Our Failed Free Campervan Relocation Adventure

Allow me to make something clear from the start. The hiccups arising from our free campervan relocation deal in February, booked through transfercar.co.nz, and to be undertaken for Travellers Autobarn NZ, had nothing to do with either company. One was my out-of-character lack of forward planning. The other was completely out of our control.

Booking Our Free Campervan Relocation

I’d considered looking for a free campervan relocation deal from Christchurch to Auckland, as I suspected that was the most frequent possibility. When I researched last year, it looked like these deals only came up a short time in advance, and generally, you had about three days to do the relocation. So when I spotted one from Auckland to Christchurch, over seven days, I reckoned that was a great chance for us. We wanted to spend a couple of weeks with Jamie while here and the dates were in February after our booked house-sits. It seemed perfect as we could then fly to Australia from there.

The seven days were within a ten-day window, and we could’ve chosen the whole of that time. Except it would’ve cost $249 a day for the extra three days! That wasn’t an attractive proposition. We thought we’d travel down the north island, catch up with a few friends, and then see a bit more of the northeast of the South Island. All we had to pay for was the Cook Strait Ferry and fuel. Of course any paid accommodation too. I booked the cassette toilet ($50 extra) so we were ‘self-contained’ and able to avail ourselves of the free campgrounds along the route. I also booked a USB port so we could charge our phones ($5). To have us both as drivers, cost another $1 a day ($7).

What I failed to then do was book our ferry as we couldn’t decide whether to sail on the 22nd or 23rd of February. Life took over and time passed so quickly that when I eventually made time, it was almost all booked up. We were horrified! Thankfully Travellers Autobarn were happy to move our seven days date forward, and I booked with Bluebridge for 2 am on Sunday 26th February, at a cost of $365. We would get the van to Christchurch by 3 pm on the 27th. That meant we’d mostly travel down the North Island – not what we’d planned but that was my error.

I had then to change our flights from Gisborne to Auckland, which cost $255! We’d initially booked on the 18th of February. After Cyclone Gabrielle, I reflected that maybe it was better to be leaving a little later anyway. Plus I got to care for our friend Gabe during her labour which was such a special time.

Gisborne To Tauranga

We took the 9.25 am flight from Gisborne, one week after the devastation, and gazed at the massive slips and water-logged land below. In a weird way, we were thankful to be leaving to get water and reliable internet.

Once in Auckland, we hopped in a taxi for the short ride to Travellers Autobahn. Another expense of $27.50.The ‘free’ relocation was already proving costly.

The campervan was a Chubby Camper Toyota Hiace, with two berths, and a lot more ‘compact’ than our VW one we purchased from Wenderkriesen and toured around in during 2020/21. However, it did mean it was much easier for me to drive. We set off into the crazy Auckland traffic once everything had been put in the van and checked. which took a couple of hours as there were a number of travellers coming and going.

Tauranga To Tangimoana

Initially heading to Tauranga, I was staying with my friend Kelly and Barry was staying with his friend Lee. The plan had been to drop Barry off at the Club where Lee worked, but due to the delays, Lee had already left. Barry said to still drop him off – and he got the Club bus to Lee’s which took rather a roundabout route! So sadly (though possibly fortunately too!), their drinking time together was curtailed a little.

It was the first time I’d managed to get time to stay at Kelly’s gorgeous home (the orange one in the centre of the photo below) and meet her husband Nick. We had a wonderful long walk with their two dogs, a delicious dinner, and then a relaxing soak in the hot tub on the back deck.

Barry was dropped off at Kelly’s the following morning, and we headed south towards our next overnight stay with Pete in Putaruru. Barry and Pete started primary school together in 1960 and he has the lease on the Putaruru Arms Motor Inn. Pete generously gave us a double room for the night. We also went for a drive in his Jaguar for a drink at a nearby Golf Club/pub, then to a splendid Italian restaurant called Osteria in Matamata for dinner. Then it was on the road again Thursday 23rd February towards Taupo.

We stopped at the nearby Gull station to fill up with purportedly the cheapest fuel station in New Zealand. Then took a slight detour to the McLaren Falls. We’d both seen signs for this place at various times over the years, driving past, but never had time to visit. It was good to find somewhere new on the North Island! There was a cool cafe along the road, attached to the campsite, where we stopped for coffee and lunch. The fabulous folk there were happy for me to sit and use their wifi to do a spot of online work.

Then we drove to Taupo in the centre of the North Island, to stay overnight with Vanessa and Wayne at their amazing home – which is more like a small farm as they have cows, sheep, horses and dogs. I met Vanessa initially when I worked at the Maternity Unit in Gisborne, when I first arrived in New Zealand in October 2001. It was a miserable day so our brief stop in Taupo wasn’t too scenic!

We drove down the Desert Road towards our next destination, almost to Wellington. This road is 3,536 feet above sea level, and very remote. The aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle was eerily apparent – trees had been snapped off like matchsticks by the forceful winds. The road from Taupo to Napier was closed due to slips and damage.

The drive is rather remote. Due to the unproductive nature of the land, the region is largely uninhabited. Be careful as the weather can change very quickly. The scenery is stunning. The area is frequently lashed by wind. This road gains its name from being completely remote. Rangipo Desert (Te Onetapu) is a barren desert-like environment. Its inhospitable weather makes it an interesting route to drive along.


I used the ‘kitchenette’ part of the campervan for the first time in Taupo and on the Desert Road. It was an interesting experience! You have to be VERY tidy and organised …

The final photo above was the campground we stayed at in Tangimoana (Tangimoana Motor Camp), our final stop on Friday 24th February. We chose a hook-up site and had access to their great kitchen and amenities block for $30. At that stage, we were a mere 139km from Wellington. I received an email at 2.25 pm that afternoon saying:

“Kia Ora Sandra

Your 2:00 am sailing on Sunday, 26 February 2023, from Wellington to Picton, is cancelled.

Due to urgent operational requirements your sailing has been cancelled. Unfortunately, we have very limited rebooking options over the next few weeks, so a full refund is the only option, unless you can travel at a later date.”

Bluebridge email 24th February 2023

Incredible! Basically, they said we’ve cancelled it, and there’s no chance of you getting another one for ages so get your money back and hard luck if you can’t get to where you’re meant to be going. I called Travellers Autobarn in Auckland to ask what we should do, in the vain hope we could leave the van in Wellington and try and get a ferry as foot passengers. But the only option given was to bring the campervan BACK to Auckland. We’d failed, through no fault of our own, to relocate their campervan to Christchurch.

There have been many cancellations of Cook Strait Ferries since we’ve been back in New Zealand. I’m not au fait with all the ins and outs of the whys and wherefores, but part of it appears to be that they are old. Imagine you’re on holiday in the North Island, in your campervan, and have to return to the South Island for work or your kids’ school. What on earth are you supposed to do then?

A New Zealand Herald article on 4th April reported:

“Police were called out to Picton’s ferry terminal yesterday amid ongoing cancellations and rising tempers among passengers – some of whom are facing weeks camped in their vehicles.

A police spokesperson confirmed to the NZ Herald they were called to the Bluebridge terminal at around 12.30pm due to a large number of irate passengers who had their sailings cancelled.”


Completely crazy …

And Back Up To Auckland!

It’s a fair distance from Auckland to Wellington – 508 km by the most direct route. But we had no choice other than to plan a return route. Thankfully we found a flight from Auckland to Christchurch at a cost of $553.60. The ‘free’ campervan relocation continued to be far more costly than if we’d just flown from Gisborne to Christchurch in the first place!

We worked to reframe our frustrations and felt fortunate to be travelling at all, to have not been badly affected personally by the cyclone, and to have the wherewithal to be able to change our plans and funds to pay for a flight. Our planned trip to Australia on 10th March departed from Christchurch, and we had tickets booked for the Trans-Alpine train on 6th March, plus we wanted to spend time with Jamie.

We’d driven mostly down the centre of the North Island and chose to go back up via the west coast. We discovered a number of gems along the way to make up for the inconvenience, and made the most of the ‘opportunity’.

One of these gems was found in a town called Bulls. Patrick’s Books opened in late January 2023 and is a delightful place. Barry and I were mesmerised for an hour or so. By both the books and Patrick’s conviviality and enthusiasm over his wares. We walked out having purchased four we hadn’t known we wanted!

The next stop was Opunake, where we stayed overnight at a quaint but tiny (six campervans maximum) space near a lake. It was almost mandatory to do the nearby 1.4km Opunake Lake Trail. Barry declined as his arthritic hip was hurting. Fabulous flora and fauna, a swinging seat to rest on, a board with the heartbreaking story of Mary Dobie (see below), a gifted artist from England, and a cool mosaic seat to rest awhile on.

Marilyn from NB Wakahuia, recommended the local ‘Sugar Juice Cafe’ which we visited to buy lunch for the next day’s journey. It looked like a popular place with a wide range of delicious food – sadly we didn’t have time to linger there long.

We thought we’d try (again!) to see the Mount Egmont of the guidebooks that I’d gazed in awe at in 1996 when I applied for a midwifery position there. But still had no luck so there was little point in attempting any photos. We did stop at The Three Sisters, and hoped to walk around the bay to see them but missed the low tide. A handful of folks ignored the warning signs and waded out to them – I decided it wasn’t worth testing my fear of drowning! Somewhere else I hope to see one day!

Our final night, Sunday 26th February, was spent at another paid campground in Pirongia for $34. It cost $8 for one of us to have a shower – I decided I didn’t need a wash that much but Barry thought he did 😉 I posted on Facebook where we were, and our friend Kerry said the Persimon Cafe attached to the campground was run by her cousin! What a small world/country NZ is! Of course, we had to visit the following morning to meet her and had breakfast there.

It was interesting to drive through Pirongia as Barry’s mum June had lived there as a child. Her younger brother Jack Wilson had remained there all his life and was quite a well-known and loved local figure.

I’d hoped we could make a bit of a detour and drive to Raglan as I’d not been there since a road trip with Kim in 2007. But that wasn’t to be, as the road to Raglan was closed due to weather damage. There had been even more adverse weather since we left Gisborne, and the Desert Road was also now closed along with many more. This image I took a screenshot of shows the extent of the disruption:

It was a good job we travelled on the west of the island back up to Auckland. On Monday 27th, the campervan was due back at base. The last portion of the route was mainly on the Hamilton Expressway and Auckland Southern Motorway so didn’t take long. We filled up with fuel (again!) and handed the van back. We’d spent $188.43 on fuel during the journey up and down the North Island! It took a while to hand over as the depot was busy with holidaymakers coming and going, but they generously offered us a lift back to the airport. We’re hoping Travellers Autobarn will get their van back to Christchurch one day – but the ferry debacle continues so I guess they may have a lengthy wait.

Finally To Christchurch

At Auckland domestic terminal, we luxuriated in the free massage chairs on offer. We both needed a spot of relaxation after so much driving. Thankfully the flight to Christchurch was uneventful – where they had been experiencing a drought for most of the summer!

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch …

So they say. And our experience confirmed that! It sounded amazing, one week free to travel from Auckland to Christchurch. Just fuel and ferry to pay for if we stayed with friends and found free campgrounds. In reality the total cost of our ‘free’ campervan relocation ‘deal’ = was $1,120.53. We received a refund of our ferry booking weeks later after TWO applications for it, and two email follow-ups.

It was of course in reality worth every cent. We caught up with friends, made some new ones, and visited places we’d not previously experienced. As they say, life is a journey, not a destination.

In the next post, we’ll share our adventures in Christchurch from 27th February to 10th March.

6 thoughts on “Our Failed Free Campervan Relocation Adventure

  1. Pingback: Trans-Alpine Kea Encounters ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  2. Pingback: A Christchurch Catch-Up With Unique Street Art ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  3. Hi guys. What a nightmare. Well at least your making memories and some good stories to tell us all.
    Unfortunately New Zealand should have invested in the large catamarans ferry’s like the ones that go between Holyhead and Dublin. They sail at speeds of 45 knots and can sail at force 10 Gail’s.
    I traveled on one some 30 years ago!
    One of my mates is a truck driver and travels a lot between Auckland and Christchurch and back every week.
    He has no end of delays with the cook strait ferries. He is always late back home and can miss most weekends at home.
    Oh well. Cuppa tea and carry on!!
    All the best

    • Hi Duncan. It’s awful that people are reliant on worn our ferries and you’ve got to wait a few years for replacements. It doesn’t make sense to me 🤔

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