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New Zealand’s rugged coastline begs to be explored. And what better way to experience that marine magic then from the helm of a camper van. How dreamy: cruising a foreign coast line, scanning the sea, looking for the ideal wave forged in part by mermaid love making and marine monster lurking.

You WILL find these beauties too. Waves that is. Endless turquoise glass walls that unravel before you, peeling into eternity for just you, and your mates. That’s the dream really. Reviving the rucksack revolutionary days of Endless Summer or the wanderlust of 180 degrees South.

PC | Tim Marshall via unsplash

The search of salt, stoke and soul.

Turns out you won’t be alone in your desires both in time, and space. We are a few decades late to the party in fact, but what a party it has evolved into. The New Zealand tourism industry is privy to this groovy beach fiesta and has capitalized on creating a whole industry based on #vanlifepioneers.

post modern van pioneering

In any major city, one can buy a camper van for a few thousand US dollars. One of the best places to find a van are backpacker board websites. Here, you can, more or less, exchange vans with a fellow traveler who is ending their odyssey through middle earth. These vans are well traveled and in constant circulation on the backpacker beat.

Another option are the various van dealerships where you can rent or buy, custom, built out vans for the lazy-camp-crazy tourist looking for the same, DIY travel experience. Here’s the general rule of thumb: If you have the money but not the time: RENT A VAN, it’s easy, quick and reliable. If you have the time but not the money: BUY A VAN, because you can resell it and basically break even on having your own personal mobile surf, adventure command center. And that said, if you don’t have time, nor the money: go to Indonesia and blast barrels on the 3rd world cheap; until your one month travel visa expires. Luckily I have a lot of time (not money) with my one year work and travel visa. Which is concern-ably easy to acquire if your a US citizen.

Acquiring a New Zealand work travel visa.

Now for my detailed personal experience, for reference.

I stressfully bimbled around a few camper van dealerships in the grey, rain-slicked, streets of Auckland. Every dude whispered of how dodgy the other dealers were and it turns out they’re all sketchy in their own practice. But, like most dodgy decisions on the travel train, you have to just honor your intuition and go with whatever one feels right.

I met a round, grubby, greasy Kiwi named Steve. He explained to me how radical his haggard looking vans were, while cigarette ash fell on his curry stained sweatshirt. I liked him immediately and after a few well delivered vulgar jokes in a thick Kiwi accent, it was sealed. I settled on a somewhat mediocre make from D&M Campervan in West Auckland. A 1994 Toyota Hiace. Everyone and their dope dealer has a Hiace out here and they’re incredible. You’ll never see one in the States however, for the engine block is under the driver’s seat, nested like a ticking time bomb and waiting to squish you between the wheel well and bumper; but “bruuu, they are sweet as!”

sweet as crew

There are 2 main routes one can take in the NZ van world, “Self Contained or Non-Self Contained”. Going the “Self Contained” route is the better option as it opens up a lot more opportunities for “freedom camping” (free camping). There are freedom campsites/zones along both islands but most only allow vans that are certified “self contained” to stay. Your self contained legitimacy is indicated by a blue sticker on your van that has its own license number associated with your registered vehicle.  This is issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and is checked by the Department of Conservation hitmen on the reg. Legally “a self contained” van is able to dispose of all waste properly. Thus it must have a toilet and a grey water holding system. This can be as simple as a portable squat toilet you’ll never use and a jug of water that catches under a sink. The self containment law has been implemented to reduce the impact of camper van tourists who have trashed various beautiful sites in the past with their dirty dish water and literal sh*t. The certified self contained vehicles cost more but are worth it in the long run, unless: you plan onhostel hopping or love” Gucci-glamping” next to RV romping retirees for $25 a night.

emphasis on strike proximity

Another route to consider is petrol vs. diesel. Petrol is more expensive but in comparison, if you have a diesel thirsty rig, you are required to pay a “Road User Charge (RUC)”. RUC’s require you to go to a post office(shop) every 1,000 or so kilometers to pay a sort of diesel tax. I am not sure where this money goes exactly but it’s a hassle. In the long run diesel still is a better option due to its smooth running qualities and price (even with RUC included)

Big Money Moves: Making such a huge transaction overseas is weird as well. If some of these sketchy places or people even accept credit/debit card, you’ll typically get a big fee attached. So in this case, cash is king, however, it’s a lot of cash and there are ATM limits. I had to call my bank via some sh*tty skype cafe, that somehow still exists (I didn’t get Whatsapp or Skype before hand), and max out my withdrawal limit. I then had to go to the ATM every 24hrs, for me that was 3 times, to get the right amount. Luckily I had time on my side as I was waiting for the repairs, certifications and blah de blah van business to get taken care of. Again the classic contributors to most travel itinerary, time and money, came into play and me, having more time than money, made this “round-about” way of doing things possible.

One also has to acquire a “Warrant of Fitness” (WOF) every 6 months for their vehicle. A WOF Is a mechanical check-up that makes your whip street legal. The standards of the WOF are created by some federal NZ safety organization and ensures that your car won’t explode or be likely to “explode” anytime soon. They check big, obvious mechanical problems and some cosmetic stuff too. Most rigs should be all dialed and “WOFed” by the seller or dealer. That said, one should take it to a third party mechanic before buying for an unbiased look. They then can fix any WOF issues on sight and get it WOFed easy if you need to.

appropriate van loading technique

Once all the legalities are sorted for your “self contained” van, you are then free to cruise and camp on remote beaches, jungle nooks, sheep farms, glacial vistas, river banks and/or, in the back of some drunk dude’s yard. It’s so liberating to be on your own itinerary, no bus schedules, no predefined stops. I will not that it is a little more work and responsibility becoming the literal bus driver along all these new foreign roads. Compared to just putting on headphones and a podcast when you hop on a 3rd world bus, passing out in between: goats, chickens and the occasional breast feeding, ganja smoking, local (that’s another story).

PC | Tim Marshall via unsplash

Nowadays we’re fortunate enough to have tech and resources to help streamline that whole process. Like “Campermate,” a dirtbag sourced app that helps you locate: public campsites, showers, grocery stores, petrol stations, and water taps; all accompanied with prices, phone numbers and reviews. There’s also the “MapsMe” app which serves as an offline GPS for navigating sheep trails and urban highways you might decided to wander off on. A favorite was the New Zealand Surfing Guide by WaveTrack, which describes 470 NZ breaks with maps and driving directions around both islands. The app’s guide also has a nice little narrative touch on the various zones and coasts of the islands. “Whatsapp” is great for the in-country phone calls while you have wifi (make sure you download at home) or just get a NZ SIM card which can be easily acquired at the airport upon arrival.


mermaid munchies

Another hot NZ SURF TIP is to get into freediving and fish foraging during your exploration of this plentiful coast. There are endless opportunities for spearfishing in these rich healthy waters as well as diving for abalone (Paua)

even oysters can get jealous…

and lobster (Crayfish).  


Both of which are non-license legal, tasty and relatively easy to grab down here; with no need for fancy tools. Every species has a size and daily limit however, so make sure to abide by the sustainable ways of the sea and the DOC (Department of Conservation).

Hope this is a helpful, surf and destroy, van beta. Have fun cruising the mystic coast of New Zealand and playing in its diverse and wonderful water ways.

Safe Travels, Stay wild, Stay Beautiful

Much Love.

Austin Charvet

Austin Charvet was born in the lush Pacific Northwest. He has spent the last few years working seasonally between Jackson, WY and Ventura, CA. He works both as a raft guide on the splash and giggle Snake river in summer and at  a snowboard shop as a shred specialist in the winter. In California he works in the freaky field of outdoor education teaching kids how to identify wildflowers and eat apple cores. In off seasons he travels the globe surfing, climbing, kayaking, giggling, and trying to get into whatever weird magic he can find. This year he left the mountains of Wyoming and ran to New Zealand to learn the wonderful water ways of the Tasman sea.






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