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New Zealand by Campervan

March 10, 2012

New Zealand in the summer is truly spectacular, the sun glistens off the blue waters of glacially-formed lakes, the coastline dazzles with its array of multi-coloured sand as well as offering great locations to fish, dive and spot wildlife of winged and flippered varieties. However you choose to travel in this land, there is always something unique or dramatic to look at whether it is the dramatic, perpetually snow-topped mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park, the tussock-lands found in Southland or the hot, dry vineyard areas of the Otago region (South Island).

The stunning scenery makes this an attractive land for tourists. Countless campervans appear and dot lake shorelines, their occupants relaxing in folding chairs or laid out on blankets. Many campervans are rentals; white and verging on being too big for the narrow roads, especially the treacherous mountain or gorge-hugging roads. Other vans are smaller and self-owned, often converted from old work vans. These are mainly driven by younger folk on working holidays who prefer to buy and sell rather than spend a lot of money on van hire.

Out on the roads, campervan drivers tend to travel roughly 15 mph below the national speed limit, taking in the scenery and enjoying the ride. With the roads rarely being more than one lane each direction you can often spot a line of cars held up behind a campervan waiting for the next chance to pass. Helpfully and sensibly, many of the roads have passing places, where the road will widen for a while to allow the faster vehicles to pass but sometimes the tailing car drivers get impatient and attempt to pass before these. However here in New Zealand there are very few long straight roads. The roads meander round the path of least resistance – through the valleys created by the rolling, crumpled, volcanically and seismically formed hills. This leads to many close-calls and inevitably, some collisions. In view of this, a fair amount of money goes into road safety signs warning people to drive according to the road and weather conditions and not necessarily to the speed limit. The quietest time on the roads is after 6pm, when the locals have all got home from work and the campervan drivers have found one of many motor camps to park up in for the night.

I observed these things on my last trip to New Zealand when I briefly owned a campervan before reverting to my favourite form of transport, my bicycle! I joined the fleet of slightly battered and dubiously maintained second-hand vans on the road. Second-hand vans rarely come with maintenance history and have no doubt been driven around by folk who are hoping to do the bare minimum and get away with driving it for the duration of their visit and then sell it on to some unsuspecting traveller who will continue the process. Who really knows when the oil was last changed or whether the air filter is the original and has collected copious amounts of dust from the unsealed roads?

Foolishly I bought my van in haste because I had people to meet and didn’t have time to search around or get it checked for mechanical soundness. That was my first mistake and I soon came into trouble. After just five days of ownership, one of the rear wheels nearly dropped off, I stopped to discover this just in time after some disconcerting noises. Five days after this the van began to stall when idling or when I’d just started it but I managed to keep it going, though only just, through the rural areas until I was able to return to civilisation and help. After only running on 3 cylinders for a good few days it needed some tender-loving care! New spark-plugs and points made for a much smoother and stall-free ride!

My advice for someone wishing to buy a van to tour with is to do your research on places you can get the van checked. Also, do take the time to shop around, not only for the right van at the right price but also for insurance because some of the second-hand campervan dealerships will attempt to rip you off. They offer you all the services you need but at a vastly inflated rate to that which you pay at the New Zealand Post office around the corner for no more hassle! The best tip for value is to arrive in autumn and sell just before summer if you can. Happy touring!

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