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The Pros & Cons Of Using A Camper Van In New Zealand’s South Island In Winter

Posted by on 27 March 2012

This is the first of a mini-series on our camper van experience in New Zealand’s South Island in June 2011. I originally thought of writing one long post covering everything but as I started with the first draft, I realised that there are so many facets to the camper van experience that demand posts of their own. That, plus the fact that my schedule has been quite unforgiving lately, thereby preventing me from writing one long comprehensive post. Hence, my decision to do a series of short posts instead on the subject.

When our family managed to bag unbelievably cheap tickets to Christchurch, New Zealand, the task of finding appropriate accommodations for our family fell on my shoulders. The trip was in June 2011, technically winter in the southern hemisphere, so it was not without trepidation that I finally decided on camper vans.

After doing extensive online research, I finally decided on contacting Wilderness Motorhomes. Their service was excellent right from the start, giving me very detailed information on the types of camper vans available, the costs involved, and the minutest details on what was included and what was not (something that some companies can be very sneaky about!). They always answered my emails promptly and in exhaustive detail, and were even available for chats over Skype. Unfortunately, for the type of camper vans that we wanted — two 6-berth units — they didn’t have such camper vans available for the dates of our trip. Thus, even though we booked with Wilderness Motorhomes, we ended up using camper van units from Kea Campers (whose services were also excellent!) at rates which were 5% cheaper than if we would have booked directly with Kea at the time.

My main concern was the heating, given that it was winter — would it be sufficient? But no matter who I asked, the reply was about the same — it would all depend on the weather and on our own capacity to withstand the cold. But just to be on the safe side, Wilderness Campers threw in extra duvets in addition to the sleeping bags which were included in the package. The vans also had standalone electric-powered heater fans but they could only be operated if the camper vans are plugged in at a proper camp site, i.e. not when we’re free camping somewhere.

In retrospect, I can now sum up the pros and cons of using a camper van in New Zealand’s South Island in winter as below.

Ultimate flexibility. You can stop anytime, anywhere. The camper van culture is so deeply entrenched in New Zealand that you easily find a suitable place to park your camper van for the night. If you have a self-sustaining camper van unit, you can even free camp almost anywhere. The best part: no need to worry when to check in and check out as you move around. Imagine waking up in a camp site as glorious as this at White Horse Hill Camping Grounds at Mount Cook National Park:-

White Horse Hill camping ground at Mt Cook Park, New Zealand
In-house toilet. This is a boon for families with children. When you need to go, you just go!
Savings and flexibility on food. Having a camper van means freedom to cook your own meals which can mean significant savings as compared to dining outside all the time. For people with dietary restrictions due to health or religious reasons, this can be a real boon.
Excellent bonding experience. The children absolutely LOVED the entire camper van experience. It’s all the twins can talk about until today. And to quote MyEldest, “the camper van was an adventure on its own”.

Camping is not for everyone. Bear in mind that a camper van involves two things: CAMPing and VAN (i.e. driving). The camping part means you’ll have to cook, take out the trash, clean up your mess (including cleaning the toilet cartridge daily, a topic that I definitely will write about in a future post). The van part means someone needs to do the driving, which may not be everyone’s definition of a holiday, especially since most camper vans use manual transmission (preferable, given their size). The van part also means being prepared with all the possibilities that can happen whenever a motor vehicle is involved — accidents, flat tires, breakdowns, heating/air conditioning issues, and the like.
‘Claustrophobia.’ Being cooped up in a small space with the same people for a prolonged period of time may not a good idea for some. You might end up getting on each other’s nerves, especially when some members of your travel party don’t help out as they should.
Lack of privacy. The toilet is very small so getting dressed inside the camper van is a challenge. For adults traveling with children, intimacy (or lack thereof) might be an issue.
Camper vans can be costly. Summer is, understandably, the peak season for camper vans and that’s when rental costs can be sky-high. Luckily for us, very few people use camper vans in winter, hence the rates were about 50% cheaper at the time. Whatever the case, the cost of diesel and LPG (needed for heating) in New Zealand is not as cheap as in Malaysia, thus, every trip to the petrol station was very painful on the wallet. You must also discuss in painstaking detail what’s included in your package price because some camper van companies charge separately for little extras like picnic chairs, child safety seats (everyone must wear a seat belt while on the move!), towels, and kitchen utensils. Many camper van companies also charge the dubious-sounding ‘Diesel Recovery Tax’ fees (which Wilderness did NOT charge us) which some people say are bogus. Furthermore, at some point, you need to stay in a proper camp site and the fees per head can be quite costly, too.
You may not be able to cover as much ground as you would on a car. New Zealand is very strict on speed limits. And besides, the 6-berth camper vans were HUGE. In terms of driving and maneuvering, the 6-berth camper van felt like any other big van (the closest Asian example that I can think of is a manual transmission Kia Pregio) but handling-wise, it felt like a lorry, thus I was extra careful when cornering and decelerating. Furthermore, it was winter and that meant sunrise at something like 7.45 am and sunset at around 5 pm, thus less daylight for safer driving conditions. So we never managed to cover the entire 5-day Christchurch-Queenstown-Christchurch driving trip that we originally planned due to unforeseen circumstances like the heater breaking down and a hike in Hooker Valley at Mount Cook National Park that took three times longer than what the brochures stated.

So how did we fare in New Zealand’s winter in the camper vans especially at night? Surprisingly well, mainly because it was the beginning of winter and it was quite a warm winter, i.e. some 15°C in the daytime and between 5-10°C at night. Everyday, I checked weather reports for snowfall but there was nothing except in the southern-most tip of South Island and we did not have enough time to go there. As an extra precaution, we also all wore thermal underwear all the time, especially the children, who were experiencing winter for the very first time, and we layered on clothes as and when we felt it necessary. Upon nightfall, we minimised closing and opening the door and also used a towel to cover the bottom of the door, where there was a noticeable draft at night. The standalone heater fans worked well when we were plugged in at camp sites. And when the heating system of one of our camper vans broke down at Mount Cook National Park (where there was no access to a service centre), part of our group just slept in a nearby hostel.

Cost-wise, given the size of our group and the timing of our trip, it ended up cheaper for us to take the camper vans instead of hotels and car rentals. So you have to do really extensive planning (where to stay when) in order to get a more detailed costing for your own trip. Food-wise, we felt we saved a lot by shopping for groceries and cooking our own meals. The kids had a fantastic time with the menu I prepared  for them — stuff like pizza (our camper van had a grill!), Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, pancakes with real maple syrup, fish and chips, and even pan-grilled salmon (thanks to a quick side trip to Mount Cook Alpine Salmon Farm). Of course, Malaysians never go anywhere without Maggi instant noodles and we had some, too, during our stay there ;)

Other Installments of The Camper Van Mini-Series:

Photo Tour Of A Kea 6-Berth Camper Van

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