IN two weeks we drove just over 1200 miles; saw the sun rise and set over the ocean at least eight times; opened the door to Bilbo Baggins’ house; sailed down a river under a sky of glow-worms, and witnessed a traditional Maori warrior greeting.
This was all part of our camper-van tour of New Zealand’s north island, a journey my husband and I did eight years ago on a backpacker’s budget, and which we did again this year with our four-year-old daughter, Anna.
We wanted to re-visit places and memories and for her to experience travelling in a camper-van.
Previously, our rental van had enough room to lay our heads, a cool-box for a fridge, and a bowl for a sink, but this time we had a few more requirements. Before, Anna would have had to sit on my lap and share our bed. Valuing her safety (and a good night’s sleep), we needed a larger, more comfortable van.
We started our journey in the capital city of Wellington, and although the rental industry is well-established in New Zealand, with an estimated 3500 camper-vans available from over 60 companies, the majority are based in Auckland or Christchurch, the hubs for international flights.
However, Pacific Horizon Motorhomes, which prides itself on providing ‘high quality’ vehicles, offered just what we needed with its four-berth GEM.
The big pros of this van were that all the beds were on ground level, and it allowed for Anna’s car-seat to be strapped in behind the driver’s seat (rather than at the back of the van, which was the case with several of the larger vans). It had all of the mod-cons and was far more luxurious than our last experience.
Our journey involved a loop of the north island taking us along the west coast and through New Plymouth with its views of snow-capped Mount Taranaki, and then up to the surfer town of Raglan, before heading across the island to the Bay of Plenty, and then down through the middle of the country stopping at the popular destination of Rotorua and Lake Taupo.
To help us on our way, and to help us find places to stay, we invested in an online app from Rankers. Set up six years ago to provide travellers with a comprehensive list of all camp sites in the country, as well as independent reviews, it was an invaluable tool. After downloading the map (we used an iPod Touch) you can use it without being connected to the internet.
There are a lot of places to choose from including the commercial holiday parks to the more basic Department of Conservation (DOC) camp-sites, and freedom camping spots.
Freedom camping, where you camp in a location without facilities, is a bit of a thorny issue. When we came here in 2005, we remember it being widely accepted. But a few years ago, the NZ Freedom Camping Act of 2011 was introduced, and if you ignore good camping practices you could end up with an instant fine of $200 (approx £100).
If you incorrectly dump sewage, the fine could be anything up to $10,000 (£5000).
On our journey, we camped in a variety of places, including official camp-sites, DOC camp-sites and, as we were self-contained (ie had a toilet on board) did some freedom camping.
The beauty of being in a camper-van is that you get to stay in places you otherwise wouldn’t.
A particular favourite camping spot was the DOC site in McLaren Falls Park, ten minutes outside the city of Tauranga. We arrived just before the sun was about to set over the lake, parking up with one other camper-van and plenty of sheep and ducks.
We had time to take a quick, cold dip in the lake before having our dinner, and then after darkness fell, we wrapped up warm, grabbed our torches and went for a walk along the Waterfall Track to find glow-worms.
When we weren’t splashing in lakes, we were playing on beaches, playing in playgrounds and riding our bikes. On warmer days we ate outside and looked at the stars. We also enjoyed the views of the lush countryside as we drove around in the van.
We also managed to fit in some tourist excursions - you can’t really travel around NZ and not visit something to do with Lord Of The Rings or see exploding geysers and bubbling hot-pools.
We booked a package called Experience The Trilogy which brings together three different tours. Our first stop was Waitomo Caves. We went deep underground in Ruakuri Cave, which was discovered around 500 years ago, to see stalactites, stalagmites, fossilised seashells and glow-worms.
And then, in the Waitomo Caves we went on a boat journey where you see a blanket of glow-worms on the ceiling. A serene and quiet experience until a four-year-old asks loudly: “When are we going to go faster, Dad?”
The next day, we drove an hour and a half to the Hobbiton movie set. First created on farmland in 1999 for the LOTR films, it was re-built in 2011 for The Hobbit, and is now a permanent tourist attraction.
On the tour around the ten-acre site we learned how the farmland was turned into The Shire, saw the 44 Hobbit holes including Bilbo’s home of Bag End, and sampled a drink in The Green Dragon Inn.
From here, with our bellies full of ginger beer, we drove the one-hour journey through the farmland of the Waikato region to Rotorua.
You can smell Rotoura before you see it. The aroma of sulphur, which wafts up from the ground, means that a whiff of rotten eggs lingers in the air, but your nose soon gets used to it. On arrival, we had a few hours before our evening tour, so headed for Skyline Rotorua, home of the luge.
A luge is basically a toboggan on three wheels with a braking and steering system. And at the top of the mountain (or rather dormant volcano) which you get to by riding up in one of the gondola cabins, there’s a total of over three miles of luging track.
We started on the scenic track for beginners (Anna on her dad’s lap), which was great fun, and then progressed to the faster, intermediate track with a few more twists and turns. We ended the afternoon enjoying a scoop of ice-cream over-looking the panoramic views of Lake Rotorua.
The final part of our Trilogy Experience was a cultural evening at a thermal reserve which is also home to an arts and crafts institute. After looking around the carving and weaving schools and seeing all of the geothermal activity, we watched a Maori concert in a traditional meeting house and then had dinner which had been cooked in an underground earth oven, called a ‘hangi’.
It was all rounded off with a night-time tour of the geothermal valley where we sipped hot chocolate while feeling the spray from the exploding geyser.
After all of the excitement in Rotorua, we made our way down to Lake Taupo – the largest lake in the country with a perimeter of approximately 120 miles – where we spent some time relaxing before beginning the journey home to Wellington.
We were reluctant to say farewell to the camper-van. There is something liberating about travelling around in your home, pitching up wherever you choose and making up the journey as you go along.
And it was not a disappointment to re-enact our journey, in fact, the opposite. It reminded us that it is a wonderful way to explore such a beautiful country.
• Flights to New Zealand: We travelled with Air New Zealand. A return flight from Edinburgh to Wellington (via Los Angeles) for 2 adults and 1 child in July costs approximately £5600. Bear in mind that June to August is winter and therefore the cheaper season. December to February is the peak season, with January being school holidays in New Zealand. See, www.airnewzealand.co.uk
Pacific Horizon Motor-homes has offices in Auckland, Christchurch and Picton as well as Wellington. For the four-berth GEM, prices in winter start at $145 (£74) a day, see www.pacifichorizon.co.nz
Rankers: The Rankers app, which is designed for the iPhone and iPad, costs $15.99 (£8) to download, see www.rankers.co.nz
Skyline Rotorua: There are several price options available. For example, a family pass (for 2 adults and up to 3 children) for the ride up in the Gondola and 6 luge ride ticket to share, costs $90 (£45). For more details, see www.skyline.co.nz/rotorua
The Experience the Trilogy package: Prices for the package, including entry fees and tours through Hobbiton Movie Set, Te Puia and Te Po (plus the banquet) and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Ruakuri Cave are: adult $277 (£140), child $128 (£65), family pass (two adults and two children) $728 (£370). Visit www.experiencethetrilogy.com