GLENORCHY, New Zealand (AP) — We crested a hill on the winding lakeside road, and there it was: Middle-earth. Rugged,…
GLENORCHY, New Zealand (AP) — We crested a hill on the winding lakeside road, and there it was: Middle-earth.
Rugged, snow-capped mountains glowed in the setting sun, and dappled green pastures tumbled down to the water’s edge. White peaks soared in the distance. The Misty Mountains, perhaps?
It was past 8 p.m. in late December — summer in New Zealand — and our family was on Day 4 of an eight-day camper van adventure around the South Island. We were headed to a campground in Glenorchy, a village at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu, where several scenes from “The Lord of the Rings” movies were filmed. It is one of the most unspoiled, magically beautiful places I’ve ever been.
We had just left the picturesque if touristy extreme-sports mecca of Queenstown, where commercial bungee jumping started (no, we didn’t try that).
A New Zealander friend had recommended we stay in the quieter, more pastoral Glenorchy, and I’m glad we did. We spent two nights at a charming campground with hot showers and a pleasant communal kitchen. It ended up being the highlight of a trip filled with breathtaking beauty and memorable experiences.
Our 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) loop south from Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest city, took us through countryside that at turns reminded me of Scotland, Switzerland, northern Japan and the U.S. Southwest. We drove past craggy mountains, lush forests, huge barren hills dotted with scrub brush, and green pastures with lots and lots of sheep. We stopped at milky blue lakes whose hue comes from “glacial flour,” rock sediment ground up by glaciers. We hiked through meadows, past rushing streams and huge bushes of yellow wildflowers. The sun set around 9 p.m., giving us gloriously long days to explore. We didn’t want to leave.
HOME ON WHEELS
Touring in a camper van gave us flexibility to go at our own pace and stop where we wanted. It’s a popular way for both Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves) and international tourists to see the country.
New Zealand has a well-organized network of campsites. Some are spartan, with just public toilets and access to water, while others have hot showers, washing machines, shared kitchens and barbecue grills.
Campsites are largely divided between “powered sites,” where you can hook up your van to an electrical outlet, and those without power.
Renting a camper van isn’t cheap, but you save on lodging and dining since you’re in a home on wheels. You’re also paying for the freedom of movement. The most basic campsites are free, and many others cost between 10 and 25 New Zealand dollars (US $7-17) per person per night. Apps such as Campable and CamperMate provide helpful information.
Traveling in a camper van was something our two teenage sons had wanted to try since watching the “Ben 10” cartoon show, in which the hero’s grandfather drove around in his RV, “Rust Bucket.”
Our 29-foot- (9-meter) long vehicle — a Fiat truck refitted by Germany’s Burstner — was no rust bucket; it was clean, convenient and operated smoothly, although space was tight. It had two double beds, one in a back room that included a toilet and shower, and another that descended from the ceiling of the front cabin with the push of a button.
It also had a tiny kitchen with three gas burners, a sink and small refrigerator. The front two seats swiveled around to face a table behind which the other two members of our family sat while driving and for meals. We also ate at picnic tables or communal dining areas, where we heard French, German, Hebrew and other languages.
Every other day, we dropped by a “dump site” to dispose of toilet waste and “gray water” (sink waste water). Our boys helped with the dumping duties, and the experience taught us all to be more aware of our daily water, energy and waste needs — things we take for granted at home.
I found the vehicle easy to drive, although extra caution was needed going around corners. Driving on the left may be challenging for some, as well as using roundabouts, or traffic circles, which are common in New Zealand.
It quickly became clear that my initial route, which included a run out to Milford Sound, was overly ambitious, so we scaled back. Instead of covering a lot of ground, we spent more time savoring fewer locations, and that proved to be the right call.
Our first objective was Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, also known as “Aoraki,” or “Cloud Piercer,” in the indigenous Maori language.
After a long international flight and connection in Auckland, we picked up the camper van near Christchurch airport in the afternoon and got a helpful explanation about how everything worked. (There are many rental companies, including Maui, Jucy and Wilderness Motorhomes, which we used and liked.)
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