New Zealand’s South Island is so much more than just Queenstown. But if you’re reading this with plans to head there for your holiday, you already know this. Now the all-important decision is – to visit all of the instagram-drool-worthy scenic spots, do you take the campervan / motorhome route, or simply choose a central base and take day trips? In this post, I’ll try and explain my thought process on why I chose the campervan route, but also what you need to consider / know. *Food for Thought – If you don’t have a driver’s license, and/or don’t feel like driving on your holiday, you may need to go with a tour provider who can take you around. I would recommend choosing Queenstown as your home base, and book either a private or small-group tour provider who offers bad weather contingencies*
Reason #1 – Complete Weather Flexibility
There’s no denying that South Island has a lot of “must-see” sights and “must-do” activities, but it’s damn near impossible to get to these without getting behind the wheel (for hours at a time). Which leads me to my Reason #1 – Complete Flexibility.
You can be the luckiest person in the world, but if you’re spending more than a couple days in South Island, YOU WILL ENCOUNTER BAD WEATHER. I’m no meteorologist, but there’s something about the far distance from the equator and close proximity to Antarctica that completely wrecks the day-to-day weather predictability in South Island.
So let’s say you fly into Queenstown and want to head to Milford Sound for the day. This is a 5-6 hour drive depending on driving speed, traffic conditions, and whether you stop along the way. But know that Milford Sound is considered to be one of the wettest parts of the world and can rain at any given moment. If it’s not too terrible, you could still take the cruise, but if it’s really pouring, the cruise operator could suspend or cancel the cruise. What does that mean for you? A 5-6 hour drive back. Similarly, let’s say you want to drive to Franz Josef for a helicopter glacier hike. That’s a 4-5 hour drive from Queenstown. You should also know that Franz Josef has fog attacks quite often, which force all operators to shut down and cancel all flights. This may sounds like an extreme rarity, but trust me when I say that it is not (we literally experienced the latter).
BUT – if you have a campervan, you can easily find a campsite nearby, pick up food to cook in the van, take it easy and try your luck the next day. There’s no worry about paying ludicrous prices for a hotel last minute, or tiring yourself out from driving on top of a wasted day. You can salvage the disappointment and own your holiday. Can’t do that in a rented Toyota Camry.
Reason #2 – Unique Holiday Experience
My family never owned an RV, and aside from one painful trip from LA to Vancouver (painful for my parents dealing with two angst-ridden teens in the car), we rarely went on long road trips. So when we found out that roaming around in a campervan was a “thing” in New Zealand, we were immediately mesmerized.
New Zealand has ridiculously photogenic viewpoints. However, they are quite scattered across its land mass with often time consuming drives required (as mentioned previously). This means there are certain areas that tour groups just won’t visit, and even with a private car, unless you plan to roam aimlessly for a proper hotel in the middle of nowhere, you would be hard pressed taking that hour drive to “the spot” with 10,000 likes. And now imagine you rid yourself of these limitations, and free yourself from the yoke of needing to mold yourself into someone else’s schedule. That’s the holiday experience you can have with a campervan as it enables you to be creative, stop along the road when something catches your eye, or just park along a stunning lake and let the world pass by as you cook a burger in your van. Whether it’s with your significant other, a small group of good friends, or even an adventurous family (bold enough to withstand a long road trip together), the memories you can create are endless.
I can guarantee you that destinations which would allow you to have such an experience are few and far between. And New Zealand’s South Island is amazingly well equipped with the infrastructure to help you make the campervan plunge with ease. Which brings me to my last point.
Reason #3 – Low Barrier to Camping
If you’re like us, the immediate red flags that go up as you contemplate this unorthodox method of vacationing would be the following:
- Where the hell do I sleep every night? To answer this first question, I would point you to one free app – Rankers Camping NZ (iOS / Android). This is a government sponsored, frequently updated app that is basically your bible and lifesaver while on the road. Notice that although I linked the web version, I specifically say “app” because you should download the compatible app to your device, and then download the offline map and campsite directory of the entire South Island. While on the road, you will run into stretches where there is no phone reception or WiFi. Your GPS will work, however, and along with this app, you can find all the holiday parks and campsites your heart can desire, wherever your journey may take you. Do keep in mind you can’t just park and sleep anywhere, it does need to at least be a designated “freedom campsite”
- How do I shower? Assuming you got yourself a self-contained campervan (yes, you definitely should), you would be able to stay at Freedom Camps for free, but with no electricity hook-ups or other facilities, or a range of Holiday Parks. The latter will range in terms of price (NZ$25 – 50 nightly per couple) and quality of facilities (shower and toilet, full kitchen, laundry, etc.). In our trip, we mostly stayed at Holiday Parks as we had a lot of gadgets to recharge and wanted to use the electricity for things like the hairdryer, and ended up showering at the facilities or just in our van. I won’t lie, some facilities were quite “rustic” and we happily opted to shower in our van, but some holiday parks had amazing, spotless showers that were much appreciated.
- Am I going to look like a crazy person driving around in a motorhome? Not at all! We not only encountered hundreds of campervans on the road during our trip, but almost everywhere we went, there were lots of fellow campervannites(?) enjoying the unique travel experience and embracing their vacation freedom. What’s more, you’ll notice in supermarkets and gas stations that a lot of products and services on offer are very much catered to the campervan population, and we never felt like we were unwanted or had to modify our campervan life to fit the requirements of any location.
Now of course, not everything is peachy, and there are some things to consider if you’re braving the campervan life for your upcoming holiday:
- Driving an oversized vehicle – Assuming you are getting a decent size campervan (even for just two people), you’re looking at a 6-7 meter long vehicle. Driving a campervan is not too different from a normal car, but you do need to be aware of your speed limitations, wide turning radius, and general required clearance.
- Filling up on essentials and dumping the waste – A self-contained campervan basically means you have a bathroom on board (and in our case a full shower and a sink too), so you’ll need to fill up on fresh water (available in many campsites or gas stations). But that also means you have waste and “grey water” that will fill up over time. It’s actually not as terrible as you think, but there will come a time when you need to pull up to a dump station and empty out the waste.
- Hidden camera speeding tickets – Don’t let the wide expanse of the South Island highways fool you, there are hidden cameras capturing your speed along the way. We learned this the hard way when we received a letter several days after concluding our trip that we were clocked speeding in the mountains somewhere. Tickets suck, whether or not you’re driving around in a sweet campervan.
Choosing your Campervan
Now if all of that has convinced you and you are ready to look at some campervan options, I can point you to where we booked our campervan – Maui Motorhome. Now when you start Googling, you’ll find that there are several major brands available for rent – Maui, Britz, Mighty, Jucy, and Wilderness. The first three names (Maui, Britz, and Mighty) are all owned by one company, THL. The difference between the three are Maui is the high-end line with the newest fleet, Britz then operates those vehicles when they get older, and Mighty is a mix of budget and peer-to-peer rental fleet. Jucy is a budget fleet (with bright purple/green colors) with varying degrees of campervans (some are just tricked out minivans with no showers and make-shift kitchens). Wilderness is a smaller outfit, but offers some attractive, luxury campervan options.
We opted to go with Maui, in their 2+1 Berth Ultima Plus. In our view it had everything we could want, with a bit of luxury and the peace of mind that the vehicles were newer and thus with (hopefully) less problems. I encourage you to book directly with the provider in the link above, as booking with 3rd party agents may not get you exactly what you expect when you get to the rental agency for pick-up. But the company does offer price match, so you can check out sites like Camper Champ which helps you compare prices and grab screenshots of any lower prices you find on the same model.