Discover more from Why is this interesting?
The NZ Van Trip Edition
On instant coffee, rainy hikes, and jumping out of a perfectly good plane
Lilla Cosgrave is a longtime friend of WITI and on a series of epic travels. I loved this piece on New Zealand from her Substack, New York to Nigeria.
Lilla here. I’ve decided that every good road trip needs a bucket-list — a set of things you are committing to do over the course of the drive. Last week wrapped up 2 weeks living out of a campervan with my sister Martha and exploring the South Island of NZ, and we did quite well on our list. We went skydiving, we did a glacier water cold plunge (many, actually), we listened to 5 albums start-to-finish CD style. We did not, unfortunately find something marketed as “The Best X in New Zealand” and get to eat it. All in all, though, we had an absolute blast. With just two weeks, we decided to focus on NZ’s South Island rather than trying to tackle both islands, and struck out with probably not quite enough planning but plenty of stoke.
At the recommendation of a friend of Martha’s, we found a great campervan rental company called Matt + Dan’s Campervans from whom we rented our ride. Though there are many many rental companies in NZ, theirs seemed like a high quality outfit and had a lot less external branding than some of the other vans I had seen, which personally appealed. They have three sizes of vans and though we were originally interested in the medium sized option, we ended up going with the smallest option in order to make driving and navigating the van itself a bit easier. The big difference between the smaller and medium option was that the smaller option had the kitchen out the back while the medium option had it in the interior. For a two week trip, having the kitchen out the back was totally workable, particularly because we ended up leaving the van in its bed format the whole trip instead of turning it back into the seating arrangement each day.
The smaller format also meant that we moved our bags to the driver and passenger seats at night while we slept, and stored them or under the bed during our driving days, but again, for a relatively short trip, this was no problem.
For a longer trip, or if I ever built out a van myself, my recommendation would be to have a van where you can stand up inside, which would allow for cooking, changing, and some interior space a little more easily.
Broadly, there are three major roads that go through the South Island of NZ - Highway 6 (which goes down the west coast), Highway 1 (which goes down the east coast), and Highway 8 (which covers the southern part of the center of the island). Those thoroughfares broadly dictate the routes that you can then take to explore the island. We decided to prioritize some hiking in the Southern Alps which took us to the west side, and then some surfing on the east side, skipping most of the middle as well as the northern part. With that route, I believe we ended up doing about 20 hours of driving over the course of two weeks (excluding little daytime adventures) which felt like a significant but not overly tiring amount.
This was my first campervan trip, and though I’ve done some car camping and of course some backpacking before, I must say that the campervan life is quite luxurious, particularly in NZ.
Most days, we’d wake up in our campsite, make ourselves some coffee using the two burner stove that pulled out from the back of our van, and take a morning stroll (weather and location dependent). We’d finalize our plan for the day, and drive for a short while to whatever first activity we were doing that day. We usually made lunch from the van as well, but were able to eat most of our dinners in one of the towns nearby where we camped.
After dinner we’d drive to our campsite, get settled in and usually head to bed early.
Freedom camping: We used an app called CamperMate to help us find campsites close to where we wanted to stay. In general what we found was that the sites closest to the major towns or sites were paid campsites of some sort, but within about a 20 min drive of that center there was typically a free campsite. We were doing this trip a couple weeks before the official summer season was getting underway, so many sites had minimal facilities set up (read: portable toilets rather than the normal functioning ones etc) but we were able to find a number of beautiful sites, and were always warm and cozy in our van.
Public facilities: One of the things that made the trip so easy is that NZ has an incredible number of clean, functional public facilities like bathrooms and showers. Primarily, we found public toilets almost everywhere we went, even in quite small towns, and a few places with public showers. Twice, when we really wanted a nice shower and in one case, to do some laundry, we paid for a campsite that allowed us that, but in general we were able to easily do everything we needed with public resources. Fancy that!
Coffee and food: A real treat is that almost every morning we were also close enough to a coffee shop that we could get some coffee! When we picked up the van, Brent (van guy and Dad of Matt) oriented us to the van and told us about the water tanks, the toilet, and the stove, but seemed to be quite laissez-faire about the specifics. When he was explaining it we didn’t really understand why his attitude seemed to be so loose, but once on the road we quickly realized that there was no way we were going to run through cooking gas, we didn’t really have to wash too many dishes, and always had access to a bathroom outside the van.
On to the good stuff. For anyone interested in a NZ trip, here are a couple of the things that we did that I’d recommend.
Arthurs Pass: This was our first hiking stop, a day hike on our way to the west coast from Christchurch. It was a nice hike and a nice view, but probably not something that I’d go out of my way to see. It snowed on us up at the top of the hike, which was a fun surprise!
Franz Josef Glacier: This was the next day’s day hike, and the first time we realized that the unpredictable weather we experienced the previous day was not, in fact, a fluke, but rather a fact of life in NZ. It rained on us for approximately 70% of this hike, though we were able to see a foggy glacier at the top, which was much cooler than we expected. At least there was a real payoff at the top! We concluded that day with another short walk and some killer views of Aoraki/Mt. Cook to accompany very tasty burritos-a-la-Martha.
Queenstown: Queenstown was a sleeper hit for us, especially when we ended up staying an extra day due to some hiking logistics that had gotten a bit mixed up. Firstly, it’s a cute and very beautiful little city, sitting right on a lake and with a very walkable design. We had some delicious food (Madam Woo’s, Vudu Cafe, and Fergburger) some fairly good ice cream (Patagonia Ice Cream) and a very good shower/sauna combo at a hostel in town. It is also the adventure sports capital of NZ for sure, and the place that we went skydiving as well as did some gravel biking. Skydiving itself was one of the items on our bucket list and despite a lot of scary anticipation, was much more fun than I was expecting. Would do it again for sure!
Milford Track: This was definitely the best thing we did on the trip - separate post coming with more specifics.
Dunedin: After the Milford Track and a day getting cleaned up in Te Anau, we hauled all the way to the east coast in search of some waves. Unfortunately for us, there were next to zero waves and so our surfing plans were scrapped, but we instead explored the city of Dunedin a bit, went for a lovely hike at Sandfly Bay, and on our way back to Christchurch stopped at Moreaki boulders beach to make some shapes.
We have, of course, started a google doc with a lot more thoughts and recommendations so if anyone is planning a NZ trip, please reach out and I’ll hook you up!
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).