If you’re considering visiting New Zealand, you should absolutely consider doing a road trip while you’re there. A road trip in a campervan is the best way to see the countryside, and it’s better and cheaper if you buy your own van (if you’re planning to do a lengthy trip!).
We bought a campervan in New Zealand a few years ago, and it was one of the best travel experiences we’ve had. Meet Bessie:
We purchased Bessie (a 1990 Toyota Hiace van) in 2011 off Trade Me (New Zealand’s version of Ebay). She was located in Hokitika in the South Island (possibly one of the most inaccessible places in New Zealand, seeing as we were living in Auckland, up the top of the North Island!). The previous owner kindly offered to drive it to Christchurch, so we flew down there and picked her up, and drove her back to Auckland over the course of a weekend. She was set up as a basic campervan, with a bed, fridge, sink, gas cooker, and some storage space. We paid $4500.
We managed to convince a group of close friends to do a road trip around the South Island with us during the following summer. Shaun spent evenings and weekends during the intervening months modifying the setup of the van, much of the time working by torchlight! Finally, a few thousand well-spent dollars later, Bessie was completed. We’d installed a lot more than was originally in the van, and much of it we were lucky enough to get second hand or at a reduced cost from a friend who installs power systems in campers.
The best thing we put in the van was a solar panel – this meant that we didn’t have to plug in at campsites all the time and we could be a lot more flexible with where we stayed – we really didn’t need to plug in at all except for when I wanted to use a hair dryer or our Nespresso machine (yes, we took a coffee machine camping…). We also had a big greywater tank mounted on the chassis, so we didn’t have to empty the waste water too often. Shaun also built a wine rack that folded away into a cupboard – a very important inclusion!
We had two refrigerators – a three-way fridge that was our main one for food, and a cheaper 12V fridge that was the ‘beer fridge’. Bonus! We had heaps of storage under the bed, in the wardrobe, under the sink/bench, and above the front seats. The gas system we had installed was great – it allowed us to power the fridge and the BBQ off one small bottle, which lasted a couple of weeks before needing to be refilled.
Here are some photos of what Bessie looked like after Shaun had finished construction, and the joint effort with sewing the blackout curtains (thanks Mum!) and painting. We think she was pretty damn amazing, and we got a lot of comments from fellow campers about the setup (including much amusement about the wine cellar).
In the end we spent about $11,000, including the original purchase cost. It was really reasonable seeing as we got a lot of stuff for cheap, and obviously Shaun’s labour cost us nothing! We ended up actually making money when we sold it too, which was great!
After two wonderful years we were sad to see Bessie go, but we were excited about moving onwards to new travels overseas (and sadly Bessie can’t join us!). We’ll definitely get another campervan one day – it’s a brilliant way to travel.
For people thinking about travelling around NZ by campervan – do it! It’s the best way to see our beautiful country. You get a lot more for your money by buying instead of renting if you’re planning to do a longer trip, even though the initial cost seems daunting – you will probably get most of your money back. Trade Me is the best place to find vans, but another good place to look is at the Sunday Car Fair at Ellerslie Racecourse in Auckland (lots of backpackers leaving the country are there trying to get rid of their vans – you can do a bit of haggling!). You can also look on notice boards in hostels.
We recommend getting third party fire and theft insurance from a company like AA Insurance, and definitely make sure you get a pre-purchase inspection from the AA – you don’t want to find out that your van has issues in the middle of nowhere (like we did when we overheated on the Desert Road)!
We’ve also written a number of posts about road trips in New Zealand – you can find them here.