Confessions of a first time motorhome driver

By: Sarah Henry, Photography by: Rebekah Robinson


Taking the wheel of a motorhome for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. Bauer editorial director Sarah Henry did exactly that recently, and discovered that sometimes you just have to feel the fear and drive it anyway.

The smiling lady with the English accent hands me a small set of keys and suddenly I think, ‘What the hell am I doing?....Now I like to think that when it comes to the pursuit of the quintessential Kiwi camping experience I’m pretty well-versed.

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A bright orange pop-top camper had a starring role in some of my earliest childhood camping memories (as did the obligatory family domestics during site set-up and the chorus of "don’t touch the sides" during a downpour), and a 1970s brown caravan with wood panelled interior provided the holidays during my early teens.

Over the years I’ve had adventures in tents, cabins, bivouacs, and other outdoorsy structures, and today I’m the proud owner of a static caravan – a little piece of paradise, located permanently on the banks of a river at a Top 10 Holiday Park, about one hour out of Auckland.

I’m fairly confident I know my awnings from my annexes and my black waters from my greys. But there is one area of camping that’s been shrouded in mystery for me – the world of the motorhome. I have always been filled with ‘what if’ questions when it comes to motorhomes – the biggest being, what if I can’t drive it?

I’d never had any concern about taking to the road in a small van version, but at the same time I’d always known there was no way my creature comfort-loving self would enjoy a tight-on-space experience. That meant I’d have to drum up the courage to take on one of the big guys if I was ever going to discover the joy that so many other people experience.

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The pair take their time perusing the paperwork...

But sometimes the camping universe decides what’s good for you and forces your hand, which is how I find myself on a sunny Sunday morning sitting in the office of Wilderness Motorhomes accepting the keys to a 4-berth, 7-metre, 2.3-litre turbo diesel Bürstner, and feeling slightly sick.


You see I work as the editorial director on some of New Zealand’s most-loved magazine brands. We often travel away for fashion or lifestyle shoots, and this time we needed a mobile base. It was a case of needs must, and the fear would have to wait.

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Outside in the parking lot there are groups of happy people loading up their own rental motorhomes, eager to get on with their holiday adventures. When it comes time for us to do the same, I can see their raised eyebrows and shared whispers as we begin filling our new mobile home with large suitcases and armfuls of handbags – I want to casually point out I do in fact have camping credentials and proclaim that the fashion items are for a shoot! 

The motorhome is a beautiful example of European engineering. It is sleek and simple yet luxurious and complex. There is clever space-saving design (the double bed that drops from the ceiling is a definite highlight).

There are also two twin single beds in the rear which can be reconfigured to make up another double bed, which means there’s plenty of space for the kids too. I’m actually surprised at how spacious this motorhome is.

At no time do I feel cramped or that I’m going to have to compromise – in fact I’m pretty sure the bathroom is better equipped than the one I had when I lived in a central city apartment; the kitchen certainly is.

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A Wilderness staff member takes Sarah through the basics

My travelling companions and I are given a thorough tour and orientation of the motorhome by the Wilderness staff and we’re shown everything from the electrical system to the stereo.

To say my mind is spinning is an understatement – it’s a lot to take in during a short period of time. Thankfully there are online videos available in case we need any reminders. Since the very first day I booked the motorhome, I’ve been receiving email updates from Wilderness and step-by-step YouTube clips.

These short and easy-to-follow online tutorials are excellent and cover everything you need to know and do when it comes to setting up the vehicle. There are also some helpful guides, especially for motorhome newbies, which cover the basics and leave you feeling supported by your rental company rather than dumped in it.

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Sarah, right, and art director Ingrid prepare to hit the road

Before too long we’ve got everything stowed away – either on board or in the generous lockable storage space at the back – and I can no longer put off the moment I’ve been dreading. It’s time to get in the driver’s seat and hit the road.

How hard can it be?! Clutching the steering wheel like I would a winning Lotto ticket, I slide the transmission into automatic drive mode and, just like, that we’re off. It really is no more complex than a car, but the size does take a bit of getting used to.

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And they’re off...  Sarah’s fears recede as she discovers how easy the Bürstner is to drive

My heart sinks when I realise that only one side of the Wilderness yard gates are open, requiring some intense concentration to make it through the gap. I can’t help but wonder if they do that on purpose, a quick but subtle initial test to see whether you’ve got the driving goods or not.

Luckily we pass and before long we’re cruising at a steady 80km/h on the motorway on our way to the beachside camping ground. After a time I’ve even relaxed my grip on the steering wheel, but I am conscious that I have to keep reminding myself that it is a motorhome I’m in charge of.

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Driving - tick, parking - tick. Sarah’s got this motorhome thing down

It is so very easy to drive that it is easy to forget. I have also conquered my number-one motorhome fear. But number-two is not very far away. Hot on the heels of the actual driving part has been my anxiety about parking the vehicle on site.

I have watched far too many tourists take out the side of a car or back into a fence as they attempted to negotiate their way onto their allotted patch. As I pull up to our destination I decide to just own my motorhome inadequacies by telling the receptionist that I’m new to all of this and would appreciate a site with easy access.

She gives me a wink and a few minutes later I’m backing into a beach-front park. The reversing camera goes a long way to helping me nail the manoeuvre, but I still have to keep jumping out and looking so that I can truly judge the distance – hey, it’s early days.

I don’t even mind that this staggered approach seems to be providing the night’s entertainment for some season caravanners who are looking on, beers in hand.
Within about 20 minutes, and with only a couple of video views to remind me, I’ve got power, water, a drink in hand and one of the best views in the land in my backyard – I could get used to this.

Later that evening a couple come strolling past the motorhome. "Do you mind if we take a look inside?" the man asks. "This is our dream."I can see why. It’s not a bad dream at all.

Top tips for first timers:

  1. Don’t be intimidated by size – It may seem daunting at first but you will get used to it. Obviously the bigger the motorhome, the more space you’ll have and this can have quite an impact of the enjoyment of your trip.
  2. When in doubt ask for help – Campers are some of the most helpful people around. If you find you can’t do something or are having problems, ask your neighbour. But be mindful of being too needy.
  3. Check what is provided – Nothing worse than pulling up to a perfect spot only to find your motorhome doesn’t come with outdoor seats and the like. Think about what you’re going to need and check it’s included.
  4. Keep to traditional camping grounds – while you’re still in the newbie motorhome stage, give freedom camping a miss. Nothing can put a dampener on a holiday more than being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no power or water.
  5. Choose a rental company that provides support. Whether it be readily available information, breakdown assistance or comprehensive insurance, choosing to rent from a reputable company goes a long way to maintaining your peace of mind.

To book your own Wilderness rental, visit wilderness.co.nz

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