Renting a camper in New Zealand was always something we planned to do. It just wasn’t until a couple weeks before we left South America that we actually booked anything. Popular camper rental companies were reporting they were sold out, and as happened many times during the trip, I got worked up that we were going to miss out because we had waited too long. Luckily, after making a request to the highly-youth-targeted brand Jucy, we secured a converted Toyota Sienna minivan for five weeks on the road. The minivan was called the “cabana”, and we figured that even though it wasn’t self-contained (aka it didn’t have a toilet), we were always going to stay at holiday parks anyway. I lived out of a camper in NZ for a couple weeks with my family in 2009, so five weeks with only one other person didn’t seem too crazy to me; honestly, I was really excited about it.
We picked up our bright green and purple van in Queenstown on the evening of April 22. On our Southland roadtrip, Brett and I made a game of counting who could yell “Jucy” first when we spotted one, and when we finally were in our own we decided to keep it up. Not 10 minutes down road we passed a Jucy sister, and I yelled out first. But as the car passed, it flashed its lights and the driver waved frantically. We realized we may have come up with the game ourselves, but other people were playing it, and doing it better. We elevated our game from then on to include manic waving and occasional horn honking when we passed another Jucy, and for the most part, it was returned. Why Jucy does not advertise this extremely fun fraternizing amongst its rentals, I don’t know, but it was easily one of the highlights of some of our longer days on the road.
We drove two hours north to the small town of Omarama to our first Top 10 Holiday Park. Top 10 is a chain across the country with a certain guaranteed quality. Each park offers community bathrooms, kitchens, and hangout spaces. While Brett and I were traveling they were running a deal for 30% off 2+ nights in any park, so we jumped on the $40 NZD membership fee to take advantage. We got a rundown from the receptionist on how far in advance we needed to make bookings and I calmed down because the answer was “this time of year? never, really.” We headed across the park to our van to set up for the night. The temperature was dropping quickly, but we figured our body heat would warm up our tin can. We were wrong; we shivered under the single comforter all night, and the foot piece of the bed kept caving down. In the morning as we tried to thaw our bodies from a frozen huddle, I realized I couldn’t find anything. My shoes were misplaced. My glasses were nowhere to be found. My toiletries were everywhere. I turned to Brett, laughing to avoid crying, “what are we doing? why did we do this?” I was certain it was going to be the longest month of my life, but Brett was ready with a game plan.
- (1) Get organized. Everything in the car has to have a place.
- (2) Find a prop to hold up the foot rest.
- (3) Buy blankets.
We didn’t get everything sorted right away, but once we did, I didn’t doubt our decision to spend a month in a camper again.
Day 1: Monday, April 23
We drove from Omarama to a little town just outside of Mount Cook, and booked a couple nights at the Glentanner Holiday Park (bunnies everywhere, pine-scented campsites). The weather was supposed to take a turn for the worse, so we drove into the park and attempted one of the more challenging hikes up to a mountain summit. We ascended for two hours, but another two hours of stairs straight up did not appeal to either of us. We ate lunch at a spectacular vista with Mount Cook’s icy peak in the background, and called it a day.
Day 2: Tuesday, April 24
We returned to Mount Cook and completed several local tracks: Hooker Valley, Tasman View, and Blue Lakes. Light rain came off and on, but the sky cleared as we came to the trail’s end. Mount Cook peeked out over a bright blue glacial lake, and Brett and I were transported back to the first time we saw Glacier Grey in Torres del Paine. We found ourselves comparing these two, insanely beautiful natural wonders, and not appreciating what was in front of us. It was one of the first moments we realized how jaded with travel we had become.
Day 3: Wednesday, April 25
We hadn’t planned to stop in Christchurch, but our passenger side window wasn’t rolling down. We took the camper into the local Jucy office for repair and spent the day wandering around Christchurch’s downtown. I had visited the city the year before the devastating 2010 earthquake, and seeing how many of the beautiful buildings were still in shambles 8 years later was sobering. We had heard on the news that New Zealand had a homeless epidemic, but so far we hadn’t seen anyone living on the streets. Turns out, they’re all in Christchurch. Up until that point, everywhere we visited in New Zealand was glistening and Christchurch felt apart. We skedaddled the next morning.
Day 4: Thursday, April 26
Brett and I drove up the beautiful and coastal 1 highway to get to Kaikora. We immediately took off on a whale watching tour to see the resident Sperm whales. The cruises go out several times a day, and since we had a later boat, they’d already located all the sightings for the day. We caught one Sperm whale surfacing, a pod of pilot whales, and a pod dusky dolphins and otters met up with the boat a few times too. Even though it’s another way overpriced activity, it’s definitely worth it to see the owner of the world’s largest brain up-close-and-personal.
Day 5: Friday, April 27
We headed to the local library to use their unlimited internet and plan our next few stops. Brett attempted to teach me how to throw a frisbee correctly on a local beach.
Day 6: Saturday, April 28
Blenheim, New Zealand’s most famous wine region, was en route to our next stop, so we spent a few hours visiting the vineyards. We checked out big-player Cloudy Bay, red-maker Fromm, and boutique winery Wairau River for lunch. Overall, the wines were just okay (yes, even the star varietal Sauvignon Blanc) but the chowder and smoked salmon salad we had at Wairau River was the second best food we had our entire time in the country.
Day 7: Sunday, April 29
Our first day in Moutueka, it rained like hell. There’s already not much to do in that town, but even less when the sky is falling. Even though the day before we’d driven for hours, we hopped back in the camper to try to outrun the rain. We found some sunshine a couple hours south at Lake Rotoiti. We took a hike, stared down the long-finned eels gathering beneath the dock, and enjoyed the constant challenge of keeping sandflies out of the van while we picnicked.
Day 8: Monday, April 30
The rain let up a little the next day, so we jumped on the chance to do one of the outdoor activities we had lined up. Brett booked us bike rentals to do a piece of the Great Taste Trail. He explained that even if it started raining again, we could always pop into one of the wineries, markets, or cafes that line the trail. What neither of us knew is that this part of the “great taste” was more about having an appetite for adventure than food.
Over our entire trip, I got very comfortable with being dirty. When we hiked the Colca Canyon, I didn’t wash my hands (or anything else) for FOUR DAYS. And I was fine. So on this day, covered in mud, scooping up deli-section salads with pieces of pastrami under a tarp that barely kept the rain off of us felt like no big deal. And I was happy to get back on my bike and head over the mountain again. It’s a day I can look back on and say, “I’ve grown a little.”
Day 9: Tuesday, May 1
The sun finally came out and we headed up to Marahau to do a half-day kayak rental. Brett and I opted to do free-kayaking without a guide, even though we didn’t have much experience with paddling on the open ocean. Luckily, it was a still day, and we made great time heading up the coastline of the Abel Tasman national park and over to Adele Island. Seal moms and pups lined the rocks on the island, and Brett and I found a cove where a few were playing in shallow water. They swam in circles around our kayaks and exchanged roars with the older seals. Brett and I got pretty good at our own barking, to the point that I’m fairly certain we were in on the conversation. It was one of those Planet Earth-feeling moments.
Day 10: Wednesday, May 2
Our last day in the area we bought water taxi tickets to take us deep into Abel Tasman. We planned to take a 6 hour hike back to Marahau, covering about 12 miles of park coastline. I don’t know who was sprinting this distance and timed it at 6 hours, but Brett and I barely took breaks and made it in 8. We were exhausted by the time we’d finished hiking, but the perfect aqua waters and golden sands along the way were worth it. Abel Tasman really does feel like some Caribbean Island clone. Getting to see the National Park from both land and sea was incredible; I think doing the Great Walk here would be a great experience. Next time!
We loaded our weary legs into the camper and took off for Nelson.
Day 11: Thursday, May 3
Brett and I had to wake up early to make it to Picton in time for our ferry. We were worried about hitting morning traffic, but naturally saw none. We stopped to get some breakfast at Picton Village Bakkerij, which I later remembered was somewhere my family had tried to stop 9 years prior, but it had closed for the winter. It was fun to find myself occasionally retracting my steps.
We loaded Jucy onto the Interislander with what felt like 500 other camper vans, and set sail through the breathtaking Marlborough Sounds and up to the North Island.