Ask anybody where in the world they’d most like to visit and you’d be hard pressed to find someone that didn’t have New Zealand high up on their wish list. This included me..... for a long time! We decided the best way to explore and really get a feel for the country would be to hire a camper van and drive around both islands, catching the ferry in between. However, with the country just coming into peak season, we found that this was beyond our budget and I managed to re think our plan and eventually settled on a camper van for 4 weeks to explore the South Island, a car for 3 weeks to explore the north island and a budget flight to connect the two which weirdly all worked out far cheaper.
You could say that we didn’t get off to the best start on this leg with Jetstar managing to lose Georgina’s big rucksack somewhere between Melbourne and Christchurch, offering little in the way of customer service to help us locate it. In the meantime we headed out to pick up our camper van that we’d hired through ‘travellers autobarn’ where the credit card needed to secure the hefty bond was declined thanks to our camper rental in Oz not releasing the bond money they held quickly enough. This all lead to a rather stressful day after a middle of the night flight and not much sleep. After waiting for another 6 hours in a nearby supermarket car park and not content with what the airline were saying I decided to go back to the airlines check in counter to see if they could help and sure enough after radio’ing through to the back they found the bag.....but couldn’t bring it out to us for 4 hours??? Georgina wasn’t going to stand for this so went in all guns blazing only for the airline staff to call the police rather than get her bag so we could be on our way. Fortunately the police officer was a nice guy and used his authoritative powers to get the airline to pull their fingers out and get the bag. So, after landing 10 hours ago we were finally on our way and with most of the day now gone we settled on a free camp next to a lake Lyndon, about 1 hr 30 minutes from Christchurch.
There are many ‘freedom’ camping areas in New Zealand, most are ‘self-contained’ only which means only vehicles that have toilet and grey water facilities can stay on the site. Ours did, although we made a pact that the toilet would be for show only! Some free camps are open to any vehicle types and we downloaded an app called ‘campermate’ where you could find all kinds of campsites as well as other handy things such as petrol stations and cash machines.
Our camper really was a brilliant bit of kit. Two gas hobs, fridge, sink, microwave and a fold away table. The table top, along with 3 other pieces of wood then filled between the two bench sofas to create the bed. It was also big enough to stand up in which made a huge difference. It put our Australian ‘camper’ to shame.
Arthur’s pass to Pancake Rocks
We decided to head over to the west coast via Arthur’s Pass, one of two main coast to coast passes that run through the middle of the South Island. Along the way we stopped at castle hill, a big outcrop of strange limestone rock formations, an underground cave that you could walk from one end to the other and a huge waterfall before reaching our free camp for the night in a car park next to ‘Pancake rocks’ in Punakaiki. Pancake rocks gets its name from the layers of sediment that formed on the ocean floor over millions of years that now look like layers of pancakes - simple really. The site also offers a preview into the rugged coastline that stretches along the west coast with huge waves crashing into the pancake sea stacks and up though numerous blow holes.
After a short drive down the impressive coast road we also paid a visit to Hotitika, a small coast town famed for its scenery and white bait fishing that we observed the locals trying their luck at down by the mouth of the river. About 15km inland is Lake Kaniere, another beautiful lake with a short walk (canoe walk) out to the lake if you need to stretch your legs.
That night we spent the night in a proper camp in Okarito and were treated to our first proper west coast sunset which was spectacular. The small village also boasts a picturesque boat house which kept me occupied the following morning.
Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers
One thing on our to do list was to pay a visit to Franz Josef glacier with the aim of doing a heli hike up onto the glacier itself. After arriving in the town after a short drive inland we headed to the company that offered this to check availability for the next day. After discovering that they had availability for that afternoon and with the sun shining we decided to head straight out so paid our money ($450/£242) and got geared up. The trip would consist of a short helicopter flight up onto the glacier followed by a walk around before a short flight back. Unfortunately just as we were about to board the helicopter a big black cloud rolled in and the company decided to cancel the tour for safety reasons. After checking the forecast for the next day we decided to book early on the following day as it gave sunny conditions and headed to the nearby trail head to walk to a view point of the glacier instead..... in the icy cold rain! The forecast the next day turned out to be correct and it didn’t stop raining all day, and with me feeling a bit under the weather we didn’t leave the comfort of the van all day!
A few places in New Zealand offer the chance to go see glow worms for a hefty fee, however we learned that with a bit of local knowledge you can wander off into the darkness on your own and find them. We did a short walk that evening in Fox Glacier village around a loop that was littered with the buggers all glowing in the dark beneath fallen trees and rocks.
The mountains also offers the chance to spot one of New Zealand’s most famous birds, the Kea. This big playful parrot is the worlds only alpine parrot and we were lucky enough to have some come into our camp.... to steal food and raid the bins! They are also keen on window wipers and anything rubbery you leave lying about such as boots and trainers.
With clear sunny skies the next morning we headed back to Franz Josef only for the hike to be cancelled again due to wind! Having already dedicated 3 days to trying to do the hike we admitted defeat and had to move on stopping at the picturesque Lake Matheson on the way out of the mountains.
The uninhabited shores of the west coast is home to small colonies of the worlds second rarest penguin, the fjordland crested penguin. We had managed to research a small bay along the coast that you could reach via a 45 minute walk that offered a slim chance of spotting them. Unlike other penguins that go out at dawn and return at dusk these penguins come and go as they please which makes spotting them a little less predictable. We waited patiently next to the ‘do not go any nearer than this’ sign for about an hour but with no luck. The penguins will abandon their nests/chicks if they see danger on shore so it’s important to respect the signs at these kind of places. Just as I gave the ‘I’ll wait another 15 minutes and that’s it’ speech I spotted what I thought was two ducks in the water only for them to come hobbling out a few seconds later! PENGUINS! George was ecstatic. As the waves washed them quite high up the beach and almost out of sight our only option, without getting closer was to improve our angle by venturing closer to the sea. Typical Sod’s law as as we did this a huge wave came crashing in right up to our knees. It was a long squelchy walk back to the van after but definitely worth it.
Lake Wanaka lies just north of Queenstown and is often overshadowed by its high adrenaline noisy neighbour. The small town was perfect for us though with its small shopping street lined with cafes and shops and the beautiful lake with big mountain backdrop opposite. We had initially wanted to do a hike to ‘Roy’s Peak’ but found out the trail was closed until mid November which was a bit annoying as the views looked epic. Instead we headed just out of town to another hike, Diamond Lake view which conveniently had a free camping spot in its car park so we spent the night there and hit the trail in the morning. I was beginning to feel quite ill, and knew something more was up rather than just a cold so about half way up I had to stop and sent Georgina on her way alone to the summit. Back home my leg would have to be hanging off before you’d get me near a doctor but I couldn’t afford to take any chances here so reluctantly went to see the local GP (at a hefty cost!). Turns out I had a nasty ear infection so after paying through the nose to see the doc I got a second blow to the wallet for some antibiotics too.
After some fish and chips (from a Turkish restaurant!) by the lake we headed towards queenstown stopping at the small town of ‘Arrowtown’ along the way. The town was a settlement area for the migrant Chinese gold miners back in the gold rush days and some of the old buildings have been preserved/restored in the town which makes for an interesting walk.
Queenstown & Glenochy
After making the scenic drive from Wanaka to Queenstown we quickly bypassed the town and headed further around the lake towards Glenochy, home to some of the Lord of the Rings filming locations. The scenery around this area was unbelievable, made even better with the newborn lambs running around against the huge mountains that rise from nowhere out of the landscape. We visited a few different areas used for filming and walked a scenic 1.5hr trail around Glenochy before heading to our picturesque free camp next to the lake for a couple of nights. Queenstown is arguably famous for its adrenaline sports and you can have a go at most things at here be it sky diving, bungee, rafting to name a few. I had seen a fun looking mountain luge track on a friends Instagram that I wanted to try but to tell you the truth I felt bloody awful and had passed my germs onto George who was now starting to feel ill so we had to settle for a walk around the park and a go on a rope swing. Hardly the white knuckle adventure I was looking forward to! With Queenstown feeling a bit busy for us we quickly moved on, not before taking in the famous ‘Fergburger’ burger joint and headed through more amazing countryside towards Milford Sound.
After a long drive from Queenstown we pulled into a wet and soggy Milford Sound, supposedly the 8th Natural Wonder of the World. I still don’t understand the difference between a fjord and a Sound I can’t elaborate any further on that one. After booking onto a sightseeing cruise the next morning we headed to the only place in Milford Sound that you can park a camper for the night, and reluctantly handed over the $60 for the privilege.
The following morning the weather was still miserable, with snow visible high on the towering mountains so we headed out on our sight seeing cruise not expecting to see a great deal. However during our cruise we saw lots of spectacular waterfalls, some sea lions and even a bottle nose dolphin riding in our wake. Our chosen operator was ‘Southern Discoveries’ as this is the only firm that has access to the Discovery centre, a floating nature observation lab on the Sound. After a brief talk on the centre you walk down under the water to about 8m deep to observe the fish and coral that live there. What makes it unique is that the fresh water run off that sits on top of the salt water tricks the animals into thinking they’re much deeper than they are making species that would only usually live in the very deep ocean visible at 8m.
On the drive out of Milford Sound we stopped at an area known as ‘the Chasm’, an area that has been eroded into some strangely shaped rocks by the powerful river that cuts through it. We headed further until settling on a small camp a few Km’s off the main road to settle for the night as it boasted a common room with a log burner - ideal to help the now ill Georgina get back to normal.
The next day we were away early and stopped just up the road to hike a 3hr return hike to ‘Key Summit’. The hike was pretty much all up on the way out and then all down on the way back with not a great deal to see due to the thick woodland. However once at the top the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains was amazing and definitely worth the effort. I would say don’t bother with this hike unless the weather is perfect as you won’t see a thing however we were lucky to have clear weather after our last few days of rain.
We then made our way south down towards the coast, stopping at many viewpoints along the way such as Clifden bridge, Mckrackens rest, Gemstone beach, Monkey island before finally settling on a free camp at Colac bay next to the sea.
Invercargill to Mount Cook via Nugget Point and Moeraki Boulders
From our free camp we then headed east, quickly reaching the town of Invercargill, once dubbed the arsehole of the world by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Without stopping we passed through and headed to the most southern point of New Zealand, Bluff for a pit stop and obligatory photo with the big yellow signpost.
From here we followed the windy coast road through the Caitlin’s stopping at one of New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls, the Purakauni Falls for a good photo op along the way. Surat Bay, was supposed to offer us an easy chance to spot Sea Lions close up but after a good hour walking the beach we gave up and continued on our way to roaring bay for a lunch stop. This bay is home to dolphins and the rarest penguin of them all, the yellow eyed penguin. However we already had a penguin spotting area lined up and wanting to keep the wheels turning we continued to Nugget Point lighthouse, arriving just before sunset. Here lay a dilemma. Nugget point offers a truly spectacular photo opportunity but literally 100m before the lighthouse was a well placed ‘hide’ to watch the yellow eyed penguins return from a hard days fishing. To keep the peace, we went with the Penguins and it wasn’t long until we got our first spot, albeit quite far away along the beach. Moments later a second penguin appeared directly in front of the hide (which was about 60m up on the banks of the hill) and literally posed for a bout 10 minutes before climbing up into its burrow, much to the joy of the 6 or so of us crouched in the hide shivering from the cold.
In order to even up the scores and give me a chance to take some photos of the lighthouse the following morning we stayed at Kaka Point camp just down the road in an unpowered pitch. With my alarm set for the crack of dawn to try and catch the sunrise I was horrified to wake to the sound of rain on the van first thing in the morning. There was hardly any chance of getting a nice sunrise today, bugger. However, I just had to try so with George still tucked up in the back I drove fairly gently back up to the lighthouse and left her to sleep while I went off walking in the rain with the slimmest of hope that it might stop. To my amazement, bang on the time sunrise was due the rain stopped and the clouds lifted for just a few minutes so I was able to capture a couple of shots before the sun disappeared behind the thick cloud and the heavens opened once again. I wished id gone and had a look the night before to get my vantage points figured out but sometimes you just have to be happy with what you’ve got I suppose.
After waking Georgina with our daily weetabix (a new ritual, 4 each) we headed off to the town of Dunedin and in particular the Royal Albatross colony just outside of town, the only land based colony in the world apparently. With the steep entry fee putting us off we joined the other tight/poor people on one of the viewing platforms nearby and spent the next half an hour wondering if we’d spotted one or was it just a big seagull?!
Dunedin is said to be the Edinburgh of New Zealand and after driving back through the town we could see why people would make that comparison. It also boasts the worlds steepest street (as does the USA I think) so we have that a visit on the way out.
Our last stop of the day would be a lighthouse near Moeraki, which also was a good chance to spot sea lions and penguins however when we arrived at 5:30 it was closed. Something we have discovered in New Zealand is they sure do like to close up and get home early - the Cadbury factory in Dunedin closed at 3pm ruling a visit out there too!
After spending a night next to the beach at another free spot I had to do some more steady driving a few miles up the road at the crack of dawn so I could get to the Moeraki boulders for sunrise. George’s second lie in in two days! The huge round boulders occupy the beach in one particular spot and are a great photo opportunity, particularly if the sunrise coincides with the tide. It didn’t. The tide was a good way out when the sun came up and another cloudy morning ruined the sunrise too. Never mind. To reach the boulders most people park up at the cafe which sits next to them and then have to pay a couple of dollars to use their steps down on to the beach but you can park just down the road in the Doc car park and walk 500m along the beach for free!
After last nights failed lighthouse visit Georgina twisted my arm into returning and after our (my) early start we made it back for opening time at 7am. The walk out onto the rugged peninsular is short and soon enough we spotted a few sea lions sleeping on the cliffs and playing in the sea. Another tourist decided to get literally within cm of a sleeping sea lion for a selfie, don’t be this person. Keep your distance. We could see evidence of the penguins with their tracks but seeing as they go out at dawn we knew we had missed them this time.
After her lie in, George decided she too would like to see the boulders so we headed back for a second visit, this time joined with the coach loads of other tourists that thankfully were missing from my sunrise visit.
Our next main stop would be mount cook national park so we headed off in that direction stopping at the pleasant town of Omaru for lunch along the way. Just before we arrived at lake Pukaki we opted to pay the $5 entrance fee to go see the ‘clay cliffs’ located on some private land just off the main road. The 11km unpaved Road was pretty bad in our camper and the cliffs left us a little disappointed, very much like an extremely poor mans version of Bryce Canyon.
That night we settled on what would arguably be our favourite free camp spot of the whole trip, a huge area on Lake Pukaki over looking the Mount cook mountain range. The sunset was spectacular with light pink fluffy clouds surrounding New Zealand’s highest peak in the distance - all for free (the drop toilet in the woods was pretty horrendous though).
Mount Cook National Park & Lake Tekapo
The 55km stretch of road that links Mount Cook National Park to the highway must be one of New Zealand’s most scenic stretches of road, winding up and over rolling hills with the spectacular lake on your right hand side with the monstrous Mt Cook straight ahead. We stopped at Peters lookout for some photos but then found ourselves pulling over at every opportunity to get some more as we got closer.
Upon arriving at Mt Cook village we headed to the visitor centre to get some info on the many hikes in the park, with the Hooker Lake trail already on our to do list. Following the advice of the ranger we headed straight out for this trail and left the ‘Red Tarns’ trail for the next day as we couldn’t afford to pass up on the sunshine that day for the main trail.
Hooker lake is a glacial lake that can be reached along a fairly easy and flat well maintained trail from the parking lot. It took us about 2.5hours to walk there and back with a long lunch stop in the sunshine next to the lake and lots of photo stops along the way. The camp we chose was conveniently in the car park at the start of the trail, a first come first served Doc camp that I’d imagine would be pretty hard to get into during summer. That night I was awoken by some pretty loud scratching on the van, thinking it was a kea I initially tried to ignore it but as the scratching became louder and from some weird places I got up to investigate. After shining the torch out of the window a few times with no luck I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the two culprits sitting on the table next to our van....two bloody huge black possums. Thinking that they would keep trying all night (probably can smell our food supplies) I clambered into the front and drove to a different location in the camp hoping they wouldn’t follow.
After outsmarting the possums we headed out the next day to the Red Tarns hike, a 2hr hike, all up and then all down. These are my least favourite hikes, the way up you’re just leaning forward pushing yourself up the steep hill and the way down you’re concentrating so hard not to trip that both ways you don’t really appreciate the scenery around you. The view from the top was pretty cool though and we stopped for lunch to admire it for a little bit longer.
On the way out of the village we decided to take a detour along another road to walk a short trail up to a view of the Tasman glacier. The walk was only 20 mins but it was pretty steep, made even worse by the gale force wind trying to blow us off the hill.
That evening we headed to a small church in the town of Tekapo, not to confess our sins but for me to get a nice photo of the church, hopefully with the Milky Way in the background. We (I) had semi orchestrated the route so far to coincide this visit with the new moon, as the town lies in a ‘dark sky’ area I didnt want a full moon lighting up the sky as it did in Arches National Park a few months back. Pretty geeky I know. As the night drew on however, I was left frustrated by the amount of people walking round with torches and cars/tour groups arriving every few minutes, even way past midnight ruining the photos for me and many other photographers trying to get a nice photo. Around 1:30am I decided enough was enough and jumped in the van to drive us to the nearest campsite to which I’m sure they were pleased at our 2am arrival.
The next morning we headed back to the lake and followed the unpaved road round to the other side in the hope of some early lupin flowers but we were about a month early so no such luck. We then made our way to Lake Opuha to a free camping spot for the night, stopping at the small town of Fairlie on the way to sample New Zealand’s best pies - peppered steak for me and Salmon and Bacon for George - she tells me it was delicious.
With a big mileage day ahead we were away early to reach the town of Hamner Springs, a spa town North of Christchurch. Along the way we took the scenic route past a huge gorge and walked a 1hr trail out to a view point before continuing on our way. We reached Hamner pretty late and made camp at another free camp just outside the town with a few more penny pinching campers.
In the morning we headed to the springs for a bit of indulgence, after paying $50 (£27) for both of us plus a locker we spent a few hours trying out the different temperature hot pools (some natural, some man made) until I couldn’t take it any longer. The luxury soon ended as we found ourselves parked outside the library stealing the WiFi to do some trip planning before returning to the same free camp just up the road.
Abel Tasman National Park
We were away from camp early for another big mileage day to get up to the Northern coast and in particular Abel Tasman National Park. New Zealand boasts some great walking (or tramping as they call it) and the 7 great walks offer the very best of the bunch. One such walk is in Abel Tasman, hugging the rugged coast along sheer cliffs and white sandy beaches. We didn’t have time to complete the whole walk so arranged to do just a section of it instead. There are lots of options in town with many tours involving a lift either or both ways and some kayaking options. We opted to take a 1hr water taxi ($84) out to one of the drop off points and then walk the 22km (7hrs) along the coast back to the van. The views and scenery were pretty amazing, the clear blue sea and white sand was something I hadn’t really thought was a part of New Zealand but it definitely rivalled anything we saw in Australia on that front.
Nelson and the Marlborough wine region
A short drive along the northern coast lies the small town of Nelson. We stopped here for a look around but truth be told the quiet streets didn’t offer too much, however the long sandy beach just outside of town is well worth a quick stop. We continued along our way, through the town of Havelock and then off into the hills where the windy steep roads bought us to our free camp for the night at Double bay. Another picturesque freebie!
The following morning we entered the town of Picton, where many people get the ferry to the North island and felt a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be making the same journey as the view out onto the fjord (or sound?) looked amazing. Instead we headed to the small town of Renwick, in the Wairu valley as the reign is famous for its wine production. I know what you’re thinking, another wine tasting day for Georgina, isn’t she lucky! Ha! We decided to rent bikes and cycle the local vineyards ourselves and after some help from the info centre (we seemed to double as a wool selling shop) we were quickly on our way with a small map and a bicycle.
The roads surrounding the vineyards are all quite busy and open to all traffic so the cycling doesn’t quite have the quiet French road feel to it but we quickly came across our first point of call to the famous ‘cloudy bay’ vineyard which boasted some impressive gardens and a pretty nice house to be fair. Not sure what the wine was like, I had a lemonade. Throughout the day we visited around 5 vineyards including ‘Forest’, a small vineyard that George’s dad used to buy from when he had his wine shop. All in all it was a good day until the shop owner told us that highway 1 (the way we were planning on going) is actually closed due to earthquake damage. Our only way back south was to traverse pretty much the way we had came and then back across the country to get south of the closure. Bugger. After a quick re route (and some colourful language) we hit the road and drove into the night to make up the extra miles before settling on a free camp in the car park of Maruia falls. We did make the short walk to have a look at the falls in the morning which were quite impressive before heading on our way.
Georgina had researched two places along the coast that you could potentially swim with Dolphins, one in Akaroa just southeast of Christchurch and one in Kaikora, just south of the highway 1 closure. After a bit more research, it seemed that kaikora offered a better chance and although it would incur a pretty big detour we decided it would be worth it. Pulling into Kaikora you can really see the effect that the main road closure is having on the town with many businesses now closed from the lack of through traffic and subsequent trade. It really is a shame as the town sits in arguably one of the most impressive locations in the country with the huge snowy mountains and beautiful blue ocean seemingly only split by the small community.
We decided to go with ‘dolphin encounter’ and with only one swimming place left on the 5am tour it made our minds up about whether I should also do it as well with it being so expensive. With Georgina booked on and me booked on as a spectator we headed out of town to a free spot at a nearby Irish pub.
After a safety talk and kit fitting early the next day we were quickly out on the silky smooth ocean (the harbour is actually unusable as the ocean floor rose 5m during the earthquake so you have to be towed out onto the sand by a tractor) and headed off in search of the small dusky dolphins. Back in Dunedin we were confused about whether or not we’d seen an albatross or big seagull and felt pretty silly when after a few minutes on the boat we spotted a couple of wandering albatross - they are HUGE! If they were a seagull you’d hand over your chips and apologise for not putting enough vinegar on them!
With dolphins on the horizon the swimmers got into position and after a quick lesson with the GoPro George was quickly into the water surrounded by the dolphins. The guide said we saw about 150 dolphins that morning and they swam and played with the group for ages before we headed back into land. I’ve never seen George smile so much, it was a fantastic experience and just goes to show you really don’t need to go into some caged swimming pool to have these kind of experiences.
After a great morning we continued down the coast, through all the roadworks as they try to fix the sections of collapsed road until settling on the beach town of Amberley for our final night in the camper.
Christchurch is a city that has also suffered at the hands of Mother Nature with the earlier 2012 earthquake pretty much flattening the city. We had to return our camper in the morning so after that we caught the bus back into town and headed off on foot to explore. After 5 years of regeneration parts of the small city do seem to be taking shape but there’s still areas, namely the cathedral which is still in ruins that remind you of the devastating past. One cool area was the box village, an attempt to get things back to normal by converting a bunch of shipping containers into small shops and food outlets while the main buildings are being rebuilt.
After our first night in a proper bed for a month we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Auckland.