I’ve decided to interrupt our regular programming here on Key to the West to share what it’s like to travel (and live!) in a camper van. Jeff and I have spent the last 10 days cruising around New Zealand’s south island in a “road snail,” otherwise known as an RV. Camper van travel is very common in New Zealand among kiwis and tourists alike; several of our friends in the states have done the camper thing in NZ, and urged us not to miss out on the experience.
Because it is such a popular activity, travelers have many choices when it comes to procuring a vehicle — you can rent anything from a bare-bones minivan to a bona fide McMansion on wheels. Jeff and I chose something in the middle: our van has two berths (beds); a small kitchenette with a refrigerator, stove top, microwave, and sink; and a table with bench seating.
Our camper is hardly a behemoth, but driving it can be challenging. Between New Zealand’s windy, narrow roads (our kiwi friend Annie calls them “dramatic”) and the whole drive-on-the-left thing, getting around can be quite an adventure! Jeff has been doing all the driving, by the way. I’ve made a few desultory offers to get behind the wheel, but we both know I really don’t want to. So big thanks to Jeff!!!
Home is wherever you park. This probably goes without saying, but there’s something very freeing about being able to roll up virtually anywhere — a campsite in the woods, a beach, whatever — and call it good for the night. NZ’s Department of Conservation has dozens of low-cost campsites across both islands; there are also HUNDREDS of “holiday parks” that offer electrical hook-ups. On our first night in the camper, Jeff and I didn’t quite realize that our electric outlets wouldn’t work without a power supply (we’re city dwellers, k?). So we’ve been trying to do about half of our nights out in the wilderness sans power, and half at the more expensive holiday parks.
Comforts of home. We may live in a van right now, but let’s just say we’re not exactly roughing it. In addition to the aforementioned microwave, refrigerator, etc., we also have a small space heater, hot water kettle, toaster, relatively comfortable bed and pillows, wifi hot spot, and the ability to use and charge all of our electronics. This ain’t no tent in the woods, people! And I’m glad it’s not, because we have gotten a fair amount of rain over the past 10 days. Last week, when we were in Abel Tasman National Park, we watched another couple scramble to assemble a cabana thing over their little tent in the POURING rain. They were also screaming at each other, so instead of inviting them over — which we considered — we decided to let them be. (I still feel kind of bad about that.)
Fun, novel experience. I’ve never lived in a camper before this, but I really like it! We get to experience a new place every night or two, and we get some of the benefits of camping without having to, ya know, roll up sleeping bags and dry out the tent every morning. Plus, we’re learning valuable new skills like filling our mobile water reservoir and switching out propane tanks (our future employers will be so impressed, right?)
Socializing can be weird. Jeff and I are never apart for very long, so when we meet a potential new friend we try to present ourselves as cool, casual people (as opposed to the desperate, socially deprived people we have become). Unfortunately, when there’s a van involved, there’s no un-creepy way to invite someone over to hang out. Read the following question and TRY not to cringe: “Do you want to have some beers in our van??” See?!
Trailer park-y-ness. While we’ve found few gems, the majority of powered sites force campers to park in close proximity to one another. On multiple occasions we’ve rolled up to a campsite that is virtually empty in the afternoon, only to return a few hours later and see that we’re surrounded by every Tom, Dick & Harry on the south island. C’est la camper van vie, I guess.
Small living space. Jeff and I often joked about our little “shoe box” apartment in Washington, but our tiny camper makes that place seem like a palace in comparison. There are few opportunities to be alone (or even more than a few yards apart); it’s often cold enough in the evenings that neither of us wants to spend any length of time outside. I happen to be writing this post from a cafe
I escaped to while Jeff is mountain biking :)
In sum, we’re very much enjoying our camper van experience, despite a few minor nuisances! It has been a fun and efficient way to explore New Zealand, and we’d happily do it again if given the chance.