Flights booked, bags packed, route planned, campervan booked – this long-coming trip was about to become a reality! Numerous times we’ve discussed traveling to New Zealand (NZ), but there was always something that got in the way – adequate time off, the right season, money… We finally found the perfect time for us; winter vacation in Korea, and the whole of January to explore NZ!
Arrival in Auckland
We started this journey of ours in the north (just a short stop!). We were picked up at the airport in Auckland by friends, with whom we stayed for 2 days to slowly settle in, get our bearings and get some final advice before setting off on our own. Janeke and Johan showed us around their home digs, Puki (Pukekohe, 40min outside Auckland), took us to beautiful Piha beach, and as us Saffas like doing – we had a barbecue feast (with all the necessary accompanying cold beverages…)!
Campervan pick-up, Christchurch
We flew down from Auckland (only 1h30min), where we were picked up and taken to our AirB&B close by the airport. We just relaxed and planned for the next day when we’ll pick up the campervan and then explore Christchurch in the morning before setting off inland.
After picking up our Rocket campervan at Spaceships, we head out to the city centre to explore a bit. It was kind of unreal standing there, looking at the destruction caused by the 2011 earthquake. We’ve never been in an area where we could literally see the after affects of a natural disaster. A lot of construction is under way, and hopefully the city will bounce back and regain what made it awesome in the first place.
We walked around the Re: START Mall area, which unintentionally became a tourist attraction… This is because when the shops were destroyed, they had to open up somewhere else ASAP, so they used big containers… They painted it bright colours, and now it kind of is an unique area to see. There’s a tram that goes around showing tourists the destruction after the earthquake, and we also walked to Cathedral Square to check out the remains.
After spending the morning exploring, we hopped in the camper, dropped by Pak n Save, and bought all the supplies we need to stock up our camper for the trip. We immediately start our drive towards Mt. Cook, and along the way we realise that it actually takes much longer than initially planned (when just sitting there with a map in your hand).
Lake Tekapo & Pukaki
We stop at the beautiful blue Lake Tekapo, where we also check out the historic Church of the Good Shepherd. We planned to camp out here for our first night, but sadly didn’t find a good enough spot. We moved on to Lake Pukaki. On arrival, we see some campers to our right, and decide to check out the spot.
We got there, and immediately knew we want to camp there for our first night – literally on the edge of a bluff, right on the lake, and then a beautiful view of Mt. Cook in the distance. A bonus was also that it was free. (PS there’s only one ‘bush toilet’ amongst the trees, and a tap to get water at).
The next morning we set off rather early to get to Mt. Cook. The drive there from Lake Pukaki took about 1h. The drive in to the national park is breathtaking – the white, snow-capped mountains in the distance, and as you get closer it just grows, until we arrived at our campsite and it felt like the mountains just towered over us. Very scenic drive, be prepared to stop a few times for pics 🙂
Aoraki Mount Cook
On arrival at the White Horse Hill DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite, we see loads of cars and campers. We were still on a ‘scenic high’, so it didn’t even matter at that moment. We signed ourselves in at the ‘honesty box’ (NZ$10 pp), and found a site to camp for the night.
[How it works: camping at DOC sites. At the entrance of the campsite, you’ll see a ‘stand’ with information about the site and hiking tracks (if available). There will be a box containing a resealable plastic bag, with a registration slip inside. You fill out your details, tear off one half (which goes in your windscreen), then the other half you put, with the right amount of money, in the little bag. This you then deposit into the big ‘post box’. Either that night, or early morning a ranger will usually collect these bags, and walk around checking the registration numbers on the vehicles to see if people paid. If not, you pay on the spot.]Our mission for the day – to hike the Hooker Valley Track. We started at around 10:30am. This hike is SO scenic all the way, and not too hard (no serious inclines), but still a reasonable level of fitness is required to actually enjoy the hike… At the beginning of the hike, you get to lookout point, affording beautiful views of Lake Mueller. You will cross three swing bridges, before you reach the end of the track at the glacial Lake Hooker. Take some snacks and a drink, and bask in the beauty of Aoraki Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier before heading back as you came. [How long? The hike there with numerous photo/video stops took us around 1h10min with a brisk walk. The return was shorter.]
After the hike we were quite pooped. We made a quick lunch (sandwiches and ‘instant pasta’ on the side), had a nice warm shower (thanks awesome solar shower bag!), and took a nap. That night was quite windy, so preparing food was a mission, but we managed (most people use the shelter and cooking facilities in there – we’re not that much into crowds whilst cooking).
Arrival in Queenstown
We got an early start (early to bed, early to wake up) and started in the direction of Queenstown (QT), our next stop. We realised we’re running dangerously low on fuel, but luckily made it to Twizel where we filled up after driving for quite some time with the little “orange light of death” on. Just outside Twizel, we pull over at a rest stop/picnic area for some breakfast – coffee, pancakes and our fruit-yogurt-muesli mix!
Driving through farming areas is inevitable in NZ, and sometimes it was very strange to see dry looking (yellow) fields on one side, and then directly opposite that on the other side of the road, lush green fields with cattle grazing on them. As we went along the winding roads, the rolling hills of the surrounding area was mesmerising.
We took a break at a farm-stall and café to stretch legs, and to pick up a few snacks. We also bought a little mascot for the rest of the trip – a soft and fluffy little sheep. It stayed in the windscreen for the rest of the trip, helping to navigate as we went.
We eventually arrived at the Kawerau gorge, and we stopped at the AJ Hackett Bungy bridge, to get ourselves mentally prepared for tomorrow’s shenanigans… The drive in to QT was just, WOW. Quite possibly the most beautiful place we’ve ever been to. Towering mountains surrounding it, a beautiful lake. Wow.
On arrival, we were already thinking where we were going to sleep. We got our ‘7 day DOC campsite pass’ (what’s this? Check ‘tips’ and save money), acquainted ourselves with the city, and went shopping for dinner and breakfast (Fresh Choice is a good supermarket – Countdown is way outside the town).
For the first night, we decided to camp at 12 Mile Delta DOC
campsite (closest DOC site to QT, didn’t want to drive much further). It is 11km west of QT on the Glenorchy Road. We found a spot, and settled in. We went for a swim in Lake Wakatipu, and was it cold!
Unfortunately it was quite windy at 12 Mile Delta, and with it having lots of open soil patches, it was a dusty business (summer, dry…). The next morning we quickly packed up, and stopped at a more sheltered area on the lake to have breakfast. Bellies full, we were ready for the (unplanned) hectic day that lay ahead.We walked around the lakeside a bit, and explored more of town before our 11am engagement. After quite some anticipation, the moment of truth was slowly but surely drawing closer – we were going bungy jumping for the first time in our lives! So far, this was the biggest thrill I have ever experienced! That moment when you stand there, you know it’s your turn next, you shuffle towards the edge of the platform with your feet tied tightly together, and for a fleeting moment you think of the worst case scenario… Your toes are over the edge, the wind and openness slaps you in the face, countdown starts. THREE – no turning back now, TWO – heart starts beating in throat, ONE – bend knees, take the leap. “This is an awesome feeling! Oh crap, this bungy cord better not snap. The river is rushing towards me!” And then the bungy cord does its job, just before you hit the water face first, shooting you back up towards the bridge.
Right after me, it was M’s turn. She didn’t even hesitate for a second, and jumped with a loud ‘wooohooooo’ escaping her mouth, reverberating down the river canyon! I was so proud of her in that moment, because she initially really struggled with the idea of hurling herself off of that bridge – what a champ. It was all smiles and high-fives after – we were on a high for the rest of the day!
After the bungy, on a whim we decide to take the ‘detour’ road via Arrowtown back to QT. Arrowtown is a quaint, small little town renowned for its gold mining activities back then. We strolled through the streets taking in the architecture, and had a bite to eat at “The Shed” (must stop – the burgers and vanilla milkshake is good) next to a piece of grass just as a street performer was getting ready… On the way back to QT you pass through shotover canyon, and we saw some jetboats speeding up the narrow Shotover River.With the adrenaline of the bungy jumps still coursing through us, we stopped at the Skyline Gondola and Luge. The gondola and 2 luge rides costs NZ$45. We had fun zipping down the tracks, feeling like young kids, chasing each other to see whose the winner… (and we know who was). Even if you decide not to luge, it’s still worth it to go up with the gondola just to experience the views. It’s spectacular – and you get a pretty good idea of the whole layout of the town and surrounding area along the lake (we also heard the night views are just as breathtaking).
After having so many people around us, it was time to ‘escape the hordes’. We decided to go a bit further afield, and explore up north along Lake Wakatipu, in the direction of Glenorchy. Again, only the drive there was worth it – really beautiful!
Even the super strong winds couldn’t spoil the views we had. The drive there is 45km, and the Kinloch DOC campsite is another 26km past Glenorchy, of which 19km is a gravel road (so decide if you/your car is ready for it). The gravel road and long distance was SO worth it…
Once we arrived, we knew we made the right decision. Our campsite/parking spot was right ON the lake. The whole site sits kind of in a bay with a small jetty, and from the left a river flows into the lake. The wind, or even the lack of showers couldn’t dampen our high spirits at this point. The lake lay spread out before us, glistening as the sun went down, there is a nice little treehouse with views over the lake, and to our right the huge, dramatic mountains loomed – picture perfect! (There is a lodge to stay at too as an option, and showers can be had at a price)
Back in QT we met up with our friend from Korea, and head over to Fergburger to see/taste what the fuss is all about. Best. Burger. EVER. No jokes. We had a Fergburger with cheese, and it plainly was the best we’ve ever had. It was worth the wait in the queue outside the restaurant (EVERY time we drove past, there was a queue outside – we now understand why!)For our last night in QT, we decide to go check out Lake Moke DOC campsite. Again, it’s not the most car friendly place to get to (some gravel road), but believe you me, the juice is worth the squeeze! The drive is along a valley. You’re welcomed by beautiful, grass and bush covered rolling mountains on either sides. You pass a smaller lake, before arriving at one of our favourite campsites of the trip, which is once again next to a lake, surrounded by the picturesque mountains. There’s a nice cycle/jogging/walking path along Lake Moke, and the lake is perfect for a dip (although cold as…).
Te Anau/Milford Sound
Before setting off to Te Anau, we stop at Countdown on our way out, and load up on supplies. It might also be a good idea to fill up on gas. It took us 2h20min to get there. Insider tip: we met a girl at Kinloch, who told us we HAD to watch the documentary about Fiordland at the cinema, it is something special. We did just that. The theatre is small, but has big comfy seats, and you can even order some snacks and drinks (tea/coffee/wine) to have whilst watching. The documentary has some spectacular cinematography, and we were glad we took the time to watch it. [showing times are quite regular, cost is NZ$10 and showtime is 30min].
Our DOC campsite for the night is Henry Creek, which is 26km outside Te Anau (on the road out to Milford Sound). The campsites are right on Lake Te Anau, amongst some trees. The lakeshore is covered in pebbles, basically forming a ‘pebble beach’. We just chilled there for the day – swimming, reading, hammocking, and watching the sun go down over the mountains (at around 9:30pm – crazy!).
The next day we headed back in to Te Anau, from where we hopped on a bus that would take us to Milford Sound where we’d hop on
the boat cruise. The bus (not those big ones) took about 2h20min to Milford, with some stops along the way, and Bruce, our very informative driver provided us with all kinds of interesting tales and information about the area as we went along. ALL the way is so scenic, that the lengthy drive doesn’t even matter – untouched forest, dramatic and imposing mountains, The Mirror Lakes, it’s all just amazing to see.
We hopped on the huge Jucy boat on arrival, and even though there were many people onboard, it didn’t feel crowded at all. The cruise itself was
an hour and a half, and felt just long enough. Cruising between the fiords (yes, it’s actually not a sound, but they just roll with it) was an unforgettable moment. Especially when the captain almost ‘parked’ the boat under a waterfall. All in all, one of our best memories from the South Island – it’s quite out of the way, but well and truly worth it to do this either as a day trip, or like some people that have the time (and money) to do the overnight cruises. Doubtful Sound (the alternative to Milford) is apparently also just as scenic!
That’s another upside to having a flexible itinerary, and your own transportation – to be able to change your plans as you go. We felt there isn’t much more for us to see in Te Anau, so we decided to drive back to QT. Once there, the plan changed again – “let’s just push through to Wanaka (our next stop), it ain’t much further”.
We read that the drive from QT to Wanaka via the Crown Range, and through the Cardrona Valley, it is quite scenic, and we’re all about that… And was it! I swear, driving has never been this much fun – around every bend in the road it seems there is an opportunity for a picture.
Now, on arrival in Wanaka, we were running low on juice. Not the van, but every other electronic device on us. [That’s another consideration if you’re planning to travel mainly by camping – how/when/where are you gonna recharge batteries]. So, we decided it was time for a bit of a ‘treat’ – we checked in to the Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park. The staff at reception is super friendly and helpful. They are very resourceful, so pick their brains about the area if you don’t have your plans locked down!
Let me tell you, I love camping, and our solar shower bag is awesome, but damn, a proper warm shower and cooking facilities inside is quite awesome once in a while when on the road 😉 The freezer, toaster, microwave, hot plates, hot-water dispenser, free wi-fi, sauna and plugs for charging was a welcome sight!
Because the staff at reception is obviously from the area, they could direct us to the most popular hiking trails. We decided on the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain track. Yes, there are some other spectacular hikes (would have loved to do some others too if time allowed), but this one was flippen cool, and we highly recommend it!
You have stunning views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding area as you ascend, and when you reach the top you have a beautiful view of Mt. Aspiring. The hike took us only 2h30min, and this included breaks and many photo and video (watch this space for the video) stops 😉 [Marené’s TIP: hike the eastern track up – the slope is more gradual, and all the way you have Lake Wanaka over your right shoulder]
After the hike we were quite sweaty, so we went for a swim, and had a picnic lunch next to the lake. You can’t visit Wanaka and NOT stop by #ThatWanakaTree for a picture or three. We walked around town a bit, picked up some supplies at New World, and had a nice locally brewed beer at a popular spot on the main street next to the lake.
The next destination was the West Coast, so we drove to Boundary Creek DOC campsite, which was 40min outside Wanaka, and on the way to the Haast Pass. The next morning, we started off early without breakfast – the bloody sandflies didn’t allow it! Before we knew it we were at our first planned stop in the Haast Pass, the Blue Pools. It’s well worth the 30min return walk, where you pass over 2 suspension bridges.
Next we stop at Thunder Creek Falls, which is only a 5min return walk (very close to carpark),and a very impressive waterfall across an emerald green creek. We then stop at the Roaring Billy Falls, which is about a 25min return walk. The walk to the river is stunning, and it feels like you’re walking through a forgotten forest – lush green all around, old moss covered trees and the ubiquitous ferns. The waterfall is tiered and on the other side of the blue river.
All the way to Haast it feels like you are part of a fantasy novel, and you’re driving through an enchanted forest… It was quite misty in some areas, which added to the
ethereal feel of the drive.
Ten minutes past Haast (which if you blink, you’ll miss it), you get to Ship Creek that we highly recommend you take some time to explore. A nice driftwood covered beach with some sand dunes, and a beautiful ‘Swamp/Forest Walk’. I know, it doesn’t sound that attractive does it? But believe you me, it’s worth your time. We took a leisurely stroll along the path, where some of the trees there are said to be from the Jurassic period (crazy, that’s like, dinosaur times people!), and are huge, with lots of smaller plants and climbers growing on them. We spent about an hour exploring in there…
The next drive was a long-ish stretch to reach glacier country. On the way we pull over at this scenic spot with a spectacular view of the coastline, and some small rock outcroppings in the sea. We arrive at Fox Glacier, and do
the hike to the face (20min, brisk walk). From the lookout, 200m further, you can see the face of the glacier. Don’t know exactly what we expected, but we were underwhelmed. The face is really dirty, and mostly look like soil, or the side of a mountain, than a glacier. A popular thing to do is to take a helicopter flight over the glacier, and then also to go walk on it – which I believe will be awesome. But, for us it wasn’t ‘on the list’ of things we really wanted to do, and a ‘bit’ outside our budget.
The closest ‘budget friendly’ campsite was Gillespies Beach – actually, it’s free (with
reason; there ain’t much). We got there, and it’s essentially just a carpark, a tap, 2 toilets and a piece of grass for tents. There is a huge rocky beach, from which we watched the sun set that night.
The next morning we hike to Lake Matheson to check out the famous reflections of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. We were a bit bummed that we couldn’t see the snow/ice-capped mountains in the reflections (thanks clouds!), but it was still beautiful. Worth a stop if you’re in the area (only 15min drive from Fox Town).After our early stop at Lake Matheson, we were off to check out Frans Josef (FJ) Glacier. Now, THIS is what we had in mind! The walk to the terminal face of the glacier is more scenic, passing a few waterfalls, and you walk up along a turbulent river. It is also less arduous than the one at Fox. The FJ glacier face is much cleaner, and more defined than Fox. We were glad we decided to see both, but if you ever had to choose just one, hands down it should be FJ glacier. The hike there and back (and a rest period at the lookout) took us about 1h30min.
We were heading north after glacier country, and stopped at pretty Lake Ianthe to have our lunch there. After that, it was the long stretch to reach Punakaiki (half the fun in NZ is trying to pronounce the names of the places correctly, lol!).
We stop at Hokitika, walk along the seaside with an ice-cream, and take some pictures… [Marené’s TIP: shop in Greymouth for supplies, it’s rather big and they have a New World]. We arrive in Punakaiki at around 5pm, and immediately stop to go check out the Blowholes and Pancake Rocks. We walk the loop track, and it’s quite cool to see the rocks that literally look like… you know… You also get some nice views of the coastline. Definitely a ‘must do’ when in the area.
We check in to Punakaiki Beach Camp (NZ$17 p/p), where all spots are on grass – nice! This was a really cool camp with clean facilities, hot showers (ohhhh yeahhhh), a beautiful beach and lush green surrounding mountain scenery. Heaven? Just might be! We go down to the beach to chill a bit and wind down after the day’s driving.
From Punakaiki, it was a long drive to get to Abel Tasman (AT). We decided to check out Golden Bay, so after arriving at Motueka, we follow the signs to Takaka. Oh my, surprissssse! [Now, if I’ve learned something from this, here it is: when looking at destinations, and looking at the roads on a map, consider the fact that there might be mountains or a pass between A and B.] After a long day of driving, we realise we have to drive up and down a steep, windy pass to get to Takaka. NOT a happy camper at that point…
Anyway, we were committed, so we pushed through. From Takaka we drove to Pohara, where we got a campsite at Pohara Holiday Park. Exhausted from the day’s driving, we sunbathe and just relax (although the wind was blowing like crazy at that point). That afternoon we go for a ride a little more east to see what the area looks like – really pretty!
The next day we go exploring some more, so we drive to Pupu Springs, which has beautifully clear water. We just drive around some more (weather still sucks a bit at this point, even some rain threatening to come through), and visit some art galleries in the area. Back in Takaka, M does some shopping at the quaint little shops.
Next we go to Anatoki Salmon Farm. We both love eating fish, and why not go and catch some fresh salmon and have them prepare it for you right there! This is how it works: upon entrance, you get a fishing rod and reel, a bobber with a hook and bait (you can also opt for a spinner, as we did), a container and a net. You have to keep what you catch, and you pay per kilogram (our total weight was 1.5kg – smoking and prep costed $45). You then have a few choices: they will smoke your fillets (you choose the flavours), you can take the whole fish, or you can have it sashimi style – it doesn’t get fresher than that! And man, it was a lunch of champions!
After our fishing expedition we set off ‘to the other side of the mountain’ again. We check out the beautiful Kaiteriteri beach, and after that we drive to McKee Memorial Domain which is huge, with lots of space to camp. It has a rocky beach, lots of grass, and cold showers – and for $6, not too bad.
The next day we drive through Nelson to see what’s happening there. Unfortunately it’s a Sunday, so not much happening. We did have a lovely fish & chips at the harbour. We still had quite a distance to go, so we fell in the road – Marlborough Sound bound.
We arrived at the small DOC campsite, Aussie Bay, and managed to secure a spot overlooking the water! We just relaxed, swam a bit, and met this nice older couple from Tauranga (they even invited us to stay at theirs if we happen to be in the area once we’re on the North Island – Kiwis are such nice folk!).
The next day we had to wake up at 5:50am to get in line for the ferry crossing at Picton. The road is very curvy, and you are treated to some amazing views of the sound as you go. We got in the queue at the wharf, boarded, and met another cool Kiwi couple on board. Exchanging some travel stories and having a few laughs definitely made the 3.5h ferry ride feel shorter.
North island, here we come!
TO BE CONTINUED…