I pulled over and had a quick glance on my phone – the campsite called Lowburn Harbour was still another 3km up the road. I continued driving and soon I spotted it – a flat grass patch about the size of a soccer field right next to a lake.

This was the first day that my parents and I were going round New Zealand’s South Island – in a camper van.

The best feature of this mode of adventure travel is the ability to “free camp” (camp freely in the wild). It gave us a lot of flexibility in our itinerary, because we could stop at any sights that caught our interest without worrying about check-in times at hotels.

Some of the free campsites we stopped at included: a riverside that overlooked a small coastal town; a beach with stunning views of mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean plus a National Park area with views of snowy peaks and river plains. It was a privilege to call such beautiful places home, even for just one night.

My parents truly enjoyed our adventure with the camper van. They got to enjoy the familiar comforts of an indoor bed, did not need to worry about toilet stops, and the kitchen allowed them to cook meals familiar to their Asian palate.

Free camping was a novelty experience for them. It rekindled their sense of adventure as the wilderness was literally at their doorstep. Yet, they could still have their creature comforts.

Preparing a meal at the campervans mini kitchen.

Preparing a meal at the campervans mini kitchen.

Back to Lowburn Harbour. Other than a block of toilets, there was nothing else at our campsite but grass and trees. What gave it away as a free campsite were the 10 other camper vans scattered across the field.

I picked out a spot about five metres away from the water’s edge. Lake Dunstan lay outside our window and two mountain ranges, with snow dusting their highest peaks, rose up on either side of the lake.

A light breeze was rippling the lake, and the sky was slowly tinged in orange as the sun began to set. I turned off the ignition of our camper van. My mother asked, “Is this it?”

“Yup”, I replied.

“Just like that?” she asked, a tad worried.

“Just like that,” I affirmed.

Learning curves

Camper van trips are popular around South Island. As this was my first time planning a trip like this, I had to do plenty of research. There are many rental companies with varying packages and an assortment of surcharges.

You can choose different sizes of camper vans, which are measured by berths – the number of seats (with seat belts) inside.

A two-berth camper van will be something like a normal van and you will have to cook (and poop!) outside – this can be difficult in adverse weather. But its small size means you can often go on small unpaved trails to, say, a remote beach.

A glorious morning ocean view at Kaikoura.

A glorious morning ocean view at Kaikoura.

A six-berth camper van will have much more room inside. This is good for a family with small kids, but you can’t wander far off the main roads.

Summertime (December to February in NZ) is so busy among both foreign tourists and locals that when I made the booking in July, the availability of camper vans was already limited. I managed to book one in the middle price range, and took on the all-inclusive package that also had full insurance coverage and rental of accessories.

There are different insurance packages and some only cover damage above a certain “excess” limit. You might think, “Oh, I am a very careful driver, and I don’t think I’ll incur any damage”.

But in NZ, many roads that lead to interesting places are on gravel or dirt roads and these can have little rocks that can ping a windscreen, or low hanging branches that scrape the body. Taking the all-inclusive package just meant that I could enjoy a worry-free holiday.

On arrival at South Island, we spent two nights in Christchurch city (which we explored on foot). On pick-up day, we took a taxi to the camper van depot. After a round of paperwork, we were given our keys and taken on a tour of our new mobile home and its systems.

There was the water system (taps and toilet), the gas system (stove and heating) and the electric system (a single power socket and the lights). There were various gauges to check these systems. Some of them indicated when it was time to do tasks such as emptying toilet waste.

The writer in the cosy sleeping berth atop the drivers seat.

The writer in the cosy sleeping berth atop the drivers seat.

As this was our first time using such a vehicle, the briefing of all the systems and functions was quite overwhelming. But our attendant assured us that, just like moving into a new house, we would settle in soon enough.

The second learning curve came as I started up the engine and turned onto the highway. The camper van was not particularly wider than a big car, but it was much longer. I had to quickly learn to brake earlier and to allow more room for turns. This was also my first time on NZ roads, and switching over from a Malaysian driving mentality, I had to make sure I read all road signs and followed all rules!

After a long day’s drive up into the high country, with sightseeing stops in Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, we called it a day at Lowburn Harbour. We had a laugh because the sun sets in summertime at around 9pm, and with the longer daylight playing tricks on our internal body clocks, it was 9.30pm before dinner was ready.

We tucked in while catching glimpses of the lake and mountains outside the big window next to the dining table; the next morning we woke up to the same view, but with a golden glow rising from the east.

NEXT PAGE: Luxury of hot showers