📓 Entry #14 — Driving across the country of New Zealand

New Zealand has been full of surprises.

Maeghan Smulders
A Little Detour
Published in
9 min readMar 7, 2018


Prior to New Zealand, we had only ever made “travel plans” a few days maybe a week in advance so we could be flexible on where and what we wanted to do.

As we started planning our trip to New Zealand, we asked around for recommendations and pretty much everyone responded with “you have to rent a camper van”.

The other recommendations for traveling the country from fellow backpackers included 1) hitchhiking from one end of the country to the other. 2) Renting a car and couch-surfing or 3) the most intense suggestion was to ride a bicycle across the country.

Now, I’m not going to lie, I felt crazy motivated to consider the idea of biking across the country…. how incredible would that be!!!

But then… realistic Maeghan started thinking and considering my current athletic abilities thought maybe it would be better to consider that type of adventure for another time.

So when Oli stumbled across this itinerary online we decided it was best to try our luck in a camper van.

We started looking into a few options, like the Sunday markets in Auckland and Christchurch for travellers selling their converted camper vans, as well as considered the easier option of renting one from the many services out there.

Some of them… were crazy.

Like Wicked Camper Vans, all spray painted differently and often sporting scandalous type designs. You have Jucy that is bright green and purple and usually newer cars than Wicked. Then Apollo, Maui or Britz rentals are the bigger traditional camper vans..… but run for $3000 for a few weeks. Lastly, you can find old cars (all models) that people have converted in to their own accommodation to sleep.

1st: Wicked 2: Jucy 3: Apollo 4: Converted Nissan van

Now after all the research we did, it became quite clear that we didn’t take into account that we were traveling right at the end of the Chinese New Year and that that brings a lot of tourists to New Zealand. It is also the last summer month so Europeans and Aussies take advantage of the last few days of nice weather for vacation before the snow.

So for us, that meant that every single camper van company we looked at…. was sold out for our dates.

We ended up renting a little hatchback car and skimmed Airbnb and a few hostels to guesstimate availability. It looked like we could get pretty decent prices and locations as we skimmed through the site, adding no specific dates. So we were confident with our rental car and sleep in paid accommodations plan.

Troubles at the airport

It was time to leave Australia and when we got to the airport in Brisbane, and tried to check into our one way flight to New Zealand…. we couldn’t. We learned that you can’t enter the country without a VISA, and the VISA requires that you have purchased your arrival and departure tickets from NZ…

….which we didn’t do. 😩

We sit on the side on the floor in the corner of the airport departure area planning our outline of our trip on the fly, and booked a flight to Melbourne so we could board the plane and not miss our flight.

When we landed in Auckland, it took an hour to get through customs. They were super strict with what you bring into the country…..one small seed or random bacteria could wipe out a unique species or over populate the terrain. That being said, our hiking boots have been quite a few places and were a concern of not passing through … but they ended up passing the test. 👏

We were greeted by our friend Mark at the airport who let us hang out with him for a bit. We visited The Bay Islands and did some scuba diving before picking up our rental car and starting our cross country tour.

New Zealand has a population of 4 million people… so you would think there is lots of amenities and services here... but instead, we quickly learned that most of those people live in one of the three big cities… Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch; and that any other city or place you visit has almost no population, which means very limited accommodations and if there are any.. they are most likely booked (so word to the wise… book in advance, especially in busy season!)

Did you have to sleep in the car?

Almost. We have managed to not yet have to sleep in the car, but a few days we were very close. Like when we got to Wellington, we looked on Hotels.com, Airbnb, Expedia, Booking.com, Hostelworld and HotelsTonight and were sadly given the popup saying they were completely sold out.. and the only option we had was to stay in a penthouse for $2,000 a night (which we didn’t do..). So we had to start planning our trip a few days in advance to ensure we had a place to sleep and not always staying in the most convenient spot which was ok since we had a car.

But we’ve found ways to make it work, and stayed in random old run down bars that have accommodations on the second floor, or also staying on a few farms or lucking out and finding random camp parks, with tin houses and great views.

Our tiny tin can room, that backed on to the lake with a kick ass view.

Driving on the left is fun.

I’ve finally adjusted to being a passenger on the left hand side of the car, while driving on the left hand side of the road. But my back seat driving monologue has gotten significantly worse (I know, poor Oli🤭) we are doing this entire 4 week trip by car driving 2–4 hours a day. I’d say we are almost pro at it now and won’t be able to drive on the right.

Our friend Stephanie gave us some good advice, when turning into traffic remember:

Little left (turn), big right (turn)

This cute little bugger peaking over the grass hills.

Oli would say it aloud and I would validate that he was doing the right thing. 😉 The roads are incredible with views in every direction including lots and lots of sheep!! To be honest, I was pretty lucky to not be driving… Oli has been the roadtrip’s head honcho. ps. I really love all the sheep! 🐑

What it’s like traveling this way

A lot of fun, but maybe the camper van would have been more economical doubling as a place to sleep. Its crazy expensive here for food (hardly any produce grows here), gas ($2.30 a litre), and accommodations (hostels can be $130+ that is.. if you can book one).

On top of that, most of the places you want to visit are remote and have incredible scenery.. and…well… rarely have a small town with next to no one living there… thus no places to sleep. Having a camper van to cook and camp would have been helpful.

But no regrets here. The car we got was a free upgrade from the Toyota Corolla we were suppose to get. Instead we got a French car called the “Renault Megane” which drives super well and is small so easy to park and let me tell you, some of the roads and parking spaces can get quiet tight!!

Because we have been commuting so much, we’ve had the chance to discover a lot of podcasts (NPR How I built this, TedRadio Hour, NPR Hidden Brain, Murder case Dirty John, Planet Money, Cortex and more) and our schedule looks something like this:

8am: Driving
9am: Hiking
10:30am: Driving
12pm: Eating
1pm: Random activity
5pm: Driving
— Sleep and repeat.

Enough logistics, what did you love?

SO MANY THINGS!!! Mainly… every 5 min you are out side and walk in any direction you just say “its beautiful”. Essentially New Zealand has a little bit of everything — beaches, mountains, forests, jungle, glaciers etc… all crammed between two tiny islands. So if you are looking to disconnect, be outdoors and in awe of beautiful scenery — this is the place.

We had a blast exploring the North Island and visiting the land of the Hobbits and Lord of the Rings. We also loved the South Island’s wine country of Malborough (Meaning we drank lots of wine) and hops country of Nelson (meaning we drank lots of craft beer). We also loved the lifestyle of hiking and driving… it’s really been quite surreal in the sense that every trip whether it is a 10 min hike, or a 7 hour one… have been so unique and special, I feel so grateful and in awe every day which is a humbling feeling. #natureislit 🔥

We tried to tour some glaciers, fly a plane, heli-hike and more extreme activities.. but missed out because the weather has been garbage. But lucked out our last few days here by doing some canyon climbing and Sky diving — two items to check off the bucket list 😊

I’m struggling writing this post because we’ve had such limited access to wifi. Similar to Australia (but worse) they limit the amount of wifi access you have in most places. In addition, the places we’ve stay have been very small… and no table or space to sit down and write.

But I wanted to write something to share how beautiful, adventurous and peaceful New Zealand has been. We’re tired.. from being on the go every single day.. but love this country. It is a place like we have never seen before.

Sorry, last thoughts:

Here are some one liner thoughts or highlights from the trip.

  • We bought a drone. After I debated getting one for months.
  • We fought over the drone like children… because we were both so excited to fly it.
  • We crashed the drone…. 6 days later.
  • We’ve felt like we’ve been wearing green vivid goggles or something, it is SO green here!
  • We both loved the Hobbit-ness of this place… even though one of us initially wasn’t as stoked about the LOTRs as the other.
  • The bathroom doors are weird.. and the water does flush the other way.
  • There are about 30 million sheep here…. and the human population is only 4 million… 🐑
  • We saw Black Panther on opening night and felt relevant for the first time in ages when it comes to new hit releases.
  • We saw so many waterfalls and when I say a thousand of them… I am not exaggerating.
  • Milford Sound is probably the most incredible nature thing I’ve seen in my entire life… ever. Pictures do it no justice and the only word fitting to describe is is incredible.
  • We have become better hikers… 20km in 6.5 hours was pretty good.
  • England initially imported a bunch of possums, hawks and Canadian geese to hunt in New Zealand, now a few generations later there are a lot of them!
  • Between the itinerary online and my friend Andrea’s advice on what to see and where to go — we had the best trip. 😊

All in all, New Zealand has been such a blast. It is amazing — you must go here and ask us about what we did so I can tell you stories better than this post did 😛

ps. Regarding the initial motivation to bike across the country… in the end, I’m so glad we didn’t — the forecast was filled with rain and I really enjoyed being the passenger and able to drink wine. So major props to all the bikers we saw out there booking it through the rain, up hills and in the few random days of incredible heat 🙌 🚵‍ I hope to one day be as cool and to travel like you !

See more on our website www.alittledetour.ca🌏✈️👫



Maeghan Smulders
A Little Detour

Hi! 🙋 I'm a tall, homeschooled, well traveled, terrible speller, who loves ice cream, building things and can be hilarious at times 👉 www.maeghansmulders.com