The Wheely Good Life: Why Kiwis Go Mobile

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Camping, caravanning, and motorhoming have long been a tradition in New Zealand. Many of us have spent summers pitching tents near the beach or bumping over gravel roads in the family caravan.

Now, with overseas travel still looking doubtful - and house prices continuing to climb - the concept of a ‘home on wheels’ is no longer limited to holidays. COVID restrictions may have spurred us to get out into our own backyards, but others have been living the mobile life for much longer. New Zealand’s community of ‘nomads’ - those who live full-time in motorhomes, buses, and caravans - are a quirky bunch. A veritable mix of ages, stages, and personalities, they each have their reasons for upping sticks and hitting the road.

Jean and Wally Mills picked up their brand-new motorhome in June 2021, just after Wally turned 65. Rather than wait another six years for Jean to hit retirement age, they

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Camping, caravanning, and motorhoming have long been a tradition in New Zealand. Many of us have spent summers pitching tents near the beach or bumping over gravel roads in the family caravan.

Now, with overseas travel still looking doubtful – and house prices continuing to climb – the concept of a ‘home on wheels’ is no longer limited to holidays. COVID restrictions may have spurred us to get out into our own backyards, but others have been living the mobile life for much longer. New Zealand’s community of ‘nomads’ – those who live full-time in motorhomes, buses, and caravans – are a quirky bunch. A veritable mix of ages, stages, and personalities, they each have their reasons for upping sticks and hitting the road.

Jean and Wally Mills picked up their brand-new motorhome in June 2021, just after Wally turned 65. Rather than wait another six years for Jean to hit retirement age, they decided to start early. They now live full-time in their 8.3 m ACM Platinum, returning to their small Inglewood flat when they need to catch up on maintenance, medical appointments, and family birthdays.

Jean had already spent 2014 travelling in a fifth-wheeler in the US with her sister, so she had some experience of life on the road.

After deciding a fifth-wheeler would be too big for New Zealand roads, Jean and Wally began checking out caravans and various tow vehicles. At some point – neither can recall exactly when or why – the motorhome won out. “We had spent some time checking out motorhomes, visiting a few factories along the way. We figured no matter what we opted for, each one would come with its own positives and negatives,” Jean says. “Over dinner and wine, we made a list of all the things we wanted in a motorhome. In the end, we were both surprised how one stood out over the other, so that’s what we went with. It was the one I wanted so I was pleasantly surprised.”

They’ve already toured the central North Island and Taranaki and now plan to travel through the East Cape, back to Napier for Christmas, then the Wairarapa for the rest of summer.

They’re still on a learning curve, Jean says, but they love it. Cooking is a breeze: they have a full gas oven with four hobs as well as a full motorhome size fridge/freezer. “So far, there haven’t been any issues, although we need a window open at all times when the gas oven/hobs are operating, which can be a little cold at times! But we can just turn up the heating to compensate.”

It took some time to get used to their new sleeping quarters, especially during the colder seasons. “We underestimated how cool it would be at night, so we keep the heating on. We had stabilisers installed at the time of build which has made an amazing difference, especially on uneven ground.”

They are also mindful of parking etiquette. Where possible, they will park a few blocks away from their destination and walk. “We recognise we are the ones with the cumbersome vehicle rather than the norm, so it is up to us to sort it out in an amicable manner,” Jean says.

Vivienne and Mark have a similar story. Both 61, they had already travelled extensively when they met in England at Ceroc dancing. Vivienne is Kiwi and Mark is English but grew up in South Africa. The pair came to New Zealand in 2002 and have been travelling in their four-berth Mercedes Alpha 4 ex-rental for five years. Mark’s parents have always been motorhomers, so it felt like a natural transition. “We love getting off the beaten track and exploring our awesome country – hence all the cracks and dents on the bodywork!” Vivienne says. “We also love meeting new friends.”

Vivienne and Mark with motorhome

The pair regularly seek out steampunk and Christian festivals around the country, as well as visiting friends and family. They’ve now covered most of New Zealand, from Bluff to Cape Reinga, the East Cape, Taranaki, and almost everywhere in between. There have been plenty of favourites along the way. “Exploring the East Cape and Far North was amazing – they’re almost like different countries. Coromandel or Nelson beaches are the best for chilling out on the water,” Vivienne says. They now have plans to travel around the UK, central Europe, Australia, and Canada.

Living in a smaller space keeps expenses down, says Vivienne – “we can’t fit a lot of stuff” – but there are some disadvantages: “When it’s wet, we start getting ratty with each other. Also, packing and unpacking is a challenge, and things we need are often at the other end of the country.”

Freedom camping is their habit, but they will stay at NZCMA camps to meet with friends.

“We love being spontaneous and not planning too much ahead. We set off in a general direction and see what or who we find along the way. We always seem to find somewhere new to stop and explore, every journey,” says Vivienne.

While retirement appears to be one of the main incentives for the ‘typical’ motorhomers, there are many other reasons that Kiwis have chosen to switch their bricks-and-mortar for something more nomadic.

Sandra is 63 and has been travelling full-time for 13 years. “When I turned 50, I shouted myself a dog, a divorce, and an empty shell school bus,” she says. “I loaded my bed and a dresser, sorted a sink unit cooker and a fridge, and joined the Gypsy Fair circuit.”

Gypsy fairs have also been a childhood dream for Sandra. She longed to have a stall and travel with others all over New Zealand. “I love the freedom to travel. I enjoy driving and I have my license. I can see well out my windscreen as the seat is higher than a normal car. I enjoy our beautiful ‘backyard’ and love parking at rivers or lakes, on the grass among the trees,” she enthuses.

Sandra upgraded from a bus to a truck about five years ago. She says that high rent prices will keep her on the road – and besides, she doesn’t want to put down roots.

Sandra’s truck

There are challenges, of course – like finding user-friendly water and dump stations. Parking is also an issue, especially with driving a large vehicle in an unfamiliar town or city. It can be hard to know where you are allowed to be and where you’re not. Her truck’s solar panels make it easy to freedom camp in the summer, but most areas only allow stays of one to two nights. “It gets to be hard work moving all the time and finding places that are not already full,” she admits. “Sometimes I want to park for four days or so but can only do that at an NZCMA park or at motor camps.”

Despite having roamed the length and breadth of New Zealand, Sandra still has moments that take her breath away. “You’ll turn a corner and the lakes or valleys or mountains are before you. My dog thinks I am nuts when I shout ‘whoohoo!’ in my seat while driving, but for me, that’s what it’s all about. It amazes me how different we all can be, and how towns feel different also. It gets into your soul after a while; you need to travel to feed the soul.”

But travel isn’t the only motivator. For some, it’s enough just to be on wheels.

When Jane’s partner died suddenly of a heart attack in 2018, she had what she calls “a bit of a midlife crisis”. Determined not to die on the job, she decided to quit the rat race and enjoy life. Within weeks, she’d handed in her notice at work, sold her house and farm, and bought two acres in Hawkes Bay. She began researching every last detail about motorhome life – right down to the amount of water she’d need each day. “This was a big decision – I hadn’t actually been inside a motorhome before. I wasn’t even a camper!” she tells me.

Now 52, Jane has been living in her ex-Intercity coach for three and a half years. The original plan was to travel/live on the road full time, returning to her two acres in Hawkes Bay any time she needed to. However, family commitments (and two god-children to care for) have so far kept her stationary. And that suits Jane just fine.

The 12.5 m bus is no ordinary camper. It features a queen bed in the main bedroom, a three-bed bunk room for the kids, and “more storage than you can imagine”. There’s a washing machine, and a kitchen that Jane says is bigger than most apartments. The entire bus is fully insulated and can run on solar power for off-grid living. Water is supplied and stored by three 1000L water tanks (fresh, grey, and black). “I didn’t want a minimalist life, so I don’t spare the pennies,” Jane says. “I drink champagne – the bus has a huge fridge freezer – and I cook what I want. I live just like I would if I was in a house, only it’s smaller.”

Having become something of an expert on motorhoming, Jane runs the Motorhome Friends New Zealand page on Facebook – now 16.4 k strong – and is always happy to help out anyone looking to join the motorhoming life. Her main advice is to do your homework and take your time. “Choosing a motorhome is worse than having a baby,” she laughs. “Everyone has a view, and they love to share it. But their view is based on their experiences, which may have absolutely no bearing on you and yours.”

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