New Zealand is an amazing place! It has beautiful mountain ranges, beaches, rainforests, and fiords all within a few hours of driving. No wonder it’s becoming a popular travel and filming destination. We had a blast campervaning for two weeks around the South Island of New Zealand!
Our camper was rented from Wilderness Motorhomes which had many stylish and efficient models to choose from. We made sure to get a self-contained vehicle (with water supply and waste tanks) so that we could take full advantage of New Zealand freedom camping. The staff at Wilderness were very friendly and helped us fully prepare for the adventure ahead.
Driving in NZ was easier than we anticipated. Time on the road flew by because of the beautiful scenery and the roads were mostly free of traffic. Campervaning was a great way to get around and explore the country up close and personal, especially while freedom camping. Wilderness offered a booklet filled with many hidden gems of freedom campsites which we rented and used frequently on our trip. In two weeks, we were able to see many of the major attractions while also having the flexibility to kick back and relax in our camper we affectionately named “Nessy”.
Below is the route we traveled. If you are planning a trip to New Zealand, this is a good base to work with and it can easily be adjusted to your preferences. We highly recommend spending at least two weeks on the South Island as there is much to see and do. Definitely don’t miss Fox/Franz Josef Glacier, Fiordland, and Mount Cook!
We began our journey in Christchurch. Since we arrived late in the day we were unable to pick up our camper right away. Thus we wandered around the city, checking out the botanical gardens and the Canterbury museum. The city center still has an unbelievable amount of damage and construction visible from the earthquakes nearly ten years ago. But thankfully there’s no lack of good dinning locations. We spent the night at a lovely AirBnB with a spacious bed that we would soon envy in the camper.
First thing in the morning we Ubered our way to pick up the camper! The checkout process was very thorough taking us about two hours to get acquainted with our new house-on-wheels. After stocking our camper with groceries, we made a bee-line to the mountains. We stopped for a couple short hikes at Castle Rock and Devil’s Punchbowl Falls before finding a freedom camping spot a few kilometers past Arthur’s Pass.
Feeling comfortable on the roads, we made glacier country our destination for day three. This was about a three hour drive and took us by the coast, through rain forests, and back into mountains. We hiked a short way to the Fox Glacier viewpoint, which was still rather far from the glacier. Next we wanted to hike around Lake Matheson but lingering clouds covered the mountain tops. Crossing our fingers and hoping that the clouds would lift, we opted to set up camp at a nearby Top 10 Holiday Park. The facilities at the Holiday Park were very nice, but it seemed expensive with no privacy between the campsites. Yet it was all worth it as that evening the clouds cleared around Lake Matheson for a short hike to the “View of Views”. The mountain peaks and reflection on the lake was gorgeous! Back at camp we took full advantage of the electricity and savored some microwaved popcorn while we flipped through the day’s pictures.
We prebooked a glacier helicopter hike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides for this morning. This excursion was absolutely amazing and one of the highlights on our trip! They equipped us with gear before lifting off on a short helicopter ride to the ice. Once we were able to pick our jaws off the ground, we strapped on crampons and were ready to hike! Our guide took us past beautiful ice formations and through tight crevices for the next two hours. After the hike we went for a dip in the glacier hot pools to relax and soak in the memories.
That night we found a freedom camping site on the north side of Lake Wanaka. Here we met two other Wilderness couples that we shared drinks and stories with.
Wanaka has many highly reviewed day hikes but we decided to tackle just one, Roy’s peak. The hike itself was very difficult and not very enjoyable, but the reward at the top was worth it. The views of Lake Wanaka and the mountain ridges literally took your breath away!
After hiking nearly 6 hours of inclined dirt paths, we found a spot to take a dip in the lake to rejuvenate ourselves. It turned out our swim was within eye-shot of the famous Wanaka tree! We snapped the obligatory photos before cruising some shops and savoring Hokey Pokey ice cream. Then we were off for Queenstown. Since it was getting late, we agreed to freedom camp at the Crown Ridge overlook just before descending into Queenstown.
Day 6 was all about exploring Queenstown. We started by riding the skyline gondola to take in the view of the city. When we got back down, we headed straight to Fergburger for the best burger of our lives! No joke – you have to stop here! Go early because it gets crazy busy. After savoring the burger, we walked it off by playing disc golf on New Zealand’s first disc golf course. There’s no freedom camping close to Queenstown, so we drove to the south side of Lake Wakatipu to camp for the night.
Next on our agenda was Fiordland National Park where we had booked an overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys. This was yet another an incredible experience and highlight on our trip. The fiord was majestic, the Real Journeys ship and crew were wonderful, and the food was delightful. We were able to kayak up close to shore in the afternoon and swim in the mystical waters. Then as the ship was cruising around, we saw Fiordland Crusted penguins, fur seals, and even a whale! The humpback whale spectacularly jumped out of the water and splashed its tail multiple times as we all watched with glee. Later on the captain turned off all the engines and we quietly listened to the “sounds of silence”. The whole cruise experience felt very intimate with nature. Plus it was nice to have a short break from sleeping in the camper.
In the morning, after a bit more cruising around Doubtful Sound, we debarked the ship and drove to Te Anau. Once again we had booked a tour through Real Journeys to visit the Glowworm Caves. We were guided into the cave, past an underground waterfall, and into a small boat. It was pitch-black and our guide told us to be completely silent as the worms are very sensitive to light and noise. As our guide maneuvered us through the cave, we stared in wonder at the cave ceiling and walls around us. They were filled with tiny green dots that resembled mini constellations! It was very unique and kinda romantic to communicate through hand squeezes in the darkness. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the cave.
In the evening we drove North toward Milford Sound and camped at a Department of Conservation (DoC) site. We coated ourselves in bug spray to ward off the sandflies and had a campfire.
It was another beautiful day in Fiordland National Park and we were excited to experience another one of the fiords! The drive to Milford Sound was very curvy but absolutely beautiful. At the fiord, we boarded the Scenic Cruise with Real Journeys and again saw several penguins and seals. We noticed that, while Milford Sound was only one tenth the size of Doubtful Sound, it was much busier. As the day went on it continued to draw even more crowds. Since we did the morning cruise, we had all afternoon for hiking. We hiked the Key Summit Track which had cool 360 degree views at the top and took us about two and a half hours to complete. We also walked to the Mirror Lakes and Chasm viewpoints before heading back to Te Anau and onward to the southern coast to camp. Along the way we found some mean steak and cheese meatpies for dinner, yum! To top off the day, we freedom camped on the edge of a cliff and enjoyed some wine and the gorgeous sunset.
After a tasty camp breakfast, we headed to our next destination, the Nugget Point Lighthouse. While the lighthouse wasn’t much to look at, the surrounding landscape was splendid and we saw many seals playing in the water below. Our next stop of the day was the city of Dunedin. It felt rather chaotic to be back in a larger city after being remote for so many days. We parked near the railway station and wandered inside to take a closer look at the interesting architecture. Then we strolled over to The Octagon city center and stopped by the Cadbury chocolate factory to purchase some unique New Zealand candies. Afterward it was back to the camper and on to the Moeraki boulders. When we arrived at the beach, we were shocked to discover that these unusual boulders only covered about one city block of the mile long beach. As the day drew to an end we found a local campground that was off the beaten path called the Herbert Forest Campground.
The road to Mt. Cook National Park was breathtaking. If you are lucky and have a clear day, you will see the enormous mountains from a distance and they just keep getting bigger. Lake Pukaki’s turquoise blue water is stunning in itself, then add the mountain backdrop, wow! The pictures don’t do it justice!
Hiking the Hooker Valley Track was a nice relief after some of the strenuous hikes we’d already done. The three hour trail was mostly flat, crossed three suspension bridges, and ended at a glacier fed lake. The lake had icebergs which had broken off the glacier! There’s no freedom camping in Mt. Cook National park so after our hike we drove back and freedom camped along the south side of Lake Pukaki.
Morning clouds deterred us from another hike in the park, so we drove to Tekapo and explored Mt. John’s Observatory. The observatory itself isn’t much to see unless you have a private tour which normally runs at night. However there is a nice little cafe at the top so we enjoyed a flat white with a view. Back in the town, we walked along the lake and said a prayer in the peaceful Church of the Good Shepherd. As we ate lunch in the small town, the clouds started to clear so we couldn’t resist heading back to Mt. Cook for another hike. This time it was back to a strenuous climb, 1,925 steps to be exact! The Sealy Tarns Track makes you work for the view, but man what a view! Totally worth it.
Again we freedom camped along the side of Lake Pukaki and enjoyed dinner and wine with Mt. Cook reflecting off the beautiful lake.
Our last day with the camper was meant to be a flexible day in case of bad weather or emergencies. Since everything was going so smoothly, we chose to take in one more site on the way back to Christchurch: Mt. Sunday, the Lord of the Rings film site for Edoras. There were no buildings or any signs of filming a major blockbuster here, but the valley is familiar enough to make you feel like a member of the Riders of Rohan as you hike around. Getting to Mt. Sunday took us longer than expected due to loose gravel roads most of the way.
That afternoon we decided to head back to the coast to spend our last night freedom camping on the beach. We enjoyed walking the cobblestone beach and taking in the sunset.
After returning the camper in Christchurch, we took a taxi downtown and stayed one more night at the lovely Strathern Motor Lodge. We enjoyed our last meal downtown and prepared for the long journey home. In the morning we said bittersweet goodbyes to New Zealand.
There isn’t much that we would change about this trip. Two weeks felt like the appropriate amount of time to explore the South Island, but if we would have visited the North Island as well, we would have needed another week. The springtime weather was perfect, and although we planned some buffer days in case of rain or clouds, we didn’t end up needing them. With less time, the southern coast (around Invercargill and Dunedin) could be cut because it was a lot of driving for fewer sights. However we did hear from locals that Stewart Island is very cool, so perhaps next time we’d explore that area. When we do go back to New Zealand, we’ll definitely spend more time in Fiordland National Park and Mount Cook National Park. Additionally, it would be wonderful to experience a longer scenic flight and sample our way through wine country.