| Aug 09, 2017
Johnny Leung is a travel organiser based in Hong Kong. He recently brought a group of travel journalists to New Zealand.
Earlier this year I received a phone call from Hong Kong Airlines asking to organize a North Island trip for a group of Hong Kong travel journalists. The trip was to be arranged for early May. “I want to offer a luxury experience to the media, it must be fun, impressive and something that Asians could hardly experience back in their countries,” my client set out the requirements.
“Great, and what’s your budget?” I asked, “Not much” was the reply.
To travel luxuriously with a very limited budget was challenging, but what made this challenge even harder was this was for a bunch of travel journalists who had been to all the greatest places in the world, stayed in the most luxurious hotels in different countries, experienced all kinds of world class services; to find something to impress these people was the real challenge.
To make a start, I first needed to find a destination. I wanted to show the media group some of the best attractions in North Island, all within a few hours drive from Auckland. I wanted find a New Zealand experience that’s very different from the rest of the world. Indulging in thermal hot pools and skiing on a snow mountain in winter sound luxury to me. However, these experiences are not unique to New Zealand; Japan is well known of its spa culture, Korea and Japan have also got plenty of ski fields, and they are all within hours of flight from any Asian countries, why bother to fly more than ten hours to New Zealand to enjoy a similar experience that is available in Asia?
“Maybe I can find a point of difference in the accommodation?” I thought. Taupo has some of the best lodges and accommodation in the world, but I looked at my budget, checking into one of these luxury lodges for eight people for one night would mean we could only afford hitch-hiking and food scraps for the rest of the trip.
I posted a new discussion in my social group to see if I could steal some ideas from other people. “How about a campervan? Maybe I would kill two birds (accommodation & transportation) with one stone and you could never experience campervanning in busy Asian cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore!” a friend suggested. That’s a brilliant idea, truly, but on second thought, “No, they are slow as snail, very uncomfortable in long distance, setting them up every night is exhausting too, not to mention they are expensive to hire and the companies often put so many restrictions on the contract, I regretted every time I got one, it felt like I was a slave to the campervan rather than a freedom camper!” I replied.
“Lol, I know what you mean, but try these guys, Wilderness Motorhomes, I found their campervans pretty good…”
I quickly went onto their website, they had different models that accommodate two to four people in each campervan, and I checked their prices, they were doing some specials for the Autumn season in May, which made them very affordable. I was eager to find out more about the quality of the vehicles.
CHECKING OUT WILDERNESS MOTORHOMES
I made an appointment the next day and visited their Auckland rental office close to the airport. The first thing I noticed upon my arrival was a fleet of shiny stylish campervans parked in the yard, they did have that wow luxurious impressive look that I hoped for.
The reception, surprised me, it did not have a long enclosed counter that divided staff and customers, it had only got a big wooden table and a comfy sofa set in the corner.
I was greeted by Fernando, a friendly staff who patiently answered my questions and removed all my concerns about travelling by campervan. After understanding my needs, a member of the Reservation team recommended and showed me the Alpine 4, which sleeps up to four adults.
The door opened, a “new leather” fragrance rushed into my nasal cavity instantly, and as I entered, my eyes were quickly fixed on the luxury leather seats and the marble dining table. I was sold.
The staff member continued showing me all the features of the campervan; the swivel driver and passenger seats that can be turned around to join the table; the swivel bathroom that keeps the toilet dry when taking shower, no more wet bum, wet pants or wet toilet papers when doing your business; large storage compartment at the back that stores everyone’s luggage plus a portable barbeque set, a foldable table, four foldable chairs, a spare tyre and snow chains for snowy condition (bonus point, did I say skiing?); and the best feature must be the double bed hidden up in the ceiling. I pressed a button, a double bed slowly descended to just above the dining seats and it’s ready to sleep! No more “tidy the table, pack things away, disassemble the table, install the bed, place the mattress, lay the linens” kind of exhausting works every night, bed was ready just by a simple press! And when I wanted to leave? No more “fold the linens, take the mattress away, uninstall the bed, reassemble the table, lifted the chair backs…” no, no more, just pressed the button, ascended the bed and I was ready to go, easy as. Now I understood why my friend said these are different, I could finally get away from all the slavery works that I feared of and enjoy real freedom camping!
HITTING THE ROAD
A few weeks later, I came back again with my partner and six curious journalists. Max at the reception, walked us to the campervans, played an introductory video, showed us how to use all the facilities, patiently answered all the questions from the journalists and posed in front of the campervans like a supermodel as request.
Finally, we were ready to go. I hopped into the drivers seat, it was as comfortable as it looked. I started the engine. The dashboard showed the vehicle had done just over 26,200km, that’s like a brand new vehicle. Max said all their rental campervans are under three year-old, after that, they would be sold in the second hand market.
The windscreen and the side mirrors were huge, I could see all the traffic around clearly. And the sky window above the driver seat just opened everything up. Some campervans reserve the headspace for a double bed, but I’d much prefer this sky window design that let the natural light flooded into the cockpit and brightened everything including my mood.
My past experiences with campervans were terrible, they were heavy and bulky, they felt like they were about to tip over whenever I made a turn. However, the Alpine 4 gave me a very different feel; it was very easy to handle and it felt like I was just driving an ultra long sedan rather than a heavy diesel truck. I reached the first roundabout soon after we left the depot, the brake was effective and the turning was as smooth as spreading butter on toast.
We headed South, got onto the State Highway 20. I didn’t have to press much on the accelerator before the campervan reached 90km/h within seconds. The powerful 6-gear FIAT engine seemed promising.
Our first destination was Taupo, it was a four hour drive from Auckland in a campervan. The Cruise Control was very handy, I was able to give my right foot as much rest as possible.
We parked our campervans at the Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort for the night. It had great facilities, everything you needed, including natural hot mineral pools that helped release your tight muscles after a long drive.
Turning the campervans into a bedroom was simple. All windows were fitted with custom-made blinds that covered the whole window perfectly, precisely. Making the bed was as easy as I expected, everyone was impressed with the bed elevator. The medium firm mattress really helped everyone have a good night’s sleep. Everyone was happy.
We worried about the night temperature at first, it was one of the coldest nights of the year with outside temperature dropped close to zero degree Celsius. We fired the heater on, set it at 21 degree Celsius and it was so efficient that we nearly forgot how cold the outside world was.
EXPLORING CENTRAL NORTH ISLAND
On the second day, we had a breakfast at L’Arte Café & Gallery. The food was awesome and it had a beautiful mosaic garden created by local artist Judi Brennan. A must-visit in Taupo.
We left the town after breakfast and made a stop in the Five Mile Bay Recreation Reserve for a photo shoot session.
It is a small waterfront reserve near the Taupo Airport where you can enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the Great Lake Taupo with snowy Mt. Ngauruhoe in the backdrop. When I told the Hong Kong journalists that the cost of staying a maximum of four nights in a self-contained campervan in this beautiful DoC managed reserve park was ZERO, they were stunned.
That’s the beauty of freedom camping in New Zealand, you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy the gifts from Mother Nature; that’s what New Zealand’s about; that’s the unique freedom experience not available in many Asian countries; that’s why you should come and try it yourself here, seriously.
Back on the road, the drive between Taupo and Turangi was narrow and winding, which really put the campervan’s manoeuvrability to the test. It handled the corners very well we found, even my partner, who had never driven a big campervan before found it easy to drive.
There was a line of lofty autumn trees in Turangi, it was so beautiful that we just couldn’t resist to stop and take some photos.
We spent the second night at the Plateau Lodge in the National Park. They had just built several new powered sites for campervans. The parking space was pretty narrow, but the rear backing camera and big side mirrors were there for this reason, we managed to park the vehicles in perfect position.
COOKING IN A CAMPERVAN
There weren’t much dining options in the little National Park town, so we decided to try the campervan kitchen that evening. Pan-fried medium rare sirloin, creamy mashed potato with reduced rosemary Merlot Malbec sauce; Classic spaghetti carbonara; and Cherry tomato, red onion, long bean salad.
Of course, you couldn’t compare this kitchen with a 5-star hotel kitchen, but it was still well-equipped – 3-burner gas stove, extraction fan, gas oven, 100L fridge, sink, pan, pot, kettle, cooking utensils, plates, cups, glasses and cutlery. It was small, compact, but still had just enough space for a cuddling couple cooking together, one preparing ingredients by the sink and the other heating food in front of the stove.
Dinner time. We managed to squeeze 8 adults around the dining table after we opened the extension.
In the next morning, we went up to the Whakapapa Skifield. The base parking area was 1630m above sea level, it was a winding road with some steep climbs. After two days of driving, I was confident that our campervans would make to the top, but at what speed? I’d hate to hold all the traffic behind me, that’s embarrassing.
The Alpine 4 did not disappoint me, I found myself travelling at an average of about 70km/h up the mountain, it was powerful and never struggle with steepness. There was another campervan of another brand right behind me when we started at the bottom, by the time I reached the top and finished parking my campervan, it arrived. That tells you the difference.
Getting down the mountain was easy, I simply selected the right gear in manual mode and applied the brake lightly whenever required.
We drove back to Auckland that evening. The cloud finally cleared away and we got a chance to take a photo of the campervan under the starry night beside State Highway One.
We needed to fill up all the tanks, gas bottles and drained all the waste water before returning the campervan. It was quite a mission because all the service stations were scattered around South Auckland. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time if you need to catch a flight.
Returning was easy. After I finished parking the campervan, I found Max had already walked out the reception, stood by the car door greeting, asked how my trip was and anything wrong with the campervans. It’s not a big thing, but I felt they cared.
We travelled a total of 878km in three and a half days, used 95 litres of fuel, the cost of filling the diesel was $102.56 and the gas $10.89. For those who love numbers, that’s 9.2km/L, $0.117/km or 10.8L/100km. Great performance, well done.
My friend was right, these campervans were very different. They exceeded my expectation and I would highly recommend Wilderness Motorhomes to all my friends and future clients.