Leopards Go Wild

Life on the road: Leopards Go Wild

Meet the Leopards: Dad Mike, Mum Sophie, and their youngsters Jade (12), Riley (10), and Toby (8). The family of five have reshaped their lifestyle, living and travelling full-time in their 23×7 foot caravan for the past 18 months, with more travel planned for 2024.

Naturally, this choice of full-time adventuring has delivered plenty of learning curves along the way, but with their planned original one-year adventure well and truly surpassed, they’ve jointly decided to spend another year on the road.

The Leopards’ lair (home away from home) is a well-equipped and organised 2021 Nextgen Caravan, which serves them well. As you can imagine, living, working, and studying in a compact space requires compromise, good sharing habits, and systems.

“We’ve always been campers and we did a holiday about three years ago in a motorhome around the South Island, which we loved. After that trip, we started looking around for something so we could repeat that experience,” says Mike.

“However, once we started looking, we decided that if we were going to invest in a caravan like this, it needed to be an epic trip, so we forged together a three-year plan to allow us to do a one-year trip around New Zealand with the kids.

“We wanted to do it with them while they were at a fun age and before they go too cool and didn’t want to spend time with us anymore,” laughs Mike.

“Being able to spend so much time together is the ultimate,” says Sophie. “It’s been cool to see their confidence grow in their outdoors and share all of these adventures, creating hopefully lifelong memories.”

Leopards Go Wild
Home for the past 18 months for the family of five

While the caravan isn’t one of the supersized versions we’re used to seeing on American television shows, the Leopards have got the dynamics of travelling together down to a fine art. Despite housing a family of five, there’s minimal clutter or anything unnecessary, and the appliances that make a real difference to travelling in comfort are the equivalent of a ‘normal house-sized’ appliance: oven, a 190-litre fridge (which fully stocked can feed the Leopards for two weeks), and a full-sized shower, which is backed up by excellent pressure with a 200-litre freshwater and a 28-litre hot water cylinder.

One of the best decisions Mike and Sophie reckon they made was a last-minute change to the original layout. Decided just days before the Australian-made caravan build started, it proved a wise call to alter sleeping arrangements to include permanent bunk beds, meaning no beds need to be dismantled daily and everyone has a permanent place to lay their head.

Each of the three children’s beds also comes complete with a charger and light. Schoolwork is done remotely, and the trio have a laptop each to allow them to work independently.
At 6’3 tall, Mike and Sophie have optimised their bedroom space with a queen-sized bed (with storage and the ‘brains’ of the operation – a full 12v system and an anti-theft caravan system underneath). Framed by large, double-glazed windows, the room can be closed off with double sliding doors.

A large awning allows for a versatile outdoor entertaining space and the full-width tunnel boot is packed mainly with sports gear, boogie boards, wetsuits, camping chairs, and an outdoor table.

At the front of the caravan, a large toolbox houses a spare toilet cassette, greywater hose, and levelling blocks, and Mike has crafted a special holder for his fishing rods.

Sophie is a registered social worker and works remotely three days a week to help cover the costs of groceries and fuel. A plaster by trade, Mike occasionally picks up some plastering and painting work over the way, usually by connecting with local Facebook community groups. The family also share their adventures on their popular YouTube channel Leopardsgowild, as well as Vlogging and posting on Instagram and Facebook.

Making videos and recording their journey has resulted in a stunning collection of travel videos, showcasing the beauty and splendour of New Zealand.

“New Zealand is a paradise, with such diversity in our landscape, mountains, and oceans,” says Mike. “We love the fact you can just drive 45 minutes and the outlook can look completely different, from rainforests to barren basins and subtropical climate to harsh winters. It’s such a great place to explore and spend all four seasons, just soaking it all up that we want to keep doing it for another year.”

Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations editor Lisa Potter finds out more.

Practical advice: towing tips
Leopards Go Wild
Hollyford Valley, Fiordland National Park

Q. What prompted the decision to rent your home and travel?

A. We were one of the families who benefitted from COVID lockdowns. We enjoyed the slower pace of life, not having to rush out the door for school and work. After our two-week motorhome trip down South in July after lockdown, we started to wonder if this was something we could do for a year or so and started planning and looking to replace our small 15ft 1976 Liteweight caravan we had at the time.

Q. How long from when you made the decision until you set off?

A. It was two-and-a-half years of planning our finances, savings, getting our house rentable, umming and ahing about whether we were doing the right thing. Getting rid of almost all our possessions was also a massive task.

Q. What were your key concerns?

A. Mainly wondering if this was the best thing for our kids. They all enjoyed school so we would be removing our family from a happy life for a life we didn’t yet understand or know. However, we decided that we will never get the time back with our kids, and these memories would be treasured for the rest of our lives. One question that we asked ourselves that helped was, “will we look back on this in 10 years and regret this trip?” We asked our kids to trust us and explained that change was hard, but it was going to be worth it.

Q. Did you have a long-term plan and how has it evolved?

A. Our plan was to travel to the end of summer 2024 (if we could make it that long). Now that we have passed that date, it turns out that we all love this lifestyle and would like to extend that longer. We would also like our kids to attend a high school so they can participate in some of the extra-curricular activities and foster friendships, so that will see an end to our travels by the end of 2024.

Q. How did you whittle down what to pack and what to leave?

A. Ruthlessly. Even family photos were dumped as we decided we would have so many lovely photos to frame after our travels. We kept a couple of plastic storage containers full of sentimental items, wedding gifts, photo albums, etc.

Leopards Go Wild
The school classroom has never looked so good

Q. What’s your advice for other families looking at extended time travelling by RV?

A. Set a date, make a plan, and then go. Ask questions to others doing something similar, bring your kids into the preparation journey/conversation when you’re talking about stuff, and ask them what they think even about simple things.

Q. What were the best investments in terms of making everyday travelling easier?

A. A generator for charging caravan batteries, paper, pens, felts, pencils, and gumboots. Of course, choosing a caravan that’s robust and up for heavy-duty travel, as we often go off-road and off-grid. Also, a good can opener and quick-dry towels.

Q. What are your top five favourite spots to date?

A. That’s a hard question. In no particular order:

  • Kaiaua Bay on the East Coast of the North Island for its beautiful beachfront camping, looking down on the water. It’s peaceful and quiet with few other travellers.
  • Clyde Dam on Lake Dunstan. A great waterfront free campsite. It’s right on the Lake Dunstan bike track with many other options for bike riding. Also, an awesome spot for autumn colours, with beautiful blue skies and golden hills.
  • Cascade Creek in Eglinton Valley near Milford. A beautiful spot in the mountains with incredible views, crystal clear river, and close to a lot of amazing views.
  • Ashburton Lakes Lake Camp. We’ve been here twice now because it’s so good. It’s super remote, with beautiful reflective lakes.
  • Papatowai in the Catlins. We spent two weeks travelling through the Catlins. We loved the tidal estuary, the fishing at the beach, and diving for pāua. It’s a beautiful flat campground with lots of birds singing.

This question gave us lots to talk about, and we realised that there are so many places we’d love to go back to.

Q. What destinations are on your radar for winter and why?

A. We have been chasing winter experiences. We loved spending time in Twizel with the Hoar Frosts, which were incredible. We’ve been out at Aoraki Mt Cook for four nights, which was incredibly frozen. The kids loved playing on the frozen lakes and making frost snowballs. We’ve enjoyed breaking ice puddles at Ashburton Lakes. We’re still awaiting a snowstorm to camp in; we seem to keep missing them.

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen

Q. What were some of your 2023 travel highlights?

A. Some of our best experiences have been with the ocean: seeing sea lions, seals, and penguins in the lower part of the South Island. We swam with dolphins at Curio Bay. I’ve enjoyed diving for pāua in the ocean – something I was a bit scared of. Soph paddle boarded with her Dad and Jade on Milford Sound, the Alps 2 Ocean Bike trail for Soph, I ran the Kepler Track (a great walk) in one day, climbing Roys Peak with Jade, the many winter wonderlands we’ve enjoyed – we’ve had so many great experiences.

Leopards Go Wild
Hoar frost at Lake Ruataniwha

Q. What are some of your tips for surviving winter in a caravan?

A. Good heating. Turn your water off overnight and open your taps if it’s going to be below freezing, so you hopefully won’t bust a water pipe. The generator has been lifesaving, as sometimes our batteries weren’t able to fully charge due to the low sun and cold weather.

Q. What are some of the unexpected things this journey together has delivered?

A. We thought we would have more frustrating moments, but it’s been fun and low-stress. We thought we’d be up watching the sunrise in the morning, but we’ve got a good sleep-in routine going.

Q. How do you keep powered on the road?

A. We have 510 watts of solar on the roof and two 100amp AGM batteries. This is definitely not enough for the South Island winter. We’ve also purchased a cheap generator on Trade Me, which we connect our caravan battery charger to. We also have an ECOFLOW portable power bank, which we can use for 240-volt power in the caravan and to charge the house batteries.

Q. What are some of your tips around power saving/power storage?

A. We sometimes turn our power off overnight. Our diesel heater can still run, as it’s connected directly to the battery. Our advice if looking to buy a caravan or install solar is to put as much in as you can if you’re planning to camp over winter or live in the caravan.

Q. What’s your advice for those considering travelling full-time?

A. Go big on your solar and battery systems, as it can save a lot in terms of power management to do it right from the outset. Also, invest in a generator for winter when it gets dark early.

Q. What are your go-to quick meals?

A. Pad Thai, curries, wraps with fish fingers and coleslaw, toasted sandwiches, pancakes, and noodles are all firm favourites. We love snacks; we have loads of snacks at all times: chips and dip, rice crackers, fruit, biscuits, etc.

Leopards Go Wild
Aurora captured at Kaka Point Beach, Catlins

Q. How do you manage the school aspect of things?

A. We have a great teacher with Te Kura who assigns their schoolwork, and they have one or two Zoom class meetings a week, which they enjoy. Our kids are quite motivated when it comes to doing their schoolwork. It’s been great watching Toby learn to read while we have been travelling.

Q. What are some of the small things that give you joy as parents?

A. Watching our kids make up games that last for days; seeing them using their imagination and role-playing characters; and when they point out things in nature to us. Toby is often keen to tell us about something he has noticed while we drive. Having this time with them is priceless.

Q. Your videos are stunning. Has this always been a passion?

A. I’ve always enjoyed making videos.

I found a couple of old ones recently from when Soph and I travelled 14 years ago. I also used to make videos of our youth outings with young people. After watching some similar videos online from other channels, I thought I’d have a crack at YouTube. It’s definitely been a slow-growing hobby in terms of subscribers, but I do enjoy the whole process, from video editing to finding the right music.

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