New Zealand campervan tour: a review of my 30-day Kiwi adventure

I turn around to grab a pair of socks and inadvertently elbow my wife in the face. That’s probably the ninth time this week I’ve injured her – but there’s no need to call social services. We’re living in a small, two-person campervan for 30 days while we travel 4,000km around New Zealand.

It is not for the claustrophobic. Imagine sleeping, washing, cooking and everything else in between in that tiny, box-shaped, spare bedroom you never use and you’ve got the idea. The cramped conditions mean elbow meets face, head hits ceiling and toe stubs into chair on a daily basis.

But I don’t want to give the impression it is all painful injuries, cabin fever and prison-like confinement in our undersized but cheap van. Freedom is perhaps a better word to sum up our New Zealand campervan adventure. Daisy – the name my wife Becky gives to our red and white, converted Toyota Hiace – is our ticket to a bespoke, off-the-beaten-track Kiwi experience.

We park up and camp in jaw-droppingly beautiful places with the kind of scenery usually only spotted on the PC desktop backgrounds of bored office workers. We make fresh cafetières of morning coffee on the shores of shimmering blue lakes and over-looking snow-capped, jagged mountains. And we lie in bed watching the sun set, turning the sky a myriad of pinks, oranges and reds.

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Yes, you could’ve done most of this with a hire car and a tent – but not all. Some of the best freedom camping sites are reserved for “self-contained” vehicles only – those with toilet facilities – and then there’s the added charm of the New Zealand campervan lifestyle. It is a cocktail of fresh air, al-fresco dining, the great outdoors and the open road, mixed with at least a degree of comfort. We’ve got a cozy double-bed, a fridge keeping much-needed treats cold, a gas hob to rustle up dinner and a small couch for relaxing.

Of course it is not luxurious – a call of nature, for example, leaves you with a which-is-the-lesser-of-two-evils decision: the porta-potti  provided with Daisy or a trip to the campsite long-drop toilet, a nauseating, fly-infested experience akin to an I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here challenge. But we’re definitely not slumming it. We meet lots of travellers sleeping in the back of their possession-strewn cars or pitching basic tents on rock-hard, rain-starved ground. In comparison Daisy is a spacious, almost decadent, home-on-four-wheels, kitted out with all the mod-cons. She is a reliable companion too, taking our petrol-guzzling journey through New Zealand in her stride.

We first head south of Auckland to the coastal delights of the Coromandel Peninsula, indulging in a bum-burning dip at Hot Water Beach, where two hours either side of low tide you can dig a hole in the sand and it will fill with boiling water from a natural spring. In Whakapapa we explore the smoking, smouldering volcanic beauty of the Tongariro National Park and stand atop Mt Ngauruhoe (better known as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings), while in sulphur-smelling Rotorua we watch geysers explode and mud baths bubble.

To save money we stay at basic Department of Conservation campgrounds (about £3 per person a night) and designated freedom camping sites (free), which invariably have views you’d happily pay a fortune for. When we need a hot shower, flush toilets, WiFi and power for Daisy we check into commercial campgrounds (about £10 a night per person), taking the opportunity to re-organise. “Why is the phone charger by the sink not in the yellow bag to the left of my rucksack?”, says Becky, frustrated at my inability to comprehend her meticulous system designed to prevent Daisy becoming a chaotic, unmanageable mess. Next stop is Wellington to catch a ferry to the South Island and we decide on a slower strategy for part two of our New Zealand campervan adventure.

Up north we tried to cram too much in, meaning too many boring hours on the road and not enough time to unwind and really enjoy our surroundings. The new approach helps us relax into traveller mode – and doesn’t stop us ticking off items on our bucket list. In Akaroa we kayak with playful dolphins and visit a blue penguin conservation project, while in Kaikoura we watch in awe as sperm whales surface and dive. Dodging the parties in Queenstown, we soak up the views from the summit of Ben Lomond and in Te Anau we explore the magical rainforest of Fiordland National Park.

And then – before we really know it – it’s time to say goodbye to Daisy. We drop her off at Christchurch Airport. It feels like a poignant farewell and I find myself uncharacteristically welling up. The conclusion – I’m either getting soft in my old age or I’ve been well and truly captivated by the camper-van experience. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.