New Zealand is essentially a road tripper’s paradise, and especially during the months that don’t include winter (*shivers). With a million gorgeous hiking trails, volcanic hot springs, uncrowded beaches, jungle-filled national parks, crystal clear lakes and rolling green hills to choose from, the only bummer about a road trip in New Zealand is the moment it has to end. Also the sandflies, mosquitoes, insanely high price of gas and overzealous number of camping regulations, but hey, nowhere’s perfect.
If you’re living on the South Island and thinking about buying and renovating a van in Queenstown, I should first say don’t. If you have the option of traveling to Christchurch – a 6 hour, mostly scenic drive from Queenstown – go there instead, as there are way more cars and campervans to choose from, and they tend not to have as many miles or be quite as “well-worn” (see: shithole-ish) as the ones you’re bound to find in Queenstown. Plus Christchurch has lower prices for just about everything, including renovation supplies, and that’s always a solid place to start.
If, like us, the idea of taking a long bus ride to and from Christchurch for an undetermined amount of time and paying for accommodation once we got there was just too much to organize, you’re not alone. While Queenstown is most likely the worst place in New Zealand to buy and renovate a van, people still do it every day. Including us. Damnit.
Buying & Renovating a Campervan in Queenstown, New Zealand
Another thing I should mention is that we have now purchased a van in Queenstown not once, but twice. After finding an early 90s Nissan Vanette for a whopping steal of $1,500, it unsurprisingly turned out to have a cracked engine and was deemed utterly useless three short weeks later. RIP La Tortuga Blanca. Lesson: Don’t let anyone pressure you into buying a car quicker than you can get it inspected. Also some people are jerks.
Buying a Campervan in Queenstown
Unlike the U.S. or Australia, New Zealand has no Craigslist or Gumtree to buy or sell goods, opting for the much less awesome TradeMe as their primary form of crap-swapping. Unfortunately I can’t recommend TradeMe, even for van shopping, because no one I’ve met seems to use it.
Instead, you’ll have the best luck finding your future campervan on Facebook groups like Queenstown Trading, Cars for Sale in Queenstown, Queenstown (NZ) Buy Sell or Swap, and Queenstown Community Trade & Sell, or by simply walking around and looking at vans with signs posted in their windows, or asking your friends which of their friends is selling a van. Remember – Queenstown is a tiny, tiny place.
Factors to Consider
If you plan on living in your van, as opposed to taking the odd weekend trip in it, be sure to consider the following:
- Diesel versus Petrol: Keep in mind that diesel is quite a bit cheaper than petrol in New Zealand (currently $1.46 per liter compared to $2.20), but also comes with the task of paying Road User Charges (RUC), currently around $62 for every 1,000 kilometers you drive. We bought a diesel van, and I would recommend doing the same if you plan on driving around the majority of the country and want to keep fuel costs as low as possible.
- Self Contained versus Not: To ease most of the daily costs associated with camping in New Zealand, I highly recommend either a) buying an already self contained campervan (the best option if you can afford it), or b) getting it self contained on your own (the best option if you can’t, and also have infinite amounts of patience). The areas you’re allowed to camp increase exponentially in a self contained vehicle, and you won’t blow through your money paying for a $20 – $40 patch of grass every night at local campgrounds. Plus, I will say it’s pretty handy having a working sink in your car, though I hope to never have to use the toilet.
- 4WD versus Not: New Zealand has tons of opportunities for 4WD, most of which are easily accessible, so if you can find your perfect van that’s also 4WD, good on ya. Unfortunately our van is not, but beggars can’t be choosers.
- High Mileage: Most cars at the $5,000 price point or below have a hefty amount of miles (or kilometers, rather) tacked on them. I would recommend going for a van with 250,000 kilometers (155,000 miles) or under if possible.
- Mechanical Issues: We found a traveling mechanic on one of the aforementioned Facebook groups to come inspect our second van for $50. Worth it! Another suggestion is to ask whether or not the van is chain driven (nice!) or has a timing belt – also called cambelt – and how long ago it was replaced, as this is an expensive fix in New Zealand. Take a look at the Warrant of Fitness (WOF) inspection date and make sure there aren’t any obvious mechanical issues that will keep you from passing this if it expires before you plan on selling it.
- Size: Remember that 100% of your belongings, as well as yourself, will have to fit in your van. Don’t go for the mini-size to save a few bucks if you’re known for overpacking or getting claustrophobic in tiny spaces. This is no longer just you’re transportation method, but your home. Spring for the van with a bit of room to work with, especially if you plan on getting it self-contained.
Our 2004 Hyundai H100 Grace Van is a diesel manual with 230,000 kilometers, has a WOF well past the date we plan to leave the country, no major mechanical issues (though we did buy a new tire and our brakes need to be replaced), up to date RUC, and cost $2,300 after trading our original Vanette to the same seller. The downfall? Our new van, unlike the original, was not already lived in, meaning we had to build out the inside from scratch.
Which brings me to my next point…
Renovating a Campervan in Queenstown
Thank our lucky stars we made friends in Queenstown, because our friends totally saved our asses when it came to building out the inside of our campervan. First off, I don’t know jack squat about renovation, especially when it comes to vehicles and their specific requirements for self containment (think toilet, sink, clean and dirty water tanks, etc.) in New Zealand. Second, I honestly have almost no interest in learning, despite having an opinion about the functionality and look of it.
Because our van was originally used as a work car for a painting company, it also had to be scrubbed and fitted with a certain unnameable amount of duct tape. Not ideal, but it’s how it goes. Luckily we are friends with two joiners – Americans know them as carpenters – who agreed to help us build our van in exchange for yummy pizza, plentiful beers, and infinite hugs. Amazing!
We now have a full sized bed that can fold in half to create a sitting area, as well as a beautiful kitchen cabinet in which to store our food, pots and pans, water tanks, sink, portable stove, books, and basically whatever else needs to fit back there. If you want to hire a pro to help you construct your wildest campervan dreams in Queenstown, send him a shout through Facebook Messenger at John Usher.
For any renovation supplies you need to grab yourself, Mitre 10 is likely the best bet, with The Warehouse being next in line for more decorative/functional items like kitchenware, bedding and lighting.
Despite having the bed and kitchen built for next to nothing, including the wood itself, which would have cost upwards of $500 on its own, we still managed to spend around $850 NZD getting all the supplies for actually being able to live in it, as well as meet the standards for self containment. Ouch. Thus is the story of New Zealand, however, and why I recommend purchasing an already liveable van if you have the funds to do so, don’t consider yourself particularly handy, and are one of the several of us who think renovation projects on our van sound fun until we realize we have absolutely no idea what to do, where to even begin, and eventually will just be living in our nightmare of an arts-and-crafts project gone terribly to shit.
Here’s to road trips, and all the unglamorous parts that lead to an eventual, mostly glamorous adventure. Big mega shoutout and thank you to John and Alfie for all their help, without which we’d likely be sleeping on moldy wooden pallets made of broken dreams and splinters.