Life in a Camper Van

Greetings from New Zealand! Carolyn here. Richard has been doing most of the blog posts to date, but since he’s the only one brave enough to drive our massive camper van on the left and is therefore stuck behind the wheel for most of our 4 week road trip, I thought I should pick up the pen.

Our first week in New Zealand was spent hunkered down in a lovely airBNB in north Auckland, running errands, doing laundry, getting the blog finally up, homeschooling, Netflix binge watching, and generally basking in the comfort of a familiar cultural milieu. After two months of a nomadic life roaming through Peru and Chile, we needed to be insular for a little bit.

Our first foray to South America had been exhilarating and we could have happily stayed much longer, but the brain-bending challenge of basic communication for us monoglots took a small toll. After multiple gaffs on the language front (i.e. Richard confusing the shopkeepers by enthusiastically responding to the question of “How many apples would you like?” with “huevos por favour!” (“eggs please!” he was going for ‘ocho’ (8)), we were ready for the ease of a shared language. Once settled into a house with a flat screen and cable, the kids were once again mesmerized by English language television and latched quickly back onto the pop culture teat.

Although New Zealand is very similar to Canada, we have noticed a few minor, but eye-catching differences that have made us take a curious second glance.

  1. Many Kiwis really like to go sans-footwear. We’ve seen dozens of people walking around bare foot both in shops and outdoors, both kids and adults.
  2. They say ‘ice creams’ instead of ‘ice cream’, as in “who wants ice creams?!”
  3. They love giant hedges, and I mean GIANT. Like, 25 feet high, straight up in the air and perfectly manicured, even in the rural countryside.
  4. Everyone says thank you to the city bus drivers when disembarking, even if it has to be hollered from the back door of a full bus.
  5. Intercity bus drivers are very polite, offering over the loud speaker to pull the bus over if you’re feeling car sick and hold back your hair while you ‘get some fresh air’.
  6. New Zealanders are very civilized and forward thinking when it comes to your basic needs –
    1. free public museums are on offer in most cities
    2. drinking water dispensers to fill your water bottles are readily available
    3. free public washrooms are everywhere. They are clean, well-equipped and often come with an automated robot voice telling you how to get out of the washroom, if you overstay your visit.
    4. the public payphones come with the old fashioned landlines, as predicted, but they also come with free wifi! We couldn’t make out any high-frequency buzz, so we were surprised that these booths hadn’t become dens for snapchatting youths.
  7. They get kids – public playgrounds still have moving parts, including redesigned teeter-totters, round-abouts, spinning saucers, massive high-speed slides, human-sized hamster wheels and full-sized zip lines.
  8. There’s a general awareness of how incredible the landscape is, and recognizing that the road-trip is the best way to experience this country, a great infrastructure for the camper van lifestyle has been created to celebrate it. There are multiple apps to help find various sites for respectful freedom camping, dump sites, tourist information sites and points of interest as well as constant road side picnic areas. We’ve found that there’s a secret form of communication between camper-vaners (not a real Kiwi expression). Like motorcyclists, each time we pass another camper van on the road, we get a little head nod or small wave. If we move to the slow vehicle lane to allow the dozens of cars behind us to pass, we get a three horn beep of thanks from each passer. Although the speed limits are way beyond our comfort zones in some places (i.e. 100km/hr around narrow switch backs without shoulders) we were confident the other drives knew what they were doing.

Fortunately for our itinerary, we stayed sequestered for just a few days in Auckland. While there, we wandered the pretty suburbs of Devonport and Mairangi Bay. We took the ferry into the city centre and shopped at the local tourist shops. We hopped on another ferry and spent a day hiking around the lava fields and caves on the dormant volcano on Tongariro Island.

Our only firm plan for the first week in NZ was to pick up the camper van in a northern city of Whangarei. We hopped on an intercity bus and met our lovely camper van hosts who let us spend our first night in their driveway, since we didn’t have firm bookings and it was already late. Once we mastered left-side driving after crawling along at 10km/hour for an hour or two, we loaded up on armfuls of free pamphlets at the local tourist office (to avoid buying Lonely Planet books for each country) and started exploring the North Island.

This unplanned approach has both benefits and pitfalls – benefits included things like stopping to see a waterfall and wandering behind it to find a stunning Kauri forest with some of the oldest and biggest Kauri trees in the country. Or, seeing a road sign for “Caves. Next Left” and expecting a small cave off the side of the road, but instead finding a massive network of underground caverns, lit up only by glowworms, and entirely self-guided.

The only pitfall was arriving to a town late at night without a clue of where we would stay, and getting a wee bit concerned when the first two sites we found were closed and gated. Prior to that most sites had a sign welcoming late night visitors to come-on-in and just visit the front desk in the morning. After a brief encounter with a road side sobriety test, where Richard attempted to French kiss the apparatus and was told stonily to “please just count to five near the device”, the kind officer guided us to a city park with 5 or 6 other camper vans quietly parked. We tucked in anonymously beside them and soon found a sign stating that the area was legitimate ‘freedom camping’. Like Iceland, we’d heard that you can park overnight anywhere that doesn’t explicitly prohibit it, but there had been some of a backlash against it caused by a few obnoxious tourists who had been less than respectful to the local environs.   We had been a bit timid to try it until we found this official approach.

Highlights from our two weeks on the North Island, in no particular order:

  • Hiking through the Lava fields and Volcanic caves on Rangitoto Island, just outside of Auckland. There are only a few ferries out to the island, so plan your trip carefully. Wear sturdy walking shoes!
  • Free and self-guided Waipu Glowworm Caves near Bream Bay, where you can walk for miles underground among the stalactites and stalagmites. Bring flashlights and waterproof shoes as a big part of the area goes through an underground stream.
  • Whangarei Waterfalls and the AH Reed Kauri Forest – we stumbled upon this forest which contains amazing walking tracks and a tree-top boardwalk among stately 500 year old Kauri trees that tower 30 metres above the forest floor.
  • Rotorua – we elected to skip Zorbing (bouncing down the side of a mountain inside a big rubber ball), but instead took the gondola up the side of a mountain and rode high speed luges (aka go carts) back down. On another run, the kids disappeared from our view as they zip-lined down the other side of the mountain, ending with a micro-bungee jump of about 30 feet.
  • Department of Conservation camping at beautiful Uretiti Beach, meeting local fishermen on the beach at sunset and playing rounds of ‘pass the donkey’ (our family’s version of charades) in our camper van. We’re not sure if this is a nude beach or if the elder folk we saw strolling naked down the beach were just playing fast and loose with the rules.
  • Water World on the Coromandal peninsula – this private playground was created by a British expat who settled in the peninsula almost 20 years ago. This philosopher/engineer’s unique approach to play was refreshingly ‘un-corporate’. We all loved playing on the floating bicycles and the human-sized hamster wheel, the 30km/h zipline, and shooting each other with the water canons. Another highlight along that inland route, was meeting barefoot Stuart, the wild pig keeper, and feeding the newborn baby piglets.
  • Scenic drive along the coast of Coromandal – the drive up the coast late at night involved winding up the steep switch-back mountains in the rain and fog and kept us on the edge of our seats for several hours, putting the camper van through its paces. We were rewarded with stunning views from all directions and elected to spend a few days in the area.
  • Cathedral Cove – the 45 minute hike along the coast down to the cove was breathtaking and well worth the crowds (go at low tide). We would also recommend the Glass Bottom Boat tour out of Whitianga. It was a highlight when the guide offered Gabe a turn at the helm, and I was happy when he generously donated a pair of forgotten sunglasses, after I leaned a little too far off the side of the boat and donated mine to the sea. The entire crew of the boat watched through the glass bottom as my sunglasses drifted under the craft, being nibbled on by a school of fish.
  • Conjuring up Mordor and Mount Doom on a hike up mainland New Zealand’s only active volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and sleeping in its foothills in Tongariro National Park.
  • Visiting Hobbiton and experimenting with scale and forced perspective in the multiple sized hobbit holes, and drinking free ales and ciders by the fire in the Green Dragon Inn.
  • Challenging the laws of physics and perfecting our Jenga skills while trying to squeeze our camper van through the steep and narrow one-way streets of Wellington, much to the shock and awe of the locals looking up at us from their tiny, maneuverable cars.
  • Witnessing the results of concerted conservation efforts in the protected natural area of the Zealandia Sanctuary (formally, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary), where the biodiversity of a 225 ha forest, right at the edge of the city of Wellington, is being restored. Protected by a massive fence designed to keep out all mammalian pests (jumping and burrowing), we saw the faintest glimmer of what this place would have looked like prior to the arrival of the invasives (humans included). We were lucky to see a nesting Takahe bird, one of the world’s rarest birds, thought to be extinct until a surviving population was discovered in the south island in 1948.
  • Visiting the Te Papa Museum in Wellington and seeing the world’s only colossal squid display, and learning all about the battle of Gallipoli and the impact of the First World War in the wonderfully-named “Scale of our War” exhibit. This was the most arresting and impactful exhibit on war that any of us have experienced.
  • Taking the three hour ferry ride at sunset through Cook’s Strait and into Queen Charlotte Sound in the south island.

Through the magic of audio books, we’ve capitalized on the opportunity afforded by a month in a camper van to introduce our captive audience to books they might not otherwise choose. In an attempt to listen to locally-relevant literature while on the road, we streamed The Hobbit and The Explorations of Captain Cook. We may have been a bit over zealous on our selection for this leg of the journey. After endless hours listening to a British monotone droning on with soft flute in the background, Gabe finally snapped and refused to board the camper until we switched to Percy Jackson. Nora shut us out entirely and braved car-sickness for a fifth read through the Harry Potter series on the Kobo, under sound-cancelling headphones.  This may have been compounded because these books followed on the heels of The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, both read by some dude who sounded a lot like the narrator of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

We are now exploring the south island, with only 10 days left before we are due to return the van. More on that soon!

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