There's no better way to explore the open roads of New Zealand than by campervan. But be careful: the road to paradise doesn't always run smooth...
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Te Anau. In fact I think I had fallen in love with Te Anau. It was just that I was back in Te Anau in a tow truck. And our campervan was bobbing sadly on the trailer of said tow truck. Correction: our deceased campervan. Wilma Van Trapp. A beloved blue Nissan Datsun C20. Cost: NZ $2,600 and a big dollop of pride. The trip was going extremely well until Wilma met her maker.
We had only waved goodbye to Te Anau that morning. It’s a delightfully-sized town on the edge of a sparkling lake and the gateway to the country’s magnificent Fjordland. It also happens to be a gateway to half a dozen sites used by director Peter Jackson to depict Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings. Tourism for rings-nerds (I confess I am one) is still booming years after the cameras stopped rolling. Who doesn’t want to see where Frodo and Sam set off for Mordor after breaking the Fellowship? Or where Gollum saved Frodo in the Dead Marshes? Or the mound where hundreds of dirty orcs were slaughtered by Rohan’s handsome horse-riders? Well, lots of people probably, but I did. It was shortly after visiting such a site along a very long, bumpy and obviously slippy gravel road that our trusty van met its untimely end. Those hobbits have a lot to answer for.
But if we were going to be stranded anywhere in the world then I was happy it was Te Anau. Most visitors to the southern town simply hop on one of the many walking tracks that begin there and tramp (that’s New Zealand for walk) away. Most of the other tourists in Te Anau are just passing through. Usually sat in a coach seat, camera dangling from their neck, they wait for the onwards trek to Milford Sound.
The trip there is well worth the effort. Take your own transport and head into the mountains late afternoon, when the sun casts the most brilliant shadows. Stay overnight and catch one of the earliest cruises before the coaches arrive. There really isn’t that much more to do in Milford Sound. Most visitors take a cruise, have a coffee and leave. But the drive to and from Milford is an exhilarating experience. One minute you’re driving through expanses of rust-coloured fields, with the ever-present mountain backdrop of the South Island. The next minute you’re driving through dense rainforest, the greenness and humidity closing in. Then, all of a sudden, the trees drop away to reveal a lush valley of vegetation and wildlife. Windy hairpin bends and the never-ending darkness and wetness of the Homer Tunnel, impressively carved straight through a mountain, make for two and a half of the best hours I have ever spent in a moving vehicle.
But back in Te Anau, The Moose, our new local, was beckoning. Mountainous plates of food, tasty New Zealand wine and the friendliest of friendly locals made The Moose a great place to wind away a few hours. We didn’t want to leave Te Anau the first time. But we did. And three hours later we were somersaulting through the air, the Nissan flipping cleanly in the air. Our bodies landed intact and in shock as the van came to a stop on the grass verge of the gravel track. And we thought dodgy window seals, a drivers’ window handle that repeatedly fell off and a headlights failure on a windy mountain road were problems enough.
Our now deceased van had taken us from Christchurch to Mt Cook (Aoraki), Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula, Fjordland and a number of other stunningly beautiful places along the way. It was a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, although thankfully not a bathroom. The initial costs, although relatively high, would ultimately be recouped by savings in hotel costs, restaurant dinners, over-priced rental costs or transport charges. Plus we had planned to sell the van on to other travellers once we reached Auckland. But we still realised the potential of this amazing road-trip and boldly purchased our second van in three weeks.
A night spent in a garage and a new gearbox later and we were back on the road, in a Ford this time, driving with sympathy past the coachloads of tourists who were being shepherded from one town to another, like some of New Zealand's 40 million sheep. The freedom a campervan provides means no-one can say no to a detour (unless you have a particularly disagreeable travelling companion), you instantly join a sort of campervan club (all campervanners wave to each other) and you choose whether you would like a sea view or a city view from your bedroom window.
Of course, there are the pitfalls, not least going head-over-heels off the road. A campervan is a confined space; it can become claustrophobic if you don't get on with your fellow passengers. There's no room for a shower or washer/dryer on board – be prepared for whiffy bodies/clothes. Kiwi band Crowded House were right when they sang 'Four seasons in one day' - be prepared to cook, drive and sleep in all weather conditions. You also have to endure the humiliation of being taken over by New Zealand's extremely impatient drivers as your van chugs up yet another dramatically-vertical mountain road.
But despite all this, taking to the road in a campervan is without doubt the best way to explore New Zealand. The best places to buy are Auckland and Christchurch; these are the gateway cities to the North and South Islands, respectively. Haggle hard: most sellers are eager to sell and leave as soon as possible after their own adventure has come to an end. Scour backpackers' car markets for deals and check hostel noticeboards. If renting, book well ahead and take out the maximum insurance option – you just never know what your trip ahead might hold.