Planning to visit New Zealand? Campervan travel is a unique and super fun way to experience the dramatic landscape. Here’s how to do it with kids!
Early in 2017 my husband and I decided it was time to tick the New Zealand campervan family trip off our travel bucket list. We’d heard so many of our friends raving about it and we loved the idea of the great outdoors, especially for our kids who’d never experienced anything like it.
Travelling in December means it’s summer (and high season), so we knew we had to book our flights and campervan early. We checked several campervan rental websites and shortlisted Maui and Apollo. We ended up choosing Apollo because it seemed that for a similar campervan their prices were more competitive. We booked a 6-berth for our family of four. Mainly because we didn’t want to have to make up beds every night and also because we thought every bit of extra space would be welcome.
Read More: Campervan Travel with Toddlers
By February our campervan and flights to the South Island were booked, and we didn’t think much about our trip again until summer, when we thought we should probably book a place to stay for Christmas. We’d also heard that Lake Tekapo could get busy around that time of the year so we booked that one, too. By September we started planning our itinerary more seriously. Here is what we ended up doing in fifteen days (bold indicates places where we spent the night; the others are places we visited):
Christchurch – Castle Hill – Lake Pearson – Arthur’s Pass – Murchison – Buller River – Marahau – Tasman National Park – Pelarus Bridge – Whites Bay – Renwick – Kaikoura – Akaroa – Rakaia Gorge – Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook.
The first thing you will notice is that we stayed mostly to the top half of the South Island. That’s because we travelled to New Zealand back in 2011 and visited the South (Wanaka, Queenstown and Milford Sound).
We didn’t want to have to drive too much (originaly we aimed for a max of 3 hours per day), so that limited how far we could go.
The night before our departure I was very nervous, wondering how it would all work out. But it turned out to be one of our most memorable trips so far! In two weeks we hiked, cycled, rode horses, fished, spotted dolphins, whales, penguins and seals, ate fresh local products, and saw the most beautiful landscapes and night skies we’d ever seen.
To make the most out of your trip, be organised. Know what there is to do where you are going, and book at least two or three days ahead. We had booked a couple of activities before our trip, but did most of it as we were travelling. It’s a good idea to bring your laptop or phone and to have Wi-Fi.
The second thing you will notice is that there is a LOT of driving involved. Our kids were 5 and 8 at the time and didn’t complain too much, but I wouldn’t recommend such a long itinerary if you have small children (below 4). Kids must be strapped in whilst driving so unless they love staring at the window or are fantastic sleepers it can get pretty boring.
We brought iPads with us and used them whenever the kids ran out of patience. We also brought a wireless bluetooth speaker to play music whilst driving. We could have used it to play audio books too or podcasts but completely forgot about that option.
Under New Zealand law, all children under seven years of age must use an approved child restraint appropriate for their age and size. Most campervan companies have them on hand and will charge you a rental fee.
Activities & Things to Do
- At Lake Pearson, northwest of Christchurch, we visited Flock Hill. My husband is a keen fly fisherman and he’d heard of Flock Hill as a great fishing lodge. Whilst he was fishing in beautiful spring creeks, the kids and I went horseback riding.
- On the Buller River in Murchison, Buller Canyon Jet Boating provides a thrilling 40 minute jet boat ride on the mighty Buller River, carving through the pink granite rocks of the canyons, passing waterfalls and surfing on the earthquake rapids, right in the heart of historic gold mining country.
- We took a wonderful wine cycling tour with Wine Tours by Bike in the heart of the Malborough Wine Region. We hired two bikes (one with a child trailer and one with a tow along) and cycled around Renwick, which has 17+ cellar doors including the famous Cloudy Bay and Warau River. You’re provided with helmets, water and a map! Many vineyards are quite kid-friendly, too, with sports equipment and plenty of space to run around.
- In Kaikoura, we did a 2-hour excursion with Kaikoura Fishing Tours, which provides a great opportunity to catch a variety of fish (Sea Perch, Blue Cod, Terakihi, Gurnard and Grouper), along with the famous crayfish (New Zealand lobster), which are plentiful around the Kaikoura coastline and absolutely delicious. We caught enough so that we were able to bring two back with us and cook them for our Christmas dinner!
- While in Kaikoura we thought we would treat ourselves to a whale watching tour by plane with Wings over Whales. It was definitely a splurge ($180 per adult/$75 per child, and just 30 minutes long), but such a memorable experience. I am glad we did see one, as it is not guaranteed!
- In Akaroa we visited Pohatu Penguins, home to the largest Australasian Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. Francis and Shireen Helps have worked over the last three decades protecting White-flippered Penguins from introduced predators. It’s been a labour of love and by visiting, you help fund their project. Because of the sensitive wildlife habitat only guided groups are taken into the breeding colony to view the White-flippered Penguins. You get up close and personal with the little animals, see their habitat and hear all about this wonderful reserve. They also have sheep that kids can feed and we saw a seal there, too!
- At Lake Tekapo we went stargazing with Earth & Sky, where we viewed some of the best skies in the world from within Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Look through their telescopes and discover a few hidden secrets throughout the Milky Way.
All of the above were amazing, except for the stargazing tour. The tour started really late at night and the kids were too tired. They fell asleep as soon as they got on the bus!
You certainly don’t have to pack your trip with activities but it was nice to have something to look forward to everywhere we went. We also did three long hikes (3-4 hours), the first one in Abel Tasman National Park, then in Kaikoura (the Peninsula Walkway) and finally at Mount Cook (the Hooker Valley Track). I don’t think we could have convinced the kids to do any more. Smaller hikes were fine but unfortunately tramping is not their favourite activity.
Campervan Camp Sites
We used the fantastic app Rankers to find all our camping sites.
We absolutely loved the freedom that the campervan offered us. New Zealand is unique in that it caters perfectly for this type of travel. There are many types of camping sites to chose from, anywhere from the most rudimentary to the fully equipped sites.
The most basic sites might just have a drop toilet (cold showers if you’re lucky), whilst fully equipped holiday parks will have full shower facilities with hot water, playgrounds, kitchens, etc. We preferred the more basic ones because they had less people and we felt closer to nature. This being said we had to hit the holiday parks every 2-3 days to empty our grey/black water and to refill our fresh water.
Holiday Parks will also have a kitchen that you can use to cook and clean your dishes. This can be quite handy if you don’t want to cook in your campervan. If you do decide to cook in your campervan it might be good to plan ahead and have a few easy recipes in mind that can be cooked using two or three gas burners and using medium to small pots, as that is likely all you will have available.
We did have a few issues with our campervan along the way. It’s unavoidable. But thanks to the helpful and friendly nature of New Zealanders we always managed to fix it and it didn’t affect us too much.
I would also suggest booking one or two nights in a hotel in the middle of your trip just to give yourself a little bit of a break. We spent three nights with my brother in Marahau in an airbnb rental house. It was nice to sleep in a proper bed for a few nights, take a real shower, and do our laundry! Another option is to campervan for a week and then rent a house somewhere for a few days; that way you still have the campervan experience but don’t have to worry so much about the logistics like laundry, emptying the grey/black water etc.
Campervan Pros and Cons
- You never have to pack and upack
- You can buy local fresh products and cook them in your campervan
- You don’t have to eat in restaurants/cafes all the time
- You can change your itinerary anytime you like. So if the weather changes, you can just move on
- You carry everything with you so you never forget anything
- It feels like an adventure
- You need to sort out groceries, dishwashing, laundry, gas tank, disposal of grey/black water, refilling of fresh water, etc.
- Living in very close proximity
- Only public showers and bathroom facilities
- The campervan gets messy and dirty pretty quickly so depending on your personality this may have a major effect on you
- Getting used to driving such a big vehicle
I would totally recommend Campervanning in New Zealand as I believe it’s the best way to travel there. However if you love comfort, give it a miss.
What to Pack for a New Zealand Campervan Trip
- Pack light in soft luggages that you can fold away when not in use
- Bring torches or headlights
- Bring warm clothes
- Get Wi-Fi
- Bring your phone or laptop to plan and book activities and also for navigation
- Bring a wireless speaker to play music
- Pack good walking shoes and sandals
- Bring an extra suitcase to bring things back home
- Bring iPads for kids loaded with lots of games/videos
- When checking the campervan make sure your gas tanks are full
- Bring one backpack per kid where they will keep all their toys, books, coloring/activity books, iPads, water and snacks and strap it in on the seat next to them so it won’t fall off and they can easily access all of their stuff
What to bring back from New Zealand
- Wine: I recommend bringing wine skins if you only plan to bring back a few, otherwise you can buy great wines at the airport upon leaving New Zealand. Just hand carry it and declare it when you get to Singapore. We brought back 19 bottles and paid about $250 in tax.
- Honey: Manuka is the most famous but they have lots of different types of honey worth trying and bringing back.
- Wool clothing & accessories: They have amazing quality wool in New Zealand, you might have heard of Merino wool.
- Outdoor gear
- Lanolin and honey beauty products
- Whittaker’s Chocolate: Made in New Zealand and a classic!
Ready, set, adventure, mamas!
All images by the author and may not be reused without permission