NZ Camper Van Adventures: beaches, hikes, and hot water

July 11, 2018
by Dan

After two weeks of rest in Rotorua and a brief excursion to Middle Earth, it was time to get down to really seeing New Zealand for what it’s famous for: the nature.

Obviously we had seen a bit of the landscape and enjoyed a few outdoor activities, but without a vehicle we were limited in our explorations. And New Zealand has a lot of wonderful natural areas within easy access of its major cities. Really it’s amazing how quickly you can go from Auckland into the boonies. But the public transit is limited, much like the US, so to see NZ proper you need a motor vehicle to get around.

Note that I said motor vehicle. This is one of the few places I’ve been that I would absolutely not want to do bike touring and it’s 100% for safety reasons (vs smog in India for example). After driving the windy narrow roads myself and seeing other drivers, there is no way I would take to the roads in NZ by bike. Which sucks.

The vehicle of choice in New Zealand is the camper van which is pretty much my second choice for a vehicle after a bike. So I was thrilled that Christina was down to adventure  camper van style.

When we visited Alaska with some friends a few years ago we rented a Class C RV, and it was definitely one of my top favorite adventures. This time we went with something more compact, which is even more fascinating to me. We got a Toyota Estima from SpaceShip Rentals. It’s just a minivan with the main passenger area converted to be able to sleep two people. It’s light on amenities so I knew this was going to be rough, but I had read that the camp site options are very nice in New Zealand and that campsites are more like hostels, you just bring your own bed in the form of a camper.

We got off season pricing for our rental, so it seemed like it was going to be a killer deal for a place to stay for two people. What we discovered, however, was that campsites aren’t nearly as nice or cheap as people make them out to be. We had our transportation sorted out, which gave us the ability to explore more remote destinations, but combining the cost of the rental, gas, and campsite fees, it wasn’t as economical as I had imagined. It was probably break even with a car rental and hostel stays, but it was probably more fun.


We picked up our rental from Spaceship after hours so we cautiously documented all the dings and scratches, and took off to find a place to camp. Despite my worries about driving on the left, I’m happy to say that we made it through the week without incident and I quickly became accustomed to it. I generally drove slower than traffic, but I really seriously think that most Kiwis were over-driving the windy narrow back country roads, which is why I think bike touring here is a terrible idea.

I’m also really glad that we didn’t get a manual transmission vehicle. I think I could handle it now after a week of practice, but the combination of driving on the other side of the road and manual would have been far too stressful. I had enough trouble turning on my windshield wipers at every left hand turn. I didn’t need to be rolling down my window every time I tried to shift into second.

We spent our first night just west of Auckland at the Whatipu campsite. It was a relatively cheap, but a bit rustic campsite with only a place to park, some composting toilets, cold non-potable water, and a shack where we could prepare food on our camp gear. We arrived very late at night and could barely figure out how our camp gear worked in the dark. Fortunately, the camper was already in ‘bed mode’ so we were able to just eat some Wheatbix and crawl into bed.

The next morning rapidly oscillated between sunny and miserable as the rain came and went, but we made our way out to the black sand beach that the peninsula is famous for, and we were treated to some really brilliant rainbows.

Unfortunately a lot of the hikes in the area were closed off due to a soil born parasite that is killing the local Kauri trees called Kauri Dieback (basically hiking is spreading this disease and killing one of New Zealand’s important trees).

The park ranger Peter gave us a long talk about the various beautiful nature things to do in the area and also suggested we head over to the Coromandel peninsula, and we opted to head over that way next.

We were able to make our way over to the Coromandel Pensinsula by way of Ngatea, which has a free one-night camping area behind the local library. The WiFi access was great and we had an opportunity to sort out how the camper van functioned. There was also a playground nearby, and Christina did her thing with the rings.

From there we headed directly to Hot Water Beach of Coromandel (it’s not the only one though, there are several in NZ). This was a top destination for Christina who loves hot water. A hot spring is located on the beach, if you dig a hole in the right spot, piping hot water will well up. Strategically digging your hole will allow you to mix hot spring water with ocean water and achieve a perfect hot tub experience.

It took us a while to figure out our technique and we were fortunate to take over a mostly dug hot hole that we were able to maintain and change to our liking. Which is good because spades were available for rent for $10, which is a hard no.

We paid Hot Water Brewing Company a visit, located not far from Hot Water Beach. It’s adjacent to a holiday park which you have to drive through to reach. They have a good selection of beers which were good, and the staff were very friendly, though the food offerings were on the pricey side. Overall a good place to visit.

That night we stayed at RiverGlen Holiday Park nearby. They had a kitchen and lounge area that was really nice to be able to stretch out and relax after trying to sleep and cook meals in a minivan for two nights. The downside was that they rationed internet to 200 mb per day and hot showers were on a coin operated timer, 7 minutes. Coin operated timer shower tip: there may be hot water from the sink which you could use to get wet and soap down before pumping in your precious coins.

The next morning we took a trip to Cathedral Cove. The parking lot was jam packed so I can’t even imagine how busy it must be in high season. It was a 30-40 minute walk to reach the cove with a paved path the whole way. In addition to the Cathedral itself, the beach was full of some really beautiful rock formations. One of them I kept eyeing that looked excellent for climbing. The rock may have been too soft, but there was no sign saying not to climb… Still I reigned in my climbing impulse.

After the Cove we headed to the west side of the peninsula to our most posh campsite of the trip. It had an outdoor kitchen (boo cold), but there was both unlimited WiFi and hot showers. Not the most lovely place, but I certainly appreciated getting a hot shower finally since I was too cheap to pay extra for one at RiverGlen.

We spent our last touristing day by taking a short hike to a nice view of the Coromandel town Bay and then wandering around the small quaint town of Thames and partaking in some local beers at the pub and a final meal of fish and chips.

Bars in New Zealand are quite interesting. The real local joints are always combined with a gambling room and horse and dog racing is being shown on TVs all around the bar. It’s a fascinating experience as a tourist, but if I kept visiting these sorts of places I would have trouble with pulling my hair out over how stupid gambling is.

After that we made our way back into Auckland to return the camper van. I was terrified of being hit with some fees or damage since we didn’t actually do an in-person check out. We fretted over the gas tank level and just barely got in before they closed for the day. In the end our worries were for naught; the staff was incredibly friendly and they had a lovely waiting area with the most amazing automatic coffee machine I had ever seen. We checked out without issue.

All in all, I would highly recommend Spaceship rentals. It was a great company to rent from and I read some real horror stories about other rental agencies. These guys are solid. Everything was in great condition (except the water jug and can opener, but we made due) and the check in and check out process was really easy. The vehicle drove well and I was thrilled with how easy it was to sleep two people in a minivan. Christina would have liked something a little bigger so that you could sit up in bed (the ceiling was too low), but this basically confirmed my desire to have a proper camping van.

With coffee and our last Tim Tams in hand, we headed off to the airport.

Our last act before checking into our flight was to take a shower in the free showers that Auckland airport offers. This was a strategic move as we knew that we would be heading directly to the Chinese visa office once we got off the plane in Hong Kong…


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