Go by camper van to experience New Zealand's rugged beauty
Camper vans offer fun, flexible way to experience New Zealand's South Island
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 8pm 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 ended up being the highlight of a trip filled with breathtaking beauty and memorable experiences.
Our 1,300km 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 US south-west.
Touring in a camper van gave us flexibility to go at our own pace and stop where we wanted. It is a popular way for both Kiwis and tourists to see the country.
New Zealand has a well-organised 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.
The most basic campsites are free, and others cost between NZ$10 (S$9) and $25 per person per night. Apps such as Campable and CamperMate provide helpful information.
Renting a camper van isn't cheap, but you save on lodging and dining since you are in a home on wheels. You are also paying for the freedom of movement.
Our 9m-long vehicle - a Fiat truck refitted by Germany's Burstner - was clean 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.
Our first objective was Mount 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 and got a helpful explanation about how everything worked. (There are many rental companies, including Wilderness Motorhomes, which we used and liked.)
We drove into hilly country, stopping to admire fields of purple lupins and turquoise glacier-fed lakes, Tekapo and Pukaki.
As we approached Mount Cook, its huge white peak suddenly emerged from a break in the clouds, rising starkly from the flat land. We spent two nights at Glentanner Park Centre, a powered campsite with nice facilities and views of Mount Cook and surrounding peaks.
I thought that experience would be hard to beat, but Glenorchy topped it.
We stayed at Mrs Woolly's Campground in the middle of the little town. It had a clean communal kitchen and pleasant indoor/outdoor eating areas. A seven-minute hot shower cost NZ$2.
Our family took a memorable hike up Mount Judah. Under cloudless skies, we walked up a trail lined with yellow wildflowers. This expedition turned into our own mini-Lord Of The Rings adventure when the trail led away from the summit, prompting us to bushwhack the final third, up a steep slope of grassy underbrush to the top.
From the summit, we were rewarded with stunning views of Lake Wakatipu and craggy, snow-capped peaks in every direction.
We returned the camper van without any mishaps, having gained a renewed appreciation for hot showers, sewage systems and our larger kitchen at home. And of course, it was a great way to experience New Zealand and build family memories. - AP