Motorhome adventures in North and South Island of NZ - Part 1 

May 28, 2007
Motorhome adventures in North and South Island of NZ - Part 1

By Garth Morrison

You know your are in trouble when you are totally lost and the view from your motorhome is all steeply downhill.

Up to this point, in a series of three motorhome adventures, we had measured all major North Island touring challenges against the "scenic" 309 Road. That short-cut across the Coromandel on route to Miranda left us on edge in every sense.

But the 309 Road experience a few months ago was the first in a series of North and South Island practical looks at motorhome camping. It was with a bigger, comfortable, modern Kea motorhome.

So big a six-berth that as we breathed in to squeeze past a water-truck coming the other way on the scenic 309 Road it looked like our paint would be sanded on the driver's side.

But now we were so high in sheep country somewhere on a hilltop ridge near Onewhero that birds were flying below us.

This time we were not so grandly mounted. Our sad, veteran, 4.9m four-berth motorhome from Nomad Motorhomes Car Rentals was a 1995 Mitsubushi Canter truck based 3.3 litre diesel model.

At a bargain $160 a day we three perched across the unyielding cab seat as it lurched and jolted along the one-way winding dirt road.

Our backs were to the wall in every sense - the Canter truck design made it a non-walk-through motorhome. There was nothing romantic about the situation. Our choice of motorhome options was non-negotiable. We could find nothing else available to fit our March touring timetable.

Motorhome from Kea
Motorhome from Kea

A week before we drove a comfortable new Hertz Ford sedan from Auckland to Hamilton for the National Motorhome and Caravan Expo at the Waikato Event Centre.

After the show we returned to the Nomad base near Auckland International Airport to drop our fine Ford at Hertz and go motorhoming with Nomad Camperz.

In that changeover we turned ourselves into the oldest backpackers in New Zealand. But I value the experience because editors usually get the best when they deal with anything to do with a feature story. This is not a good thing as Average Joe is often not so fortunate and reality is lost.

Well this time your correspondent guarantees there was no special treatment. So right off the bat the best thing about the Nomad Motorhomes Car Rentals Mitsubishi Canter diesel motorhome, despite its age, was the reliability and economy of its motor. It returned 11.1 litres a 100km which means about $130 for each 1000km.

Happily as tourist we did not pay the hidden additional Tax (GST) of 12.5%, Road User/Diesel Tax which Kiwis face on diesel.

The diesel motor never faltered, no matter what we asked of it. But it was a five-speed manual transmission and the gearbox was another matter.

Our fine Hertz Ford at Swallow Inn Chalet Miranda Holiday Park
Our fine Hertz Ford at Swallow Inn Chalet Miranda Holiday Park

Our experience includes driving a variety of heavy vehicles with the license that goes with it. Without the skills which go with a Light Rigid and Medium Rigid license finding gears in the motorhome could be a challenge.

Still we picked up the batter and bash life the gearbox had been through over the first few km, decided we could cope and pressed on to the nearest diesel fuel stop near the airport to test whether the motorhome's tank was in fact full. Alas it took about 8 litres to top up.

Muttering about the pedigree of the previous hirers who should have filled it right up we turned left and then right at the second roundabout on Tom Pearce Drive and picked up the Puhinui Road and followed it through to a right turn into the Southern Motorway.

This takes concentration as the Great South Road (3) comes up first and the numbered exit signage can be confusing. The diesel rumbled along well at 90 to 100kmh on the excellent motorway bound for Port Waikato and a planned call at the local Family Park near Sunset Beach.

We diverged off the Motorway to Pukekohe and attempted lunch at a pub, but meals were not on that day.

Our veteran Mitsubishi Canter motorhome at Huka Falls Taupo
Our veteran Mitsubishi Canter motorhome at Huka Falls Taupo

We got this answer three times at North Island pubs during two weeks of travels. So the nice people at the local supermarket got our business and we ate in before completing the pleasant run to Port Waikato through rolling pastures and shimmering Waikato River views.

Feeding flexibility is the great advantage of motorhomes. We stopped to prepare our meal beside pleasant riverside gardens maintained by Port Waikato volunteers.

It is a great spot and there was a sign - avocados six for $10, sold by a friendly artist after a short walk up the hill. We called in at Port Waikato Holiday Park, drove out to Sunset Beach and then headed back up the road with Raglan our planned destination for overnight camping.

At Onewhero an encouraging signpost and initial good bitumen promised a short-cut across to a fairly direct route (Highway 22) to Raglan. So we went and found ourselves lost on one-way dirt. A farm driveway loomed up and with no better idea we took it.

No food at the inn. We came on the wrong day in our Nomad 4-berth
No food at the inn. We came on the wrong day in our Nomad 4-berth

The Canters motor in low-gear heralded our arrival and a friendly farm-lady steered us right. Could we get to Raglan from here? we asked. Her answering smile warmed our little boy lost hearts - Well we do so you can too, she said. Practical, precise helpful country directions followed.

Right at the farm gate, she said Drive for about half an hour and keep left. But take your time it is all one-way dirt and scenic.

After a while you will see the big radio mast. Go left and then right onto Highway 22 and Raglan is about an hour away. Spot on!

We impressed a busload of staring school children parked beside the scenic road as we came off one high, hilltop ridge. I don't think they have seen many motorhomes on that road. We came down from the hills rocking along like the Little Red Engine, we knew we could, because the Canter motor and exhaust braking had proven bullet-proof.

Back on the bitumen with Raglan on the plot and my two Amigos speaking to me again we stopped for a flock of sheep across the road. They were preceeded by another authentic, friendly New Zealand country face, a farmer mounted in his ute, with dogs and supporting herders.

So we passed the time of day. Counted sheep until the flock passed then ground away towards Raglan Kopua Holiday Park. It is a big family park on Raglan harbour and we found comfortable powered camping on site 211 not far from the pay showers and toilet.

Nomad near Port Waikato
Nomad near Port Waikato

Friendly neighours gave us the matches we had forgotten to buy while our Lord of the (barbecue) Tongs, Graham, used his computer skills to help solve a string of virus invasions on the Holiday Park's struggling system.

We saw many struggling computer laptop and PC systems in our New Zealand travels. Our own powerful laptops were useless until we paid $600 at a nearby outlet for an Optus Broadband package at the start of our travels.

We were staying in Motel unit 77 at Auckland North Shore Holiday Park at the time after picking up our fine Hertz Ford for the Hamilton run. With our considerable skills stretched to the limit this mostly gave us a 3 out of 5 Broadband connection. Broadband connection is a sad story in New Zealand.

For example we did not know whether to laugh or cry after being told at Miranda, after we paid $35 for a connection card, that we could not get connected because the heavy cloud cover was stopping the Telco's aerial relay.

The money was cheerfully refunded. We found that the essential need for serious firewalls and virus protection are either not appreciated or negated by systems which often have never or hardly ever been updated.

At Port Waikato Holiday Park
At Port Waikato Holiday Park

Much later we three crashed into our camp chairs and ate and drank outdoors in the warm Raglan night air with an empty box for an outdoor table. Starry, starry night, we relaxed. It had been a long drive from Auckland.

The surf breaks in the area are world class. There is a footbridge from the holiday park which leads to Raglan's Harbourview hotel, shops and cafes.

The holiday park showers are 50c for about five minutes. The go is to strip, prepare towel and so on and then drop the coin.

Two hours south of Auckland and 45 minute west of Hamilton, Raglan is on the west coast of the North Island.

The surf breaks are at Manu Bay, Whale Bay and The Indicators. Manu Bay (Waireke) is 8km from Raglan. It is also known as The Point and is among the longest left hand rides in the world.

At Manu Bay International surfing competitions are held in summer. The Harbourview Hotel dominates Raglan's main drag. Mt Karioi, a dormant volcano is a backdrop to Raglan. Ocean Beach is located just out of Raglan off Wainui Road (the road to Whale Bay). Access to the beach is via Riria Kereopa Memorial Drive or by parking your car on Wainui Reserve Road and using the walking track.

Whale Bay is a rocky walk but puts up a good break. Ruapuke Beach is full on and not for novices. There are dangerous undertows. The old coast road runs through beautiful scenery with Tasman Seascapes. For families Cox's Bay is a sheltered inner-harbour beach for swimming and picnics. It is reached via Bayview Road and Daisy St or there is a walkway from Government Road. Bridal Veil Falls is along Highway 23 heading for Hamilton. Turn right at the Te Mata/Kawhia turnoff.

It was in Raglan that our association with the Nomad motorhome took a de-stinked (pun intended) turn for the worse. The toilet began to make its presence all too obvious. It was a standard style combo shower job with a cassette toilet.

We Three Amigos have been on the road long enough to know to avoid using motorhome facilities for heavy work unless forced. But at night we make an exception for relieving water pressure, particularly if it is raining.

Trying to find the source of the foul air we found fractures in the shower structure and suspected that the toilet cassette leaked when the stiff truck suspension jarred it about. The scrubbing that followed was a real rubadub. But the smell fought back and we stopped using the toilet and shower for the rest of the trip.

We scrubbed again and again with cleaning chemicals which took our breath away. We improved the situation, but never beat it.

Damaged Nomad. We took the picture before we took delivery
Damaged Nomad. We took the picture before we took delivery

So we pressed on to Taupo via a good lunch at Cambridge running on excellent bitumen all the way. Good weather, good mates, the world was a happy thing. Then the fridge door fell off - for the first time.

Now you can hold your breath over foul toilets, but when the fridge falls apart and we face warm beer at journeys end it's a crisis! Still our collective skills get us through most things and this time we found a fix fast. Later it fell off again. We fixed the door again...and then its metal skin fell off.

We cursed, accepted that with the cold shut in this was as good as it gets and stowed the spare tin bit for our growing discussion with Nomad when we got back to Auckland.

In Taupo after an immediate stress-relief session in the hot springs we started late at 10am the next day and went to Huka waterfall first, then the Taupo Prawn farm and finished the day with a gentle sail on Lake Taupo aboard the yacht Barbary. The sail on the Barbary was great. It is said that the yacht was once owned by actor Errol Flynn. This has been challenged and despite a number of approaches to the owner GoSee has been unable to confirm the claim.

Huka Falls has the clearest green-blue water I have ever seen. It rages between two high rock cliffs. There were hundreds of visitors many Asian, Scots and Brits plus Swedes and Danes and of course Australians. There are hundreds of motorhomes and campervans about proving it is a real advantage to have everything with you.

The Prawn Farm is right out there. The prawns are huge and breed in millions. We found the motorhome gave us a direct impression of local NZ roads through it trucklike steering and ride. But the main highways through the North Island are wide and well made so travelling was easier.

None the less 200km is long way on New Zealand roads in a Mitsubishi Canter, useful short-range delivery truck, hard riding tourer.

Prawn and Jet boat entry near Taupo
Prawn and Jet boat entry near Taupo

The scenery over the Taupo to Bowentown section of our trip was lush green with rivers and streams so clear itis like looking through blue green air. Big trout cruise through the clear water and as we ground up the range on route to Bowentown and the beach tall ferns waved along the way.

We made it to Bowentown Beach Holiday Park grey-black beach sand from Taupo in about four hours.

We shopped at a supermarket on the way and stopped for lunch beside a trout stream. The Holiday Park on Waihi Beach about two hours south from Auckland Airport links to both the Bay of Plenty and the scenic Coromandel Peninsula. It is an AA Hospitality Award winner for 2006.

Between the ocean and the harbour the big Family Park is popular with families who enjoy the community spirit of the excellent Camp Kitchen.

The location is unique with the Holiday Parks 128 hectares on a rocky headland on the northern entrance to Tauranga Harbour. There is eight kilometres of beach from Bowentown to Waihi Beach.

The family-orientated park has modern, clean facilities.

We Cantered the Mitsubishi onto one of its 170 sites. We had just settled on site three near the pay showers, toilet, Camp Kitchen and barbecue area when a loud expensive crunch illustrated what a difference a tree can make to a 3m high motorhome roof.

Fern green scene near  McLaren Falls on route to Waihi Beach
Fern green scene near McLaren Falls on route to Waihi Beach

A Swiss couple new to motorhomes forgot to look up. Easy mistake. Expensive result. Always read the hirer's insurance fine print and make sure you are fully covered. The Excess clause can be thousands of dollars out of your pocket.

We carry personal insurance through a credit card company which covers potential surprises like this and provides excellent hospital and repatriation benefits if health fails during international travel.

After a hot overnight (no-aircon) tossing on the tired padding of the twin double beds of our veteran motorhome we rumbled on to Miranda via historic gold centre Waihi and Karangahake Gorge for our second visit during our travels.

The Karangahake Gorge is on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi. It is the site of the original gold rush in 1875 and a great place to take a Coromandel walk.

Our first call at Miranda had been in our fine Ford sedan from Hertz when we stayed in a particularly comfortable chalet. That night I missed that chalet's comfortable matresses.

Bowentown crunch damage from contact with tree limb
Bowentown crunch damage from contact with tree limb

But there is always a warm welcome at Miranda Family Holiday Park from Raewyn, (Rae) the Family Park Manager and her family team. We used modern, comfortable, fully equipped Chalet 8 while travelling in the fine Ford and this time parked the motorhome on site 60 right next to the Hot Spring Pool on our second visit.

The Holiday Park has outstanding facilities. There is no charge for hot showers. They operate on a press timer button.

The hot spring complex matches the warmth of the welcome. Miranda Holiday Park is about an hour from Auckland Airport.

Raewyn (Rae) makes  it happen Miranda Holiday Park
Raewyn (Rae) makes it happen Miranda Holiday Park

It is pet friendly (By arrangement. So please give them acall first).

It also has real wheelchair access to toilets and showers.

We spent a lot of time in the Family Parks relaxing thermal pool at Miranda. Rae and team took pity on us hopeless blokes and our washing got done in their big commercial machine.

Not that we had much. The March weather saw to that. I spent most of my time in a singlette, shorts and sandals.

Next day, back in Auckland, we raised our concerns with Nomad Camperz about our basic backpacker motorhome experience. We were told we would get a response. Unfortunately We have not.

Some motorhome companies go for quality from the kick-off which benefits the hirer in terms of easy use and comfort. Careful comparison pinpoints them.

An example is Good Life which operates custom-built two and four berth Mercedes motorhomes. It also runs 'High Roof' campervans for two people on a budget.

It'squality vehicles, serviceand thoughtfulextras which put the good into the motorhome and campervan life and makes the whole experience better.

Things like outdoor table and chairs included free.
Four berth vehicles with awnings and flat screen, colour TV's.

Daily rates which include:
Free airport and hotel transfers.
Free unlimited kilometres and breakdown assistance.
Free standard insurance.
Free extra drivers.'
Free On the Road information pack.

Families should look for baby and booster seats, barbecues, pre-pay mobile phones and a Navman navigational system available on request.

A two berth motorhome is ideal for either friends holidaying together, or a couple, as the sleeping space at the rear can be arranged as 2 singles or a large double.

Established brands like Mercedes based motorhomes have power and economy going for them. A four berth motorhome of this type gives 4 adults comfortable sleeping space. Its body is also fully insulated and fitted to allow walk-through access from the drivers cab through to the living area. Main access is through a centre cabin door.

Editor's Note: Drivers must be at least 21 years old and hold a full drivers licence. Licences from the UK, Europe, Canada and Australia are accepted in New Zealand for a period of 12 months. International licences apply for all other nationalities.

Editor's Note: For the record the 309 road in New Zealand's North Island is a narrow winding gravel road between Whitianga and Coromandel Town.

It is scenic; it follows the Mahakirau stream up from State Highway 25, going through farmland, scrub, and native bush. Once over the summit (306 metres) it meanders down the Waiau Valley, through more bush and pine forest.

It presents no problem to the motorist who is prepared to drive steadily, and stay well to the left around the corners. It is the shortest way to Coromandel Town, and there are lots of things to see and do. Allow 3/4 of an hour driving time.

Editor's Note: Also See -

Hot Springs  heaven Miranda Holiday Park
Hot Springs heaven Miranda Holiday Park

A now for breakfast aboard the Kea
A now for breakfast aboard the Kea

Barbecue area Bowentown Family Holiday Park
Barbecue area Bowentown Family Holiday Park

Blue Bay  of Plenty Bowentown
Blue Bay of Plenty Bowentown

Bowentown Family Holiday Park has room for BIG rigs
Bowentown Family Holiday Park has room for BIG rigs

Gleaming Camp Kitchen Miranda Holiday Park
Gleaming Camp Kitchen Miranda Holiday Park

GoSeeNZ gets online in a two bedroom chalet Miranda Holiday Park
GoSeeNZ gets online in a two bedroom chalet Miranda Holiday Park

Kick back with the Biguns parked Miranda Holiday Park Waitakaruru
Kick back with the Biguns parked Miranda Holiday Park Waitakaruru

Camp Kitchen Bowentown Family Holiday Park
Camp Kitchen Bowentown Family Holiday Park

Communal kitchen and sunny eating area Northshore Top10 Holiday Park
Communal kitchen and sunny eating area Northshore Top10 Holiday Park

Dinner is served aboard the Kea motorhome
Dinner is served aboard the Kea motorhome

Fly fishing experts read the Waihou stream
Fly fishing experts read the Waihou stream

Fushn Chups with Stoneleigh Chard. Fish Pot Cafe Mission Beach Auckland
Fush'n Chups with Stoneleigh Chard. Fish Pot Cafe Mission Beach Auckland

Graham faces healthy food
Graham faces healthy food

Holiday Park lifestyle Northshore Top10 Holiday Park
Holiday Park lifestyle Northshore Top10 Holiday Park

Kids are  kings at Bowentown Family Holiday Park
Kids are kings at Bowentown Family Holiday Park

Having fun has  nothing to do with age Bowentown
Having fun has nothing to do with age Bowentown

Room  to move in  Kea motorhome
Room to move in Kea motorhome

Motorhomes  gather at Tauranga Bay
Motorhomes gather at Tauranga Bay

This original motorhome comes with a resident cat above the dashboard
This original motorhome comes with a resident cat above the dashboard

Washing time in Bowentowns modern laundry
Washing time in Bowentowns modern laundry