NEW ZEALAND: Backpacking - the reality

8 Mar 2017

With its two islands, 14 regions, 15 000km of coastline, 4000 lakes, 14 national parks and countless examples of gorgeous scenery, New Zealand is one hell of a place to visit - especially for outdoor enthusiasts. Not only is NZ beautiful, it is also safe and easy to travel around - which could explain why this destination is so famous amongst the backpackers.

So if you are considering a backpacking trip to NZ, here are our 12 Commandments:



1. Thou shalt love wide-open spaces (and sheep)

How big is NZ? 270 000 square kilometres, which is roughly the size of Great Britain. Except that the UK population is 53 million when NZ population is only 4.5 million. But that is without counting the 32 million sheep happily grazing the grassy NZ hillsides. So yes, dear math enthusiasts, there are indeed 6 sheep for every person in New Zealand.

So apart from sheep, NZ is fairly empty with 14 persons per square kilometre; very sparse compared to the UK with 29.

You got it…New Zealand is miles and miles of untouched and remote scenery – a pure nature lover’s dream.



2. Thou shalt be ready to travel miles

This one should actually be your first commandment.

For a start, you are going to travel 19 000K to get to NZ (from Europe), and that is just the beginning!
NZ from north to south is 1600K long; but that’s only if you could travel in a direct line from north to south. If you are willing to drive around NZ (literally) you can add an extra 5000K easily!

For those of you who don’t like to splash the cash, I am sorry but this trip is going to be painful for you – petrol is expensive.


While driving NZ is one way to discover the country – hiking is another. “Hike until your shoes wear out” should be another commandment. NZ is a land of varying landscapes and hiking gives you the unique opportunity to immerse yourself in its natural beauties and learn more about the country.  And on top of all this, hiking is good for your body, your mind, and it is free!



3. Thou shalt travel in a van

Have you always wanted to travel freely? Always dreamt of waking up one day by the beach and the next at the foot of the mountains? A campervan just might be the right mode of transportation for your trip.
More than your faithful steed, you van will also become your house for a while. Kitchen, living room, bedroom, it’s all in one with your van. You live like a little snail for few months, carrying your house around. And trust me, there is plenty of snails on the road, as one of the best ways to see NZ – the North Island, the South Island, or the whole country – is on a self-drive road trip in your own campervan.

Quickly you will give a name to your van, decorate it, take great care of it, and worry when it gets ‘sick’.
But sometimes you will be unfaithful to your beloved van, because it is very hard to resist spending a night, or two, in a tent.


4. Thou shall forget how things work in the North Hemisphere and learn to live upside/down

It is no surprise to you that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere. But what we did not know is being in the Southern Hemisphere would mean doing everything in reverse.

This is true for:

  • The driving: on the left side of the road…what a challenge! Oh and to make it even more complicated, all the controls are opposite from continental cars: lights, signals, wipers, gearshift…)

  • The walking: always keep your left (and not your right) on a sidewalk, hiking track, bike lane…

  • The seasons: they are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. Dreaming of a summer Christmas?

  • The water: when going down a plughole, it spins in one direction in the Northern hemisphere and in the other direction in the Southern

  • The sun: houses must face north to get the sun

  • Doors locks: they close from right to left (opposite!)

  • Bike brakes: The right brake lever = front brakes; the left brake lever = back brakes. We got scared once or twice mountain biking, but we are fine!



5. Thou shalt not let the changeable weather cause you to be miserable.

“Four seasons in one day” – this is something you will hear quite a lot. Keep in mind that New Zealand is an island (or two) and that the weather changes rapidly, without notice.

It can be really hot (the sun literally burns your skin) and then freezing in the same day. So the golden rule to survive the NZ weather is to always carry extra layers around with you.

Keep calm and pack some thermal base layers (and a rain jacket, and a poncho, and a puff jacket, and some wind/waterproof gear), especially if you go tramping
Oh and you were wondering why NZ is so green? Well the answer is: rain, a lot, often (it is actually raining now, while I am writing this!).



6. Thou shalt meet the kiwi

Which one? The people of NZ, the fruit or the bird?


New Zealanders are referred to as Kiwis. Get ready…this is just the beginning of the local slang. They speak a kind of English, too fast, with a funny accent and use many words you have never heard before. So in order for you not to look like a drongo when communicating with locals, here are few words kiwis are often using:

  • jandals = flip flops

  • togs = swimsuit

  • bikki = biscuit

  • bro/mate = good friend

  • hot chips = french fries

  • gummies = gumboots (really important in NZ!)

  • bach = holiday home

  • tomato sauce = ketchup

  • and of course the famous ‘yeah nah’ = yes no maybe yes


Kiwi fruit now! The New Zealand industry is one of the world's largest producers of kiwifruit – which could explain why it’s the national symbol. So you are going to have heaps of it: green and golden.

And as for the bird.  We cannot tell you much about this small nocturnal native to NZ. We just haven’t seen any! We have heard a lot about it, but that’s all. It might even be a legend as far as we know… (do you feel the frustration here? )
Joking aside, you can see kiwis at the zoo, in sanctuaries and on Stewart Island.



7. Thou shalt live in harmony with the local fauna (and flora)

New Zealand nature is rich and varied. Of all living things in the country, humans only make up 5%  – the birds and other animals making up the other 95%.
Possums (alive, or dead on the road), seals, birds (thousands!), penguins, sheep, cows, dolphins, and even hobbits…there are so many creatures you will come across. You will find it spectacular and unusual to have so many animals around, when locals won’t see anything special about it.

And another cool thing is that most of the native birds have Maori names (Pukeko, Kereru, Kakapo, Kea, Takahe), so by learning their names you also get to learn few words in Maori. 



8. Thou shalt not let the sandflies ruin your trip (even if it is hard)

Talking of the omnipresence of animals, the sandflies are everywhere (almost). This little bug, half-mosquito half-fly will drive you crazy. And worse, it could ruin your trip!

Don’t even think of staying out with bare arms, legs or ankles…because they would eat them all. It's all about the blood for sandflies.

And with long sleeves and pants they will stop biting you but they will still be around, driving you nuts! And the worse time is at dusk; like vampires they go out hunting for some fresh blood. And while we are on the vampire subject, you should know that, apparently, sandflies do not like garlic. So if you eat a lot of it quite often, they would go and bite your neighbour.
In short, there are few solutions to survive sandflies (some being a bit radical):

  • Be patient

  • Eat a lot of garlic hoping it works (otherwise you will have bad breath for nothing)

  • Not get out of you van, ever

  • Cut off your arms and legs before traveling to NZ

  • Of course less dramatically, there is insect repellent!



9. Thou shalt get used to being less connected
Yep, decent internet and cell-phone coverage are extremely hard to come by especially in rural New Zealand. Do not expect super speed Wi-Fi every time you stop in a camping ground or café.
But isn’t it a good thing? Connecting with nature and other travelers rather than connecting with your phone?  
But for the internet addicts, do not panic, I repeat “do not panic”. Each and every town and city in NZ has a library where you can use the free Wi-Fi. Feel free to go in, sit down, and catch up on what you missed on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter…So, the library will be the place to go to, to call family and friends, and to stay dry on a rainy day (let’s face it, you are going to spend a lot of time at the library as it rains quite often in NZ)



10. Thou shalt eat well and cheaply

Are cans healthy? Because we had a lot: diced tomatoes, beans, soup… Oh and what about noodles?

Obviously staying healthy while backpacking/camping is challenging. You tend to go for the easiest and cheapest option which often is: cans. But a balanced diet being the key, you should try to have veggies and fruit as often as possible. Try the local markets or honesty boxes to enrich your diet.
But let’s face it, your trip won’t be gastronomic but more practical. No doubt, we missed the French cuisine and always do when traveling: a good ratatouille, or gratin, or charcuterie, yummy! And guess what we always take about when going for very long hike: food of course!



11. Thou shalt never go out without your travel app

Campermate, CampingNZ, Wikicamp will become your travel mates (using the local slang!). These apps will guide you throughout your entire trip. Looking where to camp, where to shop, where to put gas, where to find wifi, where to take a shower…? Your app will have the answer for you.
For few months this app, based mostly on other travellers’ tips, will be your ‘bible’.

So what are you waiting for, go on the Apple/Android store and download it (it is free)!



12. Thou shalt dream of a hot shower

A hot shower? “Easy” you would say, you just need to go in the bathroom and open the tap. Well… when you live on the road it gets a bit more complicated than this. First, you need to find the bathroom (this is when your camping app becomes useful); then you need to figure how much this is going to cost you (unlimited and free, or $1 for 6 minutes). Trust me, I first thought than 6 minutes won’t ever been enough, but it is plenty of time - even for us ladies!

The other option would be the solar shower. You need to fill it with water and then put it behind your windshield and let the sun do its magic. On a very nice day, you can hang the solar shower on a tree branch and enjoy the most refreshing showering experience in your life, being in union with nature.
And for the most dareveil ones, you can also have a swim in (cold) rivers.

So yes, the logistic aspect is a bit of a pain in the neck. However, on the positive side, this kind of experience make you realize how luxurious it is to have access to hot water to shower every day, and how precious water is.


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