New Zealand south island Camper van trip overview
Our visit to New Zealand was prompted by our daughter’s attending university in Auckland, but we spent most of our time far from the capital city. This blogspot is an introduction to our camper van trip on the south island.
Our arrival to Auckland coincided with the finals weekend of the World Cup Rugby tournament so we decided to evade the crowds (without missing any of the national buzz) and get south right away.
A flight from Auckland to Christchurch made the most sense; two tickets were less than NZ$90 each, less than the cost to cross with an RV. One option we did not take was to spend an additional $20 to change flights once at the airport; we would spend the $20 next time, since we managed to get to the airport early enough to watch two unfilled flights depart without us. New Zealand air won’t put you in those empty seats unless you paid the additional $20 at point of purchase. It's not like the U.S. where you can do this without opting in ahead of time.
We stayed at an airport hotel near Christchurch, both for the free courtesy pickup and the offer by Wilderness Campers (http://www.wilderness.co.nz/) for a free pickup from the hotel to their facility. It was here that we really began to get a sense of the general New Zealand courtesy and friendliness. The hotel staff were friendly in a personal way that seemed to go beyond standard industry hospitality. The next morning we immediately liked and felt comfortable with our Wilderness Camper van courtesy driver, Merv, who arrived in someone’s personal Volvo station wagon to shuttle us into town (only about 3-5 klx). In the rental facility itself, Matt was especially helpful. Not only did he explain clearly and precisely how all the legal and financial part worked; he reviewed our internet-planned itinerary and helped us to modify it to fit more top destinations in and make the whole experience flow smoothly and realistically. This was particularly valuable; we like a broad overview on our first trip anywhere, so we can visit it better, with more focus, on subsequent trips.
We grabbed a "Lonely Planet" guide to New Zealand from their borrowing bookshelf, too, a great guide for our kind of travel. Armed with their terrific road atlas, Matt's detailed and personal advice, we were ready to go. We now understood what we would not squeeze in (e.g. Marlborough wine country); all our decisions were based on good information. If you don't get a Matt at the start of your trip, don't worry. One great thing about exploring New Zealand’s south island is that so many great destinations are about 3 hours from one another; even bouncing along randomly will give every visitor a grand experience through breathtaking country.
Before we left on our adventure, we decided to spend the middle part of the day in Christchurch, to see first hand the lingering destruction from the February 2011 earthquake. It reminded me of a service trip to New Orleans about a year after Katrina: empty space, lack of commerce, continued large scale clean-up. Christchurch has lost many people during the recovery, but the attitude of the remaining folks is one of stoic determination. But the destruction still rendered most of the downtown a ghost-town.
The first change that Matt recommended was to visit Lake Tekapo instead of a straight run due south to Donedon (Dun–EE-dun). Here we got lucky both with the location and especially with the weather. The sky was perfect for night sky observation. Anyone’s first trip south the equator deserves an early look into the nighttime sky. The direction you’re looking is indeed, down under. Be treated to the Southern Cross (also on the NZ and Aussie flags), the Magellanic Clouds, Alpha Centauri (the brighter of the Southern Cross’s pointer stars and our Sun’s nearest neighbor), pinwheel galaxies and other uniquely southern sky delights.
Properly introduced to driving on the left, a completely different sky, and even a place where a southern wind means cold and a northern wind comes out of the tropics, we were immediately into our adventure.
See our follow up blogs for details on our generally counter-clockwise trip down the east coast, westerly along the south land, and up along the west coast before turning back east to Christchurch.
-By Geoff Gordon of Andrew G. Gordon, Inc.