What do you do with your life if you don’t want to follow the traditional path around marriage, kids, mortgages and career? That was the question I asked myself back in 2017.
The answer: Travel!
I’m Lisa Jansen, digital nomad, author and long-term traveller. In 2017, when I was 33, I quit my career-focused life in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, to explore life off the beaten track. Watching all my friends get married and have kids was beautiful in many ways, but it also made me realise that it wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. However, I didn’t know what I wanted. Desperate for answers, I decided to take time out from my busy city life to travel and figure out who I am and what I want from life.
When you live in a country as amazing as New Zealand, you don’t have to go far for dream destinations. So, instead of spending my money on flights to faraway places, I bought a campervan and set out to explore my own backyard. Officially, it was only for a summer. However, from the very beginning, I had a feeling that it might turn into more than that. That feeling was right. I spent four and half years travelling around the country in my van, and for the last year, I’ve been a full-time housesitter, so I’m still travelling, just much slower. Needless to say, I love the nomadic life. I haven’t had a fixed address in almost six years, and I have no intentions to change that anytime soon.
I set off on my big adventure on the first of December 2017. At the time, I knew next to nothing about vans and vanlife. But thanks to the internet, several mobile apps and supportive Facebook groups, it was easy enough to figure out what I needed to know, and so the transition to vanlife was easy. I immediately fell in love with the lifestyle.
I wrote a book about my years on the road called Life Done Differently, and the chapter about that first summer is titled “Freedom”, which sums it up perfectly. I was living life to the fullest without a care in the world. In the years to come, vanlife would be challenging at times. I would have to deal with van issues, loneliness, doubts, a global pandemic, decision paralysis and many other big and small challenges. But I didn’t know any of that during my first summer on the road. Everything was just easy.
That summer turned into 4 ¼ years of living and travelling in my camper. It wasn’t always easy, but I always loved it. I had so many incredible experiences, met amazing people, and fell in love with New Zealand more every day. Just as importantly, I learned more about myself and found the strength and confidence to follow my own path in life, even if that is different to how most people live theirs. To read more about my journey, check out my book, Life Done Differently.
If New Zealand is on your bucket list of places to visit – whether to travel in a van or other ways, here are my top five off-the-beaten-track destinations. Below that, I’m sharing some tips and resources specific to vanlife in New Zealand.
My Top Five Off-the-Beaten-Track Destinations in New Zealand
I often get asked about my favourite part of New Zealand. It’s impossible to answer that question simply because there are so many amazing destinations. But here are my top five less well-known parts of the country that I think are worth a visit.
1. North and Northwest Golden Bay (South Island)
Abel Tasman National Park, at the northern end of the South Island, is on most visitors’ list of must-see places in New Zealand – and for good reasons. However, it’s also worth continuing further north to Collingwood, Farewell Spit, Wharariki Beach, and Paturau Beach. The area is gorgeous and less busy and touristy than the more famous Abel Tasman National Park. The 25km long Farewell Spit sandspit is an internationally renowned bird sanctuary, and nearby Cape Farewell and Wharariki Beach are stunning spots. A clifftop walk connects all three, offering incredible views along the way. If you like it really remote, Paturau Beach on the northwest coast is the place to go.
2. The Catlins (South Island)
The Catlins is an area on the southeast coast of the South Island. It’s one of those parts of the country where you can spend weeks covering a fairly short distance because there is so much to see along the way. Coming from the north, Kaka Point and the stunning Nugget Point Lighthouse are the first attractions. South from there, the walk to Jack’s Blowhole is worth a stop, as is the little settlement of Papatowai and the Cathedral Caves (low tide only). Continue south along the coast, and there are numerous walks, waterfalls and other sights along the way. Eventually, you will get to Curio Bay, famous for frequent dolphin sightings (I was lucky enough to share the surf with them on one of my visits). From there, Slope Point, the southernmost spot of the South Island, is a must-do before you get to Fortrose, which marks the end of the Catlins.
3. The East Cape (North Island)
After my first visit to the East Cape in early 2018, I wrote a blog post titled “New Zealand’s Unpolished Gem”, which summed up perfectly how I felt about the area. The East Cape is a peninsular on the North Island about halfway up the east coast. As with almost all of New Zealand, the scenery is breathtaking, and like all my favourite places, it’s fairly remote. It also has a kind of old-school feeling about it, like visiting a place from years gone by. You start from either Gisborne or Otaki and travel around the peninsula following the coast. Highlights along the way are the 660 metre long wharf at Tologa Bay, watching the sunrise at the East Cape Lighthouse (the first place in the world to welcome the new day) and the magnificent whakairo (carvings) on Mount Hikurangi.
4. Mackenzie (South Island)
I’m a total ocean lover, which is why four out of my top five spots are at the ocean. But there is one particular inland area of New Zealand that has captured my heart: Mackenzie on the South Island. I first discovered this part of the country almost by accident when I wanted to escape a heatwave on the coast, and higher-up Mackenzie offered cooler temperatures. I’ve since been back several times and love it more each time. On a nice day, the scenery is just out of this world. The two glacial lakes, Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, with their crazy turquoise colour and the snow-capped mountains around them, are breathtaking. Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, is also part of this region, as is the idyllic lakeside village of Lake Tekapo with the famous chapel.
5. Castlepoint (North Island)
Many Kiwis (New Zealanders) have never been to Castlepoint, and you won’t meet many international visitors here. In many other countries, this beautiful spot with the lighthouse perched on the rocks between two bays would probably be a top attraction. However, in a country like New Zealand that bursts with beautiful scenery, it’s often overlooked – partly perhaps because it’s a bit out of the way. Located in Wairarapa on the southeast coast of the North Island, it’s not really on the way to anywhere. But for those who have the time and like to explore off-the-beaten-track places, Castlepoint is absolutely worth a visit.
Vanlife in New Zealand
For the most part, New Zealand is the perfect country for vanlifers. It’s safe, there are lots of campgrounds, and there is so much to do and see – often close together so you don’t have to drive huge distances all the time. New Zealand also has a reputation as being an excellent place for free camping. However, it’s important to know that’s changing. While it’s still possible to free-camp in many parts of the country, there are ever more restrictions – and higher fines for those breaking the rules.
If you’re planning to explore New Zealand in a van and want to free-camp, I highly recommend familiarising yourself with the latest rules. These are changing almost every year right now, so it’s crucial to ensure you have access to up-to-date information. In particular, familiarise yourself with the Certified Self-Contained (CSC) standard. As I write this in October 2023, your van must be Certified Self-Contained to free-camp in most places. To make matters more complicated, the rules around the standard are changing, so a van that is Certified Self-Contained right now might not be so in a year or two. In short, do some research into all this when you plan your trip. Below are some resources to get you started.
Resources for Vanlife in New Zealand
- The CamperMate mobile app is quite possibly the most valuable resource for vanlife in New Zealand. It shows you where to find campgrounds, supermarkets, dump stations, public toilets, points of interest, and more.
- Check the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) website for the latest freedom camping rule.
- Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations is New Zealand’s leading travel magazine and website. You will find many useful resources and inspiration for destinations on their website.
- If you want to buy a campervan, TradeMe (NZ’s eBay) is the best place to start. Facebook Marketplace is also an option, but be wary of scammers.
Maybe I will see you on the road in New Zealand one day!