Friday, September 30, 2011

Rolling and roaming in New Zealand by camper van

My husband, Nolan, and I had pulled in next to a train station to make coffee in our rented Volkswagen Vanagon camper when a wiry, red-haired man ambled over and knocked on our sliding door. It was our first morning in New Zealand, and we assumed he was going to tell us we couldn't park there.

Hands in the pockets of his fleece jacket, he smiled apologetically at interrupting our breakfast, and leaned in.

"What year is it?" he asked, meaning our bright orange van (a 1982). We'd hired it the day before in Christchurch from Classic Campers, which we'd found on the Web as renting "stylish retro campervans."

It was then that we noticed an almost identical orange Vanagon across the parking lot.

Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, are notoriously friendly, but our new friend Dave was more than a Kiwi. He was a member of the club.

Classic Campers owner Bevan Beattie was right:

"It's more than just transport," he said of his collection of eclectic VW vans. "It becomes part of the trip."

Because we're members of the club ourselves, we never considered anything but a VW camper van for exploring New Zealand. Back home, our 1987 Vanagon, Hanz, has taken us from Los Angeles to Maine and back again. And in trips to France, Spain and the Netherlands, we've found that renting VW campers makes even vacations abroad affordable. This was especially true for New Zealand, where, thanks to a favorable exchange rate of 55 cents U.S. to $1 New Zealand, our rental cost just $66 a day.

No taller or longer than an ordinary van, a VW camper -- or Kombi, in Kiwi-speak -- is more fuel-efficient than an RV and far easier to park. And for the price of wheels, you get a bed and meals.

A pop-up top allows room to stand, revealing a loft-like sleeping area. The campers come with a propane-powered stove, a sink with a water tank and a refrigerator with Barbie-sized ice trays.

Friends who favor nice hotels (or at least accommodations with bathrooms) think we are eccentric. But finding a campground with toilets and showers is rarely a problem. And a cabin on wheels allows us to roam at will without worrying about hotel bookings, restaurant hours or timetables.

On the Classic Campers website, we'd coveted a 1966 cherry-red Splitty, the iconic split-windshield model with jalousies and tiny round headlights. But it was taken.

Our orange van wasn't quite old enough to be retro. And, with patches on the canvas sides of the pop-top, it wasn't quite spiffed up enough to be stylish. But Kiwis are known for their make-do ways. Consider the humble bach (pronounced "batch"): an everyman's vacation home, often made of recycled construction materials or old buses. Our van, we decided, would be our mobile bach.

Plus, Beattie had swapped in an Audi engine, which meant we could climb winding mountain roads without a trail of honking cars.

Imagine the most beautiful places you've ever seen -- Grand Teton, Big Sur, Alaska's Inside Passage -- cram them all into a skinny strip of land, and that's New Zealand. We'd wanted to visit the Pacific island nation even before director Peter Jackson made the landscape a star as the setting of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. One friend told us that of all the dream destinations of his childhood, it was the one that proved every bit as glorious as he'd imagined.

Classic Campers is based in the North Island city of Auckland, at 1.3 million people the nation's largest city by far. Because we wanted to spend about two-thirds of our trip on the more rugged, sparsely populated South Island, we arranged to start our adventure at its satellite office in Christchurch.

After a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland and an hour and a half hop to Christchurch, we picked up our van near the airport and headed for Arthur's Pass National Park, about two hours west. Kiwis, like their British forebears, drive on the left side of the road, and we decided it would be better to start off on a lonely country lane than in a city, even a small one.

The flat plains gave way to tussock-covered hills, then steep, forested slopes as we made our way to the highest pass in the spine of mountains known as the Southern Alps. The zillion fluffy sheep we passed along the way gave us wide berth.

After breakfasting with Dave, we hiked through a mossy beech forest, a kea -- a rare alpine parrot -- screeching overhead. Then we spread out our map to decide where to go next.

It's easy to overestimate how much you can see and do in New Zealand. The two main islands are deceptively narrow; you are rarely more than a few hours from either the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean or both. But top to bottom, the North and South islands stretch almost 1,100 miles. ( California, by contrast, is 770 miles long.) And the South Island is 65% mountainous, meaning twisting two-lane roads that narrow to one-lane bridges, even on the main highways.

We had a luxurious 19 days for travel, but because we wanted to savor our time, we had agreed on three goals: to hike, to sample New Zealand wines and to soak up the country's culture, be it Maori history or Kiwi kitsch.

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