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A Family of Four Experiences the South Island of New Zealand


Every so often life presents a truly extraordinary experience. In February, my family and I happened upon one when we rented an RV in Queenstown, New Zealand, through the Outdoorsy app.

We’re seasoned travelers but we’ve spent little time in and around RV’s. Well, except that mini-vacation seven years ago when I surgically removed the mirror off of a brand new Nissan Maxima with a 33-foot Winnebago. Glad I bought the RV insurance policy.

Nestled along the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown sits at the south end of the South Island. Flying in and peeking out the oval windows of the A380 got our hearts pounding with excitement. Snow-capped mountains, rivers, and lakes abound. NZ is an outdoor person’s wonderland and we were chomping at the bit.

Upon landing, we cleared customs, collected our bags, bought SIM cards, and beelined for parking lot A where we found our “home-on-wheels” which was like a snow-capped mountain among a foothill of cars. It was here, that Gerald, the van owner’s representative, popped out of the camper and greeted us. (Side note about NZ customs: If you’re traveling to New Zealand know that bugs, seeds, and fruits threaten the environment and customs watches over the issue carefully. Make sure that you declare everything that you are worried might be a threat to the local ecosystem or you may be liable for a huge fine from the government. (Go to Biosecurity New Zealand to learn more.)

The Walkthrough

After introductions, Gerald gave us a tour of the rig to ensure that we knew how all systems worked and where the important items were stowed. My daughter, Ellie, 15, took photos and videos around the Class-C Mercedes Sprinter noting every dent and scratch in case of future liability. Astonishingly, Gerald said not to worry about little dings but that big one could be costly. With a toothy grin, I suppressed the urge to share my mishap from seven years ago. I’m not sure all owners feel as Gerald does about dings, so make sure that you clarify the difference between a “big ding” and a “little ding” before driving away.

During the walkthrough, Gerald explained that the Sprinter runs on diesel. This is an important distinction as topping off a diesel tank with gas is a costly mistake. He also showed us the control panel which operates the DC electrical system. “This switch here, it turns on the refrigeration. Flip it only when driving since the compressor pulls a ton on the batteries,” he cautioned. Next, he opened 147 doors and drawers (kidding), to show us where the propane tank (use only when parked), black/grey water receptacle (use only when, well, you know when) and water fill valve were located. Under his breath, Gerald mumbled that the rig was topped off with 20-gallons of water which should be more than enough for two weeks of travel. He obviously doesn’t live with teenage girls as we refilled the tank three and a half times in eleven days.

Before waving goodbye, Gerald provided two last pieces of unsolicited advice. Download the CamperMate app and visit all the local iSite/Welcome centers. The app is a lifesaver for anyone traveling in NZ. It shows locations of free campsites, paid campsites, public restrooms, showers, Wi-Fi access points and so much more. An added benefit is that you don’t need WiFi to use it. Just download and go. The iSite centers were just as helpful if not more as all the employees were travel experts in their community. On multiple occasions, they helped us find a fabulous restaurant, a quiet beach or a remote trailhead.

That evening, as the sun began to set and the air cooled, we discovered Gerald missed discussing two critical items with us. How to convert the main table into a bed and how to extract the black/grey water receptacle from under the toilet. I won’t go into detail about either of these tasks but I do recommend that you’re 100% sure you know how each function before you wave goodbye to the owner. Teaching yourself blackwater plumbing is smelly work.

Seven takeaways from the walkthrough:

  • Although our rig held 20-gallons of water, we needed to refill it three and a half times in eleven days.
  • Even though people say it’s “okay” to drink from the onboard tank, we opted for one-gallon water bottles from the grocery store.
  • Learn how to convert the table into a bed before the owner leaves.
  • Learn how to extract the black/grey water receptacle.
  • Turn on the refrigerator only when driving.
  • Ask if RV takes diesel or gas.
  • Download the CamperMate app and drive worry free.
  • Visit the iSite/Welcome centers.

 

Provisioning

Provisioning an RV is like provisioning a small apartment. Although the vehicle will probably have pots, pans, cutlery, and bedding, the shelves will be bare. There will be no salt, pepper, or paper towels. We did find a half-empty box of matches and a Bic lighter but that was it.

Our first shopping excursion was at the PAK’nSAVE near the airport. It was the most expensive of the shopping trips as we bought all of our staples there. To keep the cupboards and refrigerator relatively uncluttered, we purchased only enough perishables to last two or three days. Our strategy, explore multiple townships and shop locally so we would have a small, helpful impact on each community.

The Roads

Be careful driving in New Zealand. The roads are different and their signs tell you as much. There are bridges everywhere and 90% of them are single lane. As you approach, look carefully to see which side has the right of way.

The roads also feel smaller than in the U.S. and most are only two lanes. Sharing these roads with you are tourists who often inadvertently slow and take pictures of the stunning scenery without regard to the vehicles behind them. We nearly landed in the back of another RV, so drive slowly and keep your distance. Finally, pay attention to the speed limit signs. When a sign says to drive 65 kph, drive 65 kph.

The Benefits

When we began our RV excursion, we were towards the tail end of a trip around the world in which we’d stayed in 54 bedrooms over 167 days of travel. Our draw to RVing was that we now could explore a country in comfort without having to check in and out of hotels, hostels or Airbnb’s.

The rig was our home away from home and virtually everything we needed was instantly at arm’s length. What’s more, we bonded as a family, ate home cooked meals and embraced the freedom and flexibility that RVing uniquely offers.

 

 

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