The Ultimate Guide to Road Tripping the South Island, New Zealand
33 days, two islands, 3400 driven miles, four best friends, one hospital admission, one van crash, two panic attacks, one Coachsurfing nudist, one missing shoe, several lakes, numerous beaches, many mountains, three museums, an unholy amount of beer, incalculable renditions to Disney and The Greatest Showman, walks, hikes, movies, card games, tears and laughs later, through blistering winds and scorching deserts... we have finally landed back safely in Queenstown; where it all began.
Up until we left on September 10th 2018, I had been working full time behind a bar and spent every spare second I had creating my illustrations and writing articles in order to scrape together as much money as I possibly could for the road trip of a lifetime. Then the day finally arrived to throw in the towel and set off with my three closest friends in a rented camper van across the whole of New Zealand.
Imagine after all that hard work, finally being able to shake the shackles and enjoy a month long holiday of hikes, walks, beaches, mountains, museums, sunsets… no curfews, no appointments, just doing whatever you want with no real commitments or rules. We were living in the woods. Off the grid. Outlaws chasing the sun. The overwhelming and completely empowering feeling of FREEDOM after being constrained for so long washed over me like the tide, and left me elated, yet feeling humble about myself and the world I was now discovering. And now I want to share our journey with you guys so that if you’re considering road trippin’ this astounding island, it may guide your decisions and help you out with a few tips!
Beginning in our awesome hometown in Central Otago, we traveled from Queenstown down to The Catlins, then up to the top of the South Island where we boarded a ferry and continued on up the North Island, finishing in Auckland on 10th October. We hit all the major cities and landmarks - though I’m sure there’s still plenty out there to see that we didn’t have time for. We tried to do as much as possible without cramming our days in and without spending too much money - so most of the activities we took part in were either free or found at a discount!
TIPS + INFO
7 THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BOOKING A ROAD TRIP IN NZ
Traveling through the summer time (December - February) is more expensive and a lot busier than winter. Camper hire is also double the price during this Christmas period. We decided to travel in September just after the ski season finished so that our budget stretched a little further.
Traveling in a camper van is the best way to explore New Zealand, as they are self contained you can freedom camp in most destinations - something that is prohibited in most areas if you only have a tent! Book your camper in advance and hunt around for the best deal before settling. We booked through Jucy (the ugly green and purple vans) as we knew somebody who managed to swindle us a decent deal.
Download CamperMate or WikiCamps to help guide you on your road trip, these apps are brilliant in aiding research on where to go and where you can legally camp.
As you travel around the islands you may experience every season in the space of a day! We drove from Dunedin where we were lounging in swimwear on the beach, through to Wanaka where roads were closed due to severe snow and then through to Franz Josef where we witnessed the most fantastic sunset in the crisp Spring air. Pack for all occasions folks.
The South Island is better known for it's mountainous regions, lakes and national parks - whereas the North Island has bigger cities, pretty towns and stunning beaches. Pack bug spray because the sand fly's are plentiful on the South Island!
To keep costs down, do bulk shopping trips whilst in the cities and stock your cupboards so that you can cook at the campsites. Dining out and petrol was the biggest cash burner we experienced.
If you're wanting to freedom camp as much as possible, go fully equipped with baby wipes, towels, dry shampoo and soap! The lakes are freezing but if you think you can hack it, you can bathe in the fresh mountain waters - it'll certainly wake you up in the morning.
We managed to get a really good deal at Jucy rentals for our camper van (JJ knew a guy who knew a guy who’s cousin twice removed knew a dog owned by a guy who worked there…) so the four of us paid $500 each for the van including insurance for the duration of the month. Petrol was a huge knock to our bank balance, as those road beasts guzzle fuel like an Irish man in a brewery. I reckon we spent around $600 each on petrol - but the money that we filtered into our joint 'petrol' account ended up occasionally paying for food and accommodation as well, so the exact amount on fuel alone is unclear.
Now, you may be looking at the camper and wondering how the hell we fit four adults in there… but all it took was a little bit of patience and some serious Tetris skills. Every evening when we rocked up to a campsite we’d leave two people sat in the front whilst the other two got ready for bed. We would then swap over and move our bags around so that everyone could sleep comfortably - then in the morning we would Tetris everything around again. We even had a TV in the back, so nightly DVD binging kept us entertained.
The camper was self contained, meaning that it had an on board toilet - however, it was basically a pull out potty, so as you can imagine, none of us really fancied whipping that out for all to see - a public bathroom or simple bush sufficed. You gotta do what ya gotta do.
Freedom camp wherever you can get away with it. We downloaded WikiCamps (every travelers fave app) which highlighted designated and legal areas in which self contained vehicles could park up for free - so we would do this for two nights and then on the third night stay at a campsite that had hot showers (a luxury on the road my friends), toilets and kitchen facilities.
Campsites seemed cheaper on the South Island than the North, but generally you’re looking at between $35-$45 for two people for a powered site. Wifi (occasionally) and laundry are often an additional cost. We also gave Couch Surfing a try when we got to Wellington - Couch Surfing is a website and app that allows travelers to connect and open up their homes for others to stay in free of charge or in exchange for a service (such as art, hobbies, food, beers etc.), it’s a great way to meet people and give something back to the community. A friend had recommended a particular host in Wellington and I was curious to see how it worked, so we went for it.
Actually, our host was a nudist. Nervous, but feeling ready to embrace someone else’s lifestyle choice, we huddled outside his house in anticipation of the night ahead… as it was my idea I had to knock on the door and introduce myself first, but to my surprise (and slight disappointment as I felt it took away from the story) the most naked the guy got throughout the night was a shower towel. AND HE WAS THE LOVELIEST PERSON I’VE EVER MET. What an absolute gem. He couldn’t have made us feel anymore welcome and we enjoyed watching comedy shows all evening as we cooked him a thank you meal for his hospitality. (If you want to stay with our wonderful friend, shoot me a message and I can link you!).
As we were travelling with Dave, our resident vegan, and as I am newly vegetarian, we nominated him to be our trip chef. Happy to delve into the role, Dave cooked up an animal friendly storm most nights. Our van was a small space to have to cook in, so we tried to use campsite facilities whenever we could (washing up in our van sink was pretty gross and energy consuming so we used public toilet sinks for this) and obviously poor Dave needed nights off, so we would use TripAdvisor and First Table to scout out local vegan restaurants and cafes.
Our van had a fridge and mini freezer built in, so there were always cold beers and road snacks to hand. Considering we were travelling at minimum expense, we never skimped on our dining experiences!
Other than our daily sing-a-longs to Queens greatest hits, our entertainment consisted of movie nights, card games (we got very competitive over a game called ‘Shit head’ of which we are all now experts at playing), drinking games, playing football and frisbee on the beach, and watching JJ’s snapchat stories - which took about an hour out of our day. There was honestly never a dull moment, and when we felt like being a little less social, I read my book, did some artwork or we sat and edited the hundreds of photos we had taken.
Most of the activities we did consisted of walks and hikes to waterfalls, sunsets, mountains and beaches, which we would often skip and dance around to! It was nice traveling with such a theatrical bunch…
SOUTH ISLAND ROUTE
The Catlins; Curio Bay
Picton - ferry to Wellington
TRAVELLING THE SOUTH ISLAND
1. Invercargill / Bluff
We left Queenstown around 3pm Monday 10th September, and after a two hour drive (full of some very enthusiastic and out-of-tune singing to The Greatest Showman soundtrack) down to Invercargill, we stopped by the Queens Gardens and had a little play on the wooden sculptures like the big kids we are. There wasn’t much to do in Invercargill except raid their SaveMart for secondhand garms’ and dine - so we continued driving down to Bluff that evening, picked a spot to freedom camp and settled down for our first night in the van.
The next morning we lifted the blinds to the sun streaaaaaming in through the windows and it was the official first day of our tour! We went down to Stirling Point where we did a short seaside track walk and had a picnic (we did a lot of this on the trip). There wasn’t a great deal to do in Bluff either, except admire the views and enjoy some time in the sunshine (it had been a lonnnnng winter in Queenstown). From here we drove about 1hr20m to Curio Bay in The Catlins ready for a spectacular sunset.
2. The Catlins
I’d previously spent a few days in The Catlins already, but was super excited to head back because it is so raw and beautiful down there. At the Southernmost point of New Zealand, The Catlins is adorned with scenic hikes and beaches where swimming with dolphins isn’t uncommon. It’s the perfect destination for some camping and outdoor activities. We walked along Cannibal Bay, Curio Bay and Slope Point where we saw loads of Sea Lions and then ventured to Matai/Horseshoe falls, Cathedral Cave, Jacks Blow Hole and Surat Bay for yet another incredible sunset.
After a nights stay at Kaka Point camping ground ($18pp), we drove to Nugget Point and walked to the lighthouse (amazing views and more Sea Lions). Don’t head to The Catlins without also stopping by The Lost Gypsy Gallery - a playground gem nestled in Curio Bay and created by artist and inventor Blair Somerville. The themed immersive gallery is closed April-October so this time round I wasn’t able to share his handmade automata creations with my friends, but usually it costs about $8 to go and push buttons, wind machines, watch political characters make fools of themselves, play games and stand in awe at one mans theatrical vision. Another (free) spectacle you can visit nearby is Teapot Land in Owaka - a strange yet amusing collection of teapots on display in a whimsical garden... worth a photo.
Nugget Point is one of my favourite places to photograph. Even on a stormy day, the lighthouse looks so majestic perched at the end of that crooked pathway.
Accommodation recommendations: Curio Bay camping ground is right on the beach front. It’s fairly cheap to stay but as it was still winter the showers weren’t running and so we parked up to a power bay and stayed for free.
Luckily for us, the weather got warmer as we ventured a little further Northwest to the student city of Dunedin. We met up with one of our old housemates and enjoyed playing football on the beach, surrounded by an abundance of doggies paddling in the waves. We did a pretty hefty hike through the sand dunes at the Otago Peninsula where we ended up hiding in a bush photographing about seven very masculine and territorial sea lions! It was worth every drop of sweat. Lanarch Castle is another awesome spot to go and visit though entry fees are rather overpriced.
Dunedin is great for a night out; we had some drinks at our campsite and boogied in town until our tired little heads were barely on our shoulders. It was also a great shopping hub - so we all took to the shops like a kid at Disneyland and stocked up on necessities. I highly recommend dining at Spirit House (vegan and veggie curries yum!) - I've now eaten here three times and it gets better with every visit.
Accommodation recommendations: there is free overnight parking on the beach front esplanade with public toilet access that we found via WikiCamps. On the second night we stayed at Leith Valley camping ground ($40 for 2 people).
4. Moeraki Boulders / Oamaru
On our way from Dunedin up to Lake Tekapo we stopped off at Moeraki - a tourist gold mine consisting of oddly spherical boulder formations scattered along Koekohe Beach. There were loads of people taking photos of the rocks - which looked suspiciously like the troll family from Frozen. Then just before dawn set in, we managed to reach Oamaru where we spotted hundreds of penguins lining up on the pier!
Eager to get a bit of star gazing in, we drove to Lake Tekapo and parked up by one of the most photographed churches in the world; the Church of the Good Shephard. Here are some AMAZING pictures that our talented trip photographers, Mairead and Dave took:
Accommodation recommendations: Freedom camp at Pattersons Park
5. Lake Tekapo / Lake Pukaki / Mt. Cook in the Mackenzie region
Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are two of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. So blue they look like the contents of a million WKD bottles. We drove to the lakes and after skimming some stones and basking in the heat we carried on until we reached Mount Cook's Hooker Valley where we planned to do a hike.
The Hooker Valley trail is about a 3hr return trek and takes you over bridges and mainly flat terrains through to a viewpoint at the bottom of a glacier (you can see mini icebergs floating in the lagoon and it’s pretty awesome). Mount Cook is so surreal it looks like a painting. That’s three absolute South Island must-sees that you can smash out in one day! (To read more about what to do in the Mackenzie region read here)
(These are some of the photos that were taken last year on a hike through Hooker Valley)
Coming from a very rainy Mount Cook we were stunned that our drive to Franz Josef was an extremely white one. This was our longest leg of the journey - 5.5 hours on the road, so we stopped in Wanaka for a break. The snow was coming down hard and it felt like we had travelled through all four seasons since the sun in Dunedin. We visited the most photographed tree in the world (bit of a pattern forming here…) #thatwanakatree and ate lunch at the Big Fig before driving to Ship Creek for the best sunset ever (yes we also witnessed several of 'the best ever's'), and camped at Fox Glacier campsite.
To read more about what to do in Wanaka click here - as Queenstown is so close (an hours drive) we come here quite a lot, so decided to skip it out of our mammoth trip, though there is plenty to see and do in this stunning town!
7. Franz Josef
We did the Lake Matheson hike through what felt like a tropical rainforest in Indonesia. The circuit track is really beautiful as you hike through exotic woodland terrain. After a lovely morning walk we then went and did the Franz Josef hike to the glacier viewpoint. A lot of tourists pay to fly in a helicopter and land on the glacier itself - it’s said to be one of the coolest things to do in NZ, but as budgets were stretched we stuck to the public walk and admired the glacier from afar.
That evening we stayed at Starlight campsite in Hokitika, which is a two minute walk from a glow worm dell! Seeing those little guys light up the forest with their luminous butts was quite something...
Accommodation recommendations: Starlight campsite
We arose and headed straight for the beach to find some jade! This was one of my most anticipated activities; as a creative person I couldn’t wait to make my own greenstone in Hokitika. We scoured the beachfront all morning collecting rocks of all shapes and sizes in the hope that at least some of them were the iconic New Zealand greenstone.
Surely enough our spidey-senses were on point! We gathered our rocks and took them to a jewelry store who identified a couple of them as the genuine article. Using their facilities and machinery they then showed us how to polish, shape and drill our chosen stones in to pendants which I now have on a chain around my neck. It was such a fun way to spend the morning and cost us as little as $20 to all wear a piece of magnificent nature that we sourced ourselves.
After creating our own greenstone, we decided to reward our hard work with a tour around Monteith's Brewery in Greymouth. In all honesty, as fun as it was, it definitely wasn’t worth paying for. Luckily we found a $15pp deal on bookme.com - I think the usual price is almost double. The beer was obviously great, the tour guide and all staff were awesome, but unless you’re a brewer or hop fanatic, the tour is just very short and basic (nothing like the Dublin Guinness factory). We had a good laugh and you get three tasters included in the tour price so it was a nice way to break the day up!
Later that evening we pulled up in Ivan bay and freedom camped after meeting some of our Swedish friends who we'd bunked with back in Queenstown. They had caught a large fish and were cooking it on the fire - serious Bear Grylls stuff. The stars were incredible and as we were right next to a small lake, the lads enjoyed a spot of kayaking the next morning!
Accommodation recommendations: Ivan Bay, Moana freedom camp spot (you're welcome)
We enjoyed a First Table (half price deals guys, get on that) breakfast at Miro - which was DELICIOUS - and spent our day shopping and mooching around the city. Unfortunately I hadn't heard great things about Christchurch, so I wasn't expecting much.
Since the 2011 earthquake which shook the city with devastation and destruction, Christchurch has lacked tourist appeal and had been described often as a ‘depressing’ destination to be in. But I didn’t feel that at all. Most of the city is under construction still but there was such a sense of community there; everyone was working hard to pick up the pieces. It felt productive and hopeful that the people could recreate what was once a great city. We spent the afternoon strolling through the botanical gardens, watching baby ducklings belly flop in to the pond and then ended up playing pool and scoffing pizza at Rockapool World before shooting off to Kaikura for the night.
Accommodation recommendations: Amber Park campsite
12. Kaikura / Nelson
We had plans to do a couple of walks in Kaikura, as it was so beautiful and hot when we were there. Unfortunately because of the earthquake, there was a lot of roads and routes still blocked off which meant that we didn’t really get to experience the region. We made the decision to enjoy the drive and went straight to Nelson where we got food, enjoyed a picnic, a spot of shopping and camped in Abel Tasman. Nelson was definitely one of those places that I wish I had longer to explore. The seaside-esque town reminded me of my family holidays to Wales where we would stay in Bala or Llandudno; colourful pretty buildings and harbours full of boats.
13. Abel Tasman
I expected big things from Abel Tasman and it did not disappoint. The winding roads were quite difficult to drive around and left us all feeling a little travel sick, but once you’re on the mountain side looking over the natural phenomena below, the uneasiness subsides. I recommend the hike to Goats Bay - it’s a graft getting up the inclines, but once you’re on the beach (and the tide is out) you can climb across all the boulders and rocks to get back to the beach, saving you having to do a mainly up-hill loop back to your starting point. We did a couple of other short hikes around Abel Tasman and spent some time on the beaches watching the sunset. We stumbled across some more sea lions too! An astounding area for those that love the great outdoors.
Accommodation recommendations: Farewell Campsite
14. Picton - Ferry to Wellington
We stayed over in Picton before clambering on to the ferry the next day which would cart us, van and all, over to the countries capital; Wellington (I think we paid around $300 for the van and four of us to get on with discounted tickets).
Now, I knew I suffered with motion sickness (so I had my Sea Legs tablets at the ready), but my god I don't think I will ever experience a boat ride as terrible as that. I spent most of the 3.5 hour crossing outside clinging on to the railings for dear life as the boat rocked like a bucking bronco and threw up twice into a paper bag. Tragic start to a long day. I was glad we were flying back to Queenstown from Auckland rather than making that choppy journey again!
Our trip so far had been full of fun, adventure and cracking banter. We couldn't wait to see what lay in store for us on the North Island! Keep up-to-date via Halcyon's social media channels to continue reading about our New Zealand road trip! (NORTH ISLAND POST COMING SOON)