Most camper van hire companies offer vastly cheaper deals out of season and the cheapest time to go is during July and August which is convenient as that’s when most of us are on holiday. The rental at the time was something around £15 or US$25 per day for a Toyota Hiace which was big enough for 2 people without being too big to drive on minor and mountain roads.
Peak season is December to February when prices are of course much higher but a Spring or Autumn trip can still be reasonably priced if you don’t fancy the Southern Winter! I must say though that in August we didn’t experience unduly extreme weather conditions other than in the mountains. Much of North Island experiences a sub tropical climate (meaning that no month averages below 10c/50F) anyway and snow is almost unknown north of Auckland. If you are travelling on a budget, buying your own food and cooking in your mobile Room With a View costs a fraction of what you would pay in restaurants and hotels and it’s fun too!
A bit about Where to stay then. Yes it’s true – you can stay for free at designated lay byes but we only did this once. With campsite prices being very reasonable there’s really no need. Unlike in the UK, the campsites are mainly open all year in New Zealand and vary from the Department of Conservation (DOC) sites which are basic but very well kept and usually in spectacular locations; to the Top Ten Holiday Parks who have around 50 sites with superior facilities – often with heated shower and toilet blocks. If under-floor heating in the loo appeals, then they are worth checking out.
Now something about where to go. New Zealand is probably more varied than any other country of its size, there being countless places of outstanding scenery and just as many activities to partake in or watch from a safe distance. Here’s a selection of just a few of my favorites.
From Bay of Islands, the “Hole in the Rock” boat trip is a must. Leaving Pahia or Russell – said to be New Zealand’s oldest European settlement – this trip takes you firstly out among the beautiful wooded islands that give the bay its name. While it’s not certain, it is very likely that you’ll see some of the Bay’s resident bottlenose dolphin population on the way out to Hole in the Rock which is just that – a navigable tunnel through a vast rocky island by Cape Brett on the edge of the open Pacific.
Ninety Mile Beach is well worth making the journey to but go on one of the coach tours as insurance for most hire cars or camper vans does not allow driving along the beach itself. Also the buses are adapted for the sand and the river crossing at the northern end – getting stuck wouldn’t be a whole load of fun – it happens!
Tongariro National Park is home to the volcano Mt Ruapehu, the highest peak of North Island. Here hiking – or tramping as it’s known in New Zealand – is a popular activity with options including the Tongariro Crossing or the Ruapehu Crater Climb along with many other fine routes.
The crossing from North to South Island is from the bustling capital of Wellington to the little port of Picton on the ferry known as the Interislander. The trip takes in the region of 4 hours and the last part is through incredible scenery reminiscent of the coast of Norway.
Our first nights on South Island were spent at Kaikoura with its spectacular coastline and whale watch tours. So confident are they that you will see a whale that they offer to refund most of your ticket price if you don’t! There’s also seals, dolphins and albatross to look out for.
Crossing the Southern Alps, the whole West Coast of South Island was a favorite of mine from the frontier town feel of Hokitika with its gold mining history to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier where the glaciers come right down to the rainforest – an unusual phenomenon not seen in many places. A fascinating coastal road leads down the length of Westland as far as Haast.
The south is home to the ski resort and so called “adventure capital” of Queenstown. If your wish is to dive off a bridge attached to a giant rubber band then Queenstown – where Bungee jumping was invented – is the place to do it. There are all manner of adrenaline sports on offer here – the jetboat rides at the Shotover River are unmissable for one, but for some of the best scenery in the world head to Fiordland National Park. You can do a day trip from Queenstown but really you need to spend several days there – or about a month! No – seriously it is that good! Milford Sound and the world famous view of Mitre Peak is the one they all flock to but even better in my own opinion, is the misty tranquility of Doubtful Sound, reached from Manapouri or Te Anau to the south.
Our van was dropped off in Christchurch on South Island. That is definitely the best way to do it – it saves backtracking as well as a return fare on the Interislander ferry which is worth doing once just for the views. A short flight took us back to Auckland for our return flights to the UK.