 5 minutes from the terminal.
Basically if you are planning to do a camper van tour, be prepared to get your hands dirty. From reading user manuals and driving a truck around to cooking and clearing your own sh*T. Some people find it therapeutic while others think that it is totally insane. My husband belongs to the former group and my 2 boys take after him. They were eager to find out how everything in the camper van works and for once it felt good to be the rose among the thorns because you have the men (big and small) to figure out how things work for you.
I can’t say that it is the most comfortable way to travel, having to sleep in 2 weeks’ old bedsheets and occasionally brave the cold in the middle of the night with a torch light strap to our foreheads because it was too dark outside and some public toilets didn’t have lights, and we were too worried about stinking up the whole camper van. I realised that all these were part of the camper van experience.
For 2 weeks, the boys had no iPad, no TV or any other electronic entertainment. They only had Mom and Dad and the whole outdoor the moment they stepped out of our mobile home but they never once complained that they were bored.
Although I dread having to cook on a holiday, ironically, it was those moments where we snuggled close together around the table, with hot piping food served on a cold and wet day whilst stranded in the middle of nowhere that made up the most memorable experience.
The kind of togetherness and the time we spent bonding as a family doing a trip like this warms my heart and puts a smile on my face and I hope my boys will remember this trip even long after they grow up, a trip where the whole family ‘rough it out’ together.