I fell in love with New Zealand watching it on the big screen. For years I held the epic scenery from the Lord of the Rings trilogy in my mind: the misty mountains, blue rivers and rolling countryside with Hobbit Holes. But it didn’t occur to me to go there. It was too far, too expensive, too traumatic a flight, especially with a child.
When a friend suggested a road trip in a camper van — a relatively keenly priced way to see the country — my husband and I were hesitant. We were entrenched in our easyJet-to-southern Europe inertia. Once we shook ourselves out of our torpor, thanks in no small part to our 11-year-old son, Edward, who shares my Tolkien devotion, we realised this would be our very own Bilbo Baggins-style adventure. And so it proved. New Zealand is beautiful on a different scale to any other place I have visited. From shell-strewn, golden beaches to Garden of Eden-like fjords, it is incomparable.
Once in Auckland, we took a short flight to Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island. There, we tried to beat the jet-lag by watching the Test match.
We had flown halfway around the world to watch cricket in what looked like an English pastoral paradise.
New Zealand is not England. Once we took ownership of our Maui camper van, dubbed The Beast for its impressive size, and escaped into the wilderness, all similarities ended. Our itinerary, organised by the Caravan and Motorhome Club, took us on a mostly coastal route anticlockwise along the top of the South Island and down the west coast to Queenstown. We would spend only two days in the North Island, visiting the Hobbiton film set, a promise to Edward. OK, and to me, too.
Our first stop, after a three-hour drive from Christchurch along the east coast, was the small town of Kaikoura, chosen mainly for its whale-watching opportunities. To my sceptical mind, it was inconceivable that we would see a whale. In fact we saw eight: two sperm whales and six orcas. It was the first of our once-in-a-lifetime experiences and a magical moment for our son.
Continuing along State Highway 1, spotting seals from our windows, we headed to Kaiteriteri. This resort is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, the smallest of New Zealand’s 13 protected parks. Its long stretches of empty, glittering beaches skirt a wilderness reserve wild with the sound of birdsong.
Our campsite was a stone’s throw from the beach and afforded spectacular views of the southern skies and their sunsets. We spent three magical days here, one walking along the Abel Tasman coastal track listening to tui and bellbirds.
We also went kayaking. Our Australian guide, Shaq, showed us stingrays and made us a picnic by the Fall River. When a seal popped its head up alongside our son’s kayak, he lost his cool and whooped for joy.
The freedom of a camper van comes at a price: namely unappealing domestic tasks such as emptying the lavatory every other day. My husband is not a practical man. Asking Edward to do anything domestic requires an initial refusal period. At moments, I feared we might end up killing one another at the sewage-dumping station.
But we transitioned from newbies to old-timers quickly. The Beast became a breeze to run. New Zealand’s campsites are clean and well-equipped with laundries, hot showers and kitchens, plus hot tubs, games rooms, cafes and the all-important Wi-Fi.
It was tough leaving Kaiteriteri, but we then spent the next six days on the wild west coast, stopping at remote places such as Punakaiki, famed for its Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. At Franz Josef, we trekked for an hour and a half to see the glacier of the same name.
When we finally arrived in Wanaka, we were surprised to see people and shops again. We stayed by this beautiful lakeside town for two days, the highlight being a very fast jet-boat ride along the Matukituki River into Mount Aspiring National Park.
Once we had conquered The Beast’s domestic duties and the strangeness of the South Island roads, we found we became free. Edward became a laughing, hugging, affectionate child once again. Here he could be cuddly without fear of judgment. This was an unexpected and total joy.
One of our last stops before leaving the South Island was Milford Sound, described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world. It is the only fjord in New Zealand accessible by road but, thanks to its remote location, has remained unspoilt. Bounded by steep cliffs, waterfalls and rainforest, my husband remarked that it was like Eden before the Fall. We took an overnight cruise on the fjord. The following morning, a pod of dolphins swam alongside the boat.
And yet it wasn’t quite over. We left the South Island for Auckland, from where we would be flying home, but not before one last trip: Hobbiton. As we walked past those detailed Hobbit homes, to my astonishment, I found myself welling up with emotion. It had been an unexpected journey — just like Bilbo Baggins’s. And we returned home ready for another adventure.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club (01342 779349; camc.com/newzealand) offers a 22-day tour of New Zealand.
How to keep the kids happy in New Zealand
Wanaka River Journeys
We went on the half-day Jetboat and Wilderness Walk. This was a very fast trip up the Matukituki River, including some very fast spins, which our son adored. Our guide also took us on a 40-minute walk in the Mount Aspiring forest. wanakariverjourneys.co.nz (Adults Dh565; children Dh330)
We went with Whale Watch Kaikoura, which has a 95 per cent success rate in finding whales. If your tour does not see a whale, they guarantee to refund 80 per cent of your fare. whalewatch.co.nz (Adult tickets from Dh353; children from Dh140; under-threes not allowed).
We did the Islands of Anchorage half-day trip with Kaiteriteri Kayak Abel Tasman. This includes a guide, picnic and the possibility of seeing seals, penguins and stingrays. Safe, easy and totally beautiful. seakayak.co.nz (Adults Dh350; children Dh226).
Milford Sound overnight cruise
We sailed on the Milford Mariner from Milford Sound, leaving at 4pm, with afternoon tea, the chance to go kayaking and then a three-course meal. We saw seals and dolphins. Cooked breakfast and wonderful cabins. realjourneys.co.nz (From pounds 166 to pounds 216 per adult twin share.
Hobbiton movie set
Step into the Shire and be guided around the 12-acre set; past Bag End and the Green Dragon. Totally magical. hobbitontours.com (Adults 17+ Dh197; children 8 to 16 Dh75; under-8s free).
The Daily Telegraph