In October 2014 Jenna and I spent 22 days travelling the North and South Island of New Zealand. This was a trip I had been anticipating for eight years and over that time my expectations for the country grew exponentially. Thankfully the country met and exceeded every hope I had for it.
For three weeks we didn’t sit still. We each battled an illness at separate times on the trip and went sightseeing in all weather conditions. Each day was magical and full of experiences that it is difficult to articulate in speech, let alone text. In the past I broke up significant trips in to multiple posts. A trip of this magnitude would occupy at least five installments and that is slightly too much for anyone to read, so I will capture the important travel bits and write up the highs and lows.
By the Numbers
Using a daily journal and our credit card statements here are some numbers about our trip.
- Number of fill-ups: 7
- Total mileage: 3795KM
- Cost spent on fuel: $539.89 NZD (~ $491 CAD)
- Number of nights camped: 21
- Number of nights dry camped (no utilities hook up): 7
- Number of nights free camping: 4
- Cost spent on camping: $600 NZD (~$528 CAD)
- Cost spent on food: $733.73 CAD
In 2013 I began monitoring airfare for New Zealand and keeping track of when the cost would rise and fall. Typically the sweet spot for buying international airfare is about five months out and I bought in January for departure in October. I had the benefit of having a year of historical data so I knew the typical cost and was able to secure a seat at the ideal cost.
We flew Edmonton to Vancouver and then Vancouver straight to Auckland. Our return flight added one additional leg as we went Christchurch to Auckland and then back over to Canada going through Vancouver before landing in Edmonton. Air New Zealand transported us to and from New Zealand and this was a very comfortable airline. I paid to have seats near the front part of the rear cabin, close to the bathrooms but not near the exit row (on recommendations from SeatGuru).
We landed in Auckland and ventured south, zigzagging our way through North Island.
Each activity we did was deserving of a long write up and at no time did we regret our decision to try something. The Trilogy Experience provided us some incredible moments at the Hobbiton Movie Set, and the Ruakuri Caves. The other features of the Trilogy Experience included a very eerie and dark trip through the Waitomo Gloworm caves and a chance to understand the Māori culture at Te Puia.
Lake Taupo was beautiful and a shame we were there for just an overnight stop. This is the largest lake in New Zealand and the small piece of beach we camped beside also showed it was gorgeous too.
While heading to Wellington we made a stop at the Tongariro Crossing and attempted to do a few KM hike. Jenna was recovering from her cold, and I was starting to come down with one, so we turned around before the Soda Springs and failed to reach some of the other attractions on the hike, but at least we were walking beneath the shadow of the mountain that doubled for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
We opted to spend more time in Wellington than originally planned and it was worth it because the capital city kept us busy for a day and even a few days there wouldn’t have been enough time. Exploring the waterfront, a wonderful (and free) museum at Te Papa and a tour of the Weta Workshop made for a full and exhausting day.
Overnight spots in the North Island were:
- Lake Taupo
- Total distance in the North island: 1,113 KM
On the Cook Strait Ferry from the North to South Island you immediately see a difference in landscape, and when you land at Picton you feel like you’re in a whole new country. The hills are more dramatic, the people have a more relaxed feel and there are less crowds. The South Island was my favorite of the two, but it offers dramatic landscapes, fjords and ragged mountains; which are hard to compete against.
We did some backtracking on our way to a piece of heaven at Abel Tasman National Park. Our time here was wonderful. We did a long hike, were followed by a pod of dolphins, had amazing views of the Milky Way and Southern Cross.
When we landed on South Island we did a little backtracking and crossed the South Island across the middle and then came back up to land in Christchurch.
Overnight spots in the South Island were:
- Marahau (Abel Tasman)
- Hanmer Springs
- Fox Glacier
- Te Anau
- Dunedin (Katiki)
- Total distance in the South island: 2,682 KM
Campervans are a popular mode of transportation in New Zealand and we ended up renting a smaller Jumper Lite 2 (model is no longer in service) from Wilderness. Wilderness had a high rating on the New Zealand website Rankers, but other companies to look at would be Apollo, Juicy and Britz.
Our home on the road was a Fiat van converted in to a campervan. It was outfitted with a living area, bathroom and kitchen. None of it was overly large but it was functional. A larger unit would have been nice, but having a ‘van’ and not a ‘mini motorhome’ was appealing. Although, the nuisance of having to make up the bed and store the linens every day got tiresome, and a larger unit would have avoided that routine.
New Zealand drives opposite to North America and to add to the stress I had to drive a manual. Not only was I driving in a foreign country in a large vehicle, I had to relearn how to drive a manual while shifting with my left hand.
Picture this: you are five minutes behind the wheel of the campervan and approach a traffic circle. Every instinct I had from decades of driving was now useless and I had to jump in to heavy traffic flow while the queue of vehicles behind me began to grow and a few honked their horns.
Straight and flat roads don’t exist in New Zealand so a 200KM journey could take four hours. You don’t get anywhere fast and most of the roads we traveled on were paved. The campervan handled the country well and the only time we feared for our safety was going through tight hairpins in the Abel Tasman region or when we were on a windy single lane gravel road in Glacier Country.
The people of New Zealand are incredibly friendly, perhaps more than Canadians. Everyone was polite, relaxed and above all, fiercely proud of their beautiful country.
At the Hanmer Springs Hot Pool I was able to eavesdrop on a conversation between a Kiwi and a German engineering graduate who was spending several months cycling through the country. The one exchange that stood out is slightly paraphrased but the context is there:
Kiwi: How are you finding the roads on a bike?
German: Most seem good, vehicles move over and give me room, but some honk as they pass.
Kiwi: Maybe that’s their way of saying ‘hello’?
Instead of immediately thinking that the drivers were being angry that there was a cyclist on their road the resident went to the happier and supportive path, and based on my experience sharing their roads for three weeks, I would tend to agree. What is seen as an act of frustration in Canada was a supportive honk, especially in such a hilly country you know that a little bit extra support from motorists would be welcomed.
Another situation that stands out to show the true colors of New Zealanders happened while we were in the capital, Wellington. We were walking through a busy shopping area and noticed a pan handler by the front of a store similar to 7-11 (it should be noted that we only saw a few pan handlers throughout our trip, they were not very common). The 7-11 employee walks out and asks the pan handler if he would like a smoothie. The handler answers yes and the employee hands him a ready made smoothie and they begin talking. This exchange would never happen in North America and showed a level of friendliness and compassion that is common for these people.
We had several chats with locals in town or out hiking in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was always glad to provide their thoughts on the local terrain or recommendations for a ‘must see’. When they learned our nationality their curiosity about the country, differences we’ve experienced on our trip, or tales of family members returning with as much Maple Syrup as they could bring back would come out.
Food and Groceries
Regardless of where you travel you expect to see North American fast food chains in large cities, but what surprised us was how common Subway’s were. Large cities or small towns, there were Subway’s everywhere. This was the most popular restaurant in the country and was equivalent to the frequency of Starbucks in Seattle.
We ate at McDonald’s twice. Once was on the day of our arrival passing time until our campervan was ready for pickup, and another time near the tail end of our trip as we were on the end of a long day and even longer drive. For everything else we prepared ourselves or had a treat with a meal out. The kitchen facility in the campervan allowed for the ability to cook up soup, fry meat or have chilled vegetables at any time. We had more freedom to drive later in the day and check in to our camping spot after dark because we knew we could make our meal.
Grocery purchases was challenging at first because we had to work with a small fridge (60L) and become familiar with strange products. We had a breakfast staple of oatmeal, granola, yogurt and fresh fruit. Lunches were typically cheese and crackers, salad or sandwiches, and suppers were challenged by the ‘everything sticks to me’ frying pan. Pasta was common and if we were camping at a powered site we could use the microwave, otherwise we relied on boiling water or frying meat to prepare our meals. We never ate anything fancy because with one frying pan, one pot, limited sink and fridge space we had to be conservative on what we prepared.
Jenna was careful to buy products from New Zealand so our cheese, wines and fruit were all domestic and we showed no moderation in consuming any of that.
Cash and Credit Purchases
We brought $800CAD to be exchanged in to NZD and used our credit cards for the majority of our purchases. All terminals were chip enabled but there were a small amount that would only accept NZ branded credit or debit cards. The majority had no issues with our BMO MasterCard but the foreign card did present a few challenges for sales staff as they had to select the originating country and if that failed the purchase was entered manually on the terminal.
Grocery stores sell alcohol and with each purchase we would buy a bottle or two of wine. We were asked for ID once and our Canadian driers license wasn’t acceptable so we had to present our Passport. We didn’t always carry our Passport on our person (it was locked in the safe back in the van) but it was never an issue as we weren’t asked for ID again. The process at the grocery stores is that when alcohol or tobacco is being purchased the cashier would call a supervisor to approve the purchase and they would be the ones who would determine if ID was required.
Our campervan came with a GPS but the most important item we had with us was an app that we had on our phones and tablets: CamperMate. Not only could you find campsites in your area, you could look for sanitary dump sites, attractions, gas stations and grocery stores. This app was installed before we left and could be used without a data connection. We referred to CamperMate several times a day to plan our next attraction or do research on where we were staying for the night.
I bought a NZ SIM card for my iPhone 5S and this was helpful for the intermittent data connections we required or to call to a campground and inquire about a reservation.
I have touted the benefits of SmartWool socks prior to this trip, but New Zealand was the time we experienced Merino wool, specifically from Icebreaker. We had begun purchasing Icebreaker gear a year before the trip and appreciated its cooling and warming abilities and quick dry nature, especially if we washed clothes in the sink the night before and had them out to dry while we drove to our next stop.
Abel Tasman. The northern tip of the Southern Island was breathtaking. This was a quiet escape in between the Tasman Sea and dramatic landscape. Our long hike along the Tasman Walk was a great way to see this beauty but having a pod of dolphins follow our water taxi at the end of the day was inspirational.
Queenstown. The adventure capital of New Zealand is a lot like Banff, Alberta. There are tourist attractions on every corner and there is something for everyone here. We had two nights here and on the second day the weather was perfect and we put as much in to experiencing the city as we could. We started the day with a boat ride on the lake, spent an hour in a sensory overloaded puzzle/maze arena, had a ‘choose your own adventure’ for wine tasting, went for a go cart ride down the hill and capped it off with an incredible buffet overlooking the town site.
Time was always against us and we could have easily spent a month on each island. Knowing we were on a schedule we had to skip areas on this trip and for what may be a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience it is disappointing to know that we left some gems undiscovered.
The hangover following this trip was bad. I felt that I peaked too soon and the most amazing trip of my life was behind me. Even now I find it hard to look at a potential destination and ask myself why bother if it won’t be as good as New Zealand. This country was so beautiful and inspiring that boarding the plane in Christchurch to head home was a significant low point for me.
We traveled in October, which is late spring/early summer, and we knew the weather could be a bit questionable. If we had a bad day on the trip it was because of weather. Even in rain we persevered and tried to see what we could. One night in Glacier country (at Gillepsie Beach) was a particular low point. We made our way through a treacherous single lane gravel road to find a local gem of a beach.
When we arrived the visibility was poor and even if we did gear up to go outside there wouldn’t have been any use. We made the most of a bad situation, had a warm dinner, turned the LPG powered furnace on, and enjoyed a movie with bagged popcorn. We knew that there would be bad weather days so we prepared for them and even though this was a cold and dreary camping spot it is one of the more memorable nights we had.
Our first day in Auckland was plagued by frantic weather. In the span of thirty minutes we would see sunny skies, a light breeze, hard winds followed by sideways rain and then the system would repeat. Even locals commented on how unusual the weather was.
Outside of our flight, campervan and ferry crossing ticket nothing was booked in advance. We would plan as we went. With the exception of a few key dates we had to make we were left to our own devices. Having more time would have been preferred, but unless we were spending months in New Zealand we would be missing something.
This was a trip I waited for my whole life and it was inspirational in every way. This was more than a vacation but a life experience and I can’t recommend New Zealand enough to people I have spoken to about it.