Peter Donaldson ventures into the northern unknown.

The plan was simple: head north until we run out of road.

Looking for a cheap autumn break, we'd booked a two-berth Mighty Deuce campervan, with cooker, fridge and integral shower and toilet. Nine days, including full insurance for just over $1000 seemed a pretty good deal. And then things got better.

On arrival at the Mighty HQ - a free shuttle ride from Auckland Airport - we were informed we'd been upgraded to a premium United van; all the same kit, just newer.

After a full briefing on the do's and don'ts and some helpful advice, we stowed our bags and headed towards the great unknown, Northland.


The long straights and gentle curves of the Auckland motorway network provided a near-relaxing introduction into the power and handling characteristics of the campervan.

And, yes, they are easily capable of cruising at 100km/h, have large mirrors, come with indicators, and have a steering wheel capable of turning the vehicle left to allow faster drivers to overtake.

A lazy lunch outdoors at the delightful pub at Puhoi eased us into the holiday mood. A big shop for provisions at Warkworth ensured we were holiday-ready as we headed deeper into a part of New Zealand where neither of us had ventured.

In keeping with the low-budget holiday theme, our first overnight stop was the unpowered Department of Conservation camping site right on expansive and near-deserted Uretiti Beach, just north of Waipu. It's old-style camping; set up wherever you like, cold-ish showers, but clean toilets, all for $10 each.

Following our "another day, another east coast bay" mantra, our next DoC site was the remote and stunning Otamure Bay, northwest of Whangarei; $12 each. And for that the friendly warden gave us the prime site, No 56, slightly elevated and overlooking the small sweep of a vacant bay.

Nothing quite beats sliding open a van door in the morning to a warm rising sun and the sight and sound of crashing surf on an empty beach.

We'd been advised about recharging the batteries and we needed a water refill, so on the third day we headed to a fully powered site. We were lucky enough to pick the friendly Beachside Holiday Park on the outskirts of Paihia. Neat, tidy and clean and great value at $18 each.

Again, another peaceful vista and a chance in the early evening to watch gannets circle and lunge into the bay. It also rained. Heavily. We felt sorry for the two young backpackers hurriedly trying to get their tent up.

We'd been told Karikari Peninsula, further up the east coast, was a must-do, so on yet another warm day we eased into the DoC site overlooking Matai Bay ($10 each). With no warden on site and no phone coverage, we were unsure where to park. However, with several other vans already parked, we claimed a spot by a shelter belt of trees and slept soundly that night.

We were well and truly in holiday mode.

The next day, and after what seemed a long drive through scruffy bush-clad hills - nothing like the sub-tropical palms and forest we'd somehow imagined - we ran out of road. So we walked to Cape Reinga lighthouse, looked out over the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea, and turned south.

Well, more southeast, on to a steep gravel road to Tapotupotu Bay, New Zealand's northernmost camping ground and quite possibly the cheapest at $6 each. Though remote, for part of the day the beach is a magnet for tour operators who stop there for lunch and swims.

The next morning, with a homeward flight looming, we looked at the map and headed south to Tauranga Bay, north of Kerikeri.

The sight of an elderly Volkswagen Kombi camper (been there, done that, many years ago) in front of us, slowly chugging through the final twisting kilometres to the bay was an omen. For those of a certain age, there's nothing like the sight of a VW Kombi to stir memories and evoke dreams.

Tauranga Bay is hardly undiscovered, as a scattering of holiday homes and the well-developed camping site attest. But it's certainly special.

With a powered site ($18 each) just metres from the beach, clean facilities, some friendly not-so-near neighbours and continued glorious weather, our planned overnight stop was extended. It really was the perfect setting to tease out the final days with the camper van and gently prepare for our return to reality.

Details: Nine days' campervan hire, including insurance: $1017
Diesel: $189
Camp site fees: $184
Food and drink: $600
Total: $1990.