Ahhhh New Zealand. Where to begin? It’s a small country with big heart. It’s home to a plethora of crazy looking birds and the greenest lakes I have ever seen. It’s a country where the hospitality is warm and the “ice creams” are always pluralized. It’s a place where sheep outnumber humans (7 to 1!) and modest houses come with epic ocean views. Its landscapes are impossibly varied and its small towns will take you back in time. It’s home to delicious wines (which we sampled aplenty), the freshest fish and chips, and the most addictive peanut butter chocolate I have had in my life! For these reasons and many more, it was hard to leave this place after our month-long road trip around New Zealand’s two gorgeous islands.
The Socioeconomics of Campervan Culture
There are an absurd number of campervans in New Zealand. It’s by far the preferred way to tour around the country and there are thousands of people doing it (at least during the high season) and they’re mostly German, as we discovered. Deciding which company to rent from was a fairly overwhelming process, but we eventually decided on The Pod Rentals as the best value option within our budget that didn’t have horrid reviews of failed engines leaving travellers stranded in the middle of nowhere. The urge to tag all our photos with #twopeasinapod may also have been a factor in the decision.
Our first day on the road, we drove from Christchurch out to Akaroa (reminding ourselves to KEEP LEFT the whole time!) and upon arriving at our ‘campsite’ (which is basically a field for vans to park in and a hut for cooking/showering), we immediately became fascinated by the socioeconomics of campervan culture and started to wonder how each of these travelers had made the decision to go with their respective rental companies. There were many vans at this campsite, but they were far from being equal. Here’s a super stereotypey breakdown of some of the most popular vehicle-types we came across and their drivers, in order of (subjective) comfort.
Retirees, sometimes families, taking their dream road trip. They probably have each night’s stay printed out on a calendar posted on their fancy full-sized fridge (I sound bitter, but I’m really just jealous).
The Jucy Jetsetters
Hip 30/40-something professionals who can actually afford these nice vans with sassy sayings on them.
The Pre-Owned Pads
Wide-ranging in quality, usually owned by couples on the road long-term. Their van’s been for sale since the day they bought it.
The Wicked Wanderer
Pretty much the exact type of person you’d think would rent this van.
The Solo Wagoneer
People (usually male) traveling solo who sleep in their car. They seem to be pondering life a lot.
In terms of comfort, I’d say our little pod landed somewhere in line with a well-maintained pre-owned van. We thought it was relatively nice compared to many other vans we’d seen on the road until someone at my Kiwi cousins’ family reunion looked at The Pod and said to us “Uh, that’s like a back-up plan for sleeping when you’re in a pinch, right?”. We could only laugh and respond with, “Nope! We call that baby home every night!”. Admittedly, a month of sleeping in a bed made of couch cushions arranged into a Tetris-like formation was a little long for our 35-year-old backs. A week into the trip, dealing with overnight temperatures hovering unexpectedly close to freezing, we weren’t even sure we’d make it through a month on the road. But now that we’re on the other side, we can say that it was all part of the New Zealand experience!
Despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangement and the $170 speeding ticket we somehow managed to get in a van that had trouble even reaching the speed limit on most roads, campervanning was truly an amazing way to see the country. With no accommodations to book, we could hit the road and decide at a moment’s notice where the day would take us. We changed our itinerary with the weather forecast and enjoyed the freedom to spend extra nights in areas with the tastiest wines or the best hikes (which they call “walks” in New Zealand, by the way).
Mike and I found ourselves wondering why this same campervan culture doesn’t exist in Canada and the answer has to be that it’s just way too big to drive across on a two-week vacation. New Zealand on the other hand, lends itself perfectly to trips of any length – see one island or two; choose one region or three! I’d suggest at least a month for just the South Island if you can spare the time. With the next amazing destination only a 2 or 3 hour drive away, you can see a lot in a short period of time. Plus, unlike in Canada where you often have to hike in to get to the best views, New Zealand provides two-lane (usually insanely winding) roads to every peak, valley, peninsula and glacier in the entire country. I don’t know who built these roads, but the campervanners (of all kinds) thank them for it.
Small But Mighty
Before this trip, we’d heard from a lot of people that New Zealand is very similar to Canada. If Australia is the big, boastful America of Oceania, then New Zealand (like Canada) is its more reserved, laid-back and sometimes forgotten neighbour. And while we did often find ourselves comparing the landscapes of Central Otago to the Okanagan Valley, or the misty evergreens of Mt. Aspiring National Park to North Vancouver, there’s no denying that New Zealand has a flavour that’s uniquely its own.
I have to say that New Zealand is by far the most picturesque country I have ever visited. Of course, Canada has more than its fair share of awe-inspiring natural scenery, but I was honestly blown away by how many jaw-droppingly beautiful sights are packed into such a small country – and we didn’t even see half of them. Our first week driving around the South Island through Queensland, our driving time was probably doubled because we were literally pulling over the van for a photo opp every 5 minutes!
With so much natural beauty, you might think that New Zealanders take it for granted, but they are fiercely passionate about protecting their land. The intense 20 minute examination of our Vietnamese peppercorns upon arrival at the Christchurch airport (I’m pretty sure there was a microscope involved), was our first introduction to their conservation efforts, but it wasn’t the last. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) maintains a vast number of gorgeous campgrounds and parks across the country in addition to more hike-in overnight huts than you could possibly visit in 5 years’ time.
Some parks require you to spray and scrub your shoes upon entry and exit to prevent the spread of invasive species. In another instance, we witnessed a biologist at a protected penguin colony nearly bite a Chinese tourist’s head off who wasn’t following the ‘no photos’ rule intended to protect the sensitive little blue penguin’s eyes from the brightness of smartphone screens and camera flashes.
Kiwi pride manifests itself in other ways too. There are an impressive number of well-loved New Zealand brands for such a small country and we indulged in Pic’s peanut butter, hokey pokey ice cream (not a brand but a NZ flavor), and Whittakers chocolate on a daily basis! And prepare to watch sparks fly if you ever suggest to a Kiwi that the Flat White was invented in Australia not New Zealand! Same goes for pavlova. Maybe it’s something about island living that creates more distinct cultures. I noticed it in Bali too. When a place is surrounded by water, there seems to be a natural boundary there protecting what makes it special.
The Simple Life
Maybe it was the minimalist van lifestyle, the lack of wifi, or the fact that you drive through another adorable small town seemingly every 10 minutes in this country, but we found ourselves talking a lot about what we want our post-trip life to look like while we were in New Zealand. For us, this year off is not only about exploring new places and experiencing different cultures, it’s also about taking the time to thoughtfully answer the question “What comes next?”. What do we want for our future home, for our future work, for our future life? Those are big questions, especially when you have to answer them all at once. Luckily, they are questions ideally contemplated during a long drive along a scenic coastline, or while sipping a glass of Sauvingon Blanc from a plastic cup sitting in a fold-up camp chair looking at the mountains.
One thing we’ve decided for sure, is that we won’t be returning to Vancouver (sorry friends). Although we’ll always love the city, million dollar houses and 50 hour work weeks just don’t fit with our life goals. We had a sneaking suspicion this was probably the case, but visiting our good friends Justin and Sally on the South Island and getting a glimpse into their enviable post-Vancouver lifestyle really solidified our decision to try out somewhere new. We asked them around 1000 questions about how they made the move to Christchurch a couple years ago and what it was like to start all over in a new place – finding new jobs, new friends, and a new community.
If you ask them, Justin and Sally will probably tell you they are just regular people living a regular life, but to us, they are inspiring lifestyle role models. It was really refreshing to see people choosing work that fits into their life, instead of the other way around. To see that there are some places where it is indeed possible to buy a nice house, work a four-day work week, spend time with your two cute kids, and still have the energy to cook dinner at home every night. To see that there are places where you can decide to go camping on a sunny weekend without planning it 3 months in advance the day the reservation system opens – what an unfathomable luxury! I’m sure there are people doing all of this in Vancouver, but I think most would agree, it’s just more difficult.
I think living in a van for a month (and out of a backpack for the last 7!) has also helped us realize how little you really need to be happy. Besides my bike, I really don’t miss all the stuff we left in storage one bit. We still don’t know where we’re going to end up, but it’ll likely be small town BC somewhere. We have a Google Sheet going entitled The Future Hometown Megamatrix to help us decide. The first thing most people inevitably ask us when hearing about our plan to escape the city is, “But what will you do for work?!”. We’ll figure that out later. For now, we’re on a quest to find the simple life.