Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: South Island, New Zealand
Visited: April 2019
New Zealand is a true paradise for adventure junkies and outdoor enthusiasts alike. The South Island’s rugged coastline, combined with glacier-cut peaks, and milky blue rivers and lakes, provides the perfect landscape to get lost in natural wonders, or get your heart pounding while trying out one of the many thrilling activities designed to get your adrenaline pumping. Driving around the South Island, you will come across opportunities to bungy-jump, skydive, jetboat, and ride in helicopters at nearly every turn in the road. If peace and serenity is more of your thing, you can spend your time marvelling at the breath-taking natural wonders that New Zealand offers, while you hike one of the South Island’s countless trails, or multi-day backpacking tracks.
Despite being significantly larger than the North Island, the South Island is only home to roughly 23% of New Zealand’s approximately five million occupants. Covering 58,000 square miles, the South Island is the world’s 12th largest island, and this, in my opinion, makes it the perfect size for a road trip. There is plenty to explore, but you won’t spend your entire vacation behind the wheel trying to get to your next stop. You can get to each town or attraction in just a few hours of driving, so that you still have a ton of time to get out of the car and have some fun.
A view of the open road in the South Island of New Zealand
We chose to hire a campervan to explore New Zealand’s South Island. We went with Escape Campervans because their campers are the perfect size for the trip and we were able to easily get around the island, camp in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful places in comfort and style. The van was fully equipped with everything we needed to enjoy our time, but still small enough to drive like a normal car. During the day, our campervan bed could be converted into a sitting area complete with bench seats and a table. We had a kitchen in the back and the van was even certified as a self-contained camper, which allowed us to camp wherever we wanted to. Our camper also had some sweet graphics painted on the side of it, and I have to tell you that the paint job made the trip more fun. There is just something about cruising down the road, listening to your favorite tunes, in a funky-cool looking campervan, that is sure to put a smile on your face.
Driving around we soon learned that just about everyone in Escape campervans were having a lot of fun too. Every time we passed an Escape, the passengers would wave or flash us a piece sign out the window. Driving around in an Escape campervan makes you feel like you are a member of a secret club of adventurers, making your way around New Zealand.
One of the South Island's unbelievably blue rivers
After spending a couple of weeks driving around New Zealand in a campervan, I managed to pick up a few tricks to share with you. Hopefully they will help you out when planning your New Zealand road trip.
Like Australia and England, they drive on the left in New Zealand. It’s not a big deal to get used to if you drive a car frequently, but I promise that you will be turning on your windshield wipers the first 200 times you try to hit the turn signal.
There is no shortage of campgrounds in New Zealand, but the last thing that you want to do is drive all day only to find that the campground where you were planning to crash is full for the night. There are some great free and cheap apps out there to help you figure out where to stay, get reviews from other campers, see pricing, make reservations, and get a number to call ahead to reserve a spot. We found the free Campermate App, and the semi-free WikiCampsNZ to both be indispensable on our trip. WikiCamps charges $10 for the App, but there is a 30-day free trial on Android, which may last your entire trip if you don’t activate it until you arrive in New Zealand.
Weather and Road conditions can be unpredictable in the South Island. While we were on our road trip, we were pummelled by a massive storm that knocked out all communications in the north-west and closed the roads that connected the northern half of the island to where we were staying. Because we were traveling by campervan, and didn’t have everything pre-booked, we were able to roll with the punches, adjust our route as needed, and carry-on without getting stranded or paying any cancellation fees.
“Freedom Camping” is a big thing here. There are a lot of campgrounds that are totally free to spend the night at. Many of the free sites don’t offer showers or running water, but some of the most beautiful scenery is at freedom camping sites. If you are running low on water, use one of the apps listed above to find a day use area with free drinking water. Paid campgrounds will usually set you back between NZD $10-35, but for that price you typically get clean bathrooms, showers, and a shared camp kitchen area. Many of these campgrounds will also let you use their showers for a nominal fee.
A lot of campgrounds take one and two-dollar coins for things like showers and laundry. Be sure to hang onto your gold coins so you can take advantage of the amenities at your campground.
Roads in New Zealand are steep and winding. Allow extra time to get to where you are headed. After a huge storm hit us, we saw a sink-hole that was practically big enough to swallow our campervan whole. Thankfully we weren’t hauling-ass, so we had plenty of time to go around it. Besides, the scenery is amazing, take your time and enjoy it.
Depending on where you are from, you will probably experience a bit of sticker-shock at the gas pumps in New Zealand. Petrol can easily cost upwards of USD $8 per gallon, or $2 per litre. Look for the NDP Petrol Stations, they consistently have the best price on gas. Beware though, NDP is cheaper, but they only sell gas. If you need a convenience store, restroom, or even a way to clean the bugs off your windscreen, you won’t be able to take care of that at NDP. Also, save your grocery receipts, they usually have a code that gets you a discount at nearby gas stations printed on the bottom.
Make sure that you have a certified self-contained campervan. Some campsites in New Zealand will only allow you to stay the night if you have the official sticker on your van.
There’s no way around it, mobile data is expensive in New Zealand. There are about three big players in the cellular business, and they all charge about $20+ for 10Gb of data. To make matters worse, service is limited outside of towns. We went with 2 Degree, mainly because they have sim cards in the tourist kiosks, but from what I hear from the locals, all the carriers are about the same.
Depending on what you want to see, you should be able to make a pretty good dent in the South Island in two to three weeks. We had originally planned to make a loop around the entire South Island, but a mega-storm put a slight wrinkle in our plans. Here is where we ended up going.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, and despite it’s nearly 400,000 inhabitants, it still feels like a small town. This is the best place to stock up on supplies before heading out in your campervan. If you are looking for food, PAKn’SAVE is a great bet. The giant supermarket is reminiscent of American warehouse mega-stores, only you can buy smaller quantities rather than lifetime-supply sized items.
For camping goods like tents, coolers and chairs, Kmart and The Warehouse are affordable options. Be sure to fill up your pantry before leaving Christchurch, as much of the South Island is a little sparse in the way of big grocery stores, and more expensive for basic items, like bread or milk. Don’t sweat the meat and vegetables too much though, there are a lot of farmers markets and local butchers scattered around New Zealand.
Our campervan at Onuku Farm Hostel & Campground
Located just 1.5 hours south of Christchurch, Akaroa is a cute little seaside town where you can swim with the world’s smallest, and rare Hector’s Dolphins. It’s also a great spot to just get some fish and chips and hang out along the scenic harbour. We stayed at Onuku Farm Hostel & Campground, which was clean and comfortable with flush toilets, three showers, and a camp kitchen for NZD $15 per person.
The view from Rakaia Gorge Campground
The Rakaia Gorge is just a little more than an hour to the west of Christchurch. The glacier-cut gorge features some of the bluest water that I have ever seen. You really have to see it to believe it. There is a company offering jet-boat rides up the gorge, or you can spend an afternoon fishing along the banks. We stayed at the Rakaia Gorge Campground which had amazing views of the gorge and clean amenities for the bargain price of NZD $10 per person.
Lake Wakatipu, just outside of Queenstown NZ
No road trip across the South Island would be complete without a stop at Queenstown. The picturesque resort town is located on the banks of Lake Wakatipu and is set along the backdrop of the New Zealand Southern Alps. Queenstown is a base for adventure sports and trekking in the southern part of the island. The surrounding area offers everything from hiking to bungy jumping, and even wine tasting at one of the many nearby vineyards. Glenorchy is just an hour past Queenstown and offers a way to experience Queenstown while avoiding some of the crowds of tourists that flock to the resort city. You can read more about Queenstown here.
The view from Mrs. Wooly's Campground
Mrs. Wooly’s Campground is set just below a stunning mountain range in the town of Glenorchy. The amenities are beautifully maintained and clean, especially the fantastic camp kitchen. The campsites are a bit close together in a grassy field, but it is one of the best options if you want a hot shower near Queenstown. NZD $40 for two people per night.
Milford Sound is a large glacier-cut fjord
Located in the Southernmost corner of South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to dramatic glacier cut sounds and canyons. The national park includes the amazingly beautiful Milford and Doubtful Sound Fiords. This whole part of the island is a hiker’s dream come true. With overnight treks and day hikes almost everywhere, this is a great place to get lost for a few days on your drive around the South Island. Be sure to stop off at Mirror Lakes which reflect the jagged peaks of the Earl Mountains in their glass-like surface. Read more about Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound here.
Walking the Keppel Track at Fiordland National Park
The area surrounding Fiordland National Park is literally covered in stunningly beautiful Department of Conservation Campgrounds. Many of these are free to stay at but offer little or no facilities other than pit toilets. Despite the lack of amenities, they tend to have far and away the best scenery. If you require flush toilets and a hot shower, I would recommend the sites below.
One of the sheep we stayed with at Lumsden Camping Ground
This great private campground, surrounded by working sheep pastures, is a lovely place to spend the night. The toilets are clean, and the showers are hot, making this a downright bargain at NZD $12 per person.
Knobs Flat Campgrounds
Knobs Flat Campground is actually more of a caravan park, but it does have modern facilities including 2 toilets and 2 showers and a small but nice camp kitchen. The price is a bit steep at NZD $20 per person, and it does get a bit crowded as one of the few campgrounds with a shower near Milford Sound.
The entrance to an ice cave at Fox Glacier
The Fox Glacier is the third largest of New Zealand’s 3,000 glaciers. Fox Glacier is more than 8 miles long and descends 8,500 feet from the Southern Alps into the coastal rainforest, carving a dramatic canyon as it slowly slides down the mountain and into the ocean. We were planning to spend a few days hiking at Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, but a storm two days before we arrived cut off all communications, and roads to the glaciers.
Landing in a helicopter on Fox Glacier
With all roads closed, the only way to reach Fox Glacier was by air, so we made the call to break our budget and pay for a helicopter to take us onto the glacier. We flew with Fox Glacier Guiding from the valley floor and landed right on the glacier ice. From there we were able to spend a half day hiking around the ice formations, including caves and tunnels before being air-lifted off Fox Glacier.
An ice cave on Fox Glacier
This was an amazing experience. Although it cost more than we had planned, I don’t think that we would have had nearly the same experience just hiking up to look at the glacier face on the national park trail. Unfortunately, the roads and bridge to Frans Josef Glacier was totally impassable, so we couldn’t see it at all this trip. Read more about hiking on Fox Glacier here.
The road outside of Pine Grove Motel
We found the Pine grove Motel to be the best option near Fox Glacier for camping. The small Motel offers standard rooms, and some parking spaces for campervans. There is a common area that looks like it was once a motel suite fully equipped with a shower, kitchen and even a television. We were the only ones staying there, so we had the entire place to ourselves for NZD $35 for the night.
Lake Tekapo is situated within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. The 4,300 square kilometre reserve is the only dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to the small population and limited light leakage, this is perhaps the best place for star gazing in New Zealand, if not the entire world.
This caravan park offers everything from cabins to tent camping. The amenities were great, but the price was a bit steep for what we got at NZD $40 for the night.
Jaii kayaking in Kaikoura South Bay
Located just 2 hours northeast of Christchurch, Kaikoura is a small scenic town, situated on a narrow peninsula, known for its abundance marine mammals. Here you can see sperm whales year-round, swim with dusky dolphins, and kayak alongside healthy colonies of fur seals. The charming little town of just over 2,000 inhabitants boasts a pretty lively nightlife with several jumping pubs on the main stretch through town.
Hanging out with the fur seals under "Shark's Tooth"
You can hire sea kayaks for a self-guided tour of Kaikoura’s South Bay or opt for a guided tour. We went for the self-guided option and paddled out to the end of the peninsula. At the end of the point, just beneath the pointy triangular rock jutting from the sea which the locals refer to a the “Shark’s Tooth” we encountered a small colony of resident New Zealand fur seals. The seals were super friendly and curious of us, swimming around our kayaks and showing off with underwater acrobatics. Kaikoura Kayaks was super professional, and our rental even included emergency flares, a radio and a cell phone. This seemed a bit like overkill, but to be fair, the bay does get foggy, and the currents can be swift around the point. They charge a little less for sit-on-top kayaks, than enclosed boats. I would recommend going to their shop early in the morning to discuss rental terms instead of booking online, as prices seem to vary between online booking sites.
Dive Kaikoura offers guided scuba dives and certification classes in the waters surrounding Kaikoura. If you are experienced divers, they will even rent you equipment so you can save a few bucks and go on self-guided dives. I would recommend the South Bay, as the waters tend to be a little calmer on this side of the peninsula, and if you are lucky, you may even have the chance to dive with one of the many fur seals that hang out beneath “the Shark’s Tooth” rock.
The view outside of our campervan at Donegal House Pub
Established in 1865, when the Boyd family left Donegal Ireland to settle in Kaikoura, the Donegal House is a warm and lively Irish public house and Inn. They generously offer free camping in their large parking lot, which includes surprisingly nice toilets and showers. You can get a site with power for NZD $20 per night, or camp for free and spend your money on a pint of Guinness, or their fantastic roast lamb or pork dinners. The pub is located just 8 minutes outside of downtown Kaikoura and has an amazing view of the nearby coastal range. This is a spot that is not to be missed, especially if you enjoy a homecooked meal and a cold pint of beer with your free camping.