“In a motorhome in winter? Are you barking mad? You’ll freeze. Nothing will be open.”
Friends were surprised that my husband and I were planning to head off on a road trip in July given that the temperatures had dipped into single figures in many parts of the country. But what they didn’t know, my well-meaning chums, was that winter travel can be cool if you choose the right motorhome in which to do it. We decided to rent a Compact for 2 from Wilderness Motorhome Rentals based near the Auckland Airport.
Rewards of the road come in many ways. And winter travel brings crisp air and luminous blue skies as much as it does sleet and bone-chilling wind. I love the moodiness of the weather in winter. It’s exciting because I never know what is coming next. Our New Zealand landscape is stunning at any time of the year but in winter exotic trees, naked without their foliage, are like shining skeletons. Snow, fog and bright sunsets lend a magic that’s harder to find under a harsh summer sun and, the environment has a particular lure for photographers because textures, muted colours, slanting light and patterned clouds provide special effects.
Another thing about travelling in winter is the lack of competition. It was a wonderful not to be battling madding crowds. Post lockdown the warmth of the welcomes we received from locals wherever we went were like full-blooded hugs. Everyone seemed mighty pleased to see us and in the past when the country had been choked with RV travellers that hasn’t always been the case. Having said that there were a surprising number of motorhomers on the road. Perhaps like us they we pleased to be able to travel at all never mind the season.
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Going with the Flow
For a small van, the Compact for 2 we’d hired from Wilderness had an amazingly comfortable and workable layout. We were also very happy with the spacious lounge and the surprising amount of storage.
In the interests of marital harmony, any couple travelling in a campervan needs to have a routine so that they are not falling over each other all the time. Once we had our routine sorted, we found the Compact for 2 had a good flow despite its smaller size and we would have been happy to travel it for much longer than three weeks.
Another thing that directed us to Wilderness Rentals was the superior standard of furniture and features in the motorhome’s interiors (see some of the inside tours here). They were modern and classy as well as being easy care and functional. One of surprises in our particular motorhome was the automatic drop-down bed which gave us much more room in the lounge. When I first looked at the mattress my heart dropped a notch. I thought it as going to be a bit like sleeping on a padded brick. In fact it was incredibly comfortable. We slept so well I would have swapped it for our bed at home. It was also wide – queen-size or a little bit under. I’m sure most motorhomers have had the experience of parking at the property of well-meaning friends who say: “Come on into the house to sleep. Have a comfortable bed for a change.”
Snug in a Bubble
If you happen to be in a Wilderness, their kind thoughts couldn’t be further off the mark.
Winter comfort was also due to good insulation, well controlled gas heating system, double-glazed windows, and the concertina blinds that cover each window. In frosty weather, we kept the heater’s thermostat on low all night and it felt like the whole van was wrapped in possum fur. I think we would still have been warm if we’d been buried under a blanket of snow. Luckily we weren’t, although Christchurch must have been close. But there we were parked up at night in the sleet and freezing wind cocooned in our warm bubble and feeling rather smug.
The inclement weather also taught us to be grateful for another aspect of a smaller van. We could park it just about anywhere we could have parked a car; and so in the centre of Christchurch, and without have to brave the elements, we were able to nose in close to the Riverside Market for lunch.
Our dealings with Wilderness staff when we picked up and returned the vehicle had been just as warm. I liked the way we were welcomed by name on a board outside the office and the comprehensive introduction to the workings of the motorhome. We left on our travels confident that we knew what we were doing. In Blenheim the oil light on the dashboard started flashing and a phone call to the company was answered promptly. It was good to have immediate reassurance that all was well.
On the Road
Driving was hassle free. It was of little consequence that the motorhome's Fiat 130bhp engine meant that we slowed down slightly on the hills. The vehicle with its six-speed automated manual transmission was an easy drive. On the road to Akaroa we came across a Mini Cooper that had spun off the road and come to rest on its roof. It was a reminder that the road to Akaroa is not be taken lightly. Steep and winding it is often greasy with frost. The Compact for 2 motorhome handled the road well and nimbly manoeuvred past the drama. It could also execute a U-turn on most roads without any drama of its own.
Hiring a motorhome in winter requires a little more mindfulness and preparation than in the warmer months. We took with us layers of thermal clothing, wet weather gear, gloves, beanies waterproof shoes, warm socks and slippers and we used them all - but not all at once! We also made sure our gas bottles were full. That sounds like no brainer but we once discovered that gas levels can easily slip from the mind. In a remote part of the Catlins in winter we hadn’t paid attention to this detail and in the middle of the night ended up nearly frozen to the walls. Keep your cell phones charged up too. In cold weather the battery can run down fast.
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Another thing we had to plan for was timing. The sun sinks earlier and faster in winter than it does in other seasons and it’s no fun searching around for somewhere to park in the dark. We planned or driving times so that by four to four-thirty in the afternoon we were settled in the park-up spot for the night. If the rain held off we would go for a short brisk walk to have a look at the environment we’d landed up in. Some of those walks are among my best memories of the trip.
Another tip is to call ahead as much as you can to places you wanted to go to. The reason for this is that in winter, particularly in the South Island, a lot of places close their doors or shorten their opening hours. This is understandable as everyone needs a break and unless you are in a skiing location it is the tourist off-peak season. But it can be frustrating.
In Kaikoura, for instance, I really wanted to see the earthquake exhibition in the museum. It was closed on Mondays and Tuesday. I visited the brewery. It was closed. The owners were away. In fairness it was also soon after we had gone to Covid Level One and this obviously influenced opening hours.
And then, in other places where I expected things to be closed they weren’t. In Raetihi, for instance, where one could be forgiven for thinking the whole town was in a coma, the new and very interesting Dinosour museum was stoically open all day every day. “We have good days and bad days” said the receptionist, “but overall it’s working for us.”
In the same way travelling in winter had worked for us too. Despite some inclement weather and some bone-freezing temperatures we both concluded we’d had a marvelous time.
"Wilderness Compact for 2 is a clever compromise between space and comfort."
Here are the features we particularly liked.
- Ease of driving, parking, turning and reversing.
- A very workable layout for easy flow
- The impressive amount of storage space.
- The beds, either permanent or drop-down are surprisingly comfortable.
- Insulation, heating and double-glazed windows offer great winter comfort
- Air conditioning, roof vents and windows provide excellent ventilation.
- Each window has easy pull concertina blinds and insect screens.
- The bathrooms and kitchens are meticulously designed.
- Renters have exclusive access to an exclusive outdoor guidebook called NZ Frenzy
Inspired by Jill's winter wanderings in the wilderness?
Download her 3 Weeks Itinerary to travel across New Zealand in a motorhome.
Jill Malcolm is a travel writer, author and editor. She is also an enthusiastic RV traveller and with her husband has been motorhoming or caravanning around New Zealand and several overseas countries for the last 30 years.