Camper-vanning through New Zealand
Camper-vanning is a way of life, or at least a way of leisure, in New Zealand.
The New York Times
Camper vansCamper vans are everywhere in New Zealand. Why so popular?
• They are smaller, cooler and more fuel-efficient than your grandparents' RV.
• They save you money on hotels (and time booking them).
• They allow you to cook your own meals, saving money and allowing you to take advantage of local produce and meats.
• They are surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.
They're also catching on in the western United States. Jucy, a New Zealand company, began operating in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas on March 1 (www.jucyrentals.com; from $63 a night, minimum five-night rental). Other companies include Lost Campers (www.lostcampersusa.com) and Escape (www.escapecampervans.com).
Early on a chilly morning, my alarm clock sounded. I extracted myself from deep within a navy-blue comforter, sat up and opened the door. I had momentarily forgotten where I was.
Oh, right. I gazed out at Lake Taupo, a sprawling lake on New Zealand's North Island. Ducks gliding along just offshore were an invigorating sight. So were the mountains that rose behind them, and the predawn periwinkle and orange sky beyond.
It was my third night in a camper van, a miniaturized recreational vehicle — mine was about the size of a plumber's van — that is New Zealand's mobile lodging of choice. I stripped the bedsheets, rearranged the cushions, flipped around a few boards, and voilà: two comfy benches and one breakfast table. Out came the Weet-Bix cereal from the cupboard. I threw some boerewors sausage and scrambled eggs on the stove. After doing the dishes in the sink, I was off to my next destination.
Camper-vanning is a way of life, or at least a way of leisure, in New Zealand, a beautiful country that begs to be hiked and climbed and camped in. And so it perfectly pairs with the camper van, which gets you about as close to the outdoors as you can be, short of a tent.
And unlike the RV, which Americans tend to regard as the gas-guzzling trademark of peripatetic retirees, camper vans are everywhere, used by Kiwis of all stripes. One person I talked to even called them "trendy."
Mine wasn't trendy. I had rented the cheapest one I could find: a boxy 2006 Volkswagen leased by Backpacker (www.backpackercampervans.org) for 64 New Zealand dollars a day ($52 at 1.22 New Zealand dollars to the U.S. dollar), tax and fees and a basic insurance policy included. Though I felt pangs of jealousy for the supercool pricier rentals, which offer a slicker look and jazzy colors, the Backpacker was perfect for my purposes.
It was also a big money saver. The only catch is gas mileage — gas is about 8.50 dollars a gallon in New Zealand, and my Backpacker camper van got about 17 miles per gallon. But you save pretty much everywhere else. Most obviously: No hotel rooms needed.
Camper vanners have a choice between staying at an inexpensive "holiday park," which average around 20 dollars per person per night to use with showers, bathrooms, kitchens (unnecessary) and a power source, or braving it on their own by "freedom camping," the legally sanctioned act of staying on public land.
You also save on food. On a March trip, I managed quite well over four days with $60 worth of groceries, and ate only one meal out: a $17 plate of green-lipped mussels at the irresistible Coromandel Mussel Kitchen, in the town of the same name.
Crossing the Coromandel Peninsula, on the east side of the North Island, along the 309 Road, I stopped at what has become a bit of a tourist attraction — the ramshackle trailer home of Stuart, a dairy farmer who happens to own 48 semi-wild pigs. As soon as I pulled up, dozens of them appeared and practically stampeded toward my vehicle. They were friendly and enjoyed a tickle on the tummy, but I suspected they had figured out that camper vans have kitchens. I fed them from my overstock of Weet-Bix.
The west side of the peninsula features a winding shore and rocky beaches and old mining towns like Thames and Coromandel; the east side is best known for its beautiful stretches of sand, including Hot Water Beach, where geothermically heated water rises to just below the surface of the sand. That creates an odd phenomenon during low tide: Dozens of adults revert to their sand-castle-building childhood, digging holes with spades to create temporary hot tubs.
My final stop in the Coromandel was Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve, where well-marked paths wind through the woods to a series of beaches and coves, none so lovely as Cathedral Cove itself, a big half-moon with hills rising from behind the sand, and a sphinx-like rock at the edge of the water. I had it all to myself, though there was plenty of evidence people had been there earlier in the day, including a message scratched in the sand in Korean. Curious, I took a picture and sent it to a friend who translated: "Charlie, I love you, Jae Sok."
The camper van really shined on the Forgotten World Highway, where I headed after Taupo. I picked up a map of the highway at an I-SITE, New Zealand's efficient and convenient tourist information and booking centers that range from small cabins to large complexes.
I could not help stopping at just about all its suggestions, including the quirky town of Whangamomona, which declared its ersatz independence from New Zealand in 1989 and celebrates every other January with the election of a president. (It's all quite tongue-in-cheek: a goat and a poodle have both served.)
But the best spot was a six-mile detour to Ohura, a little town verging on ghost status — none of the storefronts in the three-block downtown had operating businesses on the Friday morning I visited. Its museum, in what used to be a hardware store, is active — as long as you can track down someone to open it up for you.
A local resident pointed me to Charley Hedges, whose house was up a long driveway right along the main street. What he didn't tell me is that Charley and his Maori wife, Janet, would invite me into their house first and offer me coffee, biscuits and clever quips about the small-town life they have led since moving to Ohura from the city of Hamilton, the North Island's third-biggest.
Driving on, I couldn't help stopping at a stunning view across green hills from a spot called the Tahora Saddle. I pulled the camper van into the small lookout area — a perfect spot for a picnic. I hopped into the back, and whipped up a salad with what ingredients I had left — spinach leaves, avocado, slices of Asian pear and broccoli. I sliced the last hunk of cheddar cheese into slices, broke out the crackers, brought them outside and basked in the sun — and in the glory of my camper van — as I ate.