Travelling New Zealand’s South Island by camper van has a lot to recommend it – but the tea stops are perhaps best of all. As a spectacular scene of towering, snow-capped mountains surrounded by an electric-blue glacial lake unfolded before us, we did what any self-respecting Brits would do: we pulled over for a cuppa.
Sitting with the rear doors of the van open, soaking up the view with a mug of English Breakfast in hand, I knew these would be the best cups of tea of my life.
But it proved to be too much of a good thing and, a week into our journey, three things dawned on my fiancé, Eifion, and me: that these amazing views were all over the place; we weren’t going nearly fast enough, and we were already severely addicted to caffeine. Our tea stops were rationed to two a day from then on.
It was the right decision, and helped us cover most of the South Island during our two-week Kiwi adventure. We started on the eastern flank, in Christchurch, then headed south-west to Queenstown – a little slice of Switzerland lying in the shadows of a mountain range justifiably named the Remarkables – before winding toward the island’s scenic big-hitter: Milford Sound. Even the four-and-a-half-hour drive down from Queenstown is outstanding, and considered one of the most breathtaking in the world. It starts off looking like Scotland – only bigger, and flooded – then moves up a gear to resemble Norway. Once you’ve got close to Milford the comparisons stop – there just isn’t anywhere else like it.
Milford Sound – technically a fjord – is New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination, and the eighth wonder of the world, according to Rudyard Kipling. It is an eerie, misty, uninhabited national park, with lush rainforest clinging precariously to the sides of mountains (some as high as 5,000ft), which jut out of the sea. When it rains – as it almost always does – amazing waterfalls develop in their thousands, sluicing down mountains and off cliff-faces like veins on a hand.
After Milford, we went up the west coast to the Franz Josef glacier, which Eifion tackled on a half-day hike while I, less bravely, went for a massage and soak in a nearby hot pool. Back in the van, we pushed on, the seal-heavy beaches of the northwest coast giving way to the vineyards of the Marlborough region, then it was on to our last stop: the glorious Abel Tasman National Park, with its bone-white sandy beaches and emerald-green sea.
I found myself becoming so attached to the van – a luxury two-berth Mercedes hired from camper van specialists Maui – that I became strangely house-proud when showing it off to inquiring passers-by. It was like a self-catering hotel room on wheels crossed with a Tardis: what were two benches and an occasional table by day became, with a little gentle persuasion, a comfortable double bed by night. There was also a lavatory and shower combo, with hot water 20 minutes after the flick of a switch, a three-ring gas hob, fridge, kettle, toaster and all necessary cooking utensils – everything including a kitchen sink. After rustling up something delicious in the galley, you simply folded out a table from the side of the van and dined al fresco. The van was surprisingly easy to drive, and powerful enough occasionally to overtake a car on the motorway – the ultimate humiliation for Kiwi drivers.
We spent our nights, by and large, parked up in campsites that offered leisurely hot showers, internet connection and electricity (you plug an umbilical cable into a dedicated socket close to your site). Here you could also refill the van’s 140-litre drinking water tank and empty its other 8o-litre tank of grey water (from the sink and shower) – as well as the dreaded chemical lavatory. This needed to be done every few days, a fairly straightforward process that isn’t half as bad as you think it’s going to be.
It was possible, thanks to our in-van shower and lavatory, to occasionally “free camp” for a night – parking up somewhere that wasn’t a designated campsite, and which therefore didn’t cost. The rules for this seem to be that you try your luck where you see no signs telling you not to – except that anywhere remotely scenic will almost certainly have a sign. The second time we did it (in the pretty seaside town of Kaiteriteri, on an unmarked road) we were woken up by a security guard banging on our van, politely asking us to move. Placated by the no-sign explanation he let us stay, but it put us off doing it again. A good compromise between a campsite and free camping is staying in Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites, which have very basic facilities – usually just a lavatory – but are often very picturesque.
There were many positives to this tortoise-like method of travelling. It’s flexible – you don’t need to book hotels in advance, and if you don’t like the place you’ve planned to spend the night in, you can zoom off. It is also surprisingly low-maintenance to run a van, as all the water-filling and waste-emptying takes about half-an-hour every other day. You can unpack your clothes, so you don’t feel as though you’re living out of a suitcase, and diesel in New Zealand is far cheaper than in the UK, so the wallet doesn’t hurt too much when refuelling. The best advert for camper van travel, however, is the fact that you’re more connected to nature this way – surrounded by it, in fact. When it rains and thunders – and I mean thunder that roars so loudly around the mountains that you feel a childlike fear – the van shudders and the rain pelts your roof.
Inevitably, there were also negatives. My God, how it rains in Fiordland, officially one of the wettest places on Earth. Several nights were spent trapped in our van, sipping wine and playing cards, staring out in amazement at the downpour, thinking how wimpy our weather is back home. It was fun to begin with then, after a few nights, a mild dose of cabin fever set in. You also need to be sensible: there was an attack on a young Dutch couple in a camper van in Southland while we were out there. It is best to lock your doors at night and be aware that while crime out of the cities in NZ is rare, it still exists.
Then there are the roads, which are maddeningly curvy. There is barely a straight road in the whole of the South Island, and no stretches of motorway outside the cities, so getting anywhere takes far longer than it ought to. Lugging your home from home around the bends can have its difficulties: some of our most heated arguments were about cupboards (seriously), which you not only have to shut, but also lock to avoid accidents. In two whole weeks, we didn’t once manage to set off without leaving at least one cupboard unlocked, resulting in the contents spilling out mid-hairpin-bend on a daily basis.
On a related note, spending two weeks in such a confined space is an intense experience and one probably best reserved for couples. The majority of our fellow camper-vanners were just that, albeit at different stages of their lives: mainly young couples and retirees, with the occasional young family. If you do argue, however, the breathtaking views are a highly effective relationship counsellor. It’s difficult to stay annoyed surrounded by such beauty.