NZ’s South Island by Camper van

Back in the summer, we did an 11-day trip around New Zealand’s South Island, covering over 2000 kilometers and seeing some of the most beautiful parts of NZ. We flew to Queenstown on Boxing day, hired a 6-berth camper van for the 5 of us (my parents, us and Sophia!) and headed north on a tiki tour that dreams are made of. If you are ever considering a visit to NZ’s south island, here is what we got up to and we would recommend all of it!

Day 1: Queenstown

27th Dec Qtown to Wanaka (6)

As soon as we had collected our campervan from the airport depot, we picked up our online grocery order and headed over to Queenstown’s skyline gondola. The views from the top amazed us, even though it was a bit overcast. We also checked out the view from the Queenstown hill lookout before finding a freedom camping site on the outskirts of the town.

After admiring the remarkable view (!) and enjoying some cocktails at the Skyline bar, we made our way down the mountain on the luge! Basically it’s go-karting for adults and so much fun! Similar to the one in Rotorua and just as entertaining!

Day 2: Queenstown to Wanaka via Glenorchy (167km)

This morning’s drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in NZ’s South Island and we can see why. We would definitely recommend this drive, even though you need to backtrack to Queenstown due to the road ending in Paradise. There are loads of viewpoints to pull over at and stretch your legs, take photos and paddle in the beautiful lake.

After getting through the busy and bustling Queenstown high streets we escaped to the quaint village of Arrowtown, then on through the Crown Range, stopping at the Cardrona Valley lookout before finally arriving in Wanaka. We had planned to do the Wanaka to Raspberry Creek scenic drive too but didn’t think we had time for it. The search for Freedom camps or Doc campsites was more difficult than we first anticipated… Freedom camping, although free, seems to be banned everywhere near a town, often meaning parking in quite isolated car parks on the edges of towns. We got the hang of it relatively quickly, managing to find sites and avoid parking fines.

Day 3: Wanaka to Franz Josef (286km)

We awoke this morning, having found a Freedom camp in the dark the night before and the breakfast view that we saw when we opened the curtains was insane:

27th Dec Queenstown to Wanaka via Glenorchy (13)This was our first epic day of driving with no room for deviation to the route because we had our heli-hikes booked at Franz Josef glacier early the following morning. We stopped off at lots of viewpoints along the way, taking in the epic and drastically different scenery. We particularly enjoyed a walk to the Blue Pools and pit stop at Thunder Creek Falls. As we arrived in Fox we headed on a short detour to Lake Matheson to see the ‘view of views’ of the mountains reflected into the lake.

Day 4: A Day in Franz Josef 

29th Dec Franz Josef Glacier J&K (15)As children under the age of 8 aren’t allowed to hike up the glacier, my parents kindly looked after Sophia whilst we did the Heli-Hike. It was an insane. We flew by helicopter to the top of the glacier then spent almost 3 hours hiking around, squeezing through crevices and caves, sipping the pure mountain water and taking in the epic mountain views. All the hiking gear (crampons, boots, trousers, jackets and bumbags) was provided. We just needed to wear layers and bring sunglasses. While my parents hiked up the glacier, we chilled with Sophia at the glacier hot pools. It was the perfect day and well worth the trek to get to Franz Josef for this experience! It’s worth keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and booking in for the morning helihike. Flights can be cancelled due to strong winds but may be rescheduled for later in the day.

Day 5: Franz Josef to Westport

30th Dec Franz to Westport_ (8)

We found out that the drive from Greymouth to Westport is also one of the top 5 scenic drives in NZ’s South Island. The rugged coastlines with the high peaks of the southern alps were something else. Our favourite stops along this route included a beach town called Hokitika, where we stopped for lunch and Punakaiki, famous for the Pancake Rock and Blow holes walk. Pancake rocks and the scenery surrounding it was breathtaking and well worth the journey. When we got to Westport we stocked up on groceries, had dinner on the beach then travelled onwards to a Freedom camp site at Reefton before our next big mileage trip the following day.

Punakaiki:

Hokitika:

Ross:

Westport:

Day 6: Westport to Hanmer Springs

After an early start we arrived in the gorgeous little alpine town of Hanmer Springs, just in time for the Thermal Pools and Spa to open. We spent the entire day here then found a Freedom Camp site at one of the local pubs where we had a delicious meal on New Years Eve. There is loads to do in Hanmer; horse-drawn carriage rides, cycling and walks, but a relaxation day at the spa pools was perfect for us on this occasion.

Day 7: Hanmer to Lake Pukaki via Tekapo (433km)

The drive from Hanmer to Lake Pukaki was one of the longest drives of our trip. Lake Tekapo was fully breathtaking; the snowcapped mountains in the distance, the lake as the backdrop and the cute little Church of the Good Shepherd in the foreground. Picture perfect. We arrived a bit late in the day to freedom camp in Tekapo, as all the spots were taken by the time we got there, but just round the corner at Lake Pukaki we got front row seats to one of the most stunning views of the trip!

Day 8: Lake Pukaki to Wanaka

After such a big driving day the day before we decided to give Mount Cook Village a miss this time and headed straight for the shores of Lake Wanaka, where we had briefly stopped earlier on the trip. Wanaka has been described as ‘Queenstown’s less hyperactive cousin’ and it was perfect. The lakeside town has loads of bars, restaurants, ice cream stops, an adventure playground and water sports options. We swam, dozed, walked the beach and ate to our hearts content in this amazingly beautiful piece of paradise. Instead of Freedom camping we booked a campsite so we could secure our spot and be within walking distance of our restaurant.

Day 9: Wanaka to Queenstown

After a leisurely juice bar breakfast we bid beautiful Wanaka a farewell, jumped in the campervan and set off back to Queenstown where we explored the marina all afternoon, sipped cocktails and ate amazing takeaway noodles overlooking the lake. We could have easily stayed in Wanaka for another day but wanted to be back in Queenstown for the early coach trip departure to Milford Sound the next morning.

Day 10: Milford Sound

A 12-hour coach trip with a toddler…..are you joking?! Firstly, there was no other option and secondly, she travelled for free! We parked up our campervan in Queenstown and did the Jucy Coach and Cruise to Milford Sound. This involved a 6-hour coach trip to Milford Sound, stopping at lots the viewpoints along the way. When we got to Milford we set off on a 2-hour cruise, got epic views of waterfalls, the sounds, seals and Mitre Peak. The weather brightened up throughout the trip, the clouds lifted and we could see the peak. Our package included lunch on the boat and as soon as the cruise finished it was back aboard the coach for a whistle stop 4-hour journey back to Queenstown. Sophia was a champ, cosy in her car seat and happily watching cartoons all day.

Day 11: Queenstown to Wellington

On the final morning of our trip we sorted out the campervan, had brunch and headed back for the airport. What an adventure. As usual it has given us a snapshot of loads of places that we want to come back to and spend loads more time at!

Campervan/Motorhome survival tips:

  • Eye mask and ear plugs essential to cope with noisy snoring travel pals
  • Travel light; the more stuff you bring, the more difficult it is to store in the cosy camper van
  • Buy groceries and bulky items e.g nappies, online before you fly using the ‘click and collect’ option. Collect at the supermarket nearest the airport
  • Figure out where the allocated Freedom camping sites in the area to avoid driving around aimlessly in the dark
  • If you want to stay overnight within walking distance of a town, book a campsite to secure a spot
  • If you don’t mind camping in a random carpark in the middle of nowhere, freedom camping will be perfect for you
  • If it’s not a number 1, it doesn’t happen in the camper van toilet. No exceptions.

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About tripleespresso2go

Jeremy, Katie and Sophia are a family of three from the UK who have a passion for travel, good coffee, music and photography. They are currently based in Penang, Malaysia. Follow their adventures as they taste the finest coffee and photograph their way around the Asia.