Former FMCA president Charlie Atkinson and his wife, Marcia, continue their dream vacation on the roads of New Zealand.
By Charlie and Marcia Atkinson, L10327
Last fall, we embarked on an incredible journey “Down Under” — a five-week tour coordinated by Bill LaGrange’s Creative World Rallies and Caravans, C1350. Readers may recall our story in last month’s issue of Family Motor Coaching, which told of our adventures in Australia. This month, we’d like to share details about the second part of the trip, which took us to New Zealand.
We arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, following a three-hour flight from Sydney, Australia. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand and it is where most, if not all, of the expeditions to Antarctica depart. Not to be missed is the International Antarctic Centre, an interesting museum that emphasizes everything you’d ever want to know about exploring the Antarctic.
During our first morning in Christchurch, we toured the city by bus and quickly found out why it is referred to as the most “English” city in New Zealand; its architecture and surrounding countryside are similar to that of England. After our city tour, we were excited about getting back to the hotel that afternoon. That’s because we were to be presented with the motorhomes that would be our means of travel during our stay in New Zealand. We were met by representatives from Maui Rentals, the company that builds and provides the motorhomes. They gave us a complete orientation about these vehicles.
There are three Maui motorhome models: a two-sleeper type B, and four-sleeper and six-sleeper type Cs. We had the Spirit 4 model, a four-sleeper version that was approximately 19 feet long and 7 feet wide. This motorhome was built on a Mercedes-Benz chassis with a 2.5-liter turbo diesel-powered engine that moved the coach down the road quite well. It had an interesting five-speed automatic transmission that took some getting used to. The gear shifter operated like a joystick: push it to the left for automatic, to the right for neutral, and to the right and back for reverse. The motorhome’s transmission also could be shifted manually by pushing the lever forward to downshift and back to upshift. This feature came in handy while driving in the mountains. The Maui had a fuel capacity of about 68 liters (15 gallons), and we got approximately 20 miles per gallon (8 to 9 kilometers per liter).
The Maui is mostly sold to tour companies or rental companies in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa. A company representative said, however, that individuals could order one of these motorhomes. Each coach came fully equipped with cookware, dishes, silverware, linens, towels, and two folding lawn chairs.
In our Spirit 4, the dining area converted to a double bed with another double bed above the cab. The galley was nicely appointed with a two-burner propane stove, a small all-electric (12-volt/240-volt) refrigerator, and a small microwave oven that only operated when plugged into shore power. A roof-mounted air-conditioner/heater also could be used only when plugged into shore power. All electricity in New Zealand (and Australia) is 240 volts/50 hertz, so to use American appliances (hair dryers, razors, etc.), we had to have a converter that changed the electricity to 120 volts/60 hertz.
The bathrooms in our rolling homes were quite small and we used the campground facilities most of the time. The lavatory is over the toilet and folds up against the wall when not in use. The Maui’s entire bathroom could function as a shower stall, but we opted to use the campground showers rather than the one in the motorhome. Water was furnished via a demand water pump similar to what is in the motorhomes we own at home. The fresh water tank capacity was approximately 85 liters (19 gallons), and the gray water tank capacity was the same.
The only outside storage was a pass-through compartment in the rear of the coach approximately a foot square. We were told that the compartment was primarily used to store skis, as these coaches are often rented for ski holidays.
We also were briefed by a New Zealand police officer who explained the country’s traffic laws and rules of the road. The main thing we had to remember was “think left,” since everyone had to adjust to driving on the left side of the road while sitting at a steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle.
The speed limits in New Zealand are consistent nationwide. The top speed allowed is 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour), with 80 kph (50 mph) in more congested areas, and 50 kph (30 mph) in cities and on residential streets. The country has very few stop signs. The “Give Way” sign (similar to our yield sign) is used at most intersections. There are many “roundabouts” at major intersections, and a vehicle in the roundabout has the right-of-way. The police officer emphasized that when one does see a stop sign, it really means to come to a full stop, and that law is strictly enforced.
We were glad to be driving this small motorhome rather than the 37-footer we have at home. The Maui was equipped with power steering and power-assisted brakes and handled the New Zealand roads very well. The local drivers were courteous and patient with us. Passing lanes were available at frequent intervals, and when we used them to allow traffic to pass, we usually received a couple of thank-you beeps from the other drivers. Another rule the “Kiwis” obey is that when there is a passing lane or a four-lane road, traffic stays in the far left lane, and the center lane is used only for passing.
After our orientation and a visit to the local supermarket, 15 Maui motorhomes headed down the road — on the left-hand side, of course.
The first leg of the trip was a “scatter day.” We left Christchurch and were to be at a designated campground in Queenstown in two days. We were told to get there by whatever route we wished, take side trips of our choosing, and camp the first night wherever we wanted. Creative World Rallies and Caravans provided us with a complete spiral-bound trip guide that included maps; driving instructions; and suggested routes, sights, shops, and restaurants.
The road out of Christchurch was wide, level, and straight, which was exactly what we needed to help us become acclimated to driving on the left side of the road. It took Charlie nearly two and a half days to get adjusted to driving on the left side of the road and for Marcia to quit yelling “Get over,” since there was a tendency to stay close to the left shoulder.
We found a campground that first night, and just about everyone in our tour group ended up in the same place. Throughout our tour, the campgrounds we stayed at were all generally very nice. The showers and toilets were clean and well-maintained. All of the campgrounds had well-equipped kitchens, complete with electric stoves, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and usually an appliance that furnished hot water for coffee or tea. Most of the kitchens were equipped with stainless-steel sinks and counters and were spotless. The only rule about using these kitchens was to leave them clean. Most of the campgrounds also had lounges and rooms for reading, tables for playing games (cards, etc.), and limited TV to watch.
It rained a little before we arrived at the campground, but only brief showers. As we were heading out the next morning, it was raining again, and we thought we might be in for that kind of weather all day. But the skies cleared and the day was beautiful. That day we headed for a side trip to Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, which is located in the Southern Alps. We drove along the very long Lake Pukaki on the way to the visitors center. The lake was a spectacular bright blue, typical of a glacier-fed lake. More than 75 glaciers in the Southern Alps fill the lakes and rivers on the South Island. As we approached the mountain, clouds ringed it and only the peak was visible. As we had lunch at a lodge coffee shop that overlooks Mount Cook, the clouds dissipated and the entire mountain came into view. The summit appeared to be a huge piece of crystal, when viewed through binoculars.
We arrived at our campground in Queenstown in late afternoon. The campground was full of little Maui motorhomes from our tour group and several other tour groups. Because these motorhomes are nearly identical, it was easy to “lose” one’s coach in a campground. This led to some mistaken encounters, which were quickly corrected.
Although the campgrounds were nice, the sites were very small by North American standards, with the average space being only approximately 20 feet long. Some campgrounds had sites that are double wide to accommodate a towed vehicle. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find sites in a New Zealand campground for the average-sized American motorhome.
The South Island is varied in climate, topography, and vegetation. Queenstown is in a mountainous area on Lake Wakatipu, and several ski areas around the city make it a year-round tourist attraction.
A tour bus from our campground in Queenstown took us up to a ski resort so we could get a view of the vast valley below. Winter had given way to spring, and the snow was gone. Still, we were glad that we had a professional driver navigating the mountain roads.
We also took a one-day side trip to Milford Sound, which is actually a fjord that leads to the Tasman Sea. The route there took us through a tunnel several hundred meters long that was just large enough to accommodate our tour bus. Upon exiting the tunnel we had a long, winding descent to Milford Sound. The luncheon boat ride on the sound was fun; unfortunately, the fog came in, so sight-seeing during the last part of the ride was limited.
On this portion of the trip we drove through many pastures that were filled with sheep, New Zealand’s main industry. Our bus driver gave us a detailed explanation of the sheep industry, as well as the deer farming industry that has become quite large in New Zealand. Large red deer were brought to the country for sport in the late 1800s and, having no natural predators, multiplied rapidly. The deer were eventually domesticated and farmers created a large market for venison, skins, and antlers. Most of the deer products are exported; the antlers go primarily to China, Korea, and Japan, where they are processed for medicinal purposes and as an aphrodisiac.
Leaving Queenstown and heading west toward the Tasman Sea, the roads became very curvy and narrow. That was the case for most of the highways in New Zealand. But all the roads were in excellent condition and we were never on a rough surface. Traveling north along the west coast of the South Island is like driving up State Route 1 in California, except you go from mountains into very dense rain forests.
Most of the vehicles we encountered on the roads were automobiles. It seems there are few pickup trucks and SUVs in New Zealand, but plenty of large trucks. On some of the narrow roads, the trucks would take up part of the oncoming traffic lane, and when you met one of these behemoths on a curve, it was quite exciting. But most of the truckers were courteous and considerate, and tried to give as much space as possible.
We had been warned about New Zealand’s bridges. Most of the bridges were just one lane wide, and barely large enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. And some of these bridges were more than 100 feet long. Signs are posted to indicate which direction of traffic has the right-of-way. If you do not have the right-of-way, you must first stop and look to make sure no traffic is coming toward you before venturing onto the bridge.
Fortunately, there is very little traffic on the South Island, so we didn’t have many bridge encounters. However, just south of the western city of Greymouth, we came across two narrow bridges with a railroad track running down the middle of them. The usual signs told us who had the right-of-way, but needless to say, if a train were coming onto the bridge, it would have the right-of-way.
We had our first traditional Maori dinner, or hangi, in the town of Murchison. The meal was made for us by the local school, and the proceeds from the dinner were to be used to pay for a school trip to Australia. The meal was prepared by heating large round rocks in a fire, and then putting the hot rocks in a freshly dug pit. The food, which included potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, beans, pork, beef, chicken, and lamb, along with other vegetables, was put in large wire baskets, covered with leaves, and placed on top of the hot rocks. The whole thing was then buried and left to cook for approximately three hours. After the food was dug up and the leaves removed, we ate. We had mixed feelings about this dinner beforehand, but it was excellent and enjoyed by all.
The next night we had a Halloween party in a campground on a northern South Island beach. Nearly everyone had a costume of some sort and the campground provided a fantastic barbecue.
Probably the most demanding driving on the trip was still ahead of us. After we left the beaches, we headed toward the port of Picton and took the “short and scenic” route on the Queen Charlotte Drive. It was a beautiful ride traveling from inlet to inlet, with small vacation towns in each one. But the road was narrow and curvy, and a long section of it was off-limits to truck traffic.
Once in Picton, we drove our Mauis onto the Interisland Ferry for a three-hour trip to the North Island city of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. This city is called “Windy Wellington,” and it lived up to its name.
The roads on the North Island are not as narrow and winding as those on the South Island, and they reminded us of the highways in the United States. The North Island has the larger population of the two islands, and it is one of the most active volcanic areas in the world.
The Maori are the natives of New Zealand, and most live on the North Island. They are not related to the Aborigines of Australia, but are of Polynesian origin.
At the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, we watched young Maori learning the traditional carving and clothes-making techniques. The museum is in the middle of a very active area of geysers, mud pots, and hot springs. Some of the campgrounds we stayed at were nearly surrounded by hot springs, with steam rising up from them.
We spent an evening at Tamaki, a reconstructed Maori village. There we were greeted by the touching of noses — called hongi — a Maori tradition that continues to be used at ceremonial functions. Upon our arrival we were met at the gate by a Maori warrior who demonstrated the warlike stances and gestures that were the traditional ways to welcome strangers to a Maori village. We saw the Maori at their huts and watched them perform a traditional music and dance program. Afterward, we enjoyed another hangi.
While in Rotorua, we also visited the Agrodome Leisure Park, which gave us a detailed view of New Zealand’s modern sheep-farming industry. We saw a demonstration of the 19 different breeds of sheep and the purpose for each breed: fine wool for clothing, coarse wool for carpet, and meat for food. It was fascinating to see all of the different breeds of sheep lined up on a special stage and watch how they responded to the trainer. The show also included a demonstration of a sheepdog working a herd.
One of the trip’s highlights occurred on the next-to-last night of the tour when a New Zealand family welcomed us into their home for dinner. This experience cemented our impressions of the Kiwis as being very warm and friendly people, and gave us the opportunity to get to know their way of life.
Our last day of the trip was spent in very modern Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. We turned in our Maui motorhomes and took a bus tour of the city, which is built on a volcanic field. Forty-nine volcanic cones are situated within a 20-kilometer radius of downtown. This day ended with a farewell dinner. Some of our tour group continued on for a two-day trip to Fiji, while the rest of us prepared for a 12-hour flight back to Los Angeles.
Every aspect of this trip fulfilled our expectations. The experience of driving and camping in New Zealand was enjoyable, educational, and enlightening. In the Auckland airport, just before we were ready to board the airplane for the long flight home, we were stopped by a young New Zealand mother and her three children. She wanted her youngsters to meet some Americans, and she thanked us for visiting her country. What a terrific way to end our dream trip.