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Frugal Traveler Blog: In New Zealand, a Man, a Van, a Plan

Early on a chilly March morning, my iPhone alarm clock sounded. I extracted myself from deep within a navy blue comforter, sat up and opened the door. I had momentarily forgotten where I was.

Oh, right. I gazed out at Lake Taupo, a sprawling lake on New Zealand’s North Island. Ducks gliding along just offshore were an invigorating sight. So were the mountains that rose behind them, and the predawn periwinkle and orange sky beyond.

It was my third night in a camper van, a miniaturized recreational vehicle — mine was about the size of a plumber’s van with a raised ceiling — that is New Zealand’s mobile lodging of choice. I stripped the bedsheets, rearranged the cushions, flipped around a few boards, and voilà: two comfy benches and one breakfast table. Out came the Weet-Bix cereal from the cupboard. I threw some boerewors sausage and scrambled eggs on the stove. After doing the dishes in the sink, I was off to my next destination.

Camper-vanning is a way of life, or at least a way of leisure, in New Zealand, a beautiful country that begs to be hiked and climbed and camped in. And so it perfectly pairs with the camper van, which gets you about as close to the outdoors as you can be, short of a tent. And unlike the RV, which Americans tend to regard as the gas-guzzling trademark of peripatetic retirees, camper vans are everywhere, used by Kiwis of all stripes. One person I talked to even called them “trendy.”

Mine wasn’t trendy. I had rented the cheapest one I could find: a boxy 2006 Volkswagen leased by Backpacker (backpackercampervans.org) for 64 New Zealand dollars a day ($52 at 1.22 New Zealand dollars to the U.S. dollar), tax and fees and a basic insurance policy included. Though I felt pangs of jealousy for the super-cool pricier rentals, which offer a slicker look and jazzy colors, the Backpacker was perfect for my purposes.
It was also a big money saver. The only catch is gas mileage — gas is about 8.50 dollars a gallon in New Zealand, and my Backpacker camper van got me about 17 miles per gallon. But you save pretty much everywhere else. Most obviously: no hotel rooms needed. Camper vanners have a choice between staying at an inexpensive “holiday park,” which average around 20 dollars per person per night to use with showers, bathrooms, kitchens (unnecessary) and a power source, or braving it on their own by “freedom camping,” the legally sanctioned act of staying on public land.

You also save on food. I managed quite well over four days with 60 dollars’ worth of groceries, and ate only one meal out: a 17-dollar plate of green-lipped mussels at the irresistible Coromandel Mussel Kitchen, in the town of the same name. Add stops for flat whites (New Zealand’s answer to the latte), an occasional snack and a cheap bottle of domestic shiraz, and my food and beverage costs over four days and nights came to under 100 Kiwi bucks.

Sheep, commonly seen from the road.Seth Kugel for The New York TimesSheep, commonly seen from the road.

Actually, that included feeding a few guests. Crossing the Coromandel Peninsula, on the east side of the North Island, along the 309 Road, I stopped at what has become a bit of a tourist attraction — the ramshackle trailer home of Stuart, a dairy farmer who happens to own 48 semi-wild pigs. As soon as I pulled up, dozens of them appeared and practically stampeded toward my vehicle. They were friendly and enjoyed a tickle on the tummy, but I suspected they had figured out that camper vans have kitchens. I fed them from my overstock of Weet-Bix.

The west side of the peninsula features a winding shore and rocky beaches and old mining towns like Thames and Coromandel; the east side is best known for its beautiful stretches of sand, including Hot Water Beach, where geothermically heated water rises to just below the surface of the sand. That creates an odd phenomenon during low tide: dozens of adults revert to their sand-castle-building childhood, digging holes with spades to create temporary hot tubs. (You can rent a spade for 5 dollars, or just borrow one.)

My final stop in the Coromandel was Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve, where well-marked paths wind through the woods to a series of beaches and coves, none so lovely as Cathedral Cove itself, a big half-moon with hills rising from behind the sand, and a sphinx-like rock at the edge of the water. I had it all to myself, though there was plenty of evidence people had been there earlier in the day, including a message scratched in the sand in Korean. Curious, I took a picture and sent it to a friend who translated: “Charlie, I love you, Jae Sok.”

I spent my first night freedom camping in the parking lot of a lake (which, conveniently, had public bathrooms) and then it was up early and on to Rotorua, a touristy town known for its extensive geothermal activity and for being home to a large population of Maoris, the country’s first inhabitants and now its most prominent minority. The two elements combine in an extraordinary Maori village on the edge of town, where otherwise modern Maoris still cook food in the boiling, steaming pools in their backyards. There is also a gorgeous traditional meeting house, and plenty of carvings, but it’s the bubbling ponds that really capture the imagination. In Rotorua’s free Kuirau Park, sulphurous mud pits more spectacular than those in the village share space with manicured lawns with flower beds, as if Satan had decided to hire a landscaper.

It was there that I met Gertrude Rott, a lovely older woman from Munich. We joined forces and went around examining every hole in the earth as she recounted how the same park had looked 44 years ago, when she last visited. (Less landscaping and fewer barriers to protect the public from burning themselves in the pits, she said.)

Gertrude encouraged me to head to Taupo, where I relaxed in the Spa Thermal Park. There, a hot stream flows into the Waikato River, and right in between, camper-vanners and other backpackers from around the world seek a spot in the water that has just their desired temperature and fall into conversation with half-naked complete strangers. After spending time at the park, I drove four new friends back to their hostel (poor things, they should have rented a camper van) and then found a spot by the lake to spend the night.

But the camper van really shined on the Forgotten World Highway, where I headed after Taupo. I picked up a map of the highway at an i-SITE, New Zealand’s efficient and convenient tourist information and booking centers that range from small cabins to large complexes (I had had a much-needed shower for 5 dollars at the one in Rotorua). I could not help stopping at just about all its suggestions, including the quirky town of Whangamomona, which declared its ersatz independence from New Zealand in 1989 and celebrates every other January with the election of a president. (It’s all quite tongue-in-cheek: a goat and a poodle have both served.)

But the best spot was a six-mile detour to Ohura, a little town verging on ghost status — none of the storefronts in the three-block downtown had operating businesses on the Friday morning I visited. Its museum, in what used to be a hardware store, is active — as long as you can track down someone to open it up for you. A local resident pointed me to Charley Hedges, whose house was up a long driveway right along the main street. What he didn’t tell me is that Charley and his Maori wife, Janet, would invite me into their house first and offer me coffee, biscuits and clever quips about the small-town life they have led since moving to Ohura from the city of Hamilton, the North Island’s third-biggest.

The museum is full of mysterious and intriguing and marvelous stuff culled, Janet said, from local families and businesses, often as they left town or shut down. A 1954 local phone directory hung from a crank-phone obviously several decades older; and a collection of old farm machinery included an enormous contraption Charley told me was a chaff cutter, a device for cutting straw. “A big machine for a little job,” he said.

By the time I left, it was midafternoon, so I rushed through the rest of the highway. But I couldn’t help stopping at a stunning view across green hills from a spot called the Tahora Saddle. I pulled the camper van into the small lookout area — a perfect spot for a picnic. I hopped into the back, and whipped up a salad with what ingredients I had left — spinach leaves, avocado, slices of Asian pear and broccoli. I sliced the last hunk of Cheddar cheese into slices, broke out the crackers, brought them outside and basked in the sun — and in the glory of my camper van — as I ate.

RENTING A ROOM ON WHEELS

Camper vans are everywhere in New Zealand. Why so popular?

– They are smaller, cooler and more fuel-efficient than your grandparents’ RV.

– They save you money on hotels (and time booking them).

– They allow you to cook your own meals, saving money and allowing you to take advantage of local produce and meats. 

– They are surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.

They’re also catching on in the western United States. Jucy, a New Zealand company, began operating in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas on March 1 (jucyrentals.com; from $63 a night, minimum five-night rental). Other companies include Lost Campers (lostcampersus.com) and Escape (escapecampervans.com), which offers hand-painted vans.


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