North Island—January-February, 2023
This is our fourth long—2-3 months—trip to New Zealand starting in 2008 in the first year of our retirement. Needless to say, we like it a lot. Right now I am writing this from near Wellington on February 18. We are supposed to be on the South Island but a tropical cyclone interfered. More on that later. This write up will not be a blow-by-blow of where we've been, but rather a summary of new travels and the changes to think about for traveling here in the future. My write ups in detail from 2014 and 2018 are at our website, theroadgoeseveron.com.
We rented a Jucy Chaser for this 80 night trip. We rented it on January 30th a year ago, before NZ was even open for travel. I did it because I got a terrific rate, $26 a night. Normally one would expect about $125 a night and up. We were actually afraid they wouldn't honor it. We reserved through Motorhome Republic. In the past we have rented a van you could sleep in (but no camper conversion), a station wagon, and last time a campervan but no bathroom, just a porta-pottie. Our Chaser is quite small at about 15' long but does have a wet bath with permanent cassette toilet. There is a small fridge with freezer compartment, 2 burner stove, sink, 20 gallon fresh and gray tanks. The hot water heats from the engine but is super hot and stays pretty warm for 24 hours and can be reheated by running the engine 20 minutes or so. The small couch/table area makes a bed and there is a pull out overhead bed. We found the couch bed a super pain to put together and after 2 weeks started sleeping “upstairs.” Also after 2 weeks our camper wouldn't charge anymore when plugged in at a campground—so we returned to Jucy in Auckland and had to trade out to a different but same model camper. A pain, as we had already installed 10 command hooks, a push button light in bathroom, covered excess glass with cardboard to control the heat, etc. In view of circumstances like this, it is vitally important that you plan to stay in the area where you pick up a camper for several days to be sure everything works. In fact staying your first night or so in a hotel would help with the jetlag before you attempt driving on the wrong side of the road! (One side note is there is legislation being debated to ban freedom camping unless the camper has a permanently installed toilet. This would eliminate almost all the lower priced campervans. The fine for illegal freedom camping is 200NZ and independent contractors are hired to enforce it. Easy for them to do as they associate the fines with your license plate, and then your rental company charges you plus an administration fee.)
Compared to the US and Europe, NZ has the best range of accommodations for budget travelers. But like everywhere now, reservations are becoming more necessary. Camper rental allows you to stay free in free freedom campsites but in many places near tourist hot spots they don't exist or are limited to 3-4 parking places so you have to get there early in the afternoon. Luckily, campgrounds are pretty inexpensive, averaging about $50NZ with electric for 2 people. Since the dollar is quite strong now, this is only $33 a night. When we had a propane fridge we often stayed without power at campgrounds and saved even more. Our current camper has an electric fridge, a very small coach battery, and a tiny solar panel. It lasts less than a day with charging phones, computers, etc. I bought a couple of blue ice packs when we arrived that I can move from freezer to inside the fridge when we want to freedom camp for longer than overnight. Not a great solution. When we want a campground we usually go online or call ahead to make a reservation. Christmas vacation combines with summer vacation here from about December 15 to February 7. Some freedom camping closes completely during this time, and campgrounds are extremely full. Reservations for spots near tourist sites need to be made as much as months in advance especially with you want non-camping accommodations. Almost all campgrounds have kitchens with stoves, refrigerators, freezers, etc. So you can freeze blue ice and water bottles to use on non-campground nights. Some have dishes and pots and pans, but many now require deposits or rental fees to check out such things. When we visited in 2014 the Kiwi dollar was .85 so we rented a station wagon, brought our backpacking tent (we were going to be trekking anyway) and thought we could just rent the little cabins or motel rooms on rainy nights. But on rainy nights they quickly filled. We spent about half our nights in the tent. Our daughter's family spent 6 weeks here in 2019 with reservations set up every night. But of course that means no flexibility for weather problems.
Ah...weather. Almost everything you want to do and see in NZ is weather-dependent. And oh my, the weather this trip has been horrendous. We have been luckier than many, but still missed some day hikes we wanted to do as they were closed due to flooding. The North Island got 6 months worth of rain in January and then at the end of January Auckland got 10 inches in 1 day, which closed the airport and most of the roads. Luckily we were way further south. Then in mid February the cyclone hit. Lots of rain and wind flooding Auckland, the north, and as far south as Lake Taupo. The Coromandel pennisula was hit by flooding for the third time since December. We were in Wellington, and it really wasn't too bad, but we moved from the parking (free and paid) in town to the Top Ten campground in Hutt. We had made ferry crossing reservations about 5 weeks in advance (and most were sold out even then for the summer season) for February 14. On the 14 and 15th both ferry lines cancelled all their bookings, refunding the money but everything was already sold out through March 12th! I spent 3 hours on hold (happily I had an NZ SMS card) with Interislander, to re-book, and I was scanning the bookings the entire time. A cancellation popped up for February 22 and I grabbed it. The customer service service rep then was able to transfer our booking for the same price and refund the much more expensive route due to the circumstances. I also had a fully refundable back-up booking made for March 12 and kept scanning occasionally for an earlier back up. My advice is to decide on your crossing early if you have a vehicle and make a reservation, then make a fully refundable reservation for 3-4 days later. NZ really isn't that crowded yet and the Chinese aren't traveling yet, but obviously the ferry service is woefully inadequate for the numbers. If you are renting a car you might be able to drop off in Wellington and pickup in Picton. But Picton is a tiny place. Apparently the sailings from Picton to Wellington are not quite as full if you start your trip on the South Island.
Just to add a brief note on what we think you shouldn't miss on the North Island (apart from the standard guidebook items): Waipu glow worm caves, Mangawhai Heads walk, Mahinepua coastal walk, Three Sisters beach walk at low tide, Hamilton Gardens, and the Waimere Boulders. The most useful guide books for day hiking to neat places are the NZ Frenzy guides by Scott Cook, available only from Amazon in the US. Hopefully, he is updating them this year. We have the older 3rd edition, and it is still very much worth the price. Our blog, roadeveron.blogspot.com, details everywhere we went on both islands.
South Island—February-March, 2023
As of mid-March, the ferry situation was still a mess, with thousands of people stranded on the wrong island and having to make expensive alternative arrangements such as flights, rental cars, and hotels. The ferry companies say they are not responsible for those extra costs. The government is examining that. Interislander has 2 new ferries coming on line in 2024 and 2025. Until then I really think you should make multiple back up reservations, as advised above.
One new activity this trip was a dolphin cruise in Kaikoura. We had very much enjoyed watching the dolphins leap when we visited in 2018. We had a good spot on the shore just south of town before the main road goes inland. It is free but taking the boat is so much better. To swim with them runs about 220NZ and includes at least 3 swims and your wet suit. The suits are extra buoyant to you can't drown and the boat deck is designed for easy entry and exit from the water. But the water is very cold and if the surf has been active your visibility in the water won't be good. We were very happy just to watch for half the price. There were hundreds of dolphins and lots of acrobatics. We were lucky to also view a couple of killer whale flukes.
We have had somewhat less rain on the South Island though nights can get cold (low 40s) near the Southern Alps. Activities seem more crowded here as this is where younger people tend to head for all the outdoor adventure opportunities. We have still enjoyed some favorite day hikes—3 sections of the Abel Tasman Great Walk, Hooker Valley Trail at Mt. Cook, Rob Roy Glacier Track near Wanaka, and the first section of the Routeburn Great Walk near Queenstown.
I particularly like the Abel Tasman Great Walk. We did the whole 5 days in 2009 and parts every trip since then. This time we walked from the Marahau campground about 10,000 steps and then turned around. We should have driven to the park's parking lot and walked the whole first section to Awaroa Bay and caught the water taxi back. Two days later we took the water taxi to Torrent Village and walked to Bark Bay catching the water taxi back to the campground. I don't think this section is nearly as nice as the first part. We also drove to Totaranui campground on our way back from Golden Bay and hiked south till we got tired and turned around. That is a pretty coast but the gravel road back there is pretty much a nightmare.
Many folks don't take the time to go over Takaka Hill to Golden Bay and they are missing out on three of NZ's most beautiful short hikes. The first is The Grove which only takes 30 minutes but is like walking through an Indiana Jones movie jungle sans humidity and snakes. I like it so much we did it on the way to Golden Bay and then again on the way back. Drive a little further to Labyrinth Rocks just east of Takaka. Gorgeous. Unfortunately, a severe winter storm had closed the hike to Wainui Falls. A must do. Finally, drive further to Wharariki Beach for the sea stacks, caves, and arch which must be visited at low tide. (about 4 miles on good gravel road). We stayed at the campground there as low tide was at 6:30 pm. Last time we missed some of the best sea caves which are on the right side as you face the ocean—take a flashlight and water shoes to cross a very small stream at the beach. You do have to cross the dunes so as always I had my hiking poles.
We are not doing any overnight hikes on this trip. Many of these hikes require driving down gravel roads and some fording of streams. Most camper van rentals forbid this. On our first 3 visits to NZ we had older vehicles and this was not a problem. Our Jucy is still older with over 300,000 kilometers (quite normal here) but our contract says no gravel roads other than short trips to campgrounds. So we have been taking some risks in doing those roads anyway. Just keep in mind when renting that there are trade-offs. Our camper is really small and not at all comfortable for such an extended trip. Yet having something bigger means not only greater expense for rental and gasoline, but also missing out on many of the things we like best in NZ. Some of the spots you can reach by shuttle bus- outstanding ones are the Rob Roy and Routeburn. Unfortunately for us, we are slow walkers. DOC time for the Rob Roy is 3.5 hours RT. It took us 8—so the shuttle bus was not an option. It is a moderate track of 6 miles RT but the elevation gain is about 1350 ft with a few rough spots where there are re-routings caused by slips. We did see tours going up with folks in their 60s doing just fine. You just need to know your own abilities.
Speaking of abilities...You must check locally before you venture to some places. There are 7 fords to get to the Rob Roy. They are shallow and some even dry—but a rainfall can make them impassable and there is no cell phone service out there. We met a couple of German young men out on the beach walk at the 3 Sisters. They had looked up the tide tables but used a town name on the beach about 35 miles south thinking there wouldn't be much difference—yikes, the difference was 90 minutes. They were going out to the sea stacks when they should have been heading back. We met 2 women on our Abel Tasman hike who needed to catch the water taxi at 4 pm—it was 2 pm and they were 2 hours away if they used the low tide crossing—but they were going to miss that and the bridge was out for the other crossing. If they missed the shuttle they had another 6 miles to hike. Not trying to scare you, just remember that even though hundreds of folks will be enjoying these activities, this is not Disneyland and you can get yourself in uncomfortable situations by not checking with the tourist office or Department of Conservation office first. Call ahead. Normally when we do foreign travel we use our Google FI but if you are camping having a local SIM card is important.
One last hike I would like to highly recommend is the Routeburn Great Walk, first section, 40 miles from Queenstown. The drive to Glenorchy is beautiful and you may want to do it a different way or spend the night in Glenorchy. The hike to the Routeburn Flats hut DOC time is 1.5 to 2.5 hours each way. You can go further to the Falls hut but that is a lot of altitude gain. It took us 7 hours to the Flats and back—30,000 steps. There is a toilet halfway there. The trail is excellent and not too much altitude gain. The last 5 miles of the road is gravel—but extremely well maintained. The parking lot is basically full by 10 am. If that is more than you want to hike, you can walk about ¼ of the way to Bridal Veil falls. The southern Beech forest is gorgeous (they filmed Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings here.) If you are a LOTR fan you should buy Ian Brodie's location book before you get to NZ.
Also in Queenstown is a unique hamburger restaurant—Fergburger. CNN in 2015 claimed it was the best hamburger in the world. It is very small so most folks do take out. We went in mid afternoon to avoid the usual hour or more wait. The burger is made from steak, and was the best I have ever eaten—along with a marvelous gelato shake. Certainly worth a wait.
So what did we spend? We were quite fortunate that the Kiwi dollar was at about .63 while we were there this time. In the past it has ranged from .59 (the 2009 world wide recession) to .82 in 2014. The exchange rate makes a huge difference of course. In 80 camping days we stayed in 41 private campgrounds with electric that were about $32 US a night on the north island and $38 on the south. We freedom camped for free 25 nights, and stayed in DOC or similar no power campgrounds or parking lots 14 nights which were about $19 a night. Almost all campgrounds charge per person rather than for the site. Our total camping costs were $1227 US. Groceries were about US prices though we tend to waste less and eat more simply especially in such a small camper. We spent about $1100 or about $100 a week. We ate out 14 main meals plus some snacks of course. A big expense was for gasoline. Our Jucy got about 17 mpg and gas was about $6 a gallon—more on the south island. Our total was about $1,100. We drove a lot less this trip than our previous ones as we didn't go south of Queenstown, or to the west coast of the South Island or the east coast of the North. The last two nights of our trip we had to stay in hotels at about $100 US a night because of changes we had to make for our return flight to the US. The changes were necessitated when we found out that our 14 hour layover in Australia was going to require a very complicated and expensive transit Visa. If you need to transit in Australia be sure your layover is less than 8 hours!
We do plan to come back to NZ again in a few years. But next time our thoughts are not to rent a camper but stay in hotels, apartments, with about a week in Auckland and 6 weeks or more in Wellington with perhaps a side boat and bus trip to the Abel Tasman area. One nice thing about NZ is almost all motel rooms have a fridge and microwave and often a full kitchenette. Sweet as!