Things to look for in a motorhome in New Zealand

Being a sucker for pretty things I should have known better than to start searching for a motorhome by “which company has the most breath-taking photos in their Instagram timeline”. That led me straight to Wilderness and all my subsequent research was biased towards their stylish campervans. In my eyes they became the unattainable ideal of the perfect New Zealand camping trip. But are they really? Or can a less sophisticated campervan offer you the same comfort? What should you be looking for in a campervan in the first place and which are the things you can do without?

Style vs. functionality

My initial determination “it will be either Wilderness or no camping for us” was faced with hard reality when I checked their rates. Their motorhomes might be the most stylish European imports you can find in New Zealand. Yet at this price I would expect them to come with a personal driver and chef.

Instead we settled for two weeks of Eurocampers. We hired one of their newest additions to the fleet, a 4-berth Heron van, which they now market under their new Heron Campers brand.

The motorhome looked as if someone had installed a huge plastic box at the back of a van in their own garage and I think that’s exactly how it was made. As a result aerodynamics and thermal insulation left a lot to be desired. But the van was so well-thought-out that it completely grew on us.  Consequently, the much-anticipated Wilderness van that we hired for 6 days on the North Island was a bit of a letdown.

How we ended up with the Wilderness despite the cost, you might ask? A couple of weeks before our trip I came across their discounted spring special rate. It was about the same time when I realised that hotels were by far not as cheap as I imagined, nor as easily available. So I did my best to convince my hubbs that renting another campervan on the North Island would give us much more flexibility at about the same cost as staying in hotels. Besides, we could treat ourselves to a bit of luxury at the end of our trip, right?

Initially we booked their Escape 4 van and were later upgraded to the Alpine 4. The van looked spectacular and I couldn’t hide my excitement when we picked it up. But it soon turned out that some of its features were not that clever and didn’t really contribute to the overall comfort. Let me put it this way: Leather upholstery is just not that important while camping.

So let’s see how Wilderness scored against Heron Campers:

Wilderness:

  • – Swivelling bathroom wall that requires you to step out in order to switch between shower and toilet.
  • – The bathroom sink with a waterfall faucet could be featured in some architectural magazine but was completely useless. Had to use the kitchen sink to brush our teeth instead.
  • – Difficult access to the grey water tank opening.

Heron:

  • – Poor thermal insulation and drafts around some of the windows.
  • + Handy external gas outlet to connect the brand new Weber barbecue.
  • + Separate water tank for toilet.
  • + Brand new (only 114 km at pickup).
  • + Tablet with GPS navigation explaining the main points of interest, can be used as internet modem.

Sorry Wilderness, functionality counts more than style when camping. This category goes to Heron Campers.

It may not look the prettiest but it brought us to some pretty places.
It may not look the prettiest but it brought us to some pretty places.

Size vs. driving performance

One of the main dilemmas was to choose the right size of campervan. To put it mildly, my hubbs was not too keen on the whole concept of camping in the first place. So I didn’t want to risk pushing him over the edge either by forcing him to manoeuvre a huge van along New Zealand winding roads or to live in a tiny space for a couple of weeks. I just wasn’t sure what would make him flip sooner.

In the end I chose size over driving performance. Both of our campervans were over 7 m long and could accommodate 4 people. But with the exception of the stomach-churning road from Motueka to Takaka and the drive between Thames and Coromandel Town we travelled as fast as we would with any smaller van or a normal car for that matter. And we literally looked down on everyone in their tiny hi-top campers. I still feel kind of bad for not inviting three Spanish guys in for breakfast one rainy morning at Lake Hayes (the ones on the photo below). While we were pigging out on scrambled eggs and bacon in the warm embrace of our Heron van they were huddling together under the rear door of their minivan trying to protect their tiny gas cooker from gusty wind. Admitting this publicly doesn’t make me any less horrible person, I know.

I'd choose size over driving performance again.
I’d choose size over driving performance again. Of course, I wasn’t driving.

Heron:

  • – Not very aerodynamic, poor fuel economy as a result.
  • + Big storage space under the rear bed, plenty of cabinets.

Wilderness:

  • + Smooth drive.
  • – Cramped interior, the storage space under the rear bed is difficult to access, no idea where 4 people would put their stuff.

In terms of driving performance Wilderness wins over Heron, but I have to give credit to Heron for clever interior design. It’s a tie.

I can't deny the good looks.
I can’t deny the good looks.

Fly screens and awning. Think again.

I put these two in the same category. They are both the consequence of the same misconception about New Zealand weather: that it ever stays stable long enough to get really warm. Or at least warm enough that you would a) require additional shade or b) have to sleep with open windows.

Sand flies can be a real nuisance but we had to use fly screens only once while cooking. At all other times it was either too cold or too windy to open the windows in the first place. None of the campervans had an awning. Not that we missed it.

Wilderness:

  • – Fly screen only on one window. Never used it. Would have used blinds though if there were any.

Heron:

  • + Combination of fly screens and blinds on all windows. We used the blinds regularly, the fly screens only once.

Heron wins again by a small margin.

Sand flies waiting for some fresh blood, Lake Wakatipu
Sand flies waiting for some fresh blood, Lake Wakatipu

Heating

For the reasons above you’re likely to use heating more than fly screens or awning. We had diesel heating in the Heron and gas heating in the Wilderness. Both worked well and were on most of the nights.

Wilderness:

  • + Heated bathroom with clothesline comes in very handy when New Zealand weather surprises you with a shower.

Heron:

  • – Floor remains unpleasantly cold despite heating.

New Zealand weather surprised us more often than not. The warmth of our Wilderness campervan was highly appreciated, therefore the victory in this category.

Heated bathroom works wonders when you get caught in a storm,
Heated bathroom works wonders when you get caught in a storm.

USB sockets. The more the merrier.

Two mobile phones, two tablets, one notebook, two cameras… To charge all that in a hotel room can be a challenge, let alone in a campervan. If you depend only on two travel adapters the situation only gets worse. USB sockets can be a lifesaver, even more so if they work on house battery.

Heron:

  • + Two USB sockets that worked on house battery power supply and a 2-port 12V car charger. Could have used at least a couple more.

Wilderness:

  • – No USB sockets whatsoever. Had to ask for a 12 V car charger at pick-up as there was none in the car.

Heron wins hands down.

Try charging all that and then some in a campervan.
Try charging all that and then some in a campervan.

Solar panel and power inverter

I thought we would need to haul a separate power generator to charge all our electronics. But since we were driving every day, the house battery did a pretty good job constantly recharging. If it wasn’t for laundry and proper showers that forced us to stay at campsites every couple of days we could have spent almost our entire trip freedom camping.

The Alpine campervan clearly wins in this category. It had a power inverter with a single socket which was enough to charge our camera and computer batteries. The solar panel in the Heron wasn’t much of a help without the inverter. So while we could freedom camp on the North Island for six days in a row we had to retreat to campsites on the South Island every three or four days.

Heron:

  • – Solar panel without an inverter wasn’t really helpful.

Wilderness:

  • + As long as you’re driving, the inverter should cover all your power needs even without the solar panel.

Wilderness enabled us to stay away from campsites. Thumbs up for that.

Proper water hose connector

Who would have thought that a tiny detail like a water hose connector would lead to such an existential crisis right on the second day into our trip?

Equipped with my theoretic knowledge on how to fill up the water tank (“never use the tap right at the dump station but look for the one with the potable water sign a couple of meters away”) we approached our first dump station stop at Lake Tekapo with relative confidence, only to find out that we couldn’t connect our hose to the tap. Suddenly finding a dump station with the right fitting became our top priority of the day. As a consequence we filled the tank in pouring rain somewhere in Twizel as if it were the only source of water saving us from certain death by dehydration.

The search for the right dump stations remained our constant stress until we invested 3 NZD and purchased the extra connector. Of course, we never needed it from that moment on.

Wilderness:

  • + Water hose with detachable connector to fit both types of taps.

Heron:

  • –  We had to buy our own connector which we never needed after we purchased it.

Wilderness wins for saving us some stress due to the universal water hose connector.

A tiny piece of plastic that can save you from dehydration. Almost.
A tiny piece of plastic that can save you from dehydration. Or at least some stress.

Looking at the final score you might think it was a tight race with no evident winner. But we were pleasantly surprised by our Heron campervan, a clear underdog in the whole story, while the picture-perfect Wilderness van just couldn’t live up to the company’s image, resulting in an even bigger disappointment. In the end I am happy we had the chance to try both, or I’d still be imagining how much better our experience could be with Wilderness. Instead, David wins over Goliath again.

In the end, driving a stylish motorohome doesn't make your dump station stops any more pleasing.
In the end, driving a stylish motorohome doesn’t make your dump station stops any more pleasing.
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