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New Zealand’s South Island in a Campervan

Published 28 November 2016

Bev Jones

Bev Jones

New Zealand is one of the most scenic countries in the world and a great place to explore by campervan. The roads are in good condition, camping grounds are in abundance and there’s a stunning view on practically every corner.  In this post recent retiree Bev Jones tells us about her experience exploring the South Island by camper, giving helpful tips for places to stop and things to look out for en route.

The road to Glenorchy from Queenstown

On retirement, my partner and I decided that we would follow in our children’s footsteps and explore AustraliaNew Zealand and Southeast Asia for 5 months on a budget – but as flashpackers rather than backpackers!

For our New Zealand leg, we left Australia at the beginning of December – a good time to visit this country weather-wise but beware of school holidays! Fortunately this didn’t really affect us as there are numerous camping grounds and places to park up and NZ is geared up for campers and caravanners. We soon discovered ‘Conservation Sites’ which are a fraction of the cost and provide basic facilities. They are generally in small, beautiful locations and are an excellent choice if you are self-contained as we were. Choosing the right van and company is important and getting a vehicle which is a bit bigger than you need makes all the difference. Read lots of reviews, but Cheapa Campa, which is a branch of Apollo, provides slightly older vans with full back up and are a good choice for the budget-conscious. Visitor centres are useful places which will suggest possible routes.

Flowers infront of Lake Tekapo and snow capped mountains

We flew to Christchurch and after picking up our van, our first drive was through the Rakaia Gorge to Lake Tekapo. On the way we were startled by Mount Hutt which suddenly appeared amongst the peaks with a beard of cloud like some benevolent uncle. This was the first of many splendid surprises. Lake Tekapo was a clear turquoise and this was the mark of many rivers and lakes in NZ. Water running off ice is generally this beautiful colour. Surrounding the lake were wild lupins bringing the scent of an English summer garden. This time of year ensures you see these flowers everywhere.

The drive to Milford Sound was an experience in itself with different mountain aspects revealing themselves round every corner. 

Rakaia Gorge with Mt Hutt in the background

Next on our list were Dunedin and the Otago Peninsular – home to albatross and seals. You can catch a boat here to get up-close and personal. We also travelled on a puffing billy up into the mountains via a river gorge; fantastic! After this we travelled to Te Anau – the gateway for Milford Sound, a dramatic glacial fiord about 80km away. Our arrival in low cloud and mist didn’t bode well, but this soon cleared and our boat trip revealed rare crested penguins, dolphin and many sea birds and seals basking on rocks. The drive to Milford Sound was an experience in itself with different mountain aspects revealing themselves round every corner. Kea birds lurk in car parks waiting to inspect your van, but watch them!

Ship cruising through Milford Sound

Next stop was Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu. This is a jewel of a town and a main centre for snow sports. Driving along the side of the lake to Glenorchy took us to Lord of the Rings country and when you see the stunning scenery you can see why it was used as one of the filming locations. From here we drove to Lake Wanaka and through the Mount Cook National Park – both with jaw-dropping scenery. A quick look at the austere Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and then on up the west coast to Greymouth. From here we turned eastwards to travel through picturesque river valleys and brown crumpled mountains to Kaikoura  on the east coast in search of a dolphin watching trip and better weather.

Sea gulls by lake with snow capped mountains in background

The hundreds of friendly dolphins put on a magnificent display – leaping and twisting and following the boat throughout.

There is only one main company at Kaikoura so choice wasn’t difficult. You are absolutely guaranteed to see dusky dolphins on this trip and to swim with them if you choose – although the water can be choppy and cold and you are in open sea in the Kaikoura Chasm which is as deep as the mountains are high. However, swimming or not, the hundreds of friendly dolphins put on a magnificent display – leaping and twisting and following the boat throughout.

Our time was nearly up so it was on to Able Tasman in the North of the South Island. This is a mysterious and beautiful area steeped in Maori history. An accessible coastal path takes you to secluded bays and water warm enough to swim in. This was our last port of call before heading to North Island and my only regret was not allowing more time for the South Island.

The itinerary described could easily be extended and more time taken to appreciate the dramatic scenery.

Next time…

Lake and mountains in Abel Tasman National Park

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