New Zealand is the perfect country for road-trips. We spent a month there and explored the North Island with a car and the South Island in a van. Here is the second part of our trip: two weeks of sweet van life around the South Island.
Campervan rental and departure from Christchurch
First of all, we found the landscapes of the South Island more impressive and wilder than the North Island. We regretted not spending more time to explore the South rather than in the North. We think it would take at least a month to make the most out of the South Island and at least 6 weeks to properly visit both islands.
With only two weeks, we had to make choices. For the sake of saving money (to avoid relocation fees on the van) we decided to go on a loop from Christchurch. Therefore, we went directly to the West Coast and did not have time to visit what is north of Christchurch. In particular, we were sad to miss on Abel Tasman Park and the city of Nelson. To avoid this issue, we strongly recommend to book your campervan several months in advance.
We rented a tiny motorhome with Road Runner Rentals. The van included two benches and a table convertible into a bed, a sink, two hotplates and a refrigerator. We loved the cosy side of our little van which was easy to drive and park.
226 km / 3 h on the road
After picking up our van from the very nice Road Runner Rentals team, we embarked on a first difficult ride.
We drove from Christchurch to Greymouth via the beautiful Arthur’s Pass National Park. It is a stunning road. We stopped for a short walk at Castle Hill. We also stopped at the Otira Viaduct, more exactly at the Death Corner Lookout. There, we were able to observe some beautiful New Zealand parrots, the keas.
For our first night we chose to camp for free at the Honey Junction Cafe in Kumura Junction.
362 km / 5 h on the road
The next day we drove to the Paparoa National Park and the famous Pancakes Rocks. These rock formations look like a stack of pancakes. Even though it was really nice we thought it was not worth the long detour (count 60 km / 1 hour from Kurama Junction).
After this, we took the road to the south. It was sublime, an alternation of beautiful coastal landscapes and mountains.
Before admiring the glaciers, we took a break at the West Coast Wildlife Centre near Franz Josef Glacier to observe the famous New Zealand birds: the kiwis.
The New Zealand inhabitants are not nicknamed kiwis because of the green fruit we all know. The fruit itself takes its name from a New Zealand native bird. The kiwi is a nocturnal bird, unable to fly, feeding thanks to its iconic long beak. They are unfortunately endangered and it is now very rare to see them in their natural habitat. We saw some in a shelter where it was forbidden to take pictures. You must believe us: they are very cute! They are New Zealand emblematic animal and symbol.
Franz Joseph & Fox glaciers
It was already late when we arrived at the glaciers but we had time to take a walk at the Franz Joseph Glacier and to go to the the Fox Glacier point of view. For those who are hesitating between the two glaciers, we advise you to at least have a look at both and hike around one of them. They are so close anyway.
We initially wanted to stay until the next day for a longer hike. However, the campsites around are very expensive, we had very little time and we already observed glaciers at the beginning of our world tour in Alaska.
We arrived late on a free (but not great) campsite by the South Westland Salmon Farm.
201 km / 2 h 40 on the road
The city of Wanaka has been one of our favourite destination. The lake is beautiful and we were lucky enough to be able to sleep nearby at the Lake Outlet Holiday Park.
Do not miss the Mt Iron Trail. From the top, the view on the region is epic!
The next day before our departure, we went to the National Transport & Toy Museum. We drove by the day before and Clémentine thought it looked great. She was not disappointed, this is her new favourite museum! If you have a child’s soul you can spend a few good hours wondering around…
Arrowtown & Lake Wakatipu
103 km / 1 h 45 on the road
There was also a gold rush in New Zealand and we visited old prospectors villages like Arrowtown. The gold rush stories are another of Clémentine’s passion and she enjoyed the informative walks in the city (which we were able to compare with what we learned in Alaska). For lunch, we ate very well at the English pub the New Orleans.
Our stop for the night was at Lake Wakatipu after Queenstown. Not stopping at Queenstown was a choice we made as we wanted to stay in nature and the city is known for activities / extreme sports which would be way above our world tour budget. The free camping spot Twenty Five Mile Stream was our favourite campsite. The view waking up was absolutely amazing and we could even drink the water directly from the lake.
40 km / 40 min on the road
Glenorchy is one of the places which impressed us the most. We loved the morning walk around the Glenorchy Lagoon. It was such a good experience to watch the stunning view on the water reflections and the birds populating the lagoon. We also went for a walk around the Sylvan Lake. It was quite early in the morning and we were all alone, majestic! A small bird even followed us for a good part of the walk. On site we have spotted (but not tried) a cheap campsite which looked really good.
Te Anau & the fjords
242 km / 3 h 15 on the road to Te Anau (not including the fjords)
On our way to Te Anau we had a fun stop at the Alpine Center Cafe & Bar where we could see alpacas.
We decided to stay two nights in town to take a day trip to the fjords. We spent our two nights in the best paid campsite of the trip: Getaway Te Anau. On site you can find: a sauna and hot tub, games, a TV room and super clean amnesties. In addition, tour operators can pick you up directly from the camping.
Tour to the fjords
To get to the Milford Sounds fjords, we opted for a tour with the company Fiordland Tours. The tour was a full day from Te Anau to Milford Sounds with a 2 hour cruise on the fjords. The day starts at 8 am and ends around 6 pm with a very complete program:
- Pick-up from our camping
- 2-hour cruise with Cruise Milford including tea, coffee and biscuits on board. The boat approaches the waterfalls and it is possible to stay outside for a mini shower and to drink the water! In addition to the beautiful scenery, we were able to observe some seals.
- 19 incredible stops on the way to take spectacular photos and go on short hikes
- A snack break surrounded by mountains at Gunn’s Camp
We loved our tour and highly recommend it. Indeed, in addition to avoiding a long and dangerous road, you will benefit from the excellent guide’s explanations. Remember to charge your camera’s battery!
271 km / 3 h 30 on the road then 53 km / 1 h on the road the next day
On the way from Te Anau we stopped for lunch at Riverton Beach.
In the Catlins region we visited:
- The lighthouse at Waipapa Point where we encountered a seal and some birds (as well as our French friends who were touring New Zealand for several months in a van)
- Petrified Forest Curio Bay, where you can see penguins depending on the season and the time of day (we were unlucky but still loved the place)
- The beautiful Cathedral Caves (entrance is $ 5 per person but it is worth it)
- The Maitai Falls, the access is a bit difficult but you will not be disappointed if you like waterfalls.
We spent two days in the area and slept in two different places: the first night at the free camping in Slope Point (the view was very nice) and the second night at the Tautuku Beach parking lot. This place is not referenced on CamperMate (the application everyone uses to find campsites in New Zealand). Consequently it was only us and our friends, it is a beautiful place close to the beach. We even fished mussels for dinner (be careful to respect the regulations).
380 km / 4 h 45 on the road
After a long drive we reached Lake Pukaki from where Mount Cook is visible. It is another very beautiful road with diverse landscapes. We stopped at the salmon farm, High Country Salmon, to buy our dinner and observe the famous Mount Cook salmons.
We spent the night at the campsite Lake Pukaki Overnight Campervan Parking. Beware this campsite is popular because the view on the lake and Mount Cook is breathtaking.
The next day we drove on an incredible road back to Mount Cook. We hiked 3 hours to see the Hooker Lake Glacier. There were many people on the hike, so we advise you to go there early. We also went to the Tasman Glacier and its strange lake filled with icebergs.
46 km / 35 min on the road
Lake Tekapo and its famous church overlooking the lake, Church of Good Shepherd, are also worth a visit. The church is popular for weddings.
We spent the day relaxing at the pool, sauna and steam room of the Tekapo Springs. It is also possible to have a coffee and visit the Mount John Observatory for a breathtaking view on the lake. We did not do it because of the entrance fee.
In the evening we spent the night at Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park, a great spot for stargazing!
170 km / 2 h on the road
The Rakaia Gorge Camping Ground ($10 per person) offers spots with an incredible view on the Rakia Gorge (as well as very good facilities). It is also another ideal place to observe the stars.
We tried to hike in the gorge but ended up turning around. The path, not well maintained, was difficult to access.
145 km / 2 h 05 on the road
After 6 months around the world, we were eager to discover the “French” city of Akaroa. Apart from a few tourist traps we did not think the city was very French… However it is a charming little coastal town we recommend visiting. We took advantage of the free camping at the port parking (not our most glamorous campsite…). There are only a few spots so we advise you to arrive early.
The next day we booked an excursion to swim with the very rare dolphins hectors. However the weather was really bad and Clémentine was sick the entire time of the excursion. Nicolas had the chance to swim with a mother and baby dolphin so he was very happy with the experience. The tour company, Black Cat, had been very honest and they refunded part of the trip due to the poor weather and visibility. To recover from our emotions (and with the money we got back) we enjoyed a delicious seafood platter at the Trading Rooms restaurant.
On our last night before returning to Christchurch, we stayed at the Waihora Reserve Park. We found it to be good value for money: only $10.
Our tips for your road trip to New Zealand South Island
Pay attention to the period you visit New Zealand. In the high season, prices rise and availability melt. We greatly regretted not having rented our camper in advance, at a much more reasonable price, when we had the opportunity.
In addition, take into consideration the weather. We went in February, which was the end of summer. The weather was superb on the North Island. However on the South Island, especially in the mountains, the temperatures were already too low for us to sleep comfortably in the van with no heating. We even had a night at 4 ° C with snow on the surrounding peaks! But we must also say we were arriving from French Polynesia, not ready for low temperature!
Small van or mortorhome with sanitary?
Our campervan did not included toilet and shower. However, it was certified self-contained a very important point to camp with freedom in New Zealand. It means the vehicle is autonomous, and it must have a sink, a supply of fresh water, a means of containing and emptying wastewater and finally small chemical toilets stored in an accessible place. Having a small van is easier for parking and reassuring for driving. Indeed some roads, especially in the mountains, can be very narrow. Finally, we never had a problem finding clean sanitary on the road.
For our road trip in Australia, we decided to rent a large motorhome with sanitary facilities. This choice was made on the following criteria:
- Mainly the fear of meeting deadly spiders in the toilet (absolutely not a problem in New Zealand)
- The fact that we were renting it for longer and that prices are more affordable than in New Zealand.
- It means more comfort with and larger living space
In conclusion, we find the small van to be more suited to driving in New Zealand and to the favourable natural conditions of this country.
Chek out where to camp with the CamperMate (very easy to use), WikiCamps (less popular but more complete) and Rankers apps. This allowed us to camp mostly for free, with the exception of a few paid campsites to shower and plug in our travel blogger’s electronics gears.
Road-trip by bus
It is also possible to tour New Zealand by bus and some companies offer flexible passes. We have not explored this possibility so feel free to share your adventures in comments.
Find our advice, especially on driving, in our article on the North Island by car.
Clémentine’s New Zealand reading and movie list
- The Lonely Planet guides: the very complete New Zealand Travel Guide and the road trip inspiration guide New Zealand Best Trips
- The movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an excellent comedy-drama which will make you want to get lost in New Zealand nature.
- The historical novel, Napoleon’s Willow, by Joan Norlev Taylor. Very interesting to discover the living conditions of the first settlers and the political struggles between French and English.
- The trilogy In the land of the Long White Cloud, Song of the Spirits and Call Of The Kiwi from Sarah Lark
However, we must admit that, contrary to all the advice we had heard beforehand, we would probably have been disappointed if we had been on the other side of the world to simply visit this country. We intend to expand this point in an upcoming article. Our stay was still unforgettable thanks to our trip around the locations of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which we will share very soon on the blog.
Thank you for your reading, we would very much like to know your opinion and your recommendations, do not hesitate to leave us a comment.