Wow, a dream coming true to see the magical islands of New Zealand. In this article I will tell you all about the first part of my trip road tripping around the South Island. I have spent around three weeks exploring this beautiful and varying landscape with the most stunning hikes, extreme activities and amazing campgrounds. I would recommend everyone that is planning to go to New Zealand to rent or buy a self contained vehicle. There are so many freecamp spots all over New Zealand with magnificent views. Dream away in this article and book your next ticket to New Zealand, I promise you will never ever regret this.
As the cheapest flight from Australia at that moment was to Christchurch this is where my journey started. Via Facebook I came in contact with two travellers who wanted to do the exact route as me and were lucky enough to possess a Toyota Hiace backpackervan and thus the start of the ultimate roadtrip!
Days prior to meeting up with these people I had a few days by myself strolling around Christchurch area. Christchurch itself seemed a very quiet and calm town without many high buildings. Possibly this was due to the heavy earthquake they had endured in 2011. There is still a lot of damage to be restored especially when you walk past the central Cathedral.
I met up with some locals and spoke about what happened and they all seemed to tell me that it was the worst thing they had ever experienced and many people left their lives under the ruins. Nevertheless Christchurch is building and growing very fast with an optimistic vibe surrounding this city.
I stayed here for about three days and got the chance to borrow a car to check out the surroundings. Christchurch itself is not very big and therefore you would probably only need one or two days to visit.
Walk or grab a “Lime scooter” (electric step) to explore the city. There is a very very big park where you can play rugby, golf or any other sport you want to play on a beautiful and big grassy area. Of course there’s also the Botanical Garden which is worth the visit. Take a walk along the river or even kayak on the river on a nice summer day. For diner go to St Asaph street where you’ll find eateries such as Caribe Latin Kitchen, Little high eateries and Bacon brothers.
Godley Head Park – Akaroa – Lyttleton
One of the most beautiful hikes to get a first view on the beauty of New Zealand starts just a few kilometres away from Christchurch. Drive towards Sumner, a small surfertown with a nice beach and little surfbreak.
From there drive up the hill from where you’ll have beautiful views on Christchurch and the whole coastline. Continue down the twirling roads until you arrive in Godley Head Park. Start your hike along the ocean up the hill over to the other side and back. A beautiful nature trail very close to one of the biggest cities of the South Island.
Drive back towards Christchurch but turn left to go to the little town of Lyttleton. This is the marine town where big containerships come and go with supplies for most of the island. You can drive all the way along Governors Bay towards Motukarara, Little River to Akaroa. There’s a smal free campground in Little Rivers which looks out on the lake.
Akaroa is a small town based in the heart of an ancient volcano and is often visited by herds of dolphins. From here you can hop on many Dolphin excursion boats as well.
Geraldine – Lake Tekapo – Lake Pukaki Campground
On the way from Christchurch towards Mt. Cook you’ll pass by a pretty country town with an artistic streak. Geraldine has a lot of arts and crafts shops and is famous for the Salmon Pie! A nice lunch to get you going towards possibly the most beautiful lakes i’ve seen in the world so far!
The first lake you’ll pass is Lake Tekapo. One of the two crystal blue glacier-water lakes in that area. You can park your vehicle close to the Tekapo Springs from where the stunning Mt John Summit circuit track commences. The circuit allows 2-3 hours in total and has a cafe at the summit where you can recharge after the hike up.
After this mind-blowing hike it will be time to look for a campground. Imagine cooking diner next to one of the most blue lakes you have ever seen with Mount Cook in the background and the Milky Way looming when night falls. Well if you follow my roadtrip you don’t have to dream. Next to Lake Pukaki you can freecamp exactly the way I just described to you. Perfect to relax before your 6-8 hour hike to see Mount Cook.
Mt Cook – Muller Hut Hike – Lake Pukaki Campground
You haven’t been in New Zealand if you haven’t done any hikes! The one I did and which I could recommend sincerely to anyone that is physically fit enough, DO THE MULLER HUT HIKE.
It might be the hardest hike I did on my New Zealand trip but it was amazing. You can do it in one day (6-8 hour return) or stay the night in the Muller Hut itself. We did it in one day which was tiring but with the biggest fulfilment. So get up early and be prepared with water and energising food and go chase Mt Cook’s glaciers and waterfalls.
After the hike we didn’t want to drive and search for a new sleeping place so we went back to the Lake Pukaki Campground for a night.
Cromwell – Bendigo Campground
If you did the hike you’ll probably feel tired and sore and you feel like you need a relaxing day. This is exactly what we did. To freshen (and wake) up in the morning we jumped into the ice cold Lake Pukaki. An amazing experience and all for free!
And of course after a good filling breakfast you can slowly make your way towards Cromwell. A fairly small old gold mining town with some restaurants and a place to swim in the river. Because we were tired we and the weather was great we had a quiet day relaxing in the sun and swimming in the river.
Not far from Cromwell, a bit back on the way you came from there’s the Bendigo Free Campground. A busy campground but good enough for one night and an easy stop before you head to Queenstown.
If you’re the kind of person that loves adrenaline and adventure and natural beauty, then Queenstown is for you! Known as being the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown has been attracting visitors for decades, and now this once-sleepy little village tucked away in the mountains is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In summer you can mountain bike or downhill in several area’s around Queenstown which in wintertime turn into ski pistes. Other famous adrenaline things to do are bungee jumping, jet boat, climbing, go karting,…
Queenstown can be compared to a ski resort town with cosy small streets full of shops, restaurants and bars. A very outgoing vibe and a lot of drunk backpackers that are looking to party all night long wether you like it or not.
Hike up the Queenstown Hill in the morning to have your belly asking you for food and then definitely go try the Ferg Burger for lunch.
You’ll see a queue lining up and you might hesitate waiting but it is definitely worth the wait and a must do when in Queenstown!
Milford Sounds – Te Anau
You don’t have to go to Norway to see Fjords. You can either drive there yourself when you have time or do a bus day trip from Queenstown. As we thought it would save us some driving time we took the second option even though we rather organise everything ourselves. We booked a tour with Jucy and it was definitely worth it’s money.
The bus took us to Te Anau first for a short lunch stop before going into “the sounds”. You will drive through a long tunnel piercing the mountains and when you come out you’ll find yourself in a wonderland of enormously high steep mountains and (especially when it rained the day before) an uncountable ammount of waterfalls. In the end you’ll arrive at the ferry which will take you on a one and a half hour boattrip inside the sounds.
Arrowtown – Wanaka
When you’ve seen enough of the adventurous Queenstown you can continue your roadtrip towards the West Coast of the South Island. But not before you first head to Wanaka and it’s beautiful lake. Most travelbooks compare Wanaka with Queenstown but with a little less adventure. In my experience Wanaka does have some similarities to Queenstown except it is not as lifely.
On the way to Wanaka you’ll pass Arrowtown. A small old goldmining town which was firstly founded by Europeans and secondly by the chinese. From this last community there is still a small free Chinese Settlement museum which is a fun detour on your way towards Wanaka.
Wanaka is a lakefront town with many restaurants and shops but most of all some very impressive hikes. From here you can plan your hikes or even mountainbike rides in the Mt Aspiring National Park. But one of the most Instagram famous hike is not far from Wanaka itself. Roys Peak hike is probably one of the most famous walks in this area and it is truly magnificent.
The climb is rather boring and pretty tiring in the hot sun of summer but once at the top you’ve already forgotton what it took to take you there. You get beautiful views on Lake Wanaka and Mt Aspiring aswell as Wanaka Town. Enjoy the fact that there are no sandflights before you will go down the West Coast. You’ll know what I mean once you’ll get there!
West Coast: Haast – Ship Creek – Knights Point Lookout – Free camp South Westland Salmon Farm
Before you head back towards the ocean and this time on the ‘wet’ and less civilised side of New Zealand where welcomed by itchy little sandfly bites all over your body you’ll pass the Blue Pools. Wander through beautiful native forests and over a swing bridge to experience the pristine waters of Makarora River. For the daredevils out there it is possible to swim and jump from the bridge (with care) but beware the water is freezing cold!
Haast is a very small town with a gas station and a hotel. Good enough for a quick stopover to buy an ice cream and repellent and fill up your car with fuel. From here the road will start to line itself paralell to the ocean. There are two stops on this road which are worth stopping at. There aren’t as many nice freecampgrounds in this area but we slept at the back of a Salmon Farm which had some freecamp parking spaces.
From swamp forest to windswept sand dunes these walks will give you the first taste of this wild West Coast.
Knights Point Lookout
This lookout gives you a view on the green treecoated cliffs along the rugged ocean.
Fox Glacier – Franz Josef Glacier
You’ve probably heard of these two towns and glaciers when you previously did some research on New Zealand’s South Island. Fox Glacier’s road was closed at the time we were there so we couldn’t actually go to the glacier itself. But you get a spectacular view of this glacier and (the other side) of Mt Cook when you go to Lake Matheson. There is the Lake Matheson walk which takes you to the famous Mirror Lakes from where you can take the perfect picture of the mountains reflecting in the water at the Jetty Viewpoint.
Franz Josef Glacier is a very lively town with a lot of activities offered. Of course the main attraction is the Glacier itself to where you can either walk or take a helicopter ride out of town. From the town you drive towards the Franz Josef Glacier carpark from where several different hiking trails start. There are several different walking tracks in Glacier Country, from short scenic tracks to challenging multi-day hikes.Alex Knob track for example is an 8 hour walk which brings you above the Glacier with magnificent views. Another one we did was the Robbert’s Point Track which was insanely beautiful, challenging and fun. You will have to walk on long hanging bridges across small waterfalls into rainforest area to end up with a close view of the Glacier. Totally worth it even when it’s raining!
One more activity we really enjoyed doing was a Glow Worm Walk we did ourselves. When the night falls make you way towards the tracks of the Tatare Tunnels Walk. Make sure to take a good torch and a towel to dry your feet when you walk into the tunnel. On the way to the tunnel you will be surrounded by little shiny Christmas lights produced by the tails of Glow worms. A really fun and adventurous experience before you go to bed.
Hokitika gorge – Hokitika – Rapahoe Bay Holiday Park campground
Enjoy the short walk to the Hokitika gorge and it’s very blue (when it didn’t rain before) water. Cross the hanging bridge and if adventurous jump into the river from on of the cliffs. Be carefull though because the water is icy cold!
Get a nice lunch in Hokitika which is a very nice little town with a rugged beach and a few restaurants. We tried the fish and chips along the ocean which tasted really good after eating healthy campingfood all the time.
On the way we stayed at a very nice and cheap Holiday Park at the Rapahoe Bay. We were lucky to have a beautiful sunset on the beach.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks – Nelson – Ruby Bay Campground
Yes you can read it well Pancake Rocks! What better way to start your morning than visit these special rocks along the ocean and end up with a plate full of pancakes in the Pancake Rock Cafe. When lucky you might see some dolphins playing in the water too.
From here we drove immediately towards Nelson on the highway which follows the Inangahua River. It was actually a very beautiful drive through mountains and forests. We didn’t drive all the way towards Nelson because next on our schedual was Abel Tasman National Park.
We found another great and cheap campspot along the ocean which was called Ruby Bay Campground and only costs about 5 NZD per person. We stayed here before and after our trip to/from Abel Tasman National Park.
Marahau – Farewell Split – Hack’n Stay Golden Bay Camp
Because we wanted to have the best weather to see the golden beaches of Abel Tasman we had to postpone our plan of going there straight after. But instead we drove towards Motueka Shipwreck and Marahau which is the start of the Eastside of the National Park. From here you can start walking along the golden deserted beaches, find accomodation and a pizzeria.
Because of the bad weather we drove further towards the most northern point of the South island which was Farewell Split after we also stopped at Te Waikoropup Springs which probably had the clearest water I have ever seen. If you ever wondered how it feels to be at the end of the world where you’ll most likely be the only person around I would suggest you to walk the circuit on this Farewell Split peninsula. It will take you to a deserted beach with high green sanddunes along paddocks full of sheep and a lot of birds.
Because we decided to do a two day hike in Abel Tasman on the West end, starting from Totaranui, we found a horse riding farm with some campsites available. Also there was another glowworm walk not far from this farm which was a fun night activity before our well needed rest.
Two Day Abel Tasman National Park Hike (Totaranui – Bark Bay – Awaroa – Totaranui)
Finally the weather predictions seemed promising and we could start our two day hike in one of the most famous natural parks of New Zealand. The golden beaches with turqoise water and rainforesty surroundings is what makes this park so famous. And yes I would agree that is might be one of the most beautifull things I did on the South Island!
Most hikers start from the East Side of the park from Marahau. As we read that Awaroa was one of the best parts of this park we started our hike from the West side which was Totaranui. Best way to do it is to book a shuttle boat in advance which takes you to wherever you want in the park depending on how far you would like to hike. Also booking a campspot or a bed in a hut is necessary prior to the beginning of your trip.
We took a boat to Bark Bay and walked 13.5KM the first day to Awaroa where we camped. The day after we had to wait untill low tide before we could continue our walk back towards the car in Totaranui which added another 7KM.
When we arrived at the car we immediately swapped our hiking boots for swim pants and took a dive into the ocean before heading back towards Ruby Bay Campground.
WIth sore feet and legs we were happy to swap our tents for an actual bed and a warm shower in Nelson. Again a small town with some bars and restaurants. Because it was St Patricks day when we were there we saluted each other to a perfect South Island roadtrip with the most fun people I can imagine.
Nelson – Picton (ferry)
Because we wanted to get to the North island as fast as possible we got a relocation car ride to Picton from where we took the ferry to Wellington.
This was the first part of my New Zealand trip and I want to thank my two awesome travel companions Gwen and Wouter for the amazing trip. Never a complaint and never being difficult we all were a perfect match and I couldn’t have had a better time through New Zealand!