A male kiwi is crying piteously under the thick darkness of the rain forest. If I had not heard a similar rendition by a department of conservation warden a couple of years ago, I might take it for a cat on steroids. I have my feet up on the dash of our camper-van and, beside me, Henk has a glass of Pinot Noir to go with his endless kindle. We have been up to see Franz Josef today, not the Austro-Hungarian emperor, but the south island glacier named for him. We are on the road in New Zealand, exploring scenic byways, classic tramps, bike and wine routes, and tourist “must dos”. We have been here six months in total, while we wait out tropical cyclone season: November to May. After three months of exploring, what have we learned about New Zealand and what it offers to travelers?
The first thing to consider is a visa. New Zealand has an online application. Depending on your age and circumstances, you can apply for a visa that allows you to work, visit, study etc. Although these working holiday visas are limited to people under the age of 35, older adults can look for work on a tourist visa and once they get a firm job offer, apply for a work visa. There is a plethora of young people from North America and Europe working in hospitality, tourism and agriculture in New Zealand. I also met older people from Europe, North America and South Africa who had found work. On a tourist visa you get 3 months. If you are getting to and from NZ on a sailboat, you can get a six month visa. See New Zealand Immigration for your best option.
From miles of unspoiled beaches to rugged alpine grandeur, New Zealand is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. The north island is subtropical and the weather generally warm and sunny. The sun’s rays are intense however, so you really do need sunscreen, hat, protective clothing, and extra water. At higher altitudes, be prepared for changeable weather: four seasons in one day… Although its latitude suggests a climate like France, Spain or California, this island country gets prevailing winds from Antarctica! In the high mountains of the south island, its not unusual to get snow in midsummer, so always check the weather forecast, take extra food, warm layers and rain gear. That being said, we had a wonderful time whether we were tramping in Force 8 winds on a mountain ridge, biking in 30 degree sunshine, or finishing a trek in heavy rain. Most of the time the weather was glorious!
The next consideration is how to get around. Friends of ours did New Zealand from a cruise ship, spending a day or two in Auckland. Others explored the north island coast and even the south island by sailboat. Some bought a cheap flight from Auckland to the south island and then rented a car to get around. We even see the occasional hitchhiker, but they are quite rare. The vast majority of people on three week to three month trips, opt for a car or camper-van and use the Bluebridge or Inter-islander ferries to get between the north and south island. Bookings are essential. There are hotels and hostels, as well as farm-stays and B & B’s for every budget, if you go for a car. Best to book ahead if you are travelling in high season to tourist areas such as Queenstown, Rotorua and Auckland. TripAdvisor has hotel reviews.
Depending on how long you travel, Holiday Parks can be a cheaper option than hotels. Many have accommodation from dorm-style bunkhouses to private cabins or “baches”, as well as powered and non-powered camp sites. Family Parks, Kiwi Parks and Top Ten have sites throughout the country. These have flush toilets, hot showers, laundry, kitchen facilities and WiFi. The Department of Conservation has more basic campsites, with and without toilets. If you have a self-contained camper-van, with the requisite grey-water holding tank and a portable toilet with a sealed holding tank, you can stay overnight in DOC sites, with no toilet, often for free. Some sites are just a lay-by off the highway, but many are scenic and close to outdoor activities. You don’t need reservations in the DOC campgrounds and we were only turned away from holiday parks in Queenstown and Tongariro. You must have a self-contained sticker on your vehicle to use the free self-contained sites. The Campermate app is very useful for finding campsites within your budget and level of convenience, as well as finding fuel, food, showers, laundromats, attractions etc. The maps.me app is excellent for finding roads and trails.
Although plenty of people tent in summer, camper-van rental companies abound. There are very few of the huge rigs one sees in North America. New Zealand roads tend to be steep, narrow and twisty, so smaller vehicles make sense here. Also, fuel is $1.87 to $2.28 NZ per litre for gas and $1.37 to $1.67 per litre for diesel. Some of the rentals we have seen in our travels, from the poshest to the most basic are:
- Maui and Britz: bigger, newer, comfortable motorhomes for families
- Jucy, Madcampers, Wandereisen, Freedomcampers and Happycampers: well-equipped vans with head space
- Peasinapod, Spaceships, and HippieCampers: smaller vans with the essentials
Another option, if you have more time, is to buy a van and sell it when you leave. We bought one from Kiwi Road trips, with a contract to sell back in five months at an agreed price. Friends of ours bought a passenger van at the Auckland car auction and spent a week parked in front of a hardware store, while they converted the van for camping. They plan to convert it back and sell it when they leave. Another friend bought a camper-van in mid November in Auckland, explored the country, and then sold the van at the end of January to another tourist for the same price. The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association handles self containment certification and has information on the requirements.
There are lots of camper-vans here. Toyota Estima, Hiace, Honda Odyssey, Ford Econoline and Mitsubishi are all commonly used as basic camper-vans. Prices vary from about 2,000 NZ to 25,000 NZ, depending on the age and state of the van. We paid 7,900 NZ for a 2002 Estima, which does meet our needs for two adults. We can carry our hiking gear, two bikes, clothes and food. The deciding factor for Henk was the auxiliary battery, which allow us to run our 45 litre Engel fridge and charge our devices at any time. I appreciate the comfy five-inch foam mattress and new duvet, sheets and pillows that came with it. If I were to buy a camper again, I would buy a Hiace or a Ford Transit for the extra room and head space. Whatever you choose, prices go down by as much as half in the off season, which is April to September. Check the Trade Me and Backpacker Board websites for more information. Auckland and other major cities also have regular car auctions, which are listed online.
Buying a vehicle is fairly straightforward. Check the date on the vehicle’s mandatory annual certificate of fitness before you buy. Inspections are relatively quick and inexpensive and are intended to protect buyers, prevent accidents and encourage regular vehicle maintenance. Our buyback contract includes a fifty fifty split on major repairs: it had been re-certified just prior to the sale and we have had no problems with it. Vehicle insurance is quite reasonable here. Our van cost $52/ month to insure at the New Zealand Automobile Association. After 10,000 km in the last four months, we have only done an oil change and put on two new tires.
Excellent information about what to do, and where, is available online at the AA Traveller site. The NZ Automobile Association also distributes excellent and free paper guides of each region, with full write-ups on walks from 15 minutes to multi-day, bike tracks, and wine and beer tasting tours. Featured attractions are also covered in these guides, from geothermal hot spots, artisan crafts, Maori and colonial culture to bungy jumping, diving, surfing, caving and glacier flights. From Stewart Island to Cape Reinga, there is a huge variety of activities and attractions for every budget and interest.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) website has full write-ups of all their walking tracks, cycle ways and facilities. You can walk or bike the length of the whole country and many people do this! If you are planning to do one of the nine multi-day Great Walks, you can find trail information, transport/shuttle info, and make hut or camping reservations online. Since the whole DOC hut and track system is supported by New Zealand tax dollars, I, as a visitor here, have no problem paying extra to use the excellent hut facilities. There are many other huts and tracks that do not require a booking. The super popular Tongariro Crossing can be done in a day, so you can wait for good weather on that one. Regardless of your fitness level, do get out and enjoy the varied terrain here! From subtropical to temperate, seashore to alpine, isolated New Zealand has evolved flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. My personal favorites are the majestic kauri trees of the north island and the tiny, carnivorous, alpine bladderwort of the Fjordland alpine bogs.
The DOC is integrated with the I-sites (Information offices); each town has one, with helpful staff, long hours and loads of information about what to do and where to stay locally. The I-sites are marked on the Campermate app and on paper maps. The I-site staff are always knowledgeable and friendly. In Bluff, the southernmost town in mainland NZ, the local cafe and museum doubles as the I-site, so we sat down and had an informative chat with the owner over coffee and homemade scones. In larger centers, you can check in at the I-site for your Great Walk, get weather and trail updates, and even last minute clothing. I bought warm socks for $16.00 NZ and a toque for $10.00 at the I-site before doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Another gem was the plastic poncho I got for $1.50 at the grocery checkout in Te Anau, just before doing the Kepler Track. Yes, we used those flimsy plastic ponchos and no, Goretex did not stand up to the weather!
Of all the things we have done, I would say the must dos are:
- Tongariro crossing: It’s busy because its spectacular! Check the weather and prepare accordingly.
- Rotorua: At least one geothermal venue and at least one of the the Maori cultural centers.
- Glowworms: Can be seen in many caves and dells for free. Magical luminescent excrement! Take a light and a friend! My favorite is Abbey Caves near Whangarei, because its free and includes a short hike through pastoral hills.
- Caves: Waitomo (north Island) and Charleston (south Island) offer various excellent and thrilling cave adventures at a hefty price. Having done tubing, rock climbing, rappelling, and seen glowworms, I went instead to Ngarua Caves, near the start of the Abel Tasman Track, on the south Island. It was great value for $20, with thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and columns, as well as Moa skeletons, in a 300 meter underground cave system. Bookings not necessary.
- Beaches: Miles of gorgeous black volcanic or white sand, dunes, cliffs and the chance to see whales, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals, and penguins, depending where you go.
- Birds: The Gannet colony south of Murawai Beach, Royal spoonbills near Nugget Point, Dotterels at Smugglers Cove near Whangarei, the Takahe breeding program at Te Anau, kea (alpine parrots) Kaka (forest parrots) and of course the nocturnal Kiwis were all highlights for me. A partnership between DOC, Air New Zealand and local volunteers is making a combined effort to boost native bird populations and remove introduced pests like rats, stoats and weasels. This country has no native terrestrial mammals and the native birds are extremely vulnerable to the introduced predators. Read more at Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust and Predator Free NZ.
- Lord of the Rings: For Lord of the Rings fans, a visit to Hobbiton is delightful. The free brew in the Green Dragon Pub helps take away the bitter taste of the entry price. Many I-sites carry the book about where to find the outdoor settings from the movies. Finding them could even be a theme for your NZ tour.
Food here is fun and varied. From meat pies, scones, carrot cake, and farm fresh berry ice cream, to innovative cafe and pub fare, there’s something for every palate. Grass fed beef is standard, not special, here and there are gluten-free and vegetarian options on most menus. We had several nice afternoons of cycling between wineries, some of which have restaurants or cafes. The holiday parks’ communal kitchens or a camper-van with a camp stove, or both, make it easy to keep your food budget down by cooking for yourself.
New Zealand has the welcome mat out for tourists. As the third largest industry, behind agriculture and forestry, tourism generates $36 billion NZ annually. Yet one can camp for free in many places and some Kiwis make their driveway available to campers for $10 or so a night. We were invited home by campground neighbors and had a lovely visit with them, complete with homemade dinner of New Zealand roast lamb, roast root vegetables, peas and mint sauce. Our hostess even made Raspberry Pavlova for us.
The Kiwi welcome goes beyond the genuine warmth, humour and friendliness of individuals. For example, the extra gear available at DOC trailheads is low cost- its almost as if they just want you to be safe with the right gear. DOC wardens pleasantly make Sat phone calls for hikers who have to change their plans. Merchants and grocery store staff are all happy to give directions and advice as well as local maps. Emergency medical care is free! I met a Canadian cyclist who was hit by a car on her first day. Her injured wrist was treated for free and she was able to continue her trip after a few days.(She changed her plan and went on off road trails). Emergency roadside assistance with NZAA is available for tourists with membership in a similar organization; I showed my British Columbia Automobile Association card and got NZAA coverage for free when I insured our van. Although New Zealand has a 15% GST, it is included in shelf prices so you don’t get a nasty shock at the checkout.
Its now a sunny morning and I am at the picnic table prepping breakfast. Henk has a coffee caramel mocha chocolate concoction going. The bird is at it again with its strong, descending, plaintive call. I realize the sound is actually coming from up in the trees, so it cannot be a flightless Kiwi after all. I squint into the sunshine and there they are, three Kakas, forest parrots, and they are definitely making the cat on steroids sound. I guess I need more time to learn the calls of the birds of New Zealand. I still have two months before we sail away, so I will visit the DOC online site again and see what else I can learn. Maybe we will even come again next cyclone season and join the South Pacific cruisers who yo yo back to New Zealand year after year.